It might be difficult to believe, given the damage this General Assembly has already done to North Carolina, but legislative leaders reached a new low this week.
That’s true not only in the regressive legislation they passed, but how they passed it, limiting debate on the most important environmental issue of our generation, playing crass political games with taxes and teachers jobs, and using a constitutionally questionable maneuver to deny federal loans to thousands of community college students. And that is nowhere near an exhaustive list.
The most startling moment of the week came on the House floor Thursday as House voted to legalize hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas in North Carolina. The approval comes despite serious concerns about the impact on air quality, drinking water, and quality of life in local communities of the practice that includes horizontal drilling and injections of hundreds of chemicals into underground rock formations.
House Speaker Thom Tillis didn’t seem that interested in hearing much discussion about the subject, limiting debate on amendments to the bill to just ten minutes, including one comprehensive proposal by Rep. Pricey Harrison that would slow down the process and put more consumer and environmental protections in place.
Harrison’s amendment would have transformed the bill into something close to what Republican Rep. Mitch Gillespie said a few weeks ago that he supported. Gillespie has apparently changed his mind and was the primary spokesperson on the House floor for the hurry-up-and-frack approach that has already passed the Senate.
There’s plenty more to say about why rushing to legalize fracking is a dangerous idea but it was a nonchalant comment by Gillespie that crystallizes much of the concern.
Several members of the House asked how the public could be certain that fracking would be done safely when the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is woefully underfunded and understaffed after Republicans made deep cuts to its budget last year.
Gillespie, who once bragged about drawing target on his office window that overlooks the building that houses the department, replied that he would make sure enough staff was employed to develop and enforce the fracking regulations and then added that talks were underway with the American Petroleum Institute to fund some of the positions.
That’s not a typo or a mistake.
Gillespie told the House that legislative leaders are talking with the oil and gas industry about funding the people who would be charged with making sure that the industry was following safety and environmental regulations.
It’s a statement that is almost impossible to comprehend. Rep. Rick Glazier must have felt the same way because later in the debate he asked Gillespie about it directly.
“I just want to make sure of something I thought I heard. ..you indicated a moment ago that API might provide and help with some of the funding and some of the positional needs that we have,” Glazier said. “Am I correct in that?”
Gillespie replied “there’s conversation going on with that, yes sir.”
There are many reasons why the rush to allow fracking is a terrible idea. But none is as easy to understand as the fact that Republican legislative leaders want to put the oil and gas industry in charge of regulating themselves, with the health of our families and our communities at stake.
The extremist, out-of-control tea party General Assembly rolls on.