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June 16 2011

22:15

The Case for a Ban on Gas Fracking: Food and Water Watch Report

 

Last month, DeSmogBlog released Fracking the Future, an in-depth report on the threats posed by unconventional gas drilling and the efforts of the gas industry to limit state and federal oversight of the process. A review of independent scientific research showed that under no conditions can unconventional gas drilling be considered safe, nor can the oil and gas industry’s army of PR front groups and apolgists be trusted to give an accurate portrayal of the true risks associated with the fracked gas boom.

The report concluded that current state oversight is inadequate to hold the rapidly growing gas industry accountable and, given the dangers associated with unconventional gas production, an immediate moratorium on hydraulic fracturing is necessary and overdue.

In its new report, the nonprofit Food and Water Watch renewed these claims, calling for a reinstatement of federal statutes like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act over unconventional drilling and, more forcefully, calling for a nationwide fracking ban. 

Entitled The Case for a Ban on Gas Fracking, the new report details the rapid growth of the risky unconventional gas fracking frenzy gaining momentum across the U.S. In the four-year span from 2004 to 2008, gas wells in America increased by 41 percent, to over 52,000. This steady increase of drilling across the country is accompanied by an unsettling encroachment of gas wells into residential areas. The report cites Pennsylvania as an example, where over 3000 unconventional wells and future well sites sit within two miles of 320 day care centers, 67 schools, and 9 hospitals. <!--break-->

The report finds that despite industry suggestions to the contrary, fracking is inherently dangerous. The opportunity for irreparable damage to drinking water supplies, air quality and human health presents itself at nearly every stage of the process. 

Food and Water Watch catalogues numerous well-documented instances of air pollution, water contamination and negative effects on human health due to fracking operations. Some of the worst dangers are associated with the heavy chemicals used throughout the process and toxic wastewater, which post-fracking is laced with additional toxic contaminants from the underlying rock. The report details how nearly no water treatment facilities can cope with the billions of gallons of wastes produced in the process.

Compounding the hazards associated with fracking are the underfunded, overextended and often industry-friendly state enforcement agencies. Even where existing laws were updated to more effectively reflect the risks associated with unconventional drilling, there is little to indicate that state regulators are prepared to monitor and enforce these laws adequately. 

States stand to profit too much by maintaining the current backslapping culture of industry appeasement. The report draws on the connection between state revenue and insufficient regulation. In Pennsylvania, for example, where $1.1 billion in gas drilling related revenue accrued between 2006 and 2011, officials are twice as likely to issue warnings than impose fines. Officials often have the conflicted responsibility of both fostering and moderating the industry.

Beyond the state level, there is significant pressure to limit federal oversight. Although a growing consensus is rallying for the restoration of federal environmental statutes like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act over unconventional drilling, little progress has been made on this issue. The report outlines how industry lobbying has steadily increased, combatting measures to protect public health and safety. The fracking moratorium in New York, for example, has caused a surge of lobbying activity, over $1.2 million dollars worth in 2010 alone.

Despite the reticence of lawmakers on the issue, Food and Water Watch lists ten studies and investigations from the last 18 months, each of which point to the dangers associated with fracking, especially to human health, and the inability of officials to capably monitor the process. While officials levied several injunctions against drilling companies, the report notes that because of weak oversight, nearby communities remain vulnerable.

The rush to produce unconventional gas is putting the public at an unacceptable risk, the report concludes. A nationwide ban on fracking is the only measure that can truly secure public air and water against industry contamination.

Read the full report, The Case for a Ban on Gas Fracking

 

June 14 2011

00:49

Interior Dept Okays Thousands Of New Unconventional Gas Wells In Utah

Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that his department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are fast-tracking unconventional gas drilling permits in Utah’s Uintah Basin. The federal agencies will approve up to 3,675 new wells for the Greater Natural Buttes Area Gas Development Project, first proposed in 2006 by Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Onshore LP, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation.

