RALEIGH – The N.C. House has approved a form of natural gas drilling critics say will contaminate groundwater, paving the way for an ultimate decision by Gov. Bev Perdue.
The drilling method known as fracking was endorsed by a 66 to 43 vote in the House on Thursday evening. The measure has sped through the legislature in less than two weeks, and the bill will return to the Senate for consideration of minor amendments before landing on the governor's desk.
The hydraulic fracturing drilling method involves injecting a drilled well with chemicals, water and sand at high speed to break up shale rock deep underground and free trapped natural gas. The bill also would direct several state agencies to devise fracking regulations by October 2014, when the first permits could be offered.
Environmentalists worry the drilling has not been thoroughly studied and could lead to groundwater contamination, earthquakes and flammable drinking water. Bill supporters say legalizing fracking will help the state harvest domestic energy and create new jobs.
On a day that legislators like to leave early, they instead voted to suspend a rule requiring wearing suit jackets and hunkered down. The lack of debate in committees and in the Senate was partly compensated by a more than three hour discussion that stretched into the evening.
Twelve amendments to House Bill 820 were introduced including a 20-page amendment by N.C.Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, that sought more time for studies that failed 51 to 57.
A couple of minor amendments introduced by primary sponsor N.C. Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, passed, but all of the amendments put forth by Democrats failed. Supporters of the bill dismissed the amendments as delay tactics.
"My father told me one time, you can go and give and compromise, but there comes a point you have to stop," Gillespie said. "I have personally reached that point and will oppose all further amendments."
Gillespie spent much of the three hours defending the bill against the barrage of amendments and concerns from House Democrats. Much of the discussion focused on personal property rights, forced pooling, and what chemicals would be injected into the North Carolina earth.
Bill Faison, D-Orange, put forth three different amendments seeking to retain personal property rights for landowners near horizontal drilling. Two of the amendments would allow landowners to press trespassing charges against oil and gas companies that take gas or minerals from their land. One of the amendments dealt with the concept of forced pooling, which would mandate a dissenting landowner resisting oil and gas drilling join with surrounding landowners in allowing the drilling. House Democrats called the forced pooling "state sponsored stealing."
"On my farm I don't want anybody going on there that I didn't invite," Faison said. "I don't want to be pooled. I don't want to be trespassed on. I don't want anybody taking my stuff and neither do my neighbors and neither do your neighbors and neither do your constituents."
Gillespie, drew on his fracking trips in other states, and argued forced pooling would protect landowners. He said in other states oil and gas companies drill under dissenting landowners' regardless of consent, and forced pooling would at least allow dissenting landowners to get some monetary compensation.
"If I'm not in favor of forced pooling they're going to take my land anyway," Gillespie said. "I'm not going to get anything."
All of Faison's amendments failed.
Opponents voiced health concerns about the unknown composition of the fracking chemicals protected under "trade secret" laws. Gillespie told the assembly that no states require oil and gas companies to fully disclose the chemicals injected into the ground, and argued that North Carolina would have some of the strictest laws under the bill.
But after all of the hours of arguing, the votes mainly fell along party lines. Crossing the isle were Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, and Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson.
Perdue previously said she believes the drilling can be performed safely in North Carolina and is expected to get the bill next week. A spokesman for the governor said Perdue would have to see final version of the bill before deciding to endorse or veto.