Duke University and the U.S. Geological Survey are planning to conduct a series of tests that could once and for all put to bed the debate surrounding alleged ground water contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas drilling.

Starting next month and lasting through September, the geologic survey and the university will test 75 private and public wells in regions of North Carolina where natural gas drilling could take place.

The tests will be conducted to get a benchmark reading of the water quality of the wells in question. Proving that natural gas extraction techniques caused chemicals or heavy metals to infiltrate people's ground water has been difficult in other areas of the country where it takes place, because few baseline tests were conducted before natural gas drilling took place.

If shale exploration occurs near the monitored wells, a new reading will be gathered and compared to the benchmark - identifying whether or not the quality of the water changed is due to drilling.

At least that is the plan, but Melinda Chapman, ground water specialist for the North Carolina Water Science Center at USGS said there is no funding yet for comparative tests. The free first round of samples has a $130,000 budget, she said.

Hydraulic fracturing, which involves blasting underground shale rock formations with water, chemicals and sand to fracture the rock and extract the natural gas held underneath, is under severe scrutiny in the past few years. As the natural gas potential of shale formations is realized, some parts of the country, like southern Texas, are experiencing a natural gas rush that has polarized residents from New York to California.

Across the nation, natural gas has an important role to play in increasing our domestic energy production, explained USGS Director Marcia McNutt, in a statement published by the geologic survey. We are pleased to assist with this project and to lend USGS's scientific expertise to ensuring that our domestic resources are produced safely and responsibly.

To date, North Carolina prohibits hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, but that might change as legislators in the state consider overturning those laws.

The round of baseline tests comes at a time when many are divided on the issue and the Delaware River Basin Commission delayed their vote on hydraulic fracturing.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study of its own to survey hydraulic fracturing's effects on ground water quality, and studies from The University of Texas and Penn State conclude there is no evidence hydraulic fracturing contaminates ground water, though the latter suggests long-term monitoring should take place to be sure. New York on Wednesday, completed the last of four public hearings on hydraulic fracturing, which drew many participants opposing the drilling technique.

As much as 10,000 wells could be drilled if hydraulic fracturing is allowed in the region that encompasses Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York, according to an April 15 New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection release.

New Jersey, in a symbolic gesture, in August approved a bill that bans hydraulic fracturing for a year, and that state's legislature is considering Thursday a separate bill that would prohibit the storage, disposal or treatment of hydraulic fracturing water, which environmentalists say is toxic.