DENR: With safeguards, fracking is OK in North Carolina

cjarvis@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2012 

— State environmental regulators say the process of extracting natural gas from underground shale deposits, known as “fracking,” can be done safely if adequate protections are in place.

That’s the conclusion the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources reached in a study released Friday that legislators last year required it conduct with the Department of Commerce.

But the study cautions that not enough is known about many environmental and economic consequences of the practice of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. And, it says, because the oil and gas industry has been able to escape some federal environmental laws that apply to other industries, the state must clearly define its regulatory authority in order to protect people from contaminated water and other risks.

Fracking proponents hailed the study as proof that fracking is safe and viable for North Carolina, where it has been prohibited by law.

“It’s what we’ve been saying all along,” said state Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton who is a former Duke Energy mechanical engineer. “Six months ago we were saying the same thing as DENR and the governor are saying now, when we were trying to convince her not to veto the bill. I realize it takes a little time for people to catch up. It can lead to jobs and be environmentally sound; we can learn from other states and learn from the past.”

Last year Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed an energy bill that would have fast-tracked fracking because she objected to the Legislature ordering her to enter into offshore exploration agreements with neighboring states. Last week Perdue flew unannounced to Pennsylvania to examine drilling rigs there. Afterward, she said she supported fracking if done safely.

Molly Diggins, state director of the N.C. Sierra Club, said the new report doesn’t support proponents’ claims.

“The report underscores just how many unanswered questions there are, and how many hurdles would need to be overcome before fracking could be done safely,” Diggins said. “… More than anything, it shows North Carolina is not ready to frack. There’s no reason to rush.”

The study points out that there is limited information available on environmental, economic and other factors.

Data is only available from two wells in the Sanford area, from which projections were made. Even nationally, only limited information is available, and there are apparently no studies on the long-term effects of fracking.

The economic outlook is just as unclear, the study says. Since there’s no developed fossil fuel extraction industry in North Carolina, a substantial amount of money will be spent out of state. The study estimates the Sanford region could sustain an average of 387 jobs a year over a seven-year period, with as many as 858 jobs in a one-year peak period and as few as 59 in the first year.

North Carolina is not likely to be a major producer of shale gas energy in the foreseeable future, the study says.

The report offers a list of recommendations for the General Assembly to consider.

A key recommendation is requiring companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking and make that information public except when it involves trade secrets. That has been a major concern in other states. Water and sand account for almost all of the fluid used in the fracturing process, but several hundred kinds of chemical compounds have been used. Typically, between six and 12 chemicals are added, the study says.

Other recommendations include: limiting the amount of water that can be withdrawn, improving well construction standards, making sure emergency crews are prepared to deal with explosions or other emergencies, determining how taxes and fees are used, finding funding to repair roads damaged by trucks and equipment and determining who is liable for groundwater contamination.

The report is considered to be a draft and will be discussed in a series of public hearings. The report is available online at

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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