A proposal to legalize fracking in North Carolina is headed for the Senate floor, over the protests of as many as 200 fracking opponents who came to Raleigh today to speak out against it.
Senate Bill 820 passed the Senate Commerce committee this morning on a voice vote. The room was packed with an overflowing crowd of anti-fracking activists. Organizer Molly Diggins with the Sierra Club said about 200 protestors from across the state were taking part in the anti-fracking lobby day.
The measure's sponsor, Senator Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg), says it's a compromise plan. He says it would only legalize fracking for the purposes of study and rule-making, and that no commercial permits would be approved without the express consent of state lawmakers. In the meantime, regulators would move ahead with rulemaking.
"It's a first step," Rucho said.
Bill Weatherspoon with the NC Petroleum Council called the measure "a pause that will help North Carolina get it right."
"North Carolina is showing tremendous public support for this chance to look for jobs and revenue and safe, secure energy," Weatherspoon said, referring to public opinion polls. "They don't want to be handcuffed to an ayatollah."
But one of the nation's top scientific experts on fracking said the measure is premature.
"It puts the cart before the horse," said Rob Jackson, professor at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. "It legalizes fracking now and leaves the environmental safeguards to be worked out later."
Jackson is not an opponent of fracking, but says more studies are needed to learn how to do it safely. Meantime, he said, fracking shouldn't be legalized in North Carolina "till standards and compliance programs are in place."
Jackson also pointed out that, under the bill, seven of the nine members of the Commission that would make rules for fracking would be representatives of the industry, not the public.
Environmental groups also questioned putting a large new regulatory burden on the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources with no funding to pay for the additional staff it would require.
Estimates of the amount of recoverable shale gas in North Carolina vary widely. Some believe there's a 50-year supply under the state. Others say it's more like a one-year supply.
That question would likely have been discussed at length in the Senate's Committee on Agriculture, the Environment, and Natural Resources. But the bill was never sent to that committee.
It could reach the Senate floor as soon as this afternoon.