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Obama Must Ensure Safe Gas Drilling

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

By Dusty Horwitt, EWG Senior Counsel

President Obama contends that natural gas drilling can help meet his goal of reducing U.S. imported oil consumption by a third by 2020. Yet, in a welcome change from his previous position, Obama recently acknowledged that drilling carries inherent risks. Obama told a March 30 assembly at Georgetown University,

"We have to make sure we're doing it safely, without polluting our water supply."

That very day, the Denton (Tex.) Record-Chronicle published reporter Sarah Perry's account of the Knoll family, who moved into their dream home in Bartonville, Tex, three years ago. Because of nearby gas drilling, the newspaper reported, the dream has turned into "a scene out of a Stephen King novel, complete with noxious water, foul air, numbing headaches and grasshoppers falling dead from the sky."

Susan Knoll told the Record-Chronicle,

"This was supposed to be the home before the nursing home. We built this home to live in forever, and before we have any long-term health effects, we have to move. But where do you move where there isn't going to be drilling? Now people sit in our backyard and get bloody noses."

Knoll had her well water tested by a private company last summer. The tests turned up something called methylene blue active substances -- a type of lubricant used in gas drilling that can make water feel like soap.

Knoll complained - dozens of times - to the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Agency staff members visited her home but found no violations. A Railroad Commission inspector tested pools of water that mysteriously appeared on her land for salt content. The inspector did not test her well water, the Record-Chronicle reported. The Railroad Commission did not link her health complaints and the tainted well water to drilling.

This compelling and well-documented article reflects the fears of thousands of American landowners who have found out firsthand that developing natural gas resources in their back yards could mean destruction of property, hazards to health, contamination of water, soil and air, regulatory passivity and a lack of corporate accountability. Many of these problems have been documented in the Sundance award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland.

Here's what the Obama Administration Needs to Do The Obama administration must take action immediately to protect landowners' air, water and soil quality. It should:

  1. Enforce the federal Safe Drinking Water Act's provision that requires drillers to obtain a permit before injecting diesel fuel underground in hydraulic fracturing operations, a drilling technique used in more than 90 percent of U.S. natural gas and oil wells. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn't shown much interest in enforcing this provision. A recent Congressional investigation found that between 2005 and 2009, drilling companies injected 32 million gallons of diesel or diesel-laced fluids in hydraulic fracturing operations in 19 different states without obtaining permits.
  2. Use its position on the Delaware River Basin Commission to vote against drilling in the basin, which provides drinking water for 15 million people, until federal and state officials produce a comprehensive environmental statement for the area and show that drilling regulations can be enforced effectively.
  3. Launch studies focused on the experience of landowners near existing drilling operations. These could shed light on desperately-needed regulatory reforms to ensure that the long-term environmental and human health of America's urban, suburban and rural gaspatch communities are not sacrificed for a short term boom in natural gas, a nonrenewable resource. Such inquiry ought to be part of the EPA's current study of hydraulic fracturing.

When natural gas burns, it looks clean. But as President Obama has recognized, producing natural gas carries great risks. As gas drilling spreads into previously untapped formations from Wyoming to Pennsylvania, his administration must ensure that drilling does not come at the expense of our health and water.


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