A bill to lift the state's fracking moratorium that's speeding through the North Carolina legislature underwent some changes before it passed the Senate this week -- including the scaling back of one of its most controversial provisions that would have imposed prison time for unauthorized disclosure of chemicals in fracking fluids.
The version of the Energy Modernization Act (SB 786) that passed the Senate Thursday by a 36-11 vote changes the penalty for unauthorized disclosure of so-called "trade-secret" chemicals from a Class I felony, the lowest-level felony that could bring fines and several months in prison, to a Class 1 misdemeanor that does not carry prison time. The bill requires the state geologist in the Department of Energy and Natural Resources to serve as custodian of fracking chemical trade secrets and allows information about them to be disclosed only to emergency responders, health care providers dealing with emergencies, and federal and state agencies that need the information to carry out their duties.
The Senate also added a provision requiring drillers to have at least a $1 million bond to protect the state from expenses incurred by an accident.
The measure now moves to the House, where it appears it may run into resistance. A bill to lift the moratorium on fracking failed there last year.
Earlier this week, Rep. Mike Hager, a Rutherford County Republican leader who's been a leading advocate of fracking, told The News & Observer of Raleigh that the House was "not on board" with the bill's provision to allow the state to start issuing drilling permits beginning July 1, 2015 whether or not rules governing the process were in place:
"The major concern is we want to make sure the rules are what we want them to be before we go out and frack. It's gotta be rules first and then moratorium. You don't want to go flying blind."
The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) is charged with drawing up fracking rules that are supposed to protect the environment and public health. The rules are supposed to be subject to public hearings this summer before going to the legislature as soon as this fall for final approval. A recent investigation by the environmental group Greenpeace found what it called a "cozy relationship" between the industry and MEC.
An earlier version of the chemical disclosure rule debated by MEC was pulled from consideration after fracking giant Halliburton complained it disclosed too much to the public.