Raleigh, N.C. — The state House gave tentative approval Wednesday to a proposal that would allow natural gas drilling to start in the state as soon as rules for the industry are finalized. Senate Bill 786 passed its first of two votes, 63-52.
The legislation was first unveiled in the House less than 24 hours before the vote, moving through two committees with almost no public notice. It was moved onto the House floor Wednesday through a parliamentary maneuver.
Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, said the measure "gets us a step closer" to the start of drilling, including the process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."
The bill repeals a 2012 requirement that lawmakers vote to approve rules for fracking before the state's moratorium on it could be lifted. Instead, the state is directed to begin issuing permits for drilling 60 days after the state Mining and Energy Commission finalizes the rules.
The measure also makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to reveal a driller's formula for fracking fluid, though supporters stressed that material safety sheets on site will ensure that, in an emergency, first responders can find out what chemicals they're dealing with.
The bill also prohibits local governments from passing ordinances that could ban or limit fracking, lowers permit costs for wells and requires state regulators to look into whether applicants for permits have had a history of violations in other states.
Rep. Mike Stone, R-Lee, said the bill will bring the state jobs. "North Carolina needs energy independence," he said.
Current estimates of the state's shale reserves project they contain enough gas to supply the state's natural gas needs for less than six years. The Commerce Department estimated the industry would create 387 jobs.
"That's a lot of risk for not a lot of reward," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.
"As a father, the main reason I was put on this earth is to protect my daughter," said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake. "You want me to vote for a bill that’s going to pump unnamed chemicals into her drinking water? And the only recourse you give me is that, after she gets sick, you’ll disclose them to her doctor? Never."
Other opponents questioned why House leaders were rushing the bill through, given that the rules are months from completion.
"It is inappropriate and indefensible for us as a body to move forward on a bill so quickly when the public has had absolutely no opportunity to know the bill would be on the calendar," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham.
Democrats tried but failed to delay the vote by a day to give the public time to weigh in.
"Why not give the public some confidence that what we did today, whether they agree with it or not, was done appropriately and transparently?" asked House Minority Leader Larry Hall.
"This [debate on fracking] has been ongoing for four years," Hager replied.
After the session, House Speaker Thom Tillis defended the speed with which the bill was handled.
Tillis, who does not usually cast a vote, voted yes on the measure.
"I think it's important to North Carolina – it's important on several different levels – and I wanted to show the support for the bill," Tillis said following the vote.
Asked about criticism the measure was moving too quickly, Tillis called that "disingenuous," saying the House moved slowly on the fracking bill last year despite pressure from the Senate to speed up.
But why move so quickly Wednesday?
"I think it's just a matter of why not get it done?" Tillis said, noting that the legislature has been working on the issue since 2011. "It's been several years; it's just time to move forward."
The bill must pass one final House floor vote, expected Thursday. After that, it returns to the Senate for approval of the House's changes to the original proposal. If the Senate agrees, it could be on the governor's desk by the end of the week.