The Secretary of Energy called me last May to ask if I wanted to be on a seven-person committee to outline a way to develop natural gas safely. It was clear I’d be the only person with no ties to the industry. I’d be putting the Environmental Defense Fund, and myself personally, right next to a third-rail issue. An awful lot of people see fracking as a boon for America’s economy; they argue the last thing we need is more regulation. On the other side, lots of voices say we have to ban it. Why gamble EDF’s reputation by putting ourselves in the middle of a civil war?
The norm is for these government commissions to write recommendations that are later ignored. My nightmare scenario was that we’d be seen as giving cover to a practice—hydraulic fracturing—that would continue to hurt people. I talked to colleagues, and we agreed this was a chance to start getting the rules right. At the first meeting, I shared my fear that nothing would change. What good is a report that nobody follows? Getting strong rules on disclosure seemed like the best we could do. But the other members were receptive to the ideas we brought. They felt the only thing that could slow the development of this American asset would be the environmental backlash. A commitment that was supposed to be a dozen two-hour telephone calls became 14 full-day meetings. We talked to citizens affected by fracking and visited sites in Pennsylvania.
We came up with some good recommendations. The commission’s final report really focused on how everyone involved in this industry—the federal government, state governments, companies—was not doing enough to make it safer. To get this group of people to shine a spotlight on that fact was really positive. It made people accountable. Many governors read the report and several have already adopted some of the rules. We are working with different companies to measure methane leaks.
I’ve been doing this job for 28 years. EDF’s approach used to be “sue the bastards.” If we can negotiate with industry on strong rules, we might make it easier for elected officials to strike the right balance. It’s unclear whether fracking will be made safe or not. Right now, the risks are not tolerable. — As told to Diane Brady