Rushing to frack

Legislators who moved to legalize fracking for shale gas put water supplies potentially at risk.

July 7, 2012 

If there’s any positive side to the General Assembly’s insistence that North Carolina embrace the natural gas drilling method called fracking, it’s that the entire controversy over its environmental impacts could end up being irrelevant.

Gas reserves here are not thought to be large. Prices are low, reducing companies’ incentive to embark on costly drilling operations.

That said, the Republican-controlled legislature was in what can only be described as an all-fired hurry to give fracking the green light. It’s true there will have to be another vote before any gas can be extracted. But so long as energy politics remains in the driver’s seat, shoving energy economics and energy science to the side, there’s little doubt how this drama’s initial phase will play out.

That’s when we’ll learn whether North Carolina will indeed join states such as Pennsylvania in growing an industry devoted to capturing the natural gas trapped in age-old underground shale formations. And whether the rules developed by then to regulate hydraulic fracturing of that rock are strong enough to protect precious water supplies.

Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, nominally a fracking supporter, was sufficiently underwhelmed by the recently approved fracking bill that she vetoed it.

GOP legislators – yes, with a little help from the Democratic side – were so determined to get rolling that they overrode the veto. It was part of their July 2 override trifecta in which they showed Perdue who was boss, while at the same time showing their disregard for environmental, budget and criminal justice priorities that would have better served the public interest.

Rock, water, gas

To Perdue’s credit, when she weighed the fracking bill’s ins and outs, she saw it for what it was – basically, a “run-on” measure designed to let Republicans highlight their job-creation platform and to paint opponents as softies on the subject of energy independence. So down came her veto stamp.

Supporters spoke of the outlook for hundreds of jobs – all of them welcome, to be sure, if they materialize. But at what cost to the way of life in areas that, under bullish scenarios, would become centers of a new and intrusive heavy industry? Chatham, Lee and Moore counties, we’re looking at you.

And at what cost to a resource even more vital to the state’s well-being than home-produced natural gas? That would of course be fresh, clean water – as indispensable to a healthy economy as to life itself, and something that North Carolina already struggles to maintain in ample supply.

Fracking uses vast quantities of water to shake loose the embedded gas – water that’s contaminated meanwhile with a chemical brew that essentially turns it into industrial waste. Will the rules for disposal or treatment of that waste be adequate? Anyone want to bet the ranch?

Shallow shale

Injected at high-pressure, the fracking liquid could migrate into groundwater supplies and threaten drinking water wells – a focus of concern in Pennsylvania. Perdue presumably was mindful of a state report on fracking that raised related issues, among them that gas-bearing shale in North Carolina is relatively close to the surface, and thus to wells. Also, a recent federal estimate held that this state’s gas reserves likely are on the skimpy side.

Even with safe-fracking rules in place, for those rules to be effective the state will need a robust capacity for oversight and enforcement. The trend under Republican control has been just the opposite, with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources sustaining large budget cuts. Does the stretched-too-thin department even have the capability to write rules that would do the job?

Perdue’s veto was trumped in the House by a single vote. Democratic Rep. Becky Carney of Charlotte said she voted for the override by mistake, but according to the chamber’s rules she wasn’t allowed to switch since it would have affected the outcome. That’s probably a wise standard to uphold.

Still, it doesn’t make the result any more palatable for the thousands who wanted North Carolina to draw the line against fracking out of concern for the potential harm and in view of the potentially meager rewards. Even with Perdue’s would-be Democratic successor, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, saying that he supports the move toward fracking – thereby leaving Republican Pat McCrory with one less issue to campaign on – this is not a cause that has many Tar Heels gassed with enthusiasm. For good reason.

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