Fracking foes booed, jeered, hissed, chanted, snickered, sang – and one even wept – at a Raleigh public hearing Wednesday to vent their frustration about proposed rules that would clear the way for shale gas exploration in North Carolina next year.
Around 500 people turned out in the middle of the day at the N.C. State University’s McKimmon Center for the first of four public hearings to hear comments about the proposed safety rules. Many warned of plummeting property values, radioactive waste, and dangerous chemicals leaching into aquifers and waterways.
The rules, drafted over the past two years by the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, would regulate well shaft construction, chemical disclosure, water testing, site reclamation and other facets of energy production. North Carolina’s shale gas is concentrated in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties, but the amount won’t be known until energy companies begin exploratory drilling.
The legislature is set to lift the state’s fracking moratorium next year for exploration to get underway so the state can cash in on the shale gas boom transforming the nation’s energy landscape. Opponents warn the long-term environmental price of fracking will exceed any short-term economic benefits.
Over four hours Wednesday, speakers overwhelmingly denounced fracking, and dozens who didn’t speak displayed dire warnings on body sashes, signs and T-shirts. Many spoke right through their allotted time until they were cut off with a peremptory “Ma’am, your time is up.”
The Raleigh political theater – costumes, chanting, placards – was a mere prelude to “the zoo” expected at Friday’s hearing in Sanford, Mining and Energy Commission member James Womack said afterward. Womack is a Lee County commissioner who lives in Sanford, a onetime coal-mining region southwest of Raleigh with known natural gas reserves and where fracking is most likely to begin in North Carolina.
Vikram Rao, chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission, said after the hearing that Wednesday’s display of anti-fracking animus may have come from a vocal minority. If not, lawmakers misread the public mood when they voted in 2012 and again this year to legalize fracking, he said.
“I don’t know if this crowd is a microcosm of the state,” Rao said.
A handful of speakers defended shale gas exploration as a sure bet economically. They were backed by a small contingent donning T-shirts emblazoned with “Shale Yes” motifs. Their comments were greeted with hisses, laughter and booing from the audience.
“There is a war on energy and it is shutting down many a coal-powered plant,” said E.A. Timm of Stokes County. “May the people realize that true, reliable energy drives the economy and future innovations.”
David McGowan, executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council, lauded the Mining and Energy Commission’s rules as based on science and sound advice from the energy industry. The N.C. Petroleum Council is the state branch of the American Petroleum Institute, the powerful national oil and gas lobbying organization.
“All of these recommendations have been developed by incorporating industry standards promulgated by the American Petroleum Institute, regulations from other producing states, best management practices and the significant technical and operational expertise of our members,” McGowan said.
More than 80 residents took the opportunity to speak for a maximum of 3 minutes before three hearing officers who are also members of the Mining and Energy Commission. Comments can also be submitted in writing through Sept. 30.
Among specific concerns, speakers said North Carolina should not allow a trade secret exemption to chemical disclosures, and should not allow chemical-infused water to be stored in open-air pits. They said fracking gas wells should be set back farther than proposed rules currently specify: 650 feet from homes and water wells and 200 feet from waterways.
And they expressed dismay that neighbors can be compelled to submit to fracking under their land through “forced pooling” if just one landowner signs a drilling lease. Landowners in a “forced pool” would be paid for the gas taken from beneath their properties, but those who want to prohibit fracking say they find no consolation in monetary compensation.
Speakers represented a range of organizations, such as Raging Grannies, Greenpeace, Food & Water Watch and Frack Free NC. They cited Winston Churchill, Buddha, Murphy’s Law and “The Lorax,” an environmentally themed Dr. Seuss tale, to bolster their arguments against fracking.
Within the first 10 minutes of Wednesday’s boisterous proceeding, as cheers and jeers interrupted several speakers, fracking opponent Martha Girolami of Chatham County arose from her seat and urged her fellow activists in the audience “not to behave this way,” and to show respect to all speakers, but she pleaded to little avail.
Two speakers sang anti-fracking anthems from the podium, with choral backing from members in the audience, as the three hearing commissioners silently sat stern-faced at their dais.
“You sold your soul for a poisonous hole,” Glenna Benjamin of Chapel Hill chanted with accompaniment from audience members.
One speaker, Lib Hutchby of Cary, asked to observe “a moment of remembrance” for those whose health has been damaged by fracking in other states.
Three more hearings are scheduled in the coming weeks in venues north, south and west of Raleigh. The 100-plus safety rules are to be submitted to the state legislature in January. The Mining and Energy Commission will consider revisions and modifications to the rules after it reviews all public comments.