National Petroleum Council Report Acknowledges Need for Safeguards on Oil and Gas

The National Petroleum Council released a report yesterday assessing the scope of North American oil and gas reserves. Given the council’s mission to represent the views of the oil and gas industries, it is not surprising the report says the United States can and should drill our way to a secure energy future. 

The report gives an especially sunny outlook of what it calls abundant supplies of domestic oil and gas despite the fact that America is home to less than 3 percent of global oil reserves and will be importing foreign oil for decades to come.

But I welcome the fact that the report underscores the need for responsible government oversight. In a section on its four core principles, the NPC writes:

“The critical path to sustained and expanded resource development in North America includes effective regulation and a commitment of industry and regulators to continuous improvement in practices to eliminate or minimize environmental risk. These steps are necessary for public trust.”

NRDC agrees with this conclusion, and we call on industry to support, not oppose, efforts to strengthen federal and state environmental regulation of oil and gas development.

But the support can’t stop there. Part of effective regulation is sufficiently funded and trained government staff, and these days of tight state budgets and attacks on federal environmental oversight, such staffing cannot be taking for granted. We hope that as we move forward, industry recognizes that if regulations can’t be enforced and remain mere words on paper, they are become hollow—no matter how strongly worded they are.

The report also emphasizes that the natural gas sector needs to address the significant environmental impacts of gas production. For too long, the industry has claimed there were no serious impacts. But passages in the report send an important signal that the industry knows it needs to improve its performance.

The strong points in the report are sadly overwhelmed by its critical failure to adequately address one of the most pressing environmental impacts of oil and gas production: climate change.  The simple and unavoidable fact is that developing and burning all the oil and gas resources in North America will unleash an enormous amount of greenhouse gases. It will further disrupt our climate, and intensify the droughts, wildfires, and storms that are already devastating communities across the nation.

The oil and gas industries must not ignore these grave implications. The NPC’s report should have clearly acknowledged that the U.S. cannot confront climate change and meet emission reduction goals if we follow the path marked out by the oil and gas industry.  This is not a political statement; it is a factual one.  

 None of these aspects of the report come as a shock to me. I served on the NPC for several months at the invitation of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The NPC was formed as a federal advisory committee in 1946, and for much of its history, its members have almost exclusively come from the petroleum sector, including oil company executives and industry finance experts.

Secretary Chu wanted to broaden the perspectives on the committee, and so he invited me and a few other environmental leaders to join. I appreciated the opportunity to serve, and I enjoyed the collegial interactions I had with other committee members.

But in the end, I decided to resign from the committee. I came to the conclusion that as the director of NRDC—a group whose mission is to protect people, the environment, and natural resources—my goals were fundamentally distinct from the members of the petroleum industry whose perspectives continue to dominate the NPC. Those differences are now reflected in the gap between several passages in the new report and many of NRDC’s campaigns to reduce demand for oil and gas and make its production as safe as possible.