This article was last modified on December 14, 2012.


Empire Strikes First: A Big Frackin’ Deal

In last month’s Scene, “Earth Talk” discussed hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the possible environmental and health issues that can arise from it. I strongly urge readers to check out that column, and also the documentary “Gasland”. For those who missed it and do not know, fracking is a process where various chemicals are pumped into the ground in order to cause subterranean fracturing that will release pockets of natural gas. On the plus side, it has the potential to unlock nearly limitless energy. However, it may also cause gas to leak into ground water, causing people and animals — including cattle we eat — to get dangerously sick. This month, I will be discussing fracking in the political realm — what can we expect from President Obama over the next four years?

In January 2012, during his State of the Union address, the president said he believed fracking should be done and claimed “America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” He put himself in a precarious position: he simultaneously pledged to pursue fracking (easy) while making sure it is safe (not so easy). Is this a claim that is even possible, or did he lie to the American people? Either energy companies or environmentalists are going to be disappointed before his term ends.

In September 2012, he expanded on his thoughts, but kept the same general tone. “I think it can be done safely. And I am a big promoter of natural gas as a way for us to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources but also to create jobs. And the key as you said is to make sure that it’s done safely. So the role the federal government at this point is to make sure that we are providing the research dollars and the monitoring so that we don’t see the health and safety of people in these areas put at risk, but the technology has improved greatly and the natural gas boom that we’re seeing around the country is something that I want to encourage.”

Despite Obama’s endorsement, the issue of fracking is clearly divisive along party lines. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has had a moratorium in place for the past four years. Tom Corbett, Republican governor of Pennsylvania, said in December, “I hope they keep the ban.” He says Pennsylvania is “going to be the energy capital of the United States.” Corbett says Texas and Oklahoma have done fracking safely for over 30 years, so why not his state? From the point of view of the governor, natural gas is a win-win: not only does it harvest necessary energy, but employment related to drilling in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania has increased by 238,000 jobs since 2008. How can a governor turn down the ability to keep a quarter million citizens off the unemployment rolls?

Well, Cuomo has fought back. New York, along with Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island have sued the EPA regarding what they claim are serious air quality problems that are caused by fracking, particularly fracking in Pennsylvania! “Regulators have failed to require the industry to use available and cost-effective measures” for controlling emissions, says New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. (Lest you think New York is a liberal haven, keep in mind that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports limited fracking… which is a convenient view for a man who runs a city of 8.2 million people and zero available drilling sites.)

Cuomo may even have an unlikely ally — the Secretary of State. If Senator John Kerry replaces Hillary Clinton in this post (which seems likely as of this writing), he is expected to make climate change a focus of his world diplomacy. Only Al Gore has pushed the environmental issues more. Could Kerry be taken seriously speaking with China and Russia about air and water pollution while our resources at home are becoming more soiled than an unchanged diaper?

The EPA is not the lone government agency in this mess. The Interior Department controls drilling on federal lands. In May, they had a “rough draft” of rules for drilling, which included the requirement that companies disclose their secret drilling formula (right now dozens of unknown chemicals are getting pumped into the ground and companies are claiming are intellectual property). This seems common sense — even if you do not release the chemical formula publicly, it should at least be available to the owners of the land, so they know what they are agreeing to.

But now the Interior is dragging its feet, and finalized rules that were scheduled for Christmas are being pushed off until 2013. “In order to ensure that the 170,000 comments received are properly analyzed, the Bureau of Land Management expects action … in the new year,” says Interior spokesman Blake Androff. Why do they need to analyze “comments”? There are health impact studies, financial studies and more that provide all the facts — what could any comment add to the debate?

Energy scholar Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute is more pragmatic, and probably the most realistic. He says, “It’s clear that the EPA, the Interior Department, may impose some more regulations on drilling both nationally and on federal lands, but it cannot and will not stop all the momentum. It’s too big… The Obama administration would be foolish, absolutely insane, to try and stop it.” And that is about the size of it: regardless of what the environmentalists say, regardless of what the EPA studies find out, there is just too much money backing up the energy industry and it would be political suicide to try and stop it. Even though Obama never has to be elected again, he still has to make deals with House Republicans… and fracking is a powerful ace in the hole.

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or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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