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NC Fracking Study Nears Completion
February 16, 2012

It is arguably an ill-conceived and poorly timed study on the feasibility of shale gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has the unenviable task of heading the study given too little time and too few funds. The final report is required by May of this year. While input at public hearings has been predominantly unfavorable toward legalization of fracking, no observer following the progress of this process will be surprised if the final report is anything but favorable.

No one in the pro fracking camp wants to appear to have their minds already made up in favor of scrapping current state laws prohibiting horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. But while the perception of prudence (i.e., “We’ll drill, but only if it’s safe”) is the goal of “legislative speak,” there is little evidence to convict the fracking proponents on Jones Street of forethought, caution or objectivity. Indeed, the blatant disregard for decorum by the ruling party, especially in the (mis)conduct of multiple special sessions, reveals an “ends justifies the means” and “winner take all” bravado unmatched by previous legislative bodies. The Speaker of the House has been anything but shy or discreet in proclaiming that he will strike wherever and whenever he has the means to overturn the Governor’s veto of S709 (a.k.a. Drill, Baby, Drill bill). While hyping shale gas as a “bridge fuel toward energy independence,” the majority party continues to dismantle bridges of cooperation that reach across the aisle and build the public trust.

The truth is this fossil fuel energy source touted as being cheap, clean, abundant and made in America for Americans is coming up short on all counts. It turns out that because of the huge amount of gas wells fracked over the past few years, there is a large reserve that has driven down the price of natural gas to all time lows. If you think that’s good news, it’s not. It means drilling companies are now curtailing production in order to raise prices. The only way to be profitable is to ultimately create a global market that inflates the gas balloon. Once American dependence on gas is established, it’s no longer cheap. Here’s more bad news. In the mean time the profitable markets are all foreign. That’s right; Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) burned by the Chinese will ironically be “Made in America.” So much for cheap home grown gas to fuel America’s energy independence. The new “Saudi Arabia of Gas” will be selling it to the highest bidder.

As for clean, research studies are showing what a skeptical public has always realized. You can’t believe what you see on gas industry TV commercials. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the large volume of methane that escapes into the air and ground water throughout the extraction, storage and transport process puts it atop the potent polluters list. Could better technology, best management practices and more stringent regulation, monitoring and enforcement lessen the pollution? Most certainly, but it would take a big bite out of industry profits, and for some smaller players signal “game over”. An already under regulated industry (think Halliburton Loophole) continues to balk at increased regulation.

What about abundance? Does a national 100 year supply (40 in NC) of gas sound too good to be true? We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that estimates of supply have been overly optimistic and skewed as well. Take a moment to read at least the Conclusion to this eye opening article in The Oil Drum.

As the study remains on the fast track with the final set of public meetings and input scheduled for March, and as fracking proponents gamble on NC’s energy, economic and environmental future with a pro drilling stacked deck there is good reason to call for caution. All citizens who are concerned about this issue should attend an upcoming meeting and speak up, or send written comments to DENR. Now is also a good time to drop an email or make a phone call to the Speaker of the House encouraging him and his colleagues to slow down. We still have much to learn about how to do it right… or not do it at all. And the gas isn’t going anywhere soon. It can wait, and so can we.

Gary Simpson