In what environmentalist are calling an unprecedented and pioneering move, the Legislature has set New Jersey up to be the first state in the nation to pass a bill to enforce a statewide ban on a controversial gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking".
The bill passed the Senate 32-1 and the Assembly 58-11 on Wednesday. The measure needs the approval of Gov. Chris Christie for a ban to become effective but the governor may conditionally veto the measure and call for a five-year moratorium, an action Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) sought unsuccessfully in the upper house.
Fracking involves injecting water, toxic chemicals and sand deep underground to break up dense rock formations and release natural gas. Opponents of fracking cite the high potential for water and air pollution as a leading reason to ban the practice. The Delaware River provides drinking water to approximately 3 million New Jerseyans and environmentalists worry the supply could be contaminated if fracking moves forward in the river basin. Over 200,000 acres of land in the Upper Delaware River Watershed in Pennsylvania and New York are already under lease for gas drilling.
New Jersey contains gas bearing shale formations, notably the Utica Shale in northern New Jersey, that environmentalists fear could be targeted by energy companies.
Public opposition to fracking has escalated in recent months, with concerned residents and environmental and consumer advocacy groups campaigning against the practice in New Jersey and the surrounding states, where gas drilling is ramping up to begin in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation which extends up the East Coast. Pennsylvania alone is producing a glut of millions of gallons of fracking wastewater that is being shipped out of state. Gas drilling there is resulting in more than 11 violations of environmental permits per day at well sites, according to Pennsylvania environmental protection authorities, causing growing pollution and health problems.
A 2011 Cornell University study found that the process of fracking also releases methane, which according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is 21 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Similarly, a study released by researchers at Duke University in April found methane levels in drinking water wells near active gas drilling sites at a level 17 times higher than those near inactive ones.
Earlier this year, the U.S. House and Energy Commerce Committee determined that 14 oil companies had injected 780 million gallons of fracking chemicals and other substances into U.S. wells between 2005 and 2009. This included 10.2 million gallons of fluids containing known or suspected carcinogens. The companies, however, are not required to disclose the chemicals in fracking fluid, which they claim should be protected as a “trade secret.. They are also exempt from portions of seven major federal environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act.
Scientists at the Endocrine Disruption Exchange who tested fracking fluids found that 25 percent can cause cancer; 37 percent can disrupt the endocrine system; and 40 to 50 percent can affect the nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems.
"The Legislature is taking the pro-active step of preventing contamination of our drinking water and environment, the only sure way to protect our residents from fracking pollution. This is a great day for the State's present and future generations," Tracy Carluccio, deputy Ddrector of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said Friday.
“New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s signature is all that is necessary now for this critical and timely statewide ban to go into effect,” Jim Walsh, New Jersey director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said. “If he approves it, New Jersey will be the first state to stand up against the devastating environmental and public health impacts of fracking, which have wreaked havoc on other states across the U.S.”
“This bill is a great victory for clean water and we believe it will be a national model," Jeff Tittel, New Jersey Sierra Club director, said. “Under this bill we not only ban fracking in New Jersey but send a message to other states like Pennsylvania that they need to protect New Jersey from fracking pollution from their states. We hope this bill sends a message to the Governor to oppose fracking in the Delaware River Basin and protect New Jersey's waters."