Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election analysis: Who gained an edge in fracking war?

President Barack Obama’s successful campaign against Mitt Romney may have some anti-fracking activists exhaling, but don’t expect any plans from the White House to discourage on-shore drilling in the near future.

Based on the GOP’s campaign platform, a Romney administration would have done everything within its power to keep federal drilling regulations minimal to non-existent. Obama, gearing his campaign almost exclusively to voters in the swing states, promised to encourage blue-collar jobs through an “all of the above” energy strategy that embraced shale gas development “as a priority.” With the election behind him, Obama will of course be subject to pressures within his own party to immediately broaden his focus beyond his pitch to woo swing states hopeful of mineral extraction jobs.

As I recount in Under the Surface, Obama provided plenty of encouragement for shale gas development in his first term. In 2011, he issued Blue Print for a Secure Energy Future, a plan that recognized the importance of shale gas development, including a component to support global efforts to displace oil with natural gas. Now comes the big question for his second term: Will Obama feel the political urge to federally regulate shale gas development given concerns over its impact on water and air? More specifically, will the Obama EPA provide the groundwork necessary to undo federal regulatory exemptions, known as the Haliburton Loophole, passed under the Bush/Cheney administration?

As I have written in a previous post, that process would begin with a study examining fracking cases now underway by the EPA. Even if the agency were to confirm and quantify fracking risks that are now – due to a lack of study -- mostly a collection of disparate reports, repealing the Haliburton Loophole would take an act of Congress. That is a long shot, at least within the next two years, with Republican control of the House of Representatives. But a final draft of the EPA study is due for public comment and peer review in 2014 and could become fodder for a midterm election battle.

States have regulatory control over shale gas, and New York state, which sits over promising sections of the Marcellus and Utica Shales, is worth tracking for those following shale gas politics. New York is the centerpiece for the grass roots anti-fracking movement and the only state with potentially worldclass gas reserves that has held back on issuing permits due to environmental and health concerns. It’s also led by a governor frequently cited as a potential presidential candidate in 2016.

Despite the oft-heard rhetoric that “science will decide” the future of shale gas development in the Empire State under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, politics will play a large role, and at the moment New York’s political picture is murky. Candidates for and against shale gas development running in districts over some of the most promising reserves had mixed results yesterday, likely influenced more by their campaign war chests than their positions. Two examples: Senate Deputy Majority Leader and drilling proponent Tom Libous handily defeated Democratic challenger John Orzel to keep his 52nd District Seat. In the Assembly’s 123rd District, incumbent Donna Lupado easily defeated Julie Lewis, a drilling proponent and leader of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York. Lupardo, a senior Democrat and member of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, favors a full scale health study of fracking risks.

Lupardo is part of a house that has been reluctant to allow drilling to proceed in New York without more assurances of its safety, but unable to get bills through the Republican-controlled Senate. Although it looks as though yesterday’s election gave Democrats control of the Senate, it’s unclear how the numbers will influence Senate leadership. There are many dynamics in play, including races that are too close to call, and the direction of a group of independently minded Democrats who have sided with the Republican majority in the past and have been duly rewarded with various perks. Albany reporter Jimmy Vielkind breaks down these and others factors that will play out in coming weeks and months in this excellent post for Capital Confidential. (It’s worth noting here that fracking issues also played into some Congressional races. In New York, two noteworthy challengers running on anti-fracking platforms lost to Republican incumbents. Dan Lamb lost to Richard Hanna in New York’s 22nd District and Nate Shinagawa lost to Tom Reed in the 23rd District.)

So what have we learned at the end of the day after the 2012 elections? The political circumstances that will determine the long-term prospects of shale gas development are still unfolding among a divided electorate and political gamesmanship.


  1. I think you're being awfully dismissive here Mr. Wilbur. Many of these races were billed as referendums on gas drilling. I think the voters in NY gave a pretty clear answer to that question. I don't think those folks deserve to have their voice marginalized.

    1. Hi Mike. Thanks for your thoughts. See my response after Andy's comment below.

  2. My concern about the Obama administration regarding energy and the environment is who has its ear. Natural gas from tight shale is part of the administration’s strategy.

