The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission is plowing through a mountain of public comments on its proposed fracking standards with less than a month left to fine-tune the safety rules for shale gas drilling.
State officials estimate that more than 100,000 comments flooded in by the Sept. 30 deadline and the finally tally could approach 200,000, said Jamie Kritzer, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The submissions are so voluminous that DENR officials are not sure they have sufficient memory space on the agency’s hard drives to post the comments online for public view, Kritzer said.
Officials at DENR have assigned at least eight extra staffers, including four interns from Gov. Pat McCrory’s office, to sort through public remarks and enter them into a sortable database.
“We’ve got backup manpower, staff-on-loan,” said commission Chairman Vikram Rao.
“I’m talking about worker bees,” Rao said. “Most of them are taking the brute force of reading the comments and putting them in a spreadsheet.”
The torrent of public comments reflects the intense interest – and concern – about fracking in the final countdown before North Carolina is set to lift its moratorium on the gas-extraction method. The process involves horizontally drilling through prehistoric shale rock formations and fracturing, or fracking, the rock to release the natural gas trapped inside.
The Mining and Energy Commission plans to review about 120 proposed safety rules, which were written over the past two years, and forward them for approval to the N.C. Rules Review Commission. The rules panel will ship them to the state legislature in January, with legalization expected as early as next spring.
Three Mining and Energy Commission members, acting as hearing officers, presided over four public hearings on the proposed rules in August and September.
The hearing officers have the primary task of reviewing the oral and written comments and making a recommendation to the full Commission at an Oct. 30 meeting. The Commission will meet again on Nov. 6 and Nov. 7 to incorporate changes to the proposed rules.
“There is no question that we will recommend some adjustment to the rules,” said James Womack, one of the hearing officers who had previously served as chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission.
Likely issues for serious consideration are confusing language, setbacks, and outdoor pits for storing chemically-laced fluids, Rao said. Setbacks refer to the distances of homes, buildings, rivers and water wells from the drill site.
The proposed rules allow for the storage of fracking fluids in outdoor pits, but after the February spill of a Duke Energy coal ash lagoon in Eden, such pits are not popular. A possible option to be considered is disallowing open air pits and requiring the use of above-ground tanks, Rao said.
The comments arrived in multiple formats: oral testimony at hearings, emails, letters, post cards and petitions. The same person could have logged numerous comments, and a single letter may include more than one comment, Womack said.
Womack noted that the substantive, detailed comments are a fraction of the total. Many are general oppositions to fracking, not related to any specific proposed rule, and not very helpful to the Commission, he said.
“About half are repetitive ‘don’t frack’ comments,” Womack said. “They don’t really count, if you know what I mean.”
Womack said that some of the comments are exceptionally professional and thorough, the work of many hours of research.
“Those comments really made us think,” Womack said.