Senate committee votes to end NC fracking moratorium

jmurawski@newsobserver.comFebruary 21, 2013 

  • Senate Bill 76 seeks to make changes • Lift the state’s fracking moratorium in 2015. • Study a single environmental/operating permit for shale gas exploration. • Eliminate two seats, including the state geologist, from the N.C. Mining & Energy Commission. • Repeal the state’s Landman Registry. • Allow deep injection of flowback water into wells for permanent disposal. • Increase the state severance tax on natural gas, oil and condensates. • Appropriate $22,900 for the operations of the commission. • Prohibit local governments from taxing energy exploration and drilling. • Require state royalties from offshore energy development to go into a $50 million emergency fund for cleanup of oil spills. • Encourage the governor to join South Carolina and Virginia to develop a regional strategy for offshore energy exploration. • Create an Energy Jobs Council within the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to promote business opportunities for energy companies. • Allow state-licensed hospitals to use emergency dual-fuel generators that run on natural gas and liquid fuel.

— A proposal to lift the state’s fracking moratorium and provide incentives to the energy industry to encourage drilling is headed for a vote by the full Senate.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill Thursday even as critics warned the legislation waters down environmental safeguards and public protections.

Republican Sen. E.S. “Buck” Newton, the bill’s lead sponsor, predicted the bill’s passage would bring an almost immediate economic boost to North Carolina’s hotels, engineering firms and trucking companies.

After the committee vote, co-sponsor Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, characterized opponents of the bill as opponents of jobs.

“If you nitpick it to death, the businessmen will not put their money on the line to come here,” said Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman of Moore and Randolph counties.

The legislation likely will be heard by the full Senate next week, said Newton, who represents Johnston, Nash and Wilson counties. It still requires hearings and votes at the state House. Its reception there is unclear as House Speaker Thom Tillis has expressed concern about undoing last year’s bill, which came only after much compromise, and with only a one-vote margin during a veto override vote.

The bill would allow the state to start issuing permits in 2015, would require environmental regulators to promote business opportunities for energy companies, and would prohibit local governments from taxing energy exploration companies.

Those and other provisions were subject to questions from skeptical senators who are concerned the state is easing regulation and increasing risk to residents and habitats.

“I’m concerned about this aggressive energy to get this done, this jobs panacea, at all costs,” said Democratic Sen. Angela Bryant after the hearing. “It’s this gung-ho approach that’s scary to me, and that anyone in their right mind at these agencies is not going to get in front of this train if they want to keep their jobs.”

Bryant represents Halifax, Nash, Vance, Warren and Wilson counties.

Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing, a means of removing natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale rock formations by pumping in water and chemicals to smash the rock.

North Carolina is believed to have between 779 billion and 3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, much of it concentrated around Lee, Moore and Chatham counties, according to a preliminary estimate last year by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Another provision in the bill would allow the injection of “flowback” fluids back into wells that have produced natural gas. The purpose of this provision is to allow for permanent disposal of industrial wastewater, which would solve one of the major challenges facing the energy industry throughout the nation.

Flowback is a mixture of chemicals and fluids used during fracking, mixed with underground brine and naturally occurring compounds that flush out of the ground after a gas well is fracked.

On Bryant’s request, Newton agreed to rewrite the wastewater provision to prevent fracking water from being hauled into North Carolina by out-of-state energy developers to be injected into local wells.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources last year said fracking could be done safely with the right safeguards in place. But the agency cautioned that the state’s geology is not suitable for re-injecting tainted water.

“Even if North Carolina law were changed to allow underground injection of waste, it is not clear that injection wells would be a feasible option for managing produced waters from a gas well,” the agency’s report said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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