Fracturing the truth

Fracturing the truth

- in Fitzsimon File

Listen to some of the candidates on the campaign trail these days and you would think that North Carolina’s economic problems can be completely solved right away if state officials would simply hurry up and let energy companies start drilling for natural gas in underground rock formations.

The highly controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was approved by the General Assembly this summer when lawmakers managed to override Governor Beverly Perdue’s veto of legislation legalizing the practice in one of the most bizarre episodes in the Legislative Building in years.

One Democratic legislator who signed a letter urging Perdue to veto the fracking bill ended up voting to override the veto after legislative leaders hurriedly added a tax credit for the film industry that the lawmaker supported.

And even that wasn’t enough. The bill only become law after another lawmaker mistakenly pushed the wrong button and inadvertently voted to override the veto. House Majority Leader Paul Stam immediately invoked a parliamentary maneuver to make sure the lawmaker could not change her vote, and the dangerous practice of fracking became legal in North Carolina.

The legislation established the Mining Energy Commission, which was promptly stacked with industry officials and fracking supporters.

WRAL-TV reported this week that the lone commission member running for chairman has already decided that the state needs to go ahead with fracking, despite the commission’s charge to determine if the state should proceed with the practice.

That doesn’t inspire much confidence that the commission will consider the legitimate concerns about the impact of fracking on the drinking water supply, not to mention the quality of life in the communities where fracking is conducted.

A draft EPA report found contamination in ground water from fracking in Wyoming and farmers in Pennsylvania tell horror stories about what happened to their farms and their small towns after fracking began.

None of that seems to deter the commission members or legislative champions of fracking and neither do the startling facts about how fracking actually works. The industry has identified as many 300 chemical compounds used in fracturing fluid and each well uses 3 million gallons of water.

Thanks to congressional action several years ago taken at the request of oil and gas companies, the federal government does not regulate fracking under the Safe Water Drinking Act, leaving most of the responsibility with the states to make sure it’s done safely.

But the General Assembly dismantled the state environmental agency in 2011 with massive budget cuts and the transfer of much its authority to the more business friendly Department of Agriculture.

The deck is clearly stacked.

And maybe most relevant for this year’s political debate are two facts rarely mentioned about fracking. Geologists believe there is far less natural gas in North Carolina’s shale deposits than in several other areas of the country and the price of natural gas is currently very low, reducing the profitability and the need for drilling in the state.

And finally, there’s the report from the Department of Commerce that found that even at its peak in North Carolina, fracking would create only 372 jobs a year. That is less than a tenth of the education jobs eliminated by the General Assembly in 2011.

Fracking is many things, including a risk to our drinking water and a threat to our local communities. But it is not any part of a solution to our economic problems, despite what the political candidates closely tied to the oil and gas industry keep telling us.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.