By Andrew Barksdale

Gov. Pat McCrory has signed today an energy bill that clears the way for natural gas exploration in 2015.

According to a news release today from the governor's office, McCrory signed Senate Bill 786, which won quick and easy passage in the Republican-controlled General Assembly last week.

"We remain intensely focused on creating good jobs, particularly in our rural areas," McCrory said in the release. "We have watched and waited as other states moved forward with energy exploration, and it is finally our turn. This legislation will spur economic development at all levels of our economy, not just the energy sector."

Permits for the practice could be issued as early as next March, or as late as fall 2015, depending on when the new drilling rules are adopted by the General Assmebly.

Natural gas exploration includes fracking, which refers to hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting oil and gas by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand and chemicals into shale formations deep below ground.

Opponents say fracking introduces new risks for contamination of groundwater and the air. Several environmental groups who oppose fracking have sought to delay the bill.

The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which was tasked two years ago to overall the state's gas and oil drilling law, is expected to finish its work by this fall.

(c)2014 The Fayetteville Observer