- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 19, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A retooled state panel responsible for regulating North Carolina’s potential fracking industry won’t meet this week for the first time after all, avoiding possible legal showdowns involving Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration and drilling opponents.

The state Oil & Gas Commission was set to hold its first meeting Wednesday in Sanford as a commission appointee tried to jumpstart its work, which included addressing outside challenges to local fracking moratoria approved by two Piedmont counties.

But Jim Womack, the appointee, said Tuesday that the meeting was postponed until late October or early November to give time for state ethics officials to review economic disclosure statements of commission appointees for conflicts of interest. Two or three commissioners filed these statements very late, Womack said.

The Department of Environmental Quality’s chief deputy wrote Womack late last week questioning whether the commission was legally able to convene in part due to pending ethics reviews. He said DEQ staff members weren’t going to attend Wednesday’s meeting.

“Rather than make this a legalistic battle, we would rather postpone the meeting and make sure those concerns are addressed, and then we’ll proceed,” Womack said in a phone interview.

DEQ Chief Deputy John Nicholson also questioned whether Womack was actually a commissioner - something Womack dismissed out of hand.

Womack was initially appointed by Senate leader Phil Berger in 2015 to a previous iteration of the commission. But legislators reworked the nine-member commission last year following a state Supreme Court ruling that struck down the distribution of the appointments between the governor and legislative branch. Womack says his term of office hasn’t expired and there are five other commissioners remaining - enough for a meeting quorum.

The delay means the commission won’t be able to meet a 60-day deadline in state law to address some formal complaints, Womack said. Those complaints include one filed by the owner of a Sanford-based drilling exploration company, who says the moratoria on fracking in Lee and Chatham counties will cause him financial harm.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP legislators were the driving forces behind new laws opening the door to oil and natural gas exploration, including hydraulic fracturing - also known as fracking. Womack, who supports fracking, was on a predecessor panel that helped draft drilling regulations. Cooper, a Democrat who took office in January, has been cool to fracking, focusing instead on renewable energy.

The Oil & Gas Commission and DEQ both play a role in drill permitting. No permits for fracking have been issued in the state.

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