A bill that would legalize hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in North Carolina and lay the groundwork for its regulation tentatively was scheduled for a second reading Wednesday in the state Senate, one day after clearing a key legislative committee.

An amended version of SB 820, also known as the Clean Energy and Economic Security Act, passed the muster of the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday. The bill was submitted in mid-May by state Sens. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg), Harris Blake (R-Pinehurst) and Michael Walters (D-Proctorville).

“What you have is a bill that, for the moment, is evolving a little bit,” said North Carolina Petroleum Council Executive Director William Weatherspoon. “This kind of thing regularly happens as part of the process,” he told NGI’s Shale Daily. “I would expect an amendment, even a friendly amendment or two, that the sponsors would instantly agree is a way to strengthen the bill and build support.”

But Weatherspoon predicted that the two main mechanisms of SB 820 — designed to make fracking legal, but institute a moratorium on it until mid-2014 — would remain unchanged.

“Since the 1940s, horizontal drilling has been illegal in North Carolina because of the way an early statute — not even aimed at shale gas development — was written,” Weatherspoon said. “Well drilling could not veer off center. It was a way to prevent one landowner from drilling a well that would somehow cross the boundary and perhaps even find your neighbor’s water.”

Weatherspoon added that a moratorium would be “a very helpful, smart, wise pause to get the best regulations in place. That’s where North Carolina has an advantage. We don’t have any real history here with oil and gas production at all. We’re going to be able to look around the country and pick and choose the best practices and standards, wherever they may be.”

Last month Gov. Bev Perdue issued an executive order calling on various state agencies to organize a work group to study fracking and make regulatory recommendations (see Shale Daily, May 23). Perdue’s order followed separate reports by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations Inc. (see Shale Daily, March 26; March 2). Respectively, those reports indicated that fracking could be done safely but current state regulations were inadequate.