To hear administration officials tell it, the "fourth quarter" of the Obama presidency will be focused on economic growth and what the president calls “middle-class economics.” Brian Deese, senior advisor to the president on climate and energy, emphasized this at a Friday breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
“We are in a moment where we are seeing durable momentum in the economic recovery,” said Deese. “One of our key questions is how can we—as an administration, the executive branch and the president—position ourselves to be maximally effective at encouraging increased economic growth, but also growth where the benefits are broadly shared.”
Deese’s comments come on the day the Department of Interior is expected to announce new rules regarding the use of hydraulic fracturing to mine oil and natural gas on federal lands. As Politico reported, the new rules represent the “most comprehensive foray to date toward regulating the technology at the heart of the U.S. oil and gas boom.” Here are some details:
The regulations will include standards for well construction, responding to worries about fracking fluids being able to seep into nearby drinking water supplies, sources said. They will also include rules for the disposal of the liquid fracking waste known as “flowback,” and requirements for companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process. At the same time, the rules will offer some room for states to remain in charge, as long as BLM certifies that existing state regulations are sufficient to comply with federal standards.
How do these new restrictive regulations on fracking, which has contributed significantly to the domestic energy production boom of recent years, translate into economic growth?
“We believe that in order to have a durable industry in the future, you need to strike an appropriate balance between protecting public health and safety, and allowing for responsible production. If you look at the rules that the Department of Interior will put out later today, they appropriately strike that balance, and they are focused on pragmatic but very important steps, like disclosing fluids that are being used in the fracking process,” he said, noting that just 11 percent of fracking in the U.S. occurs on federal lands where these new rules will be implemented. “What we’re putting out today reflects a responsible approach to our obligation to balance those issues.”
It’s a revealing answer, insofar as Deese doesn’t really address the question about economic growth. Disclosure of fracking fluid, for instance, may be an important goal, even though several states have established laws requiring certain levels of disclosure and many companies disclose their chemicals voluntarily. But increasing regulation on the energy industry, particularly on the innovative practice of hydraulic fracturing, doesn’t sound much like being “maximally effective” at encouraging growth. It sounds more like being maximally effective at putting the brakes on fracking entirely.
In fact, that may well be the intent of this executive action. Federal legislation that would enact these forthcoming fracking rules has stalled in Congress, meaning the Obama administration, pressured by environmental groups to curb fracking, has had to resort to making its own new rules.
"I think if you look at the agenda around reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon pollution, encouraging a clean-energy economy, this is a place where we have a very aggressive agenda," said Deese. "And most of the actions that we are pushing forward are actions that we can move forward on through the executive branch."
And despite the limitation of the rules to fracking on federal lands, environmental regulations like these often serve as a benchmark for activists seeking to stop disliked practices elsewhere. Deese signaled as much.
"What we’re putting out today reflects a responsible approach to our obligation to balance those issues that I talked about at the top," he said. "But one of the things that we’re going to see going forward is a conversation that will play out across the country about where to strike the balance."