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Tue, 2013-12-03 09:58Sharon Kelly
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Toxic Coal Ash Disposal Proves Costly and Hazardous, Duke Energy's Sutton Lake Contamination Questioned

A new report out from Wake Forest University concludes that coal ash waste from Duke Energy’s Sutton coal plant in Wilmington, NC is elevating levels of selenium pollution in nearby Sutton Lake. The lake, prized by fishermen for its largemouth bass population, has been contaminated, according to a study released today by Prof. Dennis Lemly, Research Associate Professor of Biology at Wake Forest, with high levels of selenium. Selenium has been linked to deformities in fish – including two-headed trout – and can cause a condition known as selenosis if people consume high enough doses in their food or drinking water.

Several conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which joined the University in announcing the findings, filed suit against Duke Energy Progress, Inc. this summer, arguing that pollution from the Sutton plant's coal ash is “killing a regional fishing lake and is threatening a community’s drinking water.”

The new report, which found that the coal ash pollution kills over 900,000 fish and deforms thousands more in Sutton Lake each year, is likely to bolster the plaintiffs' case in that suit.

The research also highlights one of the most fundamental problems with American energy policy: policy-makers and the public have been unwilling to recognize the true costs of the fuels we use to make electricity.

Mon, 2013-11-25 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Banks Reluctant to Lend in Shale Plays as Evidence Mounts on Harm to Property Values Near Fracking

Over the past several years, the fossil-fuel industry has been highly adept at publicizing the economic upshots of fracking: royalty checks, decreased prices for oil and gas, profits for investors. 

But the industry is far less eager to discuss the hidden costs of the current drilling boom – the longterm price of air and water pollution, the consequences of undermining a nascent renewable energy industry, the harms from accidents when moving and storing all the hazardous waste fracking produces. 

Add to that list of hidden costs one that is starting to grab more attention from bankers and the real estate industry: property values and mortgage problems. New research, for example, demonstrates that the vast majority of prospective buyers say they would decline to buy a home near oil and gas drilling.

As millions of Americans sign oil and gas leases granting the right to companies to extract fossil fuels from their land, they are realizing that these documents often conflict with their mortgages, which is leading to all manner of legal and financial headaches, and make it harder to sell homes on land whose oil and gas rights are leased.

Concern about these impacts is spreading in southern states like Texas, Alabama and Florida, according to a survey due for release in the next several weeks from the University of Dever. In northeastern states like Pennsylvania, fracking worries have prompted lenders to begin rejecting mortgage applications due to gas drilling – on neighboring property. In Colorado, real estate brokers describe keeping a long list of sellers in heavily fracked areas, but a paucity of buyers. 

Under the terms mortgage buyers like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require, “you cannot cause or permit any hazardous materials to be on your property and it specifically references oil and gas,” Greg May, vice president of residential mortgage lending at Tompkins Bank, told American Banker in an interview published Nov. 12. “That alone would make it a problem.”

The repercussions for the American real estate market could be enormous. More than 15.3 million Americans – roughly one out of every 20 people living in the U.S.– now live within a mile of an oil or gas well that was drilled since 2000, the Wall St. Journal recently reported

And that may be just the tip of the iceberg since shale gas and oil wells require ongoing drilling for them to stay productive. In 2010, for example, Pennsylvania regulators predicted a more than 10-fold increase in shale wells in their state over the next couple decades.

Mon, 2013-11-18 05:00Sharon Kelly
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George W. Bush on Keystone XL: "Build the Damn Thing"

Make private companies happy. Don’t worry about the environment. Stop fretting about long-term sustainability. Forget renewables, property concerns, the safety of our water and air. Make private companies happy.

This was the 43rd president's message to the current administration at the DUG East conference held by the shale gas industry on Thursday.

With characteristic bluntness, George W. Bush spoke his mind on energy policy to several thousand oil and gas executives gathered in Pittsburgh at an exclusive luncheon on Wednesday.

“I think the goal of the country ought to be 'how do we grow the private sector?'” Mr. Bush said. “That ought to be the laser-focus of any administration. And therefore, once that’s the goal, an issue like Keystone pipeline becomes a no-brainer.”

“If private sector growth is the goal and Keystone pipeline creates 20,000 new private sector jobs, build the damn thing,” Mr. Bush said, prompting a burst of applause from the more than 4,000 oil and gas executives attending the conference.

In his candor, Mr. Bush also highlighted the essence of what burns bright but short in the fossil-fuel doctrine.

In emphasizing a get-it-now, don’t-worry-about-the-future approach to energy, he drove home why the Keystone XL pipeline has become such a lightning rod issue. The reason: it is symbolic of the overall short-sightedness of increasing our long-term addiction to oil rather than pushing with urgency toward renewable energy.

Sat, 2013-11-09 11:44Sharon Kelly
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Coast Guard Proposal to Allow Barges to Haul Fracking Wastewater Draws Fire From Environmentalists

The U.S. Coast Guard released plans that would allow wastewater from shale gas to be shipped via barge in the nation’s rivers and waterways on October 30 — and those rules have kicked up a storm of controversy. The proposal is drawing fire from locals and environmentalists along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers who say the Coast Guard failed to examine the environmental impacts of a spill and is only giving the public 30 days to comment on the plan.

Three million people get their water from the Ohio River, and further downstream, millions more rely on drinking water from the Mississippi. If the Coast Guard's proposed policy is approved, barges carrying 10,000 barrels of fracking wastewater would float downstream from northern Appalachia to Ohio, Texas and Louisiana.

Environmentalists say a spill could be disastrous, because the wastewater would contaminate drinking water and the complicated brew of contaminants in fracking waste, which include corrosive salts and radioactive materials, would be nearly impossible to clean up.

The billions of gallons of wastewater from fracking represent one of the biggest bottlenecks for the shale gas industry.

States atop the Marcellus shale are brimming with the stuff. Traditionally, oil and gas wastewater is disposed by pumping it underground using wastewater disposal wells, but the underground geology of northeastern states like Pennsylvania makes this far more difficult than in states like Texas, and Ohio has suffered a spate of earthquakes that federal researchers concluded were linked to these wastewater wells. The volumes of water used by drillers for the current shale gas boom are unprecedented.

Thu, 2013-11-07 09:00Sharon Kelly
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Could California's Shale Oil Boom Be Just a Mirage?

Since the shale rush took off starting in 2005 in Texas, drillers have sprinted from one state to the next, chasing the promise of cheaper, easier, more productive wells. This land rush was fueled by a wild spike in natural gas prices that helped make shale gas drilling attractive even though the costs of fracking were high.

As the selling price of natural gas sank from its historic highs in 2008, much of the luster wore off entire regions that had initially captivated investors, like Louisiana’s Haynesville shale or Arkansas’s Fayetteville, now in decline.

But unlike natural gas prices, oil prices remain high to this day, and investors and policymakers alike remain dazzled by the heady promise of oil from shale rock. Oil and gas companies have wrung significant amounts of black gold from shale oil plays like Texas’s Eagle Ford and North Dakota’s Bakken.

Shale oil, they say, is the next big thing.

“After years of talking about it, we’re finally poised to control our own energy future,” President Obama said in his most recent State of the Union address. “We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years.”

But once again, the reality may be nothing like the hype. Consider California.

Fri, 2013-10-18 07:41Sