These are the rules, legislators

By Scott Mooneyham | Jun 27, 2013

RALEIGH -- Back when she was lieutenant governor and presiding over the state Senate, Beverly Perdue would occasionally bark at senators, "I would remind you, senators, these are your rules."


Perdue's admonition typically came as senators strayed from the floor rules, careening toward disorder.


As the chamber's presiding officer, Perdue enjoyed the task of enforcing rules but had no vote on them herself, hence her pointed remark.


A few years later, legislators could do with a Perdue-like reminder when it comes to hydraulic fracturing.


Having established rules to create a process for the controversial drilling method for natural gas to move forward, lawmakers now appear poised to ignore and usurp the process before it really gets going.


That process, the result of 2012 legislation, allows a newly-created state Mining and Energy Commission to develop recommendations for rules to govern hydraulic fracturing, with the idea that permits for drilling would start being issued in early 2015.


One bill currently being debated lays out yet more language related to when and under what circumstances the permitting will begin. That legislation was expected, even if the House and Senate disagree about whether legislators should grant final approval before the permitting actually begins.


But another piece of legislation calls to mind the Perdue admonition.


With the commission having met for several months, state lawmakers are considering adopting their own industry-friendly standards regarding what drillers have to reveal about the chemicals that they pump into the ground as part of the process that releases gas trapped in shale rock.


The rules would allow companies to withhold information considered to be "trade secrets," with the secretary of Environment and Natural Resources having authority to compel disclosure only when some event is shown to endanger public health or the environment.


That legislators have stepped into the middle of their own rule-making process may not be so surprising.


The commission had been set in May to approve its own rules regarding chemical disclosure, rules developed following a deliberative process that were supposed to balance public and industry concerns.


But then the commission put off a vote after energy giant Halliburton raised objections. At the time, commission chair Jim Womack offered, "No company stops what this commission is doing. And no individual in the legislative body does, either."


When it comes to a lot of individuals in a legislative body, that appears to be another matter.


The elected representatives of the state of North Carolina obviously have the ultimate authority to decide how fracking in North Carolina proceeds.


But those elected representatives set up a process that they sold as being responsive to the public and to concerns about public health.


That process was fine and dandy until the commission actually started doing something.


In the next iteration of fracking laws, perhaps legislators will go ahead and provide an appropriation for commission members' rubber stamps. Or, maybe they can just get Halliburton to pay for them.


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