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N.C. House panel keeps fracking moratorium

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  • What’s in SB 76

    Here’s a sampling of what Senate Bill 76, as passed Wednesday by a House Committee, proposes:

    Moratorium: Keeps the moratorium in place but allows state agencies to start issuing fracking permits on March 1, 2015. However, the permits would not be effective until the state legislature votes to legalize fracking. If the legislature doesn’t vote, or if the vote fails, then the permits would have no effect.

    Waste injection: Eliminates a Senate provision that would have ended the state’s 40-year ban on injecting industrial and chemical waste underground.

    Restitution: Directs the Mining & Energy Commission and state agencies to make recommendations for the establishment of a restitution fund to compensate landowners who are damaged by fraud, deception or misrepresentation by the energy industry.

    N.C. Mining & Energy Commission: Restores original qualifications, enacted in 2012, that include the state geologist and a member of the N.C. Environmental Management Commission.

    Landmen registry: Restores the registry, enacted in 2012, to track oil-and-gas representatives who promote and sign leases with North Carolina property owners. Additionally, includes a fine up to $5,000 for landmen who commit fraud or deception. Failure to register could lead to prosecution as a Class I misdemeanor.



RALEIGH A state House committee soundly rejected an effort to lift the state’s fracking moratorium, signaling a rebuke to the state Senate’s aggressive push to fast-track shale gas exploration in North Carolina.

The legislation had sailed through the Senate three months ago, but in the interim underwent about 30 revisions in closed-door negotiations between lawmakers in the House.

The bill that emerged Wednesday was stripped down to such an extent that its sponsor, Sen. E.S. “Buck” Newton, a Wilson Republican, called it “a step backwards, or two steps backwards.” He suggested it could delay energy exploration by several years.

In its revised state, it widely passed the House Committee on Commerce and Job Development but could be changed during upcoming House debates.

“It’s more cautionary,” said Rep. Mike Hager, a committee member and Republican from Rutherfordton who shares Newton’s goal of promoting fracking as an economic development strategy.

The bill is scheduled to be taken up by the House Environment Committee Thursday, and could be heard by the full House as early as Friday.

At issue are the degree of public protections and environmental safeguards needed to safely regulate energy exploration. The heavy industrial activity in other states has not been immune from well blowouts, chemical spills and complaints of air pollution and heavy truck traffic.

Fracking advocates say it will lead to an economic burst that will result in the creation of hundreds of jobs in manufacturing, engineering and construction.

“We’re trying to make sure we protect the citizens and the environment and give certainty to the industry,” Hager said. “Obviously we’re struggling with where that line is.”

Another key change in Senate Bill 76 is the elimination of a provision that would have allowed for deep-well injection of fracking wastewater. Underground chemical disposal has been illegal in North Carolina for 40 years.

The bill was highly controversial because the only geology in the state that would have allowed pumping waste into deep wells is in tourism-dependent coastal counties, some 150 miles away from the inland areas where shale gas would be drilled.

At least 14 county and town governments, along with the U.S. Marine Corps, have adopted resolutions or position papers opposing deep-well injection as a threat to the region’s underground drinking water.

Fracking waste includes industrial chemicals and impurities flushed out of the ground.

“The introduction of contaminants via injection wells directly threatens utilization of all aquifers as potable water sources,” states a position statement jointly issued by the Marines, Onslow County and the cities of Jacksonville, Richlands, Swansboro and Holly Ridge.

Injecting industrial waste into wells is approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and is the energy industry’s preferred method of getting rid of fracking waste. But it requires airtight geological conditions that do not permit migration of the injected material.

If the industry is forced to rely on other options, which are more expensive and logistically complicated, it could make fracking less feasible here. Alternatives include trucking the fluids to municipal water treatment plants, which are increasingly rejecting fracking residues, or using open-air evaporation in large impoundments.

The original bill also would have lifted the state’s fracking moratorium in March 2015, even though it wasn’t clear if the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission would be able to write the 120-plus safety rules by that deadline. The commission, which has been meeting since last fall, has yet to approve a single rule.

The version passed by the House on Wednesday keeps the moratorium in place and says fracking can’t proceed until the state legislature votes to make it legal.

However, the bill says that drillers can get their operating permits approved before fracking is legalized. They would be able to begin drilling, with permits in hand, as soon as the legislature votes to end the moratorium.

Newton told the House committee members the state should do what it can to help the oil-and-gas industry, which will risk millions of dollars in exploring the state’s energy potential.

“North Carolina needs the jobs and America needs the energy,” Newton said. “What we want is the jobs and the investment, and we want them sooner rather than later.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932
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