Senate Passes Controversial Fracking Bill

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Laura White blogs for the Record about all things fracking in North Carolina. Have a specific question you want us to address? Email or Tweet @lewhite.

North Carolina is closer than ever to legalizing hydraulic fracturing, as Senate Bill 820 passed its second and third readings Wednesday and is headed to the house floor for consideration.

The bill that passed the North Carolina Senate was the committee substitute, an agreement reached by Senator Bob Rucho and Representative Mitch Gillespie, the two Republican factions who had been at odds regarding their vision for the proposed changes in hydraulic fracturing legislation.

The committee substitute had a number of significant improvements in regards to landowner rights, royalty payments and environmental safeguards. Additionally, while it still legalizes hydraulic fracturing immediately, the bill now requires that before any drilling be carried out whatsoever the General Assembly take a vote to decide whether all the proper regulations are in place.

This differs from the first draft of the bill, which placed a moratorium on drilling until 2014, when that moratorium would be lifted regardless of the state of regulations.

However, this new version of the bill also specifically legalizes waste water injection wells. This means that wastewater from drilling operations can be pumped directly in the ground as a means of disposal. It also specifically re-enacts the forced pooling of landowners, which means that if enough landowners in a specific area decide to allow fracking on their property, then all landowners must do so.

Discussion was heated on the floor, with senators questioning the thoroughness of the provisions within the bill. Senator Neal Hunt, the Republican representative of Wake County, called for more local government involvement. He also called for more representation from non-industry affiliated individuals on the Mining and Energy Commission.

This commission would be given the power to create legislation and regulate the natural gas industry by Rucho’s bill. As Hunt pointed out, essentially all nine voting members on the board are industry affiliated.

Senator Josh Stein, the Democratic representative from Wake County, challenged not only the commission, but also the validity of investing in the gas industry in North Carolina, period.

“What’s the rush?” Stein said. “We know that before fracking comes in any meaningful way to North Carolina — if ever — it will be years and decades down the road.”

Stein cited a USGS report that estimated the amount of natural gas in North Carolina to only total a 12-day nationwide supply. He also pointed out the low prices of natural gas, and stating that experts project them to stay low for decades to come. This significantly reduces the likelihood that industry officials would even consider coming to drill in North Carolina.

Stein also criticized the bill for being touted as a jobs bill, stating the only jobs it would create in this lull of low gas prices would be the jobs filled by consultants hired to write the legislation regarding industry regulations.

“When making policy decisions we are always forced to weigh the cause versus the benefits. We’ve just determined that the benefits are fairly negligible,” Stein said.

Stein argued that the resources that had been spent researching natural gas exploration would have been better put toward the renewable energy segment, which he described as “vibrant and growing … creating new jobs today, saving energy today, reducing our dependency on foreign oil, today.”

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