Connecticut is betting big that natural gas will give us a cheaper and cleaner energy future than fuels like oil and coal. The problem with that wager could turn on how we're going to handle fracking and the hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic waste it produces.
Environmentalists say it's an issue we can't dodge for long, and they're once again gearing up to force state government to take a stand.
Without action, activists like Louis Burch of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment insist, people here "are vulnerable to this waste coming into our state, contaminating ground water and surface water resources."
Energy industry and business types are shaking their heads over all this. They ask how we can want all this nifty natural gas but don't want to deal with the stuff that makes it possible.
Fracking is the process (pumping huge amounts of water deep into underground shale deposits to force out natural gas) that's largely responsible for the huge boom in U.S. natural gas production. Critics and scientists say it's also responsible for polluting ground water and causing earthquakes.
This year, Gov. Dannel Malloy's administration and the General Assembly decided to do precisely nothing about fracking and fracking waste. (It's the kind of response to an uncomfortable issue that politicians and bureaucrats often like best.)
Their rationale was that Connecticut doesn't have the sort of natural gas shale deposits that are the target of fracking. None of the waste from that controversial process is now coming into this state for disposal.
And how could we ban this crap from coming in when we're counting on natural gas (Malloy's plan calls for converting 280,000 businesses and homes to natural gas in the next decade) for cheaper, cleaner energy?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last year vetoed a New Jersey prohibition on fracking waste disposal in that state, arguing a ban would violate the interstate commerce section of the U.S. Constitution.
Even if the waste water was coming in, Malloy's energy honchos argued, we've already got enough regulatory authority to control the stuff. They took that stand despite the fact that the energy industry got a loophole included in a federal law exempting fracking waste from being labeled as "hazardous."
It appears that Malloy's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is having second thoughts. Last month, DEEP officials sent the governor's aides a "suggestion" that Connecticut revise its own law to make sure fracking waste comes under state "hazardous waste" controls.
The agency's experts figured that, "Just to be on the cautious side… it might make some sense to add this," explains Dennis Schain, DEEP's spokesman.
"It's not an administration position to do this yet," Schain quickly notes. "It's a suggestion from the agency… We believe there are [already] protections in place that give us control over any fracking waste that might come into our state."
Jonathan Steinberg isn't so sure.
"The DEEP has had no experience with this particular form of waste," says Steinberg, a Westport Democrat and one of the anti-fracking leaders in the General Assembly. "We'd have to trust the DEEP, which hasn't had a very good record in recent years," he argues.
Steinberg is glad Malloy's agency is at least considering eliminating that hazardous waste fracking loophole, but he worries that won't be enough.
A big concern in places like Connecticut, where natural gas drilling isn't going to happen, is where the energy industry will get rid of all that vast amount of leftover waste water.
Fracking for natural gas is already a boom industry in Pennsylvania. A study release last month by the Environment Connecticut Research and Policy Center estimates that fracking in Pennsylvania produced 1.2 billion gallons of waste water in 2012, "and more than 2.5 billion gallons since the fracking boom began."
In New York, the energy industry is pushing to exploit potentially huge natural gas resources in the "Marcellus Shale" deposit.
"As you know," Steven Guveyan, of the Connecticut Petroleum Council pointed out to state lawmakers earlier this year, "natural gas derived from the Marcellus Shale is the basis for Gov. Malloy's Comprehensive Energy Strategy."
Guveyan argued that bills banning fracking waste from coming into Connecticut and other states "are a back-door attempt to ban the hydraulic fracturing process itself."
Eric Brown, spokesman for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, was also opposed to any fracking waste ban. He worried that such a prohibition would eliminate any legitimate business opportunities involving the safe recycling or storage of the stuff.
He claimed it would treat fracking waste "as a more serious and environmental threat than spent nuclear fuel rods." (Connecticut has plenty of those, by the way.)
Activists like Burch say the way the energy industry is thinking about "recycling" fracking waste includes selling it cheap to cities and towns, or even giving it away, as a "road-spreading agent" that could be used to dilute anti-icing salts.
Steinberg says one of the big problems is that federal law doesn't force energy companies to reveal exactly what type of pollutants are in the fracking waste water. Since the feds don't consider it hazardous, the frackers don't even have to report where it's going for disposal.
The waste water that would come out of Marcellus Shale fracking wells would be "highly radioactive," Steinberg says, pointing to studies indicating the stuff could contain radon at levels "20 to 80 times greater than is considered safe for humans."
State Rep. Lonnie Reed, co-chair of the legislature's Energy and Technology Committee, says she's already got a bill ready to launch in 2014 that would close that federal loophole on fracking waste and force energy companies to reveal exactly what was in any crap they wanted to bring into this state. Reed says her bill would also force any Connecticut companies wanting to get in on the fracking waste recycling deal to demonstrate exactly how they'd dispose of the nasty stuff.
Steinberg acknowledges that it might be kind of awkward for this state, which is now counting so heavily on cheap natural gas produced by fracking, to ban fracking waste water. "How could we be so hypocritical?" he asks.
He thinks that's one reason Malloy's administration doesn't want to support such a clear-cut solution. Steinberg says he's "fairly confident" Malloy wants to do something, but nothing that would make him appear anti-business or anti-natural gas.
Malloy's opposition killed two anti-fracking waste bills in 2013. Steinberg and environmental activists say they plan to make another hard push to get some serious action on this issue in 2014, perhaps by placing a whole series of new types of controls over disposal of the stuff here.
The problem is, Steinberg says, that we simply don't know enough about the chemicals and radioactivity that might be coming with the fracking waste to gamble that it can be disposed of or recycled here properly.
"Why would we take such risks on behalf of the people of Connecticut?" he asks. "We could be opening the door to something that makes Pandora's Box look tame."
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