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Fracking Ban Doesn't Go far Enough for Environmentalists

Proposal calls for moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, opponents argue for permanent solution.

The Legislature is once again looking to prevent gas drillers from using hydraulic fracturing to recover natural gas, but this time the move is opposed by many of the state’s largest environmental groups, who say the ban does not go far enough.

In the previous legislative session, lawmakers approved a bill that would permanently ban the practice, primarily based on fears that it could contaminate the drinking water of millions of New Jerseyans. But Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the bill, instead urging a one-year ban that expired last month.

The issue is one of the more contentious that the Senate Environment and Energy Committee has dealt with in recent years. The discovery of huge deposits of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formations in Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere has driven down the price of the fuel, which plays a crucial role in establishing the price of electricity and making New Jersey manufacturers more competitive in the marketplace.

The push to ban the practice is driven by the technology used to remove natural gas by injecting massive amounts of water and smaller amounts of toxic chemicals and sand to break up dense rock formations. Advocates of the ban say it could protect drinking water from the Delaware River, which 1.5 million New Jersey residents depend on.

The state's business community has been virtually united in its opposition to any bans, even though most agree it is extremely unlikely that natural gas drillers would employ fracking in New Jersey. The Senate committee approved a bill a year ago that would reestablish the ban, but the measure is not expected to win approval from the governor.

Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen), the sponsor of the bill (S-247) up before the Senate committee today in Trenton, however, has said that while New Jersey has not been home to any drilling, it is only a matter of time before the practice begins in the Utica formation, located in parts of Sussex, Hunterdon, and Warren Counties.

In his conditional veto of the original ban (S2576) in August 2011, Christie said there is an incomplete record on fracking, which both the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency need to complete further study on the issue.

“The decision on whether to ban fracking outright or regulate it for environmental protection must be developed on sound government policy and legitimate science,’’ the governor said in his conditional veto.

In his message, Christie also noted the importance of natural gas in the state’s Energy Master Plan, which he noted must “play a significant part in New Jersey’s energy future.’’ The plan encourages the development of in-state natural-gas power plants to lower energy bills for consumers and businesses, as well as promote the development of commercial fleets of vehicles powered by the fuel.

Under Gordon’s bill, the moratorium on fracking would extend only until the EPA and the DEP complete their reviews of the controversial drilling method, a process that may be finished by late 2014 or early 2015, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Environmental groups want a permanent ban.

“There’s no way that fracking for gas can ever be safe and the Legislature knows this. That’s why they passed a ban on fracking by a landside in 2011,’’ said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeping Network.

“Any legislation short of a permanent statewide ban is letting down New Jersey residents who will require clean air and drinking water, not only for a year or two, but for the rest of their lives,’’ added Jim Walsh, director of Food & Water Watch.

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