RALEIGH — Fracking foes booed, jeered, hissed, chanted, snickered, sang – and one even wept – at a Raleigh public hearing Wednesday to vent their frustration about proposed rules that would clear the way for shale gas exploration in North Carolina next year.
Around 500 people turned out in the middle of the day at the N.C. State University’s McKimmon Center for the first of four public hearings to hear comments about the proposed safety rules. Many warned of plummeting property values, radioactive waste, and dangerous chemicals leaching into aquifers and waterways.
The rules, drafted over the past two years by the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, would regulate well shaft construction, chemical disclosure, water testing, site reclamation and other facets of energy production. North Carolina’s shale gas is concentrated in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties, but the amount won’t be known until energy companies begin exploratory drilling.
The legislature is set to lift the state’s fracking moratorium next year for exploration to get underway so the state can cash in on the shale gas boom transforming the nation’s energy landscape. Opponents warn the long-term environmental price of fracking will exceed any short-term economic benefits.
Over four hours Wednesday, speakers overwhelmingly denounced fracking, and dozens who didn’t speak displayed dire warnings on body sashes, signs and T-shirts. Many spoke right through their allotted time until they were cut off with a peremptory “Ma’am, your time is up.”
The Raleigh political theater – costumes, chanting, placards – was a mere prelude to “the zoo” expected at Friday’s hearing in Sanford, Mining and Energy Commission member James Womack said afterward. Womack is a Lee County commissioner who lives in Sanford, a onetime coal-mining region southwest of Raleigh with known natural gas reserves and where fracking is most likely to begin in North Carolina.
Vikram Rao, chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission, said after the hearing that Wednesday’s display of anti-fracking animus may have come from a vocal minority. If not, lawmakers misread the public mood when they voted in 2012 and again this year to legalize fracking, he said.
“I don’t know if this crowd is a microcosm of the state,” Rao said.
A handful of speakers defended shale gas exploration as a sure bet economically. They were backed by a small contingent donning T-shirts emblazoned with “Shale Yes” motifs. Their comments were greeted with hisses, laughter and booing from the audience.
“There is a war on energy and it is shutting down many a coal-powered plant,” said E.A. Timm of Stokes County. “May the people realize that true, reliable energy drives the economy and future innovations.”
David McGowan, executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council, lauded the Mining and Energy Commission’s rules as based on science and sound advice from the energy industry. The N.C. Petroleum Council is the state branch of the American Petroleum Institute, the powerful national oil and gas lobbying organization.
“All of these recommendations have been developed by incorporating industry standards promulgated by the American Petroleum Institute, regulations from other producing states, best management practices and the significant technical and operational expertise of our members,” McGowan said.
More than 80 residents took the opportunity to speak for a maximum of 3 minutes before three hearing officers who are also members of the Mining and Energy Commission. Comments can also be submitted in writing through Sept. 30.