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Fracking Bill Passes NC Senate Committee

A controversial bill that would allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in North Carolina passed an important legislative committee Tuesday. Fracking uses horizontal drilling methods to access trapped pockets of natural gas. The bill's sponsors say it will bring much-needed money and jobs into the state, but opponents of the measure say there aren't enough safeguards. About a hundred protesters carrying signs and wearing t-shirts saying "Keep North Carolina Frack Free" and "No Fracking Way" poured into a conference room at the legislature Tuesday. Senator Tom Apodaca is the Vice Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. "Everybody find a seat and let's listen up. And we're going to set some ground rules. Every discussion will come through the chair. If there are issues in the audience, you will be removed from the room, not maybe, will be." Whether to frack or not to frack is one of the most heated issues lawmakers are considering these days. Scientists say most of the state's natural gas deposits are trapped in layers of shale rock in Moore, Lee and Chatham counties. Senate Bill 820 has gained support among Republicans who say North Carolina needs to tap into those energy sources. Republican Senator Bob Rucho is one of the measure's main sponsors. "We have a good bill in front of us. It is a first step towards drawing what would be a best practice, state-of-the-art, environmentally sound regulations for us to take this ultimately to the General Assembly for final approval." The bill as it currently stands would hold drillers responsible if they taint nearby water supplies. The fracking process involves using chemicals and sand to crack shale rock in order to access trapped natural gas. The measure also omits a provision that would have prevented municipalities and counties from restricting or banning fracking. And it says fracking can't be done offshore. Bill Weatherspoon heads the North Carolina Petroleum Council. He says most residents would like to use energy supplies that are produced here in the U.S. "They don't wanna be handcuffed to an ayatollah, who has a name they can't pronounce. In a country that they don't know where it is, with a religion and a culture and a language they don't understand. They much prefer energy jobs here in the US, they much prefer revenue to be paid to our government, they much prefer safe, domestic energy." Weatherspoon and other local municipal officials also spoke about the jobs and tax revenue the fracking industry could bring to the state. But experts aren't sure exactly how much natural gas North Carolina has. The bill would also set up a commission with a number of members of the oil and gas industry. Rob Jackson is a biology professor at Duke University. "We definitely want industry people on that commission, people who do drilling, who know the most about the drilling. But I can't imagine a situation more ripe for trouble, and that history says if you put the same people in charge of regulating an industry, and setting the safeguards for the industry." Jackson says not enough is known about the long-term impact fracking might have on the state. The bill's main sponsor, Robert Rucho, says drilling wouldn't be allowed until safety regulations are in place. But Jackson says that's putting the cart before the horse. And some landowners who're against the bill worry they'll be forced into fracking. State law could compel some property owners to submit to the process if enough of their neighbors have signed leases with companies. Laura Johnson owns twenty acres in Lee County. She has several neighbors who've already signed on with companies. "Will I get paid if they drill on my property? Yes, but it's according to the same terms or worse terms than the people who already signed the leases. So what this does it doesn't offer me any protection. I can't then negotiate with the oil company on my own terms, what kind of well, who can come and go, what kind of setup, anything." And if that happens, Johnson says, she would still be left without the reassurance she wants that fracking is safe.