Carolyn Knapp, (right) listens as friend Carol French warns a group of listeners about the dangers of the gas industry's fracking program. Photo by Chuck Liddy
Two Pennsylvania farmers who leased land to shale gas drillers in their state painted a bleak picture of the gas industry this afternoon during the first of several presentations scheduled in the Triangle to discredit the gas industry.
Carolyn Knapp and Carol French warned that if North Carolina permits drillers to explore here, residents can expect conflicts with neighbors, lawsuits with gas companies, health complaints, a spike in crime and ruined property values.
The two farmers were hosted by two liberal advocacy groups -- N.C. Policy Watch and Clean Water for North Carolina -- at a time that North Carolina is emerging as the nation's next battleground over shale gas exploration.
"We're seeing farms losing 80 percent to 90 percent of their property value," Knapp said. "The amount of noise that comes from these operations is unbelievable. ... It's probably worse than living on an expressway."
Supporters of shale gas exploration see domestic gas reserves as an alternative to dirty coal and imported oil. North Carolina is believed to have a 1,400-square-mile deposit less than a mile underground concentrated west of Raleigh in Lee, Chatham and Moore counties.
The gas industry is making inroads here as well. It has intensified campaign contributions to North Carolina's elected officials, reaching an all-time high last year, according to a report issued today by Common Cause.
Meanwhile, supporters in the state legislature are are planning to take fellow lawmakers to Pennsylvania this month to visit with industry officials and to see gas drilling operations.
One of those slated to go is Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County. He attended the farmers' presentation and said he wants to hear all sides of the debate before deciding whether shale gas exploration should be legalized in this state.
"It was heartfelt and spoken by laymen who have real life experiences that would give a landowner pause," McGrady said. "It's a snapshot of one place, at one point in time."
The debate is over legalizing the primary methods of extracting natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale formations: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The state is preparing a study of the laws and regulations that would be needed if shale gas drilling were allowed here.
The practice in Pennsylvania and has resulted in hefty fines for spills, accidents and other violations. Industry officials and regulators say the mishaps represent a fraction of the 4,000-plus wells drilled.
The state of New York, on the other hand, has taken a more cautious approach. New York suspended drilling in 2008 to study the issue and this year came out with a 1,537-page report that recommends declaring nearly 20 percent of the Marcellus Shale off-limits to drilling.
In the coming months the U.S. Geological Survey is expected to issue a more definitive assessment of the extent of North Carolina's shale gas reserves, which could spur greater interest from out-of-state energy companies. To date, more than 70 leases, representing over 9,000 acres, have been signed in Lee County, public records show.
The shale gas industry donated $95,100 last year to North Carolina's representatives in Congress, nearly double the previous year's figure, according to Common Cause, a policy nonprofit.
Sen. Richard Burr received $71,800 of the donations from such companies as Chesapeake Energy, DTE Energy, Halliburton, Anadarko and Chevron. Burr achieved notoriety earlier this year when he introduced a bill to abolish the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency.
French and Knapp, the two farmers, said shale gas companies overstate the benefits of drilling and downplay the consequences. Neither farmer is collecting royalties from leases on their farms, because the companies haven't drilled yet or are not currently producing gas.