Drilling down on new fracking law

kjahner@newsobserver.comJune 10, 2014 

Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot has come under fire for his stance on fracking.

MECHELLE HANKERSON — mhankerson@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Political ads which in the Triangle over the last few months have painted state Sen. Chad Barefoot as part of North Carolina’s “Fracking Crew.”The ad says he’s “putting families at risk” and “threatening North Carolina’s drinking water.” He says he voted for a perfectly safe economic boom.

Barefoot did not sponsor or craft the bill lifting a ban on hydraulic fracturing signed by Gov. Pat McCrory on June 4; he figures the ad targeted him because he was percieved as vulnerable in this year’s elections. But the man representing most of Garner in the state Senate has joined his party’s effort to hit the gas on an industry he says is proven safe and bountiful amid a torrent of criticism from environmental advocates and Democratic lawmakers.

Fracking involves drilling deep underground well below the water table, injecting water and chemicals into the well at high pressure, fracturing rock and releasing natural gas. The frenzied debate nationally and locally features two sides telling wildly divergent stories during what has been a boom in natural gas drilling in recent years. Fracking opponents call the dangers of poisoned water proven and real. Supporters call them proven and false.

“First, it’s important to note that natural gas exploration is safe, it’s clean, and it has proven to create good-paying jobs and generate revenue that can help fund our schools, infrastructure and other key investments. Those facts are indisputable,” Barefoot said in an email response last week. “It’s been generating revenue, creating jobs and proven itself to be safe and non-controversial in other states for years.”

The current moratorium on fracking won’t end until rules composed by the Mining and Energy Commission have passed; they are due by January 1. Permits could be issued 61 days after rules are finalized (likely with the legislature out of session). The bill quickly passed through the legislature amid a number of criticisms. The loudest revolve around threats to underground water tables from which many residents draw drinking water.

Loud opposition has come from environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Environment North Carolina – groups Barefoot disregards as special interests uninterested in job creation and “the same groups trying to bulldoze homes, churches and businesses in Garner to build the (N.C. 540) Red Route.” Democrats, including a Garner representative, also dislike the law.

“There are more than 1,000 documented cases of contaminated water from fracking across the country,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina. “By rushing to frack, Gov. McCrory and legislative leaders are putting North Carolina’s rivers and the drinking water for millions in jeopardy.”

In January the Associated Press reported that it had gone through thousands of complaints of pollution, with hundreds of them confirmed in different states. But in those cases, questions often remain unanswered about whether existing pockets of natural gas, poor well design and construction, or pre-existing contaminants contributed to problems.

Jackson and other hydrologists and geologists have said that if a well is dug deep enough below a water source and well-constructed, the risk of leaching chemicals is minimal-to-nonexistant. Barefoot, like other GOP legislators, say draft rules establish a high degree of safety.

That said, fracking chemicals leaking is not undocumented, as some industry and political supporters note. For example in a case in 1987 in West Virginia, the Environmental Protection Agency determined some had leaked into a well.

That leaves variables such as what makes different sites and wells more susceptible to contamination, how well-written construction and water-monitoring regulations can be, and whether a regulatory body has the ability to quickly detect and halt those who take shortcuts.

“It’s very important that we have a uniform energy policy in North Carolina so everyone across the state plays by the same rules,” Barefoot said. “The state has an entire agency (Department of the Environment and Natural Resources) with the resources and expertise to enforce the rules and monitor the exploration.”

Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat who represents Garner, has questioned DENR’s capacity to regulate energy companies in the wake of multiple spills of toxic coal ash into North Carolina streams and rivers and accusations of a too-cozy relationship with energy companies under the McCrory administration.

Questions of procedure

Jackson opposed the bill. He questioned the economic impact, as many question whether the state has enough natural gas resources to justify the risk. He worries about potential environmental damage, and expressed major concerns over the way the bill was rushed to passage.

“From what I’ve seen the presentations have been pretty one-sided without a good explanation of why we should be in such a hurry. I think it’s more important to do this right than to do it next,” Jackson said. “Its unusual when you think of how big environmental bills have been handled in the past, going through multiple committees and hearings.”

Because the bill permitting fracking passed before the rules were finalized, Jackson noted that the legislature would not have an opportunity to vet any rules made by the Mining Commission, whose members are picked by the governor and legislators.

In addition, some complained there was no floor debate or public hearing on this bill. But Barefoot said the issue has “recieved literally years of debate and garnered bipartisan support at every turn,” citing Dem. Gov. Bev Perdue’s DENR saying the process could be done safely. (Perdue said that, and also later vetoed a bill creating the commission she felt did not provide enough safeguards. Her veto was overidden.)

Five Democratic amendments were voted down just before passage. Among them were provisions on air emissions, drilling-worker housing, disposal of fracking wastses and public disclosure of fracking chemicals.

Barefoot bristled at the public disclosure accusation. The current draft rules require companies to disclose the chemical family, traits and potential harmful effects of compounds regarded as state secrets publicly. The specific chemical must be reported to DENR, which will keep it confidential. Health professionals with a relevant need can request the information.

Addressing forced pooling – in which property owners can be unwillingly tapped or forced to sell mineral rights – was also suggested, with the GOP shooting it down and saying the common practice can financially protect property owners who refuse.

Another criticism of the bill is that it provides financial incentives in the form of tax breaks to energy companies. Municipalities and counties are prohibited from passing ordinances to stop fracking in their jurisdictions.

Garner residents will likely not be directly affected by fracking operations. Jackson said the lack of direct risk to his district didn’t affect his vote.

“I have not heard from anybody in my local area who is in favor of fracking,” Jackson said.

Barefoot’s support remains strong, however, despite ads attacking him for his support of the bill

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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