NC fracking commissioners vow to relax state water testing standard

jmurawski@newsobserver.comSeptember 27, 2013 

— North Carolina’s fracking commissioners said Friday that fracking is so inherently safe that they will recommend relaxing the standard by which operators will have to test local well water before they begin drilling for natural gas.

The state’s current testing standard, the strictest in the nation, is designed to give residents a legal remedy against the threat of chemical contamination of wells and aquifers from natural gas drilling.

Members of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission said during a meeting Friday that there is no need for the law to be so strict because the hypothetical accident the law seeks to protect against – chemicals leeching deep underground – couldn’t happen in the first place.

Commissioners delivered some of their most forceful statements to date in defense of fracking since the panel began meeting a year ago to write North Carolina’s safety rules for natural gas exploration.

“What we’re doing is trying to inoculate the population against a disease that doesn’t exist,” Commissioner Charles Holbrook said. “The science does not support even the possibility that hydraulic fracturing fluid can migrate that far out from the well – it can’t happen.”

“We all know this,” Commissioner George Howard said. “A lot of this stuff is like Bigfoot regulation – he doesn’t exist.”

Holbrook is a former industry geologist for Chevron. Howard is CEO of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh environmental restoration company.

Environmental activists in the audience Friday looked on grim-faced as several commissioners extolled the safety record of fracking. The commissioners said they will recommend that North Carolina’s legislature relax the current law when lawmakers convene next year.

“This is very telling, because this commission keeps saying we’re going to have the strongest regulation to prevent this and that,” Therese Vick, a community activist with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said after the meeting.

The Mining and Energy Commission is developing about 120 rules, which are due to the legislature by October 2014, to protect public safety and safeguard the environment during natural gas exploration and related activities. The commission is still developing the water-testing rule and did not debate Holbrook’s off-the-cuff suggestions Friday. The water standard eventually will come before the commission for debate before the body provides guidance to the legislature, Chairman James Womack said.

The 2012 state law that created the Mining and Energy Commission required that energy companies test every drinking water well within 5,000 feet of a fracking drill site. No other state requires a distance greater than 2,500 feet.

North Carolina’s testing standard would require drilling operators to test an estimated 40 to 50 drinking wells per drill site, at a cost that could exceed $4,000 per well, Howard said. Holbrook said the optimum distance is 1,500 feet for testing drinking water wells.

Holbrook said North Carolina is already at a significant disadvantage in trying to attract natural gas exploration.

“We have no infrastructure, no proven reserves, no workforce,” Holbrook said. “We have nothing at the moment that’s a proven attraction to attract a company to pull up stakes and explore here.”

The oil and gas industry’s position is that there is no single proven instance that hydraulic fracturing has led to chemical contamination deep underground. Fracking-related accidents, such as well blowouts or chemical spills, are typically at the surface level.

The industry claim is hotly disputed by critics and remains a matter of intense debate, but Howard and Holbrook said Friday that it’s indisputable. Chemicals used in fracking include household cleaning agents and potent industrial solvents.

Vick said reducing the water-testing area would make it harder for property owners to make legal claims if they believed their drinking water was contaminated.

“If you shorten the reach and someone’s well ends up contaminated, how can they prove it?” she said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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