Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Obama’s EPA Fracking study comes due at critical time Assessment of Bush-era policy will delve beyond rhetoric

Last night’s presidential debate demonstrated that both candidates are big on the promise of Big Energy. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney strove to outdo one another in articulating support for on-shore drilling and mineral extraction to create jobs and reduce dependence abroad.

So how would the prospects of shale gas exploration and development actually fare under Romney compared to Obama? The most immediate and tangible test is an EPA review now underway on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater. The study, commissioned by Congress in 2010, is reassessing a finding by the George W. Bush administration that high volume hydraulic fracturing is harmless. It’s a claim that Bush and vice president Dick Cheney used to justify exempting the industry from the Clean Drinking Water Act in a provision infamously labeled by critics as the Haliburton Loophole. If that exemption is repealed, it will essentially bring fracking – the impetus of domestic petroleum boom -- under federal regulation.

 EPA technicians collect samples in Dimock.
The timing is critical. A preliminary report has been promised for “late 2012,” but there is little reason to expect it – and its potentially boat-rocking ramifications - prior to election day. In the meantime, Obama has been a champion of on-shore drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing for four years while his EPA has treaded lightly in places where concerns about pollution have gotten national attention. One of those places is Dimock, Pennsylvania. After six months of testing earlier this year, the EPA concluded that levels of pollution in five of the wells – roughly 8 percent -- were high enough to pose health risks. But because the drilling companies had offered residents treatment systems to mitigate risks of consuming the contaminants, including arsenic, barium, manganese, and methane, the agency ended its investigation with a statement that “no further action” was required. (The Centers for Disease Control is reviewing the EPA results and is planning to issue its own report at a time to be determines, although no press statements have been released and information is unavailable on the CDC website.)

Based on presidential campaign rhetoric, drilling proponents have plenty to be encouraged about, while good news is scant for those counting on the federal government to get tough on drilling-related pollution. In last night’s debate, as in the past, Obama talked about the abundance of shale gas reserves and related economic promise that he characterized as a “priority” in an “all of the above” energy strategy that also gives nods to the prospects of power from ethanol, solar, and wind. He hit the obligatory themes of jobs and opportunity associated with the petroleum and coal industres with no mention of their risks or limitations. He touted pipeline construction under his tenure “--enough to wrap around the world--” while passing on a chance offered by Romney to elaborate on his decision – celebrated among environmentalists -- to put the brakes on the controversial Keystone pipeline to import oil from Canada.

Obama’s approach, of course, was intended to disarm Romney’s efforts – and that of the Tea Party right -- to paint the president as a liberal obstructionist pandering to tree-hugging interests. Clearly determined to slam the door on that attack, Obama steered clear of any mention of risks associated with fossil fuel extraction, global warming, or other issues central to his environmentally-minded voting block.

That’s because this is now a contest for the undecided mainstream, and in the heat of this particular debate, it was clear that both candidates judged the country’s economic issues to be weighing more heavily on voters minds than environmental concerns. The spoken and unspoken message from both sides: as long as energy – from any source-- is produced domestically, it’s good. Policies that discourage domestic energy production are bad. (When Romney attacked Obama for unfriendly coal policy, Obama accused Romney of vowing to shut down a coal-fired power plant when he was governor of Massachusetts. Drilling on federal land was also cast in the positive.) But how will the reality differ from the rhetoric? While Romney and Obama were in a race to embrace the petroleum industry on national TV– their policies will undoubtedly be influenced by their EPA chiefs.

Romney has painted the federal government as an enemy of the people, and he is fond of pointing to the EPA as a prime example. The agency is not interested in the health and welfare of the people, according to Romney’s rhetoric. Its main objective is to obstruct American Enterprise wherever possible. (Or in his words during one primary: a “tool in the hands of the president to crush the private enterprise system, to crush our ability to have energy.”) It would be hard to imagine that the EPA study on fracking would stand a chance of completion under a Romney presidency.

If Obama is elected, you can expect the EPA to finish its work, which will carry the stamp of peer review and be the most rigorous federal review of fracking to date. If the EPA finds that fracking does carry significant threats to groundwater, the question remains whether Obama will reign in attempts to close the Haliburton Loophole, or establish any type of federal oversight for the shale gas industry. Obama, while liberal on social policies, has been more conservative on environmental policy. Is there any reason to expect him to change in a second term? A lot depends on the pressure he faces from Congress, and the state of the economy.


  1. Obama has pulled a page from the Clinton administration playbook on dealing with the Republicans. Sadly Superfund was defunded under Clinton to triangulate around the Gingrich congress. Obama has pretty much done the same kind of thing. It's only us air breathers and water drinkers who suffer. Nicely written political analysis Tom.

  2. Thanks for that perspective Michael. Context of past strategies and outcomes is often glossed over in the heat of current events