The Greater Natural Buttes project was delayed for many years in part because it will emit large quantities of hazardous air pollution. In fact, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a draft environmental impact statement discussing how oil and gas wells in the Uintah Basin region are the primary cause of ozone pollution, which exceeded acceptable levels for 23 days during January and February 2011, including five “very unhealthy” days.

The Interior Secretary is hailing unconventional gas as “clean” despite the fact that the EPA and a recent Cornell study suggest that unconventional gas drilling releases huge amounts of climate-altering pollution. Now it appears that air pollution will no longer hold up gas development with the inclusion of an air quality supplement helping to speed up the project’s draft environmental impact statement.

Salazar described the agreement between the federal agencies and drillers as representing a “sea change” for streamlining air and environmental monitoring, and for approving (future) fossil fuel projects.

Of the sea change, he stated:


“I am encouraged that the BLM, EPA, and the company found a collaborative path forward that would put sensible air pollution control technologies to work as the field is explored and developed. We are going to work to institutionalize this type of collaboration between the BLM and EPA to ensure that future proposals receive prompt and thorough reviews and are not delayed by unnecessary bureaucracy.”


The Salazar announcement follows on the heels of a memo [pdf] he sent earlier this month to BLM Director Bob Abbey. The order stressed not to designate certain lands with wilderness characteristics as "Wild Lands."
 
By not placing lands off-limits for oil and gas drilling, and with federal agencies now geared towards quickly approving projects, oil and gas drillers stand poised to drill whenever and wherever they wish, with inadequate scrutiny into the climate and health impacts of their actions.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), oil and gas companies have used waivers under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act to inject toxic chemicals into some 120,000 wells drilled in the Western U.S. since 2000, mainly for unconventional gas, and around 270,000 wells since 1980.

The health, air and water pollution risks tied to unconventional gas drilling, and in particular the much-maligned and destructive hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) method, are increasingly well-known. Just last month, a former Bush-era EPA official publicly stated (again) that the safety of unconventional gas fracking was exaggerated.

To respond to the specific dangers to groundwater from fracking for unconventional gas, the EPA is in the midst of an initial assessment of the drilling process.

The study, however, is not due out until late 2012 (with the final report expected in 2014), offering little solace for public concern around gas fracking.

The Utah gas drilling approvals arose from the increased pressure Republicans are putting on the Obama Administration to cut funding for Wild Lands preservation.

Due to the politically-motivated rejection of scientific concerns on fracking, the Obama administration seems ready to roll over on its land conservation pledges. Former Clinton-era Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently called on the President to assert himself against those politicians who have “…simply declared war on our land, water and natural resources.”

Babbitt added that:


“It is imperative that President Obama take up the mantle of land and water conservation — something that he has not yet done in a significant way…”

“We’re three years into this administration and we haven’t heard a strong conservation voice…”

“This silence is going to yield some very bitter fruit if it continues.”


The President’s disappointing stance on protecting land is echoed in his recent pro-drilling slant. In May, Obama named a panel to study the fracking process and to make recommendations within six months. As EWG has pointed out, the panel is dominated by representatives from the oil and gas industry.

EWG Senior Counsel Dusty Horwitt described the panel and its mandate by saying:


“It looks as if the Obama Administration has already reached the conclusion that fracking is safe.”

“The new administration panel appears to be an effort to undercut the EPA’s study by assigning an elitist group of industry insiders to take a cursory look at fracking…”


Access the Department of the Interior Air Quality Supplement Notice published in the Federal Register  June 10, 2010, which is available for public review for 45 days.

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March 23 2011

11:45

Texas Commission Defies EPA and Sides with Gas Company Accused of Water Contamination

The Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) voted unanimously on Monday to give the proverbial middle finger to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The Railroad Commission, the oil and gas regulator for the state of Texas, sided today with a gas industry giant, Range Resources, over a case of drinking water contamination due to an invasive gas drilling process, hydraulic fracturing. The process was made exempt, due to something known as the Halliburton Loophole, from the obligations of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) after the 2005 Energy Policy Act granted exceptional status to the practice when used for oil and gas drilling. This exemption has hindered the EPA from fully investigating the dangers of hydraulic fracturing and adequately responding to complaints of drinking water contamination.

