State fracking chair hopeful: Enviro warnings 'emotional,' overblown

The state's new fracking oversight panel will meet Friday to choose a chairman. For now, the only candidate is Lee Co. Commissioner Jim Womack, who dismisses environmental concerns about the practice.

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Laura Leslie

The state’s new fracking oversight panel will meet Friday to choose a chairman. For now, only one candidate has nominated himself for the job.

Lee County commissioner Jim Womack  was appointed to the Mining and Energy Commission by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Womack couldn’t say why he’s currently the only candidate for chairman of the MEC, but he believes he’s uniquely qualified to lead the fracking oversight board due to his background in the military, the private sector, and local government.

“Since our county is at the heart of the fracking potential in NC, I feel like I bring some local interest, local perspective that’s needed,” Womack told WRAL Monday afternoon. “I have an unparalleled work ethic — most people who know me would tell you that — and a conscientious desire to serve the public.”

The MEC’s job, in official terms, is to decide whether and how fracking should move forward. Womack doesn’t seem to entertain much doubt on either count.

“I believe it’s in the best interest of the state of NC to open the door to horizontal drilling,” Womack told WRAL Monday afternoon.

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

Womack downplayed calls from environmental advocates to move slowly, dismissing their warnings that fracking could endanger the state’s aquifers.

“'Slow down' is not in my lexicon,” he said. “You’re more likely to have a meteorite fall from the sky and hit you on the head than you are to contaminate groundwater with fracking fluid percolating up from under the ground. It hasn’t happened.”

Moving quickly to set up a regulatory framework, he said, will be essential to bringing the industry into the state.

“The industry hasn’t shown any interest in coming here because we haven’t shown any interest the welcoming the shale gas industry to the state,” said Womack. “There’s a relationship that has to be built.”

Earlier this year, Womack delivered a presentation to the legislature’s Energy Policy Issues committee, recommending the model guidelines being promoted by the American Petroleum Institute, a group that lobbies in favor or oil and gas exploration.

“We have to put a regulatory framework in place so [energy companies] will understand that the regulations won’t be so onerous it’ll keep them away,” Womack said today.

That wasn’t what environmental advocates were hoping to hear from the state’s likely first fracking chairman.

“The MEC will have to take up very serious issues and it is disappointing that the only person running for its chairmanship can so easily dismiss those who have serious concerns about carcinogens contaminating North Carolinians’ drinking water,” said NC Sierra Club spokesman Dustin Chicurel-Bayard.

"Commissioner Womack's comment definitively stating that hydraulic fracturing can't and won't contaminated groundwater are difficult to reconcile with the EPA's recent discovery of fracking fluids in aquifers near Pavillion, Wyoming,” he said .

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has repeatedly denied any evidence of aquifer contamination from fracking chemicals. But a draft EPA study confirmed by an independent expert calls that into question, said Chicurel-Bayard.

“The sponsors of the fracking bill repeatedly stated that they wanted North Carolina to have the best regulatory program in the country. Unfortunately, Commissioner Womack seems to have interpreted that to mean the Commission’s goal should be to not let regulation get in the way of attracting natural gas companies to the state,” said Chicurel-Bayard. “We would hope to see more concern for public health, water resources and local control in a Chairman.”

There’s some chance Womack could face some competition for the commission’s top slot at Friday’s meeting.

DENR Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources director Tracy Davis is working with the new commission. Davis says Womack was the only candidate to nominate himself by the middle of last week. But the nomination process isn’t yet closed.

“Some of the other members may have been thinking about it, but haven’t decided yet,” Davis said. “We’re not really sure.”

Davis suggested that one of three candidates for vice-chair might decide to challenge Womack. Or someone else on the commission might put his or her name on the ballot.

“There could be additional nominations made during the meeting. They could nominate themselves or each other during the meeting Friday,” Davis said.

Womack didn't exactly welcome that news.

"I don’t necessarily encourage others to file now," he said. "But if that’s what someone else wants to do, they're certainly entitled."

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