RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The state Senate tentatively agreed Wednesday to push to the finish line prep work for natural gas exploration in North Carolina using hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — so that the first permits for drilling could be issued starting next summer.
The chamber voted 33-13 in favor of legislation that supporters say will help attract energy exploration companies interested in potential gas deposits. Three Democrats joined all Republicans present in backing the measure.
The bill lifts a 2012 moratorium that blocked permits until a state regulatory commission created what supporters called state-of-the-art safety and operating rules. Fracking extracts oil and gas from rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals. North Carolina is believed to have natural gas reserves under layers of shale, most prominently in the Sandhills, but the size of the supply is unclear.
While about 120 rules about the process already have been drafted, the 2012 legislation said permits wouldn't be issued until the General Assembly got the chance to formally review them. Wednesday's legislation attempts to speed up the final rule-making process and legislative review, but also says permits can be issued starting July 1, 2015. Not all fracking guidelines could be settled by that date, however.
A specific date is needed because potential companies must know when to prepare to arrive and gives "them an opportunity to plan for the investment in our state," Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, one of the bill's primary sponsors. That will lead to jobs and tax revenues associated with exploration and energy production, he said.
Several amendments were rejected along party lines, but one proposal by Rep. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, was approved that requires more frequent water-testing around well heads as drilling occurs. Still, several Democrats worried aloud whether residents near hydraulic fracturing or horizontal drilling could be assured their drinking water was protected from contamination through the proposed rules.