RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — On the surface, North Carolina gubernatorial candidates Pat McCrory and Walter Dalton each sound willing to allow a newly sanctioned form of natural gas exploration, but dig a little deeper and they are hardly identical.
Dalton is skeptical anyone will ever drill commercially for the amount of natural gas projected by some under the Piedmont and Sandhills. The sitting lieutenant governor is also concerned the intensive use of chemically-laden water in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could stain or parch wells and groundwater supplies.
"You have to guarantee that it can be done safely. I'm not for it if it can't be guaranteed," the Democrat said at a recent televised debate. "But I have said I'm open to all energy possibilities, and fracking being one."
But McCrory is confident fracking and separate gas and oil energy exploration off the North Carolina coast can be done while protecting the environment. The Republican former Charlotte mayor said the state is missing out on new jobs and revenues because outgoing Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration failed to lay the groundwork for them.
"It's time to quit sitting on the sidelines and borrow policies that have already been in place by Democratic and Republican governors across the nation, implement those in North Carolina and let the private sector determine whether or not there is natural gas underneath our precious ground here," McCrory said.
Environmental and energy groups and the public have been at odds over hydraulic fracturing, which occurs when trapped natural gas within shale rock is collected by injecting a drilled well with chemically treated water mixed with sand. The deep wells can run horizontally, diagonally or vertically.
The state environment department studied hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling and found it could be conducted safely in North Carolina if the right precautions are in place.
The Republican-led Legislature in July overrode Perdue's veto of a bill that authorized the drilling but first directed a state panel to write by October 2014 the drilling rules and how residents and the environment will be protected. Legislators must act again before companies can be issued drilling permits, so the next governor likely will be asked to formally weigh in on the issue and oversee a department that could ultimately issue permits.
Libertarian candidate Barbara Howe said companies should be free to explore for energy as long it doesn't involve taxpayer money or tax incentives and companies are bonded for damages. Howe said she would have questions if someone would want to drill under her Granville County property but said that's not a good enough reason to bar it.
"There are risks in anything and if we wait until everything's 100 percent safe, we won't ever do anything," Howe said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Even if fracking regulations ensure safe exploration, Dalton said he doesn't think energy companies will drill in North Carolina because of small supplies.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated this year North Carolina has 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas trapped in shale rock, or less than a six-year supply for the state. In comparison, the northeast Marcellus Shale, which also covers current fracking areas in Ohio and Pennsylvania, contains about 84 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the survey estimates.
Dalton said any jobs from fracking or offshore drilling would be several years away. But McCrory said jobs would have been around the corner had Perdue and Dalton not dragged their feet.
Dalton has presided over the Senate while lieutenant governor and voted only in case of a tie. Dalton was elected separately from Perdue, who didn't put him in charge of energy policy. The text of a 2011 bill vetoed by Perdue estimated oil and natural gas production could generate 6,700 jobs and would have earmarked future royalties for the state.
Dalton has hinted McCrory's viewpoint on fracking is being influenced by the American Petroleum Institute, who hired a lobbyist that works at the Charlotte law firm where McCrory is also employed. McCrory is neither an attorney nor registered lobbyist and has said he has no clients. McCrory made his support of offshore energy exploration a campaign plank when he ran unsuccessfully against Perdue four years ago, before he joined the law firm.
The fracking panel is not considering action on offshore drilling, which is a federal matter. Offshore Atlantic waters won't be open to lease sales for drilling until 2017 at the earliest. Republicans at the Legislature wanted Perdue to work with other governors to lobby the federal government to hear exploration permits and proposals.