Raleigh, N.C. — After more than a year and a half of intense study, state regulators have finished their list of safety rules for natural gas drilling in North Carolina.
The Mining and Energy Commission on Wednesday finalized the last eight of more than 120 proposed regulations for companies that plan to explore and drill for gas in the state. The commission will host public hearings in August in Wake, Lee and Rockingham counties to collect more input on the rules before turning them over to lawmakers early next year.
The General Assembly will get the final say on the regulations before any drilling permits are issued, which proponents hope will start next March.
Mining and Energy Commission Chairman Jim Womack said his panel has studied rules in other states where drilling, especially the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is deeply rooted, to draft regulations that will protect the environment and public health without hindering industry.
"What that should give our citizens is reassurance that we're going to have a very low expectation of problems in this state," Womack said.
Fracking involves drilling horizontally through underground deposits of shale and pumping the well full of a mix of water, chemicals and sand to break up the rock and release trapped natural gas. Environmentalists say the process threatens groundwater near drilling sites.
Therese Vick, community organizer and North Carolina Healthy Sustainable Communities campaign coordinator, said the rules-writing process has been rushed and notes the proposed regulations fall short in monitoring air quality around wells.
"There are a lot of holes that need to be closed in these rules," Vick said.
One sore point among fracking foes is that the chemicals drillers use will not have to be made public. Officials say the companies need to protect trade secrets.
Womack said regulators and emergency responders will be privy to the various chemicals used.
"The state will have knowledge of anything that's insidious, anything that is a health hazard or environmental threat," he said.
Such assurances are of little comfort to Vick and other environmentalists, who say North Carolinians are increasingly skeptical about environmental safety in the state.
"The general public is more concerned about who's minding the store, now more than ever," she said.