Vermont lawmakers put the kibosh on a controversial method of drilling for natural gas today, making Vermont the first state in the country to ban hydraulic fracturing (known more commonly simply as "fracking"). The ban earned final legislative approval today in a 103-36 vote in the House of Representatives, and is on its way to Gov. Peter Shumlin's desk.
Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas by injecting water, sand and chemicals into dense underground rock formations. The oil and gas industry loves it — fracking opened up vast reserves of natural gas that was previously too difficult or expensive to extract. But conservationists have raised the alarm, pointing to problems with groundwater contamination, waste water disposal and even earthquakes in places where fracking is underway.
Seven Days covered the debate most recently in February, shortly after the House passed a three-year moratorium on fracking. At the time, lobbyists opposed to the practice were angling for even tougher restrictions — and in the end they prevailed.
In addition to banning fracking in Vermont, the bill also bans the importation and disposal of fracking wastewater in the state. Given the number of states around Vermont currently engaged in the practice, says Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Group, the ban is reassuring.
"This is everything that we were hoping for," Burns says.
Burns says the oil and gas industry pushed hard against the ban, flying in lobbyists from out of state and even threatening a lawsuit (which the Agency of Natural Resources lawyers said wasn't a valid threat) in the final days before passage.
"It was pretty clear that the industry lobbyists and the American Petroleum Institute were working hard to prevent that first chink in the armor that the legislation represents," Burns says.
Jake Brown, a spokesperson with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, points out that two-thirds of Vermonters get their drinking water from groundwater sources. Brown says the ban is "reasonable and prudent," adding that "when and if" the industry can prove fracking isn't dangerous, they can certainly ask the legislature to overturn the prohibition.
The ban is a preemptive strike against fracking in Vermont — because, in fact, the technique has never been used in the state. Fracking has been the stuff of headlines in New York and Pennsylvania for years, however, thanks to the gas-rich Marcellus Shale. Vermont didn't garner much attention, though the Utica Shale in northwestern Vermont may have been a candidate for future development. Meanwhile, residents in neighboring Québec warned that nearby test wells in Canada had proved commercially viable, and warned against allowing fracking in Vermont.
"This is an antifracking shot that will be heard around the country, if not around the world," says Burns. "There are a lot of people paying close attention to what’s happening here."