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Unnatural Gas

Natural gas has been proposed as an energy game changer.  Proponents claim that its carbon emissions relative to coal and its abundance could make natural gas the bridge resource that moves the U.S.  toward cleaner energy.  But the extraction of natural gas by a process know as hydraulic fracturing or fracking is facing mounting local opposition – and for good reason.

Fracking is not federally regulated thanks to a loophole in an energy bill passed in 2005. The process can contaminate drinking water supplies with cancer-causing chemicals and significantly deplete freshwater aquifers.  The controversy surrounding this practice has led communities in New York and Pennsylvania to propose fracking bans.  Local pressure has also moved the EPA to take another look at the potential dangers fracking poses to underground drinking water supplies.  The agency is conducting an analysis of the practice due to conclude in 2012.  Meanwhile, EPA has requested chemical composition disclosure from several leading energy companies that participate in hydraulic fracturing.  But the chemicals or fracking fluid are not only threat to groundwater….

Some legislators are also shining a spotlight on fracking – on Monday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, released findings from a congressional investigation that proved drilling service companies have injected at least 32 million gallons of diesel fuel underground.  Injecting diesel as part of “hydraulic fracturing” is supposed to be regulated by U.S. EPA. But an agency official told congressional investigators that EPA had assumed that the use of diesel had stopped seven years ago. Another reason why self-regulation and a “trust us” culture must not substitute real federal oversight.

But the issue of regulation is not the only thing at stake.  The question of what constitutes “clean energy” is also crucial to the role natural gas will play in our future energy portfolio.  During the State of the Union, President Obama promoted the idea of a clean energy standard in which he included natural gas.  Before the seemingly innocuous clean energy standard is embraced by the public, let alone Congress, a robust public debate on the resources and technologies included in the standard must continue to take place.  Let’s not be quick to undermine renewable energy deployment and throw more federal subsidies at dirty energy just because the definition of “clean” has been adulterated.