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So now that the last public hearing on the rules governing possible fracking in North Carolina has taken place, what’s next?
Two things are top of the list – what the Mining and Energy Commission must do, as laid out by law, and what some speakers at the recent hearing held in Cullowhee hope the commission will do. First, the former.
The comment period on the commission’s draft rules for oil and natural gas exploration is open until Sept. 30 (written comments can be mailed or emailed at the addresses provided below). The commission is required to fully consider each comment made in writing and at the public hearings, the last of which was held Sept. 12 at Western Carolina University.
The MEC will decide whether any changes to the more than 120 draft rules are warranted and adopt them with any amendments the first week of November, said Jamie Kritzer, a communications officer with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. He anticipates the rules will be sent to the Rules Review Commission by Nov. 20.
“If the current time frame holds up, the state Rules Review Commission has indicated they will set up a special meeting for the Mining and Energy Commission rules, probably in December,” Kritzer stated via email.
The rules must be approved by the rules commission before they move on to the General Assembly, probably around January, he wrote.
The rules’ enabling legislation, the Energy Modernization Act, allows the rules to become effective if no disapproval bill is filed in 31 days. The earliest DENR can issue drilling permits, on a case-by-case basis, is 31 days after the start of the next legislative session. That would be March, Kritzer noted.
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The General Assembly made fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, possible this year by passing the Energy Modernization Act. In June, Gov. Pat McCrory signed the law, which lifted the moratorium on fracking permits in place since 2012. Shale gas has been identified in the state’s seven most western counties. Carolina Public Press first reported last November that state environmental officials planned to study whether fracking in the seven far-western counties was possible. More recently, however, a state official has said the preliminary study has been postponed. Shale gas deposits are thought to exist in Chatham, Lee and Moore counties and have been mentioned as the first ones likely to be mined.
MEC commissioner Jim Womack is a county commissioner in Lee County. He was one of three MEC commissioners at the public hearing in Cullowhee, all of whom were contacted by Carolina Public Press and asked to respond to the comments they heard at all four hearings. In an emailed response, Womack said it would be “unwise for us to speak directly to these rules” until after the comment period expires.
“We do not wish to discourage or influence the public’s submission of written comments, aside from encouraging public input in general,” he wrote.
He stated that “the common denominator of all four public hearings was that a lot of citizens are concerned about public health and safety. Regardless of our administration of rules, the MEC, DENR and the N.C. General Assembly have a lot of work to do in public outreach and education on the subject of shale energy development in the state.”
Of the hearing in Cullowhee, Womack wrote that his notes of comments made by the 79 speakers reflect that “more than a third … addressed MEC rules with some specific recommendations for change, each of which I will cross-reference and analyze, then discuss with the other hearing officers. I believe all of us will take all comments, oral and written, to heart and will carefully consider everything we have seen and heard before finalizing our report to the MEC in late October or early November.”
Which brings up the second part of what could happen next.
Katie Hicks at Clean Water for North Carolina said in a telephone interview that “the commission members have stated that they intended to review in detail and take in account the comments. We’re hopeful they will strengthen some of those rules, though we know that no state has been able to regulate this industry in way that protects homes and public health fully.”
Hicks, who was the last speaker at the four-hour hearing in Cullowhee, doesn’t believe the public hearings were an exercise in futility, despite the pro-business leanings of the current General Assembly.
“From our perspective,” she said, “it’s clear that more and more people are educating themselves about this issue and learning about the risks. It was astounding to see the turnout at all four hearings, particularly at Cullowhee, where not a single commenter spoke in favor of the practice. It’s clear to the state, and to the industry hopefully, that folks in North Carolina are paying attention and are not going to let anything go unwatched.”
Sarah Kellogg of Appalachian Voices is also hopeful that the commission “will take the very good suggestions made into consideration and make the rules stronger,” she said.
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She noted that several candidates for office throughout North Carolina have made opposition to hydraulic fracturing a part of their platforms. (Some of those candidates made comments in Cullowhee, including Tom Hill, a Democrat running for N.C.’s 11th Congressional District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican; Tate McQueen, a Democrat running for N.C.’s 10th Congressional District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican; and Jane Hipps, a Democrat running for state Senate District 50, now represented by Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican from Franklin.)
Fracking and the reactions it elicits may play a role in how the November elections turn out, Kellogg said.
“A lot of folks running for office realize they need to oppose fracking if they want a shot at” winning, she said.
The last time something similar to fracking happened in Western North Carolina was in the 1980s, when north Buncombe County’s Sandy Mush community was one of a dozen East Coast sites proposed to house radioactive waste in deep-level vaults, said Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition in Sylva.
“There was a similar outcry, and the state backed off,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not” with fracking. “We have a crowd in the legislature that is less responsive to public opinion, safeguarded by the redistricting they’ve done.”
But Friedman too believes fracking will be a major issue in the upcoming elections. He’s predicting a larger-than-normal turnout because of it.
The Mining and Energy Commission will take written comments through Sept. 30 at firstname.lastname@example.org or Mining & Energy Commission, ATTN: Oil and Gas Program, 1612 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1612.