Just in time for general elections, four congressional Democrats and one independent have concocted an environmental issue out of technical complexity, ignorance, and fear.
Their assault on hydraulic fracturing is a cheap political trick. It fits a larger pattern of environmental demagoguery that limits US drilling and crimps supplies of oil and natural gas.
The lawmakers have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate regulation of the longstanding oil-field practice. Two of the Democrats, Reps. Mark Udall and Diana DeGette of Colorado, asked for congressional hearings. Sens. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) demanded to know why EPA isn't monitoring hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). And Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) asked whether "political considerations" led EPA to conclude last June that the fracing of coalbed methane wells doesn't threaten drinking water (OGJ Online, Oct. 18, 2004).
Waxman's allusion is to the connection between Vice-President Dick Cheney and Halliburton Corp., which Cheney once led and a division of which provides fracing services.
The politicians are contriving controversy where none should exist to make themselves and their party look more environmentally responsible than their opponents.
Hydraulic fracing is closely regulated and environmentally safe. But it's so arcane that most Americans can be misled into thinking otherwise.
The industry has used the technique for half a century without spoiling subsurface drinking-water supplies. It's an issue now only because an environmental group trying to block drilling of coalbed methane wells in Alabama persuaded the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997 to rule, without any assessment of real environmental consequences, that successful state regulation of the practice should yield to SDWA.
Since then, EPA has conducted its study finding that fracing of coalbed methane wells doesn't threaten drinking water. And the industry has sought a legislative resolution to a problem that emerged not in response to environmental degradation but because persistent obstructionists got lucky in court.
Unwarranted fear thus threatens to impede drilling for and production of gas in a country dangerously short of the substance. The new calls for investigation represent political opportunism in conflict with clear national interests.
(Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)