May 30 12:30 PM

North Carolina legislature gives fracking final OK

A Mich. fracking well in 2013
Dale G Young/Detroit Free Press/AP

In a rush of 11th-hour activity, the North Carolina legislature gave final approval to a bill allowing the state to issue permits for hydraulic fracturing for gas extraction. The bill now goes to Governor Pat McCrory, who has already signaled his intention to sign it.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, involves injecting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand or gravel into rock under high pressure in order to force out natural gas or oil.

North Carolina had a moratorium in place, prohibiting fracking until the state approved new rules to regulate the practice, but Thursday’s bill leapfrogs the process. The new law will see permits issued 61 days after the state finalizes its regulations.

Legislation passed in the Republican-dominated Senate without debate hours after the N.C. House, led by Speaker Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s GOP nominee for U.S. Senate, approved the bill after voting down or blocking with parliamentary maneuvers about a dozen amendments. 

Democrats fought in vain to add provisions on air emissions, drilling worker housing, disposal of fracking wastes and public disclosure of fracking chemicals. They debated at length a part of the bill that calls for further study of “forced pooling,” in which the property of unwilling owners can be tapped.

“We will end up with landowners being forced to give up control of their property as they have historically, and we do it only for the greed of a few companies,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland.

But Republicans, like Gov. McCrory, said it was high time the state profited from the hydrocarbons believed locked under its land:

“We have sat on the sidelines as a state for far too long on gas exploration and having North Carolina create jobs and also help with our country’s energy independence. Instead we are pumping in natural gas from other states,” he said in a statement.

“So we are all using that natural gas; but for whatever reason we are thinking if we do it here, it’s wrong but if we take it from someplace else it’s right. That’s very hypocritical.”

But several components of the new law have raised concern among environmentalists and N.C. residents.

“The proposed wastewater rules mistakenly allow treated wastewater from oil and gas operations to be discharged into rivers and streams,” said David Kelly, an analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund, in an interview with the Charlotte Observer. “What’s troubling is that the state has no water quality standards for many of the contaminants in the wastewater.”

And what will be in the fracking solution will be even more of a mystery. The N.C. bill makes it illegal to “reveal a driller’s formula for fracking fluid,” though it would “require energy companies to submit a list of the chemicals in use to the state geologist, who would keep it locked away in case of emergency.” The legislation additionally “exempts those lists from disclosure as public records.”

The bill also prohibits cities or counties in the state from passing local bans on fracking — a principle known a “pre-emption,” which is fast becoming a hallmark provision in much new state legislation.

Democrats decried the lack of debate and the speed with which the fracking bill was passed. "No public notice for any committee meeting or for the floor debate and that's just wrong, that's bad government," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.

But N.C. House Speaker and U.S. Senate nominee Tillis disagreed, “I think it’s just a matter of why not get it done?”

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