Both Sides in Fracking Debate Say More Data Needed
Both sides of the fracking debate agree on at least one point — there is not enough information in the draft report issued by state environmental officials to determine whether the controversial form of drilling for natural gas can be done safely.
That became clear during Tuesday night’s public hearing in Sanford sponsored by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
The hearing, which drew more than 500 people, came four days after DENR issued a draft report that recommends legalizing hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as fracking — in the state.
“I actually don’t believe the DENR researchers that worked on the report wrote the conclusion,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. “Among other things, I am disappointed that the consumer protection piece is missing. That information should be out there before the final draft is submitted. Clearly, North Carolina is not ready for this.”
The draft report — and any subsequent legislation — is important to northern Moore County, which lies atop the Deep River basin, where state geologists believe a 40-year supply of natural gas exists.
Jeffrey Sheer, of Southern Pines, said he believed the conclusion “was written by a PR (public relations) person.”
Robin Smith, assistant secretary of environment at DENR, said the state attorney general’s office was working on consumer protection elements, but she acknowledged during the three-hour hearing that there were other “information gaps” in the report.
“There’s a lot of projecting going on because there is a limited amount of data in the report,” Smith said. “We need more research.”
State Rep. Jamie Boles agreed, saying that “filling in the gaps is part of the ongoing process and one of the reasons these public hearings were scheduled for after release of the draft report.”
‘Very Flawed Process’
The report contains 20 key recommendations but notes that they could be tweaked before May 1, when a final draft must be submitted to the General Assembly.
“It’s not possible between now and May 1 to develop all of the required standards,” Smith said. “That’s going to take a broader discussion.”
Critics claim DENR was given little time and money — less than a year and $100,000 — to do the job right.
“You get what you pay for,” Chatham County Commissioner Sally Kost said at a news conference before the hearing. “It’s an example of a very flawed process that should outrage the citizens of North Carolina. This is a serious issue that requires serious study.”
Kost and other fracking opponents believe that DENR’s conclusion that fracking “can be done safely provided the right protections are in place” was not supported by the information in the report.
“I don’t really see how we can do this safely and responsibly, given the recent cuts at DENR and the assault on our air and water quality,” said Creedmoor Mayor Darryl Moss, whose Board of Com-missioners adopted an ordinance last September to prohibit hydraulic fracturing within the city limits and extra-territorial jurisdiction.
Joe McDonald, president of Save Our Sandhills, a grassroots organization based in Moore County, said at the news conference that the report outlined a number of “very formidable” obstacles that need to be overcome before fracking could safely be done in the state.
“They could easily have said that until the obstacles are overcome, they do not recommend fracking,” he said. “Instead, they took a politically safer position by saying that fracking can be done safely, assuming these obstacles are overcome.
“So, they have obviously attempted to say something that will be a little bit pleasing to everybody. Since they have been so harshly abused in recent years by a hostile group of anti-environment legislators, I suppose they can be forgiven for being a little gun shy.”
Sheer, the only speaker at the hearing from Moore County, said his main concern was water quality.
“Once water is contaminated, it’s too late,” he said, adding sarcastically, “I saw a poll this morning. It said 100 percent of North Carolinians drink water.”
‘Lead to More Jobs’
Sheer was mocking earlier testimony from Bill Weatherspoon, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council. Weatherspoon cited poll results released earlier that day of the hearing that found 75 percent of North Carolina voters support increased access to domestic oil and natural gas resources, including energy from shale.
“Voters in North Carolina know developing more of Amer-ica’s domestic energy would lead to more jobs, increased government revenues and help put downward pressure on fuel prices,” he said in a statement.
Weatherspoon added during the hearing that the DENR draft report is “a spectacular piece of work.”
“I think this report is going to be an exceptional resource for the General Assembly moving forward,” he said. “We have a special chance to do this right. I can assure that my industry wants to make sure that North Carolina is a model for the rest of the nation.”
Before the hearing at the Wicker Center, people wearing T-shirts that read “Shale YES!” stood along Nash Street among others holding signs that said “Caution: Frack-Free Zone.” Some people honked or waved as the drove by the demonstrators, prompting cheers from all.
Inside, emotions ran high at times, especially given the two-minute speaking time limit, but a strong presence by local police kept order.
Fracking is illegal in North Carolina — for now. But legislation passed last year by the General Assembly authorized the study and moved the state closer to shale gas development.
The global boom in fracking over the past decade has been tempered as natural gas prices recently hit a 10-year low, prompting producers to curb production and the sinking of new wells.
There is a contentious worldwide debate over whether fracking is safe, with little scientific evidence to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand.
DENR will conduct a second public hearing next Tuesday in Chapel Hill. Written comments will be accepted through April 1.
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at email@example.com.
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