Local lawmakers hope Massachusetts can be a bellwether by banning hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- for natural gas.

A bill making its way through the Legislature would impose a 10-year moratorium on the technique and make Massachusetts the second state after Vermont to do so.

Though the Berkshires probably contain few, if any, shale gas deposits, the U.S. Geological Survey identified deposits in Pioneer Valley last December.

"It's a statement bill," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "No fracking way."

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, co-sponsored the legislation, which cleared the Legislature's Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources on Wednesday, Nov. 27.

The issue hits close to home for Mark's eastern constituency -- towns like Colrain, Leyden and Bernard ston.

Concern among residents of these and other Pioneer Valley towns grew parallel with the U.S. Geological Survey's findings, he said.

Fracking describes a process whereby machines inject chemical-laden water deep into the ground in order to break apart rocks and free up natural gas or oil. It produces toxic wastewater as a byproduct.

In places around the country -- Colorado, Texas, the Dakotas, New York and Pennsylvania, among others -- residents living nearby fracking sites and environmentalists have raised concerns over the technique's impact on water, air and the landscape.

Namely, they claim it contaminates water and the air, causes illness in humans and animals and ravages the environment.

Concern in Pioneer Valley is heightened because most residents rely on groundwater as their sole source drinking water.

"It seems to me it's a dirty process," Mark said. "I doubt there is much of a deposit [in Pioneer Valley]. The costs would far outweigh any benefits."

The bill would prohibit the dumping of fracking wastewater in Massachusetts as well, Mark said.

Supporters and the industry say fracking has played an integral part in keeping energy prices low, and maintain that the technique is safe. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hydraulically fractured wells make up 67 and 43 percent of the current domestic production of natural gas and oil, respectively.

Last year, the fracking industry took off, collecting $46.6 billion after it made less than $8 billion a decade ago, according to Barclays.

State Sen. Benjamin Downing, who also supports the ban, said at least part of the reason for this is the George W. Bush administration exempted fracking from regulation under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts of 1970 and 1972.

"The protections that would have been explored were stripped," Downing said. "It was bad policy."

Halliburton, an American multinational corporation, is one of the country's largest providers of fracking machines and services.

Still, said Downing, "it's highly unlikely that we would have natural gas exploration in Massachusetts."

That's not the bill's only point, though, Pignatelli said.

"We wish we could have more influence on the federal side of things," he said, pointing to the regulatory problem to which Downing referred. "What happens [in other states] matters here. I hope [the bill] will send a message to our federal delegation."

To reach Phil Demers:
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