Lawmakers Look to Ban Fracking in NJ and Neighboring States

The fracking controversy continues, not just in the state but across the region, reflecting worries about a shared watershed

With a moratorium on using hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas due to expire this week in New York, New Jersey legislators stepped up efforts to ban the practice not only in their home state, but also elsewhere in the region.

A letter signed by 15 New Jersey legislators urged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo not to lift the moratorium on fracking, a process they argue that could imperil the drinking water of more than 3 million residents in the region.

Meanwhile, the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee adopted once again a bill (A-567) establishing a moratorium on fracking in New Jersey, a measure previously conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, in part because the practice has never been used in the state.

These actions underscore the ongoing controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing, which injects huge quantities of water and smaller amounts of sand and toxic chemicals to break up dense rock formations and gain access to natural gas.

The practice has fueled an economic boom in the Northeast by increasing natural gas supplies, which has helped drive down electric and gas bills for consumers and businesses. It also has led to a resurgence in the manufacturing sector, which relies on the natural gas for many of the products it creates.

In New Jersey, the increase in natural gas supplies has helped shrink electric and gas bills four years in a row, according to Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council.

The boom in drilling, however, has created a huge outcry in the region’s environmental community — a protest also joined by many lawmakers — who fear that fracking will pollute the Delaware River, which supplies drinking water to much of the region.

“In moving this bill today, we hope it encourages the governor to reverse course on fracking,’’ said Jim Walsh, director of Food & Water Watch, one of several environmental organizations pushing the ban on fracking.

“Gas drilling is a dirty and dangerous practice that only delivers pollution to our drinking water,’’ added Dan DeRosa, field organizer for Environment New Jersey.

So far, the only fracking that has taken place has been in the Marcellus Shale formations located in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. How much pollution those deployments have created remains a bitter source of debate among environmental groups and industry lobbyists.

The Delaware River Basin Commission also is studying whether to allow fracking to continue within its jurisdiction, a decision environmental groups have been anxiously awaiting.

At the legislative hearing, industry lobbyists argued that environmental regulators in Pennsylvania are taking steps to deal with issues raised by fracking.

“Pennsylvania has done an excellent job in catching up to the drilling industry,’’ argued Kevin Lynott, a lobbyist for Elizabethtown Gas, a subsidiary of AGL Resources, one of the largest natural gas companies in the United States.

“Has there been environmental damage from drilling.’’ Lynott asked. “Yes, there has been, but there have been improvements.’’

Benton argued the state should not take any steps to limit what he called the most important energy innovation in the 21st century. “It’s a game-changer for the region; it’s a game-changer for New Jersey,’’ he told the committee.

With two-thirds of New Jerseyans heating their homes with natural gas, other lobbyists argued that it made no sense to curtail efforts to exploit the resource, even if it is a fossil fuel.

Still, most of the committee remained unconvinced.

“Yes, natural gas is clean, abundant, and the future,’’ said Assemblywoman Grace Spence (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the committee. “None of that will matter if people are sick and dying,’’ she said.

In the letter from the New Jersey legislators, they said they have “deep concerns about the prospect of shale gas drilling in the region and believe opening New York to fracking would threaten the region, including New Jersey.’’