Pat Parenteau, Professor of Law, Vermont Law School
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a technique used in “unconventional” natural gas production. Fractures are created by pumping large quantities of fluids at high pressure down a wellbore and into the target rock formation. Hydraulic fracturing fluid commonly consists of water, “proppants” (usually sand) and chemicals (some that are hazardous) that open and enlarge fractures within the rock formation. Once the injection process is completed, the internal pressure of the rock formation causes fluid to return to the surface through the wellbore. This fluid is known as both “flowback” and “produced water” and may contain the injected chemicals plus naturally occurring materials such as brines, metals, radionuclides, and hydrocarbons.
Fracking raises a host of environ mental issues including potential contamination of drinking water supplies; water consumption (9 million gallons per well); air pollution; stormwater discharges; waste disposal; risk of blowouts, explosions and earthquakes; as well as habitat fragmentation from the numerous well pads, access roads and pipelines needed to serve vast areas of production such as the Marcellus formation that stretches from Virginia to New York.
Until recently there has been very little federal regulation of this process. During the Bush administration, Congress passed a bill that largely exempts fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Fracking is also exempt from hazardous waste regulation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Emissions from fracking operations are subject to the Clean Air Act but EPA is only now moving to issue rules to protect public health. State regulations and enforcement have been lax in some instances and the industry has been reluctant to release information about the chemicals used. As a consequence there is little baseline data to measure the impacts of fracking on ground and surface water.
These problems could be mitigated through tighter regulations, better enforcement and a stronger commitment from the industry to institute “best practices” and be more transparent. But there is another problem with fracking that poses a more troubling dilemma: climate change. Natural gas has been promoted as vastly preferable to coal; it has been touted as a “bridge to the future” of low carbon energy. It is true that gas fired power plants emit about half the CO2 of coal fired plants. However, recent peer reviewed studies of the full life cycle effects of fracking have shown that methane released during the process may more than offset this advantage. Methane is 20 times more potent than CO2 although it does not remain in the atmosphere as long. It is possible to capture much of this methane but it is not economic to do so and there is no law requiring it the moment (though EPA’s proposed air rules could address it). Other studies have shown that even with high rates of methane capture unconventional gas is not likely to make a meaningful contribution to climate mitigation in this century. Only an aggressive effort to improve energy efficiency coupled with a rapid scaling up of wind and solar will produce the kinds of greenhouse gas reductions needed in time to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Meanwhile here in Vermont fracking is getting more attention. We do not have the huge gas reserves of Pennsylvania or New York but we do have recoverable deposits of both conventional and shale gas. Concerns about the localized impacts of fracking on groundwater and public health have spurred the introduction of legislation to curb the “gold rush” that is happening south of us. The Vermont House has passed a bill (HR 464) placing a three year moratorium on the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to recover natural gas form deep underground. The bill has been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Natural Resources. Governor Shumlin has said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
The moratorium is a sensible measure to give Vermont time to study these issues more carefully and be betterprepared if and when industry comes calling. Even if Vermont does not become a producer of shale gas it may become a consumer. Natural gas has become the most cost effective fuel in the Northeast grid and it is driving dirty old coal plants into retirement. That’s a good thing in the short run. But in the long run gas may be a bridge to nowhere.