Fracking Legislation a Likely Focus for Lawmakers
BY TED M. NATT JR.
The N.C. Legislative Research Commission has given its approval to a fracking bill that would legalize the controversial form of natural gas extraction in less than two years.
The vote Wednesday advanced the Clean Energy and Economic Security Act, a package of three energy-related bills that will likely be introduced this month during the General Assembly's short session.
The bill contrasts sharply with a more conservative approach outlined earlier this year by state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Marion Republican, and subsequently endorsed by state Rep. Jamie Boles, a Republican who represents most of Moore County.
"Right now, there are so many rumors flying around up here," Boles said Thursday. "Anyone can submit a bill, but they have to work with the House and the Senate. There could be a lot of compromise on the issue, but I won't compromise on Gillespie's go-slow approach.
"Let's get the rules in place and go from there."
Any fracking legislation is important to northern Moore County, which lies atop the Deep River Basin, where state geologists believe a 40-year supply of natural gas exists.
Under the bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, drilling could begin as early as July 1, 2014.
"This is a bad idea," said Jane Preyer, North Carolina director of the Environmental Defense Fund. "The proposal brushes aside laws that have protected drinking water supplies and private property rights for generations."
Preyer said she was especially concerned with the proposed formation of an N.C. Oil and Gas Board that would oversee writing rules and regulations, then enforcing them.
"The proposal is a dangerous precedent for North Carolina and a recipe for conflict," she said.
Bill Weatherspoon, executive director of the N.C. Petroleum Council, predicted that the bill would be assigned to a Senate committee next week.
"The debate seems to be pretty clear-cut here," Weatherspoon said. "One approach is that you need to legalize any activity before spending taxpayer dollars. The other approach is let's go ahead and prepare ourselves with rules and regulations before we make the activity legal.
"In the final analysis, which is the correct way politically?"
Weatherspoon, a leading lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, said he would be surprised if drilling occurs within even three years.
"That's my guess. There will be no permits issued until the state feels like proper protections are in place from Day One," he said. "I like that approach. It makes a lot of sense."
Weatherspoon also noted that the November election results could put a new twist on matters.
"We know we're getting a new governor. Typically, you get new cabinet -secretaries," he said. "Hopefully, all parties agree to take a measured approach. Call me a dreamer, but North Carolina can say that it really made a contribution if it gets this right and becomes a model for the nation."
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued a report earlier this month that said hydraulic fracturing - or 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 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.
Fracking is illegal in North Carolina - for now. But legislation passed last year by the General Assembly authorized the study and moved the state closer to shale gas development.
Critics contend that any proposed legislation contrasts with strong public opposition to fracking, as evidenced by comments made during feedback hearings that DENR conducted in April after releasing its draft report.
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at (910) 693-2474 or tnatt@ thepilot.com.
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