North Carolina is the latest state to green-light hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within its borders.
In mid-March, the state's fracking moratorium was lifted and 72 pages of new oil-and-gas regulations went into effect. The rules cover, among other things, public disclosures about certain chemicals used in fracking; how far wells must be from homes, business and waterways; and ways to dispose of drilling waste.
But one major aspect of drilling operations was entirely left out: air emissions. That's despite increasing concern that the myriad oil-and-gas sources of toxic emissions—from the well pad to refineries to waste sites—pose significant public health risks.
North Carolina's Mining and Energy Commission drafted the rules for fracking. It's up to a different group—the Environmental Management Commission—to produce the air regulations. But so far, that 15-member group hasn't produced any such rules and now it's quite possible that it never will.
That's because a recently passed Republican measure includes language that authorizes the Environmental Management Commission to decide whether new air rules for drilling operations are even needed.
This bill gives regulators permission to "punt" on new air rules, according to Mary Maclean, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed the bill into law on March 16, the day before the state's drilling ban was lifted. A press release from the governor's office characterized the legislation as "strengthening environmental protections" because it establishes a new mining-related commission and adds rules for industry waste storage and disposal.
But Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from central North Carolina, says the bill does exactly the opposite. "A lot of us [in the legislature] are concerned that we are dropping the requirement for the air quality rules. That's a big weakness in our rule package," Harrison said. She and 39 other representatives voted against the bill, which passed easily, with 76 votes.
The Environmental Management Commission has not yet said what it plans to do.
Harrison said the bill "sent a signal to the agency to not draft the rules." Moreover, Harrison added that she is "confounded" by the state push for fracking in North Carolina when it has "very limited" reserves, and those reserves are shallow and close to sources of drinking water. Oil-and-gas production also exacerbates climate change by releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the air.
According to the United States Geological Survey, North Carolina's Deep River Basin could have up to 1.6 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough gas to supply the state's needs for about five years. For comparison, Texas' Barnett Shale, one of the top-producing basins the nation, has more than 40 trillion cubic feet of gas.
The Deep River Basin comprises a 150-mile strip extending in a northeastern diagonal across the middle of the state, mostly spanning Lee, Moore and Chatham counties.
Several residents of those regions, and others across the state, have spoken out against drilling. Last fall, North Carolina officials held four open sessions across the state for the public to comment on the new rules. Thousands of people attended or wrote in comments, and many of those comments raised concerns about fracking.
David McGowan, executive director of the trade group North Carolina Petroleum Council, said in a statement the state's move to allow fracking "is a win for the people of North Carolina, putting the state on the cutting edge of energy production in America."
A recent poll shows that North Carolinians, Democrats and Republicans alike, are far more likely to vote for political representatives who support clean energy such as solar and wind compared to hydraulic fracturing.
No companies have yet submitted permit applications for drilling in the state.
Fracking already occurs in 22 states. Last fall, Illinois moved to allow fracking. Maryland has draft rules awaiting approval, although there's a recent push in the state legislator to reinstate a moratorium. Most recently, the Florida Senate approved two bills that would set up a framework to regulate fracking there.
Bucking the trend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in New York State, citing extensive public health and climate risks.
Various studies have highlighted how little is known about the environmental health consequences of fracking. An investigation in Texas by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity found that air emissions from the fracking process are among the least understood and least regulated components in the oil and gas production cycle. In Maryland, a state fracking report asserted that air emissions trump water pollution and drilling-induced earthquakes as a top public health threat.
Watch The Weather Channel's video documentary "Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil & Bad Air on the Texas Prairie," part of an award-winning investigation with InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity: