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Lawmakers hope rules ease concerns about fracking in NC

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A worker helps monitor water pumping pressure and temperature, at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. hydraulic fracturing and extraction site, outside Rifle, in western Colorado. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) A worker helps monitor water pumping pressure and temperature, at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. hydraulic fracturing and extraction site, outside Rifle, in western Colorado. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
RALEIGH, N.C. -

When it comes to energy, natural gas is on fire. The United States is now producing more natural gas than any other country on the planet.

Part of the reason the U.S. is producing so much natural gas is hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

Protesters and environmental groups have taken a stand against fracking, while the General Assembly has worked to get the ball rolling in North Carolina by passing legislation that could start issuing permits as early as next year.

"Fracking hasn't been done safely anywhere where it's happened, so it's unlikely to be error free here in North Carolina," explained Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, with the Sierra Club.

Fracking involves drilling horizontally into shale rock more than a mile below the surface. That rock is then cracked and millions of gallons of chemically treated water are pumped in under very high pressure, allowing the natural gas to flow back up the pipe.

"There have been some studies that show we may have modest deposits, but there is no conclusive evidence that shows how big this could be, so everything right now is speculative," Chicurel-Bayard said.

But supporters say fracking could bring millions of dollars to the state, thousands of jobs and help build the country's energy independence. Estimates from a couple hundred to up to 15,000 jobs have been projected in the state.

An in-depth study by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, however, estimates the total around 2,700.

Is Fracking Safe?

"I believe it can be safely done in our state," explained Sen. Ron Rabin (R-Harnett). "There is scant evidence, if any real evidence, that damage has been done to people or the environment."

Rabin is one of a handful of N.C. lawmakers who have come under fire for their support of fracking.

"To say this is fast track is nonsense, quite frankly," Rabin said. "For four years, we've been studying the problem seriously."

Fracking Basins in NC

Studies from the U.S. Geological Survey have found two shale basins in North Carolina that are believed to be capable of producing natural gas. The first is the Dan River basin near Rockingham County. The second is the Deep River Basin with the highest concentrations found around Chatham, Moore and Lee counties.

"They're going to come in, drill, get what they want, and then get out and leave so much destroyed that we"ll never be able to replace it back," said Wilfred Wicker, who lives in the small community of Cumnock outside of Sanford with his wife, Kay.

Kay Wicker said, "You see how quiet it is out here? We'd like to keep it that way."

"[There is a] huge worry. Huge worry," explained Debbie Hall, another resident of Cumnock.

It is a concern only worsened by the fact that many in the area don't own their mineral rights. So if a fracking company was to buy a landowner's mineral rights, the gas under the landowner's property is fair game.

Many of the landowners in the area had their mineral rights severed when a mining company was in operation back in the late 1800s.

"They can come set up something right here and we can't say a word to them," Kay Wicker said.

Hall added, "There are people out here that thought they owned their mineral rights, and when the [Geographic Information System] map came up, they didn't."

However, perhaps the biggest concern surrounding fracking is the potential for groundwater contamination.

"The main thing we are worried about is the water. We use the well for our goats, our dogs, our flowers," Kay Wicker said.

Chicurel-Bayard said, "Fracking chemicals are dangerous, they contain well-known cancer causing agents."

State geologist Dr. Kenneth Taylor and shale gas expert Dr. Vikram Rao are working to address the concern about water quality by helping to draft the 120 proposed rules that would shape how fracking would be regulated in the state.

Taylor and Rao say the rules allow for fracking to be done safely in the state.

"There's significant vertical separation between the fracturing zones and the aquifers," explained Rao, adding that the shale where fracking is done is thousands of feet below well water level. "If wells are constructed properly, they ought not to leak. The probability is low."

The rules call for water testing before, during and after any fracking wells are drilled to ensure that the water remains safe to drink.

"If there is shown to be a change, [the rules] say the company that caused the rock cracking is going to be blamed for it," Taylor explained.

"The question is: How big are those errors going to be?" asked Chicurel-Bayard. "And when it comes to our drinking water supply, there is no room for errors."

Fracking's Secret Chemicals

There have also been serious concerns over fracking companies being able to keep the chemicals used in their fracking fluid hidden from public eye.

  • Click Here to find out more about fracking chemicals

Some states, like Texas, require full disclosure. But the way North Carolina's proposed rules are written, companies can apply for trade secret protection.

Only DENR and emergency officials would know what chemicals were used in case of an emergency.

"If you're going for trade secret protection, you have to defend it. We're not going to take your word for it," Rao ensured.

But Chicurel-Bayard contends the protections undermine "the public's right to know about what chemicals are being used in their neighborhoods and what may potentially contaminate their drinking water.

"The best case scenario would be full transparency."

There are also worries about fracking wells using too much water, creating air pollution from methane gas and the possibility of earthquakes. But the state Mining and Energy Commission said all of those concerns are covered in the proposed rules.

"We've had the advantage of being last at the board, so we get all the advantage of other states' mistakes," Taylor said.

Rao added, "If you do all of these things [rules], we can become a model state."

A model many people living near the prospected drilling land don't want to become. "Our homes -- these places that we love -- would be totally desecrated by industry," Hall said.

Rabin insists that N.C. lawmakers will take all of the necessary steps to "make the process as safe as possible."

"I'm not going to sit here and say anything is 100 percent fail safe, but we are doing everything humanly possible to examine all the aspects of this," Rabin said. "Eventually you have to [take] a risk."

Still, Hall said she doesn't want that risk to be taken in her backyard.

"If he would like to take a risk in his back yard, I'm happy with that," Hall said.

Rao said he understands the concerns, but hopes his rules will help ease some of those worries.

"One should be concerned about the environment, absolutely," Rao said. "But look carefully at the rules we've written."

The General Assembly said the proposed rules must be in place at least 30 days before the first permit is issued.

DENR is asking for feedback on the proposed rules, you can read them and submit your thoughts here.

There are also three public hearings scheduled to discuss the rules:

  • 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Aug. 20 at the McKimmon Center,1101 Gorman St., Raleigh
  • 5-9 p.m. Aug. 22 at the Wicker Center,1801 Nash St., Sanford
  • 5–9 p.m. Aug. 25 at Rockingham High School,180 High School Rd., Reidsville

The public comment period ends at 5 p.m. on Sept. 15.

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