On his watch, the U.S. has led the world in cutting carbon emissions, the use of renewables has dramatically expanded, and the Obama White House has consistently pushed to raise taxes and increase regulation on the oil and gas industry since his first day in office. After the defeat of “cap-and-trade” legislation, Obama also catered to the environmental lobby by going around Congress and letting the Environmental Protection Agency write its own rules for limiting greenhouse gases.
In Tuesday's speech, Obama doubled down on this approach. “Climate change is a fact,” Obama said. “And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say 'Yes, we did.'”
But the immediate reaction from many environmental activists was outright hostile. “You can't say you care about ending cancer and then go buy a carton of cigarettes,” climate activist group 350.org said in a statement.
“You just don't get it, do you?” Americans Against fracking tweeted at Obama during the speech.
The superficial explanation for this angry reaction is that Obama also used the speech to praise the U.S. oil and gas production made possible by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” After all, he hailed natural gas as a “bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” And he touted “America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades” because booming domestic oil production is slashing U.S. energy imports. Hardened environmental activists do not want to hear positive things about the oil and gas industry in any presidential address, much less a State of the Union speech.
But that alone doesn’t explain the intensity of the reaction, or the fact that groups like Americans Against Fracking were attacking Obama for “betraying” them even before he spoke.
There’s actually a much deeper divide between anti-fracking groups and other environmentalists, such as Obama, who hold public office. It’s about a simple question — is fracking safe? — and whether the answer lies in political ideology or the consensus among scientists, engineers and environmental regulators.
On the side of political ideology, you have anti-fracking groups like Food & Water Watch that insist hydraulic fracturing is “inherently unsafe” and must be banned. They don’t allow the possibility of continued use of the technology under tighter regulations — like some other environmental groups — because that would concede that fracking can, in fact, be done safely. As Food & Water Watch says: “An all-out ban on fracking is the only way to protect our communities.”
The problem for anti-fracking activists is the facts just don’t support their political ideology. Hydraulic fracturing has been around since the 1940s. The technology uses pressurized water, sand and chemicals to open small cracks in rock formations deep below the Earth’s surface to access the oil and natural gas inside. Fracking lasts just a few days and takes place after an oil and gas well has been drilled and reinforced with multiple layers of steel and cement.
It’s an essential process that’s used in more than 90 percent of U.S. oil and gas wells, and because it’s been so widely used for so long, it’s very well understood by scientists, engineers and regulators. And, while no industry is perfect, when the experts examine the way hydraulic fracturing is used to produce oil and gas, they have concluded over and over again that this technology is fundamentally safe.
This leaves anti-fracking activists stranded on the fringes of the national debate over energy and environmental policy. Because even the Obama administration -- which opposes the oil and gas industry politically on issues like taxation, the role of federal regulation and developing energy on public lands -- accepts the consensus that hydraulic fracturing is fundamentally safe.
Some things are simply above politics. That's why Obama's first Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, warned lawmakers in 2012 “there's a lot of hysteria that takes place now with respect to hydraulic fracking” and assured them “it can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.”
Salazar's successor Sally Jewell -- who was a board member of the National Parks Conservation Association, the CEO of outdoor retailer REI and a petroleum engineer before joining the Obama cabinet -- says “fracking has been done safely for decades.”
Jewell even says the activist belief that “fracking is dangerous and must be curtailed, full stop … ignores the reality that it has been done for decades” and will be done “for decades to come.” Likewise, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy rejects the “inherently unsafe” argument: “There's nothing inherently dangerous in fracking that sound engineering practices can't accomplish.”
Meanwhile, there are plenty of senior Democrats outside the Obama administration who decry the “ban fracking” ideology as too extreme. California Gov. Jerry Brown, a hero to the environmental movement who has repeatedly clashed with the oil and gas industry throughout his long political career, rejected “ideological bandwagons” when state lawmakers and regulators were updating hydraulic fracturing regulations last year. Most Democrats followed Brown's lead, and when a fracking ban received a vote in the state legislature, it was overwhelmingly defeated. In response, some activist groups are now attacking the governor as “Big Oil Brown,” despite all the evidence to the contrary.
“Some of these fracking people … don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” Brown said in an interview last year. Brown added that to argue “climate change is primarily about fracking” — as activist groups have since Obama’s SOTU address this week — is “the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard.”
Events in Illinois last year provide yet another example of senior Democratic officials opposing “ban fracking” activism. The state legislature, dominated by Democrats, and Gov. Pat Quinn rejected calls for a fracking ban and approved new laws that were negotiated between industry, environmental, labor and agriculture groups. However, the Illinois AFL-CIO says some environmental groups are now trying to stall the permitting process, just as activists have done for several years in New York. The Illinois AFL-CIO's Michael T. Carrigan has called on activists to “stop the last-minute, desperate political wrangling and get the people of Illinois working again.”
Besides the political stand-off in New York, anti-fracking activists are losing the debate at the national and state level, and the Washington Post has even reported that environmental groups see “the writing is on the wall.” This has forced them to take the “ban fracking” campaign to the local level, in states like Colorado, New Mexico and Ohio. But their strategy depends mostly on campaigning in communities with little or no direct experience with oil and gas development, where the fear of the unknown makes it easier to argue that fracking is “inherently dangerous” and the only option is an “all-out ban.”
But that argument gets harder and harder to make every time Obama praises the domestic energy production made possible by hydraulic fracturing, every time the president’s environmental regulators attest to the safety of fracking, and every time a high-profile public official with a “stellar record of protecting the environment” like Brown says the activists “don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”
But more importantly, as “ban fracking” activists regroup at the local level after huge national- and state-level losses during 2013, any sign that the facts are winning the day over political ideology is a painful reminder of just how badly their campaign is losing. No wonder they are so angry.Simon Lomax was an energy and environmental reporter in Washington from 2004 to 2012. He is now western director of Energy In Depth, an industry advocacy group, in Denver. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.