Senate committees fast-track fracking

Full Senate to consider lifting moratorium Wednesday
For immediate release

Raleigh, NC  -- The state’s moratorium on fracking would be lifted and a complex suite of more than 120 fracking rules would be exempt from meaningful legislative review, according to a measure that cleared two separate Senate committees today in less than four hours.  Under S.B. 786, likely to be voted on by the full Senate Wednesday, the controversial form of gas drilling would begin as soon as next summer.

“Fracking would threaten our waters, from the Dan River to the Cape Fear, and the drinking water for more than 2 million North Carolinians,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director for Environment North Carolina.  “This bill puts fracking on the fast track and our rivers in jeopardy.”

Fracking is the process by which large quantities of water, sand, and toxic chemicals are injected into the ground in order to extract shale gas. The technique is exempt from most major federal environmental laws, and has caused water contamination and air pollution across the country.  In 2012 alone, it created more than 280 billion gallons of toxic wastewater nationwide, according to Environment North Carolina research.  

In 2012, the legislature placed an indefinite moratorium on the permitting of fracking, at least until a new Mining and Energy Commission could develop rules governing the practice.  The new version of S.B. 786, unveiled and sped through two legislative committees today, lifts the moratorium on July 1, 2015, even though the rules are far from complete, and several questions remain about treatment of toxic wastewater, local government control, and air pollution associated with fracking.

“Senators are breaking the promise they made in 2012: to consider lifting our moratorium only after all the questions are answered, and rules have been developed,” said Ouzts. “Lawmakers shouldn’t allow fracking here at all.  The least they can do is keep their promise -- not weaken clean water protections, cut corners, and rush the process at every turn. ”

In addition to lifting the moratorium, Environment North Carolina pointed out other ways S.B. 786 would threaten water quality and the environment.  The bill:

  • Fast-tracks fracking rules to become effective unless a bill is passed to amend or overturn them within 60 calendar days of the start of the 2015 session, an extraordinary exemption for a set of more than 120 distinct rules for an industry with which the state has no prior regulatory experience.  The rules cover a wide array of complex topics, from trade secrets and chemical disclosure, to mineral property rights and toxic wastewater disposal. To adequately address public comments on this complicated set of rules, the Mining and Energy Commission needs at least until January 2015 to finalize their regulations.  Under current law, the legislature would review these rules in their 2016 session. S 786, however, shortens the legislative review period for fracking rules by more than 12 months.
  • Usurps local governments.  The costs of fracking, from contaminated drinking water to stress on emergency response services, are born disproportionately by cities and counties.  Yet S.B. 786 prevents local governments from not only banning or restricting fracking; it also severely limits on the ability of local governments to deploy traditional powers – zoning, health & safety regulation – to protect their residents from impacts of fracking in any way.
  • Weakens protections for drinking water.  Current law makes drillers presumptively liable for contamination of groundwater wells within 5,000 feet of a gas well; as outlined in the MEC’s proposed rules, a company can refute the presumption by collecting pre-drilling samples that show pre-existing contamination. S.B. 786 slashes the radius of presumptive liability to 1⁄2 mile (2,640 feet), nearly in half, and a 72% reduction in the protected area.
  • Fails to address many of the most dangerous issues associated with fracking, from forcing landowners to allow fracking against their will, to properly disposing of toxic wastewater, to limiting harmful air pollution.

Today’s events set up a potential replay of last year, when the Senate and Gov. Pat McCrory tried to lift the moratorium in S.B. 76 and S.B. 127, but House members ultimately refused to go along.  The House could take the bill up after the Memorial Day Weekend.

“We appreciate that the House stood up against the rush to frack last year,” said Ouzts.  “We hope they will again.”