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Tue, 2014-10-28 05:00Sharon Kelly
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When the Shale Runs Dry: A Look at the Future of Fracking

If you want to see the future of the shale industry — what today's drilling rush will leave behind — come to Bradford, Pennsylvania.

A small city, it was home to one of America's first energy booms, producing over three quarters of the world's oil in 1877. A wooden oil rig towering over a local museum commemorates those heady days, marking the first “billion dollar oil field” in the world.

But times have changed dramatically in Bradford. Most of the oil has been pumped out, leaving residents atop an aging oil field that requires complicated upkeep and mounting costs. Since its height in the 1940's, Bradford's population has steadily declined, leaving the city now home to only 8,600 people, down from over 17,000. 

The story of Bradford these days is a story of thousands of oil and gas wells: abandoned, uncapped, and often leaking.

To drive through McKean County, home to Bradford and much of the Allegheny National Forest, is to witness an array of creative ways people have found to hide the remnants of this bygone boom. Rusted metal pipes — the old steel casings from long abandoned wells — jut from lawns and roadsides. Mailboxes are strapped to some of the taller pipes. In autumn, abandoned wells are tucked behind Halloween props and hay bales in front yards.

The aging steel pipes aren't just on land. They line creek beds, water flowing around one rusted pipe then another.

Hundreds are even submerged in the Allegheny Reservoir, small bubbles of methane gas the only visible sign of their existence. But in many cases, these rusted top hats from now deceased wells simply protrude from locals' lawns.

They are visual reminders that, for local communities where mining or drilling happens, fossil fuel wealth burns hot and short. Where there's a boom, there's bound to be a bust.

Fri, 2014-10-10 09:53Sharon Kelly
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A Shift from Fossil Fuels Could Provide $1.8 Trillion in Savings, Two New Reports Conclude

A worldwide transition to low carbon fuels could save the global economy as much as $1.8 trillion over the next two decades, according to two reports published Thursday by the Climate Policy Initiative.

By switching to renewable energy sources, the high costs associated with extracting and transporting coal and gas could be avoided, the reports, titled Moving to a Low Carbon Economy: The Financial Impact of the Low-Carbon Transition, and Moving to a Low Carbon Economy: The Impact of Different Policy Pathways on Fossil Fuel Asset Values, conclude.

This would free up funds to bolster financial support for wind, solar and other renewables – with enormous sums left over, the reports conclude. Following an approach aimed at capping climate change at 2 degrees Celsius will require walking away from massive reserves of fossil fuels, stranding the assets of major corporations, many researchers have warned. The new reports give this issue a closer look, demonstrating that more than half of the assets at risk are actually owned by governments not corporations.

This finding could be double-edged, since that means taxpayer money in many countries is at stake and those governments have the power to establish policies that could promote or repudiate the fossil fuels they control. But the reports' conclusion that trillions could be freed up if governments and private companies abandon those assets could make it easier for governments to leave those fossil fuels in the ground.

Thu, 2014-09-18 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Workers at Fracked Wells Exposed to Benzene, CDC Warns Amid Mounting Evidence of Shale Jobs' Dangers

For years, the oil and gas industry has worked to convince Americans that the rush to drill shale wells across the country will not only provide large corporations with lavish profits, but will also create enormous numbers of attractive and high-paid jobs, transforming the economies of small towns and cities that greenlight drilling.

The industry's numbers are often picked up by policy-makers and politicians who back drilling, in part because talk of job growth is an especially alluring idea in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse.

But numerous independent studies have conclude that the industry vastly overstated the number of jobs that fracking has created, and that the economic benefits have been overblown.

A growing body of research suggests that not only does the industry create fewer jobs than promised, the jobs that are created come with serious dangers for the workers who take them.

Research made public late last month suggests that some of those jobs may be even more hazardous to workers than previously believed, calling into question the true benefits of the boom.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released preliminary results from its workplace hazard evaluations at unconventional oil and gas wells – and they show that workers can be exposed to high levels of benzene during fracking flowback.

A striking 15 of 17 samples were over workplace limits set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH standards are often used by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to gauge whether a chemical exposure is illegally high.

Wed, 2014-09-17 14:57Sharon Kelly
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Shale Industry Resorts to Conspiracy Theories to Explain Opposition to Fracking

As evidence mounts concerning the hazards of fracking, the oil and gas industry is increasingly trying to redirect public discussion of the topic, focusing instead on the funding behind the environmental groups rather than the actual science of the matter.

