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.
President Obama made a strong stab at outlining a progressive narrative last night that envisions a nation where “everybody plays by the same rules.” It’s a pretty simple idea, tapping the powerful American ideal of egalitarianism — that all of us should get a “fair shot” and that nobody is too high and mighty to not be held responsible for their actions.
Of course, the obstacles to realizing this vision are enormous, particularly when it comes to ensuring equal accountability before the law. The rich are able to get away with misdeeds because their wealth enables them to block or water down rules aimed at curbing such behavior and can also be used to hire armies of lawyers and lobbyists when the authorities do come after them.
The U.S. is not nearly as bad as, say, Russia in this regard, but we are far, far away from a society where everyone is held equally responsible for their actions. And, ironically, we have moved further from that ideal over the past two decades during the same period when many politicians have trumpeted “personal responsibility” at every turn. That concept, it turns out, has been mainly applied to poor people and especially African-Americans — not to rich people who actually have fewer excuses for being irresponsible. Indeed, many of the same conservative politicians who have been most obsessed with “personal responsibility” have helped to make it easier for the rich and corporations to do whatever they please without fear of sanctions. Witness the rollback of rules governing Wall Street or the weakening of labor laws that protect workers from abusive employers or the hollowing out of the IRS’s enforcement capacity.
So it was nice, last night, to hear President Obama call for steps to ensure accountability for all.