Former Obama official: Fracking has never been an environmental problem

HOUSTON — Former U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said Wednesday morning that he believes hydraulic fracturing is safe, and the energy industry should work to convince the public that it doesn’t pose a safety threat.

Salazar spoke in Houston at the North American Prospect Expo, a three-day conference where landowners from around the globe look to make deals with oil, gas and pipeline companies.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of oil and gas production that flushes large volumes of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals deep underground. It has generated enormous controversy in communities across the country on concerns that it might pollute groundwater and cause other environmental problems.

“From my opinion and from what I’ve seen … I believe hydraulic fracking is, in fact, safe,” Salazar said.

Salazar said the oil and gas industry must work to educate the public of the technology and “make sure people are not scared.”

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“We know that, from everything we’ve seen, there’s not a single case where hydraulic fracking has created an environmental problem for anyone,” Salazar said. “We need to make sure that story is told.”

Salazar says he came to his conclusion after speaking wither others in the federal government, including scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning former U.S. Energy Secretary who also says fracking is safe.

The Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of an ongoing study of fracking’s impact on water resources. A 2011 EPA study suggested fracking contributed to water contamination in Wyoming, but the study wasn’t finalized.

Environmental groups, unsurprisingly, don’t agree with Salazar’s characterization of the practice. Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council say fracking is a likely suspect behind polluted drinking water in Pennsylvania, Texas, Wyoming and elsewhere.

Environmentalists also attribute air pollution and even some earthquakes to the practice. Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with NRDC, called Salazar “out of touch” with a growing body of research indicating environmental harms of fracking.

“His comments are a disservice to the people around the country who continue to report problems when fracking comes to town – from contaminated drinking water, to devastated property values, air pollution, noise pollution, heavy truck traffic, industrialized rural areas, and even exploding homes,” she said in a statement.

Salazar represented Colorado in the senate for four years before joining the cabinet in 2009. After leaving the Interior Department last year, he joined the law firm WilmerHale, which advises companies in the energy sector.

The former cabinet member also hinted that the energy industry may be to blame for some of the opposition to fracking, citing some companies’ reluctance to disclose the chemical makeup of the liquids they use in the process. He said people are scared of the unknown and suggested more disclosure could ease some of those concerns.

Salazar said fracking, in part, is the reason the country has enjoyed a energy boom that has helped move it towards energy independence and reduced the price of fuel.

“We’re creating a secure world for ourselves and for our children,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Ohio or Pennsylvania or California or right here at this convention in Houston,” he said. “Letting people know this kind of information … is very important for us.”

Chris Faulkner, CEO of Breitling Energy Corp., a Dallas-based exploration and production company, praised Salazar and said his  defense of the practice is especially significant, given his position in an administration that typically hasn’t been considered an ally of the oil and gas industry.

He also expects Salazar’s comments to prompt more discussion about the merits of fracking. “We have to address the issue head on,” Faulkner said.

Salazar also said he believes the Keystone XL Pipeline should be built.

“At the end of the day, we are going to be consuming that oil,” Salazar said. “So is it better for us to get the oil from our good neighbor from the north, or to be bringing it from some place in the Middle East?”