Industry tours of Pennsylvania fracking sites last fall left North Carolina lawmakers giddy over advanced technologies, best practices and the economic promise of natural gas exploration. Riding that wave of optimism, the state legislature narrowly voted this summer to start the process of legalizing fracking in North Carolina.
Now, nearly a year after the Pennsylvania tours and three months after the contentious vote in Raleigh, state lawmakers have a more sober assessment of fracking after a four-day visit this month to Texas, the nation’s No. 1 natural gas producer. The most recent fact-finding trip highlighted the complex issues facing this state as a new N.C. Mining & Energy Commission begins the task of creating regulations to protect public safety and the environment.
“We didn’t just get inundated with one side,” Rep. Rodney Moore, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who supports fracking, said about the trip. “From what I saw in Texas, I would say we have a long way to go. We’re somewhere in a three- to five-year process.”
Fracking supporters had hoped the Mining & Energy Commission could briskly complete its task in two years, allowing energy companies to start sinking test wells to assess the state’s natural gas resources. North Carolina is believed to have 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas concentrated around Lee, Moore and Chatham counties.
Fracking is an industry shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a method of flushing out natural gas trapped in shale formations by pumping in water and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the prehistoric rock.
Two weeks ago, four Republicans and two Democrats met with drillers, regulators and academics in Fort Worth, Houston and Austin. The tour included a site visit to an urban drilling operation of the Barnett Shale within sight of neighborhoods and schools in Fort Worth.
The group flew out of Raleigh about 5:30 a.m. on a Monday and met with lawmakers and regulators before lunch, said Rep. Jamie Boles Jr., a Republican from Moore County. They visited a drill site in Fort Worth operated by Chesapeake Energy, and discussed water recycling and well-bore testing at Halliburton’s R&D facility in Houston.
While Texas is home to the nation’s oil industry, fracking there has not been without controversy. One of the key issues is the air pollution and increased ozone levels from the round-the-clock exhaust fumes spewed by diesel engines, tanker trucks, generators, and the compressor stations needed to service drilling operations and well sites.
Earlier this year Texas environmental officials conducted helicopter surveys using infrared cameras to locate sources of invisible toxic vapor leaks.
“Texas is a sobering state to go to to learn how daunting the job is to create rules to protect the public,” said Molly Diggins, director of the Sierra Club’s North Carolina office. Diggins said any such trip is incomplete without meetings with fracking opponents.
Numerous lawmakers were invited but only a half-dozen could fit the trip into their schedule, said Brandon Greife, spokesman for Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger. Several of the lawmakers who went on the tour said their responsibilities don’t end with this past summer’s fracking vote, justifying their out-of-state trip at taxpayer expense. They noted that the legislature will have to vote on regulations and further studies conducted by the Mining & Energy Commission.
The lawmakers have not submitted their expense reports, Greife said, so the cost of their trip is not yet public record.
The North Carolinians also found much to their liking in Texas. Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr., a Mecklenburg Democrat, said the sound barriers used to muffle drilling noise are quite effective.
Rep. Jamie Boles Jr., a Moore County Republican, said he feels reassured about well-shaft integrity after seeing demonstrations of wells reinforced by six layers of steel and concrete.
But Boles noted that even Texas officials, despite their vast experience in energy exploration, have wrestled with creating adequate laws and public protections.
“In hindsight, some of the legislators we talked to in Texas, they got caught with the horse out of the barn and tried to rein it in,” he said.