    A relatively new phenomena in environmental protection seems to be nonprofits in roles as mediator (or ombudsmen) between industry and government agencies. A good example is the recent NOAA study on fugitive methane emissions from tight-shale gas and oil production. The study was questioned by API and others. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) will oversee (or remotely observe) a second more comprehensive fugitive emissions study. This study is in process, with results reportedly available first quarter 2013. The problem with the first study purportedly was the calculated values for fugitive methane emissions. The results were questioned throughout the blogosphere, including the Council on Foreign Relations, another non-profit.

    So how do I feel about this? Queasy. What EDF is doing is driving a wedge between industry and government that already is gaping wide. And it adds more skepticism in our governmental agencies. Maybe its intentions are good and I’m being unnecessarily suspicious.

    Here's how my suspicion arose (rightly or wrongly). EDF or its partners assigned URS and several other environmental consultants to perform the aforementioned shale gas study. URS’s environmental division is a principal environmental consultant on the dSGEIS for shale gas exploitation in New York. URS Corporation recently got into the unconventional oil and gas well field services business (i.e. the 2012 purchase of Flint Energy Services). Mayor Bloomberg recently gave a $6 million or so grant to EDF. Bloomberg endorsed Obama.

    The results of the pending EDF study on fugitive emission greatly affects shale gas as a feasible “bridge” technology for weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and for addressing climate change.

    1. "What EDF is doing is driving a wedge between industry and government that already is gaping wide." Thanks for this and the rest of your comment, Michael. My take: These government studies are in the interest of sound policy decisions, and it is important that they are all done in the open, with plenty of feedback from public sources, including non-profits and advocacy agencies. If you are a scientist, it's not easy having partisan critics looking over your shoulder every step of the way.
      It can be a difficult, frustrating and partisan process, but the it's critical for public buy-in. So I see it as a healthy thing and an essential part of working in the public sector.

    2. Tom if I'm not mistaken, the EDF study is being done in lieu of the public sector. Basically, the NOAA study got the "wrong answer". So EDF is coming in as a third party to quell concerns of the public and industry to re-run it. Not necessarily as an advocated on behalf of the public. About the EDF study:

      I'm ambivalent on this. On the one hand it could be a good way to bridge the gap between environmental concerns and energy needs. On the other, it could be a way to move the middle over towards one side. There's a cottage industry of groups and firms working the middle over to one side.

      I'm sort of basing my suspicions on a study I worked on as a young engineer for the American Petroleum Institute (API) on efficacy of land farming for biological degradation of oily liquids. The government agency had cited a concern on the method. API came in to sponsor the study given the industry wide applicability. This was around 1987.

      In my opinion EDF's role is closer to API then say a Sierra Club. Maybe the new normal is having environmental advocacy groups part of the solution. Seems a bit Clintonian.

  3. C'mon, Tom -- "mixed results"?

    You've obviously long ago turned in your press card, but this thing reads like an application to handle PR for Frack Action.

    Even the AP reports NY anti candidates "fared poorly":

    1. Andy and Mike,

      Thanks for your comments. I think you are reading a little too much into this, but take it how you like. My report notes the defeats of anti-frackers Lamb and Shinagawa in the Congressional races, although I don’t mention that Hanna, who defeated Lamb, wasn’t running on a pro-drilling platform. Julie Lewis – head of Joint Landowners Coalition of New York -- was, and she was trounced by Lupardo. I’ve chalked this up more to a mismatch of resources than a rejection of Lewis’s pro-drilling position. As I note, Libous beat Orzel in similar fashion.

      In the end, it looks like Democrats will control the state Legislature, where the fracking issue came into play in some downstate races. The bottom line is that the control of the Senate by Democrats carries potentially huge implications on the likelihood of anti-fracking legislation succeeding in the upcoming term.

      If it you think it furthers your cause to paint me as partisan because – taking all this into account rather than ignoring it -- I have characterized the elections as a “mixed bag” rather than a clear and decisive victory for the drilling movement, than OK. I disagree. I think I offer a pretty fair and thoughtful assessment. But I thank you for reading, and for weighing in on this forum, where your views are always welcome.

