Two big misconceptions persist regarding the bill adopted recently by the state legislature that legalized hydraulic fracturing — also known as “fracking” — as a means of extracting natural gas in North Carolina.
The first is that it only became law because the Republicans unfairly would not allow Rep. Becky Carney to change the vote she mistakenly cast in favor of overriding the governor’s veto of the bill. The truth is that House rules do not allow members to change their votes when doing so would change the outcome of the overall vote, as it would have in this case.
The controversy over Rep. Carney’s error unfortunately overshadowed the fact that the bill actually had broad bipartisan support, including from both the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor. If it hadn’t passed during this session, some form of fracking bill would likely have passed in the next.
And, it’s quite possible that it would not have included the multiple public protections included in this bill.
That brings me to the second misconception I want to address: that fracking is imminent or even inevitable in North Carolina.
The new law calls for the creation of a 15-member Mining and Energy Commission to develop regulations governing hydraulic fracturing in our state, particularly with an eye toward addressing potential groundwater contamination issues associated with the fracking method.
The law sets a deadline of October 2014 for the commission to have regulations in place, and it specifically states that no permits will be issued until and unless the General Assembly takes additional legislative action to allow it.
If we decide that fracking should be permitted in North Carolina, we may not see the first permits issued until 2015. What happens between now and then is critical.
House and Senate appointments to the commission have been set, but, as of this writing, the governor had not announced her four appointments. Its first quarterly report to two legislative oversight commissions, including the Environmental Review Commission, is due no later than January 1.
As co-chairman of the Environmental Review Commission, I will be following these reports closely, and I won’t hesitate to ask for additional written and oral reports as necessary.
The Mining and Energy Commission should take to heart the law’s requirement that it include input from scientific and technical advisory groups, fair-minded industry and environmental advocacy groups and city and county government representatives.
It should seek broad public participation during its public meetings, which will be held at least twice quarterly. It should go to great lengths to make any information it receives readily available to the public, perhaps through a dedicated website.
In short, the Mining and Energy Commission should do everything within its power to ensure that this is a process of unprecedented openness and transparency.
If it does not, the people of North Carolina will not have confidence that the regulations the commission establishes adequately protect our precious drinking water resources. Until and unless that confidence exists, I will not advocate the permitting of the first hydraulically fractured well site in North Carolina.
About that, there should be no misconceptions.
— Ruth Samuelson represents Mecklenburg County’s District 104 in the state House, where she also serves as Majority Whip, co-chairman of the Environment Committee and co-chairman of the Environmental Review Commission.