AP: NC Senate bill adds divisive new fracking measures

Jun. 25, 2013 @ 05:35 PM

What's often considered an annual environmental housecleaning bill in the North Carolina Legislature drew fierce criticism Tuesday after lawmakers presented a sweeping new version of the bill with provisions governing hydraulic fracturing and air quality.

Environmentalists said the 43-page bill introduced in a Senate panel goes well beyond the reach of the four-page version passed by the House last month. But the Senate committee endorsed the bill unanimously on a voice vote with little debate, sending it to the full body.

Among other things, the bill would allow energy companies to withhold information about the fluids they inject into the ground to extract natural gas as a trade secret. The bill does leave an avenue for state or local governments and landowners to challenge the trade secret designation. It also leaves an exception in cases of public health emergencies.

Critics of hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking," fear it will contaminate groundwater supplies. A 2012 law paving the way for fracking in North Carolina directed state mining and environmental officials to develop regulations. The state Mining and Energy Commission approved a rule in March requiring some disclosure of chemicals but later withdrew it under pressure from industry heavyweight Halliburton.

"This runs the Mining and Energy Commission off the road from the direction they were going," said Molly Diggins, state director of environmental group Sierra Club. "There's no issue the public cares more about with fracking than full disclosure."

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources supports the bill and the fracking measure in particular because the law is unclear about how to treat trade secrets, opening the state to lawsuits for failing to adequately protect chemical formulas, said Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie.

The rules governing disclosure differ across the states that allow fracking, Gillespie said. Some are more strict while others are more lax, he said.

Department spokesman Drew Elliot pressed back against concerns that the bill compromises the Mining and Energy Commission's independence.

"They're crafting rules under the direction of the legislature," he said. "They weren't given a blank slate."