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NC’s Mining Commission Is On Track To Usher Fracking Wells By Spring 2015

Photo: A drilling site in northeastern Louisiana.
Daniel Foster via Flickr

The commission that’s been writing North Carolina’s policies on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas rushed on Wednesday to complete a set of rules that are necessary for drilling to start in the state next year.

Members of the commission voted unanimously to approve 48 rules, which included the requirements for companies to obtain drilling permits and the procedures to dispose of waste from wells. The rule set was four-times bigger than any set approved on a single day since commission members started meeting September 2012, and was a necessary step so members can present their work to the General Assembly this year.

Observers urged the commission to take more time looking over fundamental issues such as how rules will be enforced or assurances that drilling companies have enough money to operate. But James Womack, chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission, countered that the necessary rules have been established and they can be updated over time.

Observers urged North Carolina's Mining and Energy Commission to spend more time looking over safety rules for fracking, but tehc commission countered that the necessary rules have been established and they can be updated over time.

The commission is on schedule to present the rules for public comment hearings in August and to present them in October to the General Assembly, which is expected to tweak or sign them into law next spring. The state is then expected to issue its first permits for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“I will assure you that we will produce this rule set on schedule,” Womack said in an interview after the hearing. “We’re going to meet the intent of the legislature, and if drilling doesn’t begin in the spring of 2015, it won’t be because the Mining and Energy Commission didn’t do its job.”

During a 15-minute public comment period Wednesday afternoon, Mary MacLean Asbill, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the commission it was operating under an “artificially compressed schedule” and asked it to take longer to review rules.

And Edward Stoddard, an N.C. State University professor who has studied the state’s geology, says there is not yet enough information available on gaps between rocks underground that would allow fracking fluid to migrate and contaminate groundwater.

“I strongly suggest that the State of North Carolina conduct detailed geological and geophysical mapping studies in order to identify dikes and faults in the target region, prior to issuing permits,” Stoddard wrote in his prepared remarks. “It seems to me that we are morally obligated to our citizens to do so.”

While the amount of natural gas trapped under ground in North Carolina is unclear, the areas where it is believed to be concentrated are in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties.

Over 18 months of hearings, the commission approved 120 safety rules. It was appointed by the General Assembly in 2012 as part of an effort to update the state’s outdated oil and gas rules, which were written in 1945 before horizontal drilling like fracking became common practice. Rules include one that says energy companies will not have to disclose what kind of chemicals they use if they say it’s a trade secret.

The commission, which was created by Senate Bill 820 in 2012, is asking the General Assembly for some changes that are out of its jurisdiction. They include: to halve the area for which drilling companies would be responsible in case of water contamination from 5,000 to 2,500 feet; and to raise the maximum surety bond energy companies will put up to plug an abandoned gas well (the maximum is about $20,000 but plugging a well can cost up to $80,000, the Raleigh News & Observer reported).

According to the commission’s schedule, as many as five wells could be completed by the end of 2015, 15 by 2016, 55 by 2017 and 140 by 2018.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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