In a move that divided Republicans, the state House dropped a fracking provision from an unrelated funding bill Tuesday – reversing a vote taken Monday night.
The late legislative flurry took place just days before an expected March 17 deadline to lift the state’s fracking moratorium. And the 77-41 vote against the amendment was an unusual loss for House Majority Leader Mike Hager, who’d sponsored the proposal.
Hager, a Rutherfordton Republican, had inserted a last-minute amendment to release the N.C. Environmental Management Commission from having to write regulations governing toxic air emissions caused by fracking operations. Instead, the amendment would allow the commission to rule that existing state and federal regulations are sufficient.
“It allows those folks to go back and look at the state and federal air toxin rules and say, ‘Are they stringent enough?’” Hager said.
The amendment was adopted 108-6, with only a handful of Democrats voting against it. On Tuesday, several of them said they didn’t understand what Hager was proposing. The rest of the bill concerned minor funding transfers involving the Department of Public Instruction and the Coal Ash Management Commission.
“It came up quickly without much notice,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, the Fayetteville Democrat who asked legislators to reconsider. “It deserves its own bill or at least its own consideration.”
The EMC is currently not writing the regulations, so Hager’s proposal wouldn’t put a stop to a process underway. Rather, the EMC is awaiting guidance from the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission on how to proceed.
The EMC review of toxic air emissions is expected to begin later this year. Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, said new emissions standards are needed to safely pursue fracking. “This is a very significant side effect of a fracking operation, and we have no rules on it,” she said.
Regulating air emissions from fracking equipment – trucks, generators and other machinery – could make it more costly and more difficult to drill for shale gas here.
The Mining and Energy Commission is the body that wrote the general fracking regulations last year that are expected to go into effect soon and lift the state’s moratorium on shale gas drilling.
The Sierra Club noted Tuesday that Hager’s amendment cancels a legislative mandate adopted in Senate Bill 820, the Clean Energy and Economic Security Act of 2012. The organization’s North Carolina director, Molly Diggins, called it “a rollback of public health protections.”
Republicans who helped defeat the amendment didn’t voice opposition to the rule change. “This bill should not become a Christmas tree,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, the Hendersonville Republican who sponsored the original bill. “It’s an appropriations bill.”
Minutes after the amendment was voted down, Hager spoke to House Speaker Tim Moore. Moore immediately called a 30-minute recess so Republicans could hold a closed-door caucus meeting before the session continued.
When Republicans returned, the funding bill passed 116-1. Hager wouldn’t say whether the amendment was discussed in the private meeting but said Republicans “have a very independent caucus.” He said the opposition, particularly among Democrats, reflects strong feelings about fracking.
“It’s about those folks that don’t like energy exploration,” he said.