Raleigh, N.C. — State House lawmakers agreed Friday to set a March 2015 date for North Carolina to begin issuing permits for shale gas mining, or "fracking."
However, the House's version of Senate Bill 76 is significantly more cautious than the Senate's.
The Senate's original "fast-track" version would have allowed fracking to begin on March 1, 2015, without legislative approval.
The House version allows the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to issue permits on that date but says lawmakers must approve the state's regulatory framework before those permits would be considered valid.
"It was very important for us to put that in there, because in 2011, we promised this House floor it would come back before this body," said Rep. Mike Stone, R-Lee.
The House version also would not allow the injection of fracking waste fluid into the ground in North Carolina and would allow DENR to regulate and fine land agents who use misleading or unethical practices to convince property owners to sign leases.
Like Stone, Rep. Jamie Boles, R-Moore, represents an area of the state that would be at the epicenter of fracking. He said there's no reason to rush the starting date.
"We do look forward to industry and the possibility of jobs in North Carolina," Boles said. “But in talking to industry, there’s not an alarm or a necessity to go rapid. They’re wanting best practices."
Skeptics praised the House's more measured approach but said they're still troubled by the bill.
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, reminded the House that the original fracking bill was enacted by her mistaken vote in 2012. She said lawmakers shouldn't set a date for permits until they see a major study due out next fall.
"It is reasonable to wait till the EPA issues a report on whether fracking causes contamination – damage – or not to the most important issue going forward in this state, our water," said Carney . "I don’t understand why we can’t do and adhere to what we voted on with a mistaken vote last year. What is the rush?"
“This also promotes offshore drilling, and I think many of us are concerned about what that means to our coast,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.
But the bill's supporters said it would "provide certainty" to industries that may be interested in fracking in North Carolina, while adding more consumer and environmental safeguards than the Senate version would.
"I think some of you are just opposed to natural gas exploration, period," said Stone. "I understand that. I respect that. But we've made a decision as a body to start moving forward."
The vote to approve the bill was 68-33 on second reading and 70-33 on the final vote.
It now goes back to the Senate, where leaders aren't happy with the House's changes.