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‘Fracking’ Fear: ls Clean Air Worth Polluting the Water Supply?

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Surging energy prices have Americans once again asking how to become less dependent on foreign oil.

Natural gas is one much talked about solution — even more so now that the technology exists to drill for gas in shale rock. Estimates show that the Marcellus Shale alone, which runs from New York to Tennessee, has roughly enough gas to power homes and power plants until 2030.

This untapped supply has created something of a "gas rush" in states like New York and Pennsylvania. There are about 71,000 active natural gas drilling wells today in Pennsylvania alone -- almost twice as many as there were a decade ago.

President Obama has highlighted the fact that the country has "terrific natural gas resources" and made clear that they should not go undeveloped. During his State of the Union address this year, he set 2035 as the target date for the country to get 80 percent of its electricity from "clean" sources to "strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people."

But the process used to drill for natural gas — called hydraulic fracturing -- has taken a beating.  Critics say it contaminates nearby water supplies and are calling for federal regulation under the Clean Water Act. (See: What the "Frack?" Natural Gas Is Key to America's Energy Independence, but Is It Safe?)

"If we don't regulate how we extract natural gas from the ground, it does not matter if we are enjoying its benefits in cleaner air," says Tyson Slocum, Director of Public Citizen's Energy Program. "The access to clean water is one of the most important resource battles in North America this century....If we are contaminating ground water and drinking supplies we've lost."

The most recent and notably criticism of natural gas "fracking" came from the filmmakers of the Academy-Award nominated film Gasland, which documents the flammable and toxic water of people living close to natural gas "fracking". (For our interview with the filmmaker see: "Gasland": Will Natural Gas Save America…or Destroy it?)

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing the "fracking" process.  During a hearing last week the agency made clear that its doing what it can, but "[doesn't] want to stifle science."

"Right now the natural gas industry is winning," Slocum says, referring to powerful lobbyists who vow that hydraulic fracturing is safe. "If hydraulic fracturing is so safe, why would they be opposed to having it regulated under clean water laws just like any other industrial processes?"

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