Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Stephens' decision earlier this month delays the proceedings in a lawsuit by environmental groups that argues that the state's Mining and Energy Commission was formed in violation of the state constitution.
The preliminary injunction temporarily prevents the commission from accepting or processing applications for hydraulic fracturing drilling units to access natural gas underground. Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals to break apart underground rocks so oil and gas can escape.
Stephens writes that the state's high court is expected to rule later this summer on a separate case in which Gov. Pat McCrory is challenging how several state commissions were appointed.
One of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the fracking case, Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he's pleased that the court has essentially prohibited the drilling method until the legal question about state commissions is answered. He said no drilling units had been approved yet.
The lawsuit, filed in January on behalf of plaintiffs including the Haw River Assembly, argues that the state Legislature violated constitutional provisions separating the branches of government when it formed the Mining and Energy Commission in 2012. The lawsuit says the Legislature usurped the authority of the executive branch by forming the commission as an administrative agency and then appointing eight of its 13 members. The governor appoints the rest.
McCrory, a Republican, signed a law last summer clearing the way for permits to be issued this year for fracking.
Scientists believe pockets of natural gas exist in layers of shale under Chatham, Lee and Moore counties southwest of Raleigh, but there are disputes about how much is there.