RALEIGH — The state could begin issuing permits to allow fracking for natural gas in North Carolina by this time next year.
With a vote of 63-52, House lawmakers gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a Senate bill that fast tracks fracking, ignoring complaints by Democrats that the bill was being rushed through with too little public notice and study.
The measure still needs a final vote in the House, which is expected to happen Thursday. It then goes back to the Senate for the two versions to be reconciled. It could be on Gov. Pat McCrory's desk as early as next week.
The measure includes an amendment, introduced this week, that replaces a July 2015 deadline to lift a moratorium on drilling permits. It allows the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources to instead begin issuing permits 61 days after drilling rules are approved, unless lawmakers take the unlikely step of blocking the rules.
Rep. Mike Stone, a Lee County Republican who introduced the amendment, said permits could begin going out as soon as early March or as late as September. Lee County is the center of where much of the state’s natural gas reserves are believed to be located.
“This allows us to move forward,” he said after the vote. “The moratorium is not lifted until the rules are in place.”
Fracking opponents saw it differently, charging that lawmakers reneged on promises to allow no drilling permits until rules that are still in development are in place. If the bill passes, they say, those rules could take effect with no further action by the legislature.
The bill requires the state Mining and Energy Commission to complete its 120 fracking rules by Jan. 1. It erases a July 2015 deadline for permits to start being released.
“It allows permits to be issued regardless of whether the rules are adequate or among the best in the country,” as legislative leaders have promised, said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club.
Fracking injects water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture underground shale formations and release natural gas. The practice, combined with horizontal drilling, has vastly expanded the nation’s natural gas supplies but is controversial because of fears it can also contaminate groundwater.
Long wait for the industry
House Republicans voiced frustration at the nearly four years the state has debated fracking, saying the delay places North Carolina at a competitive disadvantage. But the speed of the House action surprised fracking opponents, who have previously viewed House members as more cautious about fracking than the Senate.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, who does not usually vote, voted for the bill. He said afterward, “I wanted to make it very clear where I stood on this issue.”
Tillis said the acceleration of the bill’s passage meant “it’s just a matter of why not get it done? It’s time to move forward.
“We need to get the industry interested in the research and the necessary steps to really determine the extent to which this is a viable industry in North Carolina. What we are trying to do is provide certainty to the industry so that we are likely to see that kind of investment and ultimately the job creation that comes from it.”
The House vote followed impassioned pleas from Democrats to slow down its passage. The bill whipped through the House energy committee Tuesday night and the finance committee Wednesday before reaching the House floor.
“This is a bill that will have extremely long impact on the state. We’ve never been down this road before,” Mecklenburg County Democrat Becky Carney said in asking for a delay. “I don’t know why there’s a rush unless there’s a line outside this building waiting for a permit to start drilling.”
Democrats prodded Stone, a leading proponent of drilling, to cite studies proving drilling would guarantee new jobs for his county of 60,000 people.
“Lee County, we need the jobs,” Stone said. “North Carolina needs the energy independence.”
Legislative staff members said Wednesday they can’t estimate tax revenues from drilling because it’s not known how much gas can be economically recovered or when it would start.
The bill prohibits local governments from restricting fracking. It also bans injecting fracking wastewater underground and directs the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources to do environmental compliance reviews of permit applicants.
The Senate previously reduced penalties for disclosing the chemical recipe fracking companies use to extract gas from a felony to a misdemeanor.
John Frank of The News & Observer contributed.
Henderson: 704-358-505; Twitter: @bhender