Rep. Stone leads successful discussions on fracking bill

Proposal permits regulatory panel to fulfill its purpose
Jul. 23, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Following weeks of negotiations that saw local politicians playing key roles, the General Assembly found compromise recently on a bill that lays further groundwork for energy development in North Carolina, including hydraulic fracturing.

Senate Bill 76 stirred up controversy this spring, proposing that fracking and other drilling operations could begin by March 2015 even if the state had no rules and regulations in place. When the bill came to the House, it was amended significantly with more cautious language, angering many senators. Because both chambers must agree on a bill before it can be sent to the governor for approval, and because the two versions were so different, formal negotiations were required.

Local Rep. Mike Stone (R-Lee/Harnett) served as chairman of the House's five-person negotiating team, who reached an agreement with their Senate counterparts late last week. Most of the known natural gas in North Carolina is in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties, and Stone said Rep. James Boles Jr. (R-Moore) also played a major role in the talks. The House passed the new version of the bill Monday, 70-40, and the Senate is scheduled to discuss it today.

Stone said that in the negotiations, both sides agreed on the need for further legislation regarding oil and gas operations. The team he led supported more restraint, Stone said, because allowing oil and gas operations without regulations necessarily in place would have been irresponsible.

"There's quite a number of us that believe fracking can be done safely in North Carolina, and there's people who don't," he said. "But I think it's important to make sure we have the best rules in place. These rules haven't changed since 1945, so we have a lot to do and a lot to debate."

Even that 1945 bill Stone referenced is only a few pages long and covers little more than the basic level of a handful of topics. So last year, when the General Assembly decided to lift North Carolina's moratorium on fracking, it created the Mining and Energy Commission — led by Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack, and with several other locals serving in other official roles — and tasked it with submitting proposed rules and regulations for environmental standards, trade secrets, permitting, landowner rights, duties and powers of local government, waste disposal and more by October 2014.

Stone said the MEC deserves the ability to finish its work, and the wording of the post-negotiation bill reflects that, stating that "the issuance of permits for oil and gas exploration and development activities using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing treatments... shall be prohibited in order to allow the Mining and Energy Commission sufficient time for development of a modern regulatory program ..."

Womack agreed with that sentiment.

"There's a lot of stuff in there that people are depending on," Womack said last week, adding that he also preferred the House's version of the bill. Like Stone, Womack has said the bill that created his committee made promises to the people that should be kept. Womack and other commission members have frequently said they intend for North Carolina to have the most comprehensive set of natural gas drilling rules in the country by the time they're done.

Stone said he's glad he and his House colleagues came out on top in the negotiations, as he thinks their version of the bill was simply in keeping with previous, and recent, promises: "We told the General Assembly and the people of North Carolina that before this process moved forward, the rules would get a vote."

The negotiated version also removed language allowing hydraulic fracturing fluids to be disposed of by being injected into the ground, as well as a clause claiming it was the state's responsibility to encourage energy development. It replaced that statement with one saying it's in the state's best interest to support energy development if it would promote economic growth and contribute to stability.

The negotiations also led to the inclusion of a new clause stating, "It is the duty of state government to protect and preserve the state's natural resources, cultural heritage, and quality of life and, above all, the public health and safety of its residents during the exploration, development, and production of domestic energy resources."