In state's fracking report, politics threatens to trump science | North Carolina | Indy Week

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In state's fracking report, politics threatens to trump science

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If you read the first nine pages of the state's draft report on fracking, you will be unprepared for the punch line at the end.

Written by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the 444-page report was released March 16. It clearly lays out the many potential perils associated with the controversial drilling method. (Download and read the full report here; the PDF is 32 MB. The first 10 pages are the summary.)

It addresses the serious environmental, economic and public health problems that could result from fracking in the state.

It discusses the dearth of data on North Carolina's geology as it relates to natural gas resources and the lack of a comprehensive study—anywhere—on long-term health impacts of fracking.

It discusses the state's immense permitting, regulatory and enforcement requirements if fracking were to be legalized—none of which have been written.

It acknowledges the short time frame—just nine months—in which the department had to collect data, commission studies and write a mammoth, and politically sensitive, report.

And it notes that the consumer protection portion, to be drafted by the N.C. Department of Justice, is missing.

Then, on page 10 of the summary, the report reads, "DENR believes that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place."

Of the 444 pages, that sentence could overshadow the conversation about fracking in North Carolina. The contradiction has led some environmental groups to wonder about the unseen influences on the report, especially in light of a secret visit by Gov. Beverly Perdue and DENR Secretary Dee Freeman earlier this month to Pennsylvania, where they were debriefed on that state's fracking operations by several groups, including Shell Oil. Upon her return, Perdue reversed her position on fracking, saying it could be done safely if properly regulated. Days later, the DENR report echoed her.

"It's a political conclusion that had nothing to do with a well-researched report," said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina.

As for DENR, it is quick to point out that the obstacles to "safely" fracking in North Carolina are enormous. "Hydraulic fracturing can happen safely only if the recommendations are followed," said Diana Kees, DENR communications director.

In so many words, DENR's report says that's a big if. The 20 recommendations would require millions of dollars to pay for additional staff, enforcement, testing and infrastructure, not only for the state but also for local governments in counties where fracking would occur. (The report notes it's even unclear how much gas is lurking in the shale.)

While the regulatory burden would largely fall to the state, the local governments would bear a huge financial and environmental burden to treat the wastewater, to repair roads from heavy equipment and to train local fire and medical personnel to respond to accidents.

For example, one of DENR's recommendations is to develop standards for management of oil and gas wastes. In other states, energy companies can inject fracking fluid and other drilling wastes into disposal wells. However these types of wells are ill-advised for North Carolina: The report states that in the Triassic Basin, which includes much of the Triangle and points southwest, the geology is too fragile for an injection well. Under pressure, chemicals and gas could leak into the porous underground rock and into the groundwater—which is a source of drinking water for about half of all North Carolinians.

That leaves local wastewater treatment plants to accept the tainted discharge, but the equipment to remove the chemicals, salts and radioactivity is extremely expensive.

(In the Northeast, some energy companies discharged their fracking water to local wastewater treatment plants that couldn't handle the load. Millions of gallons of improperly treated water wound up in rivers, creeks and basins that supply drinking water.)

In addition to possible spills and illegal discharges, fracking poses other risks to groundwater that are unique to North Carolina's geology. Early data shows that in parts of the Triassic Basin where drilling could occur, there is less separation between groundwater used for drinking water and gas-producing rock layers. That makes the water more vulnerable to contamination than in states with more distance between those layers.

How DENR would monitor, regulate and enforce water and air laws is unclear. Because other states' regulatory efforts have failed—or are weak—there is no template for such laws. Even the Environmental Protection Agency is lagging in its fracking rules. And many of the EPA's existing regulations exempt fracking from key permitting requirements, such as those under the Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

"We'll have to start regulatory and enforcement programs from scratch," Kees said. "And these need money."

"The report points out the huge number of state regulations that would need to be in place, even if we knew what regulations would work—and we don't," Taylor said.

Last June, the Legislature passed House Bill 242, which directed DENR to conduct the study and finish the report by this spring. At the time, environmental groups warned that a study was premature, pending a draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency due later this year. The final version is not expected until 2014.

New developments about the negative consequences of fracking continue to surface. Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture could require "extensive environmental review before issuing mortgages to people who have leased their land for oil and gas drilling."

The threat of contamination at drilling sites prompted the USDA to review the policy change.

Rural families and businesses primarily receive these loans, which nationwide totaled $18 billion last year. Some banks and federal agencies are already refusing to finance homes with gas leases because those loans could violate federal laws requiring environmental reviews before federal money is spent.

DENR's final report is due to the Legislature by May 1, about two weeks before the start of the regular session. That report will consider public comments offered at the hearings held this month. "We want the public to talk to us," Kees said.

Whether the Legislature will listen to the public is uncertain, especially if industry campaign contributions speak more loudly.

"To be frank, this industry represents a threat to good government," Taylor said. "In other states, the industry has given campaign money to politicians, who are then less responsive to citizens and more to industry that greases the skids."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Under pressure."

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