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N.C. Opinions: Greenville

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Hope fracking bet pays off

From an editorial in the (Greenville) Daily Reflector on Friday:

State lawmakers could have taken a cautious approach last year when legislation to allow natural gas exploration in North Carolina came before them. The process used to extract the energy source – hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – has yet to be fully vetted for safety, but the legislature approved a bill to press ahead with authorization, choosing economic potential over environmental protection.

Now the General Assembly appears poised to go one step further as it considers a bill that would erode the modest protections included in last year’s legislation and provide incentives to companies looking to drill here. While North Carolina should strive to develop an energy economy that creates jobs and helps the nation toward independence, lawmakers’ approach to this issue is both reckless and foolish.

When the issue of natural gas exploration came before the General Assembly last year, competing bills, both sponsored by Republicans in the majority, would have advanced the process here. One would have taken a go-slow approach, by eschewing a deadline for issuing permits until an exhaustive examination is conducted to determine the possible dangers of fracking and how to minimize its impact.

The other, which won approval, set the deadline first, meaning that the state would careen toward permitting regardless of the risks that may result. There are justified concerns that the process, which uses a slurry of chemicals and water to break apart shale deposits and extract the gas, could contaminate groundwater. Studies have also linked fracking to seismic events, a frightening proposition.

Supporters naturally downplay those fears and instead tout the economic benefit that allowing natural gas exploration could create. They are undeniable and attractive. Certainly North Carolina would be fortunate to reap the financial windfall, including hundreds of jobs, that might result. And getting the state into the lucrative energy industry would assist in the ongoing economic transition from its manufacturing and agriculture traditions.

However, any gains would be worthless if it leaves communities with contaminated drinking water or other environmental degradation as a result. The fact is, the effects of fracking are not yet fully known, so studying them would have made reasonable sense. Instead, the legislature turned its back on science for a cash grab, and now North Carolina is on pace to see permits issued in two years.

If that smacks of a gamble, it is with good reason. Lawmakers had best hope their bet pays off.

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