President Obama has repeatedly stressed his commitment to clean energy and climate action in the past few weeks. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said in the Inaugural Address. He echoed those words in the State of the Union Address and offered specific proposals to boost renewable power and energy efficiency.
President Obama’s clean energy push would take America forward, but his fossil fuel policies threaten to take us backward. In the State of the Union, for instance, he called for “cutting red tape and speeding up” oil and gas development.
Hundreds of thousands of new oil and gas wells have been drilled in the past decade, and fracking is now occurring in about 30 states. The few standards we have on the books for fracking are no match for this explosive growth.
Now is the time to strengthen protections, not undermine them. We must establish firm standards before we expand fracking, and we must ensure sensitive places are completely off limits.
Hours before the State of the Union Address, I testified at a Senate hearing on natural gas held by the Committee on Energy & Natural Resources and said fracking should not be expanded until strong safeguards are in place.
Right now, we lack even the most basic measures. The oil and gas industry has won exemptions from our nation’s most basic environmental laws – the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act. These are laws that everyone else has to follow.
State standards have proven equally insufficient. Only 14 out of the 29 states with fracking, for instance, require companies to report which chemicals they use in fracking fluids. In 8 of the 14 states with disclosure rules, companies can withhold information they deem confidential without any justification or oversight. Meanwhile, a new law in Pennsylvania requires healthcare professionals to sign a confidentiality agreement before companies divulge their fracking chemicals. If doctors pass that information to their patients, they could be sued.
Federal agencies seem to be moving in the wrong direction on fracking standards as well. A leaked draft of the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed fracking rule indicates that companies fracking on federal lands will have to meet weaker disclosure standards than some states have. This doesn’t exactly make a case for government strangling industry in “red tape.”
It’s no wonder communities across the country are concerned. In more than three decades as an environmental advocate, I have never seen a single issue that has frightened, antagonized and activated people across this country like the practice of fracking.
Families are angered and frustrated by their inability to control fracking in their towns and sometimes on their own property. They live with towering drill rigs and toxic waste impoundments the size of several football fields in their fields. When the air starts to smell of noxious chemicals or the impoundment leaks or the vibration from compressors begins to shake their homes, they often have little recourse. They are left to wonder if their water is safe, their air is clean and their children are healthy.
Fortunately, they are beginning to raise their voices. During the Senate hearing, many lawmakers said people back home are talking about the risks of unchecked fracking. National surveys echo those fears. A recent Bloomberg News survey found that 65 percent of people said we need more regulations for fracking, while only 18 percent said there should be less regulation.
If natural gas companies want to earn public confidence, they must immediately accept strong national safeguards and they must make room for public input. And agencies must enforce these standards to protect public health and the environment.
In the meantime, we must reduce the fossil fuel addiction that is destabilizing the climate and industrializing the American landscape. We do this by scaling up clean energy solutions. Expanding wind and solar power is vital for moving us away from fossil fuels. Doubling our energy efficiency can cut carbon pollution by one-third and deliver more than $1,000 in annual savings for every U.S. household. We can create a future where we power our economy and protect our health and the environment at the same time. Reckless oil and gas fracking without sufficient safeguards has no place in that future.