To frack or not to frack?
Or maybe just no fracking for three years.
These are the questions a House-Senate conference committee decided this week.
Ultimately, the lawmakers decided to ban the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. But they also decided to study it.
The House and Senate will have to approve the committee’s report before it makes it to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s desk.
Rep. Jim McCullough, vice chair of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, said the final report included the Senate’s prohibition, rather than a moratorium that passed the House. It also included the House bill’s requirement for an thorough study of the potential effects of the practice on groundwater.
“We thought this exhaustive study language … was important to make an informed decision about whether a moratorium should be lifted or not,” McCullough said. “We wanted to inform the Legislature about whether or not a continued moratorium makes sense.”
So why do a study if there is a ban in place?
“Any legislature can reverse itself,” he said. “We need to have this factual determination.”
Earlier this session, the House passed a bill that would prohibit hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Vermont for three years. The Senate passed an all-out ban.
The House bill directed the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to submit a report about its underground injection control rules, which currently regulate any release of waste into the ground.
McCullough said his committee was concerned by the potential harms to the environment that come with the controversial practice. That committee, however, thought a moratorium and study was a more prudent approach.
“We are very sympathetic to the potential destructive nature of hydraulic fracturing and the process of discovery that needs to happen to make certain that if it is ever permitted in Vermont, it must be safe,” he said.
If Vermont bans hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” it would be the first state in the country to do so.
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said a ban makes sense.
“The risks to the environment and public health are too great to allow it in Vermont,” Burns said.
He said the threat to groundwater, in particular, from the practice, which injects pressurized sand, water and chemicals into the ground, is great.
There are no documented cases of groundwater pollution directly linked to fracking. Burns said that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. He said drilling companies often require landowners to sign confidentiality agreements that they will not divulge the chemicals used in the process. He said that lack of public knowledge about the chemicals used might contribute to the lack of proof of contaminated groundwater.
Joe Choquette, a lobbyist who represents the American Petroleum Institute, said the federal government will produce studies in the next few years that will shed light on the safety of fracking.
Banning the practice before the science is settled would not be smart, he said.
“A ban completely takes any seismic exploration or anything at all off table,” Choquette said. “Anybody who would be inclined to look for a resource would know they would have to go back to Legislature and hire a lobbyist and overturn an existing law. It’s hard enough to impact environmental legislation without having to change a law on the books.”
For one, President Barack Obama signed an executive order this month establishing a task force to coordinate federal oversight of domestic natural gas development. That task force will address the safety of fracking. The Environmental Protection Agency is also currently conducting a study on the air and water quality effects of fracking.
Choquette said the state should wait for the agencies to come back with scientific data before banning the practice. He said environmental groups were able to sway the Legislature without presenting the facts.
“I guess politics triumphs over policy,” Choquette said.
The state’s comprehensive energy plan characterizes natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal or other fossil fuels, as a bridge fuel to more renewable energy.
Chris Recchia, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, said Shumlin supports the strongest bill possible.
Under the state’s current underground injection control rule, he said, fracking might not be allowed anyway.
Under current rules, the applicant for an underground injection permit must satisfy the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources that the discharge will not endanger any underground source of drinking water. The agency is currently revising those rules.
The study will decide which regulatory body it wants to regulate the practice also. According to legislative council, the state would likely not be able to ban the practice under the injection control rules. Those are part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which specifically exempts fracking. Other avenues, like the Natural Gas and Oil Resources Board would not be precluded.
According to Vermont’s state geologist, there could be a potential for some extraction in northwest Vermont, but no one has specifically studied that area for fracking.