Durham commissioners hold off on fracking moratorium

February 27, 2012 3:26:40 PM PST
The Durham County Commissioners have delayed a vote on fracking in the county. Lawmakers want more time to figure out the impact of drilling on local economies, people, and their land.

Fracking is a process to remove natural gas out of shale rock.

Experts say there could be a lot of natural gas in North Carolina's Triasic Basin, which covers two-thirds of Durham County and parts of Lee and Moore Counties too. That could mean a lot of natural gas is trapped beneath the surface.

Energy companies say fracking is safe and is getting even safer. Critics point to a host of problems that come with the process like people lighting their water on fire after methane seeped in, for instance.

"In general, we feel it's a well established technology," said Mike Parker, an Exxon Mobil advisor. "The operation, practices and procedures are very well time tested."

But not everyone is convinced fracking is worth it. They point to a slew of potential problems.

"It has huge impacts on communities. One of the biggest concerns is water usage," said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, with the Sierra Club.

Chicurel-Bayard pointed out that fracking requires huge amounts of water -- two to three million gallons per well.

"With historic droughts in this state, this could have a huge impact on water resources for large parts of North Carolina, including the Triangle," said Chicurel-Bayard. 

Once the water is used, it has chemicals in it. So, it can't just be dumped.

And in Ohio, where they've been burying it deep underground, some say it's led to earthquakes. 

"So there are many questions that need to be answered and we really don't have answers for what that would mean for North Carolina yet," said Chicurel-Bayard.

Other critics see the gas itself as the biggest problem. In some places, people are literally lighting tap water on fire because of it. There are long-term concerns.

"Small leakages of this gas have massive consequences to global warming," said Cornell Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology Bob Howarth.

There are also transportation issues.

"We've seen, in Pennsylvania, roads are being torn up by the equipment coming in and there's a big question about who pays for that," said Chicurel-Bayard.

While some experts, like Duke's Rob Jackson, say it can be done safely.

"If things are done well," said Jackson. "The answer can be yes."

Many are urging caution.

"We're just starting to understand it," said Howarth. "I think we should go slow, not do further shale gas development until we better understand what the consequences are."

With so much on the line, Durham County Commissioners were set to take up a moratorium on fracking Monday night and a recommendation that the state do the same.

However, commissioners put Monday's vote on hold so they could learn more about the process.

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