Activists question Obama’s support for natural gas boom

A coalition of more than 100 environmental activists and groups expressed “serious concerns” on Monday about President Obama’s comments in support of the natural-gas drilling boom during his State of the Union address.

In a letter to the White House, the groups took a critical but measured approach to the statements by Obama, who has given environmentalists much to cheer and groan about in his three-plus years in the White House. In his speech to Congress, Obama said he would support the continuing expansion of natural-gas drilling but added that safeguards were necessary to protect public and environmental health.

“Although we were encouraged by your stated commitment to safe development of natural gas reserves and by your insistence on disclosure of chemicals used in drilling on federal lands, we were troubled by your claim that government investment in shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing has been a clear-cut success story,” wrote the activists and groups, including the Environmental Working Group.

The letter highlights the political tug-of-war the White House faces between industry groups and Republicans who advocate policies promoting more drilling, and environmental advocates who question the safety of unconventional drilling and the associated hydraulic fracturing process.

Obama told Congress that he supported the natural gas boom because it could support up to 600,000 jobs, the U.S. has an estimated 100 years of recoverable natural gas reserves and the fossil fuel emits less carbon dioxide when burned than do coal and oil. He argued the boom has occurred in part because federal agencies had helped industry develop the drilling technologies needed to unlock vast new amounts of previously inaccessible natural gas.

The Bureau of Land Management will soon propose rules for hydraulic fracturing on federal lands, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said last month. Salazar and other officials have said the rules will include a chemical-disclosure mandate, with a trade-secret exemption; standards for ensuring well-bore integrity for those wells that are hydraulically fractured; and a requirement that companies reveal how they plan to handle flowback water.

Republicans and the oil-and-gas industry have pushed back on the prospect of the regulations for hydraulic fracturing, the process where mixtures of water, sand and chemicals are injected underground at high pressures to stimulate oil-and-gas production. But Salazar has said the “common-sense rules” could help give the public confidence in a practice that he feels can be done safely.

Today Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey likely will face questioning about the pending rules from Republicans on a House Appropriations Committee subpanel that’s holding a hearing on the agency’s fiscal 2013 budget request.

Environmental groups have long raised concerns that hydraulic fracturing, use of which has escalated in unconventional gas drilling, particularly in shale-rock formations, could contaminate ground- and drinking-water supplies.

They pointed to an Environmental Protection Agency draft study — to undergo peer review — that suggested a likely link between hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyo.

“Amid mounting evidence of the harm and significant costs associated with drilling and fracking, it is simply premature to declare that government investment in shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing has been a success,” the letter said.

The 100-year estimate may be exaggerated because, among other things, it  assumes that U.S. use of natural gas will remain constant and it doesn’t account for the possibility of exports, the groups said.

They also argued that the 600,000-job figure that Obama cited stems from an industry-funded study that rests on false assumptions.

“We cannot rely on an energy policy based on the industry’s false assumptions, nor can we justify lax regulation in the fond hope that shale gas drilling will be a magic bullet to meet the nation’s energy needs,” the groups wrote.

Industry insists that hydraulic fracturing is safe and that no proven link between it and water contamination has been established. Lobbying groups and Republicans in Congress have criticized the EPA’s Pavillion study, suggesting its procedures and conclusions were flawed.

The agency has defended the study as based on sound science but warned that it applies only to the unique geology of the Pavillion gas field.

A recent University of Texas study, meanwhile, found no direct connection between hydraulic fracturing itself and groundwater contamination.

Environmental Groups’ Letter to White House