RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a measure that would allow fracking for natural gas to begin in the state next year.
The Republican-controlled state House approved the bill Wednesday, 63-52, with a dozen members of the GOP caucus and all but one of the Democrats voting no.
The bill had its first committee hearing in the House on Tuesday and was added to Wednesday's calendar for a vote with no prior public notice.
Democrats and environmental groups accused Republican leaders of trying to push through the legislation before opposition can build and members have time to read the bill. Supporters said the issue had been debated long enough.
The House will hold another vote Thursday before sending the bill back to the Senate, which approved an earlier version last week. If the Senate agrees with the House changes, the bill heads to the desk of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who supports bringing fracking and off-shore drilling to the state.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is used by the energy industry to extract oil and gas from rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals. North Carolina is believed to have natural gasreserves locked in layers of shale under Chatham, Lee and Moore counties, though just how much is in dispute.
The bill's Republican sponsors have repeatedly claimed that there is enough gas to meet North Carolina's energy needs and spark an economic boom that will create thousands of well-paying jobs.
"Vote for this bill in support of jobs for North Carolina, vote for this bill for jobs in Lee County, and help make North Carolina energy independent," Rep. Mike Stone, R-Lee, urged his colleagues Wednesday. "Look at North Dakota: They're having to truck people in there to find help."
But opponents pointed to a 2012 U.S. Geological Survey estimate that North Carolina's total reserves amount to less than would be needed to meet the state's natural gas needs for six years.
A separate 2012 study by the N.C. Department of Commerce estimated that natural gas exploration and drilling would create an average of 387 jobs over a seven year period, with most positions going to out-of-state workers with experience on gas rigs.
"There's a lot of risk for not a lot of reward," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, R-Guilford.
Primary sponsor Sen. Buck Newton told the Associated Press that those studies relied on outdated data and grossly underestimated the size of the state's gas reserves.
Newton, R-Wilson, said industry representatives had told him privately that there is likely several times moregas in the ground than the federal experts have estimated. He declined to say who he had talked to or cite published studies supporting those claims.
"A lot of this is informal," Newton said. "They're very sensitive about those things because they don't want their competitors to know they're interested."
Environmental groups have raised concerns about whether potentially hazardous chemicals used in fracking could contaminate groundwater and wells serving nearby homes and farms. The industry has argued that publicly disclosing the chemicals would reveal trade secrets.
The legislation would require energy companies to submit a list of the chemicals in use to the state geologist, who would keep it locked away in case of an accident or emergency. The legislation exempts those lists from disclosure as public records. Unauthorized disclosure of the chemicals would become a crime.
During Tuesday's committee hearing, Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said he was particularly concerned by that provision. Following an accident, he said, a doctor could seek permission from the state to be told what chemicals a patient had been exposed to.
"However, the doctor couldn't tell the patient, or it would be a class 1 misdemeanor," said Jeter, who voted against the bill.
Fracking supporters said a draft rule being developed by the N.C. Energy and Mining Commission would require disclosure of the types of chemicals used during fracking, though not the specific details or concentrations. However, nothing in the bill voted on Wednesday requires that draft rule to be enacted.
The state commission is set to issue its final rules by January 1. The first drilling permits could be issued as soon as May 2015.