The Word on Fracking in the U.S.

Image credit: GRACE staff

If hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, wasn’t already the hottest topic on the energy front, then it’s now firing up with the arrival of summer. The month of June saw a number of major fracking-related events by different states in the U.S. and even the world, including three bans, one ban reversal, a disclosure law and gift to the gas industry. This cluster of events underscores just how quickly the natural gas extraction method is expanding and how controversial it remains.

Below is a roundup of some of these events that have taken place over the last month (or so), something that we track in our ongoing Ecocentric hydraulic fracturing series.

New Jersey: First state to ban fracking?

New Jersey has become the first state in the United States whose legislature passed – rather overwhelmingly – a ban on fracking. If the legislation is signed into law by the governor, New Jersey will become the first state to officially ban fracking.  To be fair, this was probably not a particularly difficult decision for state legislators as it was largely symbolic considering that state has only a smidgen of shale with natural gas potential in its far northwestern corner. The shale in question is not the well-known Marcellus Shale found under neighboring states Pennsylvania and New York, but the deeper and more extensive Utica Shale layer that lies beneath the Marcellus. Because of its greater depth, the cost for natural gas exploration and extraction increases, making it somewhat less attractive, although not necessarily prohibitive, in comparison to the Marcellus.

On a symbolic level, the ban further positions New Jersey as an environmental leader, just as it is on solar energy, by thinking before it fracks.

That said, the overriding concern of New Jersey legislators and residents is the ecological and human health risks posed by water contamination from fracking, particularly in the Delaware River which acts as the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania and is the water collection basin for the vital Delaware River watershed. With the probability of extracting so little natural gas combined with the possibility of conceivable risks, fracking presented no real upside. Practically speaking, the fracking ban could influence the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) decision making process as it now considers rules for natural gas development in the watershed since the New Jersey Governor has a vote. On a symbolic level, the ban further positions New Jersey as an environmental leader, just as it is on solar energy, by thinking before it fracks. Issues like a cumulative life cycle analysis study and a new regulatory structure would thus be avoided.

Although the bill garnered bi-partisan support, it still awaits Governor Christie’s signature before becoming law; not a sure thing since he is instead considering a five-year moratorium.

Besides the possible ban of fracking in New Jersey, France is the only other (nation-)state in the world to pass such a law and have it ratified.

The Word

If we continue to rush drilling in the shale we will be turning the faucets in the Delaware River Basin into Tiki torches. We could also lose the Delaware River as a major recreation area and threaten the drinking water for millions of people.
Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club

What will be interesting to watch now is whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will veto the fracking ban bill that’s been dropped on his desk…With no drilling taking place, his signature would be an easy way to avoid an unneeded controversy. But controversy is Christie’s middle name.
Frank Brill, EnviroPolitics blogger

New York: Governor presses for end to moratorium

New Yorkers have had time to see the myriad problems other states have faced with fracking, which has inspired a stronger opposition than almost anywhere else in the country.

Rather unceremoniously, news leaked out last Thursday that New York’s Governor Cuomo was seeking to end the moratorium on fracking only a day after its neighbor, New Jersey, saw its legislature pass a statewide ban. The de facto moratorium had been put in place by former Governor Paterson as the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) worked on a fracking Generic Environmental Impact Statement and a set of regulatory measures meant to avoid health and environmental problems. The new rulemaking will exclude the New York City and Syracuse watersheds while opening up the rest of the state’s private land to fracking. Prior to this decision, both watersheds were fair game even though they were unlikely settings for fracking considering New York City’s clout in the state.

Because of the Empire State’s cautious approach, New Yorkers have had time to see the myriad problems other states have faced with fracking, which has inspired a stronger opposition than almost anywhere else in the country. Even still, upstate New York communities in need of an economic boost are largely in favor of fracking. There will be a 60-day comment period for an as yet-to-be-determined date.

To learn more about the general look of the new fracking recommendations proposed by the DEC, read here.

