Drill team

Some legislators seem eager to authorize shale gas drilling in North Carolina. What’s the rush?

April 21, 2012 

Four years after “Drill, baby, drill!” became a mainstay of Republican campaigns, its echoes still are heard as the party affirms its commitment to aggressive oil and gas exploration.

With high gasoline prices getting voters’ attention, the GOP hopes to sell itself as the better bet when it comes to cheap, plentiful energy – in contrast to what it portrays as the environmentally too-finicky Democrats. Perhaps that accounts for some of the enthusiasm with which a state Senate panel has moved to encourage offshore drilling and to embrace the natural gas extraction method known as fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is not now allowed in North Carolina. But the prospect of recoverable gas locked in underground shale formations southwest of Raleigh has spurred calls to authorize it. Legislation backed by the Senate committee would let fracking begin in July, 2014, when rules to govern it supposedly would be in place.

The question is whether any such rules can guard against the kind of environmental risks that have been all too evident in states such as Pennsylvania where fracking is well-established. Or, more specifically, whether the potential gain from increased natural gas production here outweighs those risks, even if protective rules are in place.

Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue has offered qualified support for fracking, provided it’s done safely, and her Department of Environment and Natural Resources has examined the options. Yet to some critics, the prospect of safe fracking is akin to safe skydiving without a parachute. Certainly the threats to groundwater from chemicals used in the process, and also the sheer amount of water that fracking requires in a region where water supplies tend to be iffy, are causes for concern.

Further, the natural gas market is flooded to the point where prices have sagged. If companies and customers in this state can access cheap gas extracted elsewhere, at least for now, why take a chance on fracking in the near term?

The answer: Republican dogma favors more drilling rather than less and sooner rather than later. The GOP controls the General Assembly, and it held four seats on the five-member Senate panel. The chairman, Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, insists that under its approach, fracking will be safe. And the spirit of “Drill, baby, drill!’ can invigorate Republican voters this fall.

Except it might not be that simple, nor should it be. The committee’s proposals will be considered during the upcoming short legislative session, and even some Republicans, notably in the House, are leery of a fracking push. No final action should be taken without careful review and debate – a tall order when legislators are supposed to be focused on budget matters.

Also endorsed by the Rucho panel are calls to move ahead with energy exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf, to set up a state oil and gas regulatory board, even to require new school buses to run on compressed natural gas. Energy policy is much on people’s minds, as it should be, and energy independence is an important goal. But for those eager to make North Carolina an oil and gas production hub, another pertinent slogan is “Haste makes waste.”

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