Fracking board set to propose nation's toughest rules

N.C. Mining & Energy Commission has less than two years to modernizing state’s 1940s-era rules

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJanuary 25, 2013 

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Republican Rep. Mitch Gillespie defends a bill which would clear the way to create regulations to govern the practice of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, for natural gas during a legislative session in the House of Representatives in Raleigh on Thursday, June 14, 2012.

SHAWN ROCCO — srocco@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

North Carolina’s fracking board is considering what its members say would be among the nation’s strictest rules governing shale gas exploration as the panel delves into the arcana of updating the state’s 1940s-era energy regulations.

The N.C. Mining & Energy Commission completed two days of meetings Friday and expects to continue discussions in March about requirements for chemical disclosures, water testing and wastewater disposal by exploration and drilling companies.

Those have been some of the most contentious issues related to fracking in other states, where the practice has been blamed for drinking water contamination, chemical spills and other problems.

Commissioner George Howard said the board could vote as early as March 8 on the first of the proposed rules, but other members said they’re not that optimistic they will be ready.

“We’re trying to come up with the toughest reasonable laws,” Howard said. “We’re cherry-picking the best laws out there.”

The commission, formed last summer by the state legislature, is still getting its sea legs on the issue. During Friday’s public meeting, several members spent more than a half-hour in a meandering discussion about the uneven quality of media coverage of their work and about whether they should hire a press secretary. Several voiced frustration about uninformed, emotional comments from the public at previous workshops. No members of the public made comments Friday.

Fracking is an industry term for hydraulic fracturing of shale rock with high pressure water and chemicals to release natural gas trapped inside the prehistoric formations. The technology remains controversial and won’t be legal in this state until the commission writes about 100 regulations to govern the practice, and the state legislature signs off on the regulatory program.

The commission has a deadline of October 2014 to complete its task. It will develop rules on well casings and property owners’ rights, among a host of legal and environmental issues. A similar process in New York state took about three years. That state currently has a moratorium on fracking.

The board has begun discussing what its members say would be the most stringent standard in the nation for well water testing before drilling and fracking could get under way. It is proposing that a drilling company, at its own expense, test every water source within 5,000 feet of a natural gas wellhead.

Other states generally require testing within 1,000 or 2,000 feet, said Hannah Wiseman, a law professor at Florida State University who tracks fracking laws and rules.

North Carolina’s testing standard, if approved, would require drillers to test about a dozen wells, based on well density averages in northwestern Lee County, which is believed to be the epicenter of the state’s shale gas reserves.

A thorough laboratory water content analysis could cost more than $2,000 per well, said Melinda Chapman, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Raleigh office. The agency tested 56 local private wells last year and had to use eight different labs to analyze the water samples.

Commissioner Amy Pickle said the 5,000-foot testing distance is just one of several factors. Another important issue the commission will have to decide is what constituents it will require testing for.

Commissioner Howard said the board also will discuss injecting tracers into fracked gas wells to help determine whether the wells are leaking chemicals and methane gas. He said the commission is guided by the state law passed last summer that holds drillers responsible for any water contamination within 5,000 feet of a wellhead unless they can prove otherwise.

“The beauty of a presumptive liability law is that it protects companies from paying for bad water they didn’t cause,” Duke University environmental scientist Robert Jackson said. “It protects homeowners in case their water quality changes.”

Duke University also has tested about 55 private wells in Lee County to establish baseline quality measures. Duke’s testing analyzes the presence of such metals as boron and arsenic, salts and methane gas, such chemicals as benzene and toluene, as well as radioactive elements.

These are elements that are either injected into wells during fracking, or elements agitated underground during the process and liable to flush out of the well over time.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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