RALEIGH — Republican lawmakers said Wednesday they expect to take a careful, measured approach to drafting state regulations for allowing a new method of natural gas drilling called fracking, but an existing ban on the activity in North Carolina is likely to remain until 2014 or later.
N.C. Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, and N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said separately they hoped to reach consensus on pursuing legislation this spring that heeds the recommendations of a study released this month by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The department’s draft report said hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, can be conducted safely in North Carolina if lawmakers adopt the right precautions. Gillespie said putting regulations in place and responding to concerns of local governments and other interested parties still could take until 2014 or 2015 to complete.
“We’re working hand in hand with the department to move ahead on this very important issue but move in a cautious manner,” Gillespie said at a news conference at the Legislative Building.
The department study, mandated by the Legislature last year, urged lawmakers to adopt more than a dozen recommendations before authorizing the drilling method used to free underground natural gas deposits. That included full disclosure of chemicals to regulators and banning the use of diesel fuel.
Rucho said in an interview that he was largely in agreement with Gillespie on the process moving ahead. Gillespie said legislation he hopes to file on the opening day of the General Assembly’s budget-adjusting session in mid-May that would follow several short-term recommendations in the study.
The department also would be asked to draft by December a regulatory framework to allow for fracking permits and offer final regulations in March 2013 for the Legislature to consider, according to Gillespie. More legislation also would be needed in spring 2014. If everything goes to plan, a ban on fracking could be lifted in July 2014 or July 2015, Gillespie said.
Gillespie said the House and Senate still have differences of opinion that he was confident could be worked out, including details of the timeline. While Rucho expected another year or two of legislative deliberations would be needed, he said in a release that there was no need for additional panel discussions or studies on the matter.
“We have solutions for job creation, lower fuel prices and energy security right under our feet and the Legislature has the responsibility to move forward with its development,” Rucho said.
Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting a drilled well with chemically treated water mixed with sand to crack shale rock and free trapped gas. The wastewater is often disposed of in separate wells.
Supporters say drilling would mean jobs and profits with little environmental risk. Opponents say fracking pollutes water supplies, damaging public health and ruining the quality of life in rural communities. The technique has been blamed for polluting underground water and even causing earthquakes.
North Carolina currently has no oil and gas production, but it’s believed that natural gas that can be extracted from shale deposits in the central part of the state. Duke University and the U.S. Geological Survey are testing about 75 private and public wells in Lee and Chatham counties.
Gillespie said the House and Senate are still in disagreement on whether the General Assembly should direct regulators to seek a contract to let a natural gas exploration company drill three test wells to determine the extent of the gas deposits in central North Carolina. Gillespie said the state couldn’t afford the cost for the drilling but may be able to offer a tax rebate for the company that drills the holes as a form of payment should the company ultimately begin active drilling.
With natural gas prices falling, critics of the practice said it makes sense to give legislators and policymakers more information about its potential risks to public health and the water supplies. Molly Diggins, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, said she believes additional information will improve her group’s case that fracking is a bad investment.
“The more that’s known, the more questions it’s going to raise,” Diggins said.
Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, met with Rucho and N.C. Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, last week to discuss fracking. She would be asked to sign any bill this year into law.
“Before we permit anyone to ‘frack’ in North Carolina, however, we must hear from all sides, address all issues, and develop a robust set of rules,” Perdue Press Secretary Chris Mackey said in a statement.
Mackey added that during last week’s meeting, the governor “made clear that those rules must put every necessary precaution into place to protect our drinking water and safeguard the health and safety of every single North Carolinian.”
Hundreds of people have attended public hearings in Sanford and Chapel Hill to respond to the draft study. Fracking opponents have outnumbered supporters at the speakers’ podiums.