But when EPA investigations discovered that hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett Shale area of Texas had caused or contributed to drinking water contamination in Parker County, they decided to get heavy handed. The contamination of two private water wells with cancer-causing benzene and explosive methane was enough for the EPA to invoke the SDWA and issue an Imminent and Substantial Endangerment Order to protect the area’s drinking water.<!--break-->

Superseding the authority of the state Commission, on December 7, 2010, the EPA issued the emergency order compelling Range Resources to supply clean drinking water to two families and monitor their homes for methane. In confined spaces, methane can act as an asphyxiant, leading to brain damage or death, and is tremendously explosive.

Both Range Resource and the Commission argue that the contamination originated naturally from the Strawn formation, a shallow bed of underlying rock. The company’s drilling, they say, occurs thousands of feet down, far from the aquifer supplying the homeowner’s water wells.

However, isotopic analyses of the contaminated water suggest that the contamination is related to the nearby drilling. Range Resources, which denied both the accusation and refused to comply with the EPA’s order, was drilling within 30 miles of Forth Worth, the area containing the water wells. Although complaints of water contamination have grown rampant in other states, this is the first official case brought against the gas industry in Texas. The Commission ruled 3-0 in favor of Range Resources, with chairwoman Elizabeth Jones adding that operations “have not and will not contaminate” the homeowners’ water.

This decision lifts the EPA’s order placed on Range Resources, meaning they will not have to deliver potable water, monitor for methane, or conduct further investigations into the cause of the contamination.

State Commissioner Michael Williams told the Associated Press that he sees the EPA’s involvement as a “cavalier attempt by the federal government to reach its arms into our state’s jurisdiction” which he says will “adversely affect the domestic energy industry.” Commissioner Williams will leave his post in April to run as a Republican for the U.S. Senate. 

Sharon Wilson, Texas organizer for Earthwork’s Oil and Gas Accountability Project, told DeSmogBlog yesterday “the EPA seems to be putting the burden of proof back on the industry where it belongs instead of the private citizen. This is an important and necessary step to protect citizens.”

Wilson, who lives atop the Barnett Shale in Texas, says that even if people could afford to test their water, there are still barriers that prevent adequate testing, like chemical disclosure. 

“I know people who have spent tens of thousands on testing, trying to keep their families safe and determine what is in their water. I also know people who can’t afford to test. It’s hard to determine what is in the water or how it got contaminated without knowing what chemicals industry is using. It’s not possible to test for every known chemical.”

The secrecy of chemical components used in hydraulic fracturing operations, like the ones performed by Range Resources, is at present federally condoned. Without federally mandated disclosure there is little to ensure the full public awareness needed to protect affected homeowners. 

The EPA requested a federal court to intervene in January and is still awaiting a court date. According to a reported statement, the EPA “stands by the order issued to Range Resources and seeks to secure Range’s full compliance.” Despite the strong ruling handed down by the state Commission, the EPA is taking an even stronger stance against the decision. The state decision is “not supported by the EPA’s independent, scientific investigation, which concluded that Range Resources Corporation and Range Production Company have contributed to the contamination of homeowner’s drinking water wells” the EPA continued in that statement.

The EPA has also accused the Railroad Commission of failing to adequately respond to the initial complaints over the water contamination. The citizen, ignored by the state, eventually turned to the EPA for help. The EPA, however, failed themselves to properly conduct a full investigation, leaving essential studies unperformed and instead asking Range to conduct them.

