Before a public hearing Friday evening on fracking, pro-drilling activists said they hoped it would be a more cordial environment than the first hearing in Raleigh.
“We are hoping for a polite hearing, unlike the one Wednesday,” said Kathy Hartkopf, a Hillsborough resident who organized a counterprotest to the anti-drilling rallies on Friday. “They laughed at, cat-called and shouted down every pro-fracking speaker, including a 15-year-old girl.”
But she and the 25 others, who gathered in the county where the gas exploration method is most likely to occur, wearing shirts with messages such as “Shale yes,” didn’t get their wish. The night’s third speaker vouched for hydraulic fracturing, saying it will be a boon to the state’s economy and that she believes state and local officials will regulate it well. Hands popped up, waving tiny red flags, during her speech.
But then boos from the heavily anti-drilling crowd started rolling in once she finished, behavior which continued throughout the night. The crowd, though vocal, was significantly smaller than organizers predicted.
Lee County commissioner James Womack – who as a member of the state’s Mining and Energy Commission chaired Friday’s hearing – had threatened to cancel the hearing earlier in the day because of security concerns.
Womack said he anticipated 500 to 700 attendees, many of them drilling opponents who he said could turn to tactics of “intimidation or disruption” before and during the hearing. But the crowd inside the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center never appeared to be larger than about 200 people.
An anti-drilling group from Carrboro did attend, banging drums and blowing whistles as participants have at previous meetings related to fracking.
But they coexisted with the pro-drilling activists, banging their drums and giving out food without confronting their rivals, who were waving signs a few feet away.
The drums were clearly audible throughout the hearing. One drummer, Maria Rowan, said she was exercising the same rights as those inside.
“They’re giving limited speaking spots, and I’m not well-versed in science, so this is my way of speaking,” she said.
Some who did speak lamented how the country’s natural gas boom has slowed the development of cleaner forms of energy. But supporters said natural gas represents a chance for energy independence.
Kirk Smith, the Republican vice chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, condemned drilling opponents as hypocrites.
“For the critics of natural gas exploration, I served in the (Persian) Gulf myself,” the U.S. Army veteran said. “In the First Gulf War, we were there to protect the free access to oil. … I kept hearing protestors repeating the refrain, ‘No blood for oil.’ But now as I see the signs saying water equals life, I guess you will support blood for water.”
He also said the Mining and Energy Commission has done a good job of developing strong regulations for the oil and gas industry. Some protesters, though, questioned whom the rules were actually intended to protect.
“You promised the greatest regulations in the country,” said Terica Luxton, a Lee County resident who said she’s concerned about infringements on her rights as a landowner. “Our mistake was believing you meant for North Carolina’s people, when you meant for the gas industry.”
One speaker even called on Womack, who was until recently chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission, to resign.
Sporting a large white cowboy hat, Lee County farm owner Ed Harris got a lengthy ovation for that comment. Womack and Harris have a long history of public disagreements, and Womack didn’t so much as pause before calmly calling for the next speaker.
Several speakers, in addition to Harris, spoke out against the commission’s proposal to allow forced pooling, in which landowners can be compelled to allow drilling companies on their land, against their will.
“It takes away our rights as a landowner and almost certainly will devalue our property,” said Susan Gilliam Alexander, who said her family has owned property in Lee County for 175 years.
Another person who said his family’s ties to the area went back generations struck a more moderate tone, thanking the commission for its work thus far but also suggesting stronger rules on water testing, drilling depth and ways to store wastewater.
“We know that there is going to be shale gas exploration in North Carolina,” attorney Charles Oldham III said. “We have shale gas here, and we know it’s going to be used. … I thank you for all your efforts, and let’s hope you do this right.”