First moves by NC gas drilling panel alarm environmentalists

Posted September 28, 2012 8:12 a.m. EDT
Updated September 28, 2012 6:59 p.m. EDT

— 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.

“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."