RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina moved closer to joining a number of states that have embraced shale gas exploration using hydrofracking, under legislation the state's House of Representatives approved Thursday.
The measure creates a regulatory framework to oversee drilling for shale gas and lifts the current ban on the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to tap deposits of shale gas trapped deep underground. No permits for actual drilling would be issued for at least two years.
House Republicans passed the legislation by a 66-43 vote in a party line vote and it now returns to the Senate, which previously passed a different version of the bill.
"We're getting ready to put North Carolina on the map in energy production in a few short years to come," said state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Republican, who said the measure represented a consensus bill supported by the Senate.
North Carolina's existing laws regarding oil and gas exploration do not allow the techniques of horizontal drilling or fracking.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the shale gas entrapped in the Deep River basin, a 150-mile long area under central North Carolina, would supply the state's natural gas demands for more than five years.
While geologists have long known about the shale gas deposit, its depth and location within layers of rock made exploration and extraction difficult and expensive.
The innovation of horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing has made extracting shale gas more economically feasible. Thousands of wells have been drilled in states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia to extract shale gas as a new energy source.
In horizontal drilling, an exploration company bores a well to the depth of the layer of shale rock, then uses tools to curve the bore hole so that it runs horizontally through the rock layer containing gas.
Drill operators force millions of gallons of chemically-treated water mixed with sand under high pressure into the bore hole to create cracks in the underground rock and allow the release of more natural gas. The technique is known as hydrofracking or ‘fracking', but it is not without controversy.
The potential environmental impacts of shale gas exploration include the use of high volumes of water during drilling, possible contamination of groundwater by chemicals or wastewater, chemical spills and disturbance of large areas of land, according to a 2012 state report.
House Democrats urged a go-slow approach involving more study of the compatibility of North Carolina's geology and fracking. "There is no reason to push this," Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat. "We are talking about dramatically altering our landscape."
After initial resistance to the idea, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, has signaled an openness to shale gas exploration, noting the potential to create jobs and reduce energy costs for businesses and families. In May, Perdue created a workgroup to begin developing recommendations for regulatory guidelines for hydraulic fracturing in the state.
In 2011, she vetoed legislation that would have put gas exploration on a fast track in the state, saying it was unconstitutional.
Editing by David Adams