BY TED M. NATT JR.
Two dairy farmers from Pennsylvania put a face on the international fracking debate Thursday by describing the personal, community and business risks they say are associated with the controversial natural gas extraction method.
"We have seen our communities become divided," said Carol French, whose family leased the mineral rights under its farmland to gas companies for five years. "People believe it's a black-and-white issue. They're not exploring the gray areas. That's what we're here to do."
French and Carolyn Knapp, who described themselves as neither pro- nor anti-fracking, spent almost two hours outlining the environmental, health and social impacts during a presentation at the Days Inn in Southern Pines that was sponsored by Save Our Sandhills, a nonprofit environmental group.
The global boom in fracking over the past decade may soon be germain to northern Moore County, which lies atop the Deep River basin, where state geologists believe a 40-year supply of natural gas exists.
Fracking is illegal in North Carolina - for now - but legislation passed earlier this year by the General Assembly has moved the state closer to shale gas development. House Bill 242 calls for completion of a fracking study by three state agencies before May 1.
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 the risks.
French and Knapp, who operate conventional and organic dairy farms, respectively, provided an eyewitness account of how they say fracking has changed the landscape in Bradford County, Pa.
"It's very difficult for me to sit there and watch the land being destroyed," Knapp said. "The only power we have to change this is through making our voices heard, because all the decisions being made right now are based on money."
For example, politicians are lobbied by an industry that touts natural gas as the ideal interim energy source, or "bridge" fuel, in the transition away from coal and oil toward renewable energy.
"But the politicians are experiencing financial gains and gifts to keep regulations lax," Knapp said. "They're selling out the public."
While shale gas production through tax revenue and new jobs could have a profound economic impact in North Carolina, there are a plethora of environmental, legal, regulatory and policy concerns, especially since fracking is exempt from most federal regulations.
Knapp cautioned that the economic benefits are often overhyped.
"Most of the jobs being created (in Pennsylvania) are of a temporary nature, and the majority are in trucking. These jobs are transient jobs, and that's what people do not understand," Knapp said. "The gas companies tend to overestimate how long the gas supply will last because they want you to get excited and sign a lease. But they can't even assure you if the gas will ever be sold or whether it will stay in the country. They say, 'We're going to sell it to the highest bidder.' It's just business."
'Lied to and Cheated'
Knapp has let one of her leases expire while the other is in litigation. Meanwhile, the industry goes on around her.
"I've been lied to and cheated too many times," she said. "Between 300 and 500 trucks go by my house every day. This industry works 24/7. There is a lot of stress due to the noise created by round-the-clock drilling and trucking."
Knapp said the increase in traffic volume has torn up roads, hampered emergency responders and lengthened commutes.
"It used to take five minutes to travel between two towns near where I live that are five miles apart," she said. "Today, it takes about 45 minutes."
French noted that the crime rate, especially the number of rapes, and the divorce rate have increased since fracking became prevalent in Bradford County because 70 percent of the full-time workers hired by the gas companies are imported from other states.
"They work two weeks on, two weeks off, and the gas companies fly them back and forth," French said. "Their basic requirements when they're on the job are a place to stay that has Internet and cable TV access as well as laundry service. But they obviously spend their down-time in other pursuits."
There is no model state for North Carolina to follow because even the best state-level efforts to monitor the rapidly growing industry are not matched by adequate enforcement. And officials in states where drilling is allowed admit that keeping up with the industry is an enormous struggle.
"The development of new and better technology has far outpaced regulatory program protections," said Hope Taylor, a research scientist and executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. "It's also clear that any penalties are being absorbed by the gas companies as a cost of doing business."
After a well is dug vertically and then turned horizontally, fracking involves forcibly pumping 2 million to 8 million gallons of water at great pressure to effectively shatter the shale, thereby allowing the gas to escape and be captured.
The fluid used in fracking is about 99.5 percent water, with sand and chemicals constituting the rest of the mixture.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a comprehensive research study to investigate the potential adverse impact that fracking may have on water quality and public health. Preliminary results are expected next year, with the final report due in 2014.
Experts say decisions regarding the extent to which natural gas extraction should be regulated must balance public health and safety, energy needs, and the inevitable bureaucracy that regulation brings.
In short, both the promise and peril of fracking appear to be substantial, and the debate will be heated.
"The gas companies did not fully disclose their risks to me before I signed my leases, and there is a lack of regulatory agencies to help us out," Knapp said. "They keep saying they'll do it safely, but they haven't gotten 100 percent right yet."
Which is why Taylor believes that there is "really no benefit" for Moore Countians to sign a mineral rights lease right now.
"We hope that folks won't compromise themselves," she said. "This is something the county needs to think about very seriously."