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Will Natural Gas Become the 'Achilles' Heel' of Our Country?

Energy

After hearing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar at the City Club of Cleveland on Feb. 14 speak about President Obama's vision for the new energy frontier, which is largely a full-steam ahead agenda for fossil fuel extraction, and then reading that more than 800,000 people signed a petition to their U.S. Senators to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and nearly 2,000 people in Frankfort, Kentucky called for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining that same day, it was clear that Obama's energy plan does not align with the sustainable energy future many Americans want.

Charged with the duty of protecting America's great outdoors and powering the future of this country, the U.S. Department of the Interior manages the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees about 245 million surface acres, one-fifth of the nation's landmass, and 700 million sub-surface acres of public lands.

Salazar said Obama's energy blueprint focuses on tapping into all of the energy resources of the U.S. and that the Department of the Interior will play a key role in mapping out a future that will bring about energy security for America. He mentioned how President Richard Nixon coined the phrase "energy independence" in 1974 after the Arab oil embargo and that President Jimmy Carter called the response to the energy crisis the "moral equivalent of war" in 1977 to highlight the long-standing desire for the U.S. to eliminate its addiction to foreign oil, and to stop supporting nations that are hostile and don't share U.S. interests.

His talk quickly moved to renewable energy, as he discussed the 41 solar energy manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and how this country is projected to be the number one solar energy market in the world by 2014. He also said that major strides have been made in wind energy, with more than 400 U.S. companies manufacturing components for the wind energy industry and one-third of all new electrical capacity in the U.S. coming from wind farms.

Without pause, Salazar moved right to oil and gas production. He mentioned that we are currently producing more oil domestically, both onshore and offshore, since Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s. On the natural gas front, he cited U.S. Geological Survey studies revealing ample reserves and pointed to how the great technological breakthroughs in the private sector have combined with public investment to help provide enough energy to supply the needs of the U.S. for the next 100 years.

As Salazar put it, the U.S. is making significant progress with Obama's energy strategy. In 2011, for the first time in as long as Salazar could remember, oil imports entering the U.S. have dropped below 50 percent because the U.S. has moved to capture new domestic sources of energy.

In 2009, there were no solar energy projects permitted on public lands. Today there are 29 commercial-scale solar projects on public lands that are some of the largest in the world, primarily in the southwestern U.S., which Salazar oversees on behalf of the American people. There are more than 5,600 megawatts of permitted renewable energy projects on public lands which, he said, is the equivalent to about 18- to 20 coal-fired power plants. (I get about eight coal-fired power plants from 5,600 megawatts). Salazar said these projects are creating thousands of jobs and even making skeptics believe that we can actually capture the power of the sun to power our cities. Obama's plan is to have 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy produced on public lands by the end of 2012, a goal Salazar said will be easy to achieve.

The rest of Salazar's speech focused on Obama's strong support for the oil and gas industry. He said that for the last three years the U.S. has been the leading producer of natural gas in the world and that natural gas development is an important part of Obama's energy blueprint, as it has the ability to create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next decade.

Salazar said he realizes that the demand for natural gas has to increase to keep the market strong and he mentioned the work being done to encourage companies to transition their vehicle fleets to natural gas. Finally, Salazar recognized the elephant in the room and mentioned the "huge debate" that is happening in Ohio and other parts of the country over concerns that hydraulic fracturing is not safe. He assured the crowd of about 70 people that "hydraulic fracking can be done safely and in fact is being done safely in most cases" and that Obama supports this view.

However, Salazar said he recognizes that there are problems with the hydraulic fracturing process, which is why in the next several weeks the Department of the Interior will make an announcement on three rules that will help guide fracking on public lands. The rules will require full disclosure of the chemicals being injected into the Earth, set requirements to ensure the integrity of well bores and require companies to manage flowback water so it does not contaminate streams.

He identified the many states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and his home state of Colorado—that have a growing resistance to natural gas development. Salazar's feeling is that "the failure of giving the American people confidence that hydraulic fracturing will in fact work will end up being the Achilles heel of the energy promise of America."

