What Is the President Thinking When It Comes to Fracking?

by William Yeatman on November 8, 2010

in Blog

There has been a technological revolution in the natural gas industry over the last decade. In that time, a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has become economically viable, thereby allowing for the exploitation of huge natural gas reserves that had been too expensive to recover. As a result, America’s natural gas supply has roughly doubled.

In his post-election address last Wednesday, President Barack Obama indicated support for the fracking revolution. His administration’s record, however, is decidedly mixed on the issue.

On the one hand, the State Department is a big proponent of the technology, which it sees as a long term deterrent for Russia. As I’ve noted elsewhere, environmentalist policies in some European countries-but especially Germany-have rendered them increasingly reliant on Russian natural gas, even as Russia has proven willing to use its energy resources as a geopolitical bargaining chip. By exporting the fracking revolution to continental Europe, the State Department hopes to weaken Russia’s influence.

Moreover, Obama’s EPA has kept away from regulating fracking, although it easily could. Indeed, with the Clean Water Act precedent set by the its assault on mountain top removal mining, the EPA could shut down whatever industry it wants to in all of Appalachia, which is home to the largest and most promising natural gas resources made available by fracking-the Marcelus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York.

On the other hand, different agencies within the Obama administration are cracking down on fracking. The Bureau for Land Management (within the Department of the Interior), for example, refuses to grant leases to drill natural gas along the Rocky Mountains. Under a new Interior Department instruction memo for implementing the 1987 Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Act, the BLM can (and is) withholding scores of millions of dollars of leases, pending completion of National Environmental Protection Act litigation. Contemporaneously, the Council of Environmental Quality is making NEPA challenges even easier.

So what to make of these conflicting signals? At first I thought that Obama saw himself as a visionary problem solver, and that his vision was to address supposed global warming by embracing gas at the expense of coal. Now, I’m not so sure. It looks like he’s being jerked around by people who know better how the executive branch works.

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