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Fracking emerges in Maine's politics

As fans of the Battlestar Galactica TV series no doubt noticed to some amusement, Maine is rapidly — and finally — participating in the frankly fracking discussion.
"Fracking," beyond being a made-up vulgarity on Battlestar, is the process of pumping fluid into geological formations that hold natural gas. Combined with innovations in horizontal drilling that send a well thousands of feet deep and then make hard-right turns, the process is dominating global energy landscapes in a way usually reserved for U.S. military intervention.
There are even dueling documentaries: "Gasland" vs. "FrackNation."
Gov. Paul LePage is fueling debate as he strives to make natural gas more important to Mainers. That's a wake-up call that fracking should be on everyone's civic radar by now.
Critics of the process argue that "frack" is also vulgar for environmental reasons, and while juries literal and figurative may still be "out" on those issues, it's always worth noting that the process is specifically exempted from the nation's Clean Water Act.
Environmentalists do not sleep better knowing that exemption is known as "The Haliburton loophole."
Some would even argue that, while the fuel certainly burns clean, its "entire footprint" including extraction makes it actually as dirty as, say, coal. One concern is that the fluids pumped underground can contaminate water supplies. Another is that gas leaks during the process causing air pollution.
Those concerns have mostly gathered a collective yawn. While New York continues to be the only state with a ban on fracking, most of the places with gas have jumped on board the energy bandwagon. Fracking has slashed unemployment in places like North Dakota and Wyoming, where some days the ozone levels exceed the worst Los Angeles has to offer. And, still, Wyoming has the nation's lowest unemployment, at around 6 percent, and the state enjoys a budget surplus in tough times.
Direct effects of the fracking boom have taken a while to show in Maine, but it's worth remembering, in the words of Ed Miller, the Lung Association's Vice President for Public Policy in Maine, that because of air flows including the jet stream "... we are the tail pipe of the United States' exhaust system. All the air from the South and the West blows into Maine."
Miller was commenting last fall as an Environmental Protection Agency's cross-state air pollution rule, based on the crazy idea that up-wind states must consider those of us down-wind, was overturned by a federal court. So much for that.
Certainly, there's always an element of fashion when it comes to energy politics; one day nuclear energy is a leper, then it's viable; one day it's "clean burning natural gas" with a seat at the alt-energy table; the next day all the cool kids have a clean footprint party and nix NatGas.
In that context, anyone can dismiss the fracking debate as just the latest installment in a national energy policy soap opera. That's a shame because of two cold facts: Maine has the nation's oldest housing stock, and we tend to use heating oil.
What's different is that fracking is the reason a company is playing coy with the idea of maybe, just maybe, reversing the flow of our Maine-to-Canada pipeline that been delivering crude to our neighbors since the 1940s; it's the reason that the United States has become a net exporter of energy for the first time in decades and it's the reason our coal miners are starting to eye China as their best market.
We are shifting from ways to get energy into North America to ways to get energy out of North America.
Our local energy mix is also responding to the fracking boom.
As Whit Richardson, reporting in The Bangor Daily News, nicely put it: "... in a nutshell, fracking for shale gas has increased the natural gas supply, thus reducing its price for power plants that use it to generate electricity, according to Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association.
"That's good news in New England, where gas-fired power plants generate the majority of the region's electricity. As a result, the wholesale price of electricity in New England tracks the price of natural gas."
This is going to put Maine energy policy front and center for upcoming political confrontations. It will be simple to brand Democrats as the party of "subsidized wind power" while the Republicans emerge as pro-gas, touting lower consumer costs.
With another three-way race for governor, what it really means is that the governor has a great fracking issue.

(Curtis Robinson is the founding editor of The Portland Daily Sun. See his "Usually Reserved" show on CTN.)

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