A bill that originally would have banned the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing passed by the Vermont House as a three-year moratorium.
Now the chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy says she wants to put the teeth back in the bill and switch it back once again to an all-out ban.
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, said with all the unknowns about the process for extracting natural gas and the environmental problems that can occur, a ban made more sense than a moratorium.
“If you put a moratorium in place, people are just waiting for the gates to open, and we don’t want that to happen,” she said.
The practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves injecting a pressurized mix of chemicals, sand and water into a well. The slurry essentially props up shale rock, which contains the resource, and it is released.
Critics of the practice in places like Pennsylvania and Wyoming say it can lead to air and water pollution as well as industrialization of rural areas through things like increased truck traffic. Supporters say the process is safe, creates jobs and accounts for nearly half of the natural gas produced in the United States.
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently studying potential groundwater contamination from the practice in Pavillion, Wyo.
Vermont would be the first state in the country to implement and all-out ban on the practice. The New Jersey legislature passed a law last year that would ban fracking, but Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the bill and a one-year moratorium was put in place instead.
Like New Jersey, the prospects for natural gas are speculative at this point in Vermont. Laurence Becker, the state geologist, said prospectors have drilled wells looking for gas, but the most recent one was in 1984, long before the technology for fracking took off.
Becker said the geology in northwest Vermont that could present opportunities for fracking since it is similar to that of Quebec where the government has leased property for natural gas.
The natural resources and energy committee heard a well of testimony from environmentalists this week, and Lyons presented at a forum Wednesday along with environmentalists opposed to the practice including author and Middlebury College professor Bill McKibben.
McKibben gave testimony in Lyons’ committee Thursday.
He called the practice a “false solution” to climate change. Supporters of natural gas emphasize its lower emissions than other fossil fuels. But McKibben said the release of methane and other carbon compounds from unburned gas to make it dirtier than coal as a fuel source.
He said the water quality issues are a primary concern.
“In essence, you drill a very deep hole, send a pipe bomb down it, and the fractures expede the flow of whatever’s down there,” he said. “It’s laced with a brew of chemicals: Some disclosed, some not. There are pretty remarkable threats to water quality.”
McKibben said a ban would take the issue off the table and prevent people from coming back in three years to ask for permission to start fracking.
While the testimony this week in the Senate committee weighed on the side of the no fracking community, it will hear from industry representatives next week.
Joe Choquette, who represents the American Petroleum Institute, said a ban would be unreasonable.
“Don’t take it off the table,” he said. “It could be tremendous economically.”
Choquette said API is not aware of any case of contamination linked directly to fracking, which uses a combination of sand, water and chemicals to prop up shale and release natural gas from wells. He said often contaminated water near drilling sites is naturally occurring.
He said the benefits of natural gas in Vermont could be good for the state’s farmers.
“It keeps farmers in farming because it adds value to their land,” he said. “They can continue to use the land, and it gives the farming community another economic resource.”
Frank Stewart, a former Department of Energy official and now the president of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, says inner city minority communities are particularly affected by particulate matter spewed by diesel-fueled city transportation vehicles, trucks and school buses. Natural gas fueled vehicles would help to lessen the impact of pollution on children in urban areas, he said.
Lyons said the committee will likely vote on the bill next week.