Kohn: We should heed low comfort level for fracking risks

Mar. 26, 2013 @ 07:27 PM

In his inaugural address, Gov. Pat McCrory noted North Carolina’s vibrant and diverse economy, “Agriculture, manufacturing, finance, the military, travel and tourism, and many more.” Ironically many sectors of our economy particularly agriculture and tourism could be jeopardized by the governor and General Assembly’s move to implement crash energy exploration programs of the type not seen here before.

Proponents of fracking argue that it would bring jobs and prosperity to North Carolina. However, the experience of states where it has already been implemented, as well as the caveats in statements by local environmental advisory groups, present a more complex and decidedly less romantic picture.

North Carolina, like the East Coast generally, does not have a history of drilling for gas and oil like other parts of the country. As a result, we do not have in place workers with the necessary skill sets or the equipment they require. So they would have to be imported from out of state. As Susan Christopherson, professor of City and Regional Planning at Cornell has noted, “Evidence from already developed shale plays indicates that shale gas drilling relies mostly on out-of-state workers.” The local jobs that do result tend to be temporary and low-wage. Her findings were echoed in a report released last year by North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources: “Since North Carolina does not presently have a developed fossil fuel extraction industry, there will be substantial ‘leakages’ as dollars are spent outside the North Carolina economy. For example, drilling requires specialized equipment that is not available from in-state companies.”

What aren’t so easily transferred out are the costs to the state of repairing roads not designed to carry convoys of heavy diesel trucks. Then there is the expense of cleaning up and undoing the damage done by accidents. Finally, there are the costs in terms of damage to public health by pollution.

Diesel trucks, drilling platforms, and pollution don’t add up to a picture of a place anyone would like to live or even visit. In our state according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce in 2011 tourism supported 40,000 businesses, 200,000 jobs and brought $1.5 billion in tax revenue. A study done by the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board in New York concluded that fracking could “significantly damage tourism in the southern part of that state.”

“Cumulatively, however, the regional industrialization associated with widespread drilling could do substantial damage to the region’s ‘brand,’ threatening the long-term growth of tourism here,” the study stated. “Increased truck traffic, automobile traffic, air pollution, and industrial accidents…negative visual impacts from multiple drilling rigs in rural view…and many other associated impacts of drilling will change the character of the region from rural and pristine to gritty and industrial.”

The air pollution cited above is serious enough to prompt the American Lung Association to join other respiratory health organizations and contact then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, expressing concern over “Air Pollution from Oil and Natural Gas Sectors.” “Emissions can occur during the extraction, production, processing, flaring, transportation and distribution of oil and natural gas. … Additionally, the large engines used in drilling and production processes burn fossil fuels and produce emissions. Although those impacts are not covered under these proposed rules, they can particularly add to the air pollution burden affecting local communities.”

However, fracking is more associated with water pollution. Agriculture, still an important segment of North Carolina’s economy, needs lots of clean fresh water. Fracking is extremely water-intensive, requiring 3 to 5 million gallons per well in an area plagued in recent years by drought. Then there is the problem of what to do with all the waste water. Some suggestions have been deep well injections and using it for irrigation. Contamination of the water supply, especially likely in a state where rock is so porous that there is little natural barrier between wells and the aquifer, would inevitably impact food safety - a hazard to public health and to the livelihood of farmers and all who make their living from food.

Recently, Nationwide Insurance, representing a group that is in the business of determining economic costs and benefits issued this statement: “From an underwriting standpoint, we do not have a comfort level with the unique risks associated with the fracking process to provide coverage at a reasonable price.”

The General Assembly seems determined to push through legislation that would allow for fracking before there are adequate safeguards in place. If they are successful many North Carolinians - from to dairy farmers to inn keepers, from parents of small children to seniors with respiratory problems those find that they too don’t have “a comfort level with the unique risks associated with fracking.”


Lynn Mitchell Kohn is a longtime Durham resident, activist and independent researcher.