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Will Natural Gas Become the 'Achilles' Heel' of Our Country?

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After hearing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar at the City Club of Cleveland on Feb. 14 speak about President Obama's vision for the new energy frontier, which is largely a full-steam ahead agenda for fossil fuel extraction, and then reading that more than 800,000 people signed a petition to their U.S. Senators to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and nearly 2,000 people in Frankfort, Ky., called for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining that same day, it was clear that Obama's energy plan does not align with the sustainable energy future many Americans want.

Salazar said Obama's energy blueprint focuses on tapping into all of the energy resources of the U.S. and that the Department of the Interior will play a key role in mapping out a future that will bring about energy security for America.

He talked about renewable energy and the 41 solar energy manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and how this country is projected to be the number one solar energy market in the world by 2014. He also said that major strides have been made in wind energy, with more than 400 U.S. companies manufacturing components for the wind energy industry and one-third of all new electrical capacity in the U.S. coming from wind farms.

In 2009, there were no solar energy projects permitted on public lands. Today there are 29 commercial-scale solar projects and more than 5,600 megawatts of permitted renewable energy projects on public lands. Salazar said these projects are creating thousands of jobs and even making skeptics believe that we can actually capture the power of the sun to power our cities.

The rest of Salazar's speech focused on Obama's strong support for the oil and gas industry. He said that for the last three years the U.S. has been the leading producer of natural gas in the world and that natural gas development is an important part of Obama's energy blueprint.
He cited U.S. Geological Survey studies revealing ample reserves and pointed to how the great technological breakthroughs in the private sector have combined with public investment to help provide enough energy to supply the needs of the U.S. for the next 100 years.

Finally, Salazar recognized the elephant in the room and mentioned the "huge debate" that is happening in Ohio and in other parts of the country over concerns that hydraulic fracturing is not safe. He assured the crowd of about 70 people that "hydraulic fracking can be done safely and in fact is being done safely in most cases."

However, Salazar said he recognizes that there are problems with the hydraulic fracturing process, which is why in the next several weeks the Department of the Interior will announce three rules that will help guide fracking on public lands. The rules will require full disclosure of the chemicals being injected into the earth, set requirements to ensure the integrity of well bores and require companies to manage flowback water so it does not contaminate streams.

He identified the many states that have a growing resistance to natural gas development. Salazar's feeling is that "the failure of giving the American people confidence that hydraulic fracturing will in fact work will end up being the Achilles heel of the energy promise of America."

During the traditional City Club question-and-answer session, Mark Mangan from Medina County, Ohio, confronted Salazar about being "a victim of natural gas drilling gone wrong." He explained that his water well has been deemed explosive and his home a public health hazard. He mentioned two neighbors who have been diagnosed with cancer, believed to be caused by toxic drinking water. Mangan broke into tears, asking Salazar, "Can you help us?"

In his response, Salazar referenced Ohio Gov. John Kasich's comment in his recent State of the State address mentioning that some natural gas companies just do the job wrong. Salazar assured Mangan that when fracking is done on public lands it will be done right and excused himself since his department doesn't manage private lands. Mangan replied, "These wells, Sir, they were actually drilled in Medina County park system. It's not private land."

When a question was posed to Salazar regarding the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, he answered, "The president and the administration have never reached a judgement as to whether or not it should be built." He said that "at the end of the day it may be built," citing the advantage of tar sands oil contributing to national security if, as he believes, the U.S. consumes the oil.

However, experts have shown that the Keystone XL pipeline is an export pipeline. "The Gulf Coast refiners at the end of the pipeline's route are focused on expanding exports, and the nature of the tar sands crude Keystone XL delivers enhances their capacity to do so," according to a report by Oil Change International.

There's no doubt there are discrepancies between the will of the people and the energy plan Obama has put forward. I found it interesting that Salazar never mentioned coal. Maybe that's because he didn't want to bring attention to the boom-bust cycle that runs so rampant in fossil fuel extraction. When you base your entire economy on an energy-intensive system and then rely on nonrenewable fossil fuels to support it -- and allow elected officials to be bought by the industry -- no doubt communities will suffer and the rights of people will fall to the bottom of the priority list.

Just look at the Appalachian region of the U.S. There you'll find the most impoverished communities in America where companies profited greatly by extracting natural resources at the expense of exploiting its people and destroying the environment.

Is this what we want for our future or can we finally move forward with a sustainable energy strategy that puts energy efficiency first, and then levels the playing field for renewable energy by removing all incentives and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and making them responsible for the costs they have been externalizing for more than a century?

I don't know about you, but I'm willing to keep fighting for what's right.

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