State Of The Union Address: A Mixed Bag On Natural Gas

In President Obama’s State of the Union address last night, he laid out his plans for the expanded role that natural gas will play in the future. The President stated:

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.”

I am pleased to see a commitment to the full disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals, but this is only the first step in getting the rules right for natural gas. As we discussed back in November, EDF President Fred Krupp sat on the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (Subcommittee), which provided strong recommendations for strengthening environmental management in the shale gas industry and developing this abundant energy source in ways that safeguard public health and the environment. 

I would have liked to have seen the President speak directly to implementing the Subcommittee’s recommendations, beginning with the Department of the Interior (DOI). Simply committing to the disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals isn’t enough. The recommendations included strict requirements for everything from well construction and the reduction or elimination of methane venting to groundwater protection to methane leakage and emissions flares, among others.  These recommendations are ready to be implemented, and DOI has an opportunity to demonstrate best practice in its leasing and oversight of unconventional natural gas development on federal lands.

The jury is out on whether states will embrace the Subcommittee’s recommendations and it will take a concerted effort on the part of organizations like EDF and concerned citizens to demand swift action to improve the quality and effectiveness of state regulations.  Implementation of the Subcommittee’s recommendations at the state level is a good place to start and some states are beginning to take a lead role.  For example, on the issue of disclosure, Colorado recently set the bar for requiring the full disclosure of all chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing by making this information available on a searchable database. On the other hand, states like New York have proposed weaker requirements, asking companies to disclose only half of the proposed additive products instead of the chemicals actually used in the hydraulic fracturing treatment. For these reasons, it is crucial that the DOI disclosure requirements set a leading example that will influence states to do better.  The DOI should start with Colorado, but can do even better.

Last night, the President demonstrated his commitment to domestic energy production through natural gas development and said that “America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” The federal government and the states have a shared responsibility to ensure that our air, land and water are safe wherever hydraulically fractured wells are drilled.

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  • About the author

    Associate Vice President & Chief Counsel of the US Energy and Climate Program
    Mark Brownstein is the Associate Vice President & Chief Counsel of the US Energy and Climate Program at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and he leads EDF’s natural gas efforts.

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