Jim Womack must believe he’s playing with house money.
The chairman of the NC Oil and Gas Commission, Womack yesterday proposed several expensive outlays of taxpayer funds that have no legislative appropriations or resource commitments from other state agencies.
First, he suggested that all nine commission members travel 1,150 miles round-trip to Bradford County, Pa., for three to four days next spring to observe fracking operations and speak to residents. Why Bradford County, which is on the border with New York state? Because Womack, told the commission, he “knows people” there and is friends with one of its Republican county commissioners.
If a majority of oil and gas members were to make the trip, it would qualify as a public meeting. Minutes would have to be taken — plus all receipts of expenses covered by tax dollars would be public record.
Womack said that several years ago Sens. Bob Rucho and Mike Hager had “called him on the carpet” for not taking the Mining and Energy Commission on a field trip to fracking operations. Womack went on his own to Pennsylvania. “You can visualize how the rules come into play,” he enthused. “It was great to go to an active site.”
Commissioner Rebecca Wyhof of Lee County said she wanted to ensure that any such trip is “not one-sided.”
The two and a half hour meeting, of which 20 percent was spent scheduling meetings into 2019, (thus consuming the time of the five environmental department employees whose job was to attend) accomplished little. Yet there were indications that Womack either has an inside track on state funding or simply doesn’t know what certain activities cost.
He said he wanted to “sanction” and “commission” a study to establish public health and socio-economic baselines in areas targeted for fracking. While a sound idea on its own, coordinating the Departments of Labor, and of Health and Human Services, as well as the Division of Public Health and local health departments, to conduct such a broad scientific survey not only requires extensive logistical planning, but also significant staff time and funding. And the legislature has proven it is loathe to appropriate money to ventures that don’t strike the majority’s fancy.
For example, the Department of Environmental Quality and DHHS didn’t even get the full funding they requested to address the current — and pressing — issue of emerging contaminants and GenX in the drinking water and the air.
No drilling has occurred in North Carolina. If fracking does it occur, it would most likely happen in Lee and Chatham counties, located in the Deep River Basin, and Stokes and Rockingham counties, which are in the Dan River Basin. Womack said it’s possible helium could be extracted from these areas, as well.
There was scant discussion of the five complaints pending before the commission. As Policy Watch reported in May, several Lee County residents reportedly want to begin exploring for natural gas but claim that temporary moratoria passed by the county commission is preventing them from doing so.
However, four of the five complaints contained nearly identical language and were sent in similar-looking envelopes and from the same post office in Greensboro. These uncanny resemblances raised suspicions that Womack might have drafted the letters himself. At the time, he deflected direct questions from Policy Watch regarding his role in the complaints.
“There have been attempts to complain to the commission,” Womack said yesterday. “And there will be more in the future.”