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Legislators are pushing for a rule that would require fracking operators to provide information about the chemical contents of fracking fluid in the event of a spill.
By Gabe Rivin
First responders are applauding a recent legislative proposal that would allow state officials to retain confidential information about hydraulic-fracturing chemicals, with the intention that the information reach those first responders quickly during an emergency.
On May 8, a commission of state legislators approved the draft Energy Modernization Act, which would require drillers to disclose all the chemicals they use for fracking, including those that they designate as trade secrets. The bill would not provide trade secrets to the public but would make North Carolina’s state geologist the custodian of the information.
The state geologist, an employee of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, would be empowered to release this information to state officials who plan for emergencies, as well as doctors and fire chiefs who are responding to events such as chemical spills and explosions.
The proposal would override rules being drafted by the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which is developing regulations for gas drilling and fracking. The MEC in January tentatively approved rules that would bar the state from holding confidential information about fracking chemicals.
Landowners and environmentalists were concerned about the MEC’s provision, which they said could harm public health and hinder the state’s response to chemical spills. Amy Pickle, a member of the MEC, admitted that the rules create “a very convoluted” process to handle information about trade-secret chemicals.
The legislators’ bill, if it passes, will force the MEC to rewrite parts of its chemical-disclosure rules, according to James Womack, the chairman of the MEC.
“Our rule was under the presumption that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources would not be required to hold trade secrets, and that the review of trade secrets would require a statutory change,” he said.
Wayne Barber, the fire chief of Sanford, a potential site of drilling, said the proposed changes are important for firefighters.
“You can’t just go running in blind to a chemical-type situation,” he said. “You put all of your personnel at risk, and anyone in the area is at risk too.”
Barber said he was concerned too that during an emergency, drillers might not provide chemical information quickly enough to first responders. “I could see a delay in the appropriate response,” he said.
The legislators agreed upon the bill while meeting in the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy, which includes members from both the state House and Senate. The bill which was introduced in the Senate on May 15, now must be approved by legislators in both chambers.
Womack said he is “highly confident” that the substantial elements of the bill will pass during this year’s legislative session.
“The executive branch supports it; the legislative branch supports it. It’s constitutional. The MEC supports it, as far as I know,” he said. “I can’t imagine this bill wouldn’t pass.”
In the meantime, Womack said, the MEC will rewrite its rules, given its expectation that the substantial elements of the bill will pass.
The full General Assembly reconvened on May 14.
Other provisions of the bill
The energy commission’s bill includes several other provisions that address natural-gas drilling.
The bill would grant the Mining and Energy Commission an additional three months to develop its rules. Senate Bill 820, the law that established the MEC, requires that the group finish its work by October. Fracking critics say that this has forced the commission to rush through important policy debates.
The bill would also prohibit any local ordinances that seek to outlaw drilling.
Additionally, the commission’s bill contains a provision that affects drillers’ responsibilities to monitor nearby water. Senate Bill 820 requires energy developers, before drilling, to test water within 5,000 feet of a well. Drillers would be presumed liable for any later water contamination within that area.
The proposed legislation would set the distance instead at a half mile, or 2,640 feet. Womack said that this change is “substantial,” and that it will align the state’s rules more closely with those of other states.
Under the bill, the Mining and Energy Commission would be dissolved next year. It would be reconstituted as two commissions: an Oil and Gas Commission and a Mining Commission.
The Oil and Gas Commission would focus on natural-gas production and oil production. The Mining Commission would regulate mineral mining.
Unlike with the MEC, the Oil and Gas Commission would not be required to have a member who also sits on the state’s Commission for Public Health. That member would only be required to have “experience in matters related to public health,” according to the bill’s text.
Some members of the MEC will likely serve in the newly constituted commissions, while some may not, according to Womack.