Addressing concerns over hydraulic fracturing coming to North Carolina
By Jon Sanders
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The passage and governor's signing of the Energy
Modernization Act has North Carolina poised to join the shale gas and oil
revolution that has boosted
state economic growth, significantly increased good-paying
jobs, and led to improved
Among other things, the Act extends the rulemaking deadline for gas and oil
exploration to January 1, 2015 (formerly it was October 1, 2014); expedites the
rulemaking process for the management of oil and gas; authorizes issuance of
permits for oil and gas exploration, development, and production 60 days after
the rules become effective; creates an Oil and Gas Commission; blocks local
prohibitions on oil and gas exploration, development, and production; and reiterates
a prohibition against injecting related wastes into the subsurface or
groundwater via wells.
The biggest public and media concern regarding the act seems to be over water
quality, but numerous studies have found no link between hydraulic fracturing
("fracking") and groundwater contamination. In May 2011, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson, testifying
under oath before Congress, admitted she was "not aware of any proven
case where the fracking process itself has affected water, though there are
investigations ongoing." Last year, a comprehensive, year-long federal
study by the Department of Energy found no evidence of hydraulic fracturing
As reported last summer
A landmark federal study on
hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, shows no
evidence that chemicals from the natural gas drilling process moved up to
contaminate drinking water aquifers at a western Pennsylvania drilling
site, the Department of Energy told The Associated Press.
After a year of monitoring, the researchers found that the chemical-laced
fluids used to free gas trapped deep below the surface stayed thousands of feet
below the shallower areas that supply drinking water, geologist Richard Hammack
Although the results are preliminary -- the study is still ongoing -- they are
a boost to a natural gas industry that has fought complaints from environmental
groups and property owners who call fracking dangerous.
Drilling fluids tagged with unique markers were injected more than 8,000 feet
below the surface, but were not detected in a monitoring zone 3,000 feet
higher. That means the potentially dangerous substances stayed about a mile away from drinking water
Other concerns about hydraulic fracturing have likewise been
dismissed by research, as the Associated
Press reported last year. Those include cancer risks, air pollution, and
radioactivity in drinking water supplies.
Another concern is whether hydraulic fracturing contributes to a rise in
seismic activity. The research here is ongoing, but it seems that any
attributable to hydraulic fracturing are very
low-magnitude quakes (3.0 or below on the Richter scale, with 3.0 being the
Andrew Miall, a Univerity of Toronto geologist who has studied the link between
hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes, said quakes caused by fracking were
"rare" and explained
why the fear was "exaggerated":
The fracking process of course
itself is explosive and does trigger tiny earthquakes. And when I say tiny,
they are about strength one or two, and even
if you were standing right on top of the well as they were doing it, you wouldn't
For comparison's sake, the U.S. Geological Survey defines
quakes of the magnitude of 1.0 to 3.0 as "Not felt except
by a very few under especially favorable conditions."
Stanford University's School of Earth Sciences recently
highlighted Stanford geophysicist and Obama administration energy advisor
Mark Zoback's work on the environmental impacts of natural gas production.
Zoback recently showed that "roughly 150,000 wastewater injection wells
have been safely operating in the U.S. for many decades with no earthquakes
being triggered." Zoback also discussed the "extremely small microseismic
events" of hydraulic fracturing (emphasis added):
A typical hydraulic fracturing
operation involves pressurizing a relatively small volume of rock for a short
period of time, typically about two hours, which generates extremely small
microseismic events. "The energy released by one of these tiny
microseismic events is equivalent to the
energy of a gallon of milk hitting the floor after falling off a kitchen
counter," Zoback says. "Needless to say, these events pose no
danger to the public."
In several cases, however, larger, but still very small earthquakes have been
associated with hydraulic fracturing operations. Out
of the hundreds of
thousands of hydraulic fracturing operations carried out over the past few
years, there have been only a few
reports of triggered earthquakes that might have been large enough to be felt
by people living in the region and none were reported to have caused
The more immediate concern over the act should instead be process rather than outcome. The expedited rulemaking procedure precludes some actions
by the General Assembly and creates certain exemptions for new oil and gas
rules from the Administrative Procedure Act.
The biggest change along these lines was a provision requiring an affirmative
action by the General Assembly to allow issuance of permits for oil and gas
exploration and development. The effect of the change means legislators would
have to take action to block, rather than allow, permits to proceed after the
rules are in place.
The difficulty for legislators to use the ponderous process of legislation to
stop agency rules -- and agencies being able to exploit that -- is why a state REINS Act
would be such a crucial
reform for good government in North Carolina.
Another aspect of the bill has been little remarked upon but could hold promise
for North Carolinians, depending on, as with so many other things, its implementation.
It calls for a study to recommend to the legislature by year's end a "long-range
State energy policy to achieve maximum effective management and use of present
and future sources of energy."
The study would look at "environmental and economic impact of base load
power generation of electric public utilities" and compare "base load
power generation alongside all other forms of energy used for power generation,
including renewable and alternative sources of energy, and the environmental
and economic impact of all forms of power generation."
The inclusion of economic impact in the study could be crucial, again depending
upon how it is done. Too
often discussions of competing
sources of energy are made without
consideration of their impacts on costs to people at the flip of the
Furthermore, nondispatchable energy sources (i.e., "renewable"
sources such as solar and wind) are dependent upon the fickleness of the
resource at any given moment -- when the sun shines and the wind blows -- and
require dispatchable energy sources (i.e., gas, coal, and nuclear) always at
the ready. This fact of renewables raises their actual costs and their
emissions profiles, which a properly conducted study would account for.
The study would also examine the environmental as well as economic impacts of SB 3, which saddled
the state with its costly, counterproductive,
unconstitutional renewable energy portfolio standards (RPS) mandate. It
would furthermore look at potential grid and economic effects of allowing third-party
sales of electricity, but just for military bases.
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