If the much-hyped dream of U.S. energy independence must involve hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) to extract natural gas from shale deposits deep underneath the surface of the earth, the State of Vermont wants no part of it.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law May 16 banning fracking, a practice that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals deep underground for energy production. The move makes Vermont the first state in the nation with such a ban, establishing a model that anti-fracking activists hope will be followed by other states.
For Vermont, the new law is largely symbolic. No energy company in the state engages in fracking, according to the Burlington Free Press, and none has been proposed because there are no known exploitable shale deposits available within the state’s jurisdiction. Vermont lies a few hundred miles east of the northeastern edge of the vast Marcellus Shale, much of which lies under the neighboring state of New York.
Shumlin conceded that it was easier to pass such a ban in a state where the energy industry has no apparent stake in the outcome.
“We don’t know that we don’t have natural gas in Vermont,” Shumlin said. “This bill will ensure we do not inject chemicals into groundwater in a desperate pursuit for energy.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to study whether fracking is, in fact, a threat to groundwater supplies. A recent study by the Energy Institute at the University of Austin found that fracking had “no direct link” to groundwater contamination, mostly due to the fact that groundwater aquifers tend to be found closer to the surface than shale deposits. Groundwater is threatened by energy development, the study said, due to the potential for surface spills of onsite chemicals, but that threat could be mitigated by tighter industry controls and better state regulation.
American’s Natural Gas Alliance objected to the new Vermont law, calling it “poor policy that ignores fact, science and technology.” The American Petroleum Institute said Vermont was following an “irresponsible path that ignores three major needs: jobs, government revenue and energy security.”
Industry’s main concern with Vermont’s law appears to be whether it will inspire similar legislation in states with significant natural gas resources, including the state of New York. Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which favored the ban, said that state’s action had encouraged fracking opponents, who were rallying in Albany on May 16.
John Stodder Jr. is The Dolan Company’s national affairs correspondent and Web editor at-large.