  4. Tom:

    I enjoyed reading your book! I do a blog called which deals with energy and chemical matters. I have posted articles about "frackingz". Here is an example

    If you have a chance, please comment and let's stay in touch.

    Peter Spitz

    1. Peter, I realize your comment was to Tom - but I checked out your post and your blog anyway. Excellent. We're fellow BS/MS Chem E's. I agree with the post. But, I'm not a big fan of tight-shale gas fracking for both production and environmental impact reasons, yet. From reading it seems to have been oversold and ramrodded for investment purposes and I'm not comfortable with much of the environmental protection measures taken for site and subsurface characterization and investigation. Hopefully I'm wrong. We may need all the fresh water we can get given the state of climate change.
      Mike Berndtson

    2. Peter. I read your post. Thanks for offering your open-minded views. They are harder to come by there days. It's worth noting that the role of fracking should be considered along with the role of coal, as they are competing energy sources. That also brings us to renewables, and finding ways to make them scientifically viable and culturally accepted.

    3. Peter--I read your post. I think there is a fundamental problem that you do not address, and that is that shale gas development requires a very high density of gas wells due to the rapid decline of individual wells. This means that there would be very large environmental and community impacts accompanying fracking for shale gas even if the very best practices were rigorously employed at all well pads, compressor stations, pipelines, etc. and even if fracking presented no danger to drinking water.

      I have been following the shale gas issue very, very closely for more than four years, and I can assure you that anyone who imagines that the "strong resistance" is coming only from those who consider themselves to be environmentalists is seriously misreading the situation. Yes, resistance is coming from strong environmentalists. But it's also coming from people who are lukewarm environmentalists or who don't even consider themselves to be environmentalists. A lot of people are opposed to fracking because they are deeply concerned about (or have already experienced) negative impacts on their health, their quality of life, their businesses, and the value of their residential property. Water pollution is not the only impact--there are others, such as air pollution, 24/7 noise, a huge increase in truck traffic, an influx of transient workers and an accompanying uptick in crime rates, and negative impacts on existing businesses such as tourism and organic farming.

      There have already been multiple problems associated with fracking in Susquehanna County, PA. Broome County, NY--a likely target for fracking if/when NY permits it--has a population density that is more than 5 times that of Susquehanna County! I think if fracking is permitted in Broome County, there will be a lot of complaints and lawsuits and they will not be coming just from people who consider themselves to be "environmentalists"--they will be coming from residents who don't want their quality of life and their residential property values to be degraded by nearby gas wells, compressor stations, pipelines, gas-related truck traffic, etc. There will also be opposition from those who do not want their control over their own property to be compromised by compulsory integration and eminent domain.

      The bottom line is that there are a lot of people who are opposed to fracking because they do not think that the level of industrialization that accompanies fracking for shale gas is appropriate for residential and agricultural areas. This is not a crazy opinion: we have a situation here in NY where huge well pads could be sited, with no public hearings, in communities where you'd have to get a variance to have a coffee shop. If/when fracking comes to Broome County, I think the lawyers will be well supplied with work.

    4. Mary, well said. I enjoy your comments on this and several other environmental blogs. You are at the epicenter of this mess and have an extremely important perspective. If I may be blunt, the argument of "we have to apply common sense, reach common ground," is a freaking ruse to move the environmental protection side over to the right (O&G and finance). Its a negotiation tactic. I've seen environmental protection and remediation regulation slowly get de-funded and lessened in effectiveness since around the early/mid 1990s. I blame Clinton/Gingrich and others of course. Many people and blogs simply don't know how badly things have become so they think environmentalist and other's are extreme. Environmentalist and property owners in New York State should be pissed. They're getting hosed. Sadly by the State DEC as much as industry. I truly believe DEC is operating in conflict, which should be further investigated.
      Keep up the fight!

  5. The local trend is that incumbents were returned to office -- some pro-drilling, some fence-sitting -- despite hype from the anti side to the effect that these races would be referenda on fracking. As in other years, these results favoring incumbents are close to uniform, not mixed. I don't see any harm to the cause of good journalism to simply tell this like it is, which is much closer to what the AP -- and now your former Binghamton outlet -- have done.

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