Fracking in Massachusetts?

A recent report from the US Geological Survey suggests that there may be natural gas deep below the surface of Western and Central Massachusetts. Here’s the story on the subject, which contains a link to the report itself. If advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) continue at their present rate, it may not be long before energy companies find that it is economically feasible to start exploring for, and then extracting, natural gas in Western Massachusetts.

In my home town of Amherst I have asked the Select Board to prepare for this possibility. As a first step, the board is asking the town’s Water Supply Protection Committee to look at the issue. Then I hope we can get to work drafting a well-reasoned, science-based amendment to the zoning bylaws. But do towns and cities really have the power to regulate fracking? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

Because Congress exempted fracking from some provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental laws, it’s up to each state to fashion its own regulatory approach. When state legislatures fail to act — or enact legislation that undermines local autonomy — municipalities can step in.  Some, such as Pittsburgh, whose provision was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, and Dryden, New York, simply ban natural gas extraction outright. Others make extraction a conditional use, requiring case-by-case review, rather than a permitted or as-of-right use.  Many (though not all) of these zoning ordinances survive the judicial scrutiny that follows the energy industry’s inevitable courtroom challenge.

For example, when the natural-gas boom hit Pennsylvania some townships tried to control fracking by adopting strict zoning ordinances. The state legislature responded by giving the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) the power to override those local ordinances. Seven communities sued, with Robinson Township in the lead, and the state’s highest court, the Commonwealth Court, recently ruled in their favor.

Robinson Township cleans up

This article provides an overview of the case and a link to the court’s decision.

Communities in Massachusetts have one important advantage over their counterparts in Pennsylvania and New York: Exploration is not under way yet, never mind extraction. That means towns like Amherst have time to design bylaw amendments that will both safeguard clean air and water and stand up in court.

11 thoughts on “Fracking in Massachusetts?

  1. This is a great post, and your foresight with respect to preparing for the possibilities is to be commended. It’s worth noting, though, that the issues with hydraulic fracturing go far beyond water contamination. Air pollution from methane blow-offs and a constant stream of heavy truck traffic, as well as the possibility of increased exposure to silicosis from the heavy use of sand – a key ingredient in the fracking process – are only two of the collateral conditions that also warrant concern.

  2. Most of Amherst is underlain by amphibolite facies metamorphic rocks and the bit of mesozoic basin present has long passed the petroleum window. Additionally, you fail to make the distinction between hydrofracking for petroleum and hydrofracking bedrock for a water well (a very common process). While I understand concern from the general public, it’s the people serving as information outlets and writers of (potential) legislation that should shoulder the responsibility of educating themselves on the matter.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Given that the subject matter of the post is drilling for natural gas as opposed to drilling for water, I don’t really think it’s necessary to make the distinction you refer to. Had I been discussing both subjects (gas drilling and water drilling) I think your point would have been more valid.

  3. Thank you for the article. Very informative. I am glad to hear that the towns in PA prevailed in court. Is that a full win, or was it conditional? Anyway, I live in Boston and sometimes work in Stockbridge, MA. I would lay my body on the line if necessary to prevent fracking in this area. I oppose fracking wholeheartedly, because of the damage caused to the land, as well as the fact that we don’t need to burn more carbon. We need to reduce our use, and develop the renewable energy sources. We also need a carbon tax, to account for the negative externalities of fossil energy. A carbon tax is politically unmentionable right now, but there is a rising tide of a movement to put it on the table and demand it to be passed. It also needs to happen on a global level, since it’s a global commodity and a global problem.

  4. I’m so glad to have you bring up such an important topic at such a critical time. Deepest in this issue, for me, is the notion that sooner or later all of us will have to begin adjusting our lives to accommodate the limited supplies of our natural resources. Though the source hasn’t yet reached our backyard, nearly all of us utilize oil and other minerals every day that comes from someone else’s backyard (some other country, often). Now it’s hitting home for us, and many of us, myself included, want to put a stop to the idea of fracking. Concurrent with that fight, I hope we all notice how luxuriously we use power, energy, resources. Thank you for the dialogue. I’m glad we’re having it.

    1. This is all the more reason for us all to be pushing hard for renewable energy sources — solar, wind, geothermal, water, tidal — and to be questioning the building of pipelines, compressor stations, and other infrastructure for gas, an obsolete fossil fuel that is accelerating global climate change. If Germany can do it, why can’t we?

      And of course, we can conserve — by making our buildings and appliances more energy-efficient, by moving toward organic farming and away from petroleum-based agribusiness, by investing in mass transit, etc.

      Yes, we have to change. The alternative is quite possibly the end of our time on this planet.

      1. I agree completely, and I advocate for a carbon tax to make the market reflect the true harm from fossil energy in the price of this energy, thereby making renewable energy and conservation more economically palatable, and returning a dividend from the fossil energy that is burned, to the public.

        There will be a protest at a closed-door fracking conference at UMass Amherst, on Thursday December 13th… there is more info at this facebook event page:

  5. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is needed to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?
    I’m not very internet smart so I’m not 100% certain. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    1. Blogging is free. I recommend spending some time looking around wordpress and blogspot; thinking about the people you’d like to read your blog; what you’d like to say to them and why; and what kind of look-and-feel would make them comfortable. Good luck.

  6. Peter ,

    I’m pleased you have begun the process of starting the fracking conversation locally.

    It is a emotional topic for me since three of the most frequently used chemicals in the fracking processs to obtain natural gas from shale are the very same chemicals which literally killed my father at age 48 leaving a widow and 6 young children. It was documented by his doctor who found the active chemicals in his bone marrow before he died. He inhaled the fumes for just 3 minutes 4 times a day during his work week and was dead in 7 months. I can’t imagine what grief people will face over time if they are exposed to these toxins in their homes, gardens, schools and restaurants through water, soil or air plus other chemicals and silica dust. You are so right that zoning regulations must be put in place to protect our people.

    I’m a recently retired health professional looking for a way to get involved. Can you give me some advice? Thank you. Mary N.

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