NC House 'fracking' bill heading to House floor

Jun. 06, 2013 @ 07:49 PM

A bill clearing the way for oil and gas drilling in North Carolina is headed to the state House floor after clearing an environmental committee Thursday.

The House Environment Committee endorsed the House's more cautious alternative to a Senate bill over Democratic opposition. The House bill restores or adds new protections stricken from a Senate bill that paves the way for hydraulic fracturing and offshore drilling.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as "fracking," involves injecting an underground well with chemicals, water and sand at high pressure in order to crack shale rock and release natural gas. Environmentalists contend it comes with risks to water supplies and other hazards.

The House bill would begin issuing permits for oil and gas drillers in March 2015 but would not make them effective until the legislature authorizes them. The 2012 bill that directed state agencies to craft rules for oil and gas exploration by October 2014 required the legislature to act before issuing any permits. The Senate bill would allow state agencies to begin issuing permits in March 2015 without legislative approval.

The House bill also bans the practice of allowing companies to dispose of wastewater underground, creates a far larger fund to address environmental disasters, requires oil company representatives to register with the state and authorizes studies protecting landowners from fraud and exploring ways to help local governments pay for new costs to infrastructure.

Proponents of the bill argue the state needs to give companies a firm date to encourage timely investment. They say energy production in the state will yield thousands of jobs.

Opponents argue the state needs to take more steps to ensure safeguards are in place before issuing permits. Environmentalists also question the extent of energy deposits in the state.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, pushed for an amendment restoring the 2012 law's requirements for issuing permits but was voted down by Republicans.

Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said concerns that permits would go out before regulations take effect are misplaced. He said even the Senate version wouldn't allow that to happen.

John Skvarla, secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said even if rules weren't in place, the department would issue permits that are conditional on the completion of regulations. Companies wouldn't take the risk of going forward without authorization, he said.

Besides that, once the rules are drafted they will almost certainly go to the legislature for approval because it only takes 10 public comments to send them to the General Assembly, said Neal Robbins, legislative director for DENR.

"Conceivably, you could have no comments because the rules are perfect, and without legislative action the rules would still go into place," he said. "Practically speaking, that's an impossibility."

Skvarla supports the House version of the bill.

The House bill will head to the full floor as early as Friday. The Senate will have to approve the House's many changes, and Newton has said he prefers the bill he first put out.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.