Fracking bill could pass Thursday

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJune 12, 2012 

An N.C. House committee, without allowing public comment, passed a bill Wednesday that would clear the way to legalized fracking of natural gas in this state.

The fast-moving bill is headed for almost certain approval by the full state House of Representatives and possibly the Senate on Thursday, culminating a two-week blitzkrieg by the Republican-dominated legislature to create a natural gas production industry in North Carolina.

Attention now turns to Gov. Bev Perdue and whether the lame-duck Democrat intends to let the measure pass into law or whether she’ll attempt to veto the energy policy touted by supporters as a job creation windfall.

Perdue’s spokesman, Mark Johnson, said the governor is awaiting to see the final version of the bill after it emerges from the Senate. Democrats in the House are preparing their amendments to toughen the measure’s environmental safeguards and safety protections. She has expressed support for fracking with the caveat that it must be done safely.

The version passed by the House Environment Committee was loaded with additional provisions that even hard-line opponents acknowledged to be significant improvements over earlier versions. Chief among those changes is adding two local elected officials to the board that would oversee shale gas exploration. It would also include a staff attorney from the N.C. Department of Justice. The Senate version had the board heavily weighted toward the oil and gas industry, critics said.

But some Democrats on the committee said the bill does not go far enough.

“No state’s done it right yet,” said Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat who plans to introduce an amendment Thursday that would require further studies of the risks rather than advancing the issue toward legalization.

Critics complained on Wednesday about the breakneck speed at which the legislature was moving on the controversial issue. For a time, it looked as if the bill would be passed by both chambers Wednesday and be sent to the governor. But after a lengthy debate on the Racial Justice Act, House Speaker Thom Tillis announced that the vote would be postponed until Thursday.

The bill removes a decades-old ban on horizontal drilling and injecting chemicals underground, the two main components of shale gas exploration in prehistoric shale rock formations. Fracking is industry shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping several millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to break up the shale rock and flush out the natural gas trapped inside.

The bill does not legalize fracking immediately. Rather, it outlines a process for creating regulations to govern the practice. Writing thousands of pages of regulations is expected to take at least two years. The state legislature would have to vote again to approve the final rules before any drilling and fracking permits could be issued.

State environmental officials who will be involved in the rule-making said they expect to spend three to four years doing the work, said Robin Smith, assistant secretary for the environment at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

"That shocks me," said Republican Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a fracking advocate. "When we get a new governor – and I predict it will be Pat McCrory – it won’t take three to four years."

"We’re going to reorganize government," said Gillespie, who represents Burke and McDowell counties. "This (energy exploration) is going to be a top priority for his administration."

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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