After NY ban, NC should wait on fracking

How far off track North Carolina has gone toward risking health and environmental damage from fracking became clear by a coincidence last week. On the day that North Carolina’s Rules Review Commission approved the state’s fracking rules, the governor of New York announced that his state will ban the practice.

Fracking supporters attacked the decision as “political,” and it will help Gov. Andrew Cuomo shore up his support among liberals and environmentalists, but it was hardly a maneuver solely to get votes. It is an effort to protect the health of New Yorkers. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory should be doing the same. Instead, he and the Republican-led General Assembly are doing all they can to get the fracking drills whirling into North Carolina’s soil and rock.

The New York ban came after a six-year moratorium on fracking, formally known as hydraulic fracturing. The process releases oil and natural gas by breaking subsurface rock formations through the high-pressure injection of chemically laced water. Fracking has been an energy boon, but it is a messy process that inevitably involves spills, gas leaks, heavy truck traffic, wastewater disposal problems, a big draw on freshwater resources and potential environmental and health consequences that scientists have not had enough time to fully identify and assess.

New York state has large shale deposits, and fracking them could have helped economically depressed areas of the state. But Cuomo saw that positive outweighed by fracking’s negatives and unknowns. Those concerns were documented in a 184-page report from the New York State Department of Health. The department surveyed studies of fracking’s effects elsewhere and found problems including threats to groundwater and respiratory health, soil contamination, methane releases that contribute to climate change and evidence that fracking and the disposal of wastewater by injecting it deep underground cause earthquakes. In a letter accompanying the report, Howard A. Zucker, the state’s acting commissioner of health, wrote that fracking should not proceed “until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health.”

What finally persuaded Cuomo was an answer Zucker gave to his own question. He told the governor, “I asked myself, ‘Would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no.”

Zucker’s conclusion was attacked by fracking supporters as more emotional than scientific. They say there is no solid evidence that fracking pollutes groundwater or presents other health risks. But even supporters acknowledge that fracking involves truck traffic, spills, property disputes and problems of a boom and bust economy. Indeed, fracking has spread so rapidly that it’s undermining itself. The sinking price of gas and oil makes the extraction process less profitable.

North Carolina now has its fracking rules in place pending an all but certain approval by the General Assembly. The state’s shale deposits appear limited mostly to three counties southwest of Raleigh: Chatham, Lee and Moore. Fracking could begin in the new year. Instead, it would be better for a new moratorium to begin. Use the period to let oil and gas prices settle to assess whether it’s even worth drilling into North Carolina. And use it to allow more health and environmental data to accumulate in fracking states.

In a few years, if the oil and gas markets are strong and the health and environmental issues known, North Carolina could decide whether to allow fracking. Meanwhile, the safe course, the course taken in New York, is the best way to go.