Vermont is now the first U.S. state where fracking is illegal. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a statewide hydraulic-fracturing ban into law Wednesday, forbidding the drilling technique that has sparked a natural gas boom across the country in recent years.

The move was a symbolic victory for environmentalists, who cite the mounting risks of air pollution, water pollution and earthquakes linked to fracking. But it may be little more than that, since Vermont — unlike nearby states such as New York and Pennsylvania — isn't believed to have large gas deposits beneath its surface.

Despite Vermont's current lack of drilling prospects, however, Shumlin noted that the point of fracking is to squeeze oil and gas from rocks that previously seemed too dry to drill. "We don't know that we don't have natural gas in Vermont," he said Wednesday, according to the Burlington Free Press. "This bill will ensure we do not inject chemicals into groundwater in a desperate pursuit for energy."

Fracking involves blasting pressurized water, sand and chemicals deep underground, which frees natural gas from desposits of shale rock. That gas consists mostly of methane, some of which can then drift up to the air, where it dwarfs even carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Methane may also migrate through bedrock into aquifers, which could explain why some groundwater becomes flammable near natural gas wells. Other chemicals have also been tied to environmental problems, whether it's benzene in the air or "fracking fluids" in drinking water. And when drillers re-inject their wastewater back underground, they might even be causing earthquakes.

"One of the biggest challenges that future generations are going to face is clean, drinkable water," Shumlin said Wednesday, predicting it will be more valuable than oil or gas in a few decades. "We have an abundance of it in Vermont. I think it's a great message that we're going to protect it at all costs. ... Human beings survived for thousands and thousands of years without oil and without natural gas. We have never known humanity or life on this planet to survive without clean water."

While Vermont's ban was welcomed by environmental and public-health advocates, it has drawn a much cooler response from the oil and gas industry. America's Natural Gas Alliance called it "poor policy" in a letter to Shumlin, and the American Petroleum Institute described it as "shortsighted and uninformed" in a press release earlier this month. "The decision by the Vermont Legislature to pass a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing follows an irresponsible path that ignores three major needs: jobs, government revenue and energy security," said the API's Rolf Hanson.

New York has given municipalities the power to ban fracking within their borders, and environmentalists are now pushing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to outlaw the practice statewide. That will likely be harder than in Vermont, but activists remain undaunted. At an anti-fracking concert in Albany, N.Y., Tuesday night — where actors Mark Ruffalo, Melissa Leo and musician Natalie Merchant made appearances — the crowd reportedly went wild when someone mentioned Vermont was about to become the first state to ban fracking. "The place exploded," one attendee tells the Burlington Free Press. "It helps our cause tremendously."

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Vermont becomes first state to ban fracking
It may be a largely symbolic victory for environmentalists, but many critics of hydraulic fracturing hope it will set an example for other states to follow.