About a dozen lobbyists, environmental activists and other interested people watched Friday as the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission finalized its suggested rules and regulations for the oil and gas industry.
The regulations primarily concern the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The commission has worked on researching and writing the rules for two years and recently received 217,000 public comments on the rules from 30,000 groups and individuals. Many of the comments directly contradicted others.
“Congratulations for finishing the task,” Chairman Vikram Rao told his fellow commissioners. “If anybody’s totally happy with it, I’ll be surprised.”
The rules could go to the General Assembly as early as January to be passed into law.
The commissioners spent several days last week making initial changes before finishing up Friday, when topics such as open-air wastewater storage pits and the protection of environmentally sensitive areas dominated discussion.
Thousands of commenters, and several commissioners, pushed to ban open pits. The recent Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River also originated from open pits.
However, the commissioners in charge of reading and responding to the comments were unable to find a reasonable alternative. The rules allow companies to choose between open in-ground pits or above-ground storage tanks.
Jim Womack, a former chairman of the commission, said he and the others “spent many hours deliberating and discussing how to get rid of pits. And we couldn’t do it.”
So another commissioner, gas industry lawyer Jane Lewis-Raymond, introduced stricter requirements Friday on drillers who use open pits
The commission voted to adopt one regulation to prevent flooding from open pits, and another to require constant monitoring of the liners that keep them from leaking into the ground. Womack voted against the monitoring changes. He said no other state has a requirement like it.
One of Womack’s chief concerns – that stricter regulations will dissuade oil and gas companies from coming to North Carolina – is unlikely, said one industry insider after the meeting.
“I think there are some challenges for the industry (in the rules), but no challenges that aren’t workable,” said David McGowan, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council.
A number of issues will be left up to the legislature because the Mining and Energy Commission simply didn’t have the power to make a decision, much to the chagrin of some at Friday’s meeting.
Jeannie Ambrose, a Chatham County resident and fracking opponent, said the whole process has been confusing because of questions over who has what authority.
“The citizens of North Carolina deserve to be heard,” Ambrose said. “And the legislators – and I don’t think I need to say this – but they need to listen and respond to our concerns.”
The commission members themselves sowed confusion, initially granting themselves the power to stop work on a drilling site but later taking it away after learning they weren’t allowed to give themselves that power. Now it’s on what several called a “bucket list” of rules and powers to request from the General Assembly.
Some at the meeting suggested additions of their own to that bucket list.
James Robinson, research and policy assistant with the Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Fund International, said the state needs stronger protections for landowners, especially regarding compulsory pooling and baseline water quality testing.
Liz Kazal, a field associate with Environment North Carolina, called for regulations on air quality emissions.