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.
"We should always err on the side of caution," said Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, an oil and gas company president. "I love this state too much to make what could be a hasty decision." Republicans told other Democratic speakers they only wanted to stall the industry's arrival.
"I'm not sure there would ever be enough time to satisfy him," said another bill sponsor, Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, referring to comments from Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. Newton said lawmakers and regulators "have slowly and carefully proceeded through this process to create modern regulatory regime to make sure that this state will do it safely."
A final vote was expected Thursday in the Senate, where it will then head to the House for consideration and likely adjustments. The House rejected a similar effort by senators last year to begin issuing permits in March 2015.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who wants to expand gas and oil exploration, has concerns about Senate provisions related to city and county governments, according to a spokesman. The measure would invalidate local ordinances that prohibit exploration and production activities or "in any manner are in conflict or inconsistent" with the law.
"We will work with the Senate and the House to ensure that the final bill protects the environment and promotes responsible exploration of our energy and mineral resources," McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said.
The legislation would require energy companies to submit a list of the chemicals they use for the fracking process to the state geologist, who would keep it locked away in case of an accident or emergency. The chemicals are barred from disclosure, and anyone who did so without permission could face the state's lowest-grade felony, with no prison time the usual sentence. An amendment to remove the felony punishment was defeated.