Fracking bill becomes law amid errant vote

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJuly 3, 2012 

Republicans successfully overrode Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of a fracking bill during a dramatic vote taken just after 11 p.m. Monday.

But like the legislation itself, the vote to override was controversial.

Rep. Becky Carney, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who opposes fracking, pushed the wrong button and accidentally voted with Republicans to override the veto. A maneuver by Wake County Republican Paul “Skip” Stam prevented her from changing her vote, giving the GOP a historic one-vote margin of victory.

"It was a huge mistake,” Carney said afterward. “I take full responsibility.”

Democrats denounced Stam’s quick parliamentary maneuver as a dirty trick that resulted in the passage of a landmark energy overhaul that could create a natural gas production industry in the state.

“I am shocked and profoundly disappointed,” said Guilford County Democrat Pricey Harrison. “First the Speaker cut off debate, which is unfortunate with such an important piece of legislation with serious implications for North Carolina.

"Then to pass the override by accident and to clinch it with a procedural move is grossly unfair," Harrison said. "We have two seriously ill Democratic members and two others with dying parents who have stuck around to help fight these vetoes.”

Democrats walked over to Carney’s desk to console the veteran legislator, who wept after she realized her mistake.

Carney said it was the first time in her 10-year legislative career that she pushed the wrong button on a vote. Mistaken votes are not uncommon and letting lawmakers change their votes is routine practice in the state legislature.

“They really did not have the votes to pass it,” Harrison said of the Republican veto override effort. “The atmosphere is toxic right now.”

Republican lawmakers had worked into the night trying to round up enough votes to override the veto. They took a break at around 10:30 p.m. to vote on legal changes that are believed to have convinced some wavering Democrats to switch sides and join the Republicans. After that vote the lawmakers filed back into the House gallery for the historic fracking vote.

The new law will reshape the state’s energy landscape by clearing creating an Energy and Mining Commission that will conduct studies and create new regulations to govern natural gas production through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The commission would complete its work by October 2014.

The legislature would then have to take a separate vote at that time to approve the Energy and Mining Commission’s work before drilling rigs and derricks could be permitted.

One group opposed to fracking quickly condemned Monday's vote.

"How ironic that in an industry plagued with accidents, hydrologic fracturing or 'fracking' today become legal in North Carolina based on a accidental vote," said Molly Diggins, North Carolina director of the Sierra Club.

During the legislative session, only a handful of lawmakers spoke on the fracking legislation before the House cut off debate and took its late-night vote. Stam of Apex said fracking is safe and reliable.

“The sky will not fall,” he said.

Republicans were still several votes short just 90 minutes before the vote and it remained unclear until the last minute whether they would have enough support to override the veto. Perdue vetoed the bill Sunday, saying it didn’t have enough safety provisions to protect the public and the environment.

Republicans had spent much of the day courting, cajoling and hectoring undecided Democrats to switch sides and join the Republicans.

One of the key swing votes was Rep. Susi Hamilton of New Hanover County who missed the vote on the fracking legislation earlier this month. Fracking foes had hoped the Democrat was on their side. On June 29, Hamilton's name was among 17 Democrats who wrote to Perdue urging her to veto the fracking bill.

But Monday night, as lawmakers headed to the gallery to challenge the veto, she said she thought the letter encouraging Perdue's veto was for another bill and said she didn’t see the final version before it was sent to the governor.

Just a half-hour before the veto override vote, she and Republican Daniel McComas of New Hanover County congratulated each other after the House Finance Committee passed McComas’ amendment extending a tax credit for the film industry, which is active in Eastern North Carolina.

When asked if the amendment was intended to bring Hamilton over to the Republican side, McComas said he was merely "flirting" with Hamilton. Hamilton deflected questions as to whether that amendment swayed her fracking vote.

McComas said the tax credit will promote jobs and fill restaurants and hotels in their district and statewide.

The one-year extension is worth $60 million to the film industry and a corresponding loss for the state treasury. Some lawmakers refused to vote for it, saying it was no technical amendment but a major piece of legislation.

Earlier in the day, the Senate had voted 29 to 13 to override the governor's fracking veto after a brief discussion.

Eight lawmakers missed the vote with excused absences, including four Democrats who had voted against the fracking legislation on June 21 and would likely have voted against the veto override. But even if they had voted Monday they would not have tipped the vote against the veto.

Three senators, all Democrats, spoke in favor of sustaining veto: Ellie Kinnaird of Orange, Floyd McKissick Jr. of Durham and Martin Nesbitt of Buncombe.

They cited concerns about exploitation of landowners, potential risks to drinking water, proximity of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant, and the lack of rules and regulations in place.

“For all these reasons we need to be exceedingly cautious and deliberative,” said McKissick. “We don’t need to go out there and do test drilling until we know the implications.”

Gov. Perdue vetoed the fracking legislation Sunday, saying it lacked sufficient protections for the public and the environment. She supports fracking in theory but only if it is done safely.

Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing, a method of pumping millions of gallons of a water-chemical mixture underground to crack rock formations at high pressure and flush out natural gas trapped inside.

North Carolina is believed to have 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, equivalent to a 5.6-year supply based on the state’s 2010 usage. The gas is concentrated in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties.

Republican gubernatorial candidates Pat McCrory, a Republican, and Walter Dalton, a Democrat, have both come out in support of the fracking legislation.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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