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Fracking Commission Seeks To Cut Water Contamination Liability For Drilling Companies

Photo: A rig and gas well operation on the Marcellus Shale in Scott Township, Pennsylvania.
WCN247 via Flickr

The head of the commission appointed to write North Carolina’s rules for hydraulic fracturing for natural gas asked lawmakers Tuesday to halve the area for which drilling companies would be responsible in case of water contamination.

James Womack, chairman of the state’s Energy and Mining Commission, asked that drilling companies be held liable for contamination up to 2,500 feet from excavation sites. Under Senate Law 143, which was signed in 2012, mining companies are liable up to 5,000 ft.

Womack told members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Energy Policy  that cutting the distance for contamination liability would be more supportive of the energy industry but still be practical for protecting air and water. The commission cannot formally write a rule about companies’ water contamination liability area because it is part of an existing law.

“We leave that to the General Assembly to determine,” Womack said.

For environmental groups, the proposal is too lenient. Methane concentrations were higher in shallow water wells within approximately 3,000 feet of active shale‐gas wells in a Duke University study. Grady McCallie, policy director of the North Carolina Conservation Network, pointed out that would’ve defeated the proposed 2,500 feet restriction.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” McCallie said.

The commission has been a lightning rod for controversial issues since it was appointed in 2012 to write more than 100 rules that law makers will use as a template for the state’s shale gas drilling law. The 2012 law that created the commission requires lawmakers to adopt rules by Oct. 1. On Tuesday, the commission gave lawmakers its planned schedule:

  • May: Commission completes rule making
  • June and July: Commission holds three public hearings
  • Sept. 5: Commission adopts rules

According to the commission’s schedule, as many as five wells could be completed by the end of 2015, 15 by 2016, 55 by 2017 and 140 by 2018.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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