Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson said Tuesday her agency is working on air quality regulations for areas impacted by natural gas production and hydraulic fracturing.
In an interview with National Public Radio’s Michele Norris at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Jackson said her agency is acting to control air quality in areas that are facing new impacts.
“You are going to have huge smog problems where you never had them before,” she said. “These are rural areas. ... There is a lot of activity around those wells and that has an impact on air quality — and we know it already. The EPA will soon be coming out with regulations to deal with the air quality around natural gas production.”
The regulations are expected to come at the conclusion of an ongoing two-year study.
“Fracking,” as the process is commonly known, has been used extensively in Western Colorado and Garfield County to drill wells accessing natural gas deposits. Fracking entails injecting high-pressured chemical cocktails into the ground to break up rocks so the gas can be extracted. Its environmental impacts, or lack thereof, have been hotly debated both locally and nationally.
Jackson said in a congressional hearing on fracking last month that there are no known cases of the practice polluting water, despite worries from the environmental community and areas adjacent to natural gas fields.
She added Tuesday that keeping groundwater safe from fracking pollution means keeping natural gas companies in line, and monitoring how they protect drinking water while drilling.
“If you get a bad operator in there,” she said, “someone who is not responsible, who is not seeing how important it is to get this right, they can contaminate an aquifer.”
Meanwhile, she praised the promise of cleaner energy from natural gas production and the economic boom it has provided to areas like Garfield County.
“Natural gas is an economic engine in communities that, literally a few years ago, didn’t have one ... All of a sudden they are literally boom towns,” she said. “I think natural gas production is an incredible opportunity for this country to transition to a cleaner fuel.”
Whether the burgeoning industry fulfills its promise, she argued, will depend largely on convincing people fracking is safe and that natural gas is profitable.
“Natural gas production will thrive in this country,” she said, “unless the American people and investors come to believe it’s not going to be financially viable or it’s going to hurt their health ... The way you avoid that is by stepping up to regulation rather than running from it.”
Mistakes during BP spill?
Asked whether she believes her agency made any mistakes during the aftermath of last year’s massive BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, Jackson said the agency could have worked more efficiently with the U.S. Coast Guard.
She also defended the EPA’s use of chemical dispersants to fight the spill.
Jackson praised former Coast Guard head Thad Allen, but acknowledged a power struggle between them on who was in charge of oil on the shore and off of it.
“I would have sat down earlier with Thad Allen, who I got along with and have tremendous respect for, and said, ‘Hey, let us do what we do best so that you can do what you do best.’ ... I think that could have helped a lot and I think it would have been a better partnership.”
On dispersants, Norris asked Jackson about using chemicals that may have had harmful effects on the Gulf’s ecosystems in unknown and untested ways.
Jackson said the risk was worth keeping more of the toxic oil from hitting the shore.
“I think it was the right decision,” she said, “because we were trying to stop something that we won’t ever know what would have happened, which is a lot more oil coming on shore over a lot, lot longer period.”
She said the struggle for the EPA was in getting BP not to over-use the dispersants, and to educate the public about why they were necessary.
“The people of the Gulf region don’t know much,” the New Orleans native said, “but they know it sure doesn’t feel good to be putting millions of gallons of something else in there unless you absolutely have to.”
Responding to Gore
Jackson appeared to take in stride the recent criticism of her and the Obama administration levied by former Vice President Al Gore in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
“Compared to some of the stuff that’s been said to my face, it was pretty mild,” Jackson joked.
Gore accused the administration of not countering global warming deniers forcefully enough, and not making the scientific case for global warming in a 7,000-word essay titled “Climate of Denial.”
“He has simply not made the case for action,” Gore wrote. “He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks.”
Jackson noted the prominence green jobs took in Obama’s campaign, and some of the administration’s work promoting carbon legislation. But, she said, the electorate isn’t calling for immediate action.
“They’re not marching on Washington the way they did on Earth Day in the 70s,” she said. And, she added, Obama is doing what he can with the public will he’s been given.
“He’s said, ‘Let’s do what we can do,’” Jackson said.