Last updated: May 27. 2014 1:40PM - 646 Views
Steve Ford NC Council of Churches

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he North Carolina Senate could have gotten its 2014 session under way with a show of resolve to repair some of the damage from last year’s debacle. Just as one friendly suggestion: Senators could have reversed course and moved at the outset to expand the state’s Medicaid program, utilizing the available federal funds, so that an estimated 319,000 lower-income residents would have a better chance to obtain health care when they need it without going to a hospital emergency room.

But guess again. The Senate’s first significant items of business had nothing to do with helping people safeguard their health, or with strengthening the public schools that the General Assembly has been in the process of weakening, or with walking back the unnecessary, partisan-tinged changes in election laws that will make it harder for some citizens to vote.

Instead, senators focused on speeding up the timetable for environmentally dubious natural gas fracking and on regulatory “reform” that will, among other changes, make it harder to monitor air pollution.

Although the extent of natural gas trapped in the state’s underground shale beds is an open question – and estimates tend to run on the low side – energy companies are eager to start exploratory drilling. If gas reserves proved commercially viable, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would be used to break up the shale and release the gas.

Experience in states such as Pennsylvania shows that fracking can lead to contaminated drinking water wells and other threats to water supplies. North Carolina’s gas-bearing shale formations are concentrated southwest of the Triangle in Lee, Chatham and Moore counties.

The legislature already has directed the state’s Mining and Energy Commission to write rules intended to make fracking safe (although skeptics doubt that an acceptable safety margin can be achieved). Once the rules are completed and vetted by lawmakers, a long-standing embargo on the horizontal drilling that fracking companies typically use would be lifted and the state could begin issuing permits for exploration and production.

Next summer, for sure

The rules are supposed to be finished late this year. But fracking advocates in the Senate don’t want to take any chances that the process of gaining legislative approval – no doubt over some strenuous objections – could drag on while the embargo remained in place. Senate Bill 786, given final approval on May 22, would allow state regulators to start issuing permits for fracking on July 1, 2015.

The effect, it seems obvious, would be to tell opponents of fracking: You can vent as much “gas” as you’d like next spring when the rules are supposed to undergo legislative review. But no matter how thoughtful and scientifically well-founded your arguments, fracking will be a North Carolina fact of life in a little more than 13 months. So get used to it!

Senators did make a couple of nods to the skeptics as they maneuvered S.B. 786 to final passage on a vote of 35-12, with no Republicans opposed. The bill initially would have made it a felony offense to publicly disclose the recipes, tightly held by fracking companies, for the chemical brews injected at high pressure to shatter the gas-bearing rock. Now unauthorized disclose of these supposed trade secrets would be merely a misdemeanor. And companies would be required to post bonds with the state of at least $1 million to defray the cost of any environmental damage.

Still, the bill faces a tougher audience in the House, where a proposal to lift the fracking embargo failed last year. House members would do well again to exercise common-sense caution and let the rule-writing process play out. Gov. Pat McCrory, cheerleader for in-state energy development though he is, could help matters by signaling he sees no need to promise companies they’ll be able to start drilling even if the rules haven’t been nailed down.

If fracking is to be allowed in North Carolina – an extremely close call when the legislature originally made that decision – then it surely ought to take place within a stringent regulatory framework that draws on the hard lessons learned in other states. Fracking advocates may have the upper hand, but it would be too bad if reasonable suggestions for improving that framework were dismissed out of hand – as several were during the Senate’s debate – apparently because they came from legislators who doubt whether a plunge into fracking would be in the state’s best interest.

Mothballed monitors

That’s similar to the treatment given senators who objected to some of the features in S.B. 734, which would overhaul various regulations that in some cases are a bother to polluting industries.

For instance, the state would have to remove any monitors measuring ambient air quality that aren’t required by the federal government. Critics said the number of monitors would be cut by about half.

According to supporters, the move would shift resources to allow for more tracking of air pollution from point sources – i.e., facilities such as power plants. But as Democratic Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh pointed out during May 22 debate, North Carolina’s urban areas continue to be dogged by pollution from non-point sources, mainly vehicles. Why, he asked, should monitoring of that kind of pollution be reduced?

An amendment by Stein to keep the current network of monitors was rejected, as was another by Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. of Durham regarding challenges to air quality permits that govern how much pollution a facility can release. The bill would keep the permit in effect while the challenge was being considered unless a judge intervened. McKissick wanted to drop that language, but his effort was blocked via a maneuver that spared Republican senators from having to vote on his proposal.

S.B. 734 will be up for final Senate consideration on May 28. In its 62 pages, it includes some sensible updating of a few obsolete rules such as the one that prohibits cursing on public highways. Among its helpful aspects are stronger requirements for carbon monoxide detectors and heavier penalties for digging up rare plants. Otherwise, it’s a grab bag of provisions offering the kind of regulatory “relief” that tends to appeal to business interests.

Those of us aligned with the Council of Churches want regulation of business to be both efficient and effective. A vibrant economy is important, but there’s no good reason to think North Carolina’s modern-day industries can’t succeed amid rules that protect our air, our water, our open spaces.

A healthy environment is in fact a huge incentive to companies determining where to invest and operate. Legislators who, in their zeal to be business-friendly, would compromise on environmental rules, whether with respect to fracking, air quality or any other area where the state properly exercises oversight, do no favors for the ordinary constituents whom they’re supposed to represent.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.

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