RALEIGH, N.C. — Legislation that would allow permits to be issued for fracking operations as early as May 2015 cleared the Republican-controlled House on Thursday amid resistance from environmental groups, most Democrats – and some Republicans.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported that the House approved the Energy Modernization Act in a vote of 64-50, with support coming from 61 Republicans and three Democrats.
The vote represents the final major legislative hurdle for the bill as Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, has expressed support for the tweaks made by House members to the Senate bill. After a Senate review of the changes, the bill would head to Gov. Pat McCrory for his approval.
Eleven GOP members voted against the bill, including Rep. Bryan Holloway of Stokes County, where fracking may occur. Another Republican, Rep. John Blust of Guilford County, said in a brief interview that although he supports fracking, a common drilling method used to extract natural gas, the legislative process does not live up to the promise that lawmakers made two years ago.
“I felt I made a commitment that we would vote on the rules after they were done and that we would not have fracking until their elected representative signed off on them, and this bill kind of changes that. I’m just trying to keep my word,” Blust said.
In 2012, lawmakers set a moratorium on fracking and said they would lift it with an affirmative vote of the legislature to allow fracking permits to be issued. Under the Energy Modernization Act, that affirmative vote would no longer be requires.
Rather, the bill would allow fracking permits to be issued 60 days after the legislature approves rules being drafted now by the state Mining and Energy Committee. Those rules are due Jan. 1, about the time the next session of the General Assembly will begin. If the rules are approved by March, for example, permits could be issued 60 days later – in May – without an affirmative vote to allow fracking.
The bill passed by the House gives lawmakers less time to object to those rules and changes how permits would be issued.
Among other key provisions, the bill 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.
The bill would also pre-empt city and county governments from enacting local regulations that would prohibit fracking operations.
On the House floor, Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, tried to restore the moratorium and require an affirmative vote to lift it before fracking permits could be issued. The GOP majority easily quashed the amendment in a procedural vote that eliminated debate. Several other Democratic amendments that, in their view, would further protect the environment were also quashed.
Current estimates suggest that in the Deep River Basin, an area that runs about 150 miles from Granville County southwestward to South Carolina, there are an estimated 1.66 trillion cubic feet of gas and 83 million barrels of natural gas liquids – enough to feed North Carolina’s consumption of natural gas for more than five years, based on 2010 data, according to state environmental officials.
Chatham, Lee and Moore counties likely have the largest reserves of shale gas, according to state and federal geologists, but some reserves may also exist in Stokes County and Rockingham County. Current estimates suggest that for the Dan River-Danville Basin, which includes Stokes, there are 49 billion cubic feet of gas but no natural gas liquids.
Outside the legislative building, several environmental groups tried to make a stand against fracking.
“For the little we’re going to get out of it, it’s not worth the risk,” said Janet Sowers, 57, of Person County.