Next he focused on oil production, saying the Obama administration has moved forward in developing onshore and offshore oil resources in a very robust way in the last three years. Plans are underway to further the leasing and production of offshore oil drilling in the Gulf and American oceans. The Department of the Interior has plans to move forward on exploration in the Alaskan and Arctic Seas and drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

During the traditional City Club question-and-answer session, one audience member, Mark Mangan from Medina County, Ohio, confronted Salazar about being "a victim of natural gas drilling gone wrong." He explained that his water well has been deemed explosive and his home a public health hazard. He mentioned two neighbors who have been diagnosed with cancer, one just 20 years old, believed to be caused by toxic drinking water. Mangan broke into tears, asking Salazar "can you help us?"

Salazar's response focused on the obviously improper construction of the well in Mangan's community and made reference to Ohio Gov. John Kasich's comment in his recent State of the State address mentioning that some natural gas companies just do the job wrong. Salazar assured Mangan that when fracking is done on public lands it will be done right and excused himself since his department doesn't manage private lands. Mangan replied, "These wells, Sir, they were actually drilled in Medina County park system. It's not private land."

When a question was posed to Salazar regarding the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a $7 billion project to bring heavy, sour crude oil from tar sands production in Alberta, Canada, through the breadbasket of America, to Port Arthur, Texas, for refining, he answered, "The President and the administration have never reached a judgement as to whether or not it should be built" since the State Department, the permitting agency, determined that there wasn't enough time to evaluate the proposal that has yet to be filed on the alternative route of the pipeline. He said that "at the end of the day it may be built," citing the advantage of tar sands oil contributing to national security if, as he believes, the U.S. consumes the oil.

However, experts have shown that the Keystone XL pipeline is an export pipeline. "The Gulf Coast refiners at the end of the pipeline's route are focused on expanding exports, and the nature of the tar sands crude Keystone XL delivers enhances their capacity to do so," according to a report by Oil Change International. In addition, the report highlights the company Valero, the top beneficiary of the pipeline, and the export strategy the company recently presented to its investors. Because the company's refinery is within a Foreign Trade Zone, it will accomplish its export strategy tax-free. The report also said that with U.S. oil demand decreasing, due to higher fuel economy standards and slow economic growth, and with U.S. production of domestic oil increasing, U.S. refiners are turning to export.

There's no doubt there are discrepancies between the will of the people and the energy plan Obama has put forward. I found it interesting that Salazar never mentioned coal except to equivocate solar energy generation to coal-fired power plants. Maybe that's because he didn't want to bring attention to the boom-bust cycle that runs so rampant in fossil fuel extraction. When you base your entire economy on an energy-intensive system and then rely on nonrenewable fossil fuels to support it—and allow elected officials to be bought by the industry—no doubt communities will suffer and the rights of people will fall to the bottom of the priority list.

Just take a moment to look at the Appalachian region of the U.S. There you'll find the most impoverished communities in America where companies profited greatly by extracting natural resources at the expense of exploiting its people and destroying the environment, leaving generations in decades-long, structural poverty. The region is still fighting these battles as mountaintop removal coal mining continues to destroy communities and make people sick.

Is this what we want for our future or can we finally move forward with a sustainable energy strategy that puts energy efficiency first and foremost, and finally levels the playing field for renewable energy by removing all incentives and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and making them responsible for the costs they have been externalizing for more than a century?

I don't know about you, but I'm willing to keep fighting for what's right. Salazar and Gov. Kasich are correct. There are natural gas companies out there that just do the job wrong. I've been listening to stories for years from people all over our country who are asking for help because of companies that have contaminated their drinking water and made them and their families and neighbors sick.

You certainly don't have to look far to learn about this issue. Perhaps the best way to get started is by watching the Oscar-nominated film Gasland. Thanks to the film's director Josh Fox, viewers get an inside look at the largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history that is sweeping across the U.S.

Frustrations are running high as our country continues to run our energy policy as business as usual. Sooner or later, push will come to shove. I just hope that when it does, our country will have taken the right steps forward to truly embrace the sustainable energy future we are capable of creating.

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