Published: Nov 09, 2011 02:00 AM
Modified: Nov 08, 2011 07:23 PM
Study must look at drilling dangers
Last month, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources hosted an external review of the state's oil and gas laws to aid its analysis of the controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.As DENR begins the review and carries out its legislatively mandated study, the old saying "look before you leap" should be its guiding principle. Other states where fracking has proliferated failed to take that look and many of their residents do not like where they have landed. Before leaping down that path, DENR's study should ask the fundamental question of whether fracking is compatible with North Carolina's longstanding policies protecting healthy air, clean water, and our agricultural heritage.Fracking is a gas extraction method that injects pressurized water, a mixture of chemicals, and sand into rock formations to create cracks that release gas and can require five million gallons of water for a single well. The chemicals injected into the ground during fracking may include toxic and dangerous chemicals. The mixture may change from well to well, does not have to be disclosed under either federal or state law, and is often closely guarded as a business secret. A recent Congressional report listed 750 chemicals and compounds used in fracking by 14 oil and gas service companies from 2005 to 2009. Of those chemicals, 29 chemicals -- including benzene and lead -- are either known or potentially cancer-causing, or pose other serious risks to human health.Not to worry, fracking advocates say, the industry has learned from its experiences in Texas, Wyoming, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and other states where the industry has flourished. But those experiences include small towns like Dish, Texas, and Pinedale, Wyoming, that are plagued by air pollution that came with the industry. They include previously unheard of earthquakes in Arkansas, a state where a recent study found that 52 percent of inspections uncovered permit violations at drilling sites. The experience that the natural gas industry wants to bring to North Carolina includes a blowout in Pennsylvania earlier this year that spilled 10,000 gallons of toxic drilling wastes in the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. Even when operations there are ostensibly working well, problems arise; recent research out of Duke University revealed that drinking water wells within 1 kilometer of natural gas wells had levels of methane 17 times greater than those farther from drilling sites. Perhaps unsurprisingly, New York mortgage lenders are reportedly growing more reluctant to grant mortgages for gas-leased properties.While industry representatives and some politicians choose to dismiss these issues as isolated incidents, the citizens of North Carolina have good reason to demand a thorough review of hydraulic fracturing that reserves judgment on whether fracking is compatible with our long-held values of protecting our rural communities and our environment. Potential gas formations in North Carolina's Triassic Basins are underneath or upstream from public drinking water supplies for 2.4 million people in the state, stretching from the densely populated areas of the Triangle through the Sandhills to the South Carolina state line. A smaller area of the shale occurs along the Dan River in Stokes, Rockingham, Yadkin and Davie counties. In addition, drought has gripped the state for several years, leaving many communities searching for water in nearby towns and counties and questioning whether a new user of substantial amounts of water is sustainable.Long ago, the General Assembly recognized that it is in the public's best interest "to maintain for citizens of the State a total environment of superior quality." If DENR is to meet that goal with this study, it must focus on whether fracking is appropriate for the state rather than how it can be done. We have the time to ask that question. Fracking is currently prohibited by state law, giving us time to critically and objectively evaluate the risks associated with natural gas development and its potential legacy of polluted streams, dry drinking water wells, diminished property values, and fractured communities. Taking a serious look at those risks is essential before we, as a state, decide whether to leap into fracking.
Geoff Gisler is a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill.