A week after New Jersey’s Legislature overwhelmingly approved a ban on the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing in natural gas exploration, the bill’s impact — and usefulness — remain up for debate.
If enacted, the bill would make New Jersey the first state in the union to ban the practice. Gov. Chris Christie has yet to say whether he will sign the legislation.
Hydraulic fracturing — known as “fracking” — is a long-used technique of blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into underground shale formations, creating fissures that allow underground gas to flow more freely. The process has become controversial because some believe those chemicals can end up in drinking water, though the industry says no such contamination link has ever been proven.
State Sen. Robert M. Gordon (D-Fair Lawn) a primary sponsor of the ban, said the measure makes it clear that the Legislature cares about water supply safety.
“I think it sends an important message to the rest of the country that we have serious concerns about the potential impact of fracking on both surface waters and ground waters,” he said.
The oil and gas industry, however, has dismissed the legislation as unnecessary meddling, noting that while natural gas production is booming in Pennsylvania’s portion of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale, there’s unlikely to be any fracking in New Jersey anytime soon.
Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, said only a small portion of the Marcellus Shale crosses into New Jersey, and that portion is so close to the surface that it wouldn’t make economic sense to drill there.
Speaking to reporters in a conference call organized by the American Petroleum Institute, Engelder said he was taken aback by New Jersey’s bill.
“For all intents and purposes, spending a lot of time and energy on writing a bill banning hydraulic fracturing struck me as a little bit of a waste of time, given some of the larger issues that affect the Legislature in New Jersey,” he said.
For Gordon, however, the ban is more about the future.
“Just by perusing the Internet you’ll see that the next big play in natural gas after the Marcellus Shale is expected to be the Utica Shale,” he said.
The Utica Shale is a layer beneath the Marcellus Shale, and part of it spans into northwest New Jersey. Gordon said he almost majored in geology and took a year of coal and oil geology in college. He said while current technology can’t exploit the natural gas believed to be in the Utica Shale, future technology might.
“There was a time when we couldn’t drill offshore, when we couldn’t exploit shale structures like the Marcellus,” he said. “But I think everyone expects that the Utica Shale will be next.”
Aside from the question of whether natural gas drilling might occur in New Jersey in the future, industry executives continue to downplay the safety concerns.
During API’s conference call, the group’s chief economist, John Felmy, called the ban “misguided policy.”
“It’s addressing something that’s not a problem,” he said. Felmy said the industry is guided by safety rules and regulations, and companies that violate the rules ought to be fined and shut down.
Michael Egenton, senior vice president at the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, said he was expecting to see the Legislature pass a moratorium, not an outright ban, on fracking. A moratorium would have given the federal Environmental Protection Agency time to complete a study of the impacts of fracking. An earlier piece of legislation calling for a moratorium was substituted for the ban prior to Wednesday’s vote.
“There’s a group of people sort of relying on the Chicken Little mentality that the sky is falling, without giving it the due diligence that it deserves,” he said
Egenton said issues like taxes, health care costs, and overall energy costs remain the top concerns of the business community, though he said the fracking ban sets a bad precedent.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said the bill, like all pending legislation, will receive a careful review. Should the governor veto the bill, the Legislature could attempt to override the veto: The bill passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote, and passed the Assembly 58-11, with eight abstentions.
Gordon said he’s willing to sit down with the governor’s office and representatives from the natural gas industry to discuss the matter. He said the ban shouldn’t have a negative impact on the state’s business climate, since it’s essentially a precautionary move, buying time to ensure the practice is safe and to allow better technology to be developed.
“I just want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect our water supply,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of money being invested in drilling technology. We just need to make sure that some of those investments are made to improve the safety of the operations.”