Politics & Government

Judge halts N.C. fracking commission from issuing drilling permits

A Wake County judge on Wednesday barred the state commission that regulates fracking from issuing drilling permits, pending the outcome of a lawsuit between the governor and legislative leaders.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens issued an order enjoining the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which has the effect of re-establishing a moratorium on fracking. Stephens sided with a local environmental organization and a landowner who sued the commission, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the state.

The judge also granted a motion by some of the defendants to put the case on hold until the resolution of Gov. Pat McCrory’s lawsuit against General Assembly leaders challenging its authority to appoint a majority of members to commissions, specifically the Coal Ash Management Commission.

The lawsuit by the Haw River Assembly and Lee County resident Keely Wood Puricz, whose property is next to a 100-acre tract of land leased for natural gas extraction, makes the same arguments as the governor’s lawsuit. It contends the Mining and Energy Commission violates the separation of powers provision in the state Constitution, and so the rules it developed for the state’s venture into fracking are null and void.

The governor’s lawsuit is pending before the state Supreme Court. The defendants appealed a ruling in McCrory’s favor by a three-judge panel formed to hear constitutional challenges.

“The decision stopped any immediate harm to North Carolina residents from a commission formed by the state legislature in violation of the separation of powers firmly established in our state constitution pending further court deliberations,” John Suttles, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said of Wednesday’s ruling.

DENR spokeswoman Crystal Feldman issued a statement about the ruling Wednesday afternoon:

“DENR opposed the request for an injunction because we believe that the rules promulgated by the Mining and Energy Commission will remain valid and enforceable even if the court rules that the appointments to the commission are unconstitutional. Our position is consistent with the governor’s lawsuit and supported by a legal opinion from the Attorney General’s office in 2000.”

No applications for drilling sites have been received yet, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The moratorium was lifted in mid-March.

Under the state’s new fracking rules, obtaining permits for a drilling unit and for the drilling itself will require a minimum of 270 days of review by the Mining and Energy Commission and by DENR.

Staff writer John Murawski contributed

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