NC House turns to offshore energy exploration

jmurawski@newsobserver.com afrank@newsobserver.comJuly 22, 2013 

The state House approved an energy policy Monday that looks beyond fracking in the short term and turns its focus to offshore energy exploration, which could take decades.

The legislation’s focus on offshore oil drilling, and its effect on tourism-dependent areas, is a shift that could transform North Carolina’s coastal region with the promise of jobs and the threat of an accident, as well as the certainty of heated disagreement. Drilling in the Atlantic Ocean remains under prohibition but is slowly being revisited as the nation looks for future sources of energy.

Gov. Pat McCrory signaled his support for such a policy during his election campaign last year. This weekend he emphasized his commitment at an energy summit at Appalachian State University.

“North Carolina needs to get into the energy production business in a much bigger way than we ever have before,” McCrory said, citing a study that offshore energy could create thousands of jobs. “The vast majority of those jobs would be in support services such as banking, health care and all types of logistics.”

In a separate vote, the House also rejected House Bill 74, an environmental package that would have restricted the public’s ability to review the chemicals that energy companies use in fracking. The omnibus legislation, containing dozens of provisions, will now be negotiated by House and Senate members. Any compromise will have to pass both chambers to become law.

The offshore legislation, which passed the House with a mere five minutes of debate, had originally proposed lifting the state’s fracking moratorium and other measures to speed up shale gas drilling here. Those controversial measures were set aside in favor of focusing on the bigger energy payoff in the Atlantic Ocean.

As a result, Senate Bill 76 leaves in place a fracking policy set a year ago. That means the state’s fracking moratorium won’t be lifted until the legislature votes on rules now being written by the Mining and Energy Commission, which is expected to take more than a year.

Instead, the bill instructs Gov. Pat McCrory to form a regional energy compact with South Carolina and Virginia to promote energy development in federal waters, at least three miles from shore.

The bill also directs this state to join other coastal states, including Alaska, to explore offshore energy development. It also creates a $250 million fund for emergency cleanup efforts.

The brief debate about the risks and benefits of offshore derricks and pipelines foreshadowed the issues ahead. Supporters said setting a broad policy is merely the first step in a long process that will afford ample opportunity to address concerns.

But Rep. Paul Tine, a Democrat who represents Beaufort, Dare, Hyde and Washington counties, warned that the economic benefits of offshore drilling would flow to Virginia, which has a major port in Norfolk.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County, said the risks are too great and the payoff too remote.

“Despoiling our coast for a couple of months of oil supply that may reduce the cost of gas by a penny is just not worth it,” Harrison said.

Offshore drilling remains a far-off prospect that is largely a decision of the federal government. It would require the preliminary step of seismic testing, which is currently not allowed. The industry is awaiting a federal environmental impact study that’s due out later this year, and the results of which could lead to a federal decision to allow preliminary testing to get underway.

McCrory has embraced all forms of energy development, including solar power, wind farms and offshore drilling. The offshore energy policy would include wind farms as well, but proposals in recent years to build wind farms in this state have gone nowhere.

One of the issues yet to be resolved is the amount of money North Carolina would receive from lease royalties paid by energy companies to drill in federal waters.

Staff writer John Murawski

Drug testing, reg reform denied concurrence

State house lawmakers asked their colleagues not to concur on two big bills Monday so the sponsors could work out issues. With session days dwindling down, and a budget left to debate, it’ll be tough to work out remaining differences and get these two complicated pieces of legislation passed.

A sponsor of the wide-spanning regulatory reform bill, Rep. Timothy Moffitt, an Asheville Republican, asked his House colleagues not to concur because the bill came back from the Senate with measures from two other regulatory bills incorporated into it. Segments deregulating the billboard industry, and affecting environmental issues, the living wage, city ordinances and more are now under the 60-provision bill’s umbrella.

House and Senate lawmakers will need to compromise between the two vastly different versions of the bill: The original House version was only two sections long, and allowed legislative rules to expire.

Rep. Dean Arp, a Monroe Republican, asked the House not to concur on a separate measure that would strengthen background checks on welfare applicants and require drug testing for suspicious applicants to the Work First program, which gives support, cash benefits and job training to low-income families. Arp said the changes needed were technical. “This has been a good bill that has been received with bipartisan support,” he said.

County Departments of Social Services and some lawmakers deny the bill’s usefulness, saying drug screening processes currently in place do more than enough to weed out illegal substance users. Recently, a provision allowing county DSS employees to fingerprint applicants was added.

Staff writer Annalise Frank

Children with disabilities bill goes to governor

Some families can’t afford to put their children with disabilities into private schools that better suit their needs. A bill approved by the House Monday aims to fix that.

“This is an opportunity for children with special needs to get some educational help where they’re not receiving it,” said Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican. “The big change is that it makes parents who are too poor to pay income taxes eligible for the same program that those who do pay income tax are eligible for.”

House Bill 269 amends a relatively new law that gives tax credits to parents who want to place their children with disabilities in private schools. The new bill offers $6,000 per year as a scholarship, instead of a tax credit so it would apply to more lower-income families. Critics of the law say it takes away from public schools.

“My beef is with the underlying (law) that (the bill) seeks to fix,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat. “But this bill may make it a touch better. It might allow some economically disadvantaged kids to cobble together some economic capacities.”

The bill underwent some minor changes in the Senate, which approved it. The new version calls for the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority to report annually to the Department of Public Instruction and the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee, as opposed to just the committee.

House lawmakers concurred with the Senate changes in a 91-20 vote. The bill will be sent to Gov. Pat McCrory.

Staff writer Annalise Frank

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