Willful ignorance at Interior?

The chief protector of America’s public lands, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel,l earlier this month claimed that natural gas and oil fracking is safe.   Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy and even the president himself have made similar allegations.   The Obama administration does or should know better.   The question of fracking and fossil fuel development, overall, must be rigorously scrutinized if we are to avoid environmental disaster.    

“Fracking” involves injecting millions of gallons of water mixed with undisclosed chemical fluids deep into the ground to break apart – fracture – rock or shale formations in order to improve the flow of oil or natural gas in otherwise impermeable solid pockets.   Over the past several years, the pace of this fracturing has radically increased as technological developments allow computerized tools to locate fossil fuel deposits more than a mile underground, drill down, and then turn horizontally through shale or tight sands for thousands of additional feet of fuel access.   Let’s break down Secretary Jewell’s recent statements with factual reality:

"I think that there's a lot of misinformation about fracking.  It's our job as a regulator and public land manager to make sure that it is done safely and responsibly, that we use the best available science, and we are in fact doing that.” 

ADVERTISEMENT
There is a lot of misinformation about fracking, most of it generated by the oil and gas industry, and sometimes it is perpetuated by the Obama administration.   What Secretary Jewell refuses to acknowledge is that the disposal of fracking wastewater via underground injection has been explicitly linked to increased earthquakes across the country, and fracking and drilling causes dangerous air pollution and drinking water contamination from the toxic fracturing fluids, the ingredients of which industry still refuses to reveal to the public in the name of “trade secrets.”  The Interior Department’s proposed federal public lands fracking rule doesn’t strengthen well construction standards, doesn’t mandate water testing, doesn’t address deadly air pollution, underplays the real and going risk of spills and accidents, and allows dangerous open air waste pits.  

 “Fracking has been around for decades, and there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there about it, a lot of fear that I think is unfounded.  "Fracking has been done safely for many, many years.” 

As Secretary Jewell well knows, today’s version of fracking is a very new beast of toxics, extreme water use, and historic impacts.  Modern fracking is not our grandfather’s or father’s fracking.  The technology and risks have radically increased as we go deeper and wider.   Jewell, significantly, refuses to admit that massive amounts of methane – a greenhouse pollutant over thirty times more powerful than carbon – is released during the fracking process.  Thus, while natural gas may burn more cleanly than coal or oil, its overall negative climate change impact is at least equally bad, making catastrophes such as Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan even more prevalent.  And, the recent EPA power plant proposal for greenhouse gases wouldn’t make new natural gas plants any more appreciably cleaner than existing ones.    

“New fracking techniques, horizontal drilling and staged fracking, is not -- I'm aware -- happening in California yet, but it is happening in other lands around the country.  It's our job to make sure that when it's done on federal lands, it's done safely and responsibly, and we believe that there are ways to make that happen." 

Jewell is patently incorrect about California.   While to date state and federal regulators have failed to collect and disseminate information about fracking, we know from industry publications that at least one company has drilled Monterey horizontal wells in the Santa Maria basin and is also drilling a horizontal Monterey well in the Salinas Valley. Most of the company’s leases have 10-year primary terms.  Fifty eight percent of the California electorate wants a moratorium on the practice and over seventy percent want the practice at least heavily regulated.   Indeed, if fracking is not occurring on Interior lands in California it is because the Center for Biological Diversity has successfully blocked Interior’s Bureau of Land Management’s plan, which completed an environmental assessment on fracking so woefully wrong and incomplete that a federal judge ruled sent it back to the agency to fix.    

If Jewell was to be fully honest, she would say: “President Obama’s natural gas focus sacrifices public health and the environment for greater profits for oil and gas companies.  Big Oil and Gas are too dominant for this administration to fight head on; we, too, have taken their millions in campaign contributions and called natural gas a clean fuel.  We are not as bad at blindly following fossil fuel corporations as the Republicans, so we will take a few baby steps and claim they are bigger than reality.” 

The problem with this version is that it is not leadership.  

Snape is senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity and practitioner in residence at the American University Law School.