Extracting natural gas from shale rock - commonly called "fracking" - is fraught with environmental risk, danger and uncertainty, speaker after speaker warned Monday at a daylong conference at Duke University.
One ecology professor even urged that a national moratorium be imposed on the controversial gas drilling practice that's permitted in some states but has been suspended in others. That suggestion elicited applause and shouts of support from the audience at the event, which was hosted by Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and streamed live over the Internet to thousands of people.
But after the panelists emptied the stage in the afternoon, a representative from ExxonMobil Production Co. said that while the stage presentations were impassioned and well-researched, they were one-sided.
"I take exception with the way these things are being presented," said Michael Parker, an ExxonMobil technical advisor and the only energy industry panelist who presented. "There's more to the story."
Duke's workshop on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the biggest public event organized to date in this state on a topic that's generating intense interest among North Carolina's property owners, lawmakers and environmentalists.
The state legislature this year is expected to debate legalizing the drilling and fracking technologies that would be used to tap into an estimated 40-year supply of natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale rock formations below Lee, Moore, Chatham, Durham and Wake counties.
The Duke workshop drew more than 500 people to the Reynolds Theater, some coming from as far away as Massachusetts, Ohio and Florida. They included representatives of universities, state and federal agencies, local and city governments, as well as law firms and investment banking powerhouses Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.
At one point, about 4,500 people were logged on the website to listen, said Duke spokesman Tim Lucas.
Critics of fracking raised a number of issues during their presentations.
Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke, discussed a study he published in May, which found that drilling contaminates local drinking water with explosive methane gas.
Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, alleged that venting and leakage of methane from fracking operations releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases.
"Clearly we need to tackle methane emissions from shale gas," he said. "Most studies show shale gas is worse than natural gas."
Susan Christopherson, professor of regional planning at Duke, contends that the economic benefits of fracking are vastly exaggerated.
"It doesn't actually employ that many people," she said. "The economic benefits in terms of jobs tend to be inflated."
Advocates say shale gas offers a domestic alternative to break this nation's addiction to imported oil and dirty coal. They also say it offers economic hope to depressed areas and struggling farmers.
Parker, the ExxonMobil technical advisor, said shale gas is expected to account for a major portion of U.S. domestic energy production in the coming decades.
"It's a huge opportunity and it's critically important that as an industry we get it right."