- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday rejected the first permanent ban on hydraulic fracturing - or “fracking” - at the state level, instead opting for a one-year moratorium that’s angering the natural-gas industry and environmental groups alike.

The first-term Republican issued a “conditional veto” of a bill that would’ve outlawed the drilling technique forever. The measure passed the state House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support earlier this year, but Mr. Christie said he’ll wait for the results of two federal studies before making a final decision and will continue to “evaluate the potential environmental impacts of this practice.”

“The decision on whether to ban fracking outright or regulate it for environmental protection must be developed on the basis of sound policy and legitimate science,” he said in a statement. “While I share many of the concerns expressed by those who support this [permanent ban], I believe a one-year moratorium … is the most prudent, responsible and balanced course of action.”

Fracking, the use of water, sand and chemicals to crack underground rock formations and allow gas to flow freely, is widely used in the Marcellus Shale region, which stretches from upstate New York as far south as Kentucky and Tennessee. Critics think it is inherently dangerous and poses serious threats to water supplies. Proponents counter that it is entirely safe and does not affect underground wells or nearby bodies of water.

Neither side of the debate is happy with Mr. Christie’s decision.

“This policy sends the wrong message to an entire nation benefiting from the responsible production of clean-burning, American natural gas,” said Kathryn Z. Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an association of gas-drilling companies.

Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s Sierra Club, called the move “an insult to the people of New Jersey.”

“A one-year moratorium is meaningless, because they will not explore for gas and oil until after that,” he said in a statement denouncing Mr. Christie’s decision. “This is just a PR gimmick while he is taking the side of gas industry and gas lobby over public health and safety of the people of New Jersey.”

In enacting a temporary ban, the Garden State is following in the footsteps of New York, which imposed a similar moratorium last year. It was lifted earlier this summer by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Mr. Christie said the moratorium is intended to give two federal agencies more time to complete studies on the safety of the process. The Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency are each studying fracking, but the Energy Department’s report won’t be completed until November, while the EPA’s is expected to be released sometime next year.

While no states have permanently barred the process, several cities have done so, including Buffalo and Pittsburgh. In June, France became first country to ban the practice.

Some have questioned why New Jersey lawmakers put themselves in the middle of such a heated debate. The Marcellus Shale does not stretch into New Jersey, and Ms. Klaber said that “no natural gas producers are actively seeking to explore” in the state.

In a July 14 letter to Mr. Christie, she called the fracking legislation “a purely political statement … that could set a dangerous precedent.”

While the Marcellus doesn’t touch New Jersey, another formation, the Utica Shale, lies beneath a small section in the northwest corner of the state. Despite being even further underground than the Marcellus, some analysts think the Utica may hold even more gas. Chesapeake Energy, one of the major players in the business, is already drilling in the Utica in eastern Ohio.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey released a report that estimates there is about 84 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region, projections far below previous figures of as high as more than 500 trillion cubic feet. According to the federal government, the U.S. consumed 24.64 trillion cubic feet of natural gas last year.