Property owners in northern Moore County would be forced to sell the natural gas under their land if the General Assembly approves a fracking recommendation handed down last week by the state Compulsory Pooling Study Group.
Compulsory pooling, or forced pooling, allows drillers to tap local natural gas, even if landowners don’t want drillers probing under their homes and farms. Critics compare it to a government’s right to seize private property for the public good.
“It’s a particularly bad infringement on landowners’ ability to decide what to do with their own resource,” said James Robinson, director of the Landowner Rights and Fracking Project at the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA in Pittsboro.
Fracking is important to this area because northern Moore County lies atop the Deep River Basin, where state geologists believe a 40-year supply of natural gas exists.
There is a contentious worldwide debate over whether fracking is safe, with little scientific evidence to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process in which wells are drilled into shale or rock formations that contain natural gas, and injecting water and chemicals under pressure to fracture the rock and extract the gas.
In North Carolina, there are few legal protections for a landowner in the event of compulsory pooling. The state does not have a regulatory structure governing a compulsory pooling process.
Robinson said compulsory pooling “is not necessary” for fracking to take place, noting that West Virginia and Pennsylvania do not allow the practice in the Marcellus Shale region, one of the most intensively fracked regions in the world.
Compulsory pooling gives states the right to force a non-consenting landowner into a mineral rights lease. In most states, it requires that a certain percentage of surrounding land already be leased.
The study group recommended that at least 90 percent of acreage of a drilling area be voluntarily leased before remaining property owners are forcibly pooled.
“We have serious concerns over that just as a matter of fairness,” Robinson said. “Hundreds of landowners could be forced to sell their gas whether they lease or not.”
For example, even if 90 percent of the land in a 320- or 640-acre “drilling unit” was required to be leased to implement forced pooling, Robinson said a minority of large landowners could force a majority of small landowners to allow extraction.
“Forced pooling could set up an undemocratic process,” he said.
The study group recommendation bypasses the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which holds regular public hearings on protecting the public and safeguarding the environment, and goes to the legislature.
Robinson said he does not expect the issue to come before the General Assembly until the short session next May, unless Gov. Pat McCrory calls a special session this fall.
“I don’t think the short session in 2014 is too early to see some legislation on fracking,” Robinson said.
State Rep. Jamie Boles, a Republican who represents most of Moore County, declined Tuesday to comment on forced pooling because he had not read the study group’s recommendations.