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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Listen, do you want to know a secret?

Last week's Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) meetings were even more like a family reunion than usual, including the squabbles. Despite the humorous events on Thursday (ask me about hairballs) it was pretty darn prickly on Friday.

Commissioner George Howard: "Little red flags go up when we say we're going to have the strongest chemical disclosure rule in the nation."
Hmmmm, this seems to be an about face, Commissioner Howard keeps crowing about the MEC developing the strongest this and that, lets see what happens with set-backs and the baseline water testing. I digress.

Several in the audience probably got tired of the chorus that myself and another attendee kept repeating every time we heard "best", ""strongest", "farthest reaching" mentioned with resulting attaboys all around. Almost in unison we would say, "For Now."  These utterances were prompted by the North Carolina Senate's attempted pre-emption of the draft chemical disclosure rule. This drew fireworks from several MEC members- with one noticeable exception (who will be revealed later in this post), and resulted in a memorandum being sent from the MEC to Senator Phil Berger, President  Pro-Tem, and House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Here's an excerpt:

"This one simple change has reinvigorated anti-drilling fervor
across the state; an outcome the MEC has worked tirelessly to avoid. The introduction of this language at a late stage in the legislative session--as an insertion into an omnibus environmental bill rather than into the draft energy bill--and its introduction without any coordination with the MEC circumvent the rulemaking process and erode the confidence among many commission members that their work is appreciated."

Link to complete memo below:

DISCLAIMER: While I wrote as fast as I could, some of what was said will be paraphrased, and if any errors in my interpretation are found, please contact me and I will correct them.

Now, for the fun part. The heated discussion began with Commissioner Charles Taylor. Taylor expressed that he thought the MEC had reached consensus on trade secrets/chemical disclosure, and that he was surprised by H94 and its language. Taylor said, "I think [events have] diminished the role of this Board significantly. [Its an] insult to staff and to this Board." Taylor stated that all members of the Commission were equal. He went on to say that it was a "gross injustice to deviate from this process." Commissioner George Howard, visibly upset and very defensive, responded to what was a thinly-veiled reference to his possible involvement in the controversy. Howard is a former colleague of North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary John Skvarla. DENR has been adamantly opposed to holding the confidential records. Howard and Womack got into it several times, interrupting one another and Commissioner Charles Holbrook even admonished them to talk one at a time. If Howard did not want those assembled to think he had any part in the end-run on the Commission, he did a poor job.

The Senate amended H94 on the floor July 2 which makes a worse bill bad, reflecting their sensitivity to the Mining and Energy's concerns. Here's where some of the problems lie:

  • The initial draft rule did not go far enough, even though it was pulled from consideration by MEC Chairman Jim Womack (ironic, isn't it?).
  • There is no process for the MEC or DENR to object to or challenge claims of trade secret protection identified in the amended bill. 
  • Former DENR Assistant Secretary Robin Smith points out that: "State regulators could see information on fracking chemicals,  but could not receive the information in writing and keep it on file with other information on the fracking operation. While that approach may make the industry more comfortable, it will make it very difficult for  DENR staff to have the information needed  to provide adequate oversight for drilling operations– a problem that would be compounded over time by staff turnover.  Allowing a DENR staff person to see the  list of  fracking chemicals  when fracking begins does not ensure the availability of that information to staff five years later."
  • FracFocus has come under criticism for information that is full of errors, information that is incomplete, and information that is not provided in a timely manner. Commissioner Ken Taylor pointed out that one of the problems with FracFocus was that it takes too long, and that the information is needed up front, not after the fact.
Repeat after me: the molecule does matter. Vendors have refused (and will continue to refuse to ) disclose information to medical providers and emergency responders resulting in treatment delays and hampering adequate and appropriate response to spills, fires and accidents .Databases are not kept current; layers of bureaucracy and lack of accountability will continue to result in increased risk to the public and emergency personnel. 

Here's a quote for you that pretty much sums up a recent conversation with someone in fire service. Among other things they told me that if it is not known what they (first responders)  are dealing with, the volunteers/personnel will be pulled off the scene:

"If you're not going to release to us what it is we're not going to handle it." 

So, what's the real issue? From where I sit, industry is scared to death that the general public will be horrified to find out exactly what and how much of what  is being injected into the earth. It does not bode well for North Carolina when the industry has this much power before one horizontal well is drilled. Stay tuned...

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