Raleigh, N.C. — A bill that would clear the way for natural gas drilling in North Carolina garnered quick approval from two key Senate committees Tuesday, moving swiftly through a process that would normally take two days or more.
"To use words to suggest that this has been rushed is just unfounded," Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, told the Senate Commerce Committee. "We've been working on this for four years."
Colloquially known as "fracking," hydraulic fracturing uses a combination of methods, including horizontal drilling and the use of controlled explosives to extract natural gas from shale rock.
The process has been used in several oil-rich states for decades, and it has allowed for gas explorations in states like New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio that are not typically thought of as energy producers. Lawmakers say North Carolina should be next so it can reap the rewards that come with energy production.
"North Carolina needs the jobs, and America needs the energy," Newton said.
But environmental watchdogs worry that fracking could foul the state's drinking water and bring with it other environmental hazards, from stress on the state's roads to hazards associated with the cleanup of industrial accidents.
"We can't have fracking in this state and protect our water quality," said Elizabeth Ouzts, director for Environment North Carolina.
Proponents of the bill, including Newton and Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said it contains environmental safeguards. For example, it would not allow wastewater from fracking to be injected into the ground anywhere in North Carolina. That possibility raised the hackles of people in eastern North Carolina, who would not be near any of the drilling but could have received the waste.
The bill also requires that companies report any chemicals used in the drilling process. That list would be held confidentially by the state in case of emergency. However, the measure makes inappropriately revealing those chemical trade secretes a felony.
Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, communications director for the North Carolina Sierra Club, said it was a good idea for the state to hold on to the chemical list.
"That’s a step forward," he said. "But why would unauthorized disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, which can be harmful to human health, be treated as a criminal act, when disclosure of other trade secrets are treated as a civil matter?"
The measure also speeds up the process for approving new rules to govern the industry. If the state Mining and Energy Commission proceeds at the typical pace for rule approval, fracking would be able to begin in the summer of 2016.
The Newton-Rucho bill, however, grants gas exploration rules several exemptions from the normal rule-making procedures so that permits for drilling could be issued in the summer of 2015.
"It goes back on a promise the 2012 legislature made," Ouzts said, pointing to a 2-year-old law that would have required rules to be fully in place before lawmakers officially lifted the moratorium. This new bill sets a time certain when drilling would begin, despite rules not being fully in place.
"It prematurely lifts the moratorium," Ouzts said.
Newton said that fracking was first discussed during former Gov. Bev Perdue's administration and that the Mining and Energy Commission has been in the process of developing rules for three years.
"It's time for us to move on," he said.
Lawmakers moved the measure through both the Commerce and Finance committees Tuesday. That's atypical, although not unheard of. However, such procedures are more typically used toward the end of session.
Rucho said the unusual move was taken as part of an overall effort to keep this summer's "short" session on schedule.
After the Commerce Committee discussed many of the environmental issues with fracking, lawmakers on the Finance Committee discussed issues related to how revenue might be collected by the state and counties.
One outstanding question has to do with forced pooling, the practice of allowing companies to extract gas from someone's land without permission if a majority of surrounding landowners approve it. Although forced pooling is often seen as necessary for allowing drilling to go forward despite a few holdouts, it does fly in the face of property rights views held by many in the legislature. The bill assigns that question to a study.
The bill now moves on to the full Senate for approval. It would then go to the House for consideration.
Gov. Pat McCrory has often named lifting the state's drilling moratorium as one of the measures he was most disappointed in not being able to sign during the 2013 session.