Tap water that bursts into flame and other fun with fracking

by Jordan Green

We all know that government doesn’t create jobs. We also know that job creation is every candidate’s highest priority. Particularly when jobs are scarce and homes at risk for foreclosure, the party in power — ever looking towards the next election — starts to get desperate.

When Democrats are in power, they typically throw tax breaks and other incentives at companies to entice them to bring in jobs or even to not lay people off — no matter how dubious the rationale. With Republicans, the mantra is cut taxes and reduce regulations.

That may be why the new Republican majority in Raleigh suddenly sees natural gas-bearing shale beds thousands of feet beneath the surface of the gently rolling hills of the central Piedmont as an answer to multiple problems. When hard-working citizens are strapped by high gas costs and the nation’s energy supply remains dependent on unstable regimes in the Middle East, why wouldn’t we want to extract an energy resource in our own back yards, generate revenues from drilling leases and spur economic activity by putting money in the pockets of working people who will spend it in our state? It’s ours, we own it, let’s drill it and make money off of it, or so the thinking goes.

The shale beds infused with natural gas are located in two areas in our state — the larger Deep River Basin that passes through eastern Chatham County and down into the Sanford area, and the smaller Dan River Basin through Rockingham and Stokes counties with a small appendage down in Davie County. It’s this second basin that has caused a ripple of unease among citizens in the Triad.

If you haven’t heard about the process for extracting shale bed gas, you will soon. It involves drilling thousands of feet below the water table, blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand horizontally into the shale and releasing the natural gas by creating a chain reaction of fractures. Hence the name hydraulic fracturing or, simply, fracking.

This method of extraction is currently illegal in North Carolina, but that could soon change.

The Energy Jobs Act, which has been ratified by the NC General Assembly and awaits Gov. Bev Perdue’s signature, calls on the NC Department of Energy and Natural Resources to review a current statute prohibiting horizontal drilling, and “provide recommendations on amendments and additions to address issues related to shale gas exploration, development and production….”

If there’s any doubt about the current direction of the state’s legislative leadership on this issue, the bill spells out the lawmakers’ intentions: “It is in the state’s best interests to support the exploration, development and production of domestic energy supplies, preferably from the resources within the state or region and certainly from within the country.”

As NC Rep. John Blust (R-Guilford) said in a blog post by WRAL reporter Laura Leslie: “It’s time to get cracking on fracking.”

Perhaps both the honorables in Raleigh and ordinary citizens throughout the state who are tempted to lease out their mineral rights for an immediate infusion of revenue should take a deep breath and consider the consequences before rushing headlong into an ill-considered venture.

About 50 people gathered in a classroom at Elon Law School in downtown Greensboro last week to watch Gasland, a documentary that won the special jury prize at Sundance in 2010. Made by documentary filmmaker Josh Fox, the film is disturbing, to say the least. It has also prompted a concerted public relations campaign by the natural gas industry to counter its message through websites and dueling YouTube videos.

The documentary chronicles Fox’s travels across the country meeting with people who either leased their lands for fracking or live near wells.

The footage of tap water bursting into flame is perhaps the most sensa tional part of the film. More disturbing are the people who complain about headaches and pains all over their bodies, the woman whose cats are losing their hair and the ailing livestock. Not to mention the creek that bubbles like Coke from a bottle and the woman with a freezer full of dead animals who is trying to figure out which regulatory agency to send them for a toxicology investigation.

Before they sign contracts, landowners should make sure they’re not going to be on the hook to pay for damages to their neighbors’ property or responsible for paying for future development costs and consider whether they’re endangering their health.

Before North Carolina gives the green light to this industry, the Department of Natural Resources and our state’s journalism institutions should study the health and environmental effects of fracking. Lawmakers should consider whether the jobs will go to local North Carolinians or roustabouts who follow the wells from state to state. They should consider whether the public cost of road maintenance outweighs the potential tax revenues from new wells.

“Especially in this economic climate, we’re salivating over this right now,” said Colleen Kendrick, a sustainable agriculture advocate in Chatham County. “We don’t have jobs. Our budgets locally are cut to shreds so how are we going to build capacity for this industry to come here? What happens with other ancillary businesses that natural gas and oil kind of crowds this out so that people get so hungry for this expectation of wealth that it works against other economic diversification?” Then again, maybe fracking will create the kind of multiplier effect that economic development leaders are always talking about.

“There may be one or two ancillary industries that crop up,” Kendrick said. “The ‘man camps’ – that’s what they’re called when the drilling guys come. Those ancillary operations may be prostitution, who knows?”