Raleigh, N.C. — Language that would let state regulators opt out of creating specific air quality regulations for natural gas drilling operations has passed the state House as part of a larger package of changes to environmental laws.
The measure, which first surfaced last week as an amendment to another bill, says that the Environmental Management Commission may rely on existing state and federal regulations to ameliorate emissions from drilling operations if those existing regulations are found to be "adequate."
Backers of the bill, including House Majority Leader Mike Hager, said the measure is a time-saver, which will do away with the need to adopt duplicative regulations.
But opponents say that what might be "adequate" may not be best for North Carolina.
Ready or not, gas drilling permitting could begin in March "The problem is, I think, is it sets the minimum as both the floor and the ceiling," Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said.
"Fracking" is the colloquial term for the hydraulic fracturing process used to explore for natural gas in shale rock. While much of the debate over fracking has involved water quality, there are concerns about methane and ground-level ozone emissions.
State rules governing the process of fracking go into effect on March 17. Supporters of the revision to fracking air quality rules say they need to make the change before that date.
In terms of plain English, it can appear that opponents of the change are finding a distinction without a difference. Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, pointed to language that requires the Environmental Management Commission to review existing regulations and determine whether they're sufficient.
"They'll have a legislative mandate to make a determination," Millis said.
But opponents of the bill said that existing regulations are likely far weaker than what the state would develop if existing instructions to the commission remained in place.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, R-Greensboro, pointed out that the federal government's rules overlook many smaller fracking operators and that other states where fracking is going on now have adopted their own air quality rules. She argued that the bill "goes back on a promise" to have the most stringent rules governing fracking in the country.
But Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, pointed out that officials with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources have said the new bill wouldn't get in the way of needed regulations.
"This does not keep them from making rules," she said.
The overall bill passed on a 76-40 vote and has been sent to the Senate.