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Editorial: The fracking gap

News » Editorials

29th March, 2012


“With our country in the midst of a historic energy crisis and our unemployment rates at record highs, we can’t afford to delay energy development any longer with more studies and panel discussions,” Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said in a press release Wednesday.

Rucho, House Energy Chairman Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, and Gov. Bev Perdue agreed last week to proceed with natural gas development “in an environmentally friendly manner,” the release added. Yet, the rejection of further study is stunning, given the recent report by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It included a major disclaimer: “The analysis is constrained by the limited information available at this time.”

The department previously acknowledged there may be a “commercially viable reserve of natural gas” underlying large areas of central North Carolina.

The news raised hopes of an energy boom for the state, creating thousands of jobs, boosting tax revenues and making landowners rich.

It also stirred fears of environmental catastrophe in the form of groundwater contamination, land degradation, maybe even earthquakes caused by a controversial extraction method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Last year, the legislature directed DENR and other agencies to find out more, setting a tight deadline that apparently didn’t allow time to answer all the questions.

Not surprisingly, DENR waffled in its conclusion, saying it “believes that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place.” Sure it can, if they are.

The statement is ambiguous but lets proponents refute those who say fracking isn’t safe, period, while opponents can ask how the state will ensure the “right protections are in place.”

The dangers still aren’t well understood. “To our knowledge, no comprehensive studies are currently available on the long-term impacts to health ... and DENR is not qualified to conduct such a study,” the report says.

The extraction process involves drilling into underground shale formations and forcing out gas by pumping fluids into the rock at high pressure. The fluid is mostly water but also includes chemical additives that have fouled wells in some states.

The N.C. Department of Commerce estimated a relatively modest economic benefit. The industry might add $453 million to the state’s economy and account for a few hundred jobs per year, not thousands, it said. But the study did not cover the complete extent of possible shale fields.

Rucho’s view of a “historic energy crisis” doesn’t apply to natural gas. U.S. supplies are abundant and prices are low. In these circumstances, a rush to market doesn’t make sense — especially without an accurate assessment of North Carolina’s potential costs and benefits.

For all the DENR report’s deficiencies, it offered sensible recommendations, including: Collect baseline data on groundwater, surface water and air so changes can be measured if fracking begins; set meaningful regulations and a coordinated permitting process; require detailed plans and disclosure of all chemicals used; and continue to study environmental and economic impacts.

We still know far less than we need to know. And, with so much at stake, haste is irresponsible.

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Updated 8 Years ago

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