Fracking, which is short for hydraulic fracturing, a process in which chemicals are injected into the ground to retrieve natural gas, has been heralded by Lee County officials as a way to bring jobs and a tax base to the county in addition to tapping into clean energy.
Opponents of the process, including some local residents as well as statewide environmental groups, have pointed to groundwater contamination and even earthquakes that have been linked to fracking in other states that don’t have a ban on the procedure like North Carolina does.
Lee County has some of the largest potential reserves in the state, putting its politicians and landowners at the forefront of the discussion weighing health and environmental risks against economic benefits.
Ray Covington, whose family owns land in Lee County containing one of the few active gas wells in the state, drilled before the process became illegal, said he’s excited. Covington is also a co-founder of North Carolina Oil & Gas LLC.
The public health concerns will have plenty of time to be addressed, he said, because the reality of major drilling occuring anytime soon is unlikely due to the low price of natural gas.
“I know that this is not going to be happening any time soon,” he said. “Those people that are saying this is being rushed through, this is inaccurate.”
He said he expects gas prices would have to rise considerably before companies begin paying for exploratory drilling to find which areas in the state truly have the biggest reserves.
The bill generated some controversy when it passed Wednesday just hours after a U.S. Geological Survey report said North Carolina had just more than five years worth of gas that could be tapped via fracking, a statistic many critics raised in concert with the long-term health risks often linked with fracking.
However, Covington said the report is unreliable because it’s just an estimate, not to mention it’s the first time the survey has ever even looked at North Carolina. The report found 1.7 trillion cubic feet of reserves, which it used to come up with the lifespan figure, he said.
But he also said that 10 years ago, when a similar study was done in Pennsylvania, it also estimated that state had about 2 trillion cubic feet. After drilling exploratory wells, Covington said, the estimate was raised significantly — to 250 trillion cubic feet.
“We really don’t know what our reserves are until we start doing more scientific studies,” he said.
However, some critics of the process say that even with the potential for more drilling than the Geological Survey estimated, the process isn’t worth the medical and legal side effects.
Jane Preyer, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Southeast Office, said the bill leaves too much space for private industry to chip away at environmental regulation and local government power.
“The bill that passed the Senate is not going to protect public health and the environment fully,” she said. “It just does not chart a safe course for North Carolina.”
She said that while she believes control over any decisions that could affect public health should be in the hands of government regulators, such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), this bill could put those decisions — as they relate to fracking — in the hands of a specially created commission drawn largely from the private mining industry.
Preyer said this would be a departure from the route other states have taken, in which local governments have retained the decision-making power they had before fracking.
“We should do the same,” she said.
In earlier versions of the bill, powers of override were indeed given to the mining commission. But after objections from local government organizations, the language was changed to order a study done by the mining commission, DENR, the North Carolina League of Municipalities and the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.
That group will have until the end of the year to come up with recommendations to submit for legislative approval on how much power the mining commission should have. Of the commission’s nine voting members, four will have vested interests in mining and three are to have experience in mining. Only two are to be specifically chosen for the work in environmental conservation.
Preyer said she was glad the bill requires companies to disclose some of the chemicals they use in fracking, but she warned that without a full list, residents can’t know for sure what might happen to the land and water around them.
“I hope and expect that the House is open to some strengthening of this bill that will make for a much more responsible practice,” she said.
Covington countered that many companies already publicize most or all of the chemicals they put in the ground and thus don’t need a law requiring them to give up some information that could be construed as trade secrets, which are already protected under state law.
He added that North Carolina can and should be the safest state in the nation as far as fracking is concerned, and that the current drilling ban gives lawmakers the opportunity to make it so.
“Of course from North Carolina’ perspective, here we have a clear opportunity to write a bill in the future … that will be a model throughout the United States and the world because we’re working off a clean slate,” he said.
The bill is now in the House, where it will first go to the Environment Committee, where members — including local Rep. Mike Stone — will decide if the bill needs to be amended before going to a vote.
Earlier this year, Stone co-sponsored a pro-fracking bill in the House that was similar to the Senate version that just passed, although his office declined to comment until more was known about the bill and its status in committee.