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Source: The Buffalo News

'Fracking' support by Obama roils N.Y. debate

President's hard sell reverberates locally


Posted: January 29, 2012
Originally Published: January 27, 2012

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday doubled down on his sudden support of hydraulic fracturing as a key to the nation’s energy future, a move that has thrilled supporters of “fracking” — and baffled environmentalists — in New York.

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly a hundred years,” Obama said in a speech in Las Vegas. “Developing it could power our cars, our homes and our factories in a cleaner and cheaper way. And experts believe it could support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.”

Obama administration officials acknowledged that the power of the federal government to promote fracking was limited compared with that of the states, which primarily regulate natural gas drilling.

But they said the president wanted to lead by example by promoting the safe use of hydraulic fracturing on public lands.

“We believe — and we have a good track record of this on our public lands — that fracking can be done safely and in an environmentally sound manner and be an important part of our energy future,” said a senior Obama administration official, who asked not to be identified by name.

The president’s comments came as excellent news to the gas industry in New York State, which has struggled to promote fracking amid growing environmental concerns in the state and in neighboring Pennsylvania.

“His messages must be heard and considered in New York as the

state moves toward allowing safe natural gas development in the Southern Tier,” said Brad Gill, president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York State.

But Sarah Eckel, legislative and policy director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said Obama’s support for fracking wasn’t consistent with what his own administration has had to say on the issue. Just last month, the Environmental Protection Agency said for the first time that fracking can lead to groundwater pollution.

“It’s surprising he is so enthusiastic about a technology that’s not as wonderful as it seems,” Eckel said.

In his speech in Las Vegas, Obama acknowledged the environmental concerns prompted by the nation’s fracking boom — and said he shared them. He said that’s why he is requiring that companies that do fracking on public lands disclose the chemicals they are using.

“America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk,” he said. “But we’ve got to keep at it. Think about what could happen if we do.”

Envisioning an America where more vehicles run on domestic natural gas than foreign oil, where a natural gas boom creates “a generation of new energy jobs” and where affordable natural gas makes American manufacturers more competitive, he said: “We can do this.”

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, who formed the Marcellus Shale Caucus in the House to push for development of its gas riches, could not have been happier to hear the president speak that way in his State of the Union address. “I admit I was surprised,” Reed said. “But I was glad to see the president come to a conclusion that we’ve been at for over a year now. This should send an important message to people that even the president thinks this can be done safely and responsibly.”

For the Marcellus Shale, that message may be more important than any federal actions. New York, not the federal government, will decide whether to allow large-scale drilling in the gas-rich parts of the Marcellus Shale in the Southern Tier.

Environmentalists have been pushing for a stronger federal regulatory role but so far have been disappointed.

The EPA is merely going to issue a guidance, rather than actual rules, about the use of diesel fuel in fracking. And while the agency has proposed rules on air pollutants resulting from the fracking process, the Natural Resources Defense Council wishes they were stronger, said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the environmental group.

In addition, the council has requested that the agency regulate fracking wastes, but “the EPA has not responded to our request,” Mall said.

Then again, Kenneth von Schaumburg, a former EPA deputy counsel, said the most important part of Obama’s comments were his insistence that the government make sure that drilling is done safely.

“He sent the message that his regulatory initiative is going to be continued,” said von Schaumberg, now a member of Clark Hill PLC’s Government & Public Affairs Group.

Some supporters of fracking saw a political motivation to the president’s comments. After all, fracking is important in the swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio for the fall election.

Craig W. Turner, vice president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, watched the State of the Union with several other Chamber of Commerce types from around the Great Lakes who joined him for a lobbying trip to Washington this week.

Asked whether these people thought Obama’s fracking comments were political, Turner said: “That was the sentiment.”