Range Resources used this against the EPA, responding to the contamination charge by asking EPA officials to identify the specific pathway the contamination took underground. These types of investigations are burdensome to perform because the underground migration of methane or other contaminants is a notoriously difficult thing to determine. In this specific case, the EPA did not conduct a study to determine the migration pathway the contaminants took, and instead ordered Range to “conduct a study to determine if the exact pathway and cause could be defined.” 

In a recent deposition, EPA official John Belvins said the EPA “doesn’t believe that we need to do the work” because they can legally “ask a company…we believe may have cause or contributed [to water contamination] to do the work, to collect the date, and that’s what we’ve done.”

If the tide of water contamination is to ebb, however, we need a stronger force of oversight, monitoring and enforcement than the EPA has been able to muster. In order for this to happen, federal agencies will need the Congressional backing capable of overturning exemptions and reinstating EPA authority.

According to Wilson, the Texas Sunset Advisory Committee recommends that the Railroad Commission be replaced with a more effective group. “Some people call them industry lap dogs,” she says. “I’ve always called them paid protectors of industry because the commissioners receive huge campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. I don’t think they even pretend to protect the public or our vital natural resources. Their interest is in promoting Texas energy.”

March 21 2011

20:30

Gas Industry Working Overtime to Smother Revived FRAC Act Efforts To Rein In Hydraulic Fracturing

Last week, US Senators Robert Casey (D-PA) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) reintroduced legislation to the Senate that would close the oversight gap that the gas industry has taken full advantage of since 2005. The “Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act,” commonly known as the FRAC Act, would close the Halliburton Loophole in Dick Cheney’s infamous 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempted hydraulic fracturing from the auspices of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

Hydraulic fracturing is used in 90% of all unconventional natural gas wells in the U.S. and involves the injection of millions of gallons of water, sand and dangerous chemicals into the ground. The bill would also require that the natural gas industry publicly disclose the chemicals they use to drill for unconventional gas. These chemicals, including potent cancer-causing agents, are protected as industry trade secrets.

The FRAC Act was originally introduced as a set of twin bills to the House and Senate in 2009 but died in the last session of Congress. According to new supporter Senator Frank Lautenberg, the FRAC Act will give the EPA the necessary backing to, at the very least, properly investigate and assess the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.

The industry’s aggressive lobbying campaign against the FRAC Act is part of a larger agenda to limit federal oversight of gas drilling. The legal void created by the Energy Policy Act in 2005 essentially crippled the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) ability to properly monitor the boom in gas fracking activity, especially the potentially serious threat to drinking water supplies. A long history of industry pressure on EPA scientists is also present on this issue, leading to the narrowing of scope in the EPA’s investigations and the elimination of critical findings when it comes to certain fracking threats. <!--break-->

As a result of the Halliburton Loophole, the states are left to monitor the gas industry's rapidly evolving drilling practices themselves, with few federal standards in place to safeguard public health and water supplies.  A growing number of communities impacted by the gas industry’s fracking practices consider this reliance on state agencies a risky gamble.  In many states, the state oil and gas commission handles both the oversight and promotion of the industry, and as one recent report noted, “the primary mission of these agencies has been to facilitate natural gas extraction and increase revenues for the states.”  

The gas industry has responded to the proposed legislation with a misleading advertising and lobbying campaign, attempting to pressure lawmakers to keep oversight at the state level and limit federal participation. 

Industry-sponsored reports have praised the regulatory oversight of state commissions, and lobby groups have suggested that federal engagement would be bad for the environment.

Among the favorite scare tactics employed by the gas industry is the suggestion that federal involvement would mean millions in lost state revenue, further unemployment and compromised energy security. Industry lobbying efforts have so far succeeded in stalling any momentum towards the implementation of much-needed federal standards for fracking.

But as the recent New York Times’ “Drilling Down” series on gas drilling shows, the industry is in serious need of more thorough federal oversight.  According to these reports, the states are failing to monitor radioactive drilling wastes, much less ensure their proper disposal. As a result, the Times notes how the wastes can end up back in streams and rivers that source the drinking water supply. A single gas well can produce over a million gallons of radioactive waste water contaminated with cancer-causing agents, posing a threat to drinking water and health if not properly handled and disposed. 

