One of the members is a former executive at the Halliburton global energy giant who recently published a book extolling the national security benefits of fracking. Another debunks global warming and promotes fracking on the blogosphere, doing battle against foes he regards as environmental zealots. Yet another is a senior vice president and general counsel for North Carolina’s biggest natural gas utility.
This is just a sampling of the 15 members of the state’s newly anointed Mining & Energy Commission, which will meet for the first time Thursday as it embarks on an ambitious goal: completing three reports and writing complex regulations to safely govern natural gas exploration in North Carolina, all the while racing to meet an October 2014 deadline set by the state legislature.
The commission’s makeup has already made it one of the most intensely scrutinized of the state’s 260 commissions, a reflection of just how heated the debate over fracking has become.
“I expect to be targeted,” said commissioner Vikram Rao, a former Halliburton chief technology officer who is now Executive Director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium. “I expect people to assume my position on the matter before hearing me out.”
The commission includes academic and industry geologists, local elected officials, lawyers, businessmen and a pair of Duke University researchers. At least one member owns land in gas-rich areas and hopes to see it developed with earth movers, derricks and compressor stations; some are involved in land conservancy organizations and various civic groups. The members are not paid a salary, but are reimbursed for incidental expenses such as travel and meals.
The commission’s first meeting is planned as an orientation that will outline the panel’s responsibilities and time table. It has to meet at least twice every three months to oversee research conducted by the staff of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Republican leaders, who this summer narrowly overcame a gubernatorial veto to legalize fracking, hail the Mining & Energy Commission as a national model that will balance environmental stewardship with economic development. Critics complain that the Republican-dominated state legislature formed the commission with a built-in bias for fracking, industry shorthand for hydraulic fracturing.
Robin Smith, DENR’s assistant environment secretary, said the commission is responsible for adopting 21 categories of rules, ranging from well casing to property owner rights. The commission is also responsible for three reports due to the state legislature in 13 months.
Fracking for natural gas can’t move forward until the state legislature casts a separate vote to approve the reports and rules. That vote is at least two years off, but skeptics say it will be many years before all the work is complete and the energy industry has the confidence to begin exploratory drilling.
Meanwhile, the energy panel’s members will soon be exposed to a fresh round of public scrutiny. The commission is currently not covered by the state’s ethics standards, but the N.C. State Ethics Commission has said it expects change that in November and require that the 15 new energy commissioners submit financial disclosure forms that show stock holdings, real property, income source and other assets.
Designed to fail?
The panelists have already been subject to lobbying solicitations by environmental activists who are concerned they are not represented in the process. The state law creating the commission requires that two seats be filled by members of a nongovernmental conservation interest. Lawmakers filled those seats by Ray Covington, the founder of N.C. Oil & Gas, a group that helps Lee County property owners negotiate leases for gas drilling, and with George Howard, president of a Raleigh environmental reclamation company.
Both men have been active in local clean water or historic preservation efforts, but Sierra Club government relations director Will Morgan expressed dismay that not a single environmental activist was given a slot on a commission that could shape the state’s energy policy.
“This board is designed to fail,” Morgan said. “We don’t think they’ll have the time or information to write the rules in a way that is going to be protective of the environment.”
Morgan said the environmentalists are trying to remedy the situation by dividing up the commission members among themselves for a lobbying blitz. Six of the commission seats are reserved for representatives of mining, energy exploration and the natural gas industry.
Sanford Councilman Charles Taylor said he owns less than an acre in Lee County in the subdivision where he lives, so he has no financial interest at stake in the outcome of the commission’s work.
“We can’t go in hastily and do something that we might regret for generations to come,” Taylor said of fracking. “As long a it’s done in a safe manner, I’d want to take a look at it.”