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North Carolina legislation answers local fracking moratoria

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The last bill the North Carolina General Assembly approved before adjourning this year was designed to stop local governments from trying to delay or restrict fracking in their own backyards.

Last week’s legislation, inserted into a 41-page “technical corrections” bill approved in the middle of the night and that Gov. Pat McCrory later signed, is supposed to reinforce a 2014 ban on cities and counties from ordinances that prohibit hydraulic fracturing directly or indirectly.

The updated law now says all provisions of local ordinances that “regulate or have the effect of regulating” oil and gas exploration “are invalidated and unenforceable.”

Longtime fracking supporter Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said the language attempts to address any misunderstanding local governments may have about the legislature’s purpose. Rucho said the recast law was in response to recent local government ordinances.

The original intent of the law is that “no local ordinance should restrict the ability of being able to have shale gas exploration or development,” Rucho said Monday.

But Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the changes broaden regulatory prohibitions by local governments worried about the effects fracking could have on water and the quality of life.

“It extremely hamstrings local governments from being able to protect their citizens from the harmful impacts of fracking,” she said.

Since mid-August, Chatham and Stokes counties have passed fracking moratoria. Lee County is considering one.

Chatham County commission Chairman Jim Crawford said he believes the two-year moratorium approved Aug. 18 remains enforceable because it’s not a regulation. Rather, he said, it’s a “time out” that would also give time to Chatham leaders to carefully consider the effects of any proposal to drill.

“I’d be happy to put it before a judge if they want to challenge our moratorium,” Crawford said.

Lee, Chatham and adjoining Moore County encompass a region where scientists believe pockets of shale gas exist and can be extracted through fracking, although there’s no agreement on how much gas is there. The state Mining and Energy Commission approved rules regulating fracking late last year. They took effect last March. No commercial drilling has yet occurred.

Litigation may first require an energy company that receives a permit from state regulators to drill in an area where a moratorium or fracking regulations are in place. A judge has put any state permitting on hold until the state Supreme Court rules in a case related to how appointees to state panels like the energy commission are chosen.

Lee County commissioners voted 5-2 on Monday to move ahead anyway with the moratorium ordinance process with a public hearing next month, County Manager John Crumpton said.

But proposed development rules for Lee County and for Sanford and Broadway within the county restricting oil and gas operations within areas zoned for industrial use now appear pre-empted, Sanford Mayor Chet Mann said.

“I’m a little disappointed that our legislature would try to tell us what’s best for us when our county is going to be affected,” Mann said.

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