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Lawmakers Declare New Jersey a No-Fracking Zone

Bill outlawing hydraulic fracturing meant to send a clear message to Christie administration and Pennsylvania officials.

New Jersey lawmakers yesterday approved a bill to ban the practice of drilling for natural gas by hydraulic fracturing, a process critics say poses a huge risk of contaminating the drinking water supplies of 15 million people.

In unanimously voting out the bill (S-2576), lawmakers made it clear they hoped to send a signal to both Christie administration and Pennsylvania officials over the growing concern they and many residents share over natural gas drilling occurring in the neighboring state.

The process, dubbed fracking, involves injecting billions of gallons of water into deep wells in Marcellus Shale to release the fuel. The technology is strongly opposed by environmentalists who fear chemicals in the fracking fluid could find their way into the Delaware River, which supplies water to residents in four states.

For practical purposes, the bill will have little impact since no drilling is occurring in New Jersey. But Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), the sponsor, said he hopes it "sends a clear signal, the first signal as a state, that we have grave concerns" about the process.

Gordon, in acknowledging his bill addresses a contentious issue, conceded the deposits of natural gas afford a cleaner source of energy in an area stretching from New York to West Virginia, an area roughly equivalent to the size of Greece. "We have to be really concerned that in addressing an air pollution problem, we don’t create a water pollution problem," he said.

In New York, there already is a moratorium on fracking because of concerns about what might be happening with the drinking water in that state. In addition, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), an intra-state agency, is drafting regulations that would govern how and where fracking could occur, but critics say the rules fall short of what is needed. They are lobbying for a moratorium until the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completes a detailed study of the practice, a review not expected to be completed until next year.

David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, noted, "as good as this bill is, the major issue is what the DRBC does."

Whether the commission holds off on its rules may very well hinge on what the New Jersey member of the agency does when it comes up for a vote, according to Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. Last week, New Jersey’s designee said the state would not ‘"impede" Pennsylvania’s right to develop natural gas, Tittel said.

"Fracking is the biggest threat to New Jersey’s water supply that we’ve ever seen," he told the panel.

Yesterday’s Senate hearing marked the second time in three days that lawmakers in Trenton addressed the issue of fracking. On Monday, the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee passed a bill that would impose a moratorium on the practice in the state as well as a resolution to enact similar bans in neighboring states, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

In the hearing, industry lobbyists argued against the prohibition, saying the Marcellus Shale offers plentiful and relatively cheap supplies of natural gas. "Shale gas has been a game changer for the chemical industry," said Ed Waters, director of government affairs for the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey.

But Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee, told Waters no one disputes the need for a cheap supply of energy, but noted New Jersey has 105 superfund toxic waste sites because industry failed to police itself in the past. "Don’t you believe we should worry about that with fracking?" Smith asked.

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