by Billy Ball
To frack or not to frack, this is the question for N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue. The lame-duck governor could ultimately be the one who decides the state's fracking future.
Not surprisingly, the N.C. House of Representatives gave its approval of fracking Thursday, although drilling opponents are likely to see opportunity in the 66-43 vote, which largely fell on party lines. Republicans will need at least six more votes to override a gubernatorial veto should Perdue use that power in the next 10 days.
Supporters say the natural gas drilling would be a boon for a lagging economy, bringing hundreds of jobs and cash. Opponents point to numerous reports of fracking spills and environmental headaches in other states.
The unpopular governor, who announced in January that she would not be seeking a second term in 2012, has been difficult to pin down on this issue.
Perdue prompted some environmental angst in March when she said fracking can be done safely after an industry-guided tour of a drilling operation in Pennsylvania.
It remains to be seen, however, if she would side with state Republicans on Senate Bill 820, the measure that opens the door to legalizing the drilling in a few years after state officials build a regulatory structure.
The governor's office had little to say on the subject Friday. "She will review the bill when it gets to her desk," said Mark Johnson, deputy communications director for the governor's office. "That's our only statement at this time."
Many state Democrats have blasted GOP-steered fracking legislation as ushering in drilling too quickly, and leaving broad powers to a regulatory mining commission where the majority have a direct stake in the industry or have drilling experience.
Critics are also quick to note that, based on low natural gas prices and the state's very modest supply of the resource, drilling isn't likely to happen in North Carolina in the next decade regardless of whether lawmakers legalize the controversial technique.
"Unfortunately, the legislature seems committed to moving forward with fracking without getting essential questions answered about the potential impact on our water resources," said Molly Diggins, state director of the N.C. Sierra Club, in a statement Friday. "There's too much at stake to make a risky bet like this. The public deserves better."
The House version of the fracking bill that passed Thursday includes some divergence from the Senate bill, including the addition of two local government officials to the mining commission and additional consumer protections. It seems likely that Senate and House conservatives will manage to reconcile the differences in a matter of days.
Meanwhile, environmentalists are asking fracking opponents to contact the governor and urge her to veto the legislation.
Activists with Occupy Raleigh are planning a protest at the governor's mansion at 6 p.m. Monday to call for a veto.