President Obama said in his State of the Union Address Tuesday (January 24) that his administration "will take every possible action" to safely expand shale gas drilling efforts — a loud endorsement of a practice that has divided statehouses, as lawmakers debate how to develop the industry while mitigating its environmental impacts.
"The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don't have to choose between our environment and our economy," Obama said.
Those words could be a boon to lawmakers in shale-rich states hoping to stoke natural gas development by limiting restrictions on the practice of hydraulic fracturing, a method of speeding up extraction of natural gas by blasting deep into wells millions of gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals. Opponents of the technique — commonly known as fracking — say it taints local aquifers, putting water supplies at risk.
In some states environmentalists have turned up pressure on lawmakers to delay the practice or ban it all together.
New York officials have been planning to lift a three-year moratorium on fracking pending the release of new environmental regulations, but ongoing protests of the draft rules have cast doubt on when — or if — that will happen. And in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich has sought to make natural gas production the centerpiece of economic recovery, a rare string of earthquakes near drilling sites has aroused suspicions that fracking to blame. That has prompted calls for a moratorium that would allow for further study. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week estimated that 72 percent of Ohio voters favored a moratorium, even while near two-thirds of Ohioans back oil and gas drilling because of its economic benefits.
But in his speech, Obama emphasized the economic impacts of drilling. "We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years," he said. "Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade."
Briefly acknowledging fracking's potential impacts on the environment and public health, however, Obama announced he will require drillers on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.
"America will develop natural gas without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk," he said.
The absence of federal action on chemical disclosure has left states to develop their own policies. In December, Colorado became one of now eight states to require disclosure. Its rules, which require disclosure of all fracking fluid chemicals, are the country's most comprehensive . Other states allow companies to keep secret chemicals that are considered "trade secrets." Some states, including Pennsylvania, allow the drillers themselves to make that call.
President Obama's optimism about shale gas comes at a time when some companies are scaling back production due to plummeting prices. Bloomberg reported this week that Chesapeake Energy Corp., the nation's second-largest natural gas producer, will reduce drilling while cutting spending in gas fields by 70 percent.