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October 15, 2010

Why Dick Cheney Sticks to Bottled Water

Americans should be able to drink what comes out of their taps without worrying that it will make them sick. So why would anyone insert a loophole into the Safe Drinking Water Act that subverts that basic right?

If you can't guess the answer, a quick history refresher should tip you off.

In 2005, Congress passed an Energy Act that included (thanks to meddling by former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney) an exemption for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) from the protections of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. It's called the "Halliburton loophole" and it's a whopper.

Fracking, which I wrote about in August, involves injecting a pressurized mix of water, sand, and highly toxic chemicals directly into gas-rich shale formations. If you combine fracking with horizontal drilling (something that Halliburton pioneered shortly before getting its loophole), you can get exponentially more gas from shale formations, which means exponentially more profit. The U.S. has some very, very big shale formations so, even by Halliburton standards, we're talking about a lot of money.

Back in 2005, the industry argued that fracking was so safe and so harmless, that regulation simply wasn't necessary. It's hard to imagine they really believed it. Chemicals used in fracking fluid are known to cause everything from cancer to depression of the central nervous system. Moreover, the chemicals underneath the earth's surface that may be released due to gas drilling are also known to be harmful to human health and the environment. But just for the sake of argument, let's take a leap of faith and assume that the industry is correct and that gas drilling and fracking really don't pose a significant threat to anyone's water supply. If that's the case, then why doesn't the industry want to operate under the same rules as everyone else? Why are most companies refusing to reveal what's in the fluid, let alone agree to safeguards?

The Halliburton Loophole perfectly represents the outsized arrogance of the big energy companies during a time when oil men were running the country. For the natural gas industry, a gold-rush mentality without common-sense safeguards to protect water quality and human health, has produced a litany of horror stories and safety violations -- not to mention a popular uprising of citizens whose water supplies have been poisoned. 

Times truly have changed, however, since the days when Dick Cheney held his secret meetings with energy execs and a compliant Congress opened the Halliburton Loophole. A bill widely known as "the FRAC Act" has been introduced in both the House and Senate, and if Congress passes it, the Halliburton Loophole will close.  The fossil-fuel lobby, so far at least, is vehemently opposed.

I just don't get that. Yes, we need to use natural gas as our country makes the transition from the dirtiest energy sources (coal and oil) to clean and renewable sources like wind and solar. And yes, if we want that gas, we will have to drill for it. But no, we can't compromise when it comes to protecting our drinking water. People shouldn't have to fear that their wells will be poisoned and communities will be destroyed. We need to close the Halliburton Loophole.


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