The commission that’s writing North Carolina’s rules on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or fracking, is getting ready to present its recommendations to the General Assembly. The Mining and Energy Commission has been working since Sept. 2012, and today will debate the last eight rules it is preparing.
A few people like Sharon Garbutt have been following the Mining and Energy Commission. Garbutt has been volunteering to take children on field trips to the Haw River for 20 years. Most of the time, the kids love it.
"The dragon flies, the damsel flies. We show them [the students] how their larvae are hiding under rocks and in the sand and in the river," Garbutt says. "When we take them down there, a lot of them are like, 'I’m not going to get in that river.' And by the end, we have to drag them out of the river.”
Garbott volunteers with the Haw River Assembly. Two years ago, she heard energy companies wanted to extract natural gas from North Carolina through hydraulic fracturing.
Garbott was worried it would contaminate the air, the soil and the water here. So in September 2012, she and others decided they would go to every meeting of the state commission developing rules on fracking.
She saw how it took more than a year to decide when companies have to disclose the chemicals they pump into the ground. Now, she’s worried members of the commission are rushing through recommendations they want to vote on this spring -- rules ranging from requiring a company to have enough to money to run a well to determining where fracking wastes will go.
“We don’t know the health effects of living near a fracking site,” she says. “We don’t know if that water will eventually flow through the rocks into our water table. So I question the basis for making rules at all when you don’t have the scientific basis for those rules.”
Look to other states
But some regulators in states where there already is fracking say perfect rules can’t really be achieved.
"You know, I think sometimes states become paralyzed,” says Dave Neslin, an attorney who oversaw a process to update Colorado’s rules on fracking from 2007 to 2012. “There’s a belief that you have to adopt the perfect set of rules before you can do anything. As a consequence, nothing gets updated, nothing gets amended."
Environmental groups weren’t happy with Colorado’s rules. The Rocky Mountain Sierra Club says the rules didn’t prevent toxic and radioactive liquids from contaminating ground water there.
But Neslin says regulations helped protect the environment because companies had to start doing more water testing. He says it also helped the economy because in the three years after new rules were implemented, natural gas production went up 10 percent.
Back to NC
James Womack, chairman of North Carolina’s Mining and Energy Commission, says fracking will bring jobs to the state now and rules can be revised over time.
“We could take another 10 years and get another 1 or 2 percent improvement, but at some point ‘Good enough’ has to be the goal, we need to get into the energy business in this state,” he says.
Womack says the commission isn’t rushing. He says the state what it needs for modern regulations - this includes standards for the construction of wells. Womack says he expects drilling companies to be responsible partners.
"Typically industry is very cautious and careful because they know it’s much cheaper to do it right on the front end than have to remediate it on the back end because it is 10 times more expensive to clean up the mess than it is to do it right the first time," he says.
But conservationists aren’t so trusting of businesses. Last month, the North Carolina Conservation Network and the Southern Environmental Law Center asked the commission to spend more time looking at things as basic as how rules will be enforced.
Garbutt says the commission has a lot of work to do.
"I think they’ll put in the extra time and stay late,” she says. “But you hope that they take the time they need and don’t end up trying to rush them."
The commission has its last scheduled meeting to go over rules today. Three hearings for public input are set for August.