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SANFORD, NC (AP) – The public debate begins in earnest over whether natural gas trapped in Piedmont North Carolina’s shale rock formations is a promising energy source or a serious threat.

The News & Observer of Raleigh reports the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources expects a big turnout Monday in Sanford, the first of three public meetings on the issue.

The agency is studying the pros and cons of drilling into the shale and must prepare a report for the General Assembly by May.

The drilling process called fracking isn’t allowed in North Carolina, but speculators have already leased more than 9,000 acres in Lee County for future drilling and exploration rights.

Critics say the method results in chemical spills, polluted underground aquifers, and earthquakes caused by the subterranean blasts.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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