North Carolina’s mining and energy commissioners are in the midst of a fracking battle—and they’re winning. They’re arguing that the state’s regulations for clean water protection are over-the-top and unnecessary, all while corralling anti-fracking advocates into the same category as Bigfoot believers.
“We all know this,” commissioner George Howard said, referring to his belief that there is a lack of proof connecting groundwater contamination with fracking. “A lot of this stuff is like Bigfoot regulation—he doesn’t exist.”
Commissioners are going so far as to recommend a rollback of what are now considered the strictest protections in the nation, to the dismay of landowners living near and above natural gas reserves. As it stands, operators have to test local wells before fracking begins, in order to provide a “before” sample.
The arguments come at a time when the nation is split on the issue, with studies indicating a link exists between fracking and groundwater contamination. Incomplete government studies have yet to issue any conclusion, yet those responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry are using a lack of information as justification that fracking poses no threat to anyone, anywhere.
The pro-industry rhetoric in North Carolina comes on the heels of Gov. McCrory’s (R-NC) decision to reject the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants that would have funded water quality studies in some of the state’s most vulnerable wetland areas.
The justification? The fracking boom isn’t enough of an issue in North Carolina to warrant such environmental studies. According to the most recent commissioners debate, however, fracking is enough of an issue to consider changes to its regulations in favor of industry.
The commissioners’ sentiment is based on the argument that water contamination related to fracking operations allegedly doesn’t exist.
“What we’re doing is trying to inoculate the population against a disease that doesn’t exist,” commissioner Charles Holbrook told the Charlotte Observer. “The science does not support even the possibility that hydraulic fracturing fluid can migrate that far out from the well—it can’t happen.”
While the commissioners’ stances are up for debate, it’s clear they’re promoting a pro-industry narrative. In August, the commissioners backed legislation that would give oil and gas companies the right to drill on private lands, regardless of homeowners’ wishes. The justification rests in the argument that homeowners would get paid—but payment isn’t everything to everyone.
“They could potentially be pooled against their will in certain rare circumstances,” Commissioner Jim Womack told the Associated Press, adding that the scenario is fair.
But still, according to the governor, the industry isn’t prevalent enough to accept EPA funds for testing.
A Battle of Information
Holbrook is correct on the argument that government-supported studies have not yet proven groundwater contamination, as the EPA recently pushed back its deadline for its study release from 2014 to 2016. The study, which began in 2010 under the direction of Congress, was specifically tailored to assess whether or not groundwater supplies—and the surrounding air—are contaminated by the fracking process.
A preliminary report released by the U.S. government this year indicated there was, at the time of its release, no link yet discovered between fracking and drinking water contamination in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation. While the study was immediately picked up by industry and touted as undeniable proof that fracking poses no threat to water supplies, the agency that conducted the study was quick to put that notion to rest.
Following the release of a prominent Associated Press article highlighting the preliminary report’s supposed findings, the National Energy and Technology Laboratory, the body that conducted the study, released a statement clarifying its research:
NETL has been conducting a study to monitor for any signs of groundwater contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing operations at a site on the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania. We are still in the early stages of collecting, analyzing and validating data from this site. While nothing of concern has been found thus far, the results are far too preliminary to make any firm claims. We expect a final report on the results by the end of the calendar year.
Under that premise, it seems too soon for Holbrook and his colleagues to claim studies have yielded no link—more accurate would be to say that incomplete studies have failed to provide the full picture.
But then there are other studies, conducted independent of the government.
Duke University conducted a report in June indicating homeowners living near fracking operations were at risk for drinking water contamination, largely due to leaked gasses.
Using 141 drinking water samples taken from residential wells in northeastern Pennsylvania, researchers found that, on average, “methane concentrations were six times higher and ethane concentrations were 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of a shale gas well,” according to a press release issued by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.
The study also indicated propane levels were detected in at least 10 samples, all from private wells located within a kilometer of fracking operations.
“Our studies demonstrate that the integrity of gas wells, as well as variations in local and regional geology, play major roles in determining the possible risk of groundwater impacts from shale gas development,” Avner Vengosh, a geochemistry professor at Duke, said. “As such, they must be taken into consideration before drilling begins.”
Even under arguments that existing studies do not prove a direct and positive correlation between fracking operations and water contamination, there is little room to argue that any studies proving otherwise exist, either.
The question for North Carolina commissioners, then, is why they are so sure—sure enough to turn down the EPA funds that would assure state residents that they aren’t at risk.
Why Deny the Grants?
The funds the state turned away were initially requested by the North Carolina Wetlands Programs Development Unit, which was dismantled by McCrory when he took office.
The wetlands unit was part of the Division of Water Resources, which has come out in support of the government’s denial of EPA funds. In all, $600,000 worth of federal grants were awarded to the Division of Water Resources to conduct studies on the potential impact fracking has in wetland areas. According to the Daily Tar Heel, nearly $223,000 of those funds were devoted to testing impact of streams and wetlands where fracking is most likely to take place.
According to Tom Reeder, the director of the Division of Water Resources, the grants were turned down because they were not necessary, as the state does not have any current fracking operations near wetland areas.
“I find when you get in these types of discussions when there’s a lot of accusations being made, it’s good to inject a little reality into the discussion now and again,” Reeder told the Mining and Energy Commission, according to the Daily Tar Heel.
Rejecting the EPA grants, however, wasn’t the only option Reeder had if his organization wasn’t interested in carrying out the studies at this time. As noted by George Matthis, a former Department of Natural Resources employee, grants from the EPA can be extended in order to fit a department’s needs.
Commissioners agreed, referring to the grants and the studies as not having “sufficient value,” although at this point there was no denying that fracking near wetlands in the state will eventually occur.
It’s true that North Carolina hasn’t exactly been the hub of the fracking industry, but it appears as though this will change.
According to News Observer writer Daniel L. Fine, the reason North Carolina has been off-limits is because of its strict rules that have scared the industry away.
“The answer is political,” Fine writes. “North Carolina has been in self-imposed isolation from the industry that invests and operates oil and gas exploration. Until now, it has not been worth the airfare for a company to send an exploration geologist from Denver to Raleigh. North Carolina law has prohibited hydraulic fracturing. New state leadership is prepared to change this and create the necessary government authority and institutions to issue permits, regulate and manage the economic benefits for people of North Carolina.”
It seems the government is nearly there.
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