NC fracking panel sets safe drilling distances from homes, streams

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJanuary 31, 2014 

— The state commission created in 2012 to create safe fracking standards has wrestled with one controversy after another and always found a way to agree unanimously – until Friday.

After 2-1/2 hours of debate, the N.C Mining and Energy Commission voted 10-1 on safe drilling distances from homes, streams and other sensitive landmarks.

After the vote, some commissioners congratulated themselves for what they said was one of the toughest “setback” rules in the nation. The commissioners based their decision on similar developments in other states where shale gas exploration is already underway.

“I don’t want to be constrained by yesterday’s best practices,” said Commissioner George Howard, who runs a land reclamation business in Raleigh. “The new rules tend to have a long reach to them.”

North Carolina’s rules dictate 650 feet as the minimum safe distance that a natural gas well can be drilled from buildings, homes and water wells.

The lone holdout, Commissioner Charles Holbrook, a retired industry geologist from Chevron Corp., denounced the standards approved Friday as too strict and based on emotion. He suggested his colleagues were pandering to a vocal fringe of fracking opponents, and said 500 feet is plenty safe and would give energy companies the maneuvering room they need.

“If we want to achieve what we set out to achieve – which is to bring energy development to North Carolina – then we have to be practical,” Holbrook urged his colleagues. “What you are really doing is obstructing potential energy development in the future.”

Fracking rules approved by the Mining and Energy Commission are recommendations to the state legislature, which will have final say over North Carolina’s fracking standards.

North Carolina’s safety distances are not the longest in the country. New York requires a safety buffer of 2,000 feet, Dallas requires 1,500 feet, and Pennsylvania and Colorado both adopted 1,000 feet for buildings or water sources. Some states grant waivers to their setbacks, and some don’t have setback rules at all.

The Dallas buffer, approved by the Dallas City Council in December, is being criticized – and celebrated – as a de facto ban on future fracking.

Howard said Friday’s decision to extend the setback from 500 feet to 650 feet puts North Carolina in the 90th percentile.

Critics here were not placated, saying proximity to drill derricks, tanker trucks and other heavy equipment would expose residents to potential chemical spills and noxious fumes.

“No, I am not comforted at all,” said Therese Vick, a community activist with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “Once people have been exposed to this big burst of toxic pollutants, they cannot be unexposed. The trigger has been pulled, and the bullet cannot be called back.”

Fracking remains under moratorium in the state until the Mining and Energy Commission passes 100-plus rules and the state legislature approves a rule set. The first exploratory wells would not be drilled until next year at the earliest.

Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing, a means of extracting natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale rock by drilling sideways for a mile or more and blasting the rock formations with a high-pressure blend of water, sand and chemicals.

The setback distance is measured from the wellhead at the surface, where a heavy industrial operation must be set up during the drilling and fracking process.

There are no objective standards on what constitutes an adequate safety buffer in fracking, commissioners said. One local fracking critic recently suggested 7 miles as a reasonable standard for North Carolina.

The Mining and Energy Commission has looked to other states as lodestars, and states with experience in fracking are extending their setbacks, said Commissioner Amy Pickle, who directs the State Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The commission also adopted a 200-foot safety buffer for fracking from streams, wetlands and flood plains.

Commissioner Holbrook dissented at every turn.

“The setback changes are unnecessary and excessive and not in line with reality on the ground,” he said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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