State Politics

NC fracking hearings get under way Wednesday in Raleigh

Hundreds of residents will try to sway state officials for and against 100-plus proposed safety rules in the coming weeks as North Carolina gets set to lift the state’s moratorium on fracking next year.

With four upcoming public hearings across the state, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission enters its final phase of rule-making, a culmination of two years of research, discussion and compromise. After public comments are analyzed, the fracking rules could be modified and will advance to the state legislature in January.

Public hearings will kick off Wednesday in Raleigh, the only venue where residents’ comments will be taken in the middle of the day. The subsequent three hearings in Sanford, Reidsville and Cullowhee will be held in the evening.

They will be monitored by uniformed security officers to maintain order, with the expectation that rallies and protests will be staged outside for TV cameras.

The hearings are intended to focus on technical minutiae of arcane regulations. But it’s widely understood they present fracking opponents and supporters the largest public forum in years to get a broader political message across.

“Most comments will come on something we have no jurisdiction over: Don’t frack,” said Vikram Rao, chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission.

“But you should be allowed to speak to the legislature through this medium,” Rao said. “How else will people speak to the legislature unless they go to a Moral Monday?”

The hearings will be structured in such a way that speakers will get three minutes max at the microphone to state their case on rules the Mining and Energy Commission debated over several days, sometimes several months. The commissioners who preside over the hearings will be there only to accept public comment and will not respond to questions from the public.

Even though the rule set runs 174 pages, most speakers will likely focus on just a handful of rules: chemical disclosure, drilling distances from homes and water wells, baseline testing of drinking water, and the risks of storing chemical-laced fluids in open-air pits.

Speakers are also likely to address perceived holes in the rules where commissioners have not taken any action. Those include forced pooling – where drillers are allowed to tap local natural gas, even if property owners don’t want drillers probing under their homes and farms – air quality monitoring, and treatment and disposal of fracking wastewater, which is briny and contains industrial chemicals. These and other blanks are either under further review or outside the jurisdiction of the Mining and Energy Commission, commissioners say.

Fracking opponents will urge commissioners to increase safety buffers and setbacks, add landowner protections and change some rules to the way they were originally proposed. This year, for example, the Mining and Energy Commission opted to let energy companies shield fracking chemicals from public view under a “trade secret” provision. The commissioners also halved the testing distance from the drill site where water wells will be analyzed for contamination.

Comments streaming in

“I’m not sure than any of our proposed rules are strong,” said Therese Vick, community activist with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “Any time we had something that was too onerous or too expensive for the industry or the politicians, they went back and modified it.”

Public comment is also being accepted in writing until Sept. 30, without the time or length restrictions of spoken comments. As of Thursday, 656 comments had arrived at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Commissioner James Womack said any comments will be heard and considered, but the most helpful remarks will discuss specific rules, not general declarations about state energy policy.

While Womack has consistently lauded the rules as a model of social responsibility, he understands many don’t share his enthusiasm.

“At least 60 to 70 percent of the comments will probably be moderately anti-drilling or at least cautionary,” Womack predicted.

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