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    Environmentalists in self-defeating war on hydraulic fracturing

    Caroline May
    The National Center for Public Policy Research
    Washington, DC


    Environmentalists are engaged in a misguided legislative battle against a drilling method that increases our reserves of natural gas - an environmentally sound and economical energy source.

    According to a report by the Potential Gas Committee (PGC), drilling innovations such as hydraulic fracturing (or hydrofracking) have increased the amount of retrievable natural gas resources in the U.S. by 35% since its last report was issued in 2006.

    The PGC's estimated gas reserves of 2.07 quadrillion cubic feet – the equivalent of 350 billion oil barrels, an amount equal to Saudi Arabia's known energy reserves – could help reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

    A 2008 Pennsylvania State University study estimated that in the next ten years the development and retrieval of these vast natural gas reserves with hydrofracturing would create 100,000 new jobs and provide the United States with clean energy worth upwards of $1 trillion.

    Even environmentalists recognize the benefits of increased use of natural gas, which emits roughly 30% less carbon dioxide than oil for each unit of energy produced. As Carl Pope, president of the Sierra Club, wrote in support of this fossil fuel, "We can produce cleaner, lower carbon, cheaper domestic fuels – it’s called natural gas."

    Nevertheless, liberals in both houses of Congress have been pushing legislation that would subject the hydrofracking process to onerous new regulation.

    In June, Rep. Daina DeGette (D-Colo.), Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo) introduced the "Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act" ("Frac Act"). That same month Sen. Bob Casey, (D-Pa.), and Sen. Chuck Schumer, (D-NY) introduced a companion bill on the Senate side.

    The FRAC Act would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act's provision pertaining to underground injection to include hydrofracking and require companies employing hydrofacking to publicly disclose the trade-secret chemicals involved in the process.

    Proponents of the measure argue that hydrofracking, which entails sending a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals underground to release the natural gas below the surface, causes water pollution and poses a health risk to nearby population.

    Liberals have used the energy giant Halliburton's investment and interest in the technology as way to rally their base - which has long demonized the company.

    They point to a provision in the 2005 energy bill – dubbed by critics as the "Halliburton loophole" - that stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate hydrofracking facilities as evidence of chicanery at the hands of then-Vice President Dick Cheney (former CEO and chairman of the company from 1995-2000).

    But hydrofracking is not the destructive process environmentalist would have the public believe. It has been in existence and undergone extensive development and studies since 1940, when Halliburton invented the ground-breaking gas extraction method.

    According to a 2004 EPA study, there have been "…no confirmed cases that are linked to fracturing fluid injection into coal bed methane (CBM) wells or subsequent underground movement of fracturing fluids. Further, although thousands of CBM wells are fractured annually, EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection into CBM wells."

    Dr. Bernard L. Weinstein of Southern Methodist University in Dallas explained, "All but one percent of the fracturing mixture is made up of water and sand, so the small amount of chemicals and additives is well diluted."

    Industry is capitalizing on the great potential of hydrofracking, but the "Frac Act" could put the process at risk in the future.

    Exxon Mobil announced last December plans to purchase the natural gas conglomerate XTO Energy in a deal worth about $41 billion. Included in the contract, however, was an exit clause voiding the acquisition if Congress enacts a law that outlaws hydrofracking or makes it "commercially impracticable."

    Instead of subsidizing impractical alterative energy schemes, Congress should advance the one alternative energy source that is both clean and economically viable: natural gas.

    It can do so by simply getting out of the way.

    About the author
    Caroline May is a policy analyst at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.

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