Mining and energy board appointments an interesting mix

The usual end-of-session appointments bill has a long list of folks Speaker Thom Tillis wants to see sitting on various boards, including the new Mining and Energy Commission, which is not quite law yet.
One of the new members, Charles Holbrook seems to have a problem with the idea of man-made climate change and a lot of opinions on other matters. Another, Ray Covington owns a ton of land in the shale gas region and has a company that’s been working with landowners on lease deals. I just talked to one informed observer who wondered how the guy could ever vote on anything fracking related given his conflicts.
Oh, and nominee Christopher J. Ayers is a lawyer who represents the energy industry.

Google away.

SECTION 1.29.(b)  If Senate Bill 820, 2012 Regular Session, becomes law and Senate Bill 810, 2012 Regular Session, does not become law, then the following shall be appointed to the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission: Charles E. Holbrook of Moore County (Seat 7) for a term expiring on June 30, 2014, Raymond T. Covington of Guilford County (Seat 4) and Christopher J. Ayers of Wake County (Seat 6) for terms expiring on June 30, 2015, and Charles Taylor of Lee County (Seat 5) for a term expiring on June 30, 2016.

Will Supremacy Clause trump new state fracking rules?

The fallout continues over yesterday’s big takeout by Reuters on possible collusion between Cheasapeake Energy and Encana to suppress land prices in Michigan. The state is taking a hard look at the deal and as is pointed out in today’s follow up story, the land in question is now going to be tied up in the investigation.

About 80 percent of Chesapeake’s Michigan acreage is located on land it leased from the state. “I assume the state of Michigan will be fairly aggressive in investigating the alleged improprieties raised in the article, and similarly private landowners also appear to have some basis for seeking damages” if the companies conspired to keep land prices low, said Mark Hanson, an oil analyst with Morningstar in Chicago.

(Also of note via Reuters is yet another cautionary tale of land speculation and fracking)

While the Michigan story continues to unfold, the other major fracking headline comes from comments yesterday by Energy Secretary Ken Salazar that the feds need to step in and regulate the industry. Via The Times:

“There are some who are saying that it’s not something we ought to do, it should be left up to the states. That’s not good enough for me because states are at very different level, some have zero, some have decent rules.”

If the feds get involved, especially if they put in place a comprehensive set of rules, what the General Assembly just set in motion to deal with fracking will need to produce regulations and rules that jive with the federal regs or be superceded by them.
New fed regs will also likely spell out what the states can and can’t do.
That process could slow the process in North Carolina or at the very least force a rewrite of whatever rules DENR comes up with in the interim.

The land grabs behind fracking

Reuters has been killing it lately in its investigation of fracking finances, specifically the various deals done by Chesapeake, a major player in the fracking industry, and the company’s high flying CEO Aubrey McClendon.

Special Report: Chesapeake and rival plotted to suppress land prices

Exclusive: Chesapeake documents detail how CEO fuses personal, corporate interests

Special Report: The lavish and leveraged life of Aubrey McClendon

Their latest piece looks at land deals and fracking. Protecting landowners from predatory leases or behaviors on the part of land companies has become one of the chief concerns raised about fracking in North Carolina. The image portrayed in the hearings – and one I’m sure pushed by the oil and gas industry – is that there are a few bad actors in the business and they can be dealt with by adding more protections in lease requirements, mineral rights purchases, land buys and so on.

But what if there’s something bigger than just a few unscrupulous landmen? What if the two biggest players in the industry get together to suppress land prices in an entire region? What if the bad actors are playing the lead role?

In emails between Chesapeake and Encana Corp, Canada’s largest natural gas company, the rivals repeatedly discussed how to avoid bidding against each other in a public land auction in Michigan two years ago and in at least nine prospective deals with private land owners here.

In one email, dated June 16, 2010, McClendon told a Chesapeake deputy that it was time “to smoke a peace pipe” with Encana “if we are bidding each other up.” The Chesapeake vice president responded that he had contacted Encana “to discuss how they want to handle the entities we are both working to avoid us bidding each other up in the interim.” McClendon replied: “Thanks.”

That exchange – and at least a dozen other emails reviewed by Reuters – could provide evidence that the two companies violated federal and state laws by seeking to keep land prices down, antitrust lawyers said.

HAVA funds go missing

One of the biggest devils in the details of the budget compromise hammered out between the NC House and Senate is the missing match for the Help America Vote Act funds. The state is missing out on $4 million in federal dollars to help with election work. Previous versions of the budget included a 660K match needed to get the funds. Instead, there’s actually a cut in funding in the new budget for the Board of Elections.
I just can’t imagine any way a reasonable person could see this as anything but vote suppression.

Here’s Bob Hall from Democracy NC on the matter:

From Democracy North Carolina — June 21, 2012

Do Republican Leaders Want An Election Melt-Down in NC?

Something very strange happened in the final version of the State Budget that House and Senate leaders rolled out yesterday. It eliminates provisions in earlier versions passed by the House and Senate to provide about $600,000 that would automatically release over $4 million in federal funds for improving North Carolina’s election system for 2012.

The $4 million from the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) is already in a North Carolina bank account, frozen until matching State money is appropriated. The federal funds could be used to pay for voting machine maintenance, software and upgrades, poll workers training, and Early Voting locations. But apparently the legislative leaders decided they would rather starve local election boards than free up money that could open more Early Voting sites for the 2012 election!

