Gov. Christie vetoes fracking ban, calls for one-year moratorium instead

Posted: August 26, 2011

Gov. Christie sought to stake out some middle ground Thursday, signing a conditional veto of a bill that would have banned the natural gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing in New Jersey.

Instead, he wants the Legislature to enact a one-year moratorium.

While the action may seem largely symbolic in a state believed to have no natural gas reserves worth exploring - for now - environmental and industry groups said Christie was sending a strong message, though its meaning depended on the observer's perspective.

His action, some critics said, signals that the state is unlikely to push for strong regulations as one of the five members of the Delaware River Basin Commission, which oversees the watershed supplying much of the Philadelphia region's drinking water. The commission has a moratorium on natural gas exploration. That would change after new rules are passed, which could happen next month.

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," involves injecting water and additives, some toxic, under high pressure into the ground to break apart the geologic formation and release the gas. Some of the water comes back to the surface, laden with more contaminants. Spills have contaminated some waterways, Pennsylvania inspectors have found.

Environmental groups said a one-year moratorium in New Jersey would not protect the state's water and was merely an attempt to manipulate voters.

"To people who aren't paying attention, it looks like he's trying to do something. But to the gas industry, he's telling them, 'I'm on your side,' " said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "He's really taking care of his national Republican ambitions, and then trying to play to the people of New Jersey like he cares."

State industry executives praised the action, saying a permanent ban would have struck fear in the marketplace, causing natural gas prices to rise.

New Jersey manufacturers use large amounts of natural gas as a raw material for products and for energy generation.

"Lower prices driven by U.S. natural gas development have been a game-changer for our state's manufacturers, [who] suffer from electricity rates 74 percent higher than the national average," said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey.

On Thursday, he and other industry leaders launched Natural Gas for New Jersey to promote "the responsible development and affordable consumption of clean energy."

The industry officials said New Jersey companies were benefitting from natural gas exploration and production in Pennsylvania because they provided equipment and services.

"We can ill afford in today's environment to be stoking fears and putting the economy in a worse place than it is," said John Harmon, president and chief executive of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

The executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the major industry group, was unhappy.

"Our industry is deeply disappointed by Gov. Christie's decision," said Kathryn Klaber. "This policy sends the wrong message to an entire nation benefitting from the responsible production of clean-burning American natural gas."

She and others said the current draft of the state's energy master plan relied significantly on the development of natural gas. Even a one-year moratorium runs counter to that, Klaber said.

Tittel said the Christie plan emphasizes natural gas at the expense of renewable-energy technologies, such as solar and wind. "This is all about Christie trying to dismantle the state's clean energy plan," he said.

One of the bill's primary sponsors, State Sen. Robert M. Gordon (D., Bergen), said legislators might try to override the veto in September.

In the Senate, that would require 27 votes, he said; the original bill passed with 33, including three Republican sponsors.

He said he was disappointed in the governor's action, particularly because of how it might affect the Delaware River Basin Commission.

"I had hoped . . . that we would send a signal to that commission that the policymakers in New Jersey have grave concerns about protecting our water supply," Gordon said.

Instead, said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, the governor's action is a "strong indication that he's going to be increasingly weak" about the basin commission's proposed drilling regulations.

A public-comment period generated nearly 70,000 submissions. Commission staff is preparing a response document and, potentially, suggesting changes.

New Jersey has threatened to withhold its contribution to the commission's budget unless the regulations are voted on at the September meeting.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, want the regulations put on hold until an impact study can be done.

Earlier this month several groups, including van Rossum's, filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force the commission to do such a study before adopting regulations.

Another member of the commission, New York, has a moratorium until an environmental review is complete.

Other basin commission members are Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government, represented by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Christie declined to discuss the moratorium during a Thursday news conference on hurricane preparedness.

In a news release, he said, "I share many of the concerns expressed by the legislators that sponsored this bill and the environmental advocates seeking a permanent moratorium on fracking."

But, he said, significant facts and studies on the issue are still outstanding with the federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.

"I am placing a one-year moratorium on fracking so that the DEP can further evaluate the potential environmental impacts of this practice in New Jersey as well as evaluate the findings of still outstanding and ongoing federal studies," Christie said in the news release.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace.

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