The Word

Riverkeeper is encouraged by the State DEC’s proposal to exclude the NYC Watershed and other areas of the Marcellus Shale from fracking. However, 85% of the communities within the New York section of the Marcellus still face serious dangers from fracking, which has caused untold damage in towns from West Virginia to Wyoming. The environmental community – especially those who are appointed to the DEC’s advisory panel – must do its part to make sure that no fracking occurs anywhere in New York unless truly rigorous and absolutely effective regulations are in place, backed by a full complement of inspectors and enforcement personnel – paid for by industry but reporting to DEC – to assure those regulations are strictly obeyed. The issues of socio-economic and cumulative impacts must also be fully and aggressively dealt with by the state before moving forward.
Paul Gallay, President and Hudson Riverkeeper

The economic advantages of developing the Marcellus Shale are significant—New York would see thousands of new private-sector jobs, new private sector investments, an expanded and diverse tax base and leasing and royalty payments to landowners. New York can not simply stand on the sidelines while Pennsylvania other states see the employment and economic benefits from shale exploration.
Heather Briccetti, Acting-president and CEO, The Business Council of New York State

If, as we have also urged, the agency holds off on issuing new permits until the completion of that regulatory process, the de facto moratorium would last that much longer… If done right, the on-going process in New York continues to hold out the best opportunity to establish a national, and even international, model of how taking a cautious approach to proposed new fossil fuel development can protect people, communities and the environment at large.
Kate Sinding,  Senior Attorney, NRDC’s New York Urban Program

Maryland: Governor bans fracking by executive order

Governor O'Malley issued an executive order that bars fracking in Maryland until a comprehensive, cumulative study is conducted. Since an earlier bill banning fracking died in the General Assembly, some viewed the order simply as a political ploy to bolster the environmentalist vote and pursue wind energy instead, while others thought that it made sense for a scientific inquiry to proceed on the relatively understudied extraction process.

Garrett County, in the western part of the state, is the region where fracking could potentially occur since it’s located over the Marcellus Shale.

The Word

It’s a good idea to investigate the damage and pollution that hydrofracking is causing. I argue that hydrofracking, under adequate regulation (there is none now), could be a lesser environmental evil given the alternatives of coal, oil etc. (Natural gas is pretty clean and emits much less carbon dioxide than coal.) The governor is correct to look at the downsides.
Jay Hancock, Baltimore Sun

Texas: First state in the nation to pass fracking chemical disclosure law

One troubling factor that might limit fracking in Texas is the large volume of water necessary to frack a well just as the state is in the grips of severe, ongoing drought.

Many think of Texas as a “drill (or frack) first ask questions later” type of state, but in this case the state advanced transparency by enacting a first-ever law (PDF) requiring chemical disclosure of fracking fluids. With the support of the oil and natural gas industry, this bipartisan bill sped through the state legislature and across the desk of Governor Perry faster than expected and will commence by 2013 if not earlier.

While the law is a step forward in terms of regulatory oversight of and accountability, serious loopholes persist. For instance, industry disclosure of chemicals used in the process is mandated, but the precise mixture is not. More striking is the fact that companies can decide that certain chemicals are still exempt from disclosure because of “trade secret” status.

One troubling factor that might limit fracking in Texas – and a topic near and dear to our Ecocentric hearts – is the large volume of water necessary to frack a well just as the state is in the grips of severe, ongoing drought.

The Word

In order for Texans to maintain confidence in the oil and gas industry, it is important for us to get this done as quickly as possible. We need to assure the public that hydraulic fracturing is safe and responsible – and has been for the past sixty years – and we need to do it now.
David Porter, Texas Railroad Commissioner, the state’s oil and gas regulating agency

These are important steps forward that will make Texas better off than it would be otherwise. Unfortunately, however, Environmental Defense Fund must oppose adoption of the Texas legislation by other states or by the federal government because the measure has serious limitations. It does not even provide a simple, statewide list of what chemicals are used by who and in what quantities. The Railroad Commission can enforce the bill only if it can prove a chemical was used intentionally for a particular purpose. And it may be the middle of 2013 before the bill takes full effect – an absurdly long time for implementation.
Scott Anderson, Senior Policy Advisor, Texas Environmental Defense Fund

Pennsylvania: Natural gas companies face no new taxes or fees

Try as they might, Pennsylvania lawmakers were unable to adopt an amendment to the 2011-2012 state budget that would assess an environmental impact fee on natural gas companies.

Governor Corbett shut down any prospect for approval of the fee by declaring that the bill would be vetoed. Corbett’s opposition to taxes or fees on gas companies is contrary to public sentiment, which in polling supports some form of taxation. Despite failure to enact fees this year, legislators say that they will take up the effort next year in earnest.

The Word

"Drill, baby, drill," is the call from Pennsylvania voters, and ‘tax, baby, tax,' is the follow-up as voters see natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale as an economic plus more than an environmental negative. They also see added taxes on gas drillers as one of the few acceptable ways to help balance the budget.”
Tim Malloy, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute on their recently conducted Pennsylvania state poll