A House committee has approved a three-year moratorium on the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting natural gas from shale deposits.
The original version of the bill would have banned “fracking,” the common name for the surface drilling method that uses a combination of water and chemicals to extract natural gas from shale. Under the proposal, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources would have been prohibited from issuing a permit to extract natural gas.
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, chairs the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources that approved the bill. He said one reason for imposing a moratorium rather than an outright ban was to allow time for the Agency of Natural Resources to revise its regulations on underground injection wells and permit the Environmental Protection Agency to complete studies on the potential harms of the practice.
“We wanted to make sure we had enough time to get the results of that work and, if at the point where we get the results back and the science says this is bad news, we either extend the moratorium or ban it,” Deen said.
He said the committee learned in testimony that there has only been one test well in Vermont to check the viability of drilling for natural gas. The shale formation in northwest Vermont, however, is analogous to that of Quebec where there are wells extracting gas.
Deen said part of the committee’s decision was based on the so-called public trust doctrine. In 2008, the state passed legislation deeming groundwater a public trust resource, meaning it is a commonly owned resource.
As Deen puts it, “If you dug a hole and poisoned the water, you denied my use of a public trust resource.”
Deen said the main concern with hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is the chemicals that are used to prop up shale and release gas as well as methane seeping into groundwater.
One environmental group that worked to obtain the public trust designation, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, supports a ban but representatives applauded the committee for addressing the issue proactively.
“The moratorium doesn’t make sense from our perspective,” said Jake Brown, the group’s communications and government affairs director. “The industry should be the one to prove that this is a safe process. This really just kicks the debate down the road.”
Not everyone agrees the state should put a potential energy resource off limits.
Joe Choquette of Downs Rachlin Martin lobbied on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute in the committee hearings. Choquette said the moratorium is a better than an outright ban.
“I think the moratorium was more acceptable because it doesn’t completely take off the table the study of robust science,” he said.
According to a primer on hydraulic fracturing from the American Petroleum Institute, the United States would lose 45 percent of domestic natural gas production and 17 percent of its oil production within five years if it stopped the practice. The association cites studies by the Ground Water Protection Council, an association of state regulators, and the Environmental Protection Agency to show the effectiveness of current state regulations in protecting water resources from potential contamination due to the practice.
“We don’t think there’s been any link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination of groundwater,” Choquette said. “I think more information is needed.”
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, who introduced the bill along with Rep. Peter Peltz, D-Woodbury, said the moratorium still represented a step in the right direction.
“We’re thinking ahead, and we’re not going to get caught blindsided for an activity that in my perspective can only bring negative results and for the purposes of supplying a product that is unnecessary,” Klein said. “The market is flooded with it right now, and we shouldn’t be relying on it in the future because it is a fossil fuel and it emits greenhouse gases.”
The bill still needs approval in both the House and the Senate.