Aside from showing a certain desperation, the tactic is especially disingenuous since this industry has no small experience with astro-turf campaigns and buying faux research to promote its interests.

Again and again, it has turned out that scientific research downplaying the risks of fracking or hyping the benefits of the shale gas rush was actually funded by the oil and gas industry, and oftentimes, that funding was not properly disclosed.

In 2010, Penn State administrators retracted a study by Timothy Considine, which predicted tens of thousands of jobs and billions in revenue from the shale rush, when a local watchdog group, the Responsible Drilling Alliance complained that the study had been funded by a shale industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, but that funding was never disclosed, which school administrators later labeled a “clear error.”

In 2012, the State University of New York at Buffalo shut down its Shale Resources and Society Institute after the Public Accountability Initiative revealed that research it produced was severely flawed and that its authors never disclosed their industry ties. (DeSmog also investigated conflicts and undisclosed funding at the Institute.)

It's a problem repeated enough that it's often referred to simply in shorthand: frackademia.

With all this attention focused on how research is funded, many shale gas boosters, like bloggers at Energy in Depth, a PR organization formed by the oil industry, have begun trying to turn the criticism around.

They've focused on the role played by several non-profit foundations, claiming that research funded by these foundations and endowments should be treated just as skeptically as research funded by shale companies.

It's a false equivalence, a child's “I'm rubber but you're glue” taunt. But, in some instances, it's helped the industry turn around narratives told in the press.

Mon, 2014-09-15 22:45Sharon Kelly
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Pennsylvania Plant Agrees to Stop Dumping Partially-Treated Fracking Wastewater in River After Lengthy Lawsuit

A Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plant alleged to have dumped toxic and radioactive materials into the Allegheny River has agreed to construct a new treatment facility, under a settlement announced Thursday with an environmental organization that had filed suit against the plant.

Back in 2011, Pennsylvania made national headlines because the state's treatment plants – including municipal sewage plants and industrial wastewater treatment plants like Waste Treatment Corporation – were accepting drilling and fracking wastewater laden with pollutants that they could not remove.

In July 2013, Clean Water Action alleged in a lawsuit that Waste Treatment Corp. of Warren, PA violated the federal Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, along with Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law by continuing to discharge partially treated wastewater, carrying corrosive salts, heavy metals and radioactive materials into the river, which serves as the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, including much of the city of Pittsburgh. 

Under the terms of the settlement, within 8 months, Waste Treatment Corporation must install advanced treatment technology that will remove 99% of the contaminants in gas drilling wastewater.

Until those treatment methods are in place, Waste Treatment Corporation agreed to stop accepting wastewater from Marcellus shale wells, notorious for its high levels of radioactivity, and to cut the amount of wastewater it can accept from conventional gas wells by over a third.

“The settlement represents the first time an existing industrial treatment plant discharging gas drilling wastewater in Pennsylvania agreed to install effective treatment technology to protect local rivers,” Clean Water Action wrote in a press release.

Thu, 2014-09-04 06:00Sharon Kelly
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Shale Oil Drillers Deliberately Wasted Nearly $1 Billion in Gas, Harming Climate

In Texas and North Dakota, where an oil rush triggered by the development of new fracking methods has taken many towns by storm, drillers have run into a major problem.

While their shale wells extract valuable oil, natural gas also rises from the wells alongside that oil. That gas could be sold for use for electrical power plants or to heat homes, but it is harder to transport from the well to customers than oil. Oil can be shipped via truck, rail or pipe, but the only practical way to ship gas is by pipeline, and new pipelines are expensive, often costing more to construct than the gas itself can be sold for.

So, instead of losing money on pipeline construction, many shale oil drillers have decided to simply burn the gas from their wells off, a process known in the industry as “flaring.”

It's a process so wasteful that it's sparked class action lawsuits from landowners, who say they've lost millions of dollars worth of gas due to flaring. Some of the air emissions from flared wells can also be toxic or carcinogenic. It's also destructive for the climate – natural gas is made primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and when methane burns, it produces more than half as much CO2 as burning coal.

Much of the research into the climate change impact the nation's fracking rush – now over a decade long – has focused on methane leaks from shale gas wells, where drillers are deliberately aiming to produce natural gas. The climate change impacts of shale oil drilling have drawn less attention from researchers and regulators alike.

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