President Obama’s Climate Plan Embraces Fracking – But at What Cost?

Yesterday, President Obama unveiled a broad plan aimed at curbing carbon pollution. In his new climate action plan (the most comprehensive one by a U.S. president to date), the president calls for expanding natural gas development as a cleaner energy source. While burning natural gas emits half the emissions as coal, the method used to develop the fossil fuel is anything but clean and could outweigh any benefits.

Hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as fracking) has become the primary method used to extract natural gas. The process produces significantly more greenhouse gas emissions over time than traditional methods of oil drilling or coal mining, according to a Cornell University Study. This is due to methane leaks from fracking wells and to the trucks hauling in large quantities of water needed for fracking. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Recent EPA data placed the oil and natural gas industry as the second-highest contributor of greenhouse gases. If the Obama administration is going to encourage the use of natural gas as part of its approach to climate change, it should pursue significant emissions reductions from the oil and gas industry and implement strong safeguards to rein in the pollution associated with fracking.

Greenhouse gas emissions are not the only concern involved in fracking; the drilling method has been linked to a growing number of cases of water and land contamination. In fact, Obama’s action plan comes on the heels of a new Duke University study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that found strong evidence that links fracking to drinking water contamination in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. The study found that, on average, methane concentrations in water wells were six times higher, and concentrations of the gas were 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of a shale gas well.

The president’s action plan does recognize some of the environmental problems associated with natural gas development, such as the importance of curbing emissions of methane, water management, and air pollution. The president has launched the Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program aimed at sharing “best practices” on such issues. However these efforts are not enough to ensure protection of public health and the environment. No “best practices” program can replace strong state and federal rules and scientific studies needed to understand the impacts. The president’s focus going forward should be to collaborate with state and federal officials to strengthen and enforce public safeguards on natural gas drilling. Such an effort would have to set the bar much higher than the weak fracking rule recently proposed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Take action on this rule here.

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