RALEIGH — A Senate committee on Tuesday moved to legalize fracking in North Carolina, elating supporters who hail its potential economic benefits and leaving critics resigned to the inevitability of quick legalization by the state legislature.
The Senate Commerce Committee approved the measure after an emotional debate in a standing-room-only hearing room, with an overflow crowd gathered outside. About 200 protesters had marched to the legislature carrying placards and banners.
Before the debate began those in attendance were warned that any disruptions would result in ejection from the room, creating a hushed environment for the debate on energy legislation that could bring sweeping changes to the state.
The bill likely will be voted on by the full state Senate on Wednesday, said Sen. Bob Rucho, the Mecklenburg County Republican who is leading the campaign to legalize fracking in North Carolina. Rucho said that the bill would not allow drilling in the state for several years until safety regulations are in place.
After clearing the Senate, the bill would be debated in the state House of Representatives, where supporters and opponents alike expect quick approval by the Republican-led state legislature.
“Clearly we all know where this is heading,” said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat from Asheville, after the vote. “These people are on a mission to establish a beachhead.”
Fracking for natural gas in shale rock formations has proved to be a boon and a bane in states where it is legal – spawning boom towns, minting millionaires and slashing energy costs nationwide, yet also leaving a trail of investigations, fines, lawsuits and ill will.
As a result of recent technological developments in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – the longhand for fracking – shale gas today accounts for about a quarter of the nation’s natural gas supply and is projected to account for nearly half in years to come.
But whether North Carolina will be a participant in the global shale gas bonanza remains unclear. Energy companies, competing to tap into enormous shale gas reserves elsewhere, have not demonstrated a willingness to divert resources to a state where gas reserves remain a matter of speculation. Even in a best-case scenario, North Carolina’s shale gas deposits are a fraction the size of those of Pennsylvania, Texas and other states that are leading the shale gas rush.
According to a preliminary estimate by state geologists – based on just two vertical test wells drilled in 1998 – North Carolina’s gas reserve is concentrated in a 92-square-mile area in Lee, Chatham and Moore counties that could support a maximum of 368 wells. State and industry officials are awaiting a more precise estimate on gas reserves here, which are expected to be issued this year by the U.S. Geological Survey and could show a richer shale gas region here.
Clouding these prospects is the depressed price of natural gas, which remains near record lows amid a global glut and is expected to remain cheap through 2023. Exploration in North Carolina – regarded as virgin territory with no history of drilling – would require building pipelines and other infrastructure for an uncertain payoff. State geologists say the reserves here might be adequate for supplying fuel to local industries but not enough to spark interest from major energy conglomerates.
All those factors suggest that drilling and fracking here may be years away. Still, fracking boosters say the state should prepare now, while public officials have breathing room to craft the right laws and regulations.
Tuesday’s debate covered familiar issues related to fracking: environmental risks versus economic benefits. Advocates say fracking will supply a relatively clean-burning, affordable, domestic energy supply while creating hundreds of jobs and a new source of tax revenue for local communities.
“(Citizens) don’t want to be handcuffed to an Ayatollah whose name they can’t pronounce in a country that they don’t know where it is,” said Bill Weatherspoon, executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council, the state branch of the American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s leading oil lobby.
Urging passage of the legislation were representatives of the Sanford Chamber of Commerce, the Lee County Commission, the N.C. Petroleum Council and the N.C. Chamber, the state’s business lobby. Speaking against the measure were the Sierra Club, Robert Jackson, a Duke University environmental sciences professor, and Darryl Moss, mayor of Creedmoor, a town that this year voted to prohibit fracking within city limits.
Critics are concerned about well blowouts, well shaft leaks, chemical spills and other mishaps that have been blamed on fish kills, livestock deaths, methane migration and human illnesses in other states.
“If you mess up the water tables of this state, you’re done,” Nesbitt said during the debate. “If you get bleed-through from a mining operation, you’re done forever – that place is wiped out.”
The version of the bill approved Tuesday offered several new concessions intended to win supporters. It omitted a provision that would have prevented town and county governments from restricting or banning fracking in their jurisdictions. It also said fracking can’t be done in the state’s coastal sounds or Atlantic Ocean waters.
But it also omitted several protections recommended by the state’s attorney general. The AG wants property owners who sign leases to allow fracking under their land to receive written notices warning that the lease could prevent them from refinancing and that fracking could cause damage to their property.
Rucho said the bill contains numerous consumer protections, public safety provisions and environmental safeguards. However, the bulk of the regulations governing fracking would be developed by a mining commission that would be created by the bill.
Rucho said a separate legislative vote would be required to allow drilling and fracking to get under way, once regulations are created to govern the practice. But many see derricks, well pads, pipelines and chemical tanker trucks as a done deal .
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in April issued a 484-page report concluding that fracking can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place.
The bill approved by the Senate panel would include “pooling” of gas rights and forcing property owners to acquiesce to fracking under their properties if enough neighbors were in favor. Pooling has been part of state law for decades and would be kept on the books.
Rucho objected to suggestions that the legislature is moving too fast.
“We did a lot of work on this,” he said. “We spent a lot of time trying to put together what is a model piece of legislation.”