Lawmakers in the New Jersey Senate voted 33-1 today to ban hydraulic fracturing (fracking) , in a move to protect the Delaware River from potential contamination from the risky unconventional gas drilling practice. The Delaware River supplies drinking water for 15 million people in four states.
Prominent environmental groups, such as Food and Water Watch, the Sierra Club and the Delaware Riverkeeper, have pushed for the decision as unconventional gas drilling increasingly encroaches upon the state’s borders.
In March, the NJ House of Representatives unanimously voted  to ban fracking in New Jersey due to concerns the process will contaminate drinking water. Although little drilling activity has taken place in New Jersey, the state is home to a corner of the Marcellus Shale, one of the world’s largest shale gas fields, spanning from New York and Pennsylvania to parts of Ohio and West Virginia.
Unconventional gas is heralded as the key to America’s clean energy future. Industry advocates claim that the country’s vast reserves of gas are the solution to our foreign dependence on oil and a warming climate. But the new extraction technology, fracking, is a carbon-intensive operation  and an inherently risky process that involves millions of gallons of toxic water that have polluted local sources of drinking water, both above and below ground.
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Robert Gordon, suggests that fracking  has become a blind hope, and that the rush to produce the nation’s deposits poses unnecessary risks to sources of clean water. “We have to be really concerned that in addressing an air pollution problem, we don’t create a water pollution problem,” he said.
Jim Walsh, the eastern regional director of Food and Water Watch , feels New Jersey’s decision to ban fracking is significant for the future of fracking in other states.
“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. We hope that the actions taken by the legislature will give courage to lawmakers in surrounding states to pass bans on fracking,” Walsh told DeSmogBlog.
But the issue of fracking, for Walsh, has also to do with the gas industry’s exercise of power in the political realm.
“The reality is this industry has used influence in Washington to exempt themselves from important regulations that are meant to protect public health, our drinking water and the environment. The industry consistently fights legislation that would bring them into compliance with these important federal laws,” says Walsh, adding that strict enforcement could force companies to discontinue the dangerous practice.
The industry’s exemptions from federal environmental statutes like the Safe Drinking Water Act have severely limited state control of unconventional gas drilling. Some groups like Food and Water Watch are convinced that due to the inherent risks of fracking, there is no such thing as safe drilling.
“Even with strong federal regulations, it is doubtful that regulators will be able to provide the aggressive oversight that would be necessary to protect the public and the environment,” says Walsh. “With what we know and don’t know about fracking the only reasonable conclusion we can come to is that the practice should be banned.”
The ban in New Jersey has been called ‘irrelevant’ by Chris Tucker, spokesman for the gas industry front group, Energy in Depth . But while it is true that there is very little gas potential in New Jersey , the state’s decision to prioritize public and environmental health over oil and gas industry drilling may lead to similar moves in the future. There is already mounting pressure on the Delaware River Basin Commission to extend the ban to the waterways in New York and Pennsylvania that feed the Delaware River.
New Jersey’s decision is a significant addition to the growing list of fracking bans throughout jurisdictions in the U.S. However, these bans also demonstrate the urgent need for federal agencies to rein in the gas industry, which in all other situations and states, enjoys relative impunity.
State oversight agencies are simply not doing an effective job protecting the public from the dangers of unconventional gas drillng. Moratoriums and bans have become the soundest measure to limit the industry’s reckless practices, but federal action and oversight remain the only real solution.
One unanswered question Walsh has posed to the industry: “If your practice is so safe then why do you fight regulations that would help to ensure important safeguards are in place to protect public health and the environment?”
For more information about fracking, view DeSmogBlog’s special report: Fracking The Future