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WASHINGTON, June 1 — The health and safety crisis in America's gasland states calls not for another panel, but for striking the oil & gas industry's exemptions from federal environmental laws, Earthworks told a Department of Energy task force today.

Last month, at President Obama's direction, Energy Secretary Steven Chu appointed a Natural Gas Subcommittee to address mounting concerns over the risks of drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in communities caught up in the natural gas boom. Today the subcommittee — many of whose members have ties to the natural gas industry — met with environmental groups including Earthworks, which has worked for decades with communities impacted by gas drilling and fracking.

But Earthworks noted that during the first term of President George W. Bush a similar task force of “experts” hatched a plan, later adopted by Congress, to exempt drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Today that exemption — the so-called “Halliburton loophole” championed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, ex-CEO of the company — allows drillers to inject underground millions of gallons of fluids laced with hazardous chemicals, risking contamination of aquifers and water wells. Drilling, fracking and processing natural gas also emit unhealthy levels of air pollution.

“We must not repeat the mistakes of trusting a small group of individuals, many of whom have ties to the natural gas industry, to decide, exempt from public scrutiny, how to handle the threat to health and safety from the dangerous practices of an industry that threatens the drinking water of tens of millions of Americans,” said Gwen Lachelt, director of Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project. “Instead, the Obama administration must work with Congress to close the industry's loopholes and adopt strong protections for communities threatened by the gas boom.”

Lachelt said the task force's recommendations are not a substitute for sound science and a stringent regulatory framework that protects communities, air and water. Oil and gas companies are currently exempt from seven key federal laws. Support from the Obama administration to close these loopholes is the only way to protect the health and welfare of communities impacted by natural gas drilling.
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting a study on the impact fracking could have on drinking water. According to Jennifer Krill, Earthworks' executive director: “It is incumbent upon this subcommittee to support the EPA study and ensure that every precaution is taken to protect our drinking water from drilling and fracking operations.”

Earthworks is also urging the subcommittee to be as transparent as possible in its deliberations and to listen to the recommendations of citizen experts from communities affected by drilling and fracking. The subcommittee has so far failed to acknowledge community efforts to add a citizen expert to the panel. The subcommittee is also not subject to all of the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which provides for open, public access to those advising the government on important issues.

“Subcommittees that operate in secret are contrary to the tenets of open government advocated by this administration,” said Lachelt. “Without real transparency and citizen involvement, coupled with the gas industry ties of some of its members, it will be difficult to trust any recommendations or ideas generated by this subcommittee.”

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