Davis: Event sought to correct info on ‘contentious subject’
Editor’s note: The Sylva Herald reported Wednesday that state environmental officials have cancelled plans to collect rock samples this year in Jackson and the other far-western counties to test for indications of shale gas deposits. State officials told Carolina Public Press in August that the testing would have begun as soon as this month.
FRANKLIN — When establishing rules for hydraulic fracturing, North Carolina looked at resources and other states’ best practices before determining that extracting natural gas from deep underground could be done safely, an official with the state’s Mining and Energy Commission said Tuesday.
“Most problems (with fracking were due to) poor casing and bad cementing, causing ruptures,” Jim Womack, the immediate past chairman for commission told about 250 people during a forum at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts. “We’ve spend a lot of time on rule-making. We poured over what the other states have done, looking at well casing and cementing. We looked at where Pennsylvania started and where Pennsylvania ended.”
While Womack said he believes the state has developed rules stricter than any of the 34 states practicing fracking, environmental watchdog Therese Vick has her doubts, with exploration in North Carolina set to begin in one year.
“Studies are coming out showing different issues (about the detriments of fracking),” said Vick, the North Carolina Healthy Sustainable Campaign Coordinator at Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “The gas has been in the ground for a long time. There’s no hurry. Saying our rules are as good as anybody in the country – that’s not saying a whole lot.”
Hosted by state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, the forum involved a presentation from Womack, followed by a question-and-answer session. Davis co-sponsored a bill that allows the process of finding natural gas to begin.
He said he sees fracking — the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks and boreholes to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas — as part of an energy revolution. Davis also said he believes the likelihood of finding natural gas in the mountains is extremely low, and it would be a waste of money trying to find it here.
The Mining and Energy Commission will conducts its final public hearing on rules proposed for fracking at 6 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center, 92 Catamount Road, at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. Public comment will be received at the hearing, but questions will not be answered that night, Womack said.
Womack, who serves on the commission that developed rules for fracking, explained that it’s likely to occur in the central part of the state.
“(There are) 14 or so counties that have the greatest potential for shale energy development,” he said.
Womack pointed to Lee County, where he serves on the board of commissioners. A number of core samples have been taken there since the 1970s.
“They showed at a depth of 2,400 feet, oil and gas were found in the layers of the rock,” Womack said.
The 60,000-acre rural area near Sanford is thought to have the richest deposits of hydrocarbons.
Womack noted that a lot of time was spent on establishing well-site safety standards. Officials also considered what had occurred in Pennsylvania. One of the first to begin fracking, Pennsylvania has seen negative impacts on 243 water wells due to fracking, according to that state’s Department of Environmental Resources.
“It can be traced back to an old (fracking) well that predated the current standards,” Womack said. “When they (Pennsylvania) got started, they didn’t put rules together. They had poor construction on wells. When ruptures occurred, contamination occurred. They tightened up on construction standards.”
He said that North Carolina’s standards for well construction are top-notch.
“I’m not saying they are the best in the nation, but they will be a heck of lot better than the wells in Pennsylvania that are leaking now,” Womack said.
He also spoke about the myths behind fracking, including concerns about chemicals used in the process.
“Ninety-nine percent of the chemicals poured down bore holes are water and sand,” Womack said. “Most of the (other) stuff that goes down a hole is under the sink in your home. The things that are the most sinister are in such small quantities or are so diluted that they do not pose a health risk.”
Companies that drill must share a chemical list with the state Department of Natural Resources 30 days in advance.
“If there’s something (out of the ordinary), we will know about it before it goes down the hole,” Womack said.
He said, too, that with more than 1 million wells drilled, there is not one case documented that involves chemicals getting into surface water.
“That’s a fact,” said Womack, who has an engineering degree from West Point. “There have been spills on the surface and leakages where a cement job went bad. But there has never been a case of fracking resulting in (chemicals) coming to the surface water.”
During the question-and-answer session, prewritten questions from the audience were randomly drawn. Womack, Vick, state Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, and Jeffrey Warren, science and energy adviser for the Office of the President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate, fielded responses.
Some expressed concerns about health effects of fracking, particularly on children and studies indicating that infants born within 1.6 miles of a fracking site are likely to have low birth weights or birth defects.
Womack said he has read exhaustively on the matter.
“I’m familiar with two studies,” he said. “In both cases, the research was brought into serious question because of the research techniques. They did show birth defects could be associated, but did not say they were conclusive. The researchers admitted there were flaws in the study.”
Vick noted that even in areas that don’t have huge explosions of well development, there have been air quality issues.
“One report said urine (in well workers) is being tested and they are finding benzene,” she said. “Benzene causes leukemia and a host of problems.”
As for the benefits of fracking, Womack credits the shale industry with pulling the nation out of the 2008 recession.
“There are great economic benefits or there would not be 34 states doing this,” he said. “This country would not be experiencing an economic renaissance if not for shale industry. The country is now close to becoming energy independent.”
“We are late to the game, but we are doing it the right way,” Brock added. “Arkansas had 100 drills in the ground before a rule was passed. Not in North Carolina. We are pretty strict.”
Vick agreed it’s hard to argue the economic benefits.
“We do need the jobs, but at what cost?” she said. “There’s a growing concern for how much methane is being released from this process. It’s a real concern that this could be very bad for the world climate.”
Special Report from Carolina Public Press
For more on fracking in Western North Carolina, go here.