RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a measure that would allow fracking for natural gas to begin in the state next year.
The Republican-controlled state House approved the bill Wednesday, 63-52, with a dozen members of the GOP caucus and all but one of the Democrats voting no.
The bill had its first committee hearing in the House on Tuesday and was added to Wednesday's calendar for a vote with no prior public notice.
Democrats and environmental groups accused Republican leaders of trying to push through the legislation before opposition can build and members have time to read the bill. Supporters said the issue had been debated long enough.
The House will hold another vote Thursday before sending the bill back to the Senate, which approved an earlier version last week. If the Senate agrees with the House changes, the bill heads to the desk of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who supports bringing fracking and off-shore drilling to the state.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is used by the energy industry to extract oil and gas from rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals. North Carolina is believed to have natural gas reserves locked in layers of shale under Chatham, Lee and Moore counties, though just how much is in dispute.
The bill's Republican sponsors have repeatedly claimed that there is enough gas to meet North Carolina's energy needs and spark an economic boom that will create thousands of well-paying jobs.
"Vote for this bill in support of jobs for North Carolina, vote for this bill for jobs in Lee County, and help make North Carolina energy independent," Rep. Mike Stone, R-Lee, urged his colleagues Wednesday. "Look at North Dakota: They're having to truck people in there to find help."
But opponents pointed to a 2012 U.S. Geological Survey estimate that North Carolina's total reserves amount to less than would be needed to meet the state's natural gas needs for six years.
A separate 2012 study by the N.C. Department of Commerce estimated that natural gas exploration and drilling would create an average of 387 jobs over a seven year period, with most positions going to out-of-state workers with experience on gas rigs.
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