As North Carolina lawmakers consider opening up the state to hydraulic fracturing, the controversial method used to extract natural gas from shale deposits, a good government group says that natural gas-related industries are unduly influencing the debate.
An analysis released last week by the group North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections found that natural gas companies and related political action groups have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to state lawmakers in recent years, with most of it going to those who last year voted in favor of legislation that would have fast-tracked study and implementation of hydraulic fracturing.
The North Carolina Legislature passed that bill, called the Energy Jobs Act, but Governor Bev Perdue vetoed it.
From 2009 to 2011, natural gas supporters gave an average of more than $4,300 to the 69 House members who voted yes on the bill, according to the study. That was nearly twice the amount given to the 42 members who voted against it. Meanwhile, the bill's 35 supporters in the Senate netted an average of nearly $6,000 in contributions — about $1,000 more than the 10 members who voted no.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, who didn't cast a vote but ferried the bill to the floor, received more than $43,600 from the bill's beneficiaries over the three years. Senator Robert Rucho, who introduced the bill in the Senate, received $20,500, according the study. Tillis and Rucho did not return calls for comment.
“I kind of expected this,” says Melissa Price Krumm, director of the good government group, “This is the kind of pay to play politics we need to change right now.”
Hydraulic fracturing, widely known as fracking, involves blasting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water deep into wells, freeing gas stored in shale deposits. Environmentalists worry the practice leaves water supplies vulnerable to contamination — a claim disputed by energy industry representatives who insist the process is safe and hasn't been directly linked to the pollution of drinking water.
Many states are debating whether to allow fracking, and if so, how to regulate it. In this session alone, at least 24 states have considered more than 120 bills related to the practice.
North Carolina is a new battleground for that debate, though experts aren't sure how much natural gas the state hold in reserves. Estimates have varied widely, from those who say there's enough of the resource to meet the state's needs for 40 years, to those who say the reserves may last for only five years, the News & Observer reported last week. As a result, state officials have found it difficult to predict how many jobs and how much revenue the industry might generate in the state.
Perdue, a Democrat, says she supports fracking in North Carolina, if it's done responsibly. Last week, she issued an executive order that directs a panel to study the practice and recommend regulations.
“Before we permit anyone to ‘frack' in North Carolina, however, we must hear from all sides, address all issues, and develop a robust set of rules,” she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled legislature is debating proposals. A Senate committee on Thursday (May 31) took up a bill that would create a state oil and gas board to adopt rules that would govern the process and allow the state to issue drilling permits after a two-year moratorium.