(Beyond Pesticides, May 8, 2012) On May 4, the Vermont House of Representatives voted 103-36 to give final passage to legislation that will make Vermont the first state in the nation to ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas from deep in the ground by injecting a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals ””including biocides”” under high pressure into dense rock formations such as shale, in order to crack the rock and release the gas.
“The Vermont Legislature deserves tremendous praise for having the courage to stand up to all of the lobbying, the full page ads, and the legal threats of the oil and gas industry,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “This is a shot that will be heard, if not around the world then at least around the country.”
According to a minority staff report released last year by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, more than 650 commonly used fracking products contain chemicals that are “known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants.” In its report, The Case for a Ban on Gas Fracking, Food and Water Watch summarizes data by The Endocrine Disruption Exchange showing that 25 percent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer, 37 percent could disrupt the endocrine system, 40 to 50 percent could affect the nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems, and more than 75 percent could affect the sensory organs and respiratory system, likely causing problems such as skin and eye irritation and flu-like symptoms.
Hydraulic fracking operations use biocides because microbes, which are present beneath the surface of the earth, can interfere with the flow of gas in the pipelines. Sandra Steingraber, PhD, an ecolologist and author, recently explained the possible role of these microbes and the use of biocides to the participants of the 30th National Pesticide Forum and in an article published in the Huffington Post, like this:
Carbon-rich geological formations are also living ecosystems. They are the home to relic organisms collectively called “deep life.” Some of these microbes form complex colonies, sending nanowires out into the surrounding rock for purposes of electron transfer. Deep-life organisms are ubiquitous and almost certainly play a role in the Earth’s carbon cycle. They may, in ways we do not yet understand, contribute to climate stability.
Living organisms also interfere with the flow of gas through pipelines. To prevent this biofouling, gas companies send powerful biocides into the shale, killing everything that inhabits it. The use of biocides, among other factors, makes fracking a highly toxic form of energy extraction.
While the basic fracking technology has been in use for decades, only much more recently has the industry developed the capacity to drill at depth horizontally within the rock formation for thousands of additional feet. This new drilling technique has allowed the gas industry to reach large reserves that were previously considered uneconomical, particularly in shale formations. But unlike traditional vertical fracking, horizontal fracking requires massive amounts of water and toxic chemicals. Enormous holding ponds or tanks are also needed to store the chemically contaminated waste water that comes back up the hole after wells have been fractured.
“Fracking has caused enormous problems with underground water contamination and above ground waste disposal —entire streams have been destroyed,” said noted author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. “A ban on this process makes sense, if for no other reason than it will keep the oil industry from pumping lobbying dollars into the state three years hence.”
Mr. McKibben was referring to an alternative proposal initially backed by the House, which would have established a three-year moratorium on fracking.
“Vermonters were able to see through the smokescreen put out by the gas industry,” said VPIRG organizer Leah Marsters. “They understand the threat that fracking poses to public health, as well as our air, land and water,” she added.
Other organizations joining VPIRG in pressing the legislature to act on fracking this year included the Vermont Natural Resources Council, 350 Vermont, the Vermont Sierra Club, and Democracy for America. Representatives of the Catskill Mountainkeepers in New York, and the Natural Resources Defense Council also provided expert testimony before Senator Lyons’ committee this session.
“No one is suggesting that Vermont is likely to be the home of bountiful natural gas supplies,” said Mr. Burns. “But sometimes all it takes is one state to have the courage to lead in order to change the direction of the country. And if you look at how hard the industry fought this, you begin to see that they believe that’s true too.”
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.