Raleigh, N.C. — The legislative debate this year over natural gas drilling in North Carolina was often long on rhetoric but short on hard data, as both advocates and opponents claimed science was on their side.
Speaking at the Shale Gas Conference in Raleigh on Thursday, environmental geologist Rick Kolb said the truth is somewhere in the middle.
"Science has been politicized, which is sad, but it has happened," Kolb said. "Our goal was just to have a conference where we just talk about the issues and not say, 'We're for it. We're against it' (and) just say, 'Here are the issues to face.'"
Lawmakers passed legislation over Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto that would allow a controversial method of drilling known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," as soon as late 2014.
Conference speakers cast doubts on claims from both sides of the fracking debate.
For example, opponents often say it consumes millions of gallons of groundwater per well.
Andrew Stone, director of the nonprofit American Ground Water Trust, said he's more concerned about how the water is disposed of than where it originates.
"The numbers sound big," Stone said, "but in comparison with all the other uses – watering golf courses and all the other reasons we need water – it's really a very tiny amount."
Advocates contend that fracking will bring an economic boom to North Carolina, but Kolb said that won't happen anytime soon. Gas deposits in North Carolina are much smaller than in other states, and they might not even be explored right away because the price of natural gas is so low.
"Three years ago, it was $10 for 1,000 cubic feet," he said. "Now, it's below $2, so you know, below $2, nothing's economic."
Legislative leaders were invited to the conference to speak and learn from the experts, but none accepted the invitation, Stone said.
He said it's inevitable for the nation to explore its shale gas resources, and it needs to be done properly.
"If we're going to do it, if North Carolina's going to do it, let's do it in a way that maximizes the energy benefit to the economy and minimizes, if not totally gets rid of, the risk to the environment," he said.
The conference, which continues Friday at the Doubletree by Hilton Brownstone Hotel on Hillsborough Street, is sponsored by the Carolinas Section of the Association of Environmental & Engineering Geologists and the American Ground Water Trust.