Raleigh, N.C. — A last-minute amendment that would have changed the air quality rules related to natural gas drilling caused a tussle on the House floor Tuesday, with members ultimately voting down the measure – at least for the time being.
Many lawmakers said they did not understand the measure when it first appeared Monday night. It was presented as an amendment to a bill making quick fixes for budget items dealing with Common Core and coal ash. It was offered by Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, who initially sold it as "technical" fix.
Ready or not, gas drilling permitting could begin in March The House initially passed it 108-6.
But on Tuesday morning, environmental groups raised an alarm over the amendment, saying that it would roll back air quality rules related to hydraulic fracturing, a sometimes controversial practice of exploring for natural gas that is often called "fracking."
In particular, the measure would have wiped away a legislative mandate that the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission establish air quality rules related to fracking sites. It would allow the commission to decide whether existing state or federal air toxics regulations would suffice.
A widely distributed analysis by the North Carolina Conversation Network's Grady McCallie said existing laws do not address the increased surface-level ozone and other hazards created by fracking.
"Representative Hager’s amendment removes the only statutory requirement for the EMC to move forward with regulation of air pollution from natural gas development. It does so without any legislative committee review or opportunity for public debate," McCallie wrote.
Had the amendment remained attached to the bill, the state Senate could have sent the measure to the governor without a public hearing or committee examination.
It could have also undercut potential litigation by environmental groups that could push the state to enact more stringent air quality rules that were anticipated by prior legislation.
Amendment is pulled back
One reason backers attempted to move the amendment quickly has to do with a March 17 deadline. That's the date when the state's fracking rules go into effect statewide. At that point, the EMC would face another legal prod to put air quality standards in place.
During Tuesday afternoon's House session, House leaders agreed to re-hear and re-debate the amendment, an unusual but not unprecedented move. House leaders said afterward they took the step as a nod toward running the chamber in a more transparent and less roughshod manner than had sometimes been the case in past sessions.
Hager urged his colleagues to pass it again.
"I really don't believe this amendment ought to be part of this bill," Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said of the measure.
McGrady said that the changes it made were too substantial to simply be quickly inserted on the fly. "It does involve complicated issues."
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, called air pollution "a very significant side-effect of fracking" and one for which the state ought to have specific regulations if North Carolina is to have, as promised in years past, the strongest environmental protections related to the practice.
Hager shot back, saying, "Don't fool yourself ... this is about folks who don't like energy exploration."
The same people opposing the amendment, he said, opposed all fracking measures.
But when a second vote on the bill was taken, it lost 41-77, a bracing defeat for a measure put forward by the chamber's majority leader.
Soon after the amendment was voted down, House Speaker Tim Moore called a recess, and House Republicans moved off to a quickly called closed-door caucus meeting. Several appeared surprised the measure had failed its second vote.
When the members returned to work, the chamber quickly passed the budget bill 116-1, without the fracking amendment.
An unusual loss
As majority leader, Hager is one of the leaders in the chamber selected by all 75 members who caucus with the GOP. Although it's a big group, and no one person can control everything that happens in the chamber, the loss is an unusual setback for at sitting majority leader like Hager.
"Have you ever known me to regret anything?" Hager said when asked if he had second thoughts about the way he pushed forward with the amendment.
The measure, he said, would merely give the Environmental Management Commission more options to deal with air pollution from fracking, not keep them from doing anything. He said potential lawsuits were not a part of his thinking.
Hager would not talk about what was discussed during the caucus meeting, but other members said they did talk about the process and would likely bring forward a standalone measure next week.
Asked if the vote called into question his leadership, Hager smiled.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm just an old country engineer, as people say. I'm just trying to reflect the will of the caucus."