Fact Check: The Fracking Crew

A commercial by the Natural Resources Defense Council labels three state senators "The Fracking Crew." That so-called crew could be a lot larger based on the vote.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — A coalition of environmental groups has labeled state Sens. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, Wesley Meredith, R-Cumberland, and Ronald Rabin, R-Harnett, as "The Fracking Crew" in a commercial that has been running on WRAL and other area stations throughout this week.

The North Carolina Environmental Partnership, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center, declined to say how much it spent to air the campaign-style attack ad.

"It's a significant buy, but we're not saying how much we spent," said Mary Maclean Asbill, a lawyer for the SELC.

Federal Communication Commission reports show that the group spent $142,195 to air the ads in the Raleigh media market, which is home to all three of the senators in question. 

"This is just the first phase of this campaign. There are others that certainly can and will be held accountable," Asbill said when asked why the three lawmakers were singled out. "It's based on their votes. Hopefully, it will let other people in the Senate know they can be held accountable for their votes as well." 

This ad is scheduled to finish its run on local broadcast television this week. 

The Ad: The ad's audio opens with a male voice announcing, "The Fracking Crew: State Senators Chad Barefoot, Wesley Meredith and Ronald Rabin. They all voted to fast-track fracking." The commercial then goes on to list a fairly standard list of potential dangers from the hydraulic fracturing process to drill for natural gas, including that it can contribute to air and water pollution. It concludes, "The fracking crew voted to put our families at risk. Tell Barefoot, Meredith and Rabon, 'Stop reckless fracking in North Carolina.'" 
Questions: Did the three state senators in question vote to "fast track" fracking? Was that a vote "to put our families at risk?" Was it fair to single out these three? 
The Backup: Fracking is layman's term applied to a cluster of techniques that use horizontal drilling and controlled explosions to extract natural gas from deposits in shale rock. North Carolina's largest deposits are centered in and around Lee County. Over the past three years, Republican lawmakers have passed a series of measures that pave the way toward fracking in North Carolina, drawing objections from environmental groups who say the process if fraught with problems. 
"In the 2012 legislative session, lawmakers voted to open the state to fracking. The 2013 session brought attempts by the NC Senate to issue fracking permits before environmental and human health safeguards are in place, and to allow the injection of toxic fracking wastewater on our coast. Earlier this year, the legislature’s hand-picked Mining and Energy Commission voted for a rule that would allow oil and gas companies to keep secret the chemicals they pump into our ground."
That paragraph refers to a pair of bills. Senate Bill 76 was the main bill dealing with fracking during 2013. The final version of the bill was much more modest than the version that originally passed the state Senate. That version of the bill would have allowed the state to issue fracking permits before rules designed to govern the process were developed by the appointed Mining and Energy Commission. It is that original full Senate vote that provides the basis for this ad, not the measure as it passed the legislature. 

"The legislature is rushing the MEC to finish the rule set, and we fear the MEC will not be given time to propose and adopt adequate safeguards before the first permit is issued, even on the current schedule," said Luis Martinez, a lawyer for the NRDC. "Fast-tracking the issuance of permits without a regulatory structure in place to govern the industry would be dangerous – reckless – and would needlessly put our air, water and communities at risk."

The bill also would have "lifted the North Carolina ban on underground injection of wastewater, to allow toxic fracking wastewater to be injected deep underground, endangering our coastal aquifers," Martinez said. That provision drew extra attention due to the high-profile case of Hercules Inc., which in the late 1960s and 1970s injected toxic wastewater leftover from polyester manufacturing into the ground. Those chemicals ended up contaminating aquifers in eastern North Carolina.

House Bill 94 was a broader environmental bill, but one version allowed the Mining and Energy Commission to receive information about chemicals used in the fracking process without disclosing them to the public. That bill never received final legislative approval. 

The Votes: Focusing on the version of the bill that the NCEP cites as the most objectionable vote, it is true that Barefoot, Meredith and Rabin all voted for that measure. However, it takes more than three senators to pass a bill, and 35 other members of the state Senate – both Republicans and Democrats – voted to pass that bill. 

Also important: neither Barefoot, Meredith nor Rabin was a primary sponsor of the bill, and only Rabin was a co-sponsor. Primary sponsors are the lead advocates for piece of legislation, and co-sponsors are a way members show their support for a measure before the vote. Other senators took the lead in pushing this measure forward.

