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Shale a divisive issue for Arkansans

<p>Rick Fahr</p>

Rick Fahr

If you live in a part of the state not affected by the Fayetteville Shale Play, be thankful — not because of the issues surrounding the process of extracting natural gas from underground, but because you don’t have to listen to the daily back-and-forth between the sides.

There are two sides. Not many people reside in the undecided middle. You’re either for the gas industry and its “fracking” process or you’re against it for one or more of several reasons.

Conway is ground zero for the play. A number of big players have located here, not the least of which is Southwestern Energy, which built a headquarters here a couple years ago. The building is the tallest, sleekest and most stylish in the city. It screams “Success!” And for hundreds of employees in their gleaming white trucks, that point is moot.

Not familiar with the term “fracking”? It’s where drillers pump huge amounts of water and chemicals into bedrock to fracture it, allowing them to pull out the natural gas.

Those who support the industry and fracking say that it is a homeland fuel source we should use, lessening our dependence on foreign oil. Among the supporters are the thousands of Arkansans who have discovered newfound riches in their pastures. Royalty checks on the mineral rights of their property come every month, and many of them are for amounts not seen when cattle roamed the ground.

Industry jobs pay well, and there is no doubt that those folks spend lots of money in local economies across the northern half of the state.

In the opposite corner are two groups — environmentalists and people who live near the fracking operations.

Evidence that fracking may be causing significant environmental damage or could possibly contaminate drinking water supplies exists in various locales around the country. As for Arkansas being a heavily regulated state when it comes to environmental affairs, well … let’s say we’re business friendly.

And as far as living beside one of these rigs, imagine an 18-wheeler running 24 hours a day in your driveway with every light on the thing blaring through the windows.

Against that backdrop, we have the politics of the whole thing. Ah, yes, can we please get the politicians involved?

Arkansas has had a low severance tax — levied for withdrawing things such as natural gas from underground — that only recently rose a bit. It’s still below that of surrounding states.

Industry officials, their commerce-loving brethren and their lobbyists have fought tooth and nail to keep the severance tax as low as possible. The General Assembly has mostly been receptive.

However, Sheffield Nelson, a former natural gas industry executive himself, has been a vocal critic. He has tried on several occasions to convince the General Assembly and/or voters to raise the severance tax to pay for damage to county and rural roads caused by the heavy equipment the drillers use.

Nelson spearheaded an effort this year to put a referendum on the November ballot to raise the tax from 5 percent with exemptions to a flat 7 percent. When he turned in the signatures he had collected supporting the measure, he fell far short of the necessary number. Last week, he announced that he was “suspending” the referendum campaign, essentially ending the effort to have the public decide the issue this go-round.

There is little chance the next General Assembly will do much to change the severance tax. About the only way the tax will go up is through a vote of the people, and even that’s not a sure thing. In the meantime, those of us who live in the play area have to pretty much trust industry officials when they tell us their processes are safe and that they’re doing right by The Natural State.

Oh, and look around for a natural gas rig close by before you buy a house out in the country.

Rick Fahr is publisher of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. His e-mail is rick.fahr@thecabin.net.

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