Weekly Briefing

Simply not worth the mess

Experience elsewhere indicates that fracking should be kept out of North Carolina

We all know that when humans are desperate, they frequently do a lot of dumb things that they later regret.

Just ask the millions of Americans who’ve been taken to the cleaners by predatory payday lenders. Most of these borrowers knew that they were headed down the wrong path and that a 400% loan would almost certainly make their situation worse.

Still, when a friendly person in a nice suit is massaging your ego and giving you the hard sell about a quick fix for the problems you confront, it can be tough to say “no” – to be disciplined and accept the hard truth that there is probably no near-term, magic solution.

To frack or not to frack?

In many ways, it is precisely the same kind of conundrum that confronts North Carolina on the issue of “fracking” – a controversial and frequently destructive process used by energy companies to extract natural gas from underground rock formations.

Most people paying any attention to the debates over America’s problems with energy and the environmental impacts of extracting and burning fossil fuels “get” the fact that there are no magic solutions to what ails us. As with low income borrowers who find themselves tempted to take out just one more high interest loan, they understand on some level that the real solution lies elsewhere.

Still, when friendly, clean-cut energy industry salesmen weave their tales of “clean” fuels and patriotism (as in the idea that developing domestic natural gas will bring our troops home from overseas), it can be hard to say “no.”

Those looking for confirmation of this reality need look no further than the rolling farmlands of rural Pennsylvania. There, one can find hundreds of farmers and landowners who have made deals to lease their land to energy companies so that it can be “fracked.”

As a pair of those farmers named Carol French and Carolyn Knapp told an audience of 75 at an NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation last week, however, such deals are frequently a mixed blessing (at best) for the landowner and the communities in which they reside. While some individuals and communities do reap economic benefits, the costs are often extremely high. Indeed, for many, the decision to say “yes” to fracking has been as disastrous as a predatory, 400% payday loan. Rather than providing a solution to the landowner’s needs, the agreement to allow fracking has been a gateway to a ruinous series of events with lasting, destructive impacts.

The sobering details

So what is fracking and what are the problems it gives rise to? Put in very simplistic terms, it boils down to this: There is a lot of natural gas underground that cannot be tapped via a simple vertical well. It’s trapped in rock deposits. So, in order to free it, energy companies drill both vertically and horizontally and then pump vast quantities of a water/chemical mixture underground to free it up and, in effect, flush it out.

Though often very effective in retrieving natural gas, the side effects of fracking can, not surprisingly, be quite significant. Here are some of the problems identified by Knapp, French and others:

  • Ground water pollution – Sometimes, the water and chemicals pumped underground leach into adjacent ground water used for human and/or animal consumption. In some places, natural gas itself has found its way into ground water. Negative health effects in some areas have been significant.
  • Fresh water depletion – In addition to polluting ground water sources, the fracking process itself requires huge amounts of water just to get started. This can add a real strain to public water systems – especially in drought-prone areas.
  • On the ground pollution – The water-chemical mix is usually kept in large, above-ground ponds until it is pumped underground. In Pennsylvania, flooding rains have been known to bring about pond overflows (much like hog lagoon spills here) that, in turn ruin adjacent lands. Lands have also been polluted when the debris from well-drilling process is simply spread out on adjacent fields.
  • Noise pollution – Knapp and French explained that the fracking process itself is often an amazingly noisy process that has been known to rattle china off of shelves in nearby buildings, distract farm animals and just generally degrade the quality of life in rural communities.
  • Infrastructure pollution – Large scale fracking operations in Pennsylvania have resulted in huge influxes of traffic – often comprised of 18-wheeler trucks running 24 hours-a-day – that have clogged and degraded rural roads to the breaking point. Fracking also requires a significant amount of tree clear-cutting for the location of the operations themselves and the construction of pipelines to carry the gas that’s “harvested.”
  • Economic troubles – While fracking has clearly brought in a lot of money to some lucky landowners, experience in Pennsylvania and other places indicates that most have only reaped very modest – if sometimes nonexistent – rewards. This is especially true if landowners do not have access to skilled legal representation when leases are negotiated. Add to this the destructive impact that fracking operations have often brought to rural communities in the form of soaring rents, higher demands for social services and the fact that most of the jobs go to temporary outsiders, and the appeal of fracking grows even weaker.
  • Greenhouse gases – Though promoted by many as a “cleaner” fossil fuel, new studies indicate that natural gas may not be much better for the environment than other CO2 producers.
  • Other risks include wastewater disposal problems, problems associated with the large amounts of sand used in fracking and even small earthquakes.

The situation in North Carolina

Currently, fracking is illegal in North Carolina and, as Grady McCallie of the North Carolina Conservation Network explained at last week’s event, probably not yet economically viable. Though the state appears to have not insignificant reserves – particularly in a relatively narrow corridor that runs north to south from Granville County through Durham, western Wake, Lee, Moore, Montgomery, Richmond and Anson Counties – North Carolina is almost certainly way down the list of most “frackable” regions in the U.S. Even if lawmakers were to remove the state’s current ban, energy companies seem unlikely to make any major push until gas prices rise substantially above current levels.

Unfortunately, despite the many serious issues with fracking and the questionable economics, many conservative lawmakers (including House Speaker Thom Tillis) appear bent on kowtowing to the “drill baby drill” wing of the far right by removing any legal barriers as quickly as possible. Add to this the fact that many energy companies have already signed a number of North Carolina landowners to lease agreements and there’s ample reason to be concerned that the ills of Pennsylvania and other places could be visited upon North Carolina in the not-too-distant future.

Let’s hope this is not the case. As with 400% payday loans, it’s possible to concoct a scenario in which fracking isn’t a disaster. But it’s very, very difficult.

Let’s hope therefore that lawmakers put the burden on the energy industry – as they’ve done in recent years with predatory lenders – to meet a high standard of proof before enacting any changes in the law in such a potentially damaging area.


Photo credit: Carol French and Carolyn Knapp

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