"We are only holding these three accountable in this initial phase of the campaign. They are located in a geographic area that could be impacted by fracking, and their voting record on that issue is out of line with the views of their constituents, many of whom are not in favor of fracking," Martinez said.

It's also worth noting that all three are in districts that Democrats believe they have a shot of winning during the 2014 election cycle, and the NRDC ads surely won't help the Republican incumbents. The nonpartisan but business-friendly N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation rates the Barefoot and Meredith races as "toss ups," while Rabin's district "leans Republican." 

The Pushback: In an email sent by way of the Senate president pro tem's communications office, Barefoot points to studies that have said fracking can be done safely.

"Several recent major university and government studies, including one from Gov. Perdue’s DENR, have found that shale gas exploration and development can be done safely. That was likely a factor in why this legislation passed with bipartisan support," Barefoot said in his email. "We are taking the necessary steps to ensure shale gas exploration, and development will be done safely long before we start."

He also pointed out that the bill that became law left the state's current moratorium in place. It's worth noting, though, that it was the House that pushed to leave the current moratorium language in place. 

In a fundraising letter to constituents, Rabin objects to the tone of the NCEP ad.

"They want you to believe we don’t care about you and your families or our water supply or our environment. What nonsense, we live here, too! Not one legislator that I know wants to harm the environment," Rabin wrote.

He went on to label the environmental groups as "over-the-top extremists." Like Barefoot, Rabin points to recent studies that argue fracking can be done safely. 

While fracking may be done safely, it's important to note there are studies that have identified groundwater contamination near fracking sites
From the Experts: As bills move through the General Assembly, they are frequently edited and contain different language. That said, both House Bill 94 and measures that dealt with deep-well injection of wastewater were enough to prod members for the Mining and Energy Commission to speak out and call for lawmakers to change course.
In a memo sent last June, the commission objected to proposed trade secrets rules in HB 94, saying they would interfere with practices designed to make sure the state could figure out what chemicals were involved should there be an accident or other problem at a fracking site. 

With regard to the "fast-tracking" provisions, James Womack, chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission, said those parts of the bill would have altered his panel's work but not have been as dire as the NCEP commercial makes out.

"It would have changed what we were doing, but it wouldn't have threatened the environment," Womack said. "It would have changed the sequence of rules that we passed."

Environmental groups say it would have created a strained legal situation in which a corporation could seek a permit but there were not rules governing how that permit might be used.

Womack said the biggest concern of all with legislation moving through the General Assembly was the deep-well injection language that was included in House Bill 76. 

"We really had objections to that," he said. "We don't have any place in the state of North Carolina where that can be done safely." 

Concerns over using deep injection to dispose wastewater prompted fellow commission member Vikram Rao to author a white paper and pen a letter to the editor. 

"The geology in the vicinity of potential shale gas operations in North Carolina is not suited for disposal wells. The closest suitable area is near the coast, and feasible sites may be difficult to find even in that locale. Were suitable geologic formations found, they would have to be deep, in part because shallow saline aquifers are being used as a source of potable water after desalination," Rao wrote. "Moreover, these prospective disposal sites would require over 150 miles in road travel from the gas wells. Such significant distance adds enormous transportation costs, increased potential for spills during the transport and disposal process and greater road damage attributable to long-haul traffic."

Womack said he was pleased with the eventual outcome of Senate Bill 76. 

Robert Jackson, Nicholas Professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke University, said the deep-well injection issue was a troubling one, and one that Hercules incident showed could be hugely problematic. 

"The track record for deep injection isn't that great," he said. 

The Call: If our Fact Check scale gave red lights for hyperbole, we'd be calling for a full stop. The idea that these three senators "voted to put our families at risk" is by no means a libelous conclusion, but it is one that speaks to motives we can't see and outcomes we can't predict.

"The statement, in the end, isn't science-based. It's an interpretation of what the science says," said Jackson. 

Also, 35 other members of the state Senate – Republicans and Democrats – cast the same vote as Barefoot, Meredith and Rabin but were not singled out by this commercial. So, while this commercial doesn't necessarily get the science or legislative background wrong, which is why we're not awarding a red light, it does offer an incomplete picture.

As is often the case with campaign ads that rely on complex scientific topics, viewers should proceed with caution. This ad gets a yellow light.

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