By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) â¿¿ A state Senate panel agreed Thursday to set a 2015 date for North Carolina's first fracking permits, but bill supporters vowed drilling licenses wouldn't be granted until regulations governing the controversial practice are finalized.
Senate Republicans are pushing legislation that expands on last year's law, which authorized fracking but prohibited licensing until state regulators produced rules for it by October 2014.
The proposal heading to the Senate floor next week says the state Mining and Energy Commission and state environment department would be authorized to issue permits starting March 1, 2015. An amendment also approved Thursday would not require the regulators to issue the permits until all the required rules are in effect.
Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, one of the bill's primary sponsors, said no one was speeding up the process to allow horizontal drilling and fracking. Newton said legislators will likely to have to vote to affirm whatever regulations are developed.
"So the rules are going to be in place before any permits are issued," Newton said.
Fracking is a process that involves injecting a drilled well with chemicals, water and sand at high pressure in order to crack shale rock and release natural gas. Environmental groups that opposed the 2012 law, which then-Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed but was overridden, say the process is too risky, particularly for groundwater supplies.
They say Republicans aren't waiting for Mining and Energy Commission to carefully work out the regulations.
"We do think this process needs to slow down a little bit,'" Dan Crawford with the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters told the committee earlier this week.
A change in Thursday's bill directs that certain water generated from the drilling process can be returned underground, but it still doesn't prevent groundwater contamination by the fluid used to fracture the rocks, according to Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina.