Two Pennsylvania farmers who leased land to shale gas drillers in their state and dreamed of a big payoff painted a bleak picture of the gas industry Thursday.
Carolyn Knapp and Carol French warned that if North Carolina permits drillers to explore here, residents can expect conflicts with neighbors, lawsuits with gas companies, health complaints, a spike in crime and ruined property values.
The two farmers were hosted in Raleigh by two advocacy groups - N.C. Policy Watch and Clean Water for North Carolina - at a time that North Carolina is emerging as the nation's next battleground over shale gas exploration. The pair also planned to speak in Durham and Southern Pines.
"We're seeing farms losing 80 percent to 90 percent of their property value," Knapp said. "The amount of noise that comes from these operations is unbelievable. ... It's probably worse than living on an expressway."
Neither farmer is collecting royalties from leases on their farms, because the companies haven't drilled yet or are not currently producing gas.
Supporters of shale gas exploration see domestic gas reserves as an alternative to dirty coal and imported oil. North Carolina is believed to have a 1,400-square-mile deposit less than a mile underground, concentrated west of Raleigh in Lee, Chatham and Moore counties.
The gas industry is making inroads here in hopes of tapping into the state's shale gas. Industry lobbyists have intensified campaign contributions to North Carolina's elected officials in Congress, reaching an all-time high last year, according to a report issued Thursday by Common Cause.
Meanwhile, supporters in the state legislature are planning to take a half-dozen fellow lawmakers to Pennsylvania this month to visit public officials, property owners and gas drilling operations run by Chesapeake Energy, the world's biggest shale gas producer. The company was fined nearly $1.1 million earlier this year by Pennsylvania regulators for causing groundwater contamination. The trip is being funded by taxpayers using funds set aside for lawmakers' travel.
Some property owners in Pennsylvania are expecting to reap more than $1 million a year in royalties for gas drilled on their land.
One of those slated to go on the trip is Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County. He attended the farmers' presentation Thursday and said afterward that he wants to hear all sides of the debate before deciding whether shale gas exploration should be legalized in this state and what safeguards are needed to protect the public and the environment.
"It was heartfelt and spoken by laymen who have real life experiences that would give a landowner pause," McGrady said of the farmers' testimonials. "It's a snapshot of one place, at one point in time."
The debate is over legalizing the primary methods of extracting natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale formations: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The state is preparing a study of the laws and regulations that would be needed if shale gas drilling were allowed here.
The practice in Pennsylvania has resulted in hefty fines for spills, accidents and other violations. Industry officials and regulators say the mishaps represent a fraction of the 4,000-plus horizontal wells drilled and fractured.
French and Knapp, the two farmers, said shale gas companies overstate the benefits of drilling and downplay the consequences.
In the coming months, the U.S. Geological Survey is expected to issue a more definitive assessment of the extent of North Carolina's shale gas reserves, which could spur greater interest from out-of-state energy companies. More than 70 leases, representing more than 9,000 acres, have been signed in Lee County, according to public records.