Aug. 20, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., N.C. State University’s McKimmon Center, Raleigh
Aug. 22, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., Wicker Civic Center, Sanford
Aug. 25, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., Rockingham County High School, Wentworth
Sept. 12, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., Bardo Fine & Performing Arts Center, Cullowhee
The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission spent Friday working out final details for four statewide hearings that will be the public’s last opportunity to weigh in on proposed fracking safety standards before the state’s fracking moratorium is lifted next year and drilling gets underway.
The commissioners advised each other to hold their tongues when talking to the public in the weeks leading up to the hearings so as not to appear biased on a highly sensitive issue.
The hearings, to be held later this month in Raleigh, Sanford and other locations, could be packed with hundreds of people lining up for their chance to speak for a maximum of 3 minutes. They will include a security presence to dissuade protests and disruptions, which are expected given the emotional nature of shale gas exploration.
The commission also extended a deadline for public comments to Sept. 30 as commissioners prepare more than 100 fracking rules for the state legislature by January.
“We’re going to get thousands and thousands of comments,” Commissioner James Womack said. “This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of what we’ve done to date.”
In an unexpected move Friday, the commission narrowed the format of the upcoming hearings in such a way that may create an impression that commissioners don’t care a great deal what the public has to say on the issue. For example, commissioners will not answer questions from public speakers, and no more than seven of the 14 members will attend any of the four public hearings.
The reason for the restrictions: The state’s administrative procedures establish different rules for public hearings and public meetings. A meeting requires taking minutes, requires a quorum and involves voting on policy decisions.
A hearing, on the other hand, is a way to collect public statements on an issue of public interest without any deliberations or decisions. If more than seven commissioners were to show up at a hearing, that could be legally construed as a meeting that is skirting procedural rules.
“This will be a public hearing, which means there is no response from any of us, about anything,” Vikram Rao, commission chairman, explained during Friday’s meeting.
The hearings will be run by three commissioners who will be called hearing officers. The hearing officers will introduce the proceedings by reading a statement from a script, which will be prepared ahead of time.
Up to four commissioners will be able to attend as audience members. To make sure no more than four show up at any given hearing, the commissioners will sign up on a schedule and agree not to come unannounced.
Even as they agreed to the format, the commissioners took turns expressing concerns that the public could find the process off-putting.
“We have to be mindful of the public relations impact this has and the political sensitivities as well,” Womack said. “There is an impact when you don’t show up at hearings or it’s perceived that you don’t care.”
Commissioners also noted that public comments about specific proposed rules will be more effective than general comments denouncing or endorsing fracking. They assured no comment would be ignored.
“The process is going to be: The hearing officers do not participate, they do not talk back,” Commissioner Amy Pickle said. “It is important for us to be clear about our openness and recapitulating that every single comment we receive will get all due consideration.”
Womack and Pickle will be hearing officers at all four public hearings, along with Ken Taylor, the state geologist.
After the hearings are held and public comments received, the commission will sift through all the remarks and recommendations and consider making changes in the proposed rules. The rules will be sent to the Rules Review Commission in November or December, then forwarded to the state legislature.