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Effort to speed up fracking derailed, but GOP vows to try again

A day after Republicans couldn’t round up enough votes for a legislative priority on shale gas exploration, party leaders vowed to bring back the proposal that critics decry as an effort to speed up the state’s fracking timeline.

Gov. Pat McCrory echoed statements made by House and Senate lawmakers, adding that energy legislation was one of his policy objectives that failed to pass in the marathon legislative session that ended Friday. Separate bills that failed to pass this year contained a number of proposals designed to encourage shale gas exploration here.

“We’re going to keep fighting for energy,” McCrory told reporters Friday. “Some minor issues tripped up the House and Senate on that issue.”

The legislature’s last-minute push Thursday for industry-friendly fracking policies represented its third attempt this year to revise North Carolina’s year-old fracking law. One of the law’s key protections is the ban on issuing drilling permits until all safety rules are written and the legislature votes to approve those rules.

Earlier attempts to modify the law included provisions to allow deep-well injections of fracking waste fluids, to lift the state’s fracking moratorium, and to allow energy companies to claim trade secret exemptions so as not to disclose certain chemicals used in fracking. All ran into resistance and failed.

The options for resurrecting the effort include calling a special session or bringing the bills back in next year’s short session, which begins in May.

The high-stakes fracking endgame that unfolded at the end of the session is reminiscent of last year’s late-night fracking debates, which resulted in a dramatic veto override after midnight by a single vote – with the deciding vote cast by accident.

This time fracking provisions were inserted in Senate Bill 127, which dealt with the reorganization of the N.C. Department of Commerce, on Wednesday. The provision would have allowed fracking permits to be issued as of mid-2015.

The changes were sought by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the agency that will regulate fracking in the state, in a bid to encourage energy companies to come to North Carolina, explore for natural gas and begin drilling.

Critics called it a roundabout way of lifting the state’s fracking moratorium by repealing the prohibition on permits. Rep. Mike Hager, a Rutherfordton Republican, contended that the legislation does not lift the moratorium. The bill would have also created a severance tax system that would tax oil and gas companies at a lower rate than many states, another attempt to encourage drilling activity here.

However, a number of lawmakers are wary of changing the law that narrowly passed last year and is held up as a pledge to protect the public from chemical spills, heavy truck traffic and other risks associated with shale gas exploration.

“The House has sided with the public interest in rejecting the Senate’s repeated efforts to push extreme proposals on fracking,” said Molly Diggins, director of the Sierra Club’s North Carolina operations.

Hager said the measure was just too controversial to push through in the waning days of the legislative session.

“I’d hate to throw in everything and the kitchen sink so late in the session,” Hager said. “It doesn’t speak well of transparency.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932
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