RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A key North Carolina House committee gave a green light Wednesday to a much-debated form of natural gas drilling and the full House is scheduled to vote on the measure Thursday.
The House Environment Committee met to examine a Senate bill that would lift a ban on the drilling method known as fracking and direct several state agencies to devise fracking regulations by October 2014, when the first permits could be offered. Substantial changes adopted by the House committee Wednesday include modifying the rule-making commission to replace oil and gas developers with local governmental officials and a representative of a publicly traded natural gas company.
The Senate bill's sponsor, Sen. Robert Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, is on board with the House changes and the measure is expected to cruise along to the governor's desk.
"We think that they made good changes from concerns brought up and we believe it provides the framework for the state of the art best business practice of rules and regulations dealing with shale gas exploration and production," Rucho said.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting a drilled well with chemicals, water and sand to crack shale rock and free trapped natural gas. Environmentalists worry there are not enough protections to prevent groundwater contamination.
The Senate approved the bill last week mainly along party lines. Supporters say the rules will help the state tap into domestic energy and create new jobs.
Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, who presented the bill, emphasized that while the measure legalizes fracking, implementation is still at least two years away. He said any concerns could be addressed during that period.
"A no vote on natural gas extraction is not on this bill," he told wary legislators. "That no vote will come two and a half years from now when we come back with the rules and ask for permission to start drilling if we agree upon it at this time."
A N.C. Department of Environment and National Resources administrator warned legislators that the bill does not allow enough time or resources for implementation. Robin Smith, Assistant Secretary for the Environment, told lawmakers seven new government positions would be needed to comply with the bill, but that there was no funding allocated for those positions. She also said the two-year timeframe was an "extremely aggressive" schedule and recommended a three-to-four year development time for rules and regulations.
Similarly to the Senate Commerce Committee's review of the bill, the public had a tough time partaking in the democratic process. House committee members nearly ran out of time, and the six people signed up to speak didn't get the chance to.
"We're disappointed the Senate and now the House environment committee appear set on rushing forward with this controversial gas drilling practice," said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina. "Fracking has yet to be done safely in any other state and we see no need to put our resources at risk."
She disagreed with Gillespie that fracking should be legalized now and researched later.
"There's a lot of study that still needs to be done," Ouzts said. "Our groundwater table is so much closer to the shale gas resource than in any other state."
Allen Reed can be reached on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Allen_Reed