Last week, the Caledonia Board of Aldermen took on one of the most controversial issues in the field of energy.
You might have expected a very long debate, given the board’s history. Remember, this is the same body that took more than a year to resolve a dispute between a town employee and his boss for a $1-per-hour raise.
Almost as if to prove that there is simply no predicting what the board will do, the aldermen needed only about 10 minutes to unanimously approve something that has been banned in one state and is at the center of a raging debate in many others — hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking.”
Fracking is a process that involves pumping a high pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well that is typically at least 7,500 feet deep. The shale is fractured, allowing the mixture to displace the natural gas or oil.
The matter came to the board via a proposal from a private energy company for a three-year mineral lease on a small parcel of town-owned land, where the company will test to see if the oil and natural gas deposits that were once plentiful in Caledonia can again yield an abundance through a process that extracts gas and oil from shale.
Environmentalists and energy producers have been fighting over the procedure for years. From the energy suppliers’ point of view, the procedure will go a long way in helping the U.S. become energy independent because fracking makes available a vast supply of natural gas and crude oil that previously has not been accessible under traditional extraction methods. They also assert the process of fracking is much safer than it has been in years past.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, have raised legitimate questions about the safety of the procedure.
For all the promise that fracking holds, there are, unfortunately, concerns about the safety of fracturing rock deep underground using a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including the possibility of toxic emissions that pollute the air, carcinogenic compounds released into the groundwater, and chemical spills that could impact the environment, wildlife and public health.
The state of Vermont banned the process.
It is a debate that rages throughout the northeast, where natural gas and oil deposits in shale are plentiful.
If that were not enough, any real success achieved by the fracking experiment in Caledonia would lead to other issues for a small town.
Admittedly, this current lease is an exploratory project in which the company will try to determine whether there is any oil to be had. If a substantial amount of oil is found on the piece of land behind Shop and Save grocery, you can bet other mineral leases in Caledonia will be sought.
A successful fracking operation would most likely lead to an explosion of industrial traffic — big trucks clogging the town’s limited roadways, creating traffic and noise issues for a town that prides itself on its bucolic, rural lifestyle.
Who will pay for the infrastructure costs? What restrictions will be placed on the energy companies? What sort of compensation can the city expect? Does the process pose any risk to our underground water supply?
We can only hope that in the event plentiful oil is found, the Caledonia Board of Aldermen will pause long enough to answer these types of questions- and to negotiate more favorable terms.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.