Last week, North Carolina became the 34th state to allow hydraulic fracturing. Years in the making, new rules developed by the state’s Mining and Energy Commission after receiving over 200,000 public comments went into effect last Tuesday allowing the state to issue drilling permits to companies to begin shale gas exploration and extraction. The new rules open the door for drilling to begin in North Carolina later this year. The new rules govern many aspects of drilling, including well construction, water testing and buffer zones. Officials from the Mining and Energy Commission indicated that any company interested in fracing would have to establish a “drilling unit” by acquiring the mineral rights associated with several hundred acres of land before being able to apply for a drilling permit.

James Womack, a member of the Mining and Energy Commission, anticipates that some drilling will occur by the end of the year, although it may be some time before full-scale unconventional drilling operations are established, as more exploration may be needed before major, established oil and energy companies are willing to commit to the large investment necessary to implement a full-scale operation.

Although the quantity of natural gas in North Carolina is still unknown, some think it could be as much as in nearby states like Pennsylvania. In addition, potential fracing hot spots have previously been identified by maps published by the N.C. Geological Survey. Shale gas is thought to be concentrated in an approximately 90-square-mile area spanning Lee, Chatham and Moore counties in rural North Carolina to the southwest of Raleigh.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of a conservation group and a landowner in Lee County, has already challenged the rules in court, arguing the formation of the Mining and Energy Commission violates the separation of powers provisions of the North Carolina state constitution. The lawsuit is pending while a panel of judges is selected to hear the case.

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