On Friday, President Obama issued an executive order to form a working group of at least 13 federal entities chaired by the Director of the Domestic Policy Council to coordinate federal policy towards unconventional natural gas. The group is called the Interagency Working Group to Support Safe and Responsible Development of Unconventional Domestic Natural Gas Resources (WGSSRDUDNGR?).
This move will presumably prevent any one agency from hijacking shale gas policy and oversight. Stepping back a bit to try to look beyond politics and paranoia, I see it as a measured response to a very complicated issue. Shale gas is a once in a generation opportunity to alter the worldwide energy landscape, and it is something that needs to be handled carefully by all participants.
Lots of pundits and politicians claim President Obama is trying to kill natural gas. I think that's a total crock of sh*t. Obama is smart enough to know that shale gas is a huge boon to his administration and it creates a win-win proposition for his goals. The economic impact of shale gas can be seen in direct and indirect economic impacts from drilling as well as the growth in the industrial and manufacturing sectors from cheap gas. It creates jobs, it creates exports (an huge push by his administration), and it improves the environment.
The only negative from shale gas for Obama is the fact that cheap gas hurts more expensive alternative energy sources, which postpones a "green economy." But cheap, plentiful and less hazardous energy is the real fuel for our economy, and I guarantee you that the president knows this. The green economy ship sailed away several years ago. Obama has the chance to become the real Green President by leveraging natural gas to improve both the economy and the environment.
But as with most major policy issues, the president is caught having to balance different powerful political factions. With shale gas, we have the proverbial bull by the tail, but the speed at which development is moving and the proximity of the Marcellus Shale to the Northeast population base is causing great fear among environmentalists who are forced to act without sufficient supporting data. I've noted recently that environmental groups like the Sierra Club are veering away from supporting natural gas in any way. I don't know if that is a calculated decision to please the base (a.k.a. raise funds) or if espousing compromise was too uncomfortable in this poisonous political atmosphere. But as with most things in America, there is not much remaining in the middle.
Another important consideration is how to balance control between the state and federal governments. This is an issue that has dogged our nation since its founding and plays out in most important legislation dating back to the Constitution. I am of the belief that most of the specific drilling regulations are best handled by the states because each state is unique. Generally, I am terrified when the Louisiana Legislature is in session (as it is now) because of the free flow of stupidity that comes from Baton Rouge, but I still would rather see drilling regulations crafted by those who best know the geology and resources of the state.
That said, I also think the federal government has general responsibility to safeguard the air, water and land. I hear the energy industry bellyaching about regulations making shale gas development cost prohibitive (but at these prices it is impossible to drill for gas and make any profit), but we have to balance the plaintive cries of industry with safeguarding the environment. I think it's doable.
But the feds do have authority over wide areas of federal land and can create and enforce specific regulations concerning drilling (look for the EPA to do this in coming weeks). I think the EPA rules that come out for federal land - much of which is environmentally sensitive parkland and offshore waters - should not be viewed as a template for the resulting policies put forth by this working group. Given its membership, the working group should take a more balanced approach and consider the economic issues alongside the environmental concerns.
Bottom line: I am glad to see this EO creating the interagency working group because I am optimistic that it will consider the many divergent opinions on the myriad of issues related to natural gas and create relatively balanced policies. In the end, I think that the working group's actions will please nobody, but isn't that the sign of successful governmental policy?