Under the Dome

Fracking Commission to lawmakers: Hands off!

The head of the state's fracking commission has asked Republican lawmakers to honor a hands-off policy with regard to shale gas exploration.

N.C. Mining & Energy Commission Chairman James Womack wrote to lawmakers that the legislature's recent attempt to trump the commission's work not only creates the potential for abuse by the energy industry but also stirs up North Carolina's anti-fracking opponents.

The warning is the latest development in a fracking subplot unfolding between the year-old commission and the state legislature that created the commission last year to write 120-plus safety rules to govern fracking in the state.

Womack, a Republican himself, sent a 2-page letter late Sunday to the Republican leaders in the legislature: N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis.

The letter, which was carbon-copied to all N.C. House and Senate members, follows a unanimous vote Friday by the commission. Commissioners are exercised about a recent Senate committee vote to bypass the commission on the most important issue of fracking safety: chemical disclosure.

The commission has been working on a chemical disclosure rule that some commissioners tout as the strictest in the country.

But the Senate committee approved its own chemical disclosure rule, much less stringent than the commission's, as part of an omnibus environmental bill. It included a provision to allow energy companies withhold the contents of any chemicals they unilaterally deem to be "trade secrets."

The Senate move flummoxed some Mining & Energy Commissioners, who urged sending lawmakers a strongly-worded message of concern.

"As written, the language would allow any company to claim exemption from disclosure of important information about potentially dangerous hydraulic fracturing fluids being pumped into oil and gas wells," Womack wrote in the letter.

Womack's letter noted that the commission, known as the MEC, has spent months reviewing and drafting a chemical disclosure rule. The commission plans to consider its rule at its July 26 meeting in Raleigh.

"Media and environmental interest group reactions to the proposed new language were immediate and sharply critical," Womack wrote. "This one simple change has reinvigorated anti-drilling fervor across the state; an outcome the MEC has worked tirelessly to avoid."

Fracking is the use of water mixed with chemicals and sand to break up deep shale rock formations and dislodge the natural gas trapped inside. The dozens of chemicals used range from benign household solvents to potent industrial additives.

The offending legislation, House Bill 94, still needs to be approved by the full Senate and House before it becomes law. If approved, it would limit the kind of chemical disclosure rule the Mining & Energy Commission could write.

Womack, a U.S. Army veteran who earned a Bronze Star in Operation Desert Storm, is also an elected member of the Lee County Commission. Lee County is the epicenter of North Carolina's triassic basin region that is believed to hold reserves of natural gas.


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