Hydraulic Fracking in Vermont?
The two most excruciating tasks facing the House this week are 1) defining legislative districts resulting from populations changes between the 2000 and 2010 census and 2) restructuring mental health services following the closure of the state hospital in Waterbury. If you like everyone to be happy, these decisions are not for you. I anticipate lively and perhaps painful debates as we struggle to reconcile the best options for Vermont in ways that are fair, effective and oriented toward the future.
Hidden under those bills is H.464, a bill addressing enhanced extraction of natural gas, aka hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” It brings to light the need for us to carefully balance our hunger for viable energy sources with our need to protect our natural resources, in this case, clean, drinkable water. I offer here a small window into the legislative process.
So what are the concerns of hydraulic fracturing in Vermont?
Governing Magazine identified fracking as one of the “issues to watch in 2012.” Although Vermont does not appear to have a good source of recoverable natural gas, there are some shale deposits in the northwest corner of the state that could be of interest for extraction in the future. Of note, neighboring Quebec has found some economically viable sources of natural gas.
Hydraulic fracturing (differentiated from benign hydro-fracturing for well water) involves injecting millions of gallons of water in a mixture of approximately 90% water, 5% sand, and 5% chemical additives in order to direct pockets of gas trapped in rock into extraction wells. A decade ago, only about 1% of natural gas around the country came from fracking. Today, it is about 30%.
One of the major concerns is the high volume of fresh water being used. Depending on the size this can be 2-8 million gallons at a time. The water is then mixed with some 600 different possible chemical additives, some known and some kept secret by companies for “proprietary reasons.” The second major concern revolves around what to do with “flow-back” water, or the 30-70% of contaminated water that flows back out of the wells, picking up naturally occurring radioactive compounds from bedrock along the way. Add to this, a connection to mini-earthquakes, habitat destruction, ground water and air pollution in other states.
Representatives from the American Petroleum Institute (API) see fracking as a source for an independent energy future for our country: good for jobs, energy and reduced green house gasses. They see the risk to clean water as slight, and believe contaminated flow-back water can be stored off site. After many hours of testimony, they suggested we set in place standards to protect our water and they would work with it.
The committee considered three options: do nothing, create a ban, or set a moratorium. We rejected the do-nothing option knowing that interest in hydraulic fracturing is burgeoning. There was enough testimony to convince us to consider a ban on fracking. Supporters reminded us that a ban now could be lifted by future legislatures should the risks become better managed. The majority of the committee rejected this option, finding a ban too strong.
In the end, we were able to get full agreement on a 3-year moratorium. Why 3 years? The EPA report on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water is due in 2014. Pressure is being put on the industry to develop non-toxic solutions for extraction and to better manage toxic waste. Vermont will use this time to develop appropriate regulation should fracking become economically viable in Vermont.
Please join Representative Joan Lenes and me on Tuesday mornings at Bruegger’s from 7:30-8:30 am. It appears that I will now be able to make most of these gatherings rather than Mondays. I am also available most Monday mornings or by phone 233-7798 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.