After 18 months of meetings, hearings and revisions, the state Mining and Energy Commission has settled on a set of rules to regulate fracking in North Carolina.
The rules are based on public hearings, some 200,000 public comments and the lessons learned from problems elsewhere. They aim to protect the environment from the dirty process of hydraulic fracturing, the high-pressure pumping of a chemical-laced fluid underground to break up shale deposits and release natural gas.
But the rule-making process itself seems to belie that objective. How can anything safe require so many safeguards? Wouldn’t the ultimate safety regulation be to forbid this sloppy, disruptive and inevitably polluting industry from setting up in North Carolina?
That option is not on the table. The Republican leaders of the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory are gung ho on making their green and naturally blessed state a player in the energy extraction business, whether it be fracking or offshore drilling. They say fracking will create jobs and tax revenue. The former only echoes GOP “job creation” pledges that have turned up empty. The latter is necessary because Republicans have chosen to ease up on collecting taxes from the state’s main sources of wealth: individuals enriched by a years-long stock market boom and companies that have stockpiled profits in an era of high productivity, low inflation and flat wages.
It’s hard to see how fracking can be a bonanza here. The gas deposits appear to be limited to three counties southwest of Raleigh – Moore, Lee and Chatham – and there may not be enough of a resource to attract major companies. The appeal is further reduced by falling oil and gas prices. That means when North Carolina starts fracking in 2015, it may attract smaller drilling companies with less resources for safety measures. North Carolina could get the risk without the reward.
The experience of fracking in other states is worrisome. Last Sunday, The New York Times reported the results of its extensive investigation into fracking-related spills, leaks and fires in the epicenter of fracking, North Dakota. The state has regulated with a light hand as the gas boom has sent North Dakota’s economy soaring. But letting drillers have their way comes at an environmental cost.
The Times reported that “more than 18.4 million gallons of oils and chemicals spilled, leaked or misted into the air, soil and waters of North Dakota from 2006 through early October 2014.” It added that those totals are likely a significant undercount of the pollution because of lax reporting standards. Meanwhile, the Times said, spill rates are increasing year over year.
Amy Pickle, the Mining and Energy Commission’s vice chairwoman and a leader at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, said North Carolina’s regulations and its tougher enforcement culture will help prevent a mess like North Dakota’s from happening here.
But her confidence may be misplaced. The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources has come under fire for a cozy relationship with Duke Energy that is the subject of recent federal grand jury hearings. And the culture being promoted by DENR head John Skvarla is one of working with businesses to navigate environmental rules, an approach eerily similar to North Dakota’s business-friendly treatment of the fracking industry.
Pickle said North Carolina’s rules emphasize protection of the environment, but she said rules alone are not guarantees. She said the rules have balanced the concerns and will mitigate the risks. But she added, “I want to be clear that people have legitimate concerns about how this industry can impact the environment.”
To some scientists and environmentalists, state leaders are more intent on starting fracking as an economic booster than on regulating it as an environmental threat.
One who is concerned is Avner Vengosh, a Duke expert on fracking’s impact on water quality. Vengosh is chagrined that the Mining and Energy Commission has not consulted with him about safety issues even as he advises other countries. “It seems like it has become a political issue rather than dealing with the facts,” he said. Pickle said that she is familiar with Vengosh’s work and that the commission has heard from one of his research partners at Duke.
Still, it’s disconcerting that the commission would not have heard from Vengosh directly and at length. He said North Carolina might have a special problem with disposing of millions of gallons of fracking wastewater. The state’s geology will not allow the most common disposal method, deep-well injection. The wastewater is difficult and expensive to clean and only a portion of it can be recycled.
“In North Carolina, we are going to face what to do about wastewater. If we can’t inject it, what are we going to do with it? I have not seen any systematic plan,” he said.
North Carolina now has rules. Whether it has an understanding of what it’s getting into, only time and spills will tell.