Two state Republican lawmakers said Wednesday they will lead an effort to delay legalizing fracking in this state. The move casts doubt on plans by some in the state legislature who have been pushing to quickly legalize the controversial natural gas extraction technique.
Rep. Mitch Gillespie, chairman of the House appropriations committee, spent an hour outlining for reporters reasons why the state should take several years to make sure fracking is done safely and responsibly. Gillespie, representing Burke and McDowell counties, said that conducting more research and crafting laws would delay legalized fracking here by at least two to three years.
Gillespie was flanked on one side by Rep. Michael Stone of Harnett and Lee counties, areas where natural gas deposits are thought to be held underground in shale rock formations. On Gillespie’s other side stood Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat sympathetic to environmental causes who said she remained concerned that fracking contaminates drinking water and endangers public safety.
Afterward Harrison said that the state shouldn’t “be rushing into it for another 20 years.”
Fracking, a shorthand phrase for hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground at high pressure to break up the shale and release the trapped natural gas.
State environmental regulators this month issued a study concluding that shale gas can be fracked safely as long as the right laws and protections are in place, but the concept remains highly contentious.
“A lot of people in North Carolina are concerned,” Gillespie said. “This is basically further studying. We’ll move the needle just a little bit.”
Gillespie and his colleagues plan to introduce legislation this year that would require state environmental regulators to propose comprehensive laws and permitting requirements to govern fracking, as well as conduct further studies on the impacts that natural gas exploration would have in this state.
“We’re moving ahead cautiously,” Gillespie said.
The Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and Environment North Carolina, which were bracing for a legislative battle over fracking this summer, welcomed Gillespie’s approach.
“We’re relieved the rush seems to have slowed down,” Sierra Club director Molly Diggins said.
Absent at Wednesday’s announcement were the legislature’s two staunchest supporters of fracking: Republicans Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County and Rep. Mike Hager of Cleveland and Rutherford counties. They said they had other commitments.
But shortly before Gillespie’s announcement the pair had issued a joint press release declaring, “We can’t afford to delay energy development any longer with more studies and panel discussions.”
However, Hager said by phone he is 99.5 percent in agreement with Gillespie’s cautious approach.
Rucho said by phone that fracking is highly complex and will require about two years to create the proper legal framework.
“You can’t drill hole number one to evaluate your resources until you have your regulations in place,” Rucho said. “I always knew it was complicated, especially when you’re starting from zero, because we have no framework.”