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In Supporting Natural Gas Drilling, Obama Omits Any Mention of Responsibility

It's important to acknowledge that just because natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels -- especially coal -- does not mean we should give the industry a free pass.
 
 
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A couple months ago, I was out in Dimock, PA, meeting with community members who've been affected by reckless natural gas drilling in and around their town. I was also there to tape an interview with Leslie Stahl, for an episode of 60 Minutes that will air this Sunday.

Dimock has become an unfortunate poster child of dangerous gas extraction and after spending some time there, it's easy to understand why. Many residents have expressed alarm at how their drinking water has turned brown and made them sick soon after gas drilling started. The water is now too poisonous for most residents near drilling operations to use for drinking or bathing; it will be at least a couple years until a pipeline is built to transfer water from a safe location. Moreover, highly flammable, greenhouse gas-intensive methane that is believed to have been released from gas drilling or hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") caused one Dimock resident's well to spontaneously combust one day. Methane released from a gas drilling site has been observed bubbling up in the Susquehanna River, miles away. And while sitting in the front yard of another Dimock resident, I could hear methane gurgling constantly out of a special vent recently installed in their own well.

Concerns about natural gas extraction have been on the rise not just in Dimock, but in places across the country, from West Virginia to Texas to Wyoming. And yet even given these important issues, natural gas still has a relatively lighter footprint than coal or oil. Gas is not a clean fuel, but it can be cleaner.

So it was with great interest that I heard Obama talking about natural gas last week. In a press conference the day after the election, someone asked if there were issues he might be willing to collaborate on with the new Congress. "We've got, I think, broad agreement that we've got terrific natural gas resources in this country," the president replied. "Are we doing everything we can to develop those?"

Uh oh. Look, I can only imagine the pressures that the president is under on a daily basis. And I can sympathize with the unique challenges the president faces of needing to speak accurately and precisely on a wide variety of topics with the media ready to pounce on any minor nuance or particular slipup. But what did concern me about the president's statement was a single word that I didn't hear. I hope his question about natural gas resources omitted that word unintentionally: "Are we doing everything we can to develop those responsibly?"

Clearly, we are not. Not when fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, parts of the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as our country's hazardous waste and cleanup laws.

It's important to acknowledge that just because natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels -- especially coal -- does not mean we should give the industry a free pass. The exploration, production, transportation, and burning of natural gas is an inherently dirty business that disrupts local communities and pollutes the environment. There are thousands of documented cases of air and water pollution violations and human health and safety hazards. If natural gas is to be part of the mix that displaces dirtier energy sources like coal and oil, these have to be addressed.

Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club.

 
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