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NC candidates: Environment safety key on fracking

RALEIGH (AP) — In an era of dependence on foreign oil and higher gasoline prices, pursuing underground energy sources that could simultaneously boost government coffers and job markets apparently are attractive to many of the candidates for North Carolina governor.
Most of the 12 candidates in the May 8 Democratic and Republican primaries for North Carolina governor say they’re open to the idea of permitting companies to engage in a form of shale gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — with conditions.
Candidates responding to an Associated Press questionnaire said they need assurances fracking can be done safely without damaging other natural resources to secure their support for legislation that would remove a fracking ban. Others also want to make sure landowners’ rights are protected. One respondent — Democratic state Rep. Bill Faison — said he was opposed to fracking.
Fracking involves injecting a drilled well with chemically treated water mixed with sand to crack shale rock and free trapped natural gas. The wastewater is often disposed of in separate wells. The greatest potential for fracking and other inland energy exploration appear to be with shale deposits in in the Piedmont and Sandhills.
The state environment department released in March a draft report that found fracking can be conducted safely in North Carolina if lawmakers adopt the right precautions.
The Legislature, which mandated the study, now is expected to return to Raleigh in May to determine the next step. Republicans in charge of the General Assembly have discussed a legislative timeline that aims to remove the current ban on fracking in 2014 or 2015. The next governor would be asked to sign any such bill. Any regulatory system is likely to generate royalties for the state and tax revenues.
“We must do nothing to harm the vital surface and groundwater resources of North Carolina,” said former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, one of the six Democrats seeking the party’s nomination. “If it is determined that ‘fracking’ can be utilized in North Carolina without harming these or other natural, agricultural or human resources, then as governor, I would be supportive of allowing this process to be utilized in our state.”
Faison, Etheridge’s rival, said environmental damage is not worth the risk and is opposed to fracking — setting up a distinction he hopes will win him his party’s nomination and the Executive Mansion. Faison also said the jobs created from burgeoning shale gas industry would go to out-of-state companies and contractors who already have expertise in the field.
Ohio’s governor placed a moratorium on drilling injection wells near fracking sites to dispose of waste after some earthquakes. The fracking technique has been blamed by local residents in Pennsylvania for polluting drinking-water supplies, although the industry says there’s no proof. Environmentalists also said the current glut of natural gas supplies mean the industry won’t soon come to North Carolina.
“We face the challenge of droughts in this state, droughts that affect groundwater and the water table,” Faison said at a recent campaign event. “I just don’t think it’s very smart to contaminate your own drinking water in that fashion.”
Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton is taking an approach similar to Etheridge but warned it would be “unwise to rush into a decision until all the facts are reviewed.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is examining fracking’s effects on drinking water. The agency’s first report is expected at the end of the year.
Republican candidate Pat McCrory made his support of offshore energy exploration a campaign plank during his 2008 general election against Democrat Beverly Perdue, who isn’t running for re-election this year. McCrory said he backs fracking done in “an environmentally responsible way.”
Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, the chamber’s chief proponent for shale gas exploration and production, said legislators are committed to methodically creating a best-in-the-nation regulatory framework that protects the environment and landowners who may lease or sell their land to natural gas companies.
“What we would love to have is a governor to work with us in trying to move this forward in a very safe, efficient manner,” said Rucho, who isn’t running for governor. He added: “There’s no big rush, but when we do it we want to do it right the first time.”
Faison’s viewpoint has won over voters such as AnnMarie Scandurra of Liberty. Scandurra’s family moved to North Carolina from New Jersey, where she said her home’s drinking water was contaminated with benzene. She doesn’t want to face that kind of threat again.
“The fracking is the only issue for me because this is the only issue that can really hurt us,” she said, adding she doesn’t expect better regulations in North Carolina. “There’s no reason to even begin to think that we can do it better.”
Among other candidates, Democrats Gary Dunn of Matthews and Gardenia Henley of Winston-Salem support fracking with the proper restrictions. Another Democratic candidate — Dr. Bruce Blackmon of Buies Creek — said he would defer the question to the Legislature.
Republican candidate Jim Harney of Fayetteville said he supports fracking operations that are environmentally sound, while GOP hopeful Jim Mahan of Denver said he’d back fracking if U.S. oil companies would stop exporting gasoline to other countries. Paul Wright, a former Superior Court judge from Wayne County and GOP candidate, said a moratorium may be most prudent action for now given the uncertainties of the process on the environment.
Libertarian Party nominee Barbara Howe of Oxford, who isn’t on the primary ballot, said the gas exploration and production companies shouldn’t receive any taxpayer money and should be held fully liable for any damage is might do. All concerns about fracking won’t ever be fully settled, Howe said.
“Life is not without risk,” Howe said. “Our task becomes moving forward with the least amount of risk.”
Republican primary candidates Charles Kenneth Moss of Randleman and Scott Jones of Greensboro didn’t respond to the questionnaire.

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