Government study group continues debate on fracking-related concerns

Mar. 11, 2013 @ 12:41 PM

A government study group on the role of local governments in fracking met in Pittsboro on Friday, where it became clear that there’s still much discussion to be had until the state’s rules regarding the power of cities and counties can be finalized.

The Local Government Regulation Study Group of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which is led by Sanford City Council member Charles Taylor, debated everything from taxes to eminent domain, including land use setbacks, zoning classifications and other issues as they relate to hydraulic fracturing — the natural gas drilling process that may be coming to Lee, Chatham and Moore counties soon.

Taylor said the group’s meetings will become much more frequent in the coming months, with a goal of submitting a draft of recommendations by June. And although many questions remained after Friday’s meeting, which had about 30 people in attendance, this much was clear: Regardless of who gets what regulatory power, regulations may not be so onerous that they become a de facto ban on drilling.

Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack, who is the chairman of the MEC, attended the meeting and said that regulations for setbacks — which limit the distance certain items have to be placed away from water, homes, roads and the like — should be left in the hands of the state, with city and county governments able to apply for waivers to the state rule.

However, Womack said, those waivers should only let local governments loosen the regulations because tightening them might make it too hard for drilling companies to find places to set up operations. He said local governments should only be able to create more stringent requirements if they can prove safety risks or if the request is, for example, in order to keep drill pads out of prison yards or scenic parks.

Richard Whisnant, a government professor from UNC-Chapel Hill who specializes in environmental and administrative law, disagreed with that idea.

“I would be reluctant to set up one of these, ‘You have to go to a state agency’ unless you think you need that extra bureaucracy,” he said, to which Womack replied that the MEC, not a large government agency, could be in charge of arbitrating those requests.

But Whisnant reiterated that he couldn’t see the sense in letting communities that would never deal with fracking nevertheless come before any state board with requests for various waivers, and that this should be a case where each individual city or county makes its own rules, since the state has wide diversity in geography, needs and culture.

However, Womack was in favor of local regulations in some cases, saying that it would be inappropriate for the state to regulate and enforce certain levels of noise or light.

However, he said, those regulations would have to be waived whenever the companies commence with breaking apart the shale formations in which the natural gas is trapped — a process he said creates immense amounts of noise and requires lighting for between 24 and 36 hours consecutively.

If that waiver didn’t exist, Womack said, no energy companies would want to come to North Carolina. But he did say that there could still be basic guidelines for that period, such as rules that drills near a church couldn’t do it on a Sunday, or that drills near schools would have to do it on a weekend.

One of the biggest issues, Womack said, will be who gets tax money from drilling operations. Currently, he said, there would only be a sliding severance tax — and he wants people to contact their local representatives to ask for ad valorem taxes as well.

“At some point, that ought to be the subject of taxation,” he said. “If drilling companies are going to have a billion dollars worth of equipment on your land, they should be paying taxes where that equipment resides.”

The next meeting of the study group will be at 1:30 p.m. on March 22 at the McSwain Center on Tramway Road in Sanford.