Last week, a committee in Massachusetts moved closer to banning hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) in the Bay State. This is a day after Texas, the epicenter of fracking in the United States, suffered a 3.6 magnitude earthquake. While Massachusetts may not be rich in fossil fuels, some in the state do not want to risk the the drinking water, the climate, or tectonic stability to tap what little shale gas might be hiding under the Berkshires.
The Massachusetts State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources approved a bill on Wednesday that would place a 10-year moratorium on fracking in the Bay State — through December 31, 2024. In addition, the bill would keep fracking wastewater produced by operations in other states from being treated, stored, or disposed in Massachusetts.
The bill advanced out of the Joint Committee, and its next step will be to get passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee. If its backers succeed in doing that, once the full House and Senate pass it and Governor Deval Patrick signs it, it would become law.
A MoveOn.org petition urges residents to ask state lawmakers to ban fracking, and “bar toxic fracking wastewater from being deposited near or in any waterways that run through” their state. Of special concern is the fact that many (largely rural) communities in Western Massachusetts depend on groundwater supplies for their only source of drinking water.
Earthquakes are not a central concern to people in Massachusetts, but they hadn’t been to many states that are now dealing with them as the fracking boom takes hold. Ohio oil and gas regulators found earlier this year that 12 earthquakes were almost certainly caused by hydraulic fracturing. There are 216,000 active drilling wells and 50,000 disposal wells in Texas, and recent research has pinned the blame for the increasing number and magnitude of earthquakes in the area directly on fracking. Other studies back up the links, both from the hydraulic fracturing itself and the injection of the wastewater back underground.
Yet those pushing for a 10-year moratorium on fracking in Massachusetts have broader concerns in mind. One of the fracking ban bill’s cosponsors, State Rep. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), said it would help “ensure that the health and prosperity of our communities is maintained.” Northampton is the county seat of Hampshire County, in the western part of the state, north of Springfield. Springfield is the center of the shale deposit in question.
The fracking boom may have spread east from Texas, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Louisiana to the Marcellus Shale deposit in Appalachia, but the Marcellus, like the Yankees’ YES Network, basically stops short of the New York State border. Western Massachusetts sits over a different deposit: the Hartford Basin, which, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey late last year, is a shale deposit that may contain gas. The Massachusetts Geological Survey said in a Q&A; shortly afterward that “no companies have expressed any interest in exploring for or developing shale gas in Massachusetts,” and hydraulic fracturing for shale gas was “probably not” coming to the Bay State. Robert Milici, the author of an earlier USGS report on East Coast basins (including Hartford) told the Boston Globe that the only way to know for sure if the Hartford Basin had shale gas was if industry took interest.
So if it is not even certain that the Hartford Basin has shale gas to be fracked in the first place, why ban fracking? The Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club said the bill is “a preventive measure that would deter energy companies from even thinking about fracking in Massachusetts.” The bill’s protections against possible New York fracking operations that might be looking for a place like Western Massachusetts to dump their wastewater are also central to its proponents’ concerns.
Vermont, which has even less likely shale oil and gas resources than Massachusetts, became the first state to ban fracking in 2012. Other fracking bans are proceeding much more fitfully, with California Governor Jerry Brown preferring recently-enacted regulations that focus on wastewater to an outright ban, and four towns in Colorado voting to ban fracking in November facing legal challenges from industry and government.
Massachusetts, which produced no natural gas in 2011, consumed 446 billion cubic feet (bcf) that year, putting it just between Colorado and Minnesota among all U.S. states. Last winter, gas prices shot up to ten times normal because of the difficulty of getting gas from producing regions to heat homes in Massachusetts. But extending a pipeline from New York that could solve this temporary glut would cost $2 billion and have trouble getting financing because of the uncertainty that prices will remain as low as they have over the last few years. Many now forget that the natural gas industry was in the doldrums even five years ago, when prices hit a peak in 2008. This is why there was so much investment over the last ten years in liquefied natural gas import terminals, including the Neptune offshore terminal operated by Boston-based Distrigas.
With just as much uncertainty over whether natural gas prices will continue to stay low in the U.S. as the shale boom continues, many in Massachusetts have settled on strengthening the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. The state achieved its solar target four years early, so it increased it earlier this year. The Cape Wind project off Nantucket, however, must begin construction by the end of 2013 to qualify for numerous tax incentives. In comparison to natural gas, the steadily decreasing price of the renewable energy sector looks very attractive.