Raleigh, N.C. — Energy companies could begin applying in July 2014 for permits to use a controversial method of natural gas drilling under a bill approved by a Senate study panel Wednesday.
Gas drilling in the state has become increasingly contentious in recent months, pitting environmentalists against business groups over hydraulic fracturing. The process, also known as "fracking," involves drilling horizontally into underground deposits of shale and then pumping a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals into a well to break apart the rock and release natural gas.
The proposal is at odds with a "go-slow" approach put forward by a House lawmakers last month.
"I think the ultimate goal is the same," said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, who played down the differences.
The bill the Senate Energy Policy Issues Committee has recommended to the General Assembly would eliminate the state's current prohibitions on horizontal drilling. Rucho emphasized that the General Assembly would have the ability to stop any drilling if lawmakers were unhappy with the rules developed to govern the industry.
But environmental advocates say the bill clears the way for drilling without knowing all the possible environmental side effects or whether there's enough gas in the ground to make drilling worthwhile.
"It sets a fuse," said Molly Diggins, state director for the Sierra Club.
Opponents worry that fracking will contaminate groundwater supplies and aggravate water shortages during drought conditions. Supporters say those fears are overblown and argue that North Carolina needs the jobs and the economic boost that energy exploration would provide.
Rucho called the proposed legislation a comprehensive plan to increase domestic energy production, ensure energy reliability and affordability and promote job growth.
“North Carolina has a great opportunity to develop a vibrant energy sector capable of creating thousands of new jobs and generating billions of dollars for the state economy,” he said in a statement. “We will work to ensure our energy needs are met safely and responsibly, but we will not stand by idly when we have a chance to deal with two of North Carolina’s biggest crises – high unemployment and soaring energy prices.”
The draft bill would create an Oil and Gas Board to put in place any necessary regulations, and it limits the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources oversight of drilling operations. It also would require all new school buses and state Department of Transportation pickups to run on natural gas.
A House bill put forward by Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, called for further studies of gas drilling and the development of regulations, but it wouldn't have lifted the state's moratorium.
Gillespie said Wednesday that he looks forward to working with Rucho “and all of the stakeholders on legislation that will create jobs and help make North Carolina energy independent and protect our water and air.”
Acknowledging that the bill put forward but Rucho’s committee was at odds with his on the timing surrounding when fracking would be allowed, he said, “That’s one of the two points we still disagree on."