Lawmakers content to settle for existing air quality rules for drilling

Posted March 12, 2015 2:53 p.m. EDT
Updated March 12, 2015 5:50 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina is scheduled to begin next Tuesday the process of issuing the first permits for natural gas drilling in the state.

Lawmakers promised three years ago when they voted to legalize drilling that the state would have the country's best regulations on the books before permits were granted, but that hasn't happened so far with regard to air pollution generated by drilling sites.

The state Environmental Management Commission was supposed to establish air quality rules related to sites where hydraulic fracturing, a drilling process often referred to as "fracking," was being done. Lawmakers quickly introduced legislation last week to drop that mandate, allowing the commission to rely on existing state and federal regulations on emissions from drilling operations if those regulations are found to be "adequate."

The bill passed the House on Wednesday and received tentative approval in the Senate on Thursday.

Supporters say the change is needed so North Carolina can meet the March 17 deadline, but environmental advocates say the state needs to slow down instead of rolling back an effort to produce stricter regulations.

"The disappointing thing is that we were promised we'd have the best rules on the books before any permits were issued, and seemingly that's not the case," said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, a spokesman for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club.

Federal environmental rules are meant to be a bare minimum for states, not a maximum, Chicurel-Bayard said. Allowing fracking to start without regulations for surface-level ozone, benzene, formaldehyde and other pollutants could put nearby neighborhoods at risk, he said.

"It only makes sense that we figure out what safeguards and protections we need for North Carolina communities before we even start taking about fracking," he said. "We’ve never had to develop rules. I think the legislature got it right years ago when it said the EMC needs to find rules or promulgate rules just for air toxic emissions related to fracking. That made sense then. It makes sense now. It's something that our communities deserve."

Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, said existing regulations are enough to handle air pollution created by gas drilling.

"Currently, there are 443 air toxic rules that are on the books. That's federal and state," Brock said. "So, that should take care of that issue."

The legislation also would close a loophole that could stall the permitting process if challenged in the courts, he said, adding that the state Mining and Energy Commission is reviewing other rules related to fracking.