White House calls for growth of "sustainable" natural gas

In this year’s State of the Union speech, the President said once again that he will strengthen protections against the risks of fracking.

The speech was accompanied by a proposal to create "Sustainable Shale Gas Growth Zones" in the United States.

This murky shale gas zone proposal is found in the White House list of "Key Executive Actions the President Will Take in 2014." The document doesn't provide any details on these zones or say how many there would be, but it does say that the zones will be places where "shale gas is developed in a safe, responsible way that helps build diverse and resilient regional economies that can withstand boom-and-bust cycles and can be leaders in building and deploying clean energy technologies." It also mentions that the federal government will offer technical assistance to states and local communities to ensure that shale gas is developed in "the right way."

The last thing that we need from the federal government is an incentive to promote more fracking. The reality is that we already have "shale gas zones" across the country—but they are sacrifice zones where ordinary Americans have already put their health, quality of life, property and sometimes livelihood at risk, and fracking is taking place across the country in ways that are not "safe" or "responsible." This proposal sounds troubling because natural gas is not sustainable, strong federal regulations are not in place, and our country is still too dependent on dirty fuels. Our country does not need more "shale gas zones;" we need protections from an oil and gas industry running amok.

We would agree that there should be zones—zones that keep fracking out of residential areas, schools, drinking water sources, rivers and streams, wilderness, important wildlife habitat and watersheds, areas with seismic risk, and other sensitive areas.  And every community in the country should have the authority to establish its own zoning rules to control whether and how fracking activity takes places within their borders. And, of course, there should be “clean energy” zones where the development of truly sustainable renewable energy resources can be facilitated. NRDC is hard at work to create such areas in a way that provides adequate environmental protections. 

Yes, the President did say his administration would strengthen protection of our air, our water, and our communities. We've heard that before—he’s made similar promises in past speeches—and so far there's little to show for it. That’s because industry opposes almost every regulation proposed anywhere in the country.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, the president said he wanted to "work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and our water.” In 2012, he said "America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” Yet we have seen little to no progress on those vows.

Administrative action is particularly important because industry still enjoys giant loopholes in our most basic public health and environmental protection laws – the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and federal hazardous waste laws. Americans’ drinking water supplies across the country are exposed. Oil and gas companies continue to keep too many of their fracking chemicals a secret. The only thing that has moved in the right direction so far are rules on some air pollutants from natural gas operations that still fall short of what's needed to truly control dangerous air pollution. (These weak rules are especially indefensible given that the industry can actually make money by capturing the pollutants and selling them.)

More recently, the administration has proposed wholly unacceptable rules to govern fracking on federal lands. These are rules that would determine how fracking moves forward in America’s last wild places and near private and municipal drinking water sources for millions of people (including large metro areas like Washington, D.C.). Yet the administration’s proposal is in many cases weaker than what most states already require.

Instead of focusing on ever increasing fossil fuel extraction, the nation should, as NRDC President Frances Beinecke said, be cutting carbon pollution, curbing dangerous energy production, and shifting from dirty fossil fuels to clean energy solutions.

As Frances said, in the end, we need to break our addiction to all fossil fuels—including natural gas. Until we have prohibited fracking in backyards and schoolyards, ensured that every drinking water source has the absolute strongest possible safeguards, protected our air from dirty methane and other dangerous air pollutants, placed our  last wild places off limits, and guaranteed every community the right to protect its citizens, the administration shouldn't even consider the creation of shale gas growth zones.