Sharon Kelly's blog

Thu, 2014-05-15 05:00Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly's picture

Pressure Grows on EPA to Regulate Toxic Air Pollution from Oil and Gas Industry

On Tuesday, 64 environmental groups, representing over 1 million members and supporters, submitted a legal petition to the Environmental Protection Agency, calling on the federal government to more closely regulate toxic air pollution from oil and gas drilling sites.

Continued, uncontrolled toxic pollution from oil and gas production creates serious health threats in metropolitan areas across the country,” the groups wrote, warning that over 1.04 million oil and gas wells have been drilled in the U.S. and as many as 45,000 new wells are expected annually over the next two decades.

The petition represents a shot across the bow of the EPA, as the filing lays the groundwork for lawsuits by environmental groups should the agency fail to act.

The move puts the EPA on notice that it may be violating federal law by failing to regulate air pollution from oil and gas drilling and fracking sites. “EPA also has a responsibility under the Clean Air Act to protect people from toxic air emissions nationwide,” the groups wrote, “and under section 112(n)(4)(B) it must do so.”

Absolutely this lays the groundwork for possible future litigation,” said Jeremy Nichols, a program director for WildEarth Guardians, one of the signatories to the petiton, “oil and gas wells are one of the most under-regulated sources of toxic air pollution in the U.S., yet these very wells are increasingly being drilled and fracked in communities across the nation.”

The current shale drilling boom has led to a massive spike in the number of people living near drilling, and the lack of federal regulation over the industry has led to complaints from residents across the US about the impact on their health and the health of their families.

Mon, 2014-05-05 05:00Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly's picture

Fine Print on Baker Hughes New Fracking Fluid Disclosure Policy Draws Skepticism

Back in 2008, Cathy Behr, a nurse who worked at a Durango, Colorado hospital was hospitalized after suffering a cascade of organ failures. Days earlier, Ms. Behr had treated an oil and gas field worker who arrived in the emergency room doused in a fracking chemical mix called Zeta-Flow, the fumes from which were so powerful that the emergency room had to be evacuated. All told, 130 gallons of the apparently noxious fluid had spilled onto the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, an EPA report later noted, although the spill was never reported to local officials.

So what's in Zeta-Flow? Because the formula for the chemical, marketed as increasing gas production by 30 percent, is considered a trade secret, oilfield services company Weatherford International was never required to make the full answer public.

This secrecy was one of the first issues to be raised by public health officials investigating fracking pollution claims, who pointed out that without knowing what chemicals are used by the industry, it’s difficult or impossible to know what toxins to test for.

So at first blush, it seems like a major development that Baker Hughes, a major oil field services company, has agreed to stop asserting that the ingredients in its fracking fluids are “trade secrets” when it voluntarily provides information on the website FracFocus.

Indeed, the Department of Energy recently lauded the move by Baker Hughes to voluntarily disclose the chemicals used in its fracking formulas without invoking the controversial exemption commonly claimed by drillers. Deputy Assistant Energy Secretary Paula Gant called Baker Hughes' move “an important step in building public confidence,” adding that the department “hopes others will follow their lead.”

But a look at the fine print on that promise — and the company’s track record on disclosures — suggests that Baker Hughes' new policy may not be enough to keep the public adequately informed about the chemicals used in its fracturing fluids.

Tue, 2014-04-22 12:30Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly's picture

Very Little Cheap Natural Gas in New York Marcellus Shale, New Report Concludes

For years, the shale industry has touted the economic benefits it can provide. An overflowing supply of domestic natural gas will help keep heating and electric bills low for American consumers, they argue, while drilling jobs and astounding royalty windfalls for landowners will reinvigorate local economies. These tantalizing promises have caught the attention of politicians in Washington, D.C. who argue that the rewards of relying on shale gas outweigh the risks, especially because harm can be minimized by the industry or by regulators.

But across the U.S., communities where drilling has taken place have found that the process brings along higher costs than advertised. Even when properly done, drilling carries with it major impacts — including air pollution, truck traffic, and plunging property values — and when drillers make mistakes, water contamination has left residents without drinking water or cleaning up from disastrous well blow-outs.

And as the shale drilling boom moves into its 12th year, the most crucial benefit claimed by drillers — cheap and abundant domestic fuel supplies — has come increasingly into question. The gas is there, no doubt, but most of it costs more to get it out than the gas is worth.

A new report from New York state, where a de facto shale drilling moratorium has persisted since 2008, concludes that unless natural gas prices double, much of the shale gas in the state cannot be profitably accessed by oil and gas companies.

