State House Approves Fracking Legislation
The N.C. House on Thursday approved a controversial bill that would legalize fracking in several years.
After nearly three hours of debate, the House voted 66 to 43 in favor of the measure that would overhaul the state's energy policy to allow drilling for natural gas. The Senate, which approved a different version of the proposal last week, will consider the House version next week.
State Rep. Jamie Boles, a Republican who represents most of Moore County, voted in favor of the bill.
"I liked the bill that we passed because it frames the rule-making process," Boles said. "It doesn't approve fracking. This is the first step of many, and we don't know how the governor is going to weigh in."
Thursday’s movement came a day after the House Environment Committee sent the bill forward after adopting substantial changes, most notably altering the composition of a new Mining and Energy Commission.
The Senate version called for a commission that includes several oil and gas developers, but the House committee replaced them with local governmental officials and a representative of a publicly traded natural gas company.
Boles has long been an advocate for that change.
"I had some concerns with the Senate's composition of the commission," he said. "With our changes, it becomes less industry weighted."
The commission would be responsible for creating the necessary safeguards and protections to ensure that fracking can be done safely.
State Sen. Robert Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican who sponsored the Senate bill, said he had no problem with the changes.
The Senate approved the bill last week.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is a controversial form of natural gas extraction. It is germane to northern Moore County, which lies atop the Deep River Basin, where state geologists initially believed a 40-year supply of natural gas exists.
But a recently released U.S. Geological Survey assessment showed that the Deep River Basin has an amount of natural gas equivalent to 5.6 years of usage based on 2010 consumption rates in North Carolina.
Although geologic conditions in the Deep River Basin are not ideal, similar conditions have yielded profitable operations in the Barnett Shale in Texas, the Haynesville Shale in Louisiana and the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states.
Fracking is illegal in North Carolina — for now. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said last month in a report that fracking “can be done safely” only if lawmakers adopt state-specific regulatory standards and invest “sufficient resources” in compliance and enforcement prior to issuing any drilling permits.
The fracking bill directs several state agencies to draft regulations by October 2014, when the first permits could be issued.
The DENR report also noted the need for additional research on North Carolina’s geology and hydrology to identify conditions under which fracking can be done without risking water resources.
Critics claim that fracking poses risks to the environment and to the public health. They cite reported accidents and spills in other states that were blamed for fish kills, livestock deaths and other complaints.
Fracking supporters, on the other hand, tout the new jobs and tax revenue that fracking will bring to North Carolina. They claim that the risks are manageable with the right laws and regulations.
There is a contentious worldwide debate over whether fracking is safe, and there is little scientific evidence to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand the risks.
Another potential impact on any future drilling is the price of natural gas, which currently sits at 10-year lows. Experts believe a glut of natural gas could suppress prices for at least another 10 years, making it less likely energy companies would invest in drilling or exploration options for a relatively small amount of natural gas.
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at (910) 693-2474 or tnatt@the pilot.com.
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