One of Obama's top scientific advisers has signaled that the White House is poised to make a major push for the controversial practice of known as fracking--which environmental campaigners say is a betrayal of a truly clean energy agenda and evidence that the administration still misunderstands the severity of the climate dangers associated with all forms of fossil fuels.
The signals by Prof. William Press, an astrophysicist who heads the government-funded American Association for the Advancement of Science, were made at both an industry conference this week and in an interview with the Observer in the UK.
"The gas industry is straining to develop underground natural gas reserves across the nation and would love to know the exact rules and constraints by which it can carry out fracking in different states," Press told the Observer's Robin McKie. "Once they know that, they can get on with it."
Press then indicated that Obama "could use executive orders to outline those rules in the very near future and so initiate widespread gas fracking in the US."
Green groups, progressives, and environmentalists—though not unaware of Obama's long held "all of the above" approach to US energy—may still be shocked to hear the degree to which the administration is gearing up for a push of the practice that studies show have dramatic negative impacts on the environment and communities close to drilling operations.
As economist Robert Pollin said in response to Obama's State of the Union earlier this week, the good news was the president's commitment to a clean energy future. The bad news? His continued commitment to a dirty energy future.
"Let’s get serious here: Natural gas is not a clean fuel," Pollin said.
"Yes, emissions are only half as bad as with coal, and it is also modestly cleaner than oil. But that isn’t good enough. If we allow our natural gas production to expand significantly—or even to stay where it is today—there is no way we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by anything close by the 40 percent that is necessary by 2030, and by 80 percent as of 2050."
State level fights against fracking are ongoing in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvanian, New York, and elsewhere as local communities fight back against gas giants trying to cash in on the fracking boom.
But Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, says the practice should be stopped in its tracks, not expanded. "Any position short of a ban on fracking is hurting the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions in the long term," she said, "saddling us with 50 years of infrastructure to continue fracking for gas that will be exported around the world."
As McKie reports, the claim that natural gas is actually cleaner or less carbon intensive than coal or oil is disputed by environmentalists and scientific study:
Greenpeace says no proper analysis has been done on gas leakage from fracking sites. In particular, there is a fear that methane – which is a far more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – may be escaping from wells and adding to the warming of the atmosphere. Campaigners also claim that there have been more than 1,000 cases of groundwater contamination in the US because of fracking and have urged a moratorium on underground drilling.
And as Common Dreams reported last month:
New research on "alarmingly high methane emissions" brings further environmental scrutiny to natural gas extraction including fracking, and illustrates how the boom in the industry may well be a plan for climate disaster.
The findings, led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), were presented at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, the journal Nature reports, and reiterated data the team first noted in February of 2012 that 4% of the methane produced at a field near Denver was escaping into the atmosphere. The team also presented preliminary findings from a Utah study that suggested an even higher rate of methane emissions—9% of the total production.
NOAA describes methane as 25 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2.
"We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see," says Colm Sweeney, who led the aerial component of the study as head of the aircraft program at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder.
All of this happens amidst a growing climate movement in the US that is putting laser-like focus on the Obama administration to match presidential rhetoric with meaningful executive action. This is best highlighted by the ongoing fight around the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, against which campaigners say they will determine if Obama is willing to show courage by defying the fossil fuel industry's demand for building the pipeline.
On Sunday, over 200 organizations—led by 350.org, Sierra Club and the Hip Hop Caucus—are holding a rally in history in Washington, DC to apply public pressure on the president to oppose—"once and for all"—the Keystone XL project.
But the larger focus of the rally, called Forward on Climate, is to demand that Obama and his colleagues in Congress take notice of the changing political tide across the country in addition to the changing climate.
"We’re having the largest rally in U.S. history on climate change in the National Mall this Sunday," said Sierra Club president Michael Brune. "And it’s coming at a time where there are several important decisions that the president will make: about mountain top removal, about fracking across the country, about drilling in the arctic, whether or not to build a deadly and destructive pipeline."
"What we’re seeing is a resurgence of committed, passionate Americans who are willing to advocate and fight for clean energy," Brune said.
So the voices are loud and clear. The questions remain: Will Obama listen to those leading the climate fight? And will he follow?