On Friday, May 4th, Vermont became the first state in the United States to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking is an extraction technique that allows for the efficient collection of natural gas from shale rock, building upon traditional drilling techniques in order to increase output. After vertically drilling into deep-earth layers of shale, extractors horizontally drill many thousands of feet into the rock layer. They then inject high-pressure fracking fluids into the area, causing fractures in the shale. Some of the fracking fluid is then removed from the fissures, allowing the gas to be released into wells where they can be extracted. Due to recent advancements in drilling technology, hydraulic fracturing is quickly becoming a popular choice for many energy companies as a substitute for oil or other, more traditional gas extraction techniques.
While hydraulic fracturing presents itself as being more efficient, it certainly cannot say that it is safer. The chemicals that gas companies use for their fracking fluids include water, sand, salt, citric acid, benzene, and lead – some of which can be hazardous if it is not handled or stored properly. The problem, then, lies in underground water contamination and aboveground waste disposal. These important post-extraction procedures are being minimally handled by extractors, creating problems in local drinking water supplies and disrupting local ecosystems while state and federal lawmakers haggle with companies for stricter regulations.
Other problems with hydraulic fracturing include high water use, since water is the base liquid that makes up most fracking fluids. These supplies become severely contaminated in the fracking process, and are very difficult to filter properly. What is also notable are the high carbon emissions associated with drilling. Digging more than a mile into the Earth’s surface, the drilling process can take up to a month to complete. After including the emissions created in the extraction process, as well as the ones generated by transportation (sites are usually in isolated areas due to the nature of their work), the cumulative emissions are staggering.
In the end, it must be said that Vermont’s 103-36 vote is more symbolic than it is effective. Gas deposits are likely to be a rare occurrence in the state’s landscape due to the heat and pressure involved in the state’s geologic history, making the concern for fracking rather moot. However, that does not make the state’s groundbreaking banning any less important. Anti-fracking groups from outside the state are already being energized by the decision, with many being inspired by Vermont’s House of Representatives to legally ban hydraulic fracturing in their own state.
What is, perhaps, the most optimistic outcome of this decision is the promotion of more precautionary environmental laws. Scientists are constantly debating on whether or not certain policies are harmful to the environment, with issues ranging from fracking to the Alberta oil sands. Precautionary laws take the safer route, and assume it is harmful unless proven otherwise. Let’s hope that future politicians follow Vermont’s footsteps in this regard in order to prevent, rather than minimize, future environmental disasters.
Photo by PJ Rey