NC mining panel delays vote on fracking chemical disclosure

jmurawski@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2013 

— The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission put off voting – yet again – on a divisive fracking safeguard Friday, more than a year into a seemingly never-ending debate over letting the public know which chemicals would be used in shale gas exploration here.

The question is among the most contentious in the states that allow fracking, and it has paralyzed the Mining and Energy Commission. The board remains divided over how to protect public safety from potentially toxic chemicals without trampling on the rights of energy companies.

Looming in the background is the threat that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature will override any commission decision that is perceived as a threat to the state’s prospects for energy exploration.

This spring the commissioners were ready to vote but were thwarted at the 11th hour by private objections from Halliburton, a global energy conglomerate and frack fluid supplier, which complained that the proposal under consideration would be onerous to the industry. Then, just a month later, lawmakers took up legislation to allow drillers to claim their fracking chemicals as trade secrets without requiring public disclosure, but the proposal stalled.

The commission expects to discuss the issue again in December and put it up to a vote in January, said Commission Chairman James Womack. The fracking rules approved by the commission will be nonbinding recommendations to the state legislature, which will have final say on how to regulate the industry.

“We want the fullest disclosure possible to the public,” Womack said. “We’re subjecting this one to particular scrutiny because of its sensitivity.”

The chemicals used in shale gas drilling range from household cleansers to food additives and industrial solvents. They have been blamed for crop damage and fish kills in accidental spills and dumping incidents in other states.

Review panel proposed

Congress in 2005 created an exemption to the Clean Water Act – known as the “Halliburton loophole” – that exempts drillers from revealing fracking chemicals, but some states have imposed their own standards. Fracking critics worry that the industry aims to persuade a friendly legislature to create a similar loophole in North Carolina.

Halliburton’s Raleigh lawyer, D. Bowen Heath of the McGuireWoods firm, often attends Mining and Energy Commission hearings and was present Friday.

The concern here is not only about pumping chemicals underground, but also about gaining prompt access to vital information in the event of an accident to treat skin contact or fume inhalation.

Some commissioners, including Womack, a Gulf War veteran, as well as former Halliburton executive Vik Rao, don’t want to leave the decision of what is and isn’t a trade secret to the industry.

“We can’t just take their word,” said Rao, executive director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium and an author of a book about fracking.

They suggest creating a review panel to decide trade secret claims as a way of preventing industry abuses.

“The rule of thumb of the industry is you only disclose what you have to disclose,” said Womack, who is also an elected member of the Lee County Board of Commissioners. “The industry always wins. One very good reason for that is the industry has the power of the deep pockets and the attorneys.”

Lee County is considered the epicenter of the state’s gas-rich zone, which also includes Chatham and Moore counties.

Government overreach?

Other commissioners side with the industry and warn of government overreach.

George Howard, CEO of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh environmental mitigation company, said that public fears of fracking are exaggerated and that responding to public pressure is “pandering.”

Charles Holbrook, a retired industry geologist for Chevron, said North Carolina is on a dangerous path that will keep energy companies away.

“You think we have the moral high ground on how to regulate these things?” Holbrook asked. “If by coming to North Carolina companies would have to reveal that, then they may not come to North Carolina.”

“By golly,” Rao replied, “if that means they don’t come here, then I’m sorry.

“We have an obligation to protect the public.”

Howard and Holbrook have both publicly stated that it is physically impossible for hydraulic fracturing – the full industry term for fracking – to contaminate underground aquifers.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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