Fracking bill advances in N.C. legislature

jmurawski@newsobserver.com May 17, 2012 

— The state’s prospects for fracking gained speed Wednesday with the advance of a bill that would legalize the natural gas drilling method within two years.

But the bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, is not universally accepted even within the GOP-dominated legislature, and will complete with an alternate fracking proposal pushed by a sponsor who promises to pack it with public protections that underscore the anxieties surrounding the issue.

The passage of fracking legislation this summer would give birth to a natural gas drilling industry in North Carolina, even though lawmakers insist that the first wells are not likely to be drilled for at least several years. The technologies used to extract natural gas – horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – are currently illegal here. North Carolina has no history of large-scale energy exploration and is ill-equipped with antiquated oil and gas laws that date back to the 1940s.

With pressure mounting to take advantage of North Carolina’s natural gas reserves, Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a McDowell County Republican, said he will push for his own version of fracking legislation as early as Thursday, inserting scores of public safeguards and environmental protections.

Even those assurances don’t satisfy some critics, who say fracking is a technology so dangerous and risky it should never be allowed.

“This bill puts our water at risk by legalizing fracking before we have all the information needed to determine if it can be done safely in North Carolina,” said Molly Diggins, director of the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. “No state has garnered widespread recognition for doing the best job. Absent federal regulation, it’s all evolving and extremely dynamic in the states.”

But Rucho and Gillespie agree that fracking can be done safely here, and possibly within several years, once the state creates laws, regulations and agencies to govern the practice. Both tout the economic benefits of spawning a new industry in some of the state’s most economically distressed regions that will produce a relatively clean-burning, affordable domestic fuel.

Still, the two lawmakers bring starkly different approaches.

Rucho’s bill would legalize fracking by mid-2014, though he said after Wednesday’s vote the deadline could be extended. Gillespie, however, doesn’t want to legalize the controversial gas drilling method with any deadline until the consumer protections are first written into law and guaranteed.

“They want to lift the moratorium and have a date certain when it’s legal. That’s a biggie,” Gillespie said. “I’m not going to work under the pressure that we’ve got to get our work done by 2014 and if we’re not done they can start drilling.”

Taking more time

Fracking, shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, offers an alternative to imported oil and dirty coal. Fracking refers to pumping several million gallons of water and chemicals underground at high pressure to flush out natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale rock formations.

In recent months, Gov. Bev Perdue has come out in favor of fracking, as has the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, both with the caveat that strict regulations would be needed to prevent well shaft blowouts, chemical spills, drinking water contamination and other risks that have been the subject of complaints and agency fines in other states.

The state is believed to contain underground reserves of shale gas concentrated around Lee, Moore and Chatham counties and extending about 150 miles through the state’s midsection. The extent of the energy reserve remains speculative, but the U.S. Geological Survey is expected to issue more research this year that could determine whether North Carolina is sitting atop a potential energy gold mine.

But entering the fracking era may take North Carolina much longer than several years. Hannah Wiseman, a law professor at Florida State University, noted that New York has been developing fracking regulations since 2009 and the work is still ongoing.

“This may be a somewhat aggressive schedule,” Wiseman said. “New York has taken more than three years to develop a draft set of comprehensive conditions for high-volume drilling and fracturing.”

The fracking legislation favored by Rucho was recommended Wednesday by the Legislative Research Commission to be introduced in the state legislature for a vote later this summer. After the commission’s recommendation, Rucho assured that his bill would come with ample protections for the public.

“You know the King James Bible?” Rucho said, spreading his thumb and index finger to indicate the Scripture’s thickness. “The regulations are going to be nine books high.”

Competing views

The state environmental agency recently issued a 484-page report on fracking with hundreds of recommendations, among them that energy companies disclose the chemicals they inject into wells.

Gillespie said his legislation will include every recommendation from that report as well as every recommendation from the state Attorney General. “I’m following DENR’s recommendations to the letter,” Gillespie said.

Rucho’s bill would create a new agency, the N.C. Oil and Gas Board, to oversee writing regulations. Gillespie said he doesn’t feel comfortable assigning such a huge responsibility to a panel that doesn’t yet exist.

“Is the General Assembly going to argue over setbacks and well-shaft widths, or are we going to let the Oil and Gas Board do it by rules?” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said his legislation will be co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Hager of Cleveland and Rutherford counties. Hager, a Republican, previously worked with Rucho on his bill.

If Gillespie’s version prevails, legalizing fracking would require separate legislation from the General Assembly, either in 2014 or 2015, he said.

He expects his supporters and Rucho’s faction will work out a compromise this summer.

“If we argue every year over it, we might never get done,” Gillespie said.

A leading energy lobbyist said Rucho’s bill marks the beginning of a lengthy debate that may exceed Rucho’s two-year goal.

“Some people call it a moratorium – I call it an intermission – to write the rules and regs,” said Bill Weatherspoon, executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council. The petroleum group is a state chapter of the American Petroleum Institute, whose members include fracking companies.

“There is no hurry,” Weatherspoon said. “This is going to be a process that is going to last for years.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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