Frack-tours

No, it's not a replay of General Lee's 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania. So why are North Carolina legislators, in the fall of 2011, marching about in the Keystone State?

The solons have been sniffing out the pros and cons of fracking, the controversial method of extracting natural gas from underground shale formations. Trouble is, the way they've set things up, they may be getting only the pros.

A report in Sunday's N&O indicated that when state Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews and and Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherfordton visited Pennsylvania last month, taxpayers paid for the trip. That's a proper use of public money - fracking is a hot issue here, because a potential natural gas field underlies central North Carolina. Ultimately the General Assembly will either give drilling outfits the go-ahead or not, and legislators will determine the rules under which fracking - fracturing the underground rocks to release oil and gas - is carried out. They need a good, balanced look at all the facts.

So why did the two Republican legislators allow Chesapeake Energy, the leading shale gas producer, to drive them around and guide their two-day tour? Since they met with no drilling opponents or discontented residents - of which there is no shortage - no wonder, as Rucho reported, "What we saw was green grass and cows grazing."

Idyllic pastures are exactly what drillers want the public to see, along with all that newfound natural gas and the revenue streams welling up from thousands of feet below the surface. And it's true that where fracking can be carried out safely, with minimal harm to the environment, it's a major plus for the U.S. energy picture. Opponents, though, depict a downside involving, among other things, contaminated water supplies.

In that light, it's noteworthy that Chesapeake paid a fine of nearly $1 million for water contamination in Pennsylvania just this year. It also funded "a comprehensive PR plan" and "legislative consensus building" while ramping up drilling efforts in Arkansas, and contributes to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which draws up "model" laws for legislators.

In short, watch out, legislators, and reach out - or you'll get a green-grass-and-grazing-cows view of a controversy that has another side. The same goes if anti-drilling legislators take a comparable frack-tour that looks only at shale gas production's lowlights. Either would be a waste of taxpayer money, or worse.