If not for the crumpled Motley Crue ticket, the long-abandoned ashes of a campfire and an urgent command—”Suck dick,” carved deep into a stone—this mossy knob by Chatham County’s Haw River would feel like a secret.
The roar of rushing water swallows the hum of traffic on U.S. 15-501. If a stench can be pleasant, it can be found here among the algae blooms on the water’s surface. The muddy Haw yawns to the northwest, coiling through hills of undulating green.
This is what most people think of when they think of Chatham County, the Triangle’s rural neighbor to the south. It’s a postcard, as beautiful as it is static. But change is coming to Chatham County, like it or not.
In the next 30 years, a massive, 7,200-acre development should increase the population 10-fold. Duke Energy has already begun dumping potentially toxic coal ash in an abandoned brick mine southeast of the county seat of Pittsboro. And natural gas drilling—better known as “fracking,” the controversial method drillers use to extract gas from ground—has seemed inevitable ever since the General Assembly cleared the way in 2014 with the Energy Modernization Act.
Chatham lies in the heart of the state’s most lucrative natural gas play, a hilly swath stretching from Granville County through Durham and into Chatham and suburban Lee County. Lee and Chatham figure to be the most profitable, according to geologists.
Drilling may be inevitable, but not for the next two years at least, says Jim Crawford, chairman of the Chatham Board of Commissioners. Three weeks ago, Crawford’s board unanimously approved a sweeping two-year moratorium on fracking, citing widespread concerns about water consumption, pollution and a pending countywide land-use plan.
Chatham is the second county, behind Anson, to issue a temporary halt on drilling in North Carolina. It probably won’t be the last. Lee County commissioners will consider a two-year ban on drilling on Sept. 21, says county manager John Crumpton.
Counseled by anti-fracking nonprofits like Clean Water for N.C., Chatham and Lee are seeking to exploit a loophole in state law. The Energy Modernization Act forbids local governments from imposing outright bans on drilling, but says nothing of temporary moratoriums. And so it’s conceivable that counties, provided they show good reason in court, could “temporarily” ban drilling in perpetuity.
This is perhaps the last stand for anti-drilling counties, which the Legislature has stripped of most powers to regulate an industry riddled with reports of water contamination and increased seismic activity in other states.
“The hazards are real,” says Crawford. “This isn’t the yeti. This isn’t the sasquatch. It’s actually happening.”
For Lee and Chatham, there’s much at stake. Duke Energy’s coal-ash dumps already threaten the groundwater supply. Fracking may do the same.
In spots in both counties, the targeted pockets of natural gas are encased less than a half-mile away from drinking water. And state lawmakers have allowed drilling companies to cloak the ingredients contained in fracking chemicals. With no public disclosure, environmentalists say, inorganic cocktails could mean hidden risks for groundwater.
Drilling is a notorious water-guzzler, too. Each well uses as many as 4 million gallons every time it is fracked, about the amount consumed by 11,000 Americans daily. Chatham, a regional water supplier, needs its water.
Crawford knows the risks of fracking. A native of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, his family’s soybean farm abuts a drill pad. Drilling brought jobs, but local water faucets now spew flammable effluent, he says. The Susquehanna River—where gas was seen bubbling to the surface in 2010, a likely side effect of drilling—snakes into the county from the west. Local roads are broken and rutted, thanks to an interminable stream of heavy trucks supplying the drill sites.
In North Carolina, local governments would pay for these impacts, warns Crawford. “The state is blind to any of the actual nuts and bolts of fracking,” he says. “All they see is a glittering picture.”
In these rural bedroom communities, fracking’s popularity saw a rapid ascent and an even more rapid collapse in the last five years. In 2010, Lee and Chatham residents, reeling from widespread job losses and a stagnant economy, packed public information sessions, eager to hear of the gas windfalls promised to local landowners. Jobs would be plentiful, supporters said, and the state would craft one of the finest regulatory structures in the U.S. North Carolina would be spared the environmental hazards reported elsewhere.
But in 2015, drilling has lost its momentum. Bad publicity garnered by the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland in 2010 and prevalent reports of environmental contamination, along with declining estimates of the state’s gas reserves, slowed fracking’s march. Supporters, like former state Rep. Mike Stone, a Republican from Sanford, were cast out in 2014, just a few years after fracking backers propelled them into office.
And, with drilling’s downsides now well documented, it seems a bigger risk for places like Lee County, where the population density is more than double that of the heavily drilled rural counties in Pennsylvania.
“People tend to forget much of Pennsylvania is empty,” says Crawford. “Where I [used to] live, the bears outnumber the people.”
