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Senate passes fracking bill, but N.C. may be less rich in gas

RALEIGH -- The state Senate approved the legalization of fracking in North Carolina on Wednesday just hours after the U.S. Geological Survey issued an estimate that the state has far less gas than earlier assessments showed.

The bill now goes to the state House, where it is widely expected to be approved by the Republican-led legislature.

The federal assessment is that the state has 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Deep River Basin, which spans 150 miles from Durham to the South Carolina border. The report is much less optimistic than earlier estimates by state geologists, who had hoped that there was a supply of at least five years just in the 92-square-mile area where the gas is concentrated. The U.S. survey estimated that amount of gas existed in an area that is about 13 times larger than the area assessed by the state geologists.

The federal estimate is equivalent to about 5.6 years of usage based on 2010 consumption in North Carolina.

Opponents of fracking seized on the federal report to urge delay of legalizing the practice, but Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, who is leading the fracking campaign, was not moved.

“The only way you’ll ever know is by actually punching down some wells,” Rucho said during the Senate debate.

The legislation, which passed on a vote of 29-19 in the Senate, proposes sweeping changes to North Carolina’s energy policy by clearing the way for exploration for natural gas. The fuel reserve is believed to be concentrated near Lee, Chatham and Moore counties, an area where two test wells drilled in 1998 show high concentrations of natural gas.

Rucho said that no gas drilling would take place for at least two years until all safety provisions are in place and approved by the state legislature.Democrats’ objections

Wake County Sen. Josh Stein and other Democrats objected that natural gas exploration poses risks to the environment and to the public health. Critics cited reported accidents and spills in other states that were blamed for fish kills, livestock deaths and other complaints.

Fracking boosters argued that the fears are exaggerated, stressing instead that energy is the lifeblood of the economy and assuring that the risks are manageable with the right laws and regulations.

“Energy self-sufficiency is going to be critical to this state in terms of economic growth,” Rucho said during the one-hour debate. “If we do what Senator Stein says, delay with more studies, then we’ll probably be ready when I’m 90.”

Sen. Harris Blake, a Republican representing Harnett and Moore counties, said that, based on a recent visit he made to Pennsylvania, he believes natural gas exploration has been a godsend for that state.

“Everybody’s busy, everybody’s happy,” Blake said. “The work leaves absolutely no visible problems.”

Rucho is coordinating with legislative leaders in the state House, where the same bill will be introduced.

The new commission

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is an industrial method of extracting natural gas trapped in shale formations by breaking up the rock with millions of gallons of water and additives pumped at high pressure.

Fracking supporters say North Carolina stands on the cusp of passing the nation’s best regulatory program to oversee fracking in the state.

The Senate bill contains numerous provisions to protect the environment and the public health, but largely serves as a set of marching orders to a new Mining & Energy Commission that would be tasked with creating the necessary safeguards and protections.

Seven of the commission’s nine voting members would be mining industry representatives or individuals with experience in oil and gas exploration.

Two slots would be set aside for people experienced in environmental conservation and mitigation.

The commission members would be appointed by the governor and General Assembly. An additional five positions would be nonvoting slots reserved for the state geologist, assistant secretary of energy and other government appointees.

Rucho said Wednesday that the descriptions of those who would serve on the commission may change to allow for greater representation from local officials.