Thu, 2014-04-17 05:00Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly's picture

After Over a Decade of Fracking, Oversight of Industry's Radioactive Waste Still Lacking

It has been roughly twelve years since fracking launched the great shale rush in the U.S. and the biggest problem with the technology — how to safely dispose of the enormous quantities of toxic waste generated — remains unsolved.

In particular, regulators have struggled to fully understand or police the hazards posed by radioactivity found in fracking waste.

The most common form of radioactivity in shale waste comes from radium-226, which happens also to be an isotope that takes the longest to decay. To be exact, radium-226’s half-life of roughly 1,600 years means that well over a millennium and a half from now, more than half of the radium that fracking brings to the surface today will still be emitting dangerous radioactive particles.

Concern about the waste has taken on renewed urgency in light of a detailed report published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a peer-reviewed scientific journal which is backed by the National Institutes of Health. The study concluded that worrisome and extensive gaps in federal and state oversight of this radioactivity problem still persist.

At the federal level, radioactive oil and gas waste is exempt from nearly all the regulatory processes the general public might expect would govern it,” the researchers wrote. “State laws are a patchwork.’”

This is not an entirely new finding. Several years ago, a New York Times investigative piece highlighted how the oil and gas industry routinely dumped radium-laced waste water into rivers. State regulators in Pennsylvania and the oil and gas industry adamantly denied there was a problem.

So what's changed? The recent academic study concludes that even several years later, worrisome oversight lapses remain. As such, the researchers wrote, there is continuing reason for concern.

We are troubled by people drinking water that [could potentially have] radium-226 in it,” David Brown, a public health toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, told the researchers (insert in original). “When somebody calls us and says ‘is it safe to drink our water,’ the answer is ‘I don’t know.’”

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:09Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly's picture

Study Finds Methane Leaks 1,000 Times EPA Estimates During Marcellus Drilling

This week, a United Nations panel on climate change issued one of its most urgent warnings to date, explaining that unless major changes to greenhouse gas emissions are made within the next few years, it will become extraordinarily difficult to ward off the worst impacts of climate change.

We cannot afford to lose another decade,” Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist and co-chairman of the committee, told The New York Times

With the time to cut emissions running out, the Obama administration has seized upon the hope that greenhouse gasses can be cut dramatically by switching from coal to natural gas, because gas gives off half as much carbon dioxide as coal when it’s burned. Indeed, when the EPA published its annual greenhouse gas inventory this Tuesday, it credited a switch from coal to natural gas with helping to cut carbon emissions nationwide.

But a new scientific paper, also published Tuesday in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, further upends the notion that the current shale gas drilling rush is truly helping the U.S. cut its total greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, the evidence suggests, the Obama administration has understated the full climate impacts of natural gas, focusing too much on only carbon dioxide and failing to take into account another key greenhouse gas: methane.

The paper, the first to directly measure methane plumes above natural gas drilling sites in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, recorded methane leaks far more powerful than EPA estimates. Methane is especially important because its global warming effects are at their strongest during the first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere — in other words, during the small window of time identified as crucial by the U.N.’s climate panel.

Sun, 2014-04-06 11:18Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly's picture

Responding to Investor Pressure, ExxonMobil Agrees to Disclose Fracking Risks

ExxonMobil, the nation's largest oil and gas company, will begin disclosing risks associated with shale drilling and fracking to investors, in response to a long-running campaign by a coalition of shareholders.

In February, the groups of investors in a handful of major oil and gas companies including Exxon, Chevron and EOG Resources, demanded for the fifth year in a row more information from companies about the risks associated with fracking. The motion won the support of over 30 percent of Exxon shareholders — an unusually strong showing for a shareholder resolution.

On Thursday, the investors’ coalition announced that Exxon was the first company to agree to disclose risks. The company will publish a report by September that will describe fracking’s potential harm to air quality, water and roads, as well as risks associated with the chemicals used. Exxon agreed to follow criteria identified in a 2013 report, cited by the coalition and called Disclosing the Facts: Transparency and Risk in Hydraulic Fracturing Operations, in which Exxon received a failing grade for its transparency.

We have seen the significant risks that come from hydraulic fracturing activities,” said New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, custodian and investment advisor for the New York City Pension Funds’ $144 billion in assets, including $1.02 billion in ExxonMobil stock. “Corporate transparency in this arena is truly necessary for assessing risk and ensuring that all stakeholders have the information they need to make informed decisions.”

However, Exxon’s first report will not disclose data on methane leaks – information that shareholders argued strongly should be made public. Natural gas is primarily made of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has climate changing effects over 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide during the first two decades after it escapes to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Sharon Kelly's blog