Will the new North Carolina fracking law be a source of jobs and energy or just another environmental crisis?

Those who are concerned with the possible negative environmental effects of the fracking process staunchly oppose the passage of the Energy Modernization Act, yet many laud the bill as a way to provide energy and jobs for North Carolinians.

Photo by Rich Anderson(Flickr).

Governor Pat McCrory signed the the “Energy Modernization Act,” into law on June 4, 2014 after it was passed by the North Carolina General Assembly.  The new law purports to do away with North Carolina legislation that previously made it illegal to partake in hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.”  Fracking is a process that extracts shale oil and gas by using water pressure to “create fractures in rock that allow [for] the oil and natural gas it contains to escape and flow out” through a well.

“This legislation has the safeguards to protect the high quality of life we cherish.”

McCrory’s approval of the new law is yet another example of how North Carolina is trying to balance job creation against an industry’s possible negative impacts on the environment and the state’s citizens.  McCrory received a wealth of criticism in the aftermath of the Dan River coal ash spill when it was discovered that North Carolina state regulators were told that they should act as though the companies they were regulating were their “customers.”  This ideology was directly linked to the relaxation of regulations and the ensuing environmental disaster that officials are still trying to handle.

McCrory did address the balance that has many citizens worried though, saying that, “the expansion of our energy sector will not come at a cost to our precious environment. This legislation has the safeguards to protect the high quality of life we cherish.” Yet, for many, the words will only become meaningful if the governor and regulatory bodies keep their promise.

Fracking has actually been exempt from the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) because the process is not under the supervision of the Underground Injection Control (UCI) program.  All hydraulic fracking is exempt from these regulations as long as the process does not use diesel gas, a loophole which was recently included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.  The Clean Water Act, which has federal regulatory authority, has no power to enforce its standards on hydraulic fracking.  Therefore, state legislators are in charge of making sure that the fracking process is being completed in a proper manner.  With the criticism the state received during the coal ash spill, North Carolina politicians likely received a “wake up call” regarding the strict oversight that is needed when the environment and public are put at risk.

Another cause for concern relating to the state regulations is the fact there are not regulations in place that specifically outline the fracking procedures for North Carolina.

The Energy Modernization Act allows for fracking permits to be issued and for actual fracking to begin by as early as Spring 2015  Also incorporated into the Act is a clause that protects trade secrets of the chemical process directly involved in fracking.  The Act makes it illegal to disclose the proprietary secrets of fracking, charging the State Geologist with safeguarding the process.  Only first responders are allowed to access the specifics of the chemical process in an emergency situation.  For many North Carolinians, these provisions do not ease their doubts about the safety of fracking for the environment and the people living nearby.

Another cause for concern is the fact there are not regulations in place that specifically outline the fracking procedures for North Carolina.  In an unusual move, the North Carolina General Assembly made it possible through the Act to begin issuing permits for fracking even though the regulations for fracking have not been determined.  House Speaker Thom Tillis said, in response to this oddity, that “we need to get the industry interested in doing the research and necessary steps to really determine the extent to which this is a viable industry in North Carolina . . . what we’re trying to do is provide certainty to the industry.”

The idea of passing legislation that allows permits for fracking to be issued before the regulations for such fracking are agreed upon is seen by many people as putting the cart before the horse.  However, the Republican-controlled General Assembly and governorship believe that the Act is an excellent way to generate jobs and energy for North Carolina.  They further believe that all proper regulations will be in place by the time any fracking takes place.

It is estimated that North Carolina has a five year supply of natural gas available to be harvested in the Triassic Basins throughout the state.

Is fracking such a great idea for North Carolina anyway?  Is the whole debate even worth the effort of getting all of this legislation passed?  It turns out that North Carolina may have a “fair” amount of gas and oil lying underground in the Dan River Basin towards the north of the state and in the Deep River Basin that cuts across the state from Durham to the southern border of North Carolina in the sand hill region.  These basins are known collectively as the Triassic basins, bearing the name of the time period (the Triassic Period) that began roughly 250 million years ago.

It is estimated that the basins may provide up to 83 million barrels of natural gas liquid.  This may sound like a great deal at first, however it is conservatively estimated that this amount would only account for a five-year supply of natural gas for North Carolina.  It is worth noting that this figure is only accurate if the entirety of the basins known to have natural gas producing capabilities were extracted and if all of the natural gas that is extracted stayed inside the state of North Carolina.  It is unlikely that both of these scenarios would occur.

Can we really fault North Carolina lawmakers for exploring and utilizing the resources that we have available in our state?

With the possibility that fracking in these rural areas may only last for a handful of years, the question has been raised whether or not fracking will really boost North Carolina’s economy.  Some see fracking as an economic “band-aid” at most and a false hope for citizens in the rural areas that may believe they will have steady income for a longer time than may be realistically feasible.  Everyone knows that once fracking is no longer economically feasible, the corporations that are buying the permits to extract the natural gas will soon up and leave, leaving the North Carolina workers right where they started.

Yet, the new law cannot be looked at as all doom and gloom.  The Act certainly has the potential to produce energy for North Carolinians.  Can we really fault North Carolina lawmakers for exploring and utilizing the resources that we have available in our state?  It seems that the lawmakers are attempting to do what they can to “open up” North Carolina for business.

The fracking bill passed in North Carolina is yet another example of the struggle our state finds itself in.  If done correctly, fracking could lead to an increase of jobs for local citizens, while simultaneously drawing in “big business” that furthers the state’s goal to become an economic leader.  However, what frightens many is the possibility that fracking will not be regulated in a proper way.  Regulations are not presently in place under the new law.  North Carolina’s political leaders must realize that issuing permits to frack in North Carolina is only half of what is required by them.  To be successful, the North Carolina General Assembly must set the infrastructure that provides guidelines to protect the citizens and environment of North Carolina.  If both of these tasks are accomplished, then there will be a hope that fracking will be beneficial to our state.

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About Brady Ciepcielinski, Former Features Editor (16 Articles)
Brady Ciepcielinski served as the Features Editor of the Campbell Law Observer during the 2014-2014 school year. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Finance with a minor in History from Virginia Tech in 2012. Brady has previously worked for Chief Bankruptcy Judge Randy D. Doub; Cobin Law, PLLC; the North Carolina Office of the State Auditor; and Rogers Townsend & Thomas, PC of Charlotte. Brady graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
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