Raleigh, N.C. — On the first day on which natural gas drilling permits can legally be accepted in North Carolina, legislators who oppose the practice called Tuesday for a moratorium.
Under a 2014 law, the state's moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." was to be lifted the day new rules for the industry became law. That day was Tuesday, but only after lawmakers moved quickly to repeal a statutory requirement for air pollution rules that the Environmental Management Commission did not make. That bill was signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory late Monday night, opening the door for the permitting process to begin.
Opponents say it's not too late for the state to hit to the pause button and take a better look at the rules that have been put in place before drilling begins. They're filing a bill that would reinstate the moratorium.
"We’ve been promised over the last five years that North Carolina would have the nation’s toughest fracking rules, and here we are at zero hour, and we do not have those rules" Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, told reporters. "The rules are simply insufficient for us to move forward with the issuing of permits."
"We know that, because the price of gas is so low, we're likely just going to get the wildcatters, and those are the least responsible and the least regulated. in the industry," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford,
Rep. Robert Reives, D-Lee, argued that the rules in place don't give local governments enough say in how and where fracking operations take place, from noise regulation to air pollution to cleanup costs.
"Right now, we've got issues galore that the rules do not address," Reives said. "Who's going to pay for all the damage when the trucks are going back and forth on your roads in your counties? How do you get that damage paid for?"
Reives also argued the bonding requirements for operators are insufficient to address any type of major accident.
"Just like any other industry, there will likely be some sort of accident, and if we don't have appropriate bonding for these companies coming in, then that will be left to the taxpayers to pay for that," he said.
Harrison said Republican leaders have rushed the process because they "want North Carolina to be poised" for the jobs they say the energy industry will create. Yet the state Department of Commerce estimated fracking would bring only 387 jobs to the state, most of which would likely be drill operators coming in from other states.
"The premise is job creation," she said, "and it's just not going to happen. It's a false premise."
Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood, called the hurried process "foolhardy beyond belief," arguing that every region of the state depends on clean water for its economic stability.
"The jobs are just a flash in the pan, short-term wildcat jobs that do not sustain economies," Queen said. "They do quite the opposite, and they leave local governments holding the sack for the cleanup."
The moratorium bill is unlikely to gain traction. House and Senate leaders and Governor Pat McCrory have all said they believe it's time for the state to move forward on fracking.
The North Carolina Petroleum Council lauded the development in an emailed statement.
“Energy is essential for economic growth and job creation,” said director David McGowan. “Today’s announcement is a win for the people of North Carolina, putting the state on the cutting edge of energy production in America.”
It's unclear how many drilling operators will be interested in the state. North Carolina's shale gas reserves are estimated to be very small in comparison with larger deposits in states like Pennsylvania and Texas. And with natural gas prices low, there's little economic incentive for exploration.
McCrory's budget included $500,000 to pay for the drilling of exploratory wells that, if successful, might help lure the industry to the state.
WRAL News asked the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources whether any permit applications were submitted Tuesday. The agency has not yet responded.