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State environmental secretary says he’s open to fracking ban


By Andy Metzger

State House News Service

BOSTON — Recent surveying of a potential natural-gas reserve in the Springfield area is unlikely to herald a new gas-extraction industry in Massachusetts, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan told the News Service, adding that he could likely support a ban on such drilling as an extra check to ensure it does not occur.

“Even the experts who say there’s potentially a resource there identify it as being of poor quality and limited amount, so economically it’s really not going to happen,” Sullivan told the News Service. “And certainly from an environmental point of view, not something that we’d be supportive of.”

While cheap American supplies of natural gas have pushed down heat and electricity prices and threatened the viability of coal plants, environmentalists have aired concerns about continued reliance on a fossil fuel and the process for removing it from the ground, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The gas is taken out of the earth by drilling a hole, dropping explosives into the hole and then flushing the hole with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to widen fissures, sending the gas up the well, according to a fact sheet posted by the Environmental Defense Fund. The EDF is concerned about impacts on groundwater and the disposal of wastewater while noting that natural gas “releases the least amount of carbon pollution of all the fossil fuels when burned.”

While the industry has reaped billions of cubic feet of gas from the shale deposits underfoot in such states as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts was largely off the radar before a U.S. Geologic Survey report last summer.

The USGS report identified the Hartford Basin, an area formed 227 million years ago, stretching from Connecticut into the Pioneer Valley that the government believes contains “tight gas sandstone,” which could yield natural gas.

That discovery was alarming to some lawmakers, including Rep. Peter Kocot, a Northampton Democrat, and Rep. Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, who filed legislation (H 788) that would ban fracking and its wastewater from Massachusetts.

The bill is being reviewed by the Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, where it had a hearing last week.

While Sullivan said it is unlikely for a company to frack in Massachusetts, the laws around it area are unclear.

“It’s probably a little unclear right now, because it’s not an operation that has happened here before,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said economic hurdles would likely prevent the industry from entering Massachusetts, but said he would be receptive to legislation banning it.

“We’d want to see the specific language, but it’s probably something that we can be supportive of,” Sullivan said.