Senate Bill 76 changes key provisions of hydraulic fracturing legislation adopted by the N.C. General Assembly just eight months ago. Section 1 of the bill has already attracted attention because it would allow the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Mining and Energy Commission to begin issuing permits for hydraulic fracturing on March 1 2015 without any further action by the General Assembly – whether adequate fracking rules are in effect or not.
Section 4 of the bill has gotten less attention, but it may make the most significant change in state environmental law. N.C. law has long prohibited underground injection of waste because of the risk of contaminating drinking water supplies. (See N.C.G.S. 143-214.2) The General Assembly amended the law in 2012 to make it clear that fluids could be injected to produce gas by hydraulic fracturing, but kept the prohibition on injection of waste. As amended by Session Law 2012-143, the law allows injection of “hydraulic fracturing fluid for the exploration or development of natural gas resources”. Senate Bill 76 proposes to change the law again — this time in a way that appears to allow underground disposal of wastewater from drilling operations. The proposed language would allow injection of any “fluid associated with the exploration, production or development of natural gas resources”.
Since the Senate Bill 76 language does not put any limitations on injection of drilling fluids (including drilling waste), it appears to be inconsistent with federal Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules under the Safe Drinking Water Act allow waste injection wells to be permitted only where injection can be done without contaminating groundwater that is suitable for drinking water supply.
Underground injection of drilling waste is a common practice in some oil and gas states, but DENR’s 2012 hydraulic fracturing study recommended against allowing underground injection of drilling waste in North Carolina. Section 4 of the N.C. Oil and Gas Study talks about the conditions that could make underground injection of waste more risky here than in other gas producing states. Among the reasons — North Carolina geology makes it more difficult to insure that waste injected into the fractured bedrock of the shale region will not move into underground drinking water supplies.