Fine Print: New Legislation Aims to Put a Stop to Fracking Before It Begins

Tom Johnson | March 31, 2014 | Energy & Environment
While environmentalists and business interests wrangle over new measure, it has an interesting twist: It's sponsored by a Republican

The Legislature is taking another crack at preventing hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, to be used to drill for natural gas in New Jersey. Most of the environmental community is mobilized against the process, which involves injecting huge amounts of water and assorted chemicals into shale deposits to recover natural gas, a process conservationists say threatens drinking water supplies in the region.

What it is: The latest bill (S-1376), sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), would establish a moratorium on fracking in the state until Congress removes several exemptions from environmental laws, including statutes intended to protect water supplies, the air, and the nation’s superfund law aimed at cleaning up toxic waste sites.

What’s happened before: While no fracking is occurring in New Jersey, there are two shale deposits in the northern portions of the state where some natural gas deposits may be extracted. That led the Legislature to approve a ban on the practice, but Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed by the bill, instead placing a one year-moratorium on the practice. The measure has since expired.

Why this bill may be more than a temporary moratorium: The ban would only be lifted if Congress decides to remove the exemptions, a step that both proponents and critics of the bill say is unlikely to happen, given the current makeup of the House of Representatives.

Why the bill is widely backed by the environmental movement: With many exemptions from some of the nation’s core environmental laws, critics say there are too few standards in place to protect air and water from the practice of fracking. They fear the widespread drilling in the Delaware River Basin could pose huge threats to the drinking water of millions of people in New Jersey and other states.

Why business interests oppose the bill: They contend that fracking can be regulated in a safe way. Perhaps, more importantly, they argue that any moratorium would send a wrong signal to an industry that has driven down natural gas costs to both businesses and consumers here in New Jersey. The lower prices of the fuel from neighboring states, such as Pennsylvania, is viewed as making manufacturers in New Jersey more competitive with other states.

What happens next: The bill is likely to be approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature at some point, but the governor may once again veto the legislation once it reaches his desk. In the new legislative session, however, lawmakers may be willing to buck the administration — as evidenced by Beck’s sponsorship of the bill.