The Pulse

The NC Oil and Gas Commission: Pointless, obsolete and often surreal

By: - February 12, 2020 6:30 am
Butler Well 3, a natural gas well in northern Lee County, has been idle for nearly 22 years. It’s unclear if the well has been regularly inspected for leaks. (Photo: Oil and Gas Commission)

Out in the woods in far northern Lee County, two natural gas wells have been idling, under pressure as much as 900 pounds per square inch, for nearly 22 years. Over several days in September 1998, Simpson 1 and Butler 3, as the test wells are known, were fracked by Amvest using nitrogen foam. While a small amount of gas flowed from the wells, the fracking ultimately failed. The wells have lain fallow since.

The Oil and Gas Commission — or at least the two members who attended the Feb. 10 meeting — is concerned about fate of these wells and the potential dangers they pose to neighbors. The wells are grandfathered and not subject to current oil and gas inspection regulations.

“The casing over time corrodes,” said Commission Chairman Jim Lister. “There could be a mechanical integrity issue.”

“Are the wells inspected monthly?” Lister asked.

No one at the state Geological Survey or Department of Environmental Quality knew.

“Do they present a liability to the state or to residents?” Lister pressed. “What happens if there’s a problem with the well? With the groundwater? If they’re damaged? If there are leaks?”

No idea.

“Who spends the money to plug an abandoned well. The state?”

Again, no one knew.

Rebecca Wyhof Salmon, the only other commissioner physically present at the meeting, echoed Lister’s concerns about the well integrity. “If no one is inspecting them regularly,” said Salmon, who is also a Sanford City Councilwoman in Lee County, “we have a responsibility to the community.”

Had this been a functioning commission — and had the legal information been available — this could have been an interesting, even productive discussion. But the question of the status of these wells was never resolved. (Russell Patterson of Patterson Exploration, which owns the wells, did not return a phone message from Policy Watch asking about the inspections.)

The commission failed to have a quorum of at least five people, and thus could take no formal action. Members can call in, but too few of them did. Instead, like the two main characters in the absurdist play Waiting for Godot, Lister and Salmon were the only commissioners in the room, waiting for an answer to arrive.

The commission has been dysfunctional since the legislature revived it in 2014.  The fracking boom that the McCrory administration predicted was a pipe dream, much to the relief of residents of and Chatham and Lee counties who lived in the bulls-eye, their drinking water, health and property values at risk.

Womack, who had run unsuccessfully for state Republican Party chairman, soon became the Next Best Thing: Oil and Gas Commissioner, appointed by Sen. Phil Berger. But in January 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled in McCrory vs. Berger, that the commission was unconstitutional because the governor, not the legislature had the authority to appoint the majority of the members. That decision waylaid the commission for several months.

In 2017, Womack scheduled an illegal meeting at which he planned to challenge fracking moratoriums enacted by Chatham and Lee counties. The NC Department of Environmental Quality intervened, telling Womack that the commission could not lawfully hold the meeting because Berger had not reappointed him to the new and constitutionally legitimate commission.

Berger then appointed Womack, an ardent fracking proponent, to the new commission to fill the seat reserved for conservation interests. But Womack’s only “conservation” bona fides was a volunteer with the American Council on Science and Health, a front group for several polluting industries that performs no conservation activities.

Emboldened by his renewed appointment, Womack ran the commission like his personal fiefdom. In May 2018, Womack produced five letters from drillers claiming the Lee County moratorium on fracking violated their constitutional rights. However, the letters were suspicious. Policy Watch reported at the time that their contents were nearly identical, including the typeface in the body of the letter and on the envelopes. The letter writers, it turned out, were either friends or neighbors of Womack. Despite repeated questioning by Policy Watch, Womack never would clarify if he actually wrote the letters.

Since then, the commission’s quarterly meetings primarily have been merely bureaucratic exercises with no tangible policies or results. Sometimes, the discussions veered toward the ludicrous. In 2018, Womack planned to take the commission on a field trip to Bradford County, Pennsylvania where he said he “knew people,” to view fracking operations, even though there was no money for what would certainly been an expensive journey. The field trip never happened.

Then in 2019, Lister drew the short straw and was elected by his fellow commission members to replace Womack, who  is now vice-chair. (Womack has boycotted attending the the last two meetings in person because he claims he’s not been paid his per diem; it’s unclear if he’s filled out the paperwork correctly.)

But the nine-member commission has only five people authorized to serve: Lister, Womack, Salmon, John Lucey and Stanley Baird, who plans to leave but has agreed to serve an extended term, if only to give the commission a chance at a quorum.

The other seats are in limbo:

  • Victor Gaglio resigned in November, leaving a vacancy;
  • Diana Hales, Hugh Bailey and Will Vizuete, the three gubernatorial appointees, have yet to be confirmed by the legislature.  And the legislature doesn’t convene until late April.
  • John Droz, a clean energy opponent who pushed for the wind moratorium, has not been sworn in — and can’t be until there’s a quorum. He did attend the Feb. 11 meeting by phone, although he spent several minutes talking to someone on the other line, which interfered with the discussion happening in the room.

At the end of yesterday’s gathering, Lister seemed to understand the absurdity of the situation: “I would call for the meeting to adjourn, but I couldn’t call the meeting to order.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.