The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill on Wednesday that would place a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial natural gas drilling technique commonly called “fracking.”
The bill passed the state Senate by 32-1 and the state Assembly by 56-11. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has not said if he would sign the bill into law.
New Jersey is the first state to consider a ban on fracking, but a widespread grassroots movement has helped establish local bans and moratoriums in 63 municipalities across the country.
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Fracking is the process of injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals – some of them toxic – into underground formations to split up rock and release natural gas. Thousands of new fracking wells have been established in recent years as drillers rush to exploit untapped domestic fuel sources.
Fracking has been linked to water contamination events across the country and two fracking rigs in Pennsylvania have suffered blowouts since June 2010.
The New York Times reported today that insider sources believe New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo may lift a moratorium on fracking in his state following the release of an environmental impact study on Friday, but a spokesperson for Cuomo called such claims “baseless speculation.”
The language in the New Jersey legislation echoes the concerns of fracking critics and accuses the industry of being unwilling to reveal the contents of fracking liquids.
Some companies have voluntarily reported the contents of their fracking liquids to an online database and some drillers report using chemicals like formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid and 2-butoxyethanol.
A recent study shows that about 40 to 50 percent of fracking fluid mixtures could affect the brain, nervous system, immune system, cardiovascular system and the kidneys; 37 percent could affect the endocrine system; and 25 percent could cause cancer and mutations.
Jim Walsh, an activist with watchdog group Food and Water Watch, said that the proposed New Jersey ban enjoyed broad bipartisan support because a widespread grassroots movement has put pressure on lawmakers.
“The more the public finds out about [fracking], the more they are against it,” Walsh said. “I know that a tremendous amount of phone calls are going into legislative offices.”
New Jersey does not sit on any large natural gas reserves and some consider the proposed ban to be largely symbolic.
New Jersey does share watersheds with New York and Pennsylvania, where a vast, gas-rich underground formation called the Marcellus Shale has become ground zero for the fracking debate in the eastern United States.
The Marcellus Shale underlies 36 percent of the Delaware River basin, which provides water to 15 million people in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Fracking operations require millions of gallons of water and until recently, gas companies in Pennsylvania were sending fracking wastewater to public treatment facilities.
Governor Christie is a member of the four-state Delaware River Basin Commission and Walsh said the proposed New Jersey ban puts pressure on Christie to promote a ban across the entire Delaware River region.
New York recently extended a moratorium on fracking until state agencies complete an environmental impact assessment on the practice. That assessment is due by Friday, but environmentalists have advised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo not to make any hasty decisions.
Fracking proponents say the practice is safe and will create jobs while producing cheap, clean-burning domestic fuel. The largely unregulated fracking industry, however, does not have a clean track record.
In June 2010, a fracking well in rural Pennsylvania blew out and spewed potentially explosive gas and thousands of gallons of contaminated water.
On April 19 2011, just hours before the first anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a fracking well in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, blew out and spilled thousands of gallons of fracking liquids across private property and into a local stream.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cited fracking operators for 2,754 violations in 2010 and 1,751 violation between January and April 2011.
A loophole established by the Bush administration exempts fracking from federal regulation from the Clean Water Act, but public outcry has prompted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study fracking in order to consider new regulations.
The EPA’s report is due out next year. The agency chose Bradford County, where the most recent Pennsylvania blowout occurred, to be a case study on fracking’s potential impacts on drinking water.