RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A bill to allow permits for fracking in North Carolina was all but a done deal Thursday as it heads to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature.
It was a fast turnaround for the bill after being passed with no debate by the Senate hours after the House approved it with minor changes. McCrory, an ardent proponent of expanding natural gas exploration in North Carolina, will very likely sign the bill.
Natural gas exploration includes fracking, which refers to hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting oil and gas by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals into rock. Permits for the practice could be issued by May 2015.
The governor told reporters Thursday in Raleigh he "absolutely" supports the House version of the bill, saying he's pushed for energy exploration since his first run for governor in 2008.
"We have sat on the sidelines as a state for far too long on gas exploration and having (North Carolina) create jobs and also help with our country's energy independence," McCrory said.
House Democrats tried a few last-gasp efforts to restrict the practice of fracking and put more safeguards in place Thursday, introducing about a dozen amendments to the bill. But House Republicans swatted down every one with either a vote, or a parliamentary maneuver to prevent a vote and halt debate.
Before the House took up the bill, about 50 environmental activists staged a rally with several lawmakers, criticizing the bill as hazardous to the public health and warning that chemicals used in fracking could contaminate drinking water.
North Carolina is believed to have natural gas reserves locked in layers of shale under Chatham, Lee and Moore counties, though just how much is in dispute.
"I'm on well water and I'm really scared about the chemicals they're going to put in there," said Deb Arnason, a protester from Anson County.
The legislation also bars city and county governments from enacting any local regulations on oil and gas operations.
"If they can do this on fracking, they can do this with any issues, override local government," Arnason said.
Democrats also said the bill's trajectory was too fast, its regulations too opaque, and reneged on earlier promises to prevent fracking until new rules were in place.
"No public notice for any committee meeting or for the floor debate and that's just wrong, that's bad government," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.
Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, said detailed regulations on fracking procedure should be created by the Mining and Energy Commission, which is appointed by the legislature and governor.
Democrats disagreed. 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. The bill passed by the House gives lawmakers less time to object to those rules and changes how permits would be issued.
The state commission is set to issue its final rules by January 1. The first drilling permits could be issued as soon as May 2015.
"When we say we're giving things to the commission and then turn around (and) abdicate our ability to review those rules, that is wrong. We then give up the final authority," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland.
The proposed legislation would require energy companies to submit a list of the chemicals in use to the state geologist, who would keep it locked away in case of emergency. The legislation exempts those lists from disclosure as public records.
Associated Press writer Gary Robertson contributed to this report.