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NC Rules Review Commission approves fracking standards

Hundreds came out for the North Carolina Oil and Gas Rules Public Hearing on proposed fracking rules held at the McKimmon Center on the N.C. State campus in Raleigh on August 20, 2014.
Hundreds came out for the North Carolina Oil and Gas Rules Public Hearing on proposed fracking rules held at the McKimmon Center on the N.C. State campus in Raleigh on August 20, 2014. cseward@newsobserver.com

North Carolina’s proposed fracking safety standards sailed through a rules review Wednesday despite a staff attorney’s warning that several rules failed to meet state standards and should be put out for public hearing.

The Rules Review Commission’s approval means the fracking rules won’t be delayed by several months for extra reviews and hearings. Instead, the rules, written by the Mining and Energy Commission, are now headed to the state legislature, which is expected to lift North Carolina’s fracking moratorium in a matter of months.

The Rules Review Commission approved 117 rules in all, covering such items as chemical disclosure, well shafts, water storage, water testing and buffer zones.

But the entire stack of rules governing shale gas exploration was contingent on a single uber-rule – creating a process for permit applications – and failure to pass that rule would likely have delayed drilling here by several months.

“You couldn’t have had an application because you wouldn’t have had a rule for it,” Mining and Energy Commissioner James Womack said afterward. “You have to have an application rule in order to approve permit applications.”

The Rules Review Commission’s staff attorney, Amanda Reeder, advised holding back three rules, saying the Mining and Energy Commission made substantial changes to those rules last month. Under North Carolina’s rule-making standards, a substantial rule change creates a new rule that requires public review.

For example, the Mining and Energy Commission changed the permit application review period from 60 days to 180 days. The mining commission also added new technical requirements for water storage in open-air pits and for blowout prevention in well shafts.

The rules commissioners are not bound by Reeder’s interpretation and decided the rule changes weren’t substantial, despite reluctance by some commissioners.

“It seems like a big change and the public didn’t get notice of it,” rules commissioner Jeanette Doran said of changes to water pit specifications. Doran voted to approve the changes.

Wednesday’s discussion also revealed the extent of the Mining and Energy Commission’s urgency to get the rules to the state legislature next month.

In the rush to fix technical and typographical glitches in 120 of the rules, more than a dozen rules didn’t make the cut Wednesday.

“There was a lot of pressure on the Mining and Energy Commission to get them out,” Reeder explained at the meeting.

In a rush

Reeder said the Mining and Energy Commission staff emailed 100 rules to her at 2 a.m. last Friday, ahead of a looming 5 p.m. deadline. More than half those rules contained errors, Reeder said, and had to be resubmitted with an extended deadline.

In the hectic back-and-forth, she said, 13 rules were misplaced and didn’t arrive in her in-box on time.

The Mining and Energy Commission asked the Rules Review Commission to waive the deadline and approve the 13 rules anyway.

“I extended their deadline by 70 hours,” Reeder objected. “They are asking you to waive your deadline and look at them now.”

This time, the rules commission agreed with Reeder. The 13 belated rules will be considered at the rules commission’s Jan. 15 meeting. Then they will be submitted to the legislature, with ample time for lawmakers to take them up in the legislature’s long session, which convenes Jan. 14.

These rules won’t require new public hearings because the changes were technical, not substantial.

Mary Maclean Asbill, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, attended Wednesday’s proceeding and said it confirmed her frustrations with fracking.

“All of the issues just highlighted how rushed the whole process was,” she said.

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