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RALEIGH — A state Senate committee on energy policy on Wednesday approved a proposal to legalize fracking in North Carolina in a little more than two years, and during that period establish a new regulations to ensure the environmentally sensitive process of natural gas extraction is done safely.
The unanimous vote by the five-member committee advanced a package of three bills dealing with fracking, criticizing federal energy policy while urging opening exploration off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, and establishing a pilot program to grow fuel-producing grasses. The bills will be introduced in the General Assembly’s short session in May.
Fracking is slang for hydraulic fracturing, which extracts natural gas from deep underground by drilling down and then horizontally and shooting pressurized water, sand and chemicals into shale formations.
Committee chairman Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, said the comprehensive legislation is an important step for the future economy of North Carolina. He said it would ensure that energy exploration and production is developed in an environmentally responsible manner.
But environmental groups were critical of the proposed fracking legislation. They favor the approach recommended last month by a bipartisan trio of House members who called for delaying fracking until more is known about the risks, at least several years down the road.
“It’s like driving a car 90 mph down the freeway with no brakes, no safety belts and a cliff looming ahead,” said Molly Diggins, executive director of the state’s Sierra Club chapter.
Diggins said she’s concerned that the proposal would invalidate local ordinances, prohibit public disclosure of industry records for two years, ease restrictions on groundwater contamination, weaken the regulatory powers of the state Department of Natural Resources and the state Environmental Management Commission, and create a new regulatory board that includes industry representatives.
Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina, said the emphasis on energy development should be on wind and solar resources. “It’s a shame and shows Sen. Rucho and his committee are out of touch with the rest of North Carolina.”
The Clean Energy and Economic Security Act would establish four new government entities: an energy jobs council, an interagency task force to develop compressed natural gas fueling facilities, a joint legislative commission to oversee energy policy, and – most importantly – an oil and gas board that would regulate the industry.
Rucho said he met with Gov. Bev Perdue on Tuesday and gave her an overview, and that others would be sitting down with her to discuss the package in more detail. Perdue has come out in favor of fracking, but vetoed an energy bill last year because it ordered her to enter into a compact with Virginia and South Carolina about offshore exploration and revenue sharing. This bill would soften that requirement: Instead of a compact, the governor would have to develop a “strategy” with those neighboring governors, and report back to the General Assembly by the end of this year on how to develop a regional compact. The governor would also be “strongly encouraged” to join a coalition of coastal state governors that has called for a coordinated effort on energy issues.
A spokesman for the governor said Perdue continues to believe that fracking must be done in a way that protects health and safety.
Rucho said he and others have also been meeting with Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Republican who called for the go-slow approach, and House Speaker Thom Tillis in hopes of getting similar legislation through the House. Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton and a fracking proponent, said after the meeting he thinks it stands a good chance in the House. He said he thinks the proposal allows plenty of time to ensure fracking is safe and regulated.
“We think two years is pretty slow,” Hager said. “If I’m not mistaken, this is a process that has been in existence since the late 1940s or early 1950s. How much longer do we need to take?”
Rucho praised the report DENR issued earlier this year concluding that fracking could be done safely as long as the proper regulations were in place. He said the legislation will continue to be revised and will likely end up with even more safeguards than DENR recommended.
The package of proposed laws came out of four meetings by the Legislative Research Commission’s Committee on Energy Policy Issues, and its work is now done. Besides Rucho, its members were Sen. Harris Blake, a Republican from Moore County; Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican from New Hanover; Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican from Brunswick, and Sen. Michael Walters, a Democrat from Robeson.