The fate of shale gas exploration in North Carolina is in the hands of 10 lawmakers elected to negotiate a deal out of two contrary pieces of legislation setting the state's energy policy.
The state House and Senate each picked five lawmakers, or conferees, for closed-door talks in the House-Senate conference on Senate Bill 76. The two bills couldn't be more different.
The Senate version would lift the state's fracking moratorium, boot the State Geologist from the N.C. Mining & Energy Commission, allow for injecting fracking waste in wells, and eliminate a registry for "landmen" who sign drill leases with property owners.
The House version would undo those changes. In addition, it would impose fines on fraudulent landmen and criminal penalties for operating without a state license.
House members expressed shock that the Senate would attempt to revise the state's fracking policy, which was set last year by legislation. Getting it done required overriding Gov. Bev Perdue's veto -- by a single vote -- a year ago.
Senate members were dismayed that their colleagues in the House, including Republican leaders, wouldn't jump on the opportunity to fast-track fracking. The term refers to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling of natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale rock formations.
The two negotiating teams will attempt to bridge the chasm between the two opposing visions. They include lawmakers who were outspoken for each position, including Reps. Mike Hager, Ruth Samuelson and Mike Stone for moderation, and Sens. E.S. "Buck" Newton, Andrew Brock and Bob Rucho for the accelerated approach.
The House appointed its team Thursday and the Senate Wednesday.
The conferees will meet in private and, if they succeed, their compromise legislation will be sent to the House and Senate for final approval.
If they fail, the state will revert to the policy now in place, which was voted in last year: The state's fracking moratorium remains in place until the legislature votes to lift it, and the N.C. Mining & Energy Commission is tasked with writing 100-plus regulations on well shaft construction, wastewater disposal, property owner protections, among other issues.