Editorial: Too many ifs to ignore

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack may ultimately be proved right when he says fracking poses virtually no danger to North Carolina’s water supply.
        But if the regulatory panel he hopes to lead is to have credibility with N.C. citizens, it must adopt a more measured approach than the one Womack appears to advocate in a story broadcast earlier this week by WRAL in Raleigh and picked up by other news outlets. Womack apparently has already reached bedrock certainty on this controversial issue, downplaying concerns about potential water contamination. That’s one of the primary environmental fears surrounding the process that injects a drilled well with chemicals, water and sand at high pressure to crack shale rock and release natural gas.
Womack’s perspective is important because later this week, he’s likely to be named chairman of the state’s Mining Energy Commission, the oversight panel created when the legislature approved a fracking bill (and overrode the governor’s veto). The commission has already drawn criticism that it is too heavily weighted toward energy interests, without enough balance on the protection side, which should include protecting landowner rights and community interests as well as natural resources.
Advocates of a full-speed-ahead approach on shale gas drilling can point to a state Department of Environment and Natural Resources report that states hydraulic fracturing can be done safely. However, that report wasn’t a wholesale endorsement. It said fracking can be safe if the state adopts regulatory standards specific to its geologic conditions, if it invests in compliance and enforcement and undertakes additional research to make sure water sources aren’t at risk. Nor did it address other concerns, such as the impact on neighborhoods, roads and other infrastructure – or the amount of any gas deposits that may be sitting beneath the surface, another big if.
A similar cautionary theme emerged from a recent fracking symposium at Duke University. You don’t have to dig too deep for the bottom line: If fracking is conducted here, it must be done right – and Womack’s panel has an obligation to make sure regulatory oversight isn’t lost in a headlong rush to drill.