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Fracking: With drilling on horizon, opponents prepare for fight

As the General Assembly moves to allow natural gas exploration by next year, opposition groups are preparing to bring the fight over fracking to communities across the state.

Posted Updated
Fractured North Carolina
Andrew Barksdale
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — As the General Assembly moves to allow natural gas exploration by next year, opposition groups are preparing to bring the fight over fracking to communities across the state.

They will rely on door-to-door canvassing, petitions and television ads describing the risks of inviting the industry into North Carolina. With little hope of derailing drilling through the Republican-controlled state government, environmentalists will aim to shape public opinion with an eye on the November elections.

"Fracking will definitely be one of the main things we consider in our endorsements in the fall," said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina, a nonpartisan advocacy organization.

But drilling supporters will counter with their own campaigns, stressing how the industry - which they say will be regulated to protect land and water - promises jobs, wealth and a revival of rural economies.

The state Senate voted Thursday to approve an energy bill that authorizes regulators to begin issuing permits on July 1, 2015, for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The House soon will take up the bill, which weakens some environmental rules while strengthening others.

"We want to be playing in that game, and we want to make sure North Carolina has those opportunities," said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who heads the state Energy Policy Council.

The biggest criticism from environmental groups is that Republican leaders are rushing to join in that game. The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission is not expected to finish its overhaul of drilling rules until next month, and public hearings are not until later this summer - after the legislature likely has adjourned for the year.

The General Assembly would review and adopt the full slate of regulations in the session that starts in January.

Republican Rep. Mike Stone is from Lee County, where the gas industry wants to immediately begin drilling. He said the county will be prepared.

"Our roads are in better shape" than other communities with fracking, Stone said. "Our emergency personnel is good, and we have an excellent public water system."

Stone's Democratic opponent, Harnett County lawyer Brad Salmon, is more cautious. His chief concerns are damage to the landscape, water supplies and rural roads.

Critics point to all these concerns, saying fracking is fraught with risks - particularly potential ground-water pollution from spills, accidents and faulty or abandoned gas wells. Fracking involves drilling into shale and fracturing it with high-pressure water mixed with chemicals to free trapped gas. Problems have occurred in other states when wells leaked into ground water.

Environmental and watchdog groups want the state to restrict "forced pooling," which is when a landowner is required to allow drilling if a majority of neighbors have signed leases with gas companies. They want new rules on air emissions around drilling sites and better safeguards for contamination that could sicken people years after a gas well is abandoned.

The groups complain that the bill approved by the Senate on Thursday nearly halves the distance, to a half mile, that gas companies will have to test water wells before drilling.

The Senate added two provisions to the bill Thursday before its final vote, requiring that a geologist certify that fracking chemicals comply with state and federal laws and requiring drillers to post a $1 million bond to cover costs of any environmental damage they create. Current law sets the bond at about $15,000 to cover plugging and abandoning wells.

Other provisions were added this week. The bill allows regulators to deny permits to companies with chronic drilling violations, and it reiterates a state law prohibiting the disposal of fracking wastewater into underground caverns. Drillers will have to test water wells four times in the first two years after a gas well is operating.

Supporters say the state is prepared to move forward. The mining commission and several lawmakers have studied other states' drilling operations over the past two years.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's proposed budget puts $500,000 to speed up gas exploration in Lee County by drilling three exploratory wells, conducting seismic surveys and doing other geological surveying. State scientists are studying whether Cumberland and other counties in the region have gas-rich shale deposits, too.

McCrory said the state needs to better evaluate the extent of gas reservoirs before companies will invest millions of dollars developing wells.

"North Carolina has been sitting on the sidelines for far too long," he said early this month.

The gas industry is eager for North Carolina to allow drilling. It has aired TV ads nationally and in North Carolina promoting shale gas development. One of the sponsors is the American Petroleum Institute, which has a state office called the N.C. Petroleum Council.

The council's executive director, David McGowan, said he is pleased with the energy bill and the work of the mining commission. The bill has provisions to address environmental concerns while supporting the industry, he said.

McGowan said he does not believe the environmental groups will stop gas exploration.

"We have worked with them in the past, and we will work with them to make sure we have the strongest regulations for shale gas exploration going forward," he said.

Lee County

People in Lee County are used to the debate. Some have waited four years for drilling to begin, since they signed potentially lucrative leases with gas companies.

Others have refused to sign leases and fear the worst.

Chicken farmer Todd Blakley, 45, hopes lawmakers focus less on the tax revenue and more on the environment.

