State House Speaker Thom Tillis confirmed rumors Tuesday that impatient state lawmakers could attempt to speed up the timetable for natural gas fracking in North Carolina.
The Republican lawmaker said he’s willing to consider such proposals, but also said he’s inclined to let the N.C. Mining & Energy Commission complete its task by the October 2014 deadline set by the state legislature last year.
The commission, created last summer, is responsible for writing three reports, along with about 100 regulations covering such issues as well construction, chemical disclosures, wastewater disposal and property owners’ rights.
“I tend to want to allow those processes time to get the regulatory framework right,” Tillis said during a press conference in Raleigh. But Tillis said he’s “open to suggestions about how we can move forward on fracking.”
As of its most recent meeting Friday, a committee of the commission has produced one draft rule on chemical disclosures that would be required of drilling companies. The commission will debate this and other rules throughout the year.
“There’s a concern the process will not end on time to meet the drilling demand of the energy industry,” explained James Womack, chairman of the commission.
Womack said he has heard about a variety of possible changes, including contracting with an outside firm to assemble the best practices from other states.
Such a move would render the commission irrelevant and is not likely, Womack said. More likely are proposals to change the makeup of the commission and to increase funding to hire staff to assist the commission in its work, he said.
Republican Mitch Gillespie, a key proponent of the fracking legislation in the House last year, is now an assistant secretary at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the agency that will oversee fracking safety and that supplies the staff of the commission.
Gov. Pat McCrory has expressed support for fracking, offshore oil drilling and offshore wind farms as avenues to energy independence and economic development.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process in which natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale is released by breaking up the rock with high-pressure water and chemicals. Supporters say fracking yields relatively clean-burning natural gas to offset dirty coal and imported oil, while critics say it poses unacceptable environmental risks.
North Carolina is estimated to have 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and related fossil fuels concentrated in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties.
Tillis’ comments Tuesday sparked concern among fracking opponents that the legislature will lift North Carolina’s two-year moratorium on fracking and make the practice legal this year.
“It is far more important to get this right than to do it more quickly,” said Molly Diggins, director of the state branch of the Sierra Club. “The question is, ‘What’s the value of rushing?’ ”
Concern about the legalization of fracking go back to last year’s legislation that formed the commission. The original proposal would have legalized fracking in 2014, but the final version required a separate vote by lawmakers after the commission writes the rules to govern the practice.
If the commission were to get mired in controversy and fall behind schedule, there would be no guarantee that a future legislature would approve the rules and legalize fracking. Advocates of shale gas exploration want to avoid such an outcome.
commissioner George Howard said the deadline has been a looming presence from the start.
“If we didn’t get our work done on time, we could have the hammer brought down on us,” Howard said. “I don’t think we’re to that point.”