FRACKING: MEC Chair Womack pleased by advance of House bill

Jun. 11, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Hydraulic fracturing in North Carolina has come one step closer to starting in fewer than two years — a move praised by a local official who is involved in regulating the controversial practice.

In February, the N.C. Senate passed a bill that would let hydraulic fracturing and other natural gas drilling operations begin in March 2015, even if the state didn't have any modern regulations in place. On Friday, the N.C. House passed its own amended version of that bill, Senate Bill 76, keeping the March 2015 date for the start of permitting but requiring further legislative action to validate those permits.

The House version also allocates more funds to address environmental disasters, allows for a fee or tax "to cover all direct and indirect costs local governments may reasonably be expected to incur" and bans drillers from underground disposal of water used in the process — which is filled with various chemicals and can't be cleaned at wastewater treatment plants.

Jim Womack, a Lee County commissioner and chairman of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission — the group entrusted last year with developing the regulatory framework for natural gas operations across the state — said he was pleased with the House's more cautious version. The Raleigh News & Observer reported that the original Senate sponsors don't approve of the changes and that negotiations might be needed before a final version is sent to Gov. Pat McCrory for approval.

Womack said Monday he expects to be working with members of both chambers to facilitate negotiations in the coming days.

"Sometimes you can do things with the right intentions but take a step backward," Womack, an avid supporter of natural gas drilling, said of the Senate bill. He said the bill sent mixed signals because just last year, that same body created the bill that entrusted his commission with proposing rules.

Ed Harris, a Lee County landowner and fracking skeptic, said there were already many issues in the bill that created Womack's commission, S820, and that the state needed to slow down and review it. But this current bill did the exact opposite, Harris said, by seeking to speed up the start of drilling. And Harris said he's predicting at least one repercussion from the state's efforts: "People are going to get screwed out of their property."

Womack disagreed in part, saying he's comfortable with the state setting a specific date, although he found himself in rare agreement with Harris in saying the original version of Senate Bill 76 was too aggressive.

"March 2015 is fine, but put caveats on the date," Womack said, adding that he expects an omnibus bill to come up next year that will address a number of issues the commission has decided need to be more clear. That would include trade secrets, he said, which led to controversy last month when Womack stopped a vote on a proposal to require disclosure of fracking chemicals, and it was revealed that Haliburton officials had privately objected to such a rule.

In regards to the upcoming negotiations over the House's revisions — which passed 70-33 on party lines — Womack said that even if the Senate's version comes out on top, there would likely still be a de facto moratorium because the Department of Energy and Natural Resources issues the permits and could stall until rules are in place.

"They could still slow it down, dot every I and cross every T," he said. "... The Senate and the House can wheel all they want, but it takes the executive branch to execute it."

Womack said the MEC will continue to meet and will likely review its regulations after about a year of drilling. It's impossible to please all sides completely, he said, and his rule-making commission might have to take some risks. But there is one area he said will be heavily protected.

"We're not going to take any risks about the availability of water or the cleanliness of water in our area," Womack said. "We're not going to do anything stupid."