Under the Dome

Lawmakers to visit Arkansas to study fracking operations

UPDATED: A dozen state lawmakers and legislative staff are taking a three-day field trip to Arkansas this week to look at fracking operations outside Little Rock.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Charlotte Republican, is leading the trip as co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy. He said the trip is important to give lawmakers a first-hand look at hydraulic fracturing operations as North Carolina drafts regulations to allow fracking.

“We are trying to figure out and evaluate how other states are doing shale gas exploration,” he said. “I think it’s important that we get it right.”

Rucho said the taxpayer-funded trip includes Republicans and Democrats. The North Carolina delegation is expected to depart North Carolina at 1 p.m. Wednesday and attend meetings at the Downtown Marriot in Little Rock. The group will visit the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality on Thursday and then travel Friday to Southwestern Energy’s operations in Conway.

The Houston-based oil and natural gas company that also operates in Pennsylvania. In 2010, more than a dozen families filed a lawsuit claiming Southwestern Energy’s drilling sites had contaminated the water supply and made them sick, according to The New York Times.

A company representative served on a 24-member stakeholder panel that made recommendations to North Carolina’s Mining and Energy Commission, which is crafting the fracking regulations. Jim Dewbre, a company senior vice president, also spoke to one of the commission’s study groups in April.

This is the third time state lawmakers have traveled to other states to look at fracking operations. In 2011, two legislative delegations that visited Pennsylvania drew objections from environmental groups for presenting one side of the fracking story.

Like those trips, no environmental organizations or anti-fracking groups are on the agenda in Arkansas. Rucho said the purpose of the trip is to “learn how the system works,” saying “we have enough environmental groups here.”

But environmental groups say Arkansas is not a good case study because it is experiencing earthquakes linked to underground injections of wastewater and is now trucking it to Oklahoma.

Arkansas doesn’t know what to do with its fracking wastewater, doesn’t respect landowners’ property rights and gives away taxpayer money to attract drillers. Should this be where NC looks for best practices?,” said Cassie Gavin, a Sierra Club spokeswoman.

Rucho noticed the committee’s visit less than 24-hours before the lawmakers plan to leave town. He said no public disclosure of the trip was required, but it was publicly noticed because a majority of the commission were planning to attend, making it possibly subject to the state’s open meetings law. “It isn’t a meeting. It’s just strictly a fact-finding trip,” he said.