Fracking board to start making rules next month

jmurawski@newsobserver.comNovember 2, 2012 

The state’s Mining & Energy Commission on Friday rejected a touchy proposal to pray aloud before every public meeting – an idea one commissioner dismissed “a waste of time” – as the energy panel finalized administrative details and prepared to start creating rules to govern natural gas fracking.

The newly created commission also struggled with how best to permit public comments without losing control of hearings on one of the most controversial policy issues facing state officials. The prospect of involving “stakeholders” – environmentalists, industry groups and state agencies – proved so thorny that the board decided to put it off until next month.

The board met for nearly five hours Friday without taking a lunch break to complete its operating procedures and make committee assignments. The commission is in a race to meet an October 2014 deadline to prepare three studies and create hundreds of regulations. Meetings scheduled in December will begin those tasks in earnest.

“I am happy we have the administrative stuff behind us and we can start on the substance,” said Commissioner Jane Lewis-Raymond, a senior vice president and general counsel at Piedmont Natural Gas. “So game on.”

The Mining & Energy Commission was created this past summer by the state legislature and must complete its assignment before energy companies can start pulling permits to drill for natural gas.

The state is believed to have 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, concentrated in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties. Accessing that gas through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is not legal until the commission updates the state’s oil and gas regulations, which date back to the 1940s.

Fracking remains highly controversial in North Carolina, with some in favor of tapping a domestic energy resource and creating jobs, and others predicting chemical spills and other problems associated with heavy industry.

God and stakeholders

As Friday’s meeting got under way, Chairman James Womack, also a Lee County Commissioner, suggested the panel lead off every meeting with a public prayer, with commissioners taking turns leading the invocation.

Other commissioners became visibly antsy and voted for a moment of silence instead. Afterwards, Commissioner Vikram Rao said prayers led by 15 commissioners could have resulted in a state government body conducting devotions to gods from world religions that some would deem pagan. Rao was educated in Jesuit schools in Calcutta and describes himself “nominally a Hindu.”

After the meeting, Womack said he had planned to lead public prayers to Jesus Christ, but will now do so privately in his silent prayers. He deferred to the majority decision to hold a moment of quiet reflection.

“That’s God’s will that the board voted that way,” Womack said. “I believe if I don’t invite God into every one of my activities, it’s ill-fated.”

The board was also perplexed about how much time to give to public comments and stakeholder groups at its meetings. Commissioners supported hearing from the public and from interest groups, but feared the meetings could turn into venues for long-winded diatribes and emotional appeals.

Womack warned that the board would have to set time limits on public speakers if it didn’t want the meetings to disintegrate into chaos.

“There are as many stakeholders as there are human beings,” Womack said. “If you want to manage 400 to 500 angry people, you’re welcome to do it. It’s just going to be managing frustrations, and it’s going to be very difficult.”

With the technicalities out of the way, many commissioners expressed relief.

“I promise you that starting in December we’re going to get down to business, and you’ll have something to sink your teeth into,” Womack said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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