Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced  that his department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are fast-tracking unconventional gas drilling permits in Utah’s Uintah Basin. The federal agencies will approve up to 3,675 new wells for the Greater Natural Buttes Area Gas Development Project, first proposed in 2006 by Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Onshore LP, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation.
The Greater Natural Buttes  project was delayed for many years in part because it will emit large quantities of hazardous air pollution. In fact, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a draft environmental impact statement  discussing how oil and gas wells in the Uintah Basin region are the primary cause of ozone pollution , which exceeded acceptable levels for 23 days during January and February 2011, including five “very unhealthy” days.
The Interior Secretary is hailing unconventional gas as “clean” despite the fact that the EPA  and a recent Cornell study  suggest that unconventional gas drilling releases huge amounts of climate-altering pollution. Now it appears that air pollution will no longer hold up gas development with the inclusion of an air quality supplement helping to speed up the project’s draft environmental impact statement.
Salazar described the agreement between the federal agencies and drillers as representing a “sea change” for streamlining air and environmental monitoring, and for approving (future) fossil fuel projects.
Of the sea change, he stated:
“I am encouraged that the BLM, EPA, and the company found a collaborative path forward that would put sensible air pollution control technologies to work as the field is explored and developed. We are going to work to institutionalize this type of collaboration between the BLM and EPA to ensure that future proposals receive prompt and thorough reviews and are not delayed by unnecessary bureaucracy.”
The Salazar announcement follows on the heels of a memo  [pdf] he sent earlier this month to BLM Director Bob Abbey. The order stressed not to designate certain lands with wilderness characteristics as “Wild Lands.”
By not placing lands off-limits for oil and gas drilling, and with federal agencies now geared towards quickly approving projects, oil and gas drillers stand poised to drill whenever and wherever they wish, with inadequate scrutiny into the climate and health impacts of their actions.
According to the Environmental Working Group  (EWG), oil and gas companies have used waivers under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act to inject toxic chemicals into some 120,000 wells drilled in the Western U.S. since 2000, mainly for unconventional gas, and around 270,000 wells since 1980.
The health, air and water pollution risks  tied to unconventional gas drilling, and in particular the much-maligned and destructive hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) method, are increasingly well-known. Just last month, a former Bush-era EPA official publicly stated  (again) that the safety of unconventional gas fracking was exaggerated.
To respond to the specific dangers to groundwater from fracking for unconventional gas, the EPA is in the midst of an initial assessment  of the drilling process.
The study, however, is not due out until late 2012 (with the final report expected in 2014), offering little solace  for public concern around gas fracking.
The Utah gas drilling approvals arose from the increased pressure Republicans are putting on the Obama Administration to cut funding for Wild Lands preservation.
Due to the politically-motivated rejection of scientific concerns on fracking, the Obama administration seems ready to roll over on its land conservation pledges. Former Clinton-era Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently called on the President to assert himself  against those politicians who have “…simply declared war on our land, water and natural resources.”
Babbitt added that:
“It is imperative that President Obama take up the mantle of land and water conservation — something that he has not yet done in a significant way…”
“We’re three years into this administration and we haven’t heard a strong conservation voice…”
“This silence is going to yield some very bitter fruit if it continues.”
The President’s disappointing stance on protecting land is echoed in his recent pro-drilling slant. In May, Obama named a panel  to study the fracking process and to make recommendations within six months. As EWG has pointed out, the panel is dominated by representatives from the oil and gas industry.
EWG Senior Counsel Dusty Horwitt described  the panel and its mandate by saying:
“It looks as if the Obama Administration has already reached the conclusion that fracking is safe.”
“The new administration panel appears to be an effort to undercut the EPA’s study by assigning an elitist group of industry insiders to take a cursory look at fracking…”
Access the Department of the Interior Air Quality Supplement Notice  published in the Federal Register June 10, 2010, which is available for public review for 45 days.