Fracking board elects 'pro-drilling advocate' as chairman

jmurawski@newsobserver.comSeptember 28, 2012 

— The state’s newly formed commission that will oversee natural-gas fracking picked an outspoken chairman Friday with military honors who unabashedly declares himself a “pro-drilling advocate.”

After his election, however, a usually forceful James Womack apologized to his fellow commissioners for his blunt pro-drilling statements, which have made some fellow commissioners uneasy.

The Mining & Energy Commission has only completed its second meeting but its members are quickly discovering just how touchy their assignment can become.

Nevertheless, the commissioners picked Womack to guide their panel for the next two years as the 15-member group writes regulations to govern natural-gas exploration in the state.

Womack, a West Point graduate in engineering with a master’s degree in business, had nominated himself for the role, saying he has extensive experience in government and industry and is ideally suited for the chairman’s role.

In his brief personal statement before the vote, Womack focused on his organizational and interpersonal skills, highlighting his professional background in engineering and government experience. He made no mention of his enthusiasm for natural-gas exploration, which remains controversial in this state.

But during a break after the vote, he said natural-gas exploration has showered prosperity and jobs in many areas of the country.

“I’m a pro-energy, pro-drilling, pro-business advocate,” said Womack, who was appointed to the Mining & Energy Commission by Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger. “It will not compromise my work as chairman.”

Critics of fracking expressed concern about his election. They said the practice exposes rural landscapes to chemical spill risks, round-the-clock truck convoys and a host of other disruptions.

“Having such a clear proponent of gas drilling at the chair of the commission doesn’t give me much hope that the body will produce a thoughtful set of regulations,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, director of Environment North Carolina.

Several commission members privately said they were taken aback by Womack’s public zeal for fracking, coming from a member of a nonpartisan board.

As the commission’s three-hour meeting drew to a close, Womack apologized to his fellow commissioners for his recent pro-drilling statements, saying his remarks were taken out of context.

“It was never my intent to disparage this board,” Womack explained afterward, noting that the state’s fracking debate has been settled by the legislature. “This board was not chartered to decide whether to drill or not. Our job is to enable responsible drilling in North Carolina.”

The state legislature in July overrode Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto by a single vote, legalizing fracking in North Carolina in as soon as two years, once the Mining & Energy Commission finishes its work.

The commission’s task is to complete three studies and write rules covering wastewater management, well casings, chemical disclosure, site closure and reclamation, among other issues.

Womack, a Lee County commissioner since 2010, beat out Raleigh lawyer Charlotte Mitchell, who was nominated at the last minute by another commission member.

After losing the chair vote, Mitchell was a candidate for the vice chair position against George Howard, who runs a Raleigh environmental mitigation firm.

With one of the commissioners absent, the vote was tied 7-7, and the commissioners spent about a third of their meeting Friday debating and then voting on having two vice chairs versus putting off the vote until its next meeting. The panel ultimately voted to defer the decision.

North Carolina is believed to have 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, concentrated several thousand feet below Moore, Lee and Chatham counties.

The gas would be accessed through a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, in which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are pumped underground at high pressure to break up the prehistoric rock formations and release the gas trapped inside.

Womack has a Bronze Star for his service during Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91 and retired from the Army in 1997. His wife, Sherry-Lynn, is an Army lieutenant colonel and a combat veteran. The couple have five children. His brother Steve Womack is a U.S. congressman from Arkansas.

Womack acknowledged that fracking is a lightning-rod issue that scares many people. But he said the state must not become paralyzed by controversy.

“There’s controversy about breathing, there’s controversy about raising cows on pastureland,” he said. “We’re not going to do anything that’s unsafe or irresponsible.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service