Too fast to frack

Jun. 01, 2014 @ 10:06 AM

Hydraulic fracturing – popularly (or unpopularly) referred to as “fracking” -- may be the answer to providing lower-cost, abundant, less-polluting fuels for heat and power.

Or it may pose unacceptable risks to public health from the secretive chemical brews.

Many residents would like to eliminate any prospect of fracking in our state, seeing the environmental dangers outweighing any possible economic benefits. Others – including the legislative majority these days – see little if any reason to inhibit the process, pointing to it success in other areas at bringing vast new quantities of oil and gas to market. Moreover, the environmental consequences of using natural gas as a fuel are far less than those from burning coal, whose use the surging production of gas is quickly displacing.

And many people believe that, as we’ve argued on this page before, fracking may well be a viable approach to oil and gas extraction, but the key to balancing the hopes of its passionate supporters with the reservations of its passionate detractors lies in carefully crafting regulations to oversee and monitor its use.

Last year, the legislature – which, remember, has a majority clearly eager to frack – bought into the more measured approach.  It agreed a moratorium on permits for drilling would remain until a state regulatory commission could study and draft safety and operating rules that could in turn be evaluated before any permits were issued.

Last week, in one of the first acts its short session, the legislature voted to speed up the process, giving less time for any legislative feedback on the draft regulations due by year’s end and signaling the state should begin issuing permits by midyear regardless of reaction to the rules.

In keeping with this legislature’s habits, the new legislation rocketed through, with no public notice it was coming up for consideration. Likewise in keeping with its “Raleigh knows best” posture, the legislation would bar local governments from enacting their own, stiffer regulations on oil and gas operations.

If Chatham County – which with neighboring Lee and Moore counties constitutes what is believed to be the state’s largest concentration of natural gas reserves – wants to impose greater protections on its water supply, for example, it is out of luck.

Gov. Pat McCrory, who was expected to quickly sign the new legislation after House and Senate passed it only hours apart, made clear his impatience with the path to fracking.

“We have sat on the sidelines as a state for far too long on gas exploration and having (North Carolina) create jobs and also help with our country’s energy independence,” McCrory said.

We are all for creating jobs, too, especially in those areas of the state that, those of us in the Triangle can easily forget, have seen thousands vanish. But environmental harm from too-loosely regulated new technologies can be a job-killer just as surely as overly aggressive regulation.

We wish the legislature had adhered to that old proverb, haste makes waste – in this case, potentially, in a very literal sense.