Republican State Rep. Mitch Gillespie told the House Environment Committee today that he plans to introduce a bill that would open the door to fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, for natural gas in North Carolina—including the western part of the Triangle.

“It’s my intention to move ahead,” Gillespie said in support of his proposed measure, “as long as [the method] is safe and sound.”

The claims that fracking is safe are disputable. Workers drill vertically and then horizontally through soil and rock, then inject water and other chemicals—which can contain the same as those in antifreeze as well as “biocides” to kill organisms—through the material. The force breaks up the rock so the natural gas can escape and then be recaptured.

The environmental ramifications of fracking have been demonstrated in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where contaminated groundwater and drinking water in private wells have been attributed to fracking. Because of those serious environmental issues, neighboring New York has implemented a moratorium on fracking.

There are also issues with how to safely dispose of the water-chemical mixture and with air quality near the fracking operations; according to Clean Water for North Carolina, a nonprofit environmental group, high concentrations of chemical compounds—many of which are harmful to human health—have been detected near gas pumping stations in Texas.

Fracking has been eyed as the likely the culprit in causing earthquakes in Arkansas, although Ken Taylor, chief of the N.C. Geological Survey, told the environment committee that it would be unlikely such seismic activity would occur in North Carolina because the drilling wouldn’t be as deep—3,000 feet versus 25,000 feet in Arkansas.

Energy companies are eyeing an area, known as the Triassic Basin, a rift that runs southwest from southern Granville County through Durham, Chatham and Lee counties and on to the South Carolina border. The rift formed when the continent broke apart—known as pangea—and then sediment and other material filled the open area and sealed it. Compressed over time, those organic materials generate the source of natural gas.

“It’s not a giant field, but it’s a field,” Taylor told the committee. “It’s a potential energy resource for our state.”

Currently, fracking is illegal in North Carolina. State law prohibits horizontal drilling and fluid injection into wells, the latter of which is common in energy-rich states such as Texas.

In addition, the state’s rules on oil and gas royalties date to the 1940s and require energy companies post a mere $5,000 liability bond.

But Gillespie, who is the committee vice-chairman, clearly hoping to entice his fellow lawmakers into supporting his bill, told the committee that energy companies would be taxed a to-be-determined rate—royalty payments that would be paid to the state. “That’s a resource and North Carolina should be compensated for it,” Gillespie said.

Energy companies often lease land from private property owners in order to drill. Those agreements on mineral rights and other payments are between the company and the property owner.
State regulators and other lawmakers were more circumspect about the possibility of fracking in North Carolina.

“We don’t want to endanger water sources in the area,” said Robin Smith, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ assistant secretary for the environment, adding that Pennsylvania considers fracking fluids as a type of hazardous waste.

State Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said she is concerned with disposal issues and asked Gillespie to consider including in his bill a moratorium on fracking until regulations have been established.

Mecklenburg County Democrat Kelly Alexander cautioned that the committee should closely examine water quality—and quantity issues. “I’d like to urge a very serious look at the use of water and the potential groundwater contamination issues. We’re still in a drought and water is an issue on a number of other fronts that we have to be extremely careful about.”

Fracking can require millions of gallons of water per well, a ProPublica story reported earlier this year, a much greater volume than conventional wells.

The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005—crafted behind closed doors primarily by then-Vice President Dick Cheney and several large energy companies, including Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton—exempts fracking from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency has begun a two-year study of fracking, which has included requesting information from energy companies on the fluids and materials used. These materials vary from state to state—and even from drilling site to drilling site—depending on the area’s geology. Halliburton refused to disclose the contents of its materials, so the EPA subpoenaed the energy company to turn them over.

Gillespie, who represents Burke and McDowell counties in western North Carolina, said a Halliburton representative would speak to the committee in mid-April.