First moves by NC gas drilling panel alarm environmentalists

Posted September 28, 2012

— The oversight panel appointed to ensure North Carolina's natural gas drilling industry doesn't pollute the state's air and water is already divided.

The state Mining and Energy Commission held its first substantive meeting Friday, electing Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack as the group's chairman and setting up a work plan for the coming months.

Womack was elected in an 11-3 vote over Raleigh attorney Charlotte Mitchell.

The election was somewhat bizarre since it was a voice vote only on whether commission members wanted Womack to be the leader. Mitchell would have been considered only if he hadn't gotten majority support.

The commission then had to defer the selection of its vice chairman until its November meeting after they deadlocked on nominees Mitchell and George Howard, president of Restoration Systems, which restores wetlands and sells "mitigation credits" to companies doing construction elsewhere.

Womack told his colleagues that he's uniquely qualified to lead the commission because of his background in the military, private sector and local government.  The retired Army veteran works in the health care information technology industry.

"I have the experience at all levels of federal state and local government that I think are going to be necessary to understand the enormous regulatory bureaucracy that we're dealing with in making this industry have an opportunity to come to North Carolina," he said.

State lawmakers in July voted to override Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto on a bill that would open the state up to shale gas exploration as early as the end of 2014. The commission must draw up regulations for legislative approval before any drilling permits can be issued.

Womack maintains that North Carolina needs to open its doors to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the controversial drilling process used to extract natural gas from deep underground. The fracking process injects a drilled well with chemicals, water and sand at high pressure to crack shale rock and release natural gas.

State Geologist Kenneth Taylor 'Fracking' commission fractured early on

Fracking panel chairman Jim Womack 'Fracking' panel meets to pick leader

“I don’t think there’s any question that the shale gas industry is good for North Carolina,” Womack told WRAL News this week. “Anybody who argues against that is arguing from an emotional, not a logical or factual standpoint.”

State Geologist Kenneth Taylor doesn't agree with Womack and was among the three commission members who voted against him as chairman. He said he fears Womack is in too big a hurry to get fracking underway.

"There have been reports of contamination of aquifers," Taylor said. "I would rather get it slowly done and done right than done very quickly and be wrong. Other states have had to revise their laws two and three times in the last five years."

Environmental advocates have questioned the board's motives in recent weeks, saying it has a bias toward drilling.

“We’re concerned that this commission perhaps may have gone from bad to worse," said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club.

Diggins called Womack a booster for the shale gas industry and said she hopes he will respect different opinions and provide due diligence in drafting regulations for oil and gas exploration.

"We're simply more concerned to have a chairman who is predisposed and has been very outspoken about the need to move quickly and to adapt regulations that will be friendly to the industry," she said.

"We certainly hope that the commission and the chairman will rise to the challenge. We want to give the chairman every opportunity.”

Elizabeth Ouzts, director of Environment North Carolina, said the commission must consider, as it draws up regulations, an extensive study that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued on the risks fracking poses to North Carolina's water supply.

"Having such a clear proponent of gas drilling at the chair of the commission doesn't give me much hope that the body will produce a thoughtful set of regulations," Ouzts said.

Womack said he will be a fair and balanced leader. He said the process will be transparent and open to the public.

"We've got an aggressive schedule and a very complex work plan to work through, but I'm very confident that we can do it, and I'm going to pour every ounce of energy I've got into it."


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  • lighter22 Oct 1, 2012

    FRACK IT NOW! You can frack right beside my front doorstep.
    EPA? Do any of you people have any clue at all about how obstructionist the EPA is or how the EPA has exceeded their powers?
    I wouldn't trust the EPA to sample my well water for fear of what they would dump in my well to contaminate it first.
    If we are blessed with oil and gas, extract it. Sell it. Let's pay some debt and pay attention to who we elect next time.

  • westernwake1 Sep 28, 2012

    "Scubagirl do you have any idea how long fracking has been in use" - yankee1

    Modern fracking using toxic chemicals to drill for gas has been used for less than a decade. It was only invested recently.

    Fracking using sand & oil mixture to drill for oil has been in use since the 1930s. This is very different than modern fracking.

  • westernwake1 Sep 28, 2012

    "First moves by NC gas drilling panel alarm environmentalists"

    These first moves should alarm every citizen of our state!

  • Banned4Life Sep 28, 2012

    Awwwwwww, and who didn't see THIS coming? This commission or committee or whatever you wish to call it is simply there to make everything look legitimate and to give the gas industry a complete and total out in the event they really mess up. Hope gas prices stay this low so the incentive to drill is gone.

  • nowon_yuno Sep 28, 2012

    Also, studies linking contaminated water to fracking can be found at the EPA website. I think one in particular was done in Dec. 2011 .

    I blame one of Obama's many czars

  • josephlawrence43 Sep 28, 2012

    Why is it not safe???? Its been in Penn. and other states without major problems?? Oh--the t.v. commercial showing the water from the faucet catching fire??? That was happening in Penn. well before they began the fracking process. What we have here is a bunch of environmentalists who want transportation without using fossil fuels; heat and cooling without either fossil fuels or nuclear power; and they don't give a whoot how many jobs, how much tax revenue is lost. They stopped the Tellico dam project in the Appalachians because of a little fish called the snail darter. Said it could not live anywhere but in a very special area. 20 years later, found that the little fishie was doing well in areas previously held that they couldn not exist.

  • yankee1 Sep 28, 2012

    Scubagirl do you have any idea how long fracking has been in use?

  • peterpepper Sep 28, 2012

    jeb747, that movie is sponsored by Energy In Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum
    Association of America .

    We can all thank Bush and Cheney for the Halliburton loophole,
    loosely regulated gas drilling companies have way too little responsibility and requirements .

    Also, studies linking contaminated water to fracking can be found at the EPA website. I think one in particular was done in Dec. 2011 .

  • Scubagirl Sep 28, 2012

    WHY do they even attempt to think it will be safe in NC when it has NOT been safe elsewhere?????

  • yankee1 Sep 28, 2012

    EPA scientists?? Now there is a group of political hacks you can trust to tell you the truth!