Policy: Environment & Energy

Will Obama go down in history as the 'fracking president'?

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Politics,White House,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Environment,Barack Obama,Energy Department,Climate Change,EPA,Analysis,Energy and Environment,Fracking

White House has cautiously moved to boost the controversial natural gas extraction process

Will Barack Obama go down in history as the "fracking president"? Despite tremendous pressure from the environmentalist left, the White House has moved, albeit cautiously, to boost the controversial natural gas extraction process.

Not only will the bonanza of cheap energy boost the economy but it is better environmentally, too, since natural gas releases one-third to one-half less emissions than other carbon-based fuels.

The latest action came last week when the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was turning over an 18 month-long investigation into potential groundwater pollution from fracking in Pavillion, Wyoming, to state authorities.

Critics charge the EPA's decision will mean the practical end of the probe. Wyoming officials have been skeptical all along of the agency's initial findings. "EPA's decision to not rely on premature conclusions in its 2011 draft report is a positive and wise step," Sen. John Barrasso, Wy-R., said in a statement.

This is big news in the environmentalist community. Had the EPA's initial report been confirmed, it would have represented the first clear, federally-backed proof that fracking presents a danger.

The fracking process involves breaking underground rocks to release stored natural gas. It's phenomenally successful use in Pennsylvania to develop the Marcellus Shale and in North Dakota to develop the Bakken formation has unlocked vast stores of energy that are turning the US into a net gas exporter for the first time.

Environmentalists have aggressively pushed the claim that the process pollutes drinking water but there has been scant evidence to back it up. Fracking advocates say the EPA jumped the gun in Pavillion, releasing an initial study that grabbed headlines despite little evidence. "I am not surprised. The EPA shoots first and asks questions later," said Magdalena Segieda, co-director of Frack Nation, a documentary on the benefits of the natural gas. "If they had a smoking gun, they would state it and let it be peer-reviewed."

Still, the agency is backing down now. It is also worth noting that its initial December 2011 announcement was actually fairly cautious. It noted that the case was "specific to Pavillion" due to the proximity of the drilling to groundwater, a condition not found with other wells.

In other words, even if they had found seepage from fracking, the EPA said it would not have amounted to a finding regarding fracking in general.

Environmentalists who want fracking banned, period, are sputtering. "Outrageous, dishonest, dismaying. EPA sells out once more," tweeted activist and filmmaker Josh Fox. Fox's latest anti-fracking documentary focuses on the Pavillion case.

"We have watched three different EPA investigations get attacked and fall apart in the face of industry pressure," Fox told the Examiner. "This all starts when Obama starts to embrace natural gas drilling."

This is not out of character for President Obama's administration. Former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson regularly touted natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to a renewable future, meaning we will use it now until renewable technologies can be improved.

Obama's new Energy Secretary, MIT scientist Ernest Moniz, has echoed Jackson's stance and described the potential risks associated with fracking as "challenging but manageable." Moniz was well-known for his stance on this before he became secretary so his nomination was widely viewed as a sign.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is herself a former oil industry drilling engineer. "Fracking as a technique has been around for decades. ... I have performed the procedure myself very safely," Jewell said during an April video chat hosted by the department.

From the administration's perspective fracking must look too good to pass up. Not only will the bonanza of cheap energy boost the economy but it is better environmentally too since natural gas releases one-third to one-half less emissions than other carbon-based fuels.

Indeed it wasn't that long ago that environmentalists themselves were touting natural gas as a bridge fuel -- Jackson was borrowing the line from them.

The only thing that has changed since then is that the estimates of potentially accessible gas have soared to the point where they threaten to undermine the case for investment in renewable resources like wind and solar. That turned the environmentalist left against fracking with a vengeance.

President Obama seems to have other ideas.

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