MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont appears on the verge of enacting the nation's first statewide ban of a hotly debated natural gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing.
The House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a conference committee report calling for the ban. It now goes to the desk of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has said he takes a dim view of hydraulic fracturing and is expected to sign the measure.
"We don't want to be shooting chemicals into our groundwater in pursuit of gas that does not exist," Shumlin said after the House gave final passage to the ban on a vote of 103-36.
The hydraulic fracturing process involves a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals being forced into the ground to fracture layers of shale and allow the gas to be released. Environmentalists say the chemicals are a threat to the environment and public health. They also complain that drilling companies haven't fully disclosed what chemicals are being used.
The action in Vermont came the same day President Barack Obama's administration issued new rules governing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands. The rules set new requirements for publicly disclosing the chemicals being used — after drilling operations are completed — and implement new air and water quality protections. Also Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a nonbinding guidance describing cautions to be taken by gas drillers who inject diesel fuel during the hydraulic fracturing process.
It's unclear if there is enough natural gas under Vermont to interest the industry in drilling for it. Geologists who attended a news conference with Shumlin last month said they didn't believe that Vermont had the abundant natural gas that has been found in nearby New York state and Pennsylvania. But a shale formation that's been tapped for gas north of the border in Quebec extends south to beneath the northwestern corner of Vermont and Lake Champlain.
Shumlin said Friday, "I think it's in keeping with our environmental ethic and our protection of our natural resources that we make it clear that we wouldn't frack for it (gas) even if we had it."
Vermont, the Green Mountain State, is known for its strong environmental laws, including a ban on roadside billboards and a tough development-control law that helped the state largely avoid the recent housing boom and bust.
New Jersey lawmakers passed a ban last year but settled for a one-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing after Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the permanent ban.
Hydraulic fracturing has boomed in recent years and has allowed the natural gas industry to expand into areas — including large swaths of the Northeast — where there was known to be natural gas but where its extraction previously had been thought to be uneconomical. The greater volumes extracted with hydraulic fracturing has encouraged expansion of the industry, but there has been concern in some areas about groundwater pollution.
Vermont's bill was hailed by environmental groups but panned by the industry.
The group Environment America issued a statement contrasting Vermont's action with the new chemical disclosure rules issued by the Bureau of Land Management.
"The administration should ban the use of toxic fracking chemicals in our forests and anywhere near our national parks, but the proposed rule only includes a weak, after-the-fact disclosure of such chemicals," Environment America said. "In contrast, legislators in Vermont showed no such equivocation when it comes to protecting our health and environment from fracking ... The bill also bars the toxic wastewater from fracking — a critical issue as New York mulls whether to allow fracking to commence next door."
The American Petroleum Institute called Vermont's bill "shortsighted and uninformed."
"The decision by the Vermont Legislature to pass a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing follows an irresponsible path that ignores three major needs: jobs, government revenue and energy security," said Rolf Hanson, API's director of state government relations.