August 6, 2014

New Ordinance Would Ban Fracking

Princeton Council could well become the first municipality in Mercer County to ban hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is commonly known.

The controversial process extracts natural gas by pumping water into underground shale, fracturing the rock and thereby releasing the natural gas. Supporters say it produces cheap, clean gas but critics question the environmental costs and potential dangers from the use of a high-pressure blend of water, sand, and other chemicals that may include carcinogens and radioactive substances.

To date, Middlesex is the only county in the state to ban “fracking.” The technique has not yet been practiced in New Jersey and has been controversial in neighboring Pennsylvania. Last month, the New Jersey Assembly voted in favor of a bill seeking to make it illegal here. The bill has yet to be signed by Governor Chris Christie, who has on two occasions vetoed legislation that would ban the practice.

Meeting in public session last week, members of Princeton council voted 5-1 to introduce an ordinance that would ban the gas-extraction technique in Princeton. A public hearing and vote on the ordinance are scheduled to take place September 22.

Councilman Patrick Simon voted against the ordinance on the grounds that it was unnecessary since Princeton already has a ban on manufacturing and drilling for oil and gas. But other members of Council felt a resolution specifically opposing “fracking” would strengthen the existing ban.

“A U.S. Geological Survey has shown that there is potentially some gas underneath Princeton,” said Mayor Liz Lempert. “This ordinance is recommended by the Princeton Environmental Commission as a way to get out ahead of this potential threat.”

The Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC), is a group of volunteer residents offering advice on environmental issues and actions that may affect the town’s natural resources and inhabitants.

A June 2012 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) identified about 1.6 trillion cubic feet of gas in the South Newark basin, which extends under much of Mercer County and through parts of Pennsylvania. According to the survey, the South Newark basin is the third-largest of five regions along the East Coast for untapped natural gas.

With respect to the natural gas beneath Princeton, Councilwoman Jennie Crumiller who serves as liaison to the PEC, said that it was conceivable that someone would want to use fracking to get to it. Even though there are no gas companies currently seeking permission to use the technique here, it was possible that without such an ordinance in place, companies could possibly obtain a variance to do so. “Fracking is wreaking havoc across the country and contaminating the groundwater; if you care about the planet you want to stop it,” said Ms. Crumiller.

Council President Bernie Miller raised the question of whether the town could take legal action if neighboring towns allowed companies to drill horizontally underneath Princeton. Municipal attorney Trishka Cecil said that research on the issue would be needed.

Recent Research

According to an August 1 press release from Princeton University, the biological impact of “fracking” is still largely unknown. “Eight conservation biologists from various organizations and institutions, including Princeton University, found that shale-gas extraction in the United States has vastly outpaced scientists’ understanding of the industry’s environmental impact,” states the release. “With shale-gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, determining and minimizing the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife must become a top priority for scientists, industry, and policymakers.”

The press release cites a report co-authored by Morgan Tingley, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The report states that there are significant “knowledge gaps” about fracking, stemming from a lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal, and the composition of fracturing fluids. It claims that only five (Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Texas) of 24 states with active shale-gas reservoirs maintain public records of spills and accidents.

“We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts,” said Mr. Tingley. “The past has taught us that environmental impacts of large-scale development and resource extraction, whether coal plants, large dams, or biofuel monocultures, are more than the sum of their parts.”

Princeton Council hopes to lead the way with this ordinance ban, which will be the subject of a public hearing on Monday, September 22.