President Obama: You Had Me Until Fracking

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama reiterated his support for the development of clean energy sources that will create jobs and protect the environment. But while developing clean energy is essential for moving us into the 21st century energy marketplace, the way we build our clean energy future also matters. We must develop energy without harming public health and the environment.

A natural gas extraction process, commonly referred to as fracking, was cited in last night’s State of the Union as an example of clean energy. But using fracking to extract natural gas is anything but clean. In fact, the process produces more greenhouse gas emissions over time than traditional methods of oil drilling or coal mining, according to a Cornell University Study. In addition, fracking poses a great risk to public health and property, as evidenced by the multiple documented cases of severe water contamination near fracking sites, including water than can be actually set on fire as it comes out of the faucet.

Though Obama pledged to "develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk," it is unclear as to how this would be accomplished. A loophole in the 2005 energy law (often called the Cheney or Halliburton loophole) granted oil and gas industries an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This means the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot require drilling companies to disclose the toxic chemicals used in fracking, or limit their activities in order to protect drinking water. And, following an order from Congress, the EPA has not yet finalized an important national study on the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water. Thus, the public remains in the dark about the chemicals used in fracking, as well as the risks they pose to their drinking water.

The good news is that President Obama pledged to require "all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use." Government agencies and the public certainly need more information on the health and environmental risks of fracking, and we're glad to hear President Obama promise to make this information available. But in addition to full disclosure on the public and environmental impacts of natural gas extraction, protecting public health requires the development of consistent standards and safeguards to ensure that communities near fracking sites are fully protected. To develop these standards, full oversight authority must be restored to the EPA.

It may be possible to use fracking to extract natural gas safely, under the proper conditions and with sufficient controls. But without more information on the risks of fracking, and without the proper safeguards in place, we are taking a huge gamble with our water supply, farmland, and the health and safety of our people by aggressively pursuing this type of natural gas extraction. This is a bet we simply shouldn't take - without a full review of our risks and without the proper safeguards in place.

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