Uninformed. Emotional. Irrelevant.
These are the ways several members of the N.C. Mining & Energy Commission have characterized public comments in recent months on the touchy subject of fracking. The commissioners have fretted that their public meetings could turn into free-for-all protest sessions unless public comments are strictly controlled.
Now the fracking commission is raising fresh questions about its commitment to citizen participation after an outspoken commissioner publicly denounced an advisory group for becoming too influential and too big for their britches.
Commissioner George Howard wants the commission to clamp down on a grandstanding stakeholder panel that was set up to represent property owners, environmental groups and others. The group was assembled by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to assist the commission as it creates fracking standards for North Carolina.
Howards zingers, made last week at a public meeting in Raleigh, are making fellow commissioners uneasy. His colleagues say the issue will be addressed in March at the commissions next public meeting.
It is awkward, and we cannot have that, fellow commissioner Vik Rao said in a phone interview. We need to air it out and come up with a commission position on the stakeholder group.
The controversy has also focused attention on Howards business interests. His land restoration company has a pending $2.1 million proposal in Pennsylvania to repair stream and wetland damage caused by agriculture and livestock.
The matter is blurred further by Howards relationship with the states top environmental regulator, whose agency will oversee fracking, a controversial method of extracting natural gas by injecting water into rock formations.
Howard in 1998 co-founded his business, Restoration Systems, and later brought in John Skvarla as CEO. Skvarla recently left the company to become secretary of DENR. The agency also provides staff support for the commission.
This week, Howard expressed regret for the britches comment, acknowledging it was an insult and inappropriate.
Skvarla is more sanguine about his former colleague, dismissing Howards off-the-cuff remarks as harmless wisecracks.
I think its funny, I really do, Skvarla said in a phone interview. It wasnt said in any malice or anything.
I laughed, Skvarla added. This is not something to lose any sleep over.
Threats cited in Pennsylvania
Fracking is a highly divisive and emotional issue, even though the practice remains illegal in North Carolina until the state legislature votes to approve safety standards that are now being developed. The commission has until 2014 to prepare three reports and write about 100 rules covering well construction, wastewater disposal, landowner rights and other issues.
Fracking advocates say shale gas will provide a cheap and clean fuel to offset dirty coal and imported oil, while critics say lateral drilling and smashing rock under aquifers poses unacceptable environmental risks.
Howard is one of several commission members who has publicly extolled the wonders of fracking.
Nevertheless, when Skvarla was chief executive of Restoration Systems, the company described fracking as a threat to the ecosystem.
Along with diminishing fish populations due to poor stream quality, there is another environmental threat facing the Towanda Creek Watershed, hydraulic fracturing, Restoration Systems wrote in a February 2012 prospectus for the Pennsylvania project. Heavy traffic and lots of dust and other organic waste is created at natural gas drilling sites, which poses a threat to the Towanda Creek Watershed.
The shadow commission
The stakeholder group met for four hours Jan. 22, with 18 of its 24 members in attendance, to discuss the first proposal to come out of the commissions Environmental Standards Committee. That committee, as it happens, is chaired by Howard.
The stakeholder group came up with 17 proposals on disclosing the chemicals used in fracking. DENR officials later pared down the recommendations to 10. The officials involved included Skvarla, Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie and other agency managers.
All those recommendations were going one way, Howard said by phone. They were all to make it tough on the industry.
Howard has rankled the stakeholders, whom he regards as mostly lobbyists and regulators prone to act as a shadow commission. The stakeholder group includes representatives of the oil and gas industry, and state and local agencies, as well as environmental organizations.
We had an incredibly qualified and very diverse group of people in the room, said James Robinson, one of the stakeholders.
When you come to consensus on 17 items with groups that diverse, I dont think it should be taken lightly, said Robinson, a research and policy associate at Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, a landowners rights organization.
No citizen input at meetings
DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer said the agency set up the stakeholder group to assist two panels: the Mining & Energy Commission and the Environmental Management Commission. Only unanimous decisions from the group are presented to the commissions as recommendations.
Mining & Energy Commission Chairman James Womack, who previously expressed concern about out-of-control public comments, defends the stakeholder process.
The stakeholder group is a bona fide group of interested parties that is managed by the DENR staff, Womack said by phone. I was impressed by the quality and depth of analysis that came out of the first meeting of the stakeholder group.
As for public comments, not a single citizen has spoken at any of the five meetings held so far by the Mining & Energy Commission.
Howard sees himself as an environmentalist with valuable expertise in land restoration. He described his companys work as, fundamentally, landscaping.
Certainly Im not breaking any ethics rules, he said of his fracking restoration bid in Pennsylvania.
He said the Pennsylvania project, which is described on his companys website, would generate about $2.1 million in mitigation credits. His company could bank the credits and sell them over time to developers who need to compensate for environmental damage they cause.
Howard noted the potential value is not guaranteed and would be offset by the companys expenses in labor, equipment and materials, such as trees.
Anticipating accusations that he has a financial interest in fracking, Howard said he has warned his employees to prepare for such attacks. He also shared his anxieties with a fellow commissioner by email in August.
My company has a (thus far non-performing) mitigation bank in Bradford County, PA, targeted to shale, Howard wrote. Therefore, I have direct interest in shale production and should be strung up as well I suppose.
Gird thy loins!