Raleigh, N.C. — After an extensive study of energy exploration in North Carolina, state environmental officials said Friday that a controversial method of natural gas drilling can be done safely if regulations are put in place first.
Much of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources' study focused on the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The process involves horizontal drilling into underground deposits of shale and then pumping a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals into a well to break apart the rock and release natural gas.
A WRAL News crew visited Pennsylvania last fall to examine fracking, and residents said the gas boom provides an economic boost but also brought traffic and environmental worries.
DENR officials said they reviewed the experiences of other states and determined that a regulated drilling program could be accomplished safely in North Carolina. The agency's draft report noted, however, that more information on groundwater resources is needed in areas where fracking could occur before final environmental standards are set.
"This is not something that can happen overnight. There has to be a whole new regulatory program put in place," agency spokeswoman Diana Kees said.
The study recommends a long list of regulations, including baseline data for water and air quality, setback requirements around drill sites, standards for waste disposal and full disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process. It also calls for industry fees to fund road repairs near drill sites and to hire new state regulators.
"The biggest takeaway is that North Carolina is not ready for hydraulic fracturing. There are a lot of unanswered questions," said Dustin Chichurel-Bayard, spokesman for the North Carolina Sierra Club.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said Wednesday that she also was open to fracking in North Carolina "if you regulate it and put fees in place to have inspectors on the ground."
Her comments came after a recent trip to Pennsylvania for an industry-sponsored tour of large-scale natural gas drilling operations.
"I think the challenge for us will be to determine the capacity of our supply and whether the folks who live in this community are willing to move forward," Perdue said.
DENR has scheduled public meetings in Sanford on March 20 and Chapel Hill on March 27 to discuss its draft report. A final report is due to the General Assembly by May 1.
Officials with the state Department of Commerce estimate fracking could generate about $300 million in revenue and about 390 jobs a year over a seven-year period in and around Lee County alone.
Chichurel-Bayard said developing safeguards for North Carolina demands a long and thorough process.
"We want to make sure that our water and air are protected," he said.