County election boards already must pay more than $5 million to operate the second primary in July. Without the HAVA funds, they must get their county commissioners to pay annual machine maintenance fees that add up to $3 million statewide, beginning July 1. In addition, they face the headache of administering the November elections with new district maps, including hundreds of split precincts that complicate ballots and add to voter confusion and delays.

The warning signs are here: The lack of proper poll worker training and equipment failure led to a large number of voters getting the wrong ballots in the May primary!

Starving NC elections is an extremely partisan decision that affects all voters. It sends the message that Republican leaders in the General Assembly are determined to make voting a privilege for the few rather than a fundamental right for all citizens.

It didn’t have to be this way, and for a time everything pointed to a reasonable approach for releasing the $4 million in federal funds.

In a February letter and then in an April resolution, the bipartisan Election Boards Association of North Carolina asked the General Assembly to appropriate the roughly $660,000 of Maintenance of Effort (MOE) State funding needed to free up $4.1 million of Title II HAVA funds.

The House version of the budget, approved in May, included $663,936 for the MOE – see pages 10 and 103:
http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/sessions/2011/budget/2012/House_Committee_Substitute_for_HB-950_2012-05-30.pdf

The Senate version included $563,936 with a provision that the State Board of Elections could use money from another account to make up any difference needed to hit the right level of MOE funding. See the Senate version, pages 10 and 84:
http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/sessions/2011/budget/2012/Senate_Committee_Report_2012-06-12.pdf

But when the two sides came together behind closed doors, the General Assembly leaders apparently argued about whether some of this money would go for purposes they didn’t like — so they just cut it out!

The final House/Senate Conference Report actually includes a $102,000 reduction in funding for the State Board of Elections and left the Title II money frozen, except for a small portion to improve compliance with disability access. Look for SBOE funding on page 10 and page 94 of this PDF document:
http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/sessions/2011/budget/2012/Conference_Committee_Report_2012-06-20.pdf

Why are legislative leaders so determined to throw a monkey wrench into North Carolina’s election system in the busiest, most intense election cycle in our history?

House rejects Senate sea level rise bill

The North Carolina House just voted 114-0 not to concur with the Senate’s version of H819, Coastal Management Policies.
Citing the controversy over the sea-level rise language in the bill Rep. Pat McElrath, the sponsor of the original house version, asked that the bill be sent “into study” provided that conferees can be appointed.

With the legislature getting ready to pack up, that likely means the end of the sea-level rise legislation for this session.

New version of sea-level rise bill

[Update: Here’s the link to the full bill via WRAL] (pdf).

Hot off the press. Here’s the new language in the proposed H819, which governs sea-level rise prediction in the state. The language is different in some areas from the version that kicked up a fuss in recent days. There’s an easing in restrictions for use of other-than-linear models by local governments and researchers. But the bill clearly prevents any regulations from being put in place based on models using accelerated sea-level rise.

The new language is not yet available on the NCGA site, but here’s what the bill says regarding sea-level rise and how it is to be used and measured.

(b) The General Assembly does not intend to mandate the development of sea-level rise policy or rates of sea-level rise. The Coastal Resources Commission, in conjunction with the Division of Coastal Management, shall have the authority to define sea-level rise and develop rates of sea-level rise for the State.
(c) The Coastal Resources Commission shall be the only State agency authorized to define rates of sea-level rise for regulatory purposes and, if developed, shall do so in conjunction with the Division of Coastal Management. The Commission and the Division of Coastal Management may collaborate with other State agencies, boards, commissions, other public entities, or institutions when defining sea-level rise or developing rates of sea-level rise. These rates shall be determined using statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data generated using generally accepted scientific and statistical techniques. Historic rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historic trends. Rates of sea-level rise shall not be one rate for the entire coast but, rather, the Commission shall consider separately oceanfront and estuarine shorelines. For oceanfront shorelines, the Commission shall use no fewer than the four regions defined in the April 2011 report entitled “North Carolina Beach and Inlet Management Plan” published by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The oceanfront regions are: Region 1 (Brunswick County), Region 2 (New Hanover, Pender, and Onslow Counties and a portion of Carteret County), Region 3 (a portion of Carteret County and Hyde County), and Region 4 (Dare and Currituck Counties). For estuarine shorelines, the Commission shall consider no fewer than two separate regions defined as those north of Cape Lookout and those south of Cape Lookout. In regions that may lack statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data, rates from adjacent regions may be considered and modified using generally accepted scientific and statistical techniques to account for relevant historical geologic and hydrologic processes.
(d) Any State agency, board, commission, or institution that develops a policy addressing sea-level rise that includes a definition or rate of sea-level rise for the coastal-area counties shall use only the definitions and rates of sea-level rise developed by the Division of Coastal Management as approved by the Coastal Resources Commission.
(e) The provisions in this act shall not prohibit other State agencies, boards, commissions, other public entities or institutions, including academic institutions within The University of North Carolina or any county, municipality, or other local public body from engaging in studies and dissemination of studies of sea-level research for non-regulatory purposes. Collaboration between academic institutions including those within The University of North Carolina, the Division of Coastal Management, the Coastal Resources Commission, and other State agencies, boards, commissions, or other public entities or counties, municipalities, or other local public bodies regarding generally accepted, peer-reviewed scientific and statistically significant sea-level research is encouraged.
(f) All policies, rules, regulations or any other product of the Commission or the Division of Coastal Management related to sea-level rise shall be subject to the requirements set forth in Chapter 150B of the General Statutes.”