President Obama during the State of the Union address Tuesday night said his administration would require energy companies working in shale gas plays in his country to disclose the ingredients of hydraulic fracturing fluid. That's becoming something of a common practice in the United States, a country described by Texas oil magnate T. Boone Pickens as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Yet, advocacy groups complain the chemicals in so-called fracking fluid threaten the environment. State regulators, and most of the energy companies, counter that fracking is safe if done correctly. So was Obama's message Tuesday to the energy companies or was it a political message to shore up his environmental base?
Last year, Energy Secretary Steven Chu called on energy companies to disclose the ingredients of fracking fluid, though the never-happy American Petroleum Institute said he wasn't giving the industry or state regulators their due. Most of the states in the U.S. hold shale deposits. The Marcellus and Utica plays are among the richest, though other states like Michigan hold their own unique shale deposits. Michigan law requires operators to list the chemical additives used in fracking fluid. Of note is ethylene glycol, or antifreeze, which can lead to cancer. But energy companies, like the dreaded Halliburton, say most of the chemicals are present only in trace amounts. True, the EPA found some of these chemicals in groundwater samples in Wyoming. Here in Michigan, however, the Department of Environmental Quality said fracking has been utilized in the state for years without any adverse affects on the environment or human health. That's the Michigan agency tasked with monitoring the environment, not an energy regulator.
Opponents of fracking note there've been more than 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination tied to hydraulic fracturing and point to a video on the Internet of someone actually sparking a fireball in their kitchen sink presumably because of something tied to fracking. That's all fine and well and certainly there are some reports of livestock falling ill but is that any worse than any other practices associated with the extraction of natural resources? Is strip mining better? Oil? Coal? Natural gas is abundant and one of the cleanest forms of energy, the industry says, so what's the issue?
Groups like Frack Watch and Food & Water Watch note the sky is falling because of the secret and oh-so mysterious fracking fluid. Granted, regulation on shale isn't universal and perhaps Michigan is a special case but it should be noted that more than 12,000 wells were hydraulically fractured in the state since the 1960s and the DEQ didn't find a single problem with it.
Obama is right to address the issue during his annual address because lawmakers on both sides of the aisle see matters related to energy as a national security issue. But it seems that in the era of hyper-partisanship that certain groups would rather chant easy slogans than comb through the 121-page EPA report on fracking issues in Wyoming. One could argue for more wind farms, but the environmentalists complain about those too. In the meantime, maybe we should all just say frack it and walk to work – provided there's a job to go to, that is.
By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com