Jackson was Obama’s top environmental policy maker. As head of the Environmental Protection Agency she oversaw, among many other things, the federal government’s efforts to assess environmental impacts of shale gas development. The focus is on fracking, the controversial process of injecting well bores with pressurized chemical solutions to fracture bedrock and stimulate the flow of gas and oil. It’s been a hot topic, rife with partisan special interests that, as with gun control and taxation, split the country among ideological lines. Obama was re-elected, partly on a platform that identified shale gas development as “a priority” in his plan to stimulate the economy and encourage energy independence. With that, he has to balance mounting pressure from an anti-fracking movement that has highlighted risks associated with unconventional methods to produce oil and gas, and renewed debate over fossil fuel dependence and issues of economic and ecological sustainability.
Under Jackson’s watch, the EPA came out on the losing end of several battles with an industry threatened by the prospects of federal oversight of its operations. Before I get into those, I offer this background: Fracking has been around for a generation to develop conventional gas reserves. With technological breakthroughs around the turn of this century, the practice was successfully applied to unconventional wells bored horizontally through shale formations. The newly accessible shale resources are large, typically spanning multiple states in regions throughout the country. With this the scope and intensity of on-shore drilling has expanded proportionately, along environmental and economic stakes, and the interest of federal regulators. To discourage EPA involvement, the Bush/Cheney administration crafted policy – known among critics as the Haliburton Loophole -- exempting fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act that requires federal approval for injecting substances into the ground.
Now for a few examples of the EPA’s battles with industry under Jackson: Facing stiff resistance, the agency withdrew an administrative order last spring that alleged Range Resources Corp. had polluted water wells in a rural Texas county west of Fort Worth. Industry push back also compelled the agency to revisit its assessment that an aquifer in Pavilion, Wyoming was polluted by shale gas development. Early this month, ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten reported that the surge in domestic drilling and an unrelated rush for uranium resulted in a spike in applications for exemptions to federal rules that protect aquifers from pollution, as well as political pressure for agency officials to stand down. Lustgarten reported:
"The energy policy in the U.S is keeping this [refusing exemption applications] from happening because right now nobody — nobody — wants to interfere with the development of oil and gas or uranium," said a senior EPA employee who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "The political pressure is huge not to slow that down."
Lustgarten’s report squares with what I have heard regarding the EPA’s response to pressure from the shale gas industry, which is looking for disposal points for large and growing volumes of liquid waste associated with drilling.
But Jackson’s tenure was not all bad for the environmental groups counting on the federal government for help, nor was it all good for the industry looking for freedom from regulations. With the help of Congress, the EPA was commissioned and funded in 2010 to conduct a review of fracking’s impact on groundwater. Last week the agency issued a progress report outlining the scope of the project, which will look at water withdrawals, chemical mixing, well injection, spills, and waste water disposal methods related to shale gas development. The final report, scheduled for release and peer review in 2014, may provide a blueprint for gauging long-term and cumulative impacts and provide a foundation for discussion about regulations.
The EPA has also made some progress in addressing concerns over air emissions. In April, the agency unveiled the first-ever regulations to reduce air pollution from shale gas operations, ranging from releases from excessive pressure vented from wells to emissions from compressors, oil storage tanks and other oil-and-gas sector equipment. In the face of industry resistance, the EPA altered the final regulations to allow the current practice of flaring until 2015 -- a key concession.
So how will Obama move forward as Jackson departs? At the moment, he is consumed by a battle with Tea Party Republican’s over taxes and the fiscal cliff. That same right-wing base in the House of Representatives can sink an EPA nomination that could foreshadow an effort to take on Big Oil. The buzz from Washington insiders suggests Obama’s short list includes these names:
None of these candidates, as far as I can tell, would appear to have backgrounds that would threaten their confirmation chances. But given the political climate in Washington, who knows?