Obama administration trailing public opinion on fracking boom


The boom in fracking took a lot of folks by surprise when it really took off at the end of the last decade. And when the first news accounts came out about this surge of domestic drilling for natural gas, the business types and their political enablers spun this as a great way to create jobs, lower energy prices, and promote a cleaner alternative to traditional fuels such as coal.

Things started changing a couple of years ago with John Fox’s documentary “Gasland” — and with growing publicity about folks in boom areas like Pennsylvania who suddenly saw their kitchen taps catch on fire, their rural wells contaminated, even dogs or cattle dying mysteriously. It quickly became clear that the fracking boom had come without any real accompanying push to protect the air or water around these rigs. Government officials, especially in Washington, are under pressure to develop new environmental safeguards, not necessarily to ban fracking, but to slow things down so that common-sense rules can be put in place.

That’s why it’s disconcerting to wake up and read something like this:

A watchdog group that opposes fracking for natural gas released a report on Wednesday that criticizes the president’s choice to be energy secretary, Ernest J. Moniz, for failing to disclose in an energy study that he led his ties to the natural gas industry.

According to the report, prepared by the group, Public Accountability Initiative, Mr. Moniz “took a lucrative position on the board of ICF International, a consulting firm with significant oil and gas ties, just prior to the release of the report,” which the group described as having “an extremely industry-friendly message.” ICF, the study noted, sells a gas market analysis tool and consults with gas industry trade groups. Mr. Moniz has received $306,000 from ICF since 2011, the group said.

The report that Mr. Moniz led at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative called “The Future of Natural Gas” was released in its final form in June 2011, but an “interim report” had appeared a year earlier. Mr. Moniz joined the board of ICF International three days before the final report was released, according to the Public Accountability Initiative.

The initiative also took issue with some of the M.I.T. report’s conclusions and was critical of its assessment that the environmental issues posed by fracking were “challenging but manageable.’’

This does not surprise me. Unfortunately, in more than four years as president, the Obama administration has been more intent on boosting domestic energy production by any means necessary than it has been likely to demonstrate real concern over health and safety issues. The White House’s bias towards promoting fracking is very much in line with recent moves towards greenlighting the Keystone XL pipeline, even though it will contribute to the climate change that Obama is committed to fighting.

Here’s something else that won’t surprise you: The American people are smarter than their leaders. Check out these numbers from New York:

A new Quinnipiac poll finds statewide opposition to the controversial natural gas drilling technique known as hydrofracking growing after a year in which public opinion was basically split. The new poll finds opponents outnumbering supporters of fracking in the survey by 46-39 percent — a new low for fracking proponents and the first time a “clear margin” has opposed it, according to Quinnipiac.

Upstate voters favor moving ahead with fracking by a slim margin (44-42), while suburban voters remain split (42-42) and New York City voters oppose it 53-32 percent.

The poll is released as the state continues to wait for the completion of work on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s regulatory framework for fracking, which is in turn waiting for the Department of Health’s review of the DEC’s health-impacts chapter, which is in turn waiting for research updates from experts currently examining the effects of the process on human health and the water supply.

And there’s something else to remember: The consequences of making the wrong decisions here are huge. What can go wrong with fracking?

We must ask, is it worth the cost when it takes from 3 million to 9 million gallons of water per fracture to extract this fuel? The withdrawal of large quantities of surface water can substantially impact the availability of water downstream and damage the aquatic life in the water bodies, says Wilma Subra, scientist and national consultant on the community and environmental impact of fracking. When groundwater resources are used, aquifers can be drawn down and cause wells in the area to go dry.

Once water is used for fracking, it is lost to the water cycle forever,” Subra says.

 Texas’ official state water plan calls for the expenditure of $400 million on projects to support the mining sector over the next 50 years, with fracking projected to account for 42 percent of mining water use by 2020. Can we really afford this when the state is already struggling with water resources that will be needed for population growth and the likelihood of future droughts?

This is why things like President Obama’s pick for a new energy secretary are so important. The future of fracking is likely to be determined over the next four years — especially with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the process of drafting new, and long overdue, regulations. We need elected officials, starting in the White House, who will put the interests of the people first, not those of industry. It would be nice if our leaders could show as much wisdom as everyday people.

To read more of the New York Times report on President Obama’s energy secretary nominee, please go to: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/anti-fracking-group-criticizes-energy-nominee-for-not-disclosing-industry-ties/

To learn more about polling data showing greater opposition to fracking in New York State, go to: http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/182613/new-q-poll-finds-clear-margin-against-fracking/

To find out more about the massive costs associated with fracking from Think Progress, please read: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/03/19/1742171/long-term-costs-of-fracking-are-staggering/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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