What rhymes with frack? Jim Womack | North Carolina | Indy Week

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What rhymes with frack? Jim Womack

He leads the new Mining and Energy Commission

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The North Carolina panel charged with preparing natural gas drilling regulations is already facing controversy.

Last week, members of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission tapped Jim Womack, a Lee County commissioner and outspoken advocate of hydraulic fracturing, as chairman of the new board.

Womack has supported fracking in the Lee County city of Sanford, thought to be the most likely place to find natural gas—although in unknown quantities—in North Carolina. He leads a board already drawing complaints that it is loaded with drilling industry leaders but contains only a handful of environmentalists.

Fracking involves pumping pressurized chemicals underground to access natural gas that is trapped in shale rock.

Proponents such as Womack say fracking will be a major boon to North Carolina's lagging economy, although no firm job estimates are available. Critics, meanwhile, point to widespread reports of pollution and earthquakes linked to the drilling practice as reasons for concern.

A lengthy report from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources this year concluded fracking can be done safely if the proper environmental safeguards are in place, although it acknowledged many questions remain about its long-term impacts.

Commission members are tasked with prepping a regulatory framework for drilling in North Carolina, which could begin as soon as 2014. Womack has already selected Ivan "Tex" Gilmore—an executive with experience in the mining industry—as chairman of the commission's Mining Committee, and William "Mack" McNeely III, another mining industry rep, as that committee's vice chairman.

Womack could not be reached for an interview early this week.

Critics worry Womack's pro-fracking position could lead him to rush regulations in an effort to start drilling sooner rather than later.

"The truth is, no state has eliminated fracking's harms from regulation," said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina, an organization that lobbied against legalizing the drilling technique in the state.

"The best we can hope for from the Mining and Energy Commission is a set of rules that will mitigate those harms," Ouzts said. "But that will be impossible if the chair of the commission is in a rush to frack and dismisses the science on water contamination out of hand."

Kenneth Taylor, assistant state geologist and ex-officio member of the commission, has also reportedly complained that Womack's pro-fracking bent could speed drilling too soon.

The commission's creation was a controversy in itself. An override of Gov. Bev Perdue's veto on fracking legislation passed in July when an opposing Democrat in the N.C. House of Representatives inadvertently voted the wrong way. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican who backs fracking, ignored the Democrat's pleas to revise her vote, a common practice in the chamber.

The panel has yet to select a commission vice chairman after a deadlock vote between Raleigh attorney Charlotte Mitchell, who has experience in mining law, and George Howard, president of a Raleigh conservationist company.

The commission's next meeting is set for Nov. 2 in Raleigh.

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