NC regulators: Fracking is safe

RALEIGH, N.C. — A high-pressure drilling technique that could unleash jobs and profits but carries pollution risks can be used safely in North Carolina if lawmakers adopt the right precautions, state environmental regulators said in a study released Friday.

But the study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, urged lawmakers to adopt more than a dozen recommendations before authorizing the drilling method used to free underground natural gas deposits. That included full disclosure of chemicals to regulators and banning the use of diesel fuel.

The study also recommended that researchers collect data on groundwater, surface water and air quality before wells in an area are drilled with fracking. That could clarify whether any later environmental problems are linked to fracking.

“I think the takeaway should be that it can be done safely,” said Trina Ozer, a policy analyst for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources who coordinated the study that was required by lawmakers. “I can’t predict whether or not they’ll happen here.”

The report’s release comes ahead of a public meeting to discuss it on Monday in Sanford. The General Assembly would have to develop regulations before the drilling technique is allowed in North Carolina.

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting a drilled well with chemically treated water mixed with sand to crack shale rock and free trapped gas. The wastewater is often disposed of in separate wells.

Supporters say drilling would mean jobs and profits with little environmental risk. Opponents say fracking pollutes water supplies, damaging public health and ruining the quality of life in rural communities. The technique has been blamed for polluting underground water and even causing earthquakes.

“The No. 1 conclusion is that North Carolina is not ready to frack — not today and perhaps not for years. The report underscores just how many unanswered questions there are and how many problems would need to be addressed before fracking could be done safely,” said Molly Diggins of the N.C. Sierra Club.

Duke University and the U.S. Geological Survey are testing about 75 private and public wells in Lee and Chatham counties, the areas most likely to be explored if natural gas drilling is permitted in the state.

Oil and gas companies should be limited to how much local water they can use, the study said. Taxes and fees collected from drillers should be used to pay for their oversight, fund environmental initiatives and help local governments affected if a gas boom takes off, the study said. Lawmakers also should decide who will repair roads damaged by heavy-vehicle traffic to well sites, the study said.

High national supply of natural gas has driven down prices, making it unlikely that drillers would flood into North Carolina soon, Diggins said.

“Unfortunately, fracking seems to have turned into a political football and election-year talking point. We hope that legislature will not act in haste and if they do take action that they will allow for local control,” she said.

Gov. Bev Perdue said this week after a trip to Pennsylvania to meet with energy companies and local officials that she believed natural gas drilling could be done safely. Perdue hasn’t made up her mind on whether she’ll support efforts to make fracking legal in the state, a spokesman said.

Perdue, a Democrat, is not seeking re-election. Campaign staffers for Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and Bob Etheridge, two of the Democrats running for governor, said they support the job-creating potential of fracking but believe it needs more safety studies. State Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, said he is against the practice because of the risk to drinking water. Republican front-runner Pat McCrory supports fracking.

Credit: The Associated Press.