NC Senate bill adds divisive new fracking measures

Jun. 25, 2013 @ 04:55 PM

What's often considered an annual environmental housecleaning bill in the North Carolina Legislature drew fierce criticism Tuesday after lawmakers presented a sweeping new version of the bill with provisions governing hydraulic fracturing and air quality.

Environmentalists said the 43-page bill introduced in a Senate panel goes well beyond the reach of the four-page version passed by the House last month. But the Senate committee endorsed the bill unanimously on a voice vote with little debate, sending it to the full body.

Among other things, the bill would allow energy companies to withhold information about the fluids they inject into the ground to extract natural gas as a trade secret. The bill does leave an avenue for state or local governments and landowners to challenge the trade secret designation. It also leaves an exception in cases of public health emergencies.

Critics of hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking," fear it will contaminate groundwater supplies. A 2012 law paving the way for fracking in North Carolina directed state mining and environmental officials to develop regulations. The state Mining and Energy Commission approved a rule in March requiring some disclosure of chemicals but later withdrew it under pressure from industry heavyweight Halliburton.

"This runs the Mining and Energy Commission off the road from the direction they were going," said Molly Diggins, state director of environmental group Sierra Club. "There's no issue the public cares more about with fracking than full disclosure."

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources supports the bill and the fracking measure in particular because the law is unclear about how to treat trade secrets, opening the state to lawsuits for failing to adequately protect chemical formulas, said Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie.

The rules governing disclosure differ across the states that allow fracking, Gillespie said. Some are more strict while others are more lax, he said.

Department spokesman Drew Elliot pressed back against concerns that the bill compromises the Mining and Energy Commission's independence.

"They're crafting rules under the direction of the legislature," he said. "They weren't given a blank slate."

Another new provision in the bill exempts the Mining and Energy Commission and the Commission for Public Health from preparing cost estimates for proposed rules. Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, argued that measure is designed to further fast-track drilling in the state.

Both chambers of the legislature have already passed measures this session setting a March 2015 date to begin issuing permits for fracking and offshore drilling, though the House explicitly requires legislative action for permits to take effect. The original 2012 law prohibited issuing permits before the legislature authorized them.

Asbill said a number of provisions could harm air quality. New additions to the bill relax rules for open-air burning of materials for land clearing and establishing criteria for governing air quality.

Another measure would effectively relax boundaries for waste disposal by eliminating buffers between properties, Asbill said. In all, she said she counted 10 new provisions that should draw some attention.

"We're looking at what was a simple, fairly straightforward bill ... (It is now turning into a grab-bag weakening of safeguards that will hurt North Carolina's families and businesses," she said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.