The FRAC Act is one crucial step in the long journey to proper accountability for all risky practices in the gas industry. But powerful gas industry lobbying forces will work to derail it. In fact, they already are. 

Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy in Depth, the most vocal industry front group, was quick to attack the reintroduction of the FRAC Act, saying the bill is based on “fundamentally incorrect information.” EID insists that hydraulic fracturing was never regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), so the legislative attempt to “restore” this regulation is misguided. Yet the process was always regulated by the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program of the SDWA until language inserted into the 2005 Energy Policy Act excluded the underground injection of fluids for the sake of oil and gas extraction.  

This isn’t the only EID claim intended to confuse the public, as DeSmogBlog recently revealed

While Energy In Depth suggests that hydraulic fracturing has “become a victim of its own success,” the citizens whose water supplies and health have been put in jeopardy would beg to differ. 

The industry is still parroting the same refrain: that ‘no proven instances of water contamination have been directly linked to hydraulic fracturing.’ Yet with mounting instances of water contamination occurring across America, all this statement reflects is the near impossibility of bringing this cavalier industry to account. 

Congress must work quickly to pass the FRAC Act and to safeguard the public from the gas industry’s fracking mess.

 

February 04 2011

19:38

Natural Gas Has a Dirty Secret


One of thousands of natural gas well drilled in Pennsylvania in a single year. Is diesel in the fracking fluid?The Weekly Mulch from the Media Consortium
by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger
(reposted with permission)

The argument against natural gas got a boost this week, when a congressional investigation turned up evidence that oil and gas companies were using diesel gas to extract gas from the ground.

Natural gas companies have insisted that their newly popular hydraulic fracturing (known as “fracking”) techniques are safe, but as Care2′s Kristina Chew reports, “environmentalists and regulators have become increasingly concerned that the fracking chemicals—including toluene, xylene and benzene, a carcinogen, which are all from diesel gas—are seeping out into underground sources of drinking water, in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.”

The mix-up

The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an inquiry into the environmental impacts of fracking, and some states are considering more stringent regulations of the practice, including disclosure of the chemicals that go into fracking fluid. Gas companies have argued that the blend of chemicals is a trade secret and must be kept private, but the findings of the congressional investigation suggest otherwise. Eartha Jane Melzer reports at The Michigan Messenger, “In a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson… Reps. Henry Waxman, Edward Markey and Diana DeGette reported that although the EPA requires permits for hydraulic fracturing that involves diesel none of the companies that admitted using diesel have sought or received permits.”

And, as Melzer reports, diesel is the only chemical used in fracking that’s currently regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. That companies have been sneaking it into the ground does not strengthen the industry’s case for independence.

Ensuring that natural gas companies do their work without threatening water supplies is becoming ever more crucial, as the fuel becomes one of the go-to replacements for coal. In Massachusetts, for instance, some legislators are pushing for a coal plant in Holyoke to start using natural gas or renewable energy, rather than being shut down, as Nikki Gloudeman reports at Change.org.

Supporting renewables

And although renewables are thrown in there as an option, right now the clearest way to replace the amount of energy generated by coal is natural gas. This year’s line on energy policy from Washington, however, is that the country should support innovations in clean energy.

Will Obama’s new direction on this issue go anywhere? Grist’s David Roberts has been arguing that any energy policy that leaves out climate change is missing the point.

However, Teryn Norris and Daniel Goldfarb (also at Grist), of Americans for Energy Leadership, a California-based non-profit, have a smart rebuttal. They argue that clean energy needs the boost in research and development that Obama is promising. Ultimately, they, write, “these investments will drive down the price of low-carbon energy and pave the way for stronger deployment efforts — perhaps even including a strong carbon price at some point — both here and in the developing world, where the vast majority of future emissions will originate.”

