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Connecticut's Complicated Relationship With Natural Gas

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More than half of Americans surveyed by a new Yale study reported knowing little to nothing about hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as "fracking." Minimal shale deposits mean fracking wells aren't likely to come to Connecticut, but the state is facing another concern: what to do with fracking waste.

Fracking produces a lot of wastewater, which contains high levels of salt and toxic chemicals.

A recent New Yorker article frames it like this: "hydrofracking isn't an issue that just concerns people in the boonies."

Chris Phelps, who works for Environment Connecticut, a statewide advocacy organization, said, "Because we don't have frackers drilling in our backyards here, we don't have the same kind of immediate awareness of the problem generally in Connecticut as you find in a place like Pennsylvania, for example."

Connecticut's relationship with natural gas is complicated. For now, natural gas is cheaper than oil. At the heart of Governor Dannel Malloy's "Comprehensive Energy Strategy" is an expansion of more than 900 miles of gas lines to 280,000 customers over the next ten years.

"It's cleaner," Malloy told WNPR's John Dankosky. "It's cleaner than coal. It's cleaner than oil. It has immediate impact on air quality." But the impact of natural gas extraction remains controversial. There has also been legislation to keep fracking waste out of Connecticut.

Malloy said his office will work to ensure compliance with all environmental regulations. "We're more than willing to play a role in the development of those standards," he said. "But gas is going to be extracted. It's going to happen in Canada. It's going to happen throughout the United States. It's going to happen in Pennsylvania and New York."

Fracking works like this: a drill makes its way into shale or another rock, injecting a pressurized mixture of water, sand, and chemicals. Rock is fractured, allowing for the flow of gas. Chris Phelps said fracking produces a lot of wastewater, which contains high levels of salt and toxic chemicals. He said, "The industry doesn't really have a good answer to the question: how do you dispose of all the waste produced by hydrofracking?" 

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Credit Pew Research Center
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Pew Research Center
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Credit Pew Research Center
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Pew Research Center

In 2012, Pennsylvania produced 1.2 billion gallons of fracking wastewater. A lot of that waste got shipped out of state to neighboring Ohio. Connecticut State Representative Matthew Lesser said lawmakers need to guard against that happening here. He said, "This isn't a white and black issue. In this state, we're not anti-gas ... but we have to be mindful of the environmental consequences." During that last legislative session, three bills were introduced dealing with fracking wastewater. All died, in part, Lesser said, because fracking isn't happening in our backyard.

"Education is a huge, huge issue," Lesser said. "A lot of people are only vaguely aware of it. There isn't any drilling going on here. So we've not been the center of a lot of the debates, but we still are affected by the consequences of decisions elsewhere if they're able to dump this waste in our municipal treatment plants, or in our streams and rivers." 

According to the Yale study, 39 percent of people surveyed had heard nothing at all about fracking. A similar study by the Pew Research Center reported virtually the same numbers.

Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health, Inc., said she wasn't surprised by the numbers in the Yale study. "The public at large really knows very little about fracking," she said. "Fracking is actually very complicated. You have to really want understand how it's done. The word sounds very compelling, 'fracking,' but, in fact, it's very complicated."

Alderman and Lesser both agree: in Connecticut, attitudes toward natural gas expansion will continue to develop. Along with energy prices and technology advancements, public opinion will likely play a role in shaping the future of fracking.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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