Fracking Debate Heating Up in States

Some lawmakers want to open up their states to fracking, while others hope to impose moratoriums.
February 25, 2013

By Jim Malewitz, Staff Writer

Will New York, Illinois or North Carolina be the next state to leap into the shale gas revolution? And how strictly will California regulate drillers who want to tap a shale oil deposit far bigger than those in Texas and North Dakota?

Those are among the big questions this year as state lawmakers across the country debate hydraulic fracturing proposals. “Fracking” -- injecting water, sand and chemicals into underground rock to release the oil and natural gas trapped inside -- has sent U.S. energy production surging and pumped billions into state coffers. But the practice also has sparked feverish protest from environmentalists concerned about its impact on water and air.

Last year, looking to balance those interests, legislators in at least 24 states proposed more than 130 bills related to fracking. This year, there has been no slowdown in legislation or controversy. Some lawmakers want to open up their states to fracking, while others hope to impose moratoriums. In some states there are proposals to slightly alter current fracking rules, while others are contemplating wholesale changes.

All told, some 31 states sit atop significant shale deposits that the new technology has made increasingly accessible to oil and gas drillers.

New York

For months, New York has been poised to open its lucrative deposits of Marcellus and Utica shale to drillers. But a draft proposal to overturn the state’s four-year moratorium on fracking stoked a heated debate, and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly postponed a final decision. This month, the state Department of Health asked for several more weeks to complete its review. If the department finds no issues with the original proposal, the state will issue permits.

“Science, not emotion, will determine the outcome,” said Joseph Martins, New York’s environmental commissioner.

If the moratorium is lifted, state legislators are ready with more than 20 bills dealing with a range of topics, including taxes, wastewater disposal, the chemical composition of fracking fluid and studies of faults near drilling sites. Additionally, some legislators have proposed new moratoriums.

Illinois

Illinois Representative John Bradley, a Democrat, has proposed fracking regulations that likely would be the strictest in the country. The state currently allows the practice, but oil and gas developers have been waiting to see what lawmakers hash out in Springfield before tapping Southern Illinois’ rich New Albany shale.

Bradley’s legislation, which energy producers and health and environmental advocates helped craft, would closely regulate the drilling process and storage of wastewater, ban underground diesel injection and impose stricter limits on methane emissions than federal regulators. It would also require a greater level of chemical disclosure than most states impose.

Environmentalists have cheered a provision that mandates the testing of nearby wells before drilling, providing baseline data that could help resolve disputes over who is to blame for pollution discovered later. Few states have such a requirement, leaving many pollution cases unresolved. Wyoming, the site of a high-profile case in the tiny town of Pavillion, is another state considering adding the requirement. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that fracking probably caused underground water pollution in Pavillion.

Illinois will also consider a moratorium on fracking, which environmentalists would most prefer. But the tide appears to be shifting towards Bradley’s bill, which Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has called “good news for Southern Illinois and our entire state’s economy.”

“This legislation has the potential to bring thousands of jobs to Southern Illinois, while also ensuring that Illinois has the nation’s strongest environmental protections,” Quinn said.

California

Meanwhile, emotions are high in California, where drillers have yet to tap the 1,750-square-mile Monterey Shale, a hard-to-get-to deposit representing about two-thirds of the total resource in the U.S. Now, as companies looking to strike it big buy up mineral rights and drill test wells, state regulators and lawmakers are looking to adopt new regulations before a potential rush.

Drillers are already doing some fracking in California, the country’s fourth-leading oil producer, but it’s hard to say how much, because energy companies operating there aren’t required to report their drilling methods.

A range of rules proposed by the state’s oil and gas commission would end that lack of clarity, but environment groups say the draft rules, which don’t require baseline water testing or limit methane releases, would fail to protect water quality or quality in already-smoggy California.

“They’re very inadequate for protecting public health and the environment,” says Andrew Grinberg, who focuses on fracking for the San Francisco-based group Clean Water Action.

Grinberg says he hopes lawmakers, who have proposed several regulations of their own, will fill in what he sees as major gaps.

State regulators, as they gather public input, have insisted their draft is not set in stone.

North Carolina

Experts aren’t sure how much natural gas North Carolina’s shale holds. Estimates have varied widely, from those initially predicting it equals the state’s 40-year demand, to more recent estimates slicing it to five years.

Meanwhile, North Carolina is undertaking a major regulatory effort. The state Senate may take up legislation this week that would end the state’s moratorium on fracking and allow a commission to begin issuing permits by 2015 -- right after the state finishes up an impact study.

That effort is likely to succeed in the Republican-controlled legislature, and Republican Governor Pat McCrory has said he supports fracking.

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