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Why Won’t Our 'Environmental President' Stop Fracking on Public Land?

It has become increasingly fashionable to credit President Barack Obama for doing all he possibly can to combat climate change. The only problem: it's not true.

Barack Obama is apparently down with fracking. Photo via Flickr user IREX

It has become increasingly fashionable in liberal circles to credit President Barack Obama for doing all he possibly can to combat climate change. Praise reached especially dizzying levels in the aftermath of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s proposal of new rules to reduce carbon pollution from power plants this June.


The EPA plan is hard proof that our nation’s “environmental president” has “done everything within his power to fight the most urgent crisis of our time,” gushed New York magazine's Jonathan Chait. Obama’s actions are “about as much as a president could do on climate change without Congress,” declared Slate’s Will Oremus. Even former President Jimmy Carter, never shy about launching the occasional barb at the White House, said as much at a recent energy conference in that most elite of hangouts, Aspen, Colorado.

One is free to bemoan the painfully slow rate of progress, the logic goes, but the blame lies squarely with Republican obstructionism.

The problem is that this is an awfully shortsighted (if not outright deceptive) way to measure Obama’s environmental legacy. It is no secret that major climate legislation—like a carbon tax—is dead on arrival in Congress, thanks to the pack of troglodytes controlling the House of Representatives. But as the president’s detractors and champions know all too well, some pretty significant environmental policy can be made directly by federal agencies. And on that front, the administration’s weak record speaks for itself.

Under Obama’s watch, coal exports have risen more than 50 percent. Federal officials have paved the way for oil and gas exports, too, rubberstamping massive liquefied natural gas export plant proposals and loosening the four-decades-old ban on crude oil exports. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is in charge of administering public land, continues to lease millions of acres to coal companies at below-market rates.


But of the administration’s many climate sins—and there are many—one stands out in particular: ongoing tolerance, and even support, for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public land. No other energy policy seems to so brashly defy climate science, popular will, and rudimentary political wisdom at the same time.

Oil and gas production is booming nationwide thanks to fracking, a drilling technique that involves injecting chemically infused water miles underground to crack open energy-rich shale rock formations.

“Fracking is opening up millions of acres of lands that were once not economically viable to produce oil and gas,” says Dan Chu, senior campaign director at the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America initiative, which opposes fossil fuel extraction on public land.

A Halliburton fracking facility in North Dakota. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Most fracking right now takes place on private land, but the industry’s gaze increasingly extends to federal turf, too. Frackable land in the public domain stretches from California and New Mexico to Michigan and Virginia. National forests and parks are in the industry’s crosshairs as well. Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, Utah’s Canyonlands National Park and Montana’s Glacier National Park all sit on mouth-watering shale formations.

In 2010, as it became apparent the shale boom showed no signs of slowing, the Obama administration moved to introduce new rules for fracking on federal and Native American lands. (The rules were last changed in 1983, well before fracking became commonplace.) Now, nearly four years after its first public forum on the topic, the feds are on the verge of finalizing new regulations. And they’re pretty disappointing: highlights include such bare-bones measures as new well integrity reporting requirements and a loose chemical disclosure mandate based on a model bill from the Koch Brothers-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The rules will almost certainly not include an outright ban or moratorium on fracking.


This is very bad news.

The proposal also makes a mockery of the idea that President Obama has gone all-in to fight climate change. To be sure, the BLM crafts its own rules, but as part of the Department of the Interior, the bureau’s staff and leaders respond to the White House. As lobbyists and researchers from green groups stress, it is highly unlikely that the BLM would implement rules of this magnitude without clear approval from the president.

Growing evidence has linked fracking to water contamination and an uptick in seismic activity near wells. (Last year, the fracking hotbed of Oklahoma had tremors 5,000 percent above the typical rate.) These risks alone should have led the federal government to outlaw the practice. But just in case the possibility of drilling-induced earthquakes in national parks isn’t alarming enough, one need only look at the impact on our climate.

Industry likes to depict natural gas as a "bridge fuel”—a necessary evil in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. And gas does have a relatively modest carbon footprint. But that’s only part of the story. Shale drilling generates large amounts of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s up to 86 times more potent than carbon. A recent Cornell University study found that over a 20-year period, shale drilling has a larger greenhouse gas impact than either coal or oil.

When it comes to the future of the planet, swapping methane reliance for carbon addiction is like choosing the firing squad over the guillotine—it's better to steer clear of both options.


The stakes are obvious. If you take the threat of manmade climate change seriously, then a nationwide ban (like the one just upheld in France by that country's Supreme Court) makes the most sense. Since that requires congressional action, halting fracking on public land is the next best option. It would be a modest gesture, as drilling would continue unabated elsewhere. But it’s good politics. A limited fracking ban might serve as a launching pad for future attempts to rein in the fossil fuel industry.

“On this issue, we really need some bold leadership and vision and that’s not what’s being provided right now,” says Mark Schlosberg, national organizing director for Food and Water Watch, which supports a nationwide ban.

Activists protest the export of natural gas at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Photo via Flickr Stephen Melkisethian

In this case, Team Obama cannot blame its inaction on public opinion.

In contrast to their elected representatives, a majority of Americans are against fracking, or at least have their doubts. A September, 2013 Pew study found 49 percent of voters oppose the drilling technique—an 11 point reversal from another Pew poll taken just six months earlier (a Quinnipiac poll from late last year found more support for the practice). These numbers fly in the face of the fossil fuel industry’s most cherished trope: the upper-middle class, urban-dwelling, out-of-touch environmentalist. For every Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono, there are dozens of ranchers, retirees and working-class people pissed as hell at out-of-state companies invading their communities and wreaking havoc.


On the other hand, a ban would be sure to roil another key constituency.

Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, says a halt to fracking on public land—as harmless and common sense as it may sound—would amount to a “declaration of war” on the oil and gas industry. “You don’t want to go to war with them,” he says. “You want to sign a non-aggression pact.”

Of course, these pacts are easier to make when Washington’s leading bureaucrats already sympathize with the plight of their negotiating partners. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell is a former oil and gas engineer. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz is a longtime champion of fracking, who famously conducted pro-gas research funded by industry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When the federal government’s new fracking rules are put in place, peaceful co-existence with America’s booming oil and gas business will still be the name of the game. Don’t let Obama’s apologists convince you otherwise.

Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer based in Washington, DC, covering labor and environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter.