N.C. regulators support fracking, but report calls for safeguards

Report says it should stay illegal until the state OKs safeguards

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMay 1, 2012 

State regulators Tuesday issued a long-awaited analysis of fracking, reiterating that the mining method can be done safely in North Carolina, despite overwhelming public opposition to the natural gas extraction technique.

The 484-page report on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, tweaks an earlier agency recommendation issued in March that became the focus of heated debate during public hearings attended by hundreds of people.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ final report incorporates the public comments and citizen suggestions but doesn’t change the agency’s overall conclusions. The final report contains a litany of safety recommendations, including a request for more state funds to conduct further studies, before fracking for natural gas should be allowed in this state.

The agency’s report sets the stage for a legislative debate between lawmakers eager to approve the controversial mining practice and those who say it’s too risky and dangerous. The report was commissioned last year by the state legislature.

Bill Weatherspoon, executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council, said it’s a fair and thorough study of a complicated issue. The council is a state chapter of the American Petroleum Institute, whose members include fracking operators.

“A lot of the struggle between the business and environmental groups is all over the issue of delay,” Weatherspoon said. “This is going to be a very thoughtful process that’s going take years.”

One of the report’s new sections summarizes the raucous public hearings held in large community auditoriums to discuss the draft version of the report and its recommendations.

The agency’s report shows that public opinion against fracking is lopsided. More than 450 people and organizations came out against fracking in public hearings, while the number in favor was more than 175.

More than 75 people urged developing renewable resources instead of natural gas, and more than 50 urged taking a cautious approach and delaying fracking here.

According to the report, this state is not likely to become a staging ground for derricks and pipelines for more than two decades, based on an analysis of the American Natural Gas Alliance. The industry group said in a recent report that the nation’s priority regions for fracking, looking out to 2035, do not include North Carolina.

The reasons for the lack of interest are simple: This state’s natural gas reserves are unproven and comparatively puny. Geologists estimate a 40-year supply concentrated around Lee, Chatham and Moore counties, but the actual reserve could be smaller or larger and won’t be known until drillers drop test wells to assess what’s below.

Low natural gas prices

Further inhibiting those drillers from trucking their rigs and equipment here is the fact that natural gas prices are expected to remain low for 20 more years, while drilling activity is ongoing in areas with gas reserves that are much larger and more productive.

Fracking refers to a method of breaking up underground shale rock to flush out the gas trapped inside. The method requires pumping in 3 million to 5 million gallons of water at high pressure, with a 0.5 percent to 2 percent mixture of chemicals.

The state’s recommendation is that drilling operators be required to disclose the chemicals in case there’s an accident and emergency first responders need the information to treat residents and animals.

The report also said that fracking would create 59 jobs in the first year and a maximum of 858 jobs in the most active year of drilling. The average number of jobs annually will be 387.

Those jobs would correspond to fracking the Sanford sub-basin, an area measuring about 59,000 acres and stretching 150 miles from Granville County through Durham, Orange, Wake, Chatham, Lee, Moore, Montgomery, Richmond, Anson and Union counties into South Carolina.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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