In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama embraced the development of unconventional natural gas. In step with the theme of the address, the president highlighted both the abundance of the domestic resource and its job creation potential.
President Obama Overstates the Benefits of Natural Gas
In response, anti-fracking groups including the National Grassroots Coalition, United for Action, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy and Protecting Our Waters immediately challenged the resource supply and job statistics cited by President Obama, saying in an email to supports,
He was referring to industry-produced studies predicting 600,000 jobs as estimates from “experts”, but the real experts — the Bureau of Labor Statistics — predict less than one-fourth that numbers by 2018.
And the president, like the industry, fails to estimate how many jobs will be lost — far too many farmers, for example, have already lost their livelihoods due to extreme pollution and animal deaths caused by shale gas drilling.
The President overstated the amount of shale gas believed to be recoverable: proven reserves will provide 7 to 11 years, and unproven (speculative) reserves may provide up to 20 years, which does not add up to 100. The federal Energy Information Agency just dropped its estimate from Marcellus reserves down to 6 years from its previous estimate of 17 years.
Disagreement about the amount of natural gas that can be recovered from shale and how many jobs could be created by this industry is certainly an important discussion, but it is secondary to the discussion of whether or not extracting this resource can be done safely.
Chemical Disclosure Requirement Would Only Apply to a Small Percentage of Wells
President Obama followed his endorsement of natural gas development by stating that he will require all companies that drill on public land to disclose chemical use “because America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” This proposed disclosure requirement, which is currently making its way through the Department of Interior rulemaking process, seems intended to soothe public anxiety around the practice of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. However, the rule referenced here would apply only to gas drilling on public land.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, only about 11 percent of all U.S. natural gas production occurred on federal land, and the department estimates that hydraulic fracturing is used for about 90 percent of gas wells drilled on public lands.
The vast majority of fracking is done on private land, and only a handful of the 33 states where fracking occurs have adopted some kind of requirement that the chemicals used be disclosed to the public. In fact, according to a report prepared by the Wilderness Society for the Department of Energy’s subcommittee on natural gas, “only one [state] requires full public disclosure of the chemical components of hydraulic fracturing fluids: Wyoming. Three other states (Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee) provided some disclosure of chemicals, but not to the public or in sufficient detail.”
Disclosure Requirements are Not Enough
And while it is clear that we need a national standard for disclosure of fracking chemicals, this alone would not safeguard the public against the risks associated with fracking. Many questions about the safety of this practice remain unanswered. There have been more than 1,000 documented cases of water contamination near drilling sites around the country. Meanwhile, the industry is drilling new wells at an alarming pace. According to a ProPublica investigation, between 2003 and 2008, the number of new wells drilled in fracking states increased 42 percent. Aside from the rulemaking for drilling on public lands being undertaken by the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency are conducting studies on the safety and impacts of hydraulic fracking.
At the minimum, fracking should be halted before the conclusion of these studies. And it goes without saying, that the president should not be promoting an underregulated and unproven technology as a central component of his energy platform.
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