Fracking fight advances in North Carolina

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed a bill in June to allow hydraulic fracking, which is expected to become a multi-million industry in the state. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed a bill in June to allow hydraulic fracking, which is expected to become a multi-million industry in the state. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

North Carolina is down to the final weeks of a fracking battle that has consumed the state government for nearly two years.

The state’s Mining and Energy Commission will kick off public hearings this week on the controversial drilling practice, which Gov. Pat McCrory (R) legalized in June.

Fracking is expected to bring in millions of new dollars for North Carolina, which faced a $445 million budget shortfall this year. The practice could begin as soon as May 2015.

The backlash from environmental groups over what has been described as “dirty drilling” has been fierce. State officials have fielded hundreds of safety concerns, ranging from water supply contamination to waste management.

Natural gas has become a crucial revenue source in dozens of states nationwide, many that faced dried-up budgets in the aftermath of the recession. At least 32 states had plans to increase production in 2012, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

And with the production of shale gas increasing by more than 50 percent each year since 2007, it’s given rise to an American energy revolution. The U.S. is expected to surpass its record oil production levels of the 1970s within the next decade, according to a 2014 article by Foreign Affairs.

So far, the expected economic impact in North Carolina is relatively small. A study by North Carolina State last year found that the legislation would create about 2,000 new jobs and $150 million in new annual revenues over 20 years.

States like California have predicted far larger payoffs. A 2013 study by the University of Southern California estimated that fracking could bring in almost $25 billion in tax revenue and create 2.8 million jobs by 2020.

Republican-controlled states like North Carolina are not the only ones pushing for fracking. But the debate can be more difficult in Democratic states like California and Colorado, which are energy-rich but also historically supportive of environmental protections.

Illinois, which has both a Democratic governor and legislature, recently approved the use of fracking in the state, though the practice has been hampered by tough safety regulations.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) last week forged an agreement between environmentalists led by Rep. Jared Polis (D) and the oil and gas industry that will keep two competing ballot initiatives regulating the industry off the ballot. 

Oil groups threatened to spend at least $20 million to quash the measures in Colorado, which has a $30 billion-a-year fracking industry. Nationwide, the fracking fight cost at least $105 million leading up to the 2012 election alone, funded by oil giants like Exxon Mobil, BP and Sunoco, according to Open Secrets.

Nearly 80 percent of campaign contributions from the fracking industry over the last decade have gone to Republicans.

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Hunter Schwarz · August 20