Reviving a fight with the Christie administration, the state Senate yesterday with bipartisan support easily approved a bill (S-1041) barring the processing and discharge of waste from drilling operations to extract natural gas from shale deposits in neighboring states.
The bill is similar to one approved by the Democratic Legislature in the past legislative session. That was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, who said it would not pass legal scrutiny because the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from enacting discriminatory laws governing interstate commerce.
With huge deposits of natural gas found in Pennsylvania and other states, the process by which drillers extract the fuel has emerged as a bitter point of contention between environmentalists, administration, and business advocates.
The process, known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as is it more commonly called, pumps huge amounts of water and smaller amounts of chemicals into shale deposits to gain access to the fuel. Environmentalists argue that the practice threatens drinking water supplies in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other states.
But the newfound discoveries of natural gas so close to the state have led to a steep drop in gas and electric bills, a fact welcomed by many business interests who have long complained about the high costs of energy in New Jersey, which are among the highest in the nation.
The bill approved yesterday by 32-5 vote does not dealing with drilling per se — there are no in New Jersey — which is free from fracking — but with the disposal of waste, some of which is already being disposed of in state, according to advocates of the bill. The bill passed on the consent agenda, where bills are put up for a vote without any debate from lawmakers.
“Dumping fracking waste in New Jersey waterways is still legal, and that’s why today’s bipartisan Senate majority to ban fracking waste is so needed,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
Whether the bill, if approved by the Assembly, could override a veto by the governor remains to be seen. But advocates were encouraged by the bipartisan support, which garnered two more votes than when the legislation was passed by the Senate in the previous session.
“If we get all the Democrats, we have enough for an override” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Two years ago, the governor was a lot more popular,’’ he was riding very high in support from the public, Tittel added. “Now that has disappeared,’’ he said, referring to problems Christie is embroiled in over the Bridgegate scandal, in which members of his staff created traffic problems in Fort Lee.
In his veto of the previous bill, Christie noted that hydraulic fracturing is not occurring in New Jersey, nor would it in the foreseeable future. By effectively operating as an embargo on out-of-state fracking waste, the governor argued the law would be subject to strict scrutiny by the courts—“a level of scrutiny that is a virtual guarantee of its invalidity.’’
But Dave Pringle, campaign manager of Clean Water Action, argued otherwise, citing a legal opinion for the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, which said the bill was constitutional.
“From earthquakes and the climate crisis to dirty water and air toxins, fracking and its waste are an increasing threat that has to be stopped, and this legislation is an important step in that direction,’’ Pringle said, referring to questions raised about fracking operations in Oklahoma and concerns that the release of potent methane gases could increase global climate change.
Environmentalists claim some wastewater treatment plans already are accepting waste from fracking operations, even though they argue the facilities may not be suitable for cleaning out harmful materials in the material.