Fracking in Vermont? Probably not

Galbraith pushes legislation to ban the practice, protect groundwater

Several lawmakers are floating proposals to ban a technique for extracting natural gas through hydrofracking in Vermont.

In a curious sequence, Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, issued a press release announcing he would introduce legislation that would ban the practice in the state; then Representatives Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, and Peter Peltz, D-Woodbury, submitted proposed legislation that would amend state law to disallow the Agency of Natural Resources from issuing a permit for the practice.

So what is all the fracking about?

“Fracking,” as the process is called, involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into rock that creates fractures in the material and releases natural gas, petroleum or other substances for extraction. The practice is controversial because of its potential effects on drinking water.

In Pennsylvania and New York, waterways have been polluted by fracking.

No one in Vermont has applied for a permit for hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas, although it's hypothetically possible for a company or individual to obtain an underground injection control permit from the Agency of Natural Resources.

Galbraith, who says he initially submitted a request to legislative counsel a few months ago, said the best time to address environmental issues like this one is before any harm occurs.

“It is the only time when we can take a reasoned look at it,” Galbraith said.

Klein says there is no imminent possibility of fracking in Vermont, and his proposed legislation is “more of a preemptive measure.”

Larry Becker, Vermont state geologist, said no one really knows what the potential for natural gas extraction through fracking is in Vermont because no test wells have been drilled yet.

The Utica Shale in Quebec extends into Northwestern Vermont, Becker said. Companies have found potential for natural gas extraction on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, but projects have been put on hold amid public criticism and high cost assessments.

Natural gas deposits, Becker said, were created when mountains were formed. If there are deposits in Vermont, companies would have to test to see if the shale was viable.

Under current Vermont law, anyone who wanted to extract natural gas through fracking would have to get an underground injection permit from the Agency of Natural Resources.

Under regulations promulgated in the 1980s, the state banned the discharge of waste substances or materials into an injection well if it causes ean ndangerment to drinking water or violation of drinking water standards or affects the health of any person.

Catherine Gjessing, associate general counsel for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the department is currently working on updating the rules.

Gjessing said the Department, which is part of the Agency of Natural Resources, is looking into the technical issues involved with the potential environmental harms associated with fracking.

The state's regulation under the underground injection control permit stems from authority delegated from the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

However, a 2005 federal energy act exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The state has not yet determined whether a state law banning fracking would be pre-empted by federal law. Even though the federal act on its face exempts the activity from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Gjessing said, “that doesn't necessarily mean that the state doesn't have the authority to go in and cover that sort of activity.”

States can generally be more stringent with environmental regulations than the feds, and the Vermont Environmental Court has ruled recently that the state must manage groundwater as a public trust resource that is to be protected from both over-extraction and pollution.

ANR Secretary Deb Markowitz said the Agency of Natural Resources has not reviewed the proposed legislation that would ban fracking and has not taken a position on it yet.

Steve Wark, director of communications for Vermont Gas Systems, said his company is not a producer of natural gas and would not be involved in any sort of hydraulic fracturing in the state.

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