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Legislation would prohibit cities and counties from regulating fracking

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"We're not playing down here. Our job is to stand up for our community, as best as we can."

Anna Baucom, the outspoken chairwoman of the Anson County Board of Commissioners, is talking about local control over hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" as it's better known.

"The idea of not allowing local ordinances to protect communities, that's very short-sighted," she says. "We're here on the ground. We know our communities."

Three weeks ago, Anson County commissioners, including Baucom, voted to approve a five-year moratorium on the drilling practice as they research fracking impacts.

All of this may ultimately be little more than symbolic. North Carolina legislators, many of whom have received large campaign contributions from energy companies, are poised to strip local governments of any power to regulate fracking within their borders (see sidebar.)

Senate Bill 612, which passed the Senate in early May, specifies that local regulations may not be more stringent than those proffered by the state's Mining and Energy Commission. The commission, tasked with crafting the state's fracking regulations, is expected to draft recommendations for local government powers this summer.

Scott Forbes, attorney for the Anson County Board of Commissioners, says he believes local governments, for now, are legally safe in passing anti-fracking ordinances. Yet, aside from Anson, the Raleigh City Council is the only other local government body to approve a fracking ban since Creedmoor's ice-breaking ban in September 2011.

However, numerous Triangle-area local governments—Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Pittsboro, Orange County and Durham County—have passed resolutions opposing the drilling.

Last year, proposed state legislation included language denying local government control over fracking, but it was removed following committee testimony by opponents, including Erin Wynia, legislative and regulatory issues manager for the N.C. League of Municipalities. Wynia's statewide organization lobbies for local government concerns.

"The League supports as much local control as possible in any area, not just hydraulic fracturing," she says.

Wynia won't say whether the League backs outright fracking bans. But she says the group is advocating for municipalities to receive sweeping regulatory powers, similar to those granted for towns and cities over stormwater management.

"Hydraulic fracturing is really not all that different from other heavy industries in terms of what local governments would want to control," she says. "They want to control for noise and impacts."

Anson County, an economically blighted county 50 miles east of Charlotte, is not the most likely destination for frackers. Natural gas stores are expected to be the most plentiful more than 80 miles to the north in rural Lee and Chatham counties. Jim Womack, chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission, is a Lee County commissioner.

However, like many areas of the state, Anson County needs jobs. According to the most recent state unemployment figures, Anson's jobless rate in March was 10.9 percent—not the highest in North Carolina, but well above the statewide rate of 8.9 percent.

And, as Baucom points out, Anson also needs its water. The Pee Dee River makes Anson County a prized water source in the region, serving as a key vendor for thirsty neighbors such as Union County and the town of Marshville.

"We have a duty to protect that," Baucom says. "And I can't believe that Anson County would be the only place on the face of the Earth where they would come in and not do any damage. Something can go wrong, you've got to be prepared for it to go wrong."

Creedmoor Mayor Darryl Moss—who is also an appointee to the state's Environmental Management Commission—says tapping North Carolina's natural gas supply is not worth the risks.

Initial estimates from lawmakers promised a 40-year energy supply for North Carolina, but a U.S. Geological Survey assessment last June trimmed it to six years.

"It doesn't seem like it makes a lot of sense to put our community in a situation where we could do damage to our water supply," Moss says.

Moss, whose state commission post expires at the end of June, says lawmakers should slow their approach to fracking. But he expects GOP legislators will ultimately cave to gas industry pressure, pointing to the mining commission's decision this month to pull a pivotal vote on chemical disclosure requirements following complaints from energy giant Halliburton.

Sen. Gene McLaurin, a freshman Democrat from Rockingham whose district includes Anson County, says he was also disturbed by the commission's actions. Although he voted to approve fast-track fracking legislation in February, McLaurin filed a local bill two weeks ago that would have required approval from Anson County commissioners to issue fracking permits in the county.

The bill did not pass the Senate in time to make the Legislature's crossover deadline for consideration in this session. However, McLaurin, the owner of a Rockingham petroleum distributor, says he continues to push for local government powers with his Republican counterparts.

"I am not opposed to fracking if it can be done safely," McLaurin says. "But I also think local governments and local communities, if they are adamant that it's not right for their community, folks in Raleigh should listen to that."

Forbes agrees, but he says that power may ultimately be decided in a North Carolina courtroom, not in legislative chambers.

Baucom says she wants to protect her adopted home in Anson County and make sure Raleigh lawmakers hear the message of those, like her, who live in faraway, rural counties. What is that message?

"Oh," she says. "You can't print what I have to say."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Locals losing control."

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