Advocates of fracking in the state legislature have set aside their differences and are building support to legalize the controversial method of extracting natural gas this summer.
Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County presented fracking legislation to colleagues on the Senate’s Commerce Committee on Thursday, saying the bill is ready for debate and will be put to a vote next Tuesday. The sole fracking bill now under consideration, it would go directly to the full Senate if passed by the committee.
Fracking for natural gas could transform the state’s rural landscape by introducing mining on an industrial scale in regions defined by farmland and small towns. Critics warn of drinking water contamination, spills and accidents, and a host of other potential risks.
Rucho, a Republican, has paired up with fracking supporters in the state House, who will be urging quick action on the legislation among their members. Rucho touted the product of the collaboration as “the very finest regulation, bar none, in the country.”
If the lawmakers succeed, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – the two methods used to release natural gas trapped in underground shale rock formations – could be approved in North Carolina within weeks.
But drillers would not be able to pull permits for several years until state agencies hash out regulations to protect the public and the environment. In a concession to those who feared lawmakers were conceding too much to the industry, the General Assembly would have to sign off on those rules to make fracking legal.
“There will be no drilling, no anything, until the General Assembly finally authorizes it,” Rucho said.
Still, Rucho’s presentation was met with questions from fellow legislators that signaled lingering concerns about opening up the state to a heavy industry that has generated protests, litigation and moratoriums in other states.
Concerns included the bill’s ban on towns and counties from regulating energy exploration through local zoning. That ban prompted Republican Sen. Richard Stevens of Wake County to ask whether local officials would lack the power to restrict drilling and fracking in downtown Raleigh.
Rucho assured skeptics that all remaining concerns can be addressed as the bill is debated in the coming weeks. Many details will be hashed out over months as the regulations are developed, he said, noting that the final rules will span thousands of pages.
“The critical factor is this is important for North Carolina’s economy and jobs for the future,” Rucho said after the presentation.
The bill includes consumer protections recommended by the N.C. Attorney General and many environmental safeguards urged by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It includes key provisions to protect landowners from exploitation and requires disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process.
The state’s environmental agency, in a 484-page report issued April 30, concluded that fracking can be done safely with the right safeguards. The report said energy exploration would generate hundreds of jobs in a 92-square-mile area spanning Lee, Chatham and Moore counties, considered the epicenter of North Carolina’s natural gas reserves.
Mining and Energy Commission
But many of the details will be worked out by a panel that would be created by the legislation, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission. Seven of the panel’s voting members would be mining industry representatives or individuals with experience in oil and gas exploration. Two slots would be set aside for people experienced in environmental conservation and mitigation.
The commission members would be appointed by the governor and General Assembly. An additional five positions would be nonvoting slots reserved for the state geologist, assistant secretary of energy and other government appointees.
“One of the biggest problems to this bill is that it directs the rule-making to an industry-friendly commission,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, director of Environment North Carolina. “And that commission would then pre-empt local governments.”
Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Republican from Burke and McDowell counties, acknowledged those concerns, but said the legislature would have final approval over the commissions’ recommendations, establishing a safeguard against weak regulations.
“The intent is that the new board adopt the rules,” said Gillespie, who will take a lead role shepherding the legislation in the House. “We gave them legislative directives on how they have to do it.”