UPDATE 7:30 p.m.: The House decided to wait and take up the matter of Senate Bill 820 in Thursday’s session, after heated discussion lengthened the debate of some of the other bills already on Wednesday’s agenda.
Elizabeth Outz, State Director for Environment NC, was one of the representatives from environmental groups waiting to see if the bill would hit the floor Wednesday afternoon.
“Maybe they decided that this is a complex enough issue and complicated enough that they should give people more time to consider it,” Ouzts said. “Maybe they’ve had a long day.”
Outz anticipates that the bill will pass tomorrow. She is hoping, however, that the vote will be close enough to sustain a veto from Perdue.
“It’s clear from how quickly the senate moved on it and how quickly they did it in committee this morning that they’re intent on passing this legislation as soon as possible,” Ouzts said.
If the bill is passed in the House, it will head back to the Senate for concurrence before being sent on to the governor.
Wednesday morning’s House Environment Committee meeting was a reminder of the speed with which legislators have pushed hydraulic fracturing legislation through both chambers this session.
From 8:30 a.m. start time until the meeting ended at 10, with no time for public comment, Committee Chair Ruth Samuelson, a Republican representative from Mecklenburg, kept a constant check on the time, speeding committee discussion of Senate Bill 820 along in order to have a decision before the end of the meeting.
The revised version of SB 820, the Clean Energy and Economic Security Act, addresses many of the concerns regarding the composition of the Mining and Energy Commission that came up in the Senate, including converting several non-voting members to voting and replacing members with an interest or expertise in gas exploration with government appointments.
It also expands protections for landowners, both economically and environmentally, and though forced pooling — where property owners can be forced into allowing drilling, would still be in effect — it does require a study of the issue.
However, this version stays the same in that it legalizes hydraulic fracturing instantly, with a ban until the General Assembly decides that the proper protections are in place and votes to lift the ban.
While landowner protections and commission composition concerned Senate members, funding took the forefront of discussion in the House committee meeting.
Assistant Secretary for the Environment Robin Smith voiced these lingering hesitations on the behalf of the state Department of Natural Resources.
“The one major continuing concern … is our concern about the lack of any new resources to actually carry out the bill,” Smith said.
Smith pointed out that over the past year many DENR employees have left their day jobs to work on the shale gas report, putting in nights and weekends in order to meet their deadline.
“That’s not something we can continue to do for very much longer without hurting program delivery and our permitting and compliance programs,” Smith said
Smith said DENR has been very frank with the bill’s sponsors in regards to the amount of time creating new legislation will take. According to Smith, two years is an extremely aggressive schedule, and the legislative process would probably take closer to three or four years.
“That is a long and very complex process when you’re talking about the number of rules that would be required here,” Smith said.
Gillespie was quick to point out that the lack of funding was DENR’s only hesitation with the bill, but Smith said she can’t say there aren’t other issues given that DENR just received the latest version of the bill Tuesday. And since it has changed some even since then, the department is still working through it.
State Rep. Grier Martin, a Democrat from Wake County, pointed out that the nature of the short session tends to make the legislative process go much faster.
“I don’t think we’re in the right environment to consider such a complicated issue in such a rushed fashion,” he said.
State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford, echoed Martin’s concerns.
“We’re a long way from fracking in North Carolina; there’s no rush to lift the ban on horizontal drilling,” Harrison said. “I don’t think we should rush into this. We have time, and time to get it right. No state’s done it right yet.”
The House will consider the bill this afternoon at 2 p.m.