State fracking study does not support its conclusion

There’s a significant disconnect between state officials who claim fracking can be conducted safely in North Carolina and the evidence, or lack thereof, contained in their own recently released 350-page study of the issue.

I have just read the “N.C. Oil and Gas Study” conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Commerce.  Regarding their findings, I can only say, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there.”

In fact, the page dedicated to answering the troubling question of how to protect the rights of rural landowners is actually blank, except for one sentence. It states: “This section has not yet been provided by the Department of Justice.”

Never mind that the industry has already leased a significant amount of land in Lee county without any regulatory protections in place.   The blank page in the report says it all: It’s as if someone expects answers to fall out of the sky at some convenient point in the future, apparently after the state legislature decides to make fracking legal in North Carolina.

What’s more, on the environmental safety questions, the report shows that DENR, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, does not have sufficient information at this stage about the use of this new technology to make any claims about its safety.

Yet, despite these inconvenient information gaps, the report concludes: “DENR believes hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place.”

The problem is,  DENR did not provide the scientific evidence required to support this belief. As this report acknowledged, “[T]his analysis is constrained by the limited information available at this time.”

I thought DENR was a fact-based, not a “belief-based,” organization. EPA, with considerably more scientific resources at its disposal, will not even complete its study of just one issue regarding fracking – water quality – until 2014. Yet with $100,000 spent over a few months of internet “research,” DENR is willing to express its “belief” about areas the EPA has yet to address.

I recall House Speaker Thom Tillis responding to my question about fracking at a forum in Pittsboro, saying that he was open to hearing “the business case” for or against fracking.  Yet, the Department of Commerce, in its section of the state report, was not able to make a case one way or the other.

The report’s economics review section reads:  This analysis is not intended to indicate a position by the North Carolina Department of Commerce (Commerce) for or against…”

Maybe I’m missing something, but I thought the whole point of this study was to determine whether it was prudent for the state to authorize hydraulic fracturing, based on conclusions about likely economic, environmental and health impacts.

The problem, of course, as Commerce concluded, is: “Until the industry is more developed, and economic and multiplier relationships are better represented in the data, model outputs will not be robust.”  In other words, they do not have enough information to predict economic impacts.

At best, Commerce projected that fracking might result in an additional 858 jobs statewide after six years. That’s not much of an economic benefit considering the unknown potential economic costs. In addition to the concerns about groundwater pollution, the other unknowns not taken up in the study include impacts on competing industries (such as local farms, wineries and other tourist attractions) and state and local costs for impacts to other infrastructure (especially roads) and services (law enforcement, schools, etc.).

I appreciate the hard work DENR and Commerce employees put into this rushed and underfinanced study. But it’s an affront to all North Carolinians that the objective contents of the study were ignored or distorted to reach an unsupported conclusion.

The only real conclusion one can draw from this study is that we still don’t know enough about the true economic, environmental and health costs to authorize hydraulic fracturing for gas anywhere in North Carolina.

–Jeff Starkweather, prepared for DENR Public Hearing on Fracking Study, March 20, 2012 in Sanford.

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