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Politics, not good science, at play in Vermont

As you may have read, Vermont’s political leaders have decided to ban hydraulic fracturing. This action is a product of media hype, poor science, and politics – given that Vermont has little or no proven natural gas reserves, and therefore little incentive to apply hydraulic fracturing technologies there.

Interestingly, the state’s decision to ban hydraulic fracturing directly contradicts the very principles Vermont lawmakers had articulated just last year.

Vermont’s “Comprehensive Energy Plan” for 2011 includes the following important statement:

“Natural gas can address two key needs: reduce Vermonter’s reliance on overseas oil for heating and for heavy fleet transportation, and help fill a gap in electric supply. Natural gas offers an opportunity to do these things with a lower carbon footprint than other fossil-based fuels. Although environmental concerns regarding hydrofracture extraction and methane release are significant, Vermont should not turn its back on this resource because it allows a lower-cost, less carbon-intensive source of energy than other traditional fossil-based fuels. As Vermonters noted again and again when providing input to this plan, deployment of all energy sources involves tradeoffs and choices. Vermont should choose to expand natural gas within its existing transmission territory and beyond.”

Banning the time-tested and fundamentally safe process of hydraulic fracturing to develop shale natural gas – even if such gas is not found in Vermont – is not exactly rolling out the welcome mat. If anything, it sends a signal that the state is prepared to turn its back on this resource.

Of course, despite this misinformed gesture, Vermont appears to have every intention of taking advantage of the benefits of natural gas supplies produced in neighboring areas through hydraulic fracturing.

Vermont is surrounded by production of natural gas supplies in Canada and the enormous Marcellus Shale formation stretching across several states in the Northeast. So while Vermont itself may have no natural gas – and while it denounces the process used to obtain the gas – state leaders are fine reaping the benefits of the activity going on around them.

Meanwhile, other states are taking proactive and productive steps that enable continued safe production of their resources, as well as the economic growth that goes with it.

A recent article found that as of March 2012, at least 137 bills in 24 states had been introduced to regulate hydraulic fracturing, and at least six states had enacted legislation. Other states are simply adjusting existing regulations governing energy development or developing new regulations under existing statutes. The states have the authority to regulate energy development on their lands because they have the best knowledge and understanding of their own resources, geology and water supplies.

State-based regulation will continue to be important as more states choose to develop their resources. The U.S. energy industry’s actions that protect people and the environment are equally important. Oil and gas operations are subject to both state and federal regulations, and companies also use guidelines for responsible operational practices developed in conjunction with regulators and accreditation groups to uphold safe natural gas development around the country.

In Pennsylvania, for example, oil and gas companies operate under the rules of the state’s Oil and Gas Act, which regulates virtually every aspect of natural gas development – from well permits and detailed well construction plans to water storage and disposal requirements.

As several studies have shown, the fears that led Vermont to ban hydraulic fracturing haven’t become a reality. Earlier this year, the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin examined the evidence pertaining to groundwater contamination claims attributed to hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale, the Barnett Shale and the Haynesville Shale. They found that fracking “has no direct connection to reports of groundwater contamination.”

Similarly, after months of testing, the Environmental Protection Agency released results late last week that showed no evidence that shale gas development had led to unsafe water in the wells it tested in Dimock, Pa., one of the towns featured in the movie GaslandAccording to reports, the EPA concluded that the data “did not show levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action.”

As several studies have pointed out, shale gas development is no different than other oil and gas operations in that caution must be exercised in well design and construction as well as in surface operations to avoid spills and mishandling of wastewater, which can be the cause of contamination.

That’s where state regulation has proven effective, according to a study released just this week by the University at Buffalo’s new shale gas institute. Researchers found that Pennsylvania’s approach to state oversight has been effective at reducing environmental incidents at wells around the state.

“This suggests that regulators are not only responding effectively within their states, but are learning and acting on the experience of other states as well – a positive sign for the continued successful state regulation of natural gas development through hydraulic fracturing,” the authors concluded.

Let’s just hope that officials in other states follow the example of those states with actual natural gas resources – not the example set by Vermont.

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