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Outrage Erupts After Energy Committee Evaluating Dangerous Gas Drilling Practice Is Stacked With 'Experts' on Industry Payroll

All but one member of the group has financial ties to the oil and gas industry.
 
 
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After mounting concern about the public health and environmental risks of the controversial shale gas drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), last May Obama charged Energy Secretary Steven Chu with the task of setting up an advisory board to look into the practice. Thanks to Dick Cheney and something known as the "Halliburton loophole," fracking is exempt from major environmental laws that protect our water and our health even though fracking can pose serious risks. The process involves injecting water, sand and a toxic cocktail of chemicals deep underground at high pressure to break up rock formations and capture natural gas that may be released.

Fracking has resulted in over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination, yet companies are allowed to keep the chemicals they use a secret. Rural communities from Pennsylvania to Wyoming have been impacted by the industrialization of their towns by drilling operations and residents have complained of poisoned well water, health problems and even explosions from leaking methane. Calvin Tillman, the mayor of Dish, Texas left his town after his family became ill from nearby drilling operations.

So, some oversight from the Obama administration seemed like welcome news. Except the group, known as the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) Natural Gas Subcommittee, was a sham from the start. According to the Department of Energy, this special subcommittee's task was to "identify, within 90 days, any immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracking and to develop, within six months, consensus recommended advice to the agencies on practices for shale extraction to ensure the protection of public health and the environment."

The task wasn't to evaluate whether or not fracking was safe; simply how to tweak it a little to appease public outcry. And the recommendations the group made were definitely minimal. As the Washington Post reported:

A key Energy Department advisory panel will issue a qualified endorsement of shale gas exploration Thursday, saying that hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," can continue safely as long as companies disclose more about their practices and monitor their environmental impact.

The committee's report could ease the way for greater domestic gas exploration, even as it calls for new standards to limit harmful air emissions that bring to the surface gas buried deep in shale formations. But the report is largely silent on the most contentious issue surrounding shale gas exploration: who should regulate it, and whether regulators should apply to it laws such as the Safe Drinking Water Act.

This conclusion is not shocking considering who was appointed to the subcommittee -- all but one has financial ties to the oil and gas industry. As 28 scientists from 22 universities wrote in a letter to Secretary Chu: 

In our work, we believe in reducing individual biases in evaluating the merits of scientific or technological ideas. The current panel does not meet this standard. Six of the seven members have current financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry. These include: chairman John Deutch, Stephen Holditch, Kathleen McGinty, Susan Tierney, Daniel Yergin and Mark Zoback.

These conflicts of interest make it appear that the subcommittee is designed to serve industry at taxpayer expense rather than serving President Obama and the public with credible advice. The committee appears to be performing advocacy-based science and seems to have already concluded that hydraulic fracturing is safe. We believe that the best science should be done first to determine whether increased unconventional natural gas production is sufficiently safe -- from the individual water well to climate impact -- and that policy should follow.

At the very least, the scientists called for chairman Deutch to step down. According to the Environmental Working Group, Deutch was paid more than $1.4 million between 2006-2009 by two top natural gas companies. Over 50 lawmakers from New York also wrote to Chu to show their disapproval of the panel. New York is set to be the next battleground state for fracking. A current temporary moratorium on fracking may be lifted soon by Governor Cuomo, even as a growing coalition of organizations calls for a statewide ban.

In an interview for AlterNet, Sabrina Artel recently spoke with Ramsay Adams, head of the New York-based Mountainkeeper organization about how his group came to support a statewide ban on fracking. Adams told Artel: 

"Our position from the get-go was, we need to learn as much as we can about this. We need to make sure that we understand whether or not it can be done safely, and that was the key -- can they do this safely? Is the technology safe? If there are the best regulations in the world and the best practices in the world, is there a way that fracking is safe? And that was a very honest approach to this problem. We had a theory that it could be proven safe -- let's prove it to ourselves. And so, we spent three years trying to prove to ourselves that it could be done safely, and what we learned is that it can't be done safely; the technology is just not there. It is incredibly dangerous; it is incredibly toxic."

So far it looks like the Obama administration is going to continue to let the gas industry get a free pass to pollute at the expense of public health and the environment. One of the last hopes from the federal government could come from the EPA, which is set to issue its own report on fracking in 2012.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
 
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