By John Walke, Clean Air Director/Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council
Sometimes a moment captures dirty, squirming truths like a rat trap. That happened last week in the Senate.
The Senate’s clean air subcommittee convened a hearing on EPA’s mercury and air toxics standards (MATS) for power plants that burn coal and oil. These landmark standards will prevent 130,000 asthma attacks, 5,000 heart attacks and up to 11,000 premature deaths every year starting in 2016. [pdf]
Staff for Republican Senators invited two former Bush administration officials to criticize these health standards: Susan Dudley, former head of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and Jeff Holmstead, former EPA air chief turned utility industry lawyer/lobbyist.
Mr. Holmstead headed EPA’s air office during most of the Bush administration when it evaded the power plant air toxic standards required by the Clean Air Act. Instead Mr. Holmstead oversaw EPA’s adoption of substitute rules that allowed all power plant air toxins save mercury to go unregulated; set weaker mercury standards whose ultimate reductions were delayed by nearly two decades; and prescribed a cap-and-trade program for the neurotoxin, mercury. A federal appellate court overturned the Bush administration rules in a scathing ruling [pdf] that compared the agency’s legal reasoning to the capricious Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland.”
In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama reiterated his support for the development of clean energy sources that will create jobs and protect the environment. But while developing clean energy is essential for moving us into the 21st century energy marketplace, the way we build our clean energy future also matters. We must develop energy without harming public health and the environment.
A natural gas extraction process, commonly referred to as fracking, was cited in last night’s State of the Union as an example of clean energy. But using fracking to extract natural gas is anything but clean. In fact, the process produces more greenhouse gas emissions over time than traditional methods of oil drilling or coal mining, according to a Cornell University Study. In addition, fracking poses a great risk to public health and property, as evidenced by the multiple documented cases of severe water contamination near fracking sites, including water than can be actually set on fire as it comes out of the faucet.
Though Obama pledged to “develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk,” it is unclear as to how this would be accomplished. A loophole in the 2005 energy law (often called the Cheney or Halliburton loophole) granted oil and gas industries an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This means the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot require drilling companies to disclose the toxic chemicals used in fracking, or limit their activities in order to protect drinking water. And, following an order from Congress, the EPA has not yet finalized an important national study on the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water. Thus, the public remains in the dark about the chemicals used in fracking, as well as the risks they pose to their drinking water.