At the same time, many local residents and activists complain that the process of hydraulic fracturing to free that gas has led to contamination of drinking wells, toxic wastewater seeping into streams and hazardous smog in the air.
The administration is tacking in response to the surprising boom in natural gas, which pollutes less than coal when burned in a power plant, while also trying to mitigate risks, officials say. Obama himself claimed in his State of the Union address this year that the U.S. has a century’s worth of natural gas reserves, and developing that gas could boost employment by 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.
“We recognize that there is this important potential here, and we want to make sure we get it right,” Heather Zichal, the top White House aide on energy, said in an interview. Given the boom in production, “our thinking has truly evolved, both on the production and utilization side.”
After Obama embraced natural gas as part of an “all-of- the-above” approach this year, Zichal held a series of conversations with Gerard, whose group represents companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. of Irving, Texas, and ConocoPhillips of Houston, and Dave McCurdy, the president of the American Gas Association, a Washington group representing companies that distribute natural gas including Consolidated Edison Inc. of New York and Southern California Gas Co. of San Deigo.
Gerard, who had visited the White House only a few times since Obama took office and donated $2,500 to the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, was an unlikely partner.
A former Oklahoma Democratic congressman, McCurdy, as the head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers when Obama took office in 2009, had used his low-key charm to coax the administration into negotiating new fuel-efficiency standards with automakers.
Just as with the automakers, McCurdy said the White House recognizes “that with the natural gas community, they don’t have to be in natural conflict,” he said in an interview.