RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina lawmakers are adding protections for neighbors and landowners in a new proposal to legalize a form of underground gas drilling widely criticized for causing harm to water supplies and roads.
A Senate committee on Thursday introduced legislation that could allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in two years if needed regulations are in place by then. Fracking involves injecting a drilled well with chemicals, water and sand to crack shale rock and free trapped natural gas.
The revamped legislation holds gas drillers responsible if underground water supplies are tainted, sets minimum royalties and legal protections for landowners, and gives appointees to a mining commission the duty to write specific regulations. Its crafting was overseen by Rep. Robert Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, who had previously been at odds on how quickly to allow fracking.
An assistant state geologist said recently that estimates of a 40-year supply of natural gas concentrated around Lee, Moore and Chatham counties are "wildly optimistic" and that the industry is unlikely to fuel a major economic boom. But no one knows the volume until energy companies sink test wells and measure the gas, Rucho said.
"If it turns out to be of value, then we'll have the regulations in place that will allow the exploration and production of shale natural gas," Rucho said.
The new version's protections include:
— the legal presumption that gas drillers are responsible for tainted underground water supplies within about a mile of a well unless drillers can prove otherwise.
— guaranteeing landowners a minimum royalty of 12.5 percent of sales from a well drilled on their land.
— requiring drinking water wells to be tested before a well is drilled.
— mandating that residential real estate buyers be told if sellers are keeping or have sold drilling rights.
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said the rule-writing commission appeared to be stacked in favor of the oil and gas industry. Two of the commission's nine voting members would represent the mining industry and five others would have "experience in oil and gas exploration, production or development."
"I think it is designed to have industry control, and we're handing over to it the writing of all the rules and regulations, all the protections," Stein said. The commission, "by its very nature, is going to be interested in fracking."
Critics also pointed out the measure doesn't require drillers to carry insurance to pay for damage they cause, and voids local laws that would keep gas wells from being drilled near residential areas.
North Carolina's Sierra Club said the new version was better than earlier proposals because it has consumer protections that were previously absent and requires the General Assembly to ultimately vote on legalizing fracking. But it said the proposal doesn't go far enough.
"The new version of the bill falls far short of what is needed to reassure the public that fracking can be done safely and protect our drinking water," Sierra Club state director Molly Diggins said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at —http://twitter.com/emerydalesio