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EDITORIAL: Approve tougher rules for drilling right away

Natural gas and oil might be hiding under our feet, especially in areas of Lee and Chatham counties that have been identified as promising for hydraulic fracturing.

But an expensive and disruptive attempt to find and extract whatever’s there could discover very little. Several geological experts have predicted that outcome, saying our rock layers have marginal potential.

Fracking in North Carolina would be speculative, constituting a risky roll of the dice. That’s not the case elsewhere, such as in Pennsylvania, where the fuel has been found and is being tapped.

With such risk and no advantage to turning their attention here, well-managed and experienced companies aren’t as likely to take a gamble on fracking in North Carolina right now. Maybe when and if those other locations run dry, but not now.

That’s precisely why getting this state’s regulations right is essential. It’s not those who know what they’re doing that we have to worry about. It’s the wildcatters with barely the equipment, financing or know-how to make a go, desperate for the chance of a big find and willing to cut corners to make it happen.

Related: NC fracking rules revisions readied ahead of vote

The North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission is completing work on recommended regulations, adjusting the framework legislators have put in place before opening the door to fracking. The commission’s work will go back to lawmakers, who have the final say.

Having paid attention to feedback at public comment sessions this summer, commissioners are improving rules in ways that will be burdensome for fly-by-night speculators.

That includes allowing unannounced inspections, expanding setbacks to protect local water supplies from runoff and creating a permanent archive of fracking records.

But commissioners haven’t found the right answer to all issues. They appear poised to allow open pits to store fracking waste on the assumption that it’s too late in the process to change that. They say more stringent rules could be added a year from now.

They should heed fellow Commissioner Jane Lewis-Raymond of Charlotte-based Piedmont Natural Gas. She’s advised banning open-pit storage from the start, promising that industry leaders won’t object.

Tough rules now avoid expensive cleanup later. And they should also encourage the riff-raff to gamble on tearing up the earth under some other state’s feet.

 

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