"I hope that common sense prevails and they step back and don't push it through really quickly," said Blakley.

His family has eight metal barns off Carbonton Road, which cuts through prime gas country in northern Lee County. Blakley has four water wells to nourish the chickens. If anything happened to his water, he said, the chickens would die and his livelihood would suffer.

"It's kind of scary," he said.

Four years ago, Blakley's family leased 501 acres to WhitMar Exploration Co. for natural gas development. The Colorado-based company paid the family $10,020 and promised 12.5 percent royalties on the gas pumped out of the land.

Blakley said he later had regrets after learning more about unconventional drilling.

"We didn't do our homework," Blakley said.

WhitMar announced this year it is leaving North Carolina and letting its Lee County leases expire. A company official said the state has taken too long to permit drilling. Other companies still hold leases.

Even without a lease, Blakley's land could be drilled through forced pooling. Some of his neighbors signed leases, and state regulators could decide to lump the Blakley property into a drilling area under current law.

The Senate's energy bill directs regulators to study forced pooling and report recommendations to lawmakers by Oct. 1, 2015.

Fracking fight

North Carolinians will hear a lot more about fracking between now and Nov. 4, when lawmakers are up for election.

"I think it will be way above the radar," said Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville. "I think a significant portion of our community is opposed to fracking."

Several watchdog groups are taking their message to voters who perhaps remain undecided. Environment North Carolina has begun sending 20 workers into metropolitan areas, including Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte. They will knock on about 37,000 doors and talk about the threats of fracking and coal ash pits. The workers also plan to canvass neighborhoods in Asheville and Wilmington.

The North Carolina Sierra Club, which says fracking should not be allowed until the state has adopted adequate protections for ground water and drinking water, will use its political action committee to endorse candidates whom it views as friendly to the environment.

"We expect that fracking will be an issue in the 2014 elections," said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, a spokesman for the state chapter. "We will certainly do our part to make citizens aware of votes taken by elected officials that do not do enough to protect communities - as well as the votes of champions who look out for the constituents' interests."

The Sierra Club gave about $15,000 to North Carolina campaigns in 2012, with 96 percent going to Democrats, according to followthemoney.org, a database maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

That same year, the oil and gas industry gave about $550,000 to North Carolina races, 90 percent of it to Republican candidates, according to followthemoney.org.

McCrory collected $173,905 in donations from the oil and gas industry in his 2012 gubernatorial run. He also got a campaign boost through his old boss, Duke Energy, where he worked 28 years.

Employees and former employees of Duke and Progress Energy, along with their spouses gave him $308,836 in campaign donations during his 2008 and 2012 gubernatorial campaigns, according to Democracy North Carolina, a voter reform group in Durham. Progress Energy is now part of Duke.

"I have a 20-year record of public service that is one of dedicated service," McCrory said. "I happen to have some private-sector experience in this area, which I think is a benefit and not a deterrent."

Both sides already are spending money ahead of this year's election.

A barrage of attack ads this spring has soured people's opinions on fracking in four Senate districts, according to Luis Martinez of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group is one of two primary sponsors of ads criticizing Republican senators, including Wesley Meredith of Fayetteville and Ron Rabin of Harnett County, for their support of fracking.

Republican strategist Carter Wrenn said the messages are thinly veiled political advertising.

"It pretty much has the same impact on the voter," he said. "It's really easy for this issue to go statewide."

In Meredith's Cumberland County district, the margin of people who approved of fracking before the ads fell from 52 percent to 36 percent, according to polling in January and April on behalf of the ad sponsors.

Meredith dismissed the ads.

"My biggest concern is getting people back to work," he said.

His Democratic challenger, Billy Richardson of Fayetteville, sees an opportunity to attract votes on the debate.

"Why are we in the world rushing into something that could be potentially this hazardous?" Richardson said.

Complex issue

To Jon Woolward, a beef cattleman who lives near Blakley's chicken farm in Lee County, the issue is a lot more complex than a 30-second ad.

He turned down lease offers four years ago because he had questions about fracking. Since then, he has heard the debate and considered the risks to his land and his farm.

Woolard is more open to the idea than he was in 2010, though he is not convinced. Drilling is inevitable, he believes, and it could bring more wealth.

"I am for exploration," Woolard said Thursday. "If it's economically feasible, then I would say, 'OK, let's try it. Drill a couple of wells and see what happens.'''

Staff writer Andrew Barksdale can be reached at barksdalea@fayobserver.com or 486-3565.

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