Chutzpah. That’s how Washington lawyer Matt Armstrong, of Bracewell & Giuliani, characterized the possibility that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would now take enforcement action against natural gas drillers who injected millions of gallons of diesel fuel into the ground to facilitate hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, to extract natural gas trapped in shale formations thousands of feet below. His point was that the EPA – having taken little action to develop clear regulations banning or restricting this particular practice – can’t pretend that they always disapproved of diesel fuel injection now that a Congressional investigation spearheaded by Henry Waxman and Ed Markey has brought it to light.
While I think Armstrong may have a point about the EPA being asleep at the switch on this one, and I take him at his word that he, and the natural gas industry clients he represents, welcome clear and effective federal regulations restricting or – better yet – banning this practice, I can’t help but conclude that it is the natural gas industry, rather than the EPA, that wins the award for chutzpah.
Part of the reason that anti-shale gas campaigners are gaining such traction with the general public is that the natural gas industry makes it so easy for them. Does any CEO of any natural gas production company really think that the general public would ever believe that injecting diesel fuel into the ground is a good idea? This little episode only further underscores the perception that when the natural gas industry unflinchingly opposes public disclosure of the chemicals used in “frac fluids” – or, as my colleague Ramon Alvarez pointed out yesterday – when the oil and gas industry sue to block recently adopted EPA regulations requiring basic air pollution reporting that, indeed, the industry really does have something to hide.
Being tone deaf to public perception is not a crime, but when you turn around and blame the regulatory agency you regularly oppose for failing to stop you from engaging in what is obviously a potentially harmful practice that they should have been regulating, you certainly are guilty of chutzpah. If the natural gas industry ever expects to be embraced as a responsible partner in transitioning this nation to a safe, secure, low-carbon, clean energy future, natural gas production practices need to dramatically improve and the stonewalling and finger pointing at others need to stop.