President Obama’s Fracking Panel Unmoved By Pennsylvanians’ Water Concerns

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On Monday, the Natural Gas Subcommittee, from Energy Department Secretary Stephen Chu’s Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), held its second public meeting.  Around 400 people packed a cramped auditorium at Washington Jefferson College in western Pennsylvania to discuss the effects of hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) on water supplies, air quality and other threats from the controversial practice.

The crowd split into two camps, those opposing and those supporting the highly contentious drilling method which has spread across Pennsylvania. Fracking opponents argued that fracking is a dangerous and destructive process that must be banned immediately, while those in favour yelled out “drill, baby, drill.”

Given the circumstances it was not surprising that the pro-frackers won the evening. This was due, in large part, to the work of gas industry front-group Energy in Depth who sent out emails to Pennsylvania and New York residents supportive of fracking, offering them airfare, hotels and meals to attend. Tickets to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play the New York Mets were even offered, although later retracted.

The mandate of the SEAB Natural Gas Subcommittee focuses on supporting the President’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future,” and will make recommendations within the next months on how to “improve the safety and environmental performance of shale gas extraction processes” [pdf]. A fracking ban, or even a slowdown in gas development will not be considered.

The pro-oil and gas biases of the Subcommittee members have been heavily scrutinized since their appointment earlier this year. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes that six of seven members have a considerable financial interest in the oil and gas industry. For instance, Subcommittee Chairman John Deutch, sits on the board of Houston-based Cheniere Energy Inc., and was paid some $882,000 for his services between 2006 and 2009. He also earned around $563,000 in 2006 and 2007 for serving on the board of Schlumberger Ltd., one of the world’s three largest fracking companies.

Nadia Steinzor, who is a Marcellus Shale representative for EARTHWORKS Oil & Gas Accountability Project (OGAP), believes that it is unconventional gas profits, and not the interests of affected residents, that will be best represented on the panel. Josh Fox, who made the fracking documentary Gasland, called last night’s events a sham.

EWG Senior Counsel Dusty Horwitt has gone even further in demanding wholesale changes to the panel and its purposes, given the heavy representation of oil and gas interests on the Subcommittee:

John Deutch must step down from the panel.”

“…The panel must be chaired by an impartial person and must also be expanded to include independent experts.”

Trusting the oil and gas industry to police themselves poses tremendous risks to public health and safety as well as effective environmental protections.

Time and again, drillers have acted carelessly placing the lives of residents at risk.

In this instance, the oil and gas industry is being handed the proverbial keys to the city since running such an important committee will help to determine drilling and environmental policies for years to come.

The President and the DoE have also undermined the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by convening this industry focus group to study unconventional gas fracking. Something Rep. Fred Upton and his fellow Republicans have been trying so hard to do, though largely unsuccessfully

In fact, the EPA initiated a four year study of fracking’s impacts to freshwater last year, with preliminary results expected late in 2012. The existence of a separate fracking panel will probably have little effect on the discussions within the EPA’ Science Advisory Board Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan Review Panel, which meets again on June 21st. But when it comes time to produce an initial report in 2012, the possibility that the Natural Gas Subcommittee has ruled that fracking is not a danger will definitely have an effect. Policy will already be set.

EWG’s Dusty Horwitt also questions the Natural Gas Subcommittee’s impacts on the EPA for similar reasons:

“We were surprised that this panel was created at all, especially with the EPA study already going on.”

“So we’re concerned that this panel will come out with findings in 90 days – that’s essentially early August at this point – that some people could hold up as the Obama administration’s definitive view on the issue.”

The next SEAB, Natural Gas Subcommittee public meetings will take place on June 28th and July 13th, at the main office for the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, DC.

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