Opposition to the drilling technique known as fracking is growing in New England as lawmakers consider banning it in their states and environmentalists escalate protests against the controversial practice.
Petroleum industry officials say there’s little chance of fracking taking place in New England, but some environmentalists and politicians say they’re taking no chances. Vermont recently became the only state to prohibit fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, and similar legislation has come under consideration in Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut.
And opponents are not stopping there. They’re also pushing legislation that would ban the disposal in their states of waste water and chemicals from fracking operations in other parts of the country, such as in Pennsylvania and North Dakota. Fracking pumps pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals into wells to crack shale deposits and release reserves of natural gas and crude oil.
In Maine, meanwhile, protesters are trying to stop the transportation through their state of fossil fuels extracted through fracking in other parts of the country. Last week, six protesters belonging to 350 Maine, an environmental group, were arrested after they tried to block a rail line to stop the delivery of hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil from fracking operations in North Dakota.
Train deliveries of crude through New England, to an Irving Oil refinery in St. John’s, N.B., have become routine over the past year, according to rail and energy industry officials.
“It’s beyond the time to move slowly and cautiously,” said Read Brugger, a coordinator for 350 Maine and one of the six protesters arrested. “This is a form of extreme energy production, and it’s a part of a business plan that will wreck this planet.”
Fracking is controversial because the process poses environmental risks such as the contamination of drinking water and air pollution. Environmentalists also worry that increased production of gas and oil will only deepen the country’s dependence on fossil fuels and accelerate climate change. Burning these fuels, whether in cars or power plants, produces carbon dioxide, a key contributor to global warming and climate change.
But fracking also has transformed energy production in North America, driving natural gas prices to some of the lowest levels in years and leading the International Energy Agency to project that the United States will surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer over the next decade.
Energy industry officials say fracking has an excellent track record of safety. They also say they are stunned and baffled by the escalation of antifracking activities in New England, if only because it’s unlikely that fracking will occur here.
The only substantial underground deposits of natural gas in New England are believed to be within the so-called Hartford Basin, which runs from Connecticut through central Massachusetts and into southern Vermont. But the Hartford Basin is considered too small to make drilling pay, particularly compared to much larger fields known as the Marcellus Shale Formation, which runs through West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, and the Bakken Formation, which is located mostly beneath North Dakota and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“Fracking will never be done in Massachusetts and probably never in all of New England,” said Steve Dodge, associate director of the New England Petroleum Council, an industry group.
Massachusetts already has regulations that ban the type of drilling commonly used in fracking, as well as the disposal of waste products from such a process. But John Rumpler, a senior attorney at Environment Massachusetts, a group leading efforts to ban fracking and the disposal of its waste in the state, said a more clearly worded prohibition would provide stronger protections.
“Having a very specific statute is key,” he said.
Even if it’s unlikely fracking would occur in Massachusetts, said Representative Denise Provost, sponsor of the antifracking bill on Beacon Hill, the state needs to protect itself.
“There used to be a time when the Canadian Tar Sands were thought not to be expansive and viable, but they are today,” said Provost, a Somerville Democrat. The oil found in the loose sand and sandstone in Alberta has become a major — and also controversial — source of energy production in North America.
Similar antifracking bills have been filed in Connecticut and Maine, but have stalled because many state leaders want to promote the increased use of natural gas, which is cleaner burning and less expensive than oil products, environmentalists say.
In Maine, environmentalists recently launched a campaign to get universities and nonprofits to divest their endowment investments in energy companies that engage in fracking. As for the recent attempt to block a train delivery by putting a makeshift scaffold on a Pam Am Rail track line in Fairfield, Brugger said it was part of an escalation of protests to stop fracking everywhere.
Brugger and his five colleagues were arrested for criminal trespassing and were released on $100 bail.
Cynthia Scarano, executive vice president of North Billerica-based Pan Am Rail, said such demonstrations pose dangers to both protesters and train crews. Pan Am Rail now routinely transports crude oil from North Dakota over its Boston-Maine line, which runs from the New York border through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.
“We didn’t make these types of shipments until about a year ago,” she said. “Oil transport activity has most definitely picked up.”