Exxon CEO to ‘fracking’ critics: ‘Prove it’

Critics warn that chemicals used in fracking could contaminate groundwater, among other things. The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study of the public health effects of fracking.

Tillerson lampooned fracking foes who want to stop development while environmental concerns are further researched.

"What's happened is the tables have been turned around now to where we have to prove it's not going to happen," he told Fortune. "Well, that is a very dangerous exchange to get into because where it leads you from a regulatory and policy standpoint is to govern by the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle will absolutely undermine the economy."

Tillerson continued: "If you want to live by the precautionary principle, then crawl up in a ball and live in a cave."

The oil company CEO lamented what he described as an oftentimes adversarial relationship with regulators and the public.

"We go through this every time we go to a new area to develop," Tillerson told Fortune. "It's just part of how society deals with having their energy needs met.

“What I find interesting about the U.S. relative to other countries is in most every other country where we operate, people really like us. And they're really glad we're there. And governments really like us. And it's not just Exxon Mobil. They admire our industry because of what we can do. They almost are in awe of what we're able to do. And in this country, you can flip it around 180 degrees. I don't understand why that is, but it just is."

Tillerson’s comments fit in with those of other oil industry officials and their Republican allies in Congress, who argue that the Obama administration is not doing enough to encourage domestic oil-and-gas production.

But President Obama, stung by GOP criticism and high gasoline prices, has highlighted its efforts to expand production in a slew of energy speeches around the country in recent weeks.

At the same time though, the president has stressed that drilling must be done responsibly. The administration is taking new steps to increase federal oversight of fracking.

The EPA is slated to unveil final oil-and-gas air pollution regulations this week that would cut smog-forming and toxic emissions from wells developed with fracking. Separately, the Interior Department will soon float rules for fracking on public lands.

Obama signed an executive order last week establishing a high-level task force charged with coordinating federal oversight of fracking.