N.C. lawmakers' trips to fracking sites draw skepticism

Opponents question the legitimacy of information received at shale gas rigs in Pennsylvania.

jfrank@newsobserver.comNovember 20, 2011 

State Sen. Bob Rucho returned from a taxpayer-funded trip to Pennsylvania's shale gas drilling region talking about green pastures and cows - not drinking water contamination or health concerns.

"I was impressed with the best industry practices they've established," he said, dismissing complaints about shale gas extraction as erroneous or exaggerated. "What we saw was green grass and cows grazing."

The top Republican's one-sided view is easy to explain, critics say. It all depends on who provides the tour, they believe, and in this case, Rucho, a key House lawmaker and a staffer spent two days being chauffeured through the drilling rigs in northeast Pennsylvania by Chesapeake Energy, the world's top shale gas producer.

"When your itinerary consists of only going on an industry-sponsored tour and meeting economic development officials instead of ordinary folks, of course" this is the result, said Hope Taylor, the executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina and a prominent critic of shale gas extraction.

Another group of lawmakers and legislative staffers departs today for a state-paid trip to Pennsylvania that again only features a Chesapeake Energy tour and meetings with local government and economic development officials, according to the itinerary. The trips come as state lawmakers develop legislation to permit drilling for shale gas in North Carolina through a controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which pumps chemical-laden water and sand into the ground to release gas deposits trapped in shale rock.

"I think it's extremely important to get a broad perspective," said Duke University professor Rob Jackson, a fracking expert who has studied the effects of drilling. "Lawmakers really need to get this right, and that means learning what they got right in Pennsylvania and what they didn't."

A recent forum hosted by anti-fracking groups in Raleigh included two Pennsylvania farmers who talked about how gas companies overstate the benefits of drilling and downplay the consequences - a perspective Jackson and Taylor said lawmakers need to hear on the trips.

Speaking at a town hall meeting last week, House Speaker Thom Tillis touted the trip as bipartisan and made clear lawmakers also would hear from environmentalists and critics. But records show no Democrats are traveling to Pennsylvania and no meetings with critics are planned.

Republican organizers sent the itinerary to six Democratic House members 10 days before the trip but none could attend. Most Democrats said they weren't interested in visiting in the first place and others cited scheduling conflicts.

Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw said it's unfortunate the Democrats aren't going. He said the legislature will hear from critics in the future as it develops fracking legislation for the May session.

The second trip includes three Republican lawmakers and two of Tillis' top advisers. It is expected to cost about $2,500 for lodging and flights for all five, according to the itinerary, and the money will come from an account set aside for lawmaker and staff travel expenses.

Originally, the visit was designed to help educate other lawmakers about fracking, particularly those on the fence, said Rep. Mike Hager, a top House Republican who visited Pennsylvania in October and returns on today's trip. Two of the three lawmakers, Hager and Rep. Mitch Gillespie, are leading proponents of fracking.

The one "swing vote" is Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican and former president of the Sierra Club board of directors. He was the only Republican to vote against a bill to promote fracking and offshore drilling during the session. "The facts are important and I do want to understand both sides of the issue," McGrady said. "I'm trying to come with an open mind but I do have questions based on what others have told me about the fracking process."

The itinerary says the delegation will use three rented SUVs and travel Monday morning to Towanda near the New York state boarder for a daylong tour of a Chesapeake facility. The day ends with a dinner meeting with local government and economic development officials. The next morning the delegation returns to North Carolina.

It's unclear who will pay for the SUVs or the meal. But Chesapeake is not a registered lobbyist in North Carolina so gift bans don't apply, though lawmakers may have to report any meals or other expenses on annual disclosure forms, a lobbying expert said.

On the first trip, the state covered the rental car cost and lawmakers said they paid for meals using their per diem allowance. Other details surrounding the trips also remain murky, such as who set the itinerary and how Chesapeake was selected for the tour. Earlier this year, the Oklahoma-based company was fined $1.1 million by Pennsylvania regulators - the state's largest penalty to date for an oil or gas operator - for contaminating groundwater in the county state lawmakers will visit.

Jeff Warren, the director of energy policy for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, arranged and traveled to Pennsylvania with the lawmakers on the first trip. Warren, whose resume states he is an adjunct professor at Duke and works as a consultant to energy companies, also helped set the schedule for the second trip, lawmakers said. But late last week he withdrew his name from the list of attendees for the second visit.

A Berger spokesman stated Warren is not currently doing outside consulting. But Berger's office refused to allow Warren to comment about the trip and wouldn't answer questions about Chesapeake's role in the trips. Rucho, the state senator, said Warren was a valuable asset on the first trip because of his geology expertise.

Staff writer John Murawski contributed to this report.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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