Anti-fracking foes punctuated the state’s fourth and final public hearing on hydraulic fracturing regulations with an exclamation point. About 550 people showed up Friday in Cullowhee to wave anti-fracking signs, tender anti-fracking speeches and cheer anti-fracking speakers.
This final hearing means the 15-member N.C. Mining and Energy Commission has hit the homestretch after two years of developing regulations for hydraulic fracturing. Members now review their work in light of the comments and send the General Assembly their recommended rules.
State officials said 102 people signed up for three minutes each at the mic in Western Carolina University’s Ramsey Center. Over four hours, a procession of speakers cajoled, berated and pleaded with members of the Commission. Some called for an outright fracking ban. Others sought a yearlong moratorium capped with a statewide up-or-down vote. The ones who homed in on the proposed regulations dismissed them as lax and absent environmental safeguards.
Enrolled tribal member Susan Leading Fox accused commission members of intentionally building loopholes into the proposed regulations. “It is by design,” she said, that property owners lack state protections and remedies if chemicals used by fracking companies contaminate their land. Fox is former deputy of the health and medical division for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Companies inject at high pressure a cocktail of chemicals and water into rock, shattering it. Natural gas is extracted through the cracks.
Commission members didn’t respond to comments. They appeared to take notes.
Some speakers demanded the state require companies to disclose the type chemicals used. When Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill into law lifting a 2012 moratorium on fracking, the bill included language that elevates public identification of the chemicals into a misdemeanor crime. The companies contend the chemical concoctions are trade secrets.
The hearing’s speakers seemed undeterred by the state’s recent decision to back away from Western North Carolina. Officials nixed plans to test in the mountains for natural gas deposits, at least in this budget cycle. The focus for now is downstate in the Triassic Basin shale deposits.
Fracking is bad for the state anywhere it takes place, said Julie Mayfield, co-director of WNC Alliance, a regional environmental group. She told Commission members the price for short-term gain for out-of-state business interests is too high, long-term, for North Carolina residents.
Few pro-fracking supporters made themselves visible. People favoring the drilling technology were booed and hissed at during previous fracking hearings. There were some, however. Three or four from America’s Energy Forum and N.C. Energy Forum, groups that receive financial support from American Petroleum Institute were on hand. And there was Winston-Salem resident Christian Bradshaw, who said he made the three-hour trip to support “energy-creating jobs” for North Carolina.
Another 18 or so men sported turquoise-colored “Shale Yes” T-shirts. Some of them expressed confusion about why they were in Cullowhee. A handful removed their shirts or turned them inside out after anti-fracking supporters quizzed them about their knowledge of fracking. One of the men told The Herald he stays in a Winston-Salem homeless shelter and came because he had been told it would help the environment. He said he felt misled. The man, an Army veteran receiving mental-health care, refused to provide his name or additional details, saying he didn’t want any trouble. To prove his story, he fished in his pocket and produced a Bethesda Center For The Homeless business card.
The men who would talk – none were willing to provide their names -- seemed nervous. They asked reporters to close their notebooks when other people approached. One warned another to be quiet. They denied receiving money to attend the hearing.
Fracking protesters cried foul.
“The energy industry keeps claiming that there is support for fracking in WNC. What they fail to mention is that they have to bus the clueless ‘supporters’ in,” said Betsy Ashby, who helped organize Jackson County Coalition Against Fracking.
During the hearing, the Dillsboro resident told Commission members she believes the proposed fines for fracking violations are too low. Companies that break the rules still would rake in profits, she said.
Although the hearings are over, the opportunity to be heard is not. The public can send written comments through Sept. 30 to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. DENR will enforce the new regulations for fracking.
Send comments to: Oil and Gas Program, DENR Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources, 1612 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1612.