SANFORD — Hundreds crammed Sanford’s Civic Center Tuesday evening to hear the pros and cons of natural gas exploration in this rural part of the state that’s believed to sit atop a 40-year supply of natural gas.
Groups filed out of vans and a rented tour bus as a dozen protesters outside waved placards denouncing fracking as an invitation to environmental disaster.
Some arrived wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Shale YES!” and touting the economic development benefits of energy exploration, while others wore shirts expressing the opposite view.
The Sanford event was the first of two public hearings on whether North Carolina should legalize shale gas exploration using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.
Shale gas is believed to exist in underground rock formations in a 1,400-square-mile area centered around Lee, Moore and Chatham counties and potentially reaching as far east as Durham and Wake counties. Property owners could mint fortunes leasing their land and receiving royalties for extracted natural gas.
Frank Del Palazzo, a Lee County resident, said he received a letter a year and a half ago, offering to pay him for his mineral rights for the shale gas under his land. He has been researching the topic since then.
“This is real,” Del Palazzo said at the hearing. “I’ve got kids and I have a responsibility to those kids.
“My decision is this: Drilling is good,” he said as some in the audience erupted in applause. “But we have to be careful how we do it.”
Chatham County resident Mary Lucas urged state officials to proceed with caution.
“We’re talking about thousands of wells,” she said. “Why the race to legalize fracking before we understand at least some of the costs?”
She said people were being asked to trust an industry with a track record of safety problems and of misleading the public.
Last week the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued a draft report concluding that fracking can be done safely with the right laws and regulations in place. In other parts of the country fracking has been dogged by accusations of water contamination, earth tremors and other problems, though the problems thus far have mostly been associated with poorly constructed well shafts that result in methane migration.
The agency will incorporate the public comments from the Sanford hearing, and from another scheduled next week in Chapel Hill, into a final report to be given to the state legislature by May 1.
The Republican-controlled legislature is widely expected to legalize the practice this summer, along with environmental laws and other safeguards that will be the subject of heated debate in the coming months.
But with natural gas prices at historic lows no one is expecting a land rush here as happened in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and other states with bigger shale gas supplies.
Public comments were limited to two minutes Tuesday night to accommodate as many people as possible within the three hours allotted to the meeting. From time to time comments elicited applause, laughter, groans and hollers from the audience.
Critics invoked such imagery as “uncontrolled public health experiment” and “political manipulation” and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to describe fracking and its supporters. They condemned predatory land leases that pay dirt-cheap rates and fail to protect land owners from legal liabilities from potential chemical spills and accidents.
Bob Joyce, president of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, countered those arguments with statistics that last year in Pennsylvania fracking yielded more than $1 billion in property taxes, more than 200,000 jobs and over $100 million in royalties to landowners.
Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas deposit is about 1,000 times the amount believed to exist in this state.
Still, Riley Rusk, an area resident, extolled fracking as a “tool for harvesting God-given resources in our earth.”