The big question in policy circles for the last month has been, would the Obama administration that has repeatedly said that putting solar panels on public land should be allowed side with science or with environmentalists when it came to natural gas?
Though only a small percentage (<10%) of hydraulic fracturing - fracking - is on public lands, it would still reverberate to state governments if the administration had evidence that it is harming the environment. The new guidelines, finalized after four years of haggling, instead show that science remained part of the equation. Rather than issue a blanket ban, they called for increased safety measures, like reinforced boreholes to prevent possible leakage. Companies also must reveal the composition of chemicals used for fracking, those can no longer be ignored under the guise of trade secrets.
That last part is ironic, though such irony is common in politics - the Obama administration just got done saying they did not want transparency at the Environmental Protection Agency, they need "legitimate withholding of certain scientific and technical information" involved in making decisions and now they are saying that everyone else should be completely transparent. Secret sauce for you, not for us.
We can ignore the hypocrisy, this is still a win for the environment even if environmentalists don't think so. Long before new regulations, the American energy sector had reduced CO2 emissions back to early 1990s levels - and emissions from the dirtiest form, coal, were back at 1980s levels. That is all due to natural gas, which is much cleaner than coal. Without natural gas, we would still be using too much coal.
We can only imagine what might have been, but emissions in the 1990s would never have gotten high in the first place if environmentalists had not convinced Democrats to run nuclear energy out of the country. France has no concerns about CO2 emissions because they are 80 percent nuclear power. What did environmentalists once tout as the replacement for nuclear power? Natural gas.
Solar power is clearly the future but it is not ready yet and nuclear energy is a non-starter politically. The Obama administration has shown they would rather ship oil by rail, which is far more destructive for the environment, than add 400 miles of new, safe pipeline to the 20,000 that exist and attract the ire of environmentalists, so they are to be applauded for siding with science this time.
Last week the Natural Resources Defense Council sent out a press release stating that millions of people were being impacted by fracking so I asked NRDC for evidence that fracking had contaminated millions of wells and they referred me back to the same blog post by Amy Mall, their public policy analyst. Today Mall writes again "The bottom line is: these rules fail to protect the nation's public lands—home to our last wild places, and sources of drinking water for millions of people—from the risks of fracking."
I have been critical of NRDC in the past for using legal language under the auspices of science and this is another example. What does not have risk?
I am not a fan of splitting the difference but in this instance, it's clear that environmentalists do not like it, and energy companies do not like it, because it's rather reasonable.
Image: Fracking operation at a well pad near a farm over the Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania. Credit: Robert Jackson, Stanford University
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