Public will have say on MEC report

May. 13, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

The discussion over rules for natural gas development in North Carolina is getting ready to move from the academic sphere to the political one, as proponents look to lift the ban on drilling to hopefully jump-start the economy.

But first, the group in charge of writing the recommended regulations will hold several public hearings followed by a general comment section that will last into September. In that period, anyone can submit written or oral comments on hydraulic fracturing, compulsory pooling, trade secrets or any other subject they support or oppose.

Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack, who also serves as chairman of the state Mining and Energy Commission (MEC), said his group gives more opportunities to the public to comment on proposals than any other state commission or group, and for good reason.

"We're doing it from scratch, so that makes it even more important," he said.

Womack added: "We get those kinds of comments all the time, from [the oil and gas] industry, from [anti-drilling group] Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League ... and sometimes they result in us making substantive changes. In other cases, we've weighed them against other decisions we already made and ended up not making changes."

The first hearings are set for Thursday and Friday in Raleigh, as the MEC meets to officially discuss its final report for the first time. The 103-page report is available on the meeting's agenda page online, as is a link to a live broadcast for people who can't attend. That page is http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mining-and-energy-commission/may-15-2014.

The meetings both days are scheduled to last from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at the William G. Ross Jr. Conference Room of the Nature Research Center at 121 W. Jones St., Raleigh. On both days, public comment will be limited to the first 10 speakers who sign up.

One landowner opposed to drilling is Ed Harris, who lives on 20 acres in western Lee County. He said he likely won't make it to Raleigh for the hearings, but that he will work to spread his views at any Sanford meetings — especially on his opposition to compulsory pooling.

"Just about anybody you talk to, even people that are for fracking, they are against the compulsory, or forced, pooling," Harris said. "I mean, doggone it, one of the basic principles our country was founded on was the idea you could own property and not have to worry about the king coming and taking it from you. ... When you start taking private property rights from an American citizen and giving it to a corporation to profit off of, thats just anti-American."

Harris said some Lee County citizens also aren't relying solely on the formal hearings to try to fight natural gas development — such as when a couple of activists recently visited with Rep. Mike Stone (R-Lee/Harnett), a proponent of drilling.

One of them, Cumnock area organizer Debbie Hall, said she was glad Stone agreed to meet and listen, although he may not agree with their views.

"We presented on our concerns," she said. "Our landowner rights concerns most of all."

After this week's hearings, the MEC will convene again June 5-6, with a goal of approving the final report. Both meetings are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Ground Floor Hearing Room of the Archdale Building, located at 512 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh.

A period for public comment based on that report will last until Sept. 15, during which time people who did not have the chance to express their views at the Raleigh hearings can send in written comments to be officially considered.

"We take everything very seriously, all input," Womack said. "... And obviously the ones that are well-researched and documented — I won't say we'll take those more seriously — but they do obviously have a better chance of being considered if they're backed up by research."

A meeting is tentatively scheduled from 5-9 p.m. Aug. 22 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center to give people a chance to make oral comments as well. Similar hearings will be held Aug. 19 and Aug. 25 in other parts of the state.

Womack said a public hearing about erosion issues related to mining in Sanford may also be held in early July, held not by his group but by the Environmental Management Commission.

The MEC is now expected to meet in early October to finalize the regulatory recommendations. However, Womack said he expects the General Assembly to extend the deadline by several months.

"We wanted to use Oct. 3 and 4 to debate public comments a little longer, so they'll give us 'til Jan. 1, which was real nice," he said.

When the MEC is done writing its recommendations, they will be sent the General Assembly for editing and a possible vote. If they pass and Gov. Pat McCrory does not issue a veto, North Carolina could possibly start issuing drilling permits.