Raleigh, N.C. — The start of natural gas drilling in North Carolina would no longer be set in stone if a bill approved by the House Public Utilities and Energy Committee on Tuesday becomes law.
The new version of Senate Bill 786 scraps the July 1, 2015, start date proposed by the Senate. Instead, it authorizes officials to issue permits 60 days after the state finalizes rules for drilling, including the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking."
Environmentalists say that could mean fracking would start in North Carolina sooner, rather than later.
Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, co-sponsor of the bill, said the regulations will set a positive example for the rest of the nation.
"What I think you'll see is the state-of-the-art rules and regulations that will be modeled for the rest of the country," he said.
Fracking is used by the energy industry to extract oil and gas from shale rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals. The practice, which has sparked widespread criticism from environmentalists, will diversify the state's economy and create jobs, Rucho said.
But opponents say those jobs will likely go to experienced out-of-state workers. Despite postponing the start date, Senate Bill 786 still takes an aggressive approach to fracking.
"I'm troubled by the fast-tracking of this bill," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.
Many of North Carolina's shale resources are located near aquifers, and drilling could potentially contaminate drinking water, Harrison said.
"Fracking has contaminated water and threatened public health and safety across the country, and it has no place in our state," Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina, said in a statement.
"The last thing lawmakers should do is exempt fracking rules from 12 months of legislative review and ensure we start fracking no matter what in 2015," Ouzts said. ""The House has stood up to the Senate's attempt to frack-at-all-costs before. We're still counting on them to put on the brakes on the rush-to-frack and help protect our waters."
The committee passed three additional amendments on Tuesday, including one requiring the state geologist to inform the state health director of additional chemicals to test for in water samples. This information would be shared with local health departments but kept confidential.
Another amendment strengthens a provision commonly known as the "bad actors clause," which tasks the Department of Environment and Natural Resources with reviewing the compliance history of permit applicants and allows the department to deny those with a history of violations.
Lawmakers also raised questions about the disposal of wastewater and the ban on disclosing the exact "recipe" of fracking chemicals, with an exception for medical emergencies, where the chemicals can be disclosed to certain medical personnel when treating patients affected by them.
Senate Bill 786 now goes to the House Finance Committee.