RALEIGH — Nearly two months after the state legislature gave its assent to fracking, a group of elected officials held a public rally Thursday in Raleigh to continue the fight against the controversial natural gas exploration method.
The five local mayors and commissioners, along with representatives from Environment North Carolina, staged their protest outside Raleigh city hall to symbolize the opposition’s shift away from lobbying state legislators. The opponents represent Creedmoor, Pittsboro, Durham, Carrboro and Chatham County – mostly outside the state’s estimated natural gas deposits, but they said they are concerned about the costs of remediating environmental damage and about such indirect effects as heavy truck traffic and road damage.
Their goal now is to shape the ongoing debate that has moved to the newly constituted N.C. Mining & Energy Commission, which has scheduled its second meeting for Sept. 28 in Raleigh. Ultimately, the opponents hope to kill a second vote on fracking expected in two years at the state legislature that would allow drillers to start pulling permits to set up well pads and derricks.
“The fight is far from over; the fight is just beginning,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, director of Environment North Carolina. “We need to make sure the legislature never lifts that moratorium.”
The elected officials who denounced fracking – industry shorthand for hydraulic fracturing – all represent local governments that have passed resolutions against fracking, including Creedmoor, which unanimously banned the practice. Other governments that have passed resolutions include Raleigh and Cary.
“The state of North Carolina is planning on going to Las Vegas and making a gamble,” Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton said. “The little upside potential there is is mostly to benefit Wall Street.”
The new state commission is studying the extent of local zoning control the state would allow communities to have over fracking operations, but no one expects the legislature to allow towns and counties to ban the practice outright.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in April issued a 400-plus-page study concluding that fracking can be done safely as long as the right environmental and public safeguards are in place. Local chambers of commerce have come out in support of future fracking, but citizens remain divided. The new commission is writing the regulations that would create those safeguards in such areas as well casings, water storage and chemical disposal.
North Carolina is believed to hold 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas trapped in shale gas formations underground and concentrated in Chatham, Lee and Moore counties. Accessing that gas would require drilling down several thousand feet and then drilling sideways up to a mile. The mine shafts would be filled with high-pressure water and chemicals to fracture the rock and release the gas.
Fracking, which accounts for more than a third of the nation’s natural gas supply, has contributed to the dramatic fall in the price of natural gas, the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. Natural gas emits only half the greenhouse gases of coal and virtually no mercury, a potent neurotoxin in coal emissions that is associated with birth defects.
In other states, fracking on a large scale has been associated with water contamination, chemical spills, wellhead blowouts and earth tremors, but establishing direct links has proven elusive in all but a handful of incidents.
Supporters of fracking in the legislature said natural gas would produce a domestic fuel to help offset oil imported from hostile regimes as well as dirty coal mined by mountain-top removal. They also touted the creation of several hundred jobs over seven years, as estimated by the state study in April.
The critics Thursday were unanimous in their belief that the benefits are exaggerated and the risks are being downplayed. They talked of short-term jobs, destroyed roadways, marred landscapes, polluted air and contaminated water.
“People come to the county to see beauty, not to see compressor stations and wells,” Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller said.
“The ROI (return on investment) on fracking in North Carolina is minimal and may in fact be negative,” Durham Councilman Mike Woodard said. “As we sit here today, I see very little upside and a whole lot of downsides.”
Chatham County Commissioner Sally Kost lives on 15 acres, mostly wooded, with one private well, in the county and likely has shale gas under her property.
“If someone came by and offered me a (drilling) lease, I would probably give them an earful,” she said after the press conference. “I would never accept it.”