NC fracking commission reviews 48 safety rules in fast-paced meeting

jmurawski@newsobserver.comApril 16, 2014 

— The state commission that’s creating safety standards for fracking raced through 48 rules Wednesday under a legislative deadline to prepare North Carolina for shale gas exploration by next spring.

The state’s recent coal-ash spill near Eden loomed over the proceedings, prompting last-minute adjustments to prevent an accidental spill of frack fluid like the power plant accident that dumped 39,000 tons of toxic sludge into the Dan River in February.

Keeping to a tight schedule, the chairman of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission cut off several residents during a public comment period as speakers made emotional statements about the state choosing a perilous path by clearing the way for gas drilling.

“The public is reminded that it is given a generous allocation of three minutes,” Chairman James Womack, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, reprimanded a public speaker who exceeded the time limit.

Womack said the commissioners covered four times as much ground in the daylong technical review Wednesday as they have in previous meetings when they were less pressed for time.

Rules approved Wednesday defined standards for wastewater disposal, site reclamation, surety bonding, permitting, water pit construction and other aspects of drilling. They are part of the state’s effort to update archaic oil and gas laws, which were written in 1945 and did not foresee horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the technological advances that enable shale gas exploration.

In all, the Mining and Energy Commission has completed about 120 safety rules in the past year and a half, and next plans to collate the full set before three public hearings scheduled in August in the Triangle, Sanford and Rockingham County. The rules are due in October to the state legislature, which can approve or modify them in the final step needed to lift the state’s de facto moratorium on fracking.

The amount of natural gas trapped in the state’s prehistoric shale rock formations remains a matter of conjecture, but the fossil fuel is known to be concentrated in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties. Fracking refers to a high-pressure application of water mixed with sand and chemicals that breaks up the rock and releases the gas.

Until recently, the practice of using open-air lagoons to store chemical-laced wastewater had been presumed to be the industry standard. But in the wake of the massive coal ash spill into the Dan River, fracking commissioners agreed that state officials should be able to shut down waste lagoons that are potentially unsafe.

The Mining and Energy Commission will request that state legislators modify state law to allow the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to order fracking operations with unsafe practices to store wastewater in tanks rather than open pits.

“Recent examples are weighing on the public’s mind,” said Commissioner Amy Pickle, director of the state policy program for Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “This is such a critical issue.”

The amount of surety bond energy companies will put up here also raised concerns among commissioners. The maximum bond allowed by state law to cover expenses for plugging and abandoning a gas well is $5,000 plus $1 per linear foot of well, which would come to about $15,000 to $20,000 in this state. But plugging a well typically costs about $80,000, said Commissioner Vik Rao, a former chief technology officer for the Halliburton energy services conglomerate.

As a result, the Mining and Energy Commission will ask the state legislature to raise the limit to ensure that taxpayers are not stuck with the tab of finishing the job for financially strapped energy companies that walk away from drill sites.

The commissioners also agreed to formally ask lawmakers to update state law to establish standards to disqualify “bad actors” – chronic violators of safety laws in other states – from drilling in North Carolina.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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