But, about climate change!

And to be fair, the federal government is trying to lead the way on investing in renewables. As Beth Buczynski reports at Care2, the Department of Energy is working on a $2.3 million solar energy project that would power its Germantown, Md., location.

Not every one is willing to wait for investments to take hold, however. On the National Radio Project’s show, “Making Contact”, Andrew Stelzer examines what climate activists are doing, post-Cancun, to push forward debates on climate change. Ananda Lee Tan, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alterantives argues, for instance, “Community-led climate justice in the U.S. has been winning. The largest amount of industrial carbon that has been prevented in this country has been prevented by community-led groups, grassroots groups fighting coal, oil and incinerators.”

Cause and effect

Whether the solution comes from industry, government, or grassroots groups, the country’s energy policy will change over the next few decades. And what’s troubling is that it’s not clear what the impact will be. Take natural gas: Washington favors it right now because it’s thought to have lower carbon emission than coal. But any time humans introduce new factors into the environment, they can have unexpected consequences.

That’s not only true for the energy industry, too. In Texas, for instance, the government is trying to eradicate an invasive plant species, a type of giant cane called Arundo that is growing all over the Rio Grande Valley. As Saul Elbein reports for The Texas Observer, it’s been hard to eradicate:

“There are three primary ways to control invasive plant species: Kill them with herbicides, clear them with bulldozers and machetes, or attempt to introduce a new predator. The least controversial approach, clearing the cane, is not going to work. There are thousands of square miles of the stuff, and Arundo cane is nearly impossible to cut out. Each stalk has a thick taproot that sends shoots in every direction. You can bulldoze or chop the cane down, and it will grow right back. Worse, any stress on the plant—say a machete blow—causes it to send out more root stalks. Every chopped-up joint of cane that floats downstream can sprout another stand.”

But, Elbein reports, scientists have come up with a different solution: They’ve bred wasps that originate in the same region as the cane to come in and eat it. They’ve also taken precautions that the wasps won’t have their own adverse impact on the environment by ensuring that they can only survive on this particular type of plant. But even then, it’s a tricky business.

“The wasps have to survive,” John Adamczyk, an entomologist running the project, told Elbein. “They have to not all get eaten. Then it becomes a question of whether they can keep the cane in check.”

——————–

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Image credit: pennstatelive, courtesy Flickr

February 01 2011

17:12

January 26 2011

05:07

Groups Ask President Obama To Protect Public from Gas Drilling Risks

EarthJustice.org     Gas drilling boom should not come at expense of public health January 25, 2011 Washington, D.C. —  As President Obama’s energy priorities are laid out in tonight’s State of the Union, groups urged the president to make sure that development of natural gas resources does not come at the expense of public health. [...]

January 14 2011

01:45

Congress Takes on Secret Chemicals Used in Controversial Gas Drilling Technique

 EarthJustice.org 46 members sign on to letter supporting right-to-know proposal aimed at protecting drinking water from drilling chemicals January 13, 2011 Washington, D.C. —  Members of Congress signaled their support for disclosure of secret chemicals used in gas drilling on public lands, signing onto a letter sent today to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Led by [...]

November 11 2010

02:54

Halliburton Bucks EPA Request For Chemicals Used in Controversial

EarthJustice.org Asking nicely isn’t enough; strong, enforceable regulations are a must November 9, 2010 Washington, D.C. — Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today that Halliburton has refused to disclose the water-polluting chemicals it uses in a controversial gas drilling technique currently under investigation by the agency. The technique, known as hydraulic fracturing, [...]

March 25 2010

07:38

EPA Begins Study of Controversial Gas Drilling Technique

EarthJustice.org Study into drinking water impacts an important step, but can’t replace proposed federal protections March 17, 2010 Washington, DC — Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today that they are beginning a study into a controversial gas drilling technique. The technique, known as hydraulic fracturing, is a process in which drillers blast millions of gallons [...]
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