Fracking: Why Our State Can’t Afford a Gas Rush
Since 2008, when an online geology publication touted the shale formations in North Carolina that might yield gas, using recently developed methods of high-volume “hydraulic fracturing” and horizontal drilling, we’ve been telling folks things were likely to start moving quickly.
Why were we alarmed? In North Carolina, more than 2.7 million residents depend on private, unregulated wells for their drinking water, one of the highest proportions in the nation, and we were already hearing reports from other states of wells “going bad” near gas operations — discoloration, sediment, foul odors and even combustible water or explosions.
There are tens of thousands of water wells scattered in the 14 mostly rural central and western piedmont counties overlying North Carolina’s Deep River and Dan River shales. We fear the potential for water depletion, as well as contamination through poorly constructed gas wells, uncontrolled fracturing or leakage through old well bores or fractures, or due to handling, storage, transport and treatment of chemicals injected into shales at high pressure to open pores and release gas.
From the reports we’ve heard from impacted residents in other states, we know the issues facing communities near gas operations are both more widespread and more immediate in their impact than gas companies are admitting.
Here are some key ones:
Drill rig workers often have no idea what chemicals they are hauling to the site and mixing, and are unable to protect themselves.
Shale gas contamination has been found by Duke University scientists at dangerous levels in a majority of the drinking-water wells within a kilometer (about 3,000 feet) of active gas extraction in New York and Pennsylvania, but seldom found in water wells farther away (but still located over the same shale formation).
We can’t assume this was due only to poorly installed gas wells — it could be leakage through old or newly formed fissures. In North Carolina, our shale formations are relatively shallow, closer to the depth drilled for water wells, potentially making us even more vulnerable.
There has been health-damaging air pollution, ranging from dangerous ozone levels in rural Wyoming to toxic benzene and other gases released from gas wells and compressor stations in Dish, Texas, and other locations where such operations are concentrated. EPA’s newly proposed rules to reduce emissions will require capture of gases, but this only deals with part of the emissions.
Even if protecting the environment is possible, Cornell economic development researchers have documented that this industry brings most of its workers, and all of the higher paid ones, from out of state. It “externalizes” costs to host communities for public protection and other services and for damaged roads.
The “boom and bust” drilling cycle adds to uncertainty for local government and businesses, as well as social disruption. A few folks will make money, but a larger number will bear the costs of gas development.
North Carolina has been lucky — our historic ban of horizontal drilling and our long commitment to protect groundwater as drinking water have given us time to think about the serious issues involved. Other states have been struggling to catch up with an industry drilling thousands of new wells each year.
Now, after the N.C. legislature has approved a budget that slashes our environmental agency, and a bill (S781) that will strangle future protective regulations, is not the time to even consider unleashing this industry in our state.
Just this year, EPA began a study of impacts of fracking on drinking water. That study won’t be finished until 2014, but industry and some legislators think that a smaller state study due next May will be enough information to get North Carolina ready for a gas rush. We disagree strongly.
The gas industry is spending massively on major media, including TV and radio. We can expect to see a wave of campaign funding for North Carolina’s 2012 election. The public should be skeptical of information about the safety and contamination record of the industry from economically interested sources, whether drilling companies or landowner associations waiting eagerly for gas royalties. Look instead for information from independent investigators who won’t benefit financially.
Until we have clear examples of state regulatory programs, predictable geology and firm industry accountability that prevents accidents or contamination, with independent scientific confirmation, the industry and bad regulation have given us plenty of reasons not to believe.
Hope Taylor, a small dairy farmer in southern Granville County, serves as executive director of Clean Water for NC, a statewide environmental justice organization.
More like this story