Fracking sounds good, but facts needed

The measure that would allow horizontal drilling and the process known as fracking in North Carolina aims to protect homeowners and the environment, but lawmakers no doubt want to develop natural resources as a major component in the state’s economy.

Hydraulic fracturing injects a drilled well with chemicals, water and sand to crack shale rock and free trapped natural gas.

Senate Bill 820 passed the House on Thursday. Senators agree with amendments a House committee has made, so the bill should reach the governor’s desk soon.

The bill enumerates public and environmental protections in a 19-point plan that dictates what the state will do before the first fracking permit is allowed. It is important to note that at this time, no fracking permits have been certified by North Carolina. In fact, the legislature estimates that if fracking is allowed, the first permit application is probably two years away.

Fracking has its detractors. Environmentalists claim fracking has made a mess of the ecology everywhere it has been tried. Industry, of course, says otherwise. North Carolina government officials want to know if fracking can be done safely in this state. Senate Bill 820 declares:

“It is the intent of the General Assembly to establish a modern regulatory program based on the recommendations of the final report and the following principles:

(1) Protection of public health and safety.

(2) Protection of public and private property.

(3) Protection and conservation of the State’s air, water, and other natural resources.

(4) Promotion of economic development and expanded employment opportunities.

(5) Productive and efficient development of the State’s oil and gas resources.”

Jobs and productive development are the key words here, even though protections are listed first. Still, the mandatory report mentioned in the bill’s language will achieve legislators’ goals if the terms are followed to the letter.

A number of state agencies must unite to devise fracking regulations by October 2014. A rule-making commission will contain local government officials and a representative of a publicly traded natural gas company instead of oil and gas developers as originally proposed, according to The Associated Press.

The Senate bill’s sponsor, Sen. Robert Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said “We believe it (the bill) provides the framework for the state of the art best business practice of rules and regulations dealing with shale gas exploration and production.”

Environmentalists maintain there are not enough protections to prevent groundwater contamination from fracking and two years is not enough time to create rules and erect a responsive regulatory system.

But Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, who presented the bill in the House, emphasized that while the measure legalizes fracking, concerns can be addressed during the two years given the special commission to develop regulations.

“A no vote on natural gas extraction is not on this bill,” he told legislators. “That no vote will come two and a half years from now when we come back with the rules and ask for permission to start drilling if we agree upon it at this time.”

Gillespie makes an important point: Legislators should agree on fracking and the regulatory system when the time comes to say yea or nay on exploration and drilling permits. Our lawmakers must be convinced it’s OK to go ahead. If they aren’t, we expect them to delay fracking until they – and we – are assured risks are minimized and our finite water supplies are protected.

The economic impact of adding oil and natural gas to our list of marketable resources is appealing, but we cannot trade water for gas. The commission charged with outlining a system and protections for pulling these riches from the earth must report all the facts about fracking in North Carolina.