RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A bill clearing the way for oil and gas drilling in North Carolina passed the state House Friday, despite calls from Democratic lawmakers to slow down permitting.
House lawmakers backed a more moderate approach than their Senate counterparts that restores more safeguards and adds new protections. But both versions of the bill set a March 2015 date to begin issuing permits for hydraulic fracturing and offshore drilling.
Hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking," involves injecting an underground well with chemicals, water and sand at high pressure in order to crack shale rock and release natural gas. Environmentalists contend it comes with risks to water supplies and other hazards.
Democrats initially objected to taking a final vote Friday but later relented. The bill passed 70-33.
The House bill will now return to the Senate, which has to approve changes. Sponsors of the Senate version have said they oppose the House's rewrite, indicating negotiations to settle differences will be needed.
Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, and Gov. Pat McCrory supports fracking. He hasn't publicly taken a position on either version of the bill, though he released a statement earlier this week praising the consumer protections sought by the House.
The House bill would begin issuing permits for oil and gas drillers in March 2015 but would not make them effective until the legislature authorizes them. The 2012 law that directed state agencies to craft rules for oil and gas exploration by October 2014 required the legislature to act before issuing any permits. The Senate bill would allow state agencies to begin issuing permits in March 2015 that could take effect without legislative approval.
DENR officials and Senate Republicans have said it's a practical impossibility that permits would go out before rules are in place because it takes only 10 public comments on the regulations to prompt legislative review.
The House bill also bans the practice of allowing companies to dispose of wastewater underground, creates a far larger fund to address environmental disasters, requires oil company representatives to register with the state and authorizes studies protecting landowners from fraud and exploring ways to help local governments pay for new costs to infrastructure.
Supporters of the House version argue it gives the oil and gas industry a firmer start date to prepare investments while maintaining the 2012 promise that removing a fracking moratorium will take another vote in the legislature. They argue energy exploration will create an economic boon and can be safely done with the proper regulations, citing a state Department of Environment and Natural Resources study.
Democrats have unsuccessfully tried to restore the 2012 law's permitting rules and delay issuance of exploration rights until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency releases a report on fracking expected in 2014. They say they want greater assurances that fracking won't harm water supplies.
The one successful amendment on the House floor came from Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, who opposed charging a new energy council in DENR with promoting job creation. He argued giving the state regulator those duties presents a conflict of interest, and his amendment stripped the council of those responsibilities.
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