Fracking is causing 'time of transformation

Earth matters

A massive underground geological formation known as the Marcellus shale stops at Connecticut's doorstep. No one will drill here for natural gas.

We are free of the many environmental messes caused by hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- that take the gas and oil from the shale.

And yet.

And yet, the pollution-belching, coal-fired power plant in Bridgeport Harbor has been burning the past two winters because the demand for natural gas in New England has been greater than the supply.

"That was news to us,'' said Robert Klee, commissioner of

the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The state has been party to a years-long campaign to clean up the huge, coal-burning, power plants in the Midwest.

Prevailing winds carry air pollution from these plants to Connecticut. Our air cannot get cleaner unless those plants do, as well.

Using natural gas instead of coal would go a long way to making that happen.

And there is the issue of which pollution in other people's backyards we turn a blind eye to in clean, little Connecticut.

"I've flown over places in West Virginia where there's been mountaintop mining,'' said Michael Fitzpatrick, senior counsel and head of regulatory advocacy for General Electric Co.

If fracking is bad, Fitzpatrick said, coal mining is much worse.

Klee and Fitzpatrick were among several people who spoke at a daylong conference, "Fracking and the Law," which took place earlier this month at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

What the conference illuminated, with great clarity, is how complicated the issue of fracking is, and how easy answers aren't that easy.

What the conference speakers did agree on, in general, is because of fracking, we are living in a time of transformation. The huge increase in natural gas production in the United States is changing environmental policy, local and national economies and international geopolitics.

"It's one of the most important policy issues to confront this country in the past 25 years," Fitzpatrick said.

It's here, even when it's not in our state.

Kate Sinding, senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York Urban program, and one of the leaders in the fight that led to New York's ban on fracking, agreed at the conference that natural gas, for the present, must be reckoned with.

"We don't deny natural gas will have a role to play," Sinding said.

Sinding and General Electric's Fitzpatrick found agreement in another area -- the natural gas industry has refused any compromise with environmental advocates, making a contentious issue more so.

"After seven years, I've experienced disappointment after disappointment," Sinding said of her efforts to find some sort of common ground with the frackers.

Industry intransigence, she said, probably ended up helping those fighting for New York's fracking ban.

The conference also illustrated how complicated it can be to regulate fracking.

Most of the power to do so now lies with state authorities. In big-energy states, the money and political power lies with the people doing the fracking, not with those getting fracked.

The great hope is that renewable energy -- solar and wind -- will provide enough power to the U.S. that even a relatively cleaner petroleum-based fuel like natural gas will play a diminishing part in the country's energy mix

"I've learned you can get to a place where what you think is possible becomes possible," Sinding said.

When that happens, there will be new issues, new complications, new transformations.

Somewhere, somebody else will be affected by pollution from wind turbines, from solar installations.

Right now, there's fracking and natural gas and the problems at hand, which we live with in Connecticut, even when we think we don't.

Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com.