“Now that it looks like we’re getting fracking and coal ash, people are all of a sudden paying a lot more attention,” adds Crumpton. “People who were on the sidelines are not on the sidelines anymore.”
While drilling companies have already begun leasing in Lee County, leasing in Chatham is still a ways off. And with North Carolina gasoline prices at $2.18 per gallon, the demand for natural gas is low, which should delay any major drilling projects for several years.
But the drillers will come one day, environmentalists know. And without any significant legislative support, their only recourse is the courts. For now, that strategy is working.
In May, Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens ordered the state to halt permitting for drilling operations until a pending suit by Gov. Pat McCrory against the General Assembly is settled. McCrory is challenging the authority of the Mining and Energy Commission, which developed North Carolina’s drilling regulations, on the grounds that appointment to this and similar commissions is an executive branch power. The Legislature appointed the majority of MEC members.
McCrory’s case, as well as pending challenges to the MEC’s authority filed by environmental nonprofits, casts doubt on whether any of the commission’s rules— and the state legislation that turned those rules into laws—will be deemed valid.
Temporary bans are the next logical step, a way to keep drillers at bay until the courts weigh in.
“We’re challenging it from every direction that we know of,” says Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for N.C., which consulted with Chatham on the moratorium. “I think that this Legislature on many issues is at risk of creating a major uprising against itself.”
“We’re going to be ground zero,” adds Crumpton. “We’re trying to push the envelope here to see exactly what we can and can’t do.”
Ryke Longest, the law professor who heads Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, says these temporary bans might work. “It seems to me a very appropriate and measured response to the [MEC’s] fracking rules. It’s up to local governments to protect what is inadequate statewide.”
Crawford says Chatham’s and Lee’s moratoriums are partially inspired by the odorous deals both counties were forced to strike with Duke Energy this year. Denied any leverage under state law to block coal ash dumping, Lee and Chatham each agreed to $12 million and $18 million pacts, respectively, with Duke Energy that would allow disposal within their borders.
Crawford is still miffed about that. “It’s left us chastened,” he grumbles. “The state is dumping the problem on us.”
Crawford, a former carpenter and history professor at N.C. A&T State University, is a barrel-chested man with a boxer’s nose. It suits him. Crawford is pugnacious, determined to prove that he’s right. A proud Democrat, Crawford—along with Diana Hales and Karen Howard—won his seat on the county board last year with a platform that hinged on the environment. Once elected, he didn’t waste any time.
Chatham’s ordinance, which went into effect Aug. 17, bars local drilling while the county develops a broad land-use plan and a permitting process. The land-use plan is key, he says.
“We have to demonstrate to a judge that we’re not just singling drilling out unfairly,” says Crawford.
Crumpton says Lee County’s ordinance will take a similar tack. Lee commissioners will soon develop their own land-use plan. They’re also likely to pursue a large-scale rezoning that could shrink the available supply of drilling land.
There’s been no response from legislators, but when Anson County approved its five-year drilling moratorium in 2013, former MEC chairman Jim Womack—a fracking supporter and former Lee County commissioner—warned Anson leaders that they were making a mistake.
MEC Chairman Vik Rao did not respond to interview requests. Nor did Sens. Bob Rucho and Buck Newton, the GOP sponsors of the Energy Modernization Act. But Charles Taylor, Sanford city councilman and former member of the MEC, says he believes temporary moratoriums are not expressly forbidden by state law, at least for now.
Taylor, a drilling supporter, declined to say whether he backs the moratorium approach. “At the end of the day, people’s voices have to be heard, and not just heard, listened to,” he says. “But if we can drill safely, then so be it. If not, it’s not worth it.”
State statute forbids “any local ordinance that prohibits or has the effect of prohibiting” fracking. Drillers can appeal restrictions to the MEC, a panel that includes gas industry leaders. Crumpton says a court case is a “foregone conclusion.”
But in the interim, Crawford says, local governments must act. “We’ve been counseled that we could be sued,” he admits. “Oh well. That’s what the courts are for.”
And if state lawmakers simply amend the law to ban temporary moratoriums, both Crawford and Taylor say they will have forced the Legislature to reveal its antipathy for local control. It would also place McCrory, in a pitched re-election battle, in the awkward position of having to sign off on an anti-local bill.
All of this has occurred to Crawford, he says with a grin. If anything, he hopes Chatham’s stand inspires North Carolina voters in 2016.
“Use your wonderful constitutional right,” he says. “Vote the buggers out of office. Just press the button.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Frack this!”