Raleigh, N.C. — The Senate gave key approval Tuesday to legislation rolling back some of the safeguards in the state's natural gas drilling law.
Senate Bill 76 passed its second reading by a 38-10 vote. Although it passed a third reading by a voice vote, staffers realized after the fact that votes are required on separate days because it involves revenue.
A final Senate vote is expected Wednesday, after which, the bill will head to the House.
The bill makes many changes to Senate Bill 820, the 2012 law opening the state to gas drilling. Most notably, it removes the requirement that state lawmakers must approve rules before the first well can be drilled.
Instead, it gives the Department of Environment and Natural Resources the authority to start issuing permits on March 1, 2015, without the legislature's say-so.
"Why do we need to set this date? Because the energy industry will not come to North Carolina and invest all the time, energy and resources necessary to develop this industry unless they know the moratorium is going to be lifted," said bill sponsor Sen. Buck Newton, R-Nash.
The date is five months after the October 2014 deadline lawmakers set last year for the DENR and the state Mining and Energy Commission to establish regulations for the drilling industry.
"If we want them to come, and we want them to come sooner rather than later, we have to set the stage now," Newton said. "If we sit back and continue to say, 'Let's wait a little longer. Let's drag this out a little bit more,' all we're doing is pushing the jobs and the economic development further down the road."
Other changes in the bill include removing the state geologist and water and air experts from the state Mining and Energy Commission, allowing drillers to inject production waste fluids back into the ground, repealing the law requiring "land men" to register with the state and streamlining the permitting process to a single permit, removing checkpoints at which DENR could look for problems.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said he worries that the changes will put property owners and state water supplies at risk. He tried to amend the bill to reinstate some of the Senate Bill 820 regulations, but the effort was derailed by a parliamentary maneuver and never got to a vote.
"We need to tread carefully when making wholesale revisions," McKissick said. "Let the rules and regulations be developed and take it cautiously."
Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said many of the drilling restrictions included in the previous bill weren't warranted and need to be discarded. He noted that North Carolina is the only state with a land men's registry, and the Secretary of State's Office could handle representatives of drilling companies.
Comparing the the swap of upfront costs for the promise of future riches from gas drilling to the Wimpy character in "Popeye" cartoons, Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, asked that local governments be able to charge drillers taxes to pay for the damage to local roads their trucks and equipment cause. The effort failed by a 34-14 vote.
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, questioned the claims that drilling would produce thousands of jobs, noting someone in the natural gas industry said North Carolina as little gas to obtain.
"If there were no gas under the ground, Sen. Kinnaird, they wouldn’t come looking for it," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. "They know where the gas is."