Is President Obama Right About Fracking?

The president endorsed hydraulic fracturing — without actually saying the word “fracking” — in the 2012 State of the Union address.

In his January 24 speech, President Obama said:

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”

The president has taken a controversial position. We need to take a moment to see if he’s right.

Does America have a lot of natural gas?

Oh, yes. According to Energy Department estimates, the United States holds over 2.2 quadrillion cubic feet of gas, which would meet U.S. demand for at least a century. Fracking now accounts for about a third of natural gas extraction; in 2009, it was only 14 percent.

Moreover, Obama administration officials have been eager to expand on the president’s remarks. They say that natural gas can help American make a transition from reliance on oil to using renewable energy sources in the future. However, it should be remembered that the “one hundred years” figure assumes current rates of consumption; if we start using compressed natural gas instead of gasoline as fuel for cars and trucks, our supply will run out sooner.

Would expanded fracking for gas be good for the U.S. economy?

It certainly has been a good deal for energy companies. Halliburton, for instance, the world’s largest supplier of fracking services, found its profits soaring in 2011. And some landowners have been able to sell the mineral rights to their property for enormous sums of money.

However, it’s not likely that fracking will be a huge boon to jobs or to the overall business climate. Jannette M. Barth, an economic consultant, has analyzed industry claims of job growth and prosperity, and found those claims greatly exaggerated. And the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts  the oil and gas industry will employ only 136,000 people by 2018, contradicting the president’s estimate. Even the staid Financial Times announced at the end of January that there were signs that the speculative boom in fracking was coming to an end.

Is fracking safe?

Many advocates say fracking is clearly unsafe, and many more say its safety is not yet proven. Iris Marie Bloom, director of Protecting Our Waters in Philadelphia, told reporters in an interview that the president “spoke about gas as if it’s better for the environment, which it’s not.”

Two years ago, Phyllis Mundy — a member of the Pennsylvania legislature — spoke with Macleans magazine about available legal protections: “We do not have the appropriate laws in place to protect public health and safety, and we’re moving too slow to implement them.”

While the president’s State of the Union message promised stricter rules on disclosure of chemicals used when fracking on federal lands, it’s unlikely that Congress will agree to those regulations. And the vast majority of fracking occurs on private property, not federal lands.

Indeed, the current push is for weaker, not stronger, regulation. Some energy industry insiders see the president’s endorsement of natural gas as a reason to gut current environmental rules and speed up drilling. Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said in a news release that, “With delays, backlogs and duplicative analysis, there are thousands of jobs and billions in investment waiting on the sideline.”

We have to act now

Yes, it’s true that our economy is recovering more slowly than anyone wants. We need more jobs, and better jobs, for more people. But our sluggish economic recovery can’t be blamed on too little fracking.

America needs safe and reliable energy, and we need a long-lasting economic boom, but fracking to extract natural gas isn’t the answer to any of that. We’ve seen the evidence that fracking contaminates groundwater, poisons the land, contributes to horrible jobsite injuries, and even sets off earthquakes. The time has come to oppose the worst excesses of the energy industry wherever possible: at the ballot-box, in the legislature, and in the courtroom.