Point of view

Swine and shale gas: lessons for N.C.

July 10, 2011 

— How are pigs and drilling rigs alike?

When hog farms transformed Eastern North Carolina in the 1980s and early '90s, we were unprepared for the changes in water and air quality that followed. Only later, when pigs numbered 10 million or more, did legislators enact environmental safeguards such as 1995's Swine Farm Siting Act and 1997's Clean Water Responsibility Act.

Today our legislators are considering shale-gas extraction using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), in which pressurized water and chemicals are injected underground to crack open the shales that hold the gas. Fracking is illegal in North Carolina, and the legislature has to decide if it's appropriate for our state and how to regulate it.

Before North Carolina dives whole hog into shale gas, we should learn from our past and put safeguards into place for public health and the environment - in case drilling starts. Other states with a longer history of oil and gas extraction can help show us what works best.

Researchers at Duke are examining the environmental consequences of shale gas extraction in Pennsylvania and New York. Based on our findings and on interactions with homeowners and policymakers, we believe that North Carolina legislators should resolve at least seven issues before legalizing horizontal drilling and fracking. We offer these suggestions neither to promote nor to prevent fracking in our state:

Begin collecting baseline data on well-water and air quality now . To reduce health concerns, North Carolina should collect extensive baseline data on drinking water and air quality before drilling and fracking begin. These comprehensive measurements will tell us which water problems arise because of gas extraction and which don't.

Use zoning and setbacks to protect property owners. Many problems in Pennsylvania arise from how close homes are to gas wells. Our research found higher methane concentrations in drinking water within 3,000 feet of gas wells. To avoid this, North Carolina should exclude drilling within 3,000 feet of a public water supply and require a presumptive liability distance of 3,000 feet. We should also prohibit drilling in floodplains, require a setback of gas pads at least 250 feet from property lines and require operators to notify property owners and local municipalities within 3,000 feet of a proposed well.

These and other steps would promote safety and protect property values.

Plan for large water withdrawals and wastewater disposal now. Fracking can require 5 million gallons of water for a single well. We need a plan for where the water comes from and where the wastewater goes. Underground disposal is illegal in North Carolina, and we don't want our municipal treatment plants to receive billions of gallons of wastewater each year, some of it likely toxic. We should encourage companies to recycle wastewater for fracking and require pre-drilling agreements with other states for disposal.

Require full disclosure of what's in fracking fluids . Wyoming recently adopted rules requiring full public disclosure of the chemicals in fracking fluids. This encourages companies to use fewer toxic chemicals and protects workers at drilling sites, allowing them to get quicker, more effective medical treatment when spills occur. It also helps researchers to monitor and track fracking fluids in the environment. North Carolina needs similar disclosure before fracking is legalized.

Assess a fee for each well drilled . The state needs a trust fund help pay for environmental monitoring and stewardship, road and infrastructure maintenance, and the cleanup of problems that occur. Fees collected from drilling companies for each well drilled should finance it. Severance taxes or royalty payments to the state should also be reinvested to protect and restore land and water resources.

Determine civil penalties for safety violations of drilling and disposal . Pennsylvania has just proposed increasing the maximum civil penalty for each violation from $25,000 to $50,000, plus $2,000 for each day of the violation. North Carolina's fines and guidelines should be stronger, to deter drilling violations and to encourage safe disposal of wastes.

Establish a website for resources on shale-gas issues . The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources should maintain a website to help taxpayers know their rights and responsibilities and understand the benefits and costs of resource extraction.

The boom in hog farming caught us off guard. It took years to create the safeguards that have reduced the effects on our air and water, and farmers are still switching to environmentally superior technologies. Let's not get caught off guard by hydraulic fracturing and shale gas extraction. Now is the time to put plans and safeguards into place.

Rob Jackson and Stephen Osborn are with the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. Together with two colleagues at the school, Avner Vengosh and Nat Warner, they recently published a study on shale gas and drinking-water quality.

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