If commercially significant amounts of natural gas lie under portions of central North Carolina, and if those deposits can be accessed without harm to residents or the environment, then drill, baby, drill - responsibly. Natural gas is a versatile, relatively clean-burning fuel that could help in a transition from dirtier fuels to renewable energy. Moreover, lucky landowners - to say nothing of the state treasury - certainly could use the money that gas production would bring.
But those are two mighty big ifs. It's not at all clear that either requirement - commercial viability or environmental safety - can be met here.
This year's legislature, loaded with drill-everywhere proponents, mandated a study of what it calls onshore shale gas as part of a wider-reaching Energy Jobs Act. That legislation, which Gov. Beverly Perdue has vetoed on relatively narrow grounds, deals with oil and natural gas wherever they may be found - underground or under the Atlantic Ocean. The act also sets up a production-oriented Energy Jobs Council to recommend and oversee energy policy.
Lately, the onshore, or underground, gas issue has been getting most of the attention. Unlike drilling for oil and natural gas off the East Coast, it is actually taking place in a big way. Gas rigs are busy, most notably in Pennsylvania. But production of what's known as shale gas - from the underground rock formations in which the gas is trapped - has proven controversial.
Gas in the rocks
New Jersey currently bans the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract the gas from the rock, while New York is opening up only slowly to "fracking." The main complaints center on the chemicals injected underground in the process, the use of large amounts of surface water, occasional contamination of nearby drinking water wells and on the above-ground disruption that any drilling process creates.
North Carolina's prospective Energy Jobs Act calls on the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to report by May 1 of next year on the "commercial potential of onshore shale gas resources within the State as well as the regulatory framework necessary to develop this resource."
That's a tall order, especially for an agency that the legislature sharply downsized. And to be worthwhile the study needs to be realistic about the quantities of natural gas involved and to be assertive in recommending measures to protect landowners, leaseholders, residents and the environment from harm.
Set the rules
In that regard, DENR should heed the cautions and criteria set forth by Duke University researchers in an article on the opposite page this past Sunday (July 10). According to Rob Jackson and colleagues, who have studied the effects of fracking, it's vital that North Carolina avoid mistakes like those it made - largely through omission - when hog farming came in such a big way a couple of decades ago, creating a massive stink. To say nothing of the fracking-related mistakes that have caused trouble in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
That means ample setbacks of gas wells from existing water supplies, providing in advance for the treatment of contaminated wastewater and setting out clear and substantial penalties for violations are a must if drilling is to proceed here. The DENR study should lay it all out, and the public must have a real opportunity to comment and suggest changes.
Perdue's veto of the Energy Jobs Act rests on a constitutional point having to do with executive versus legislative powers. That part of the bill could easily be changed without altering its substance. What remains would still be too gung-ho for drilling, yet nonetheless could provide the framework for genuine consideration of the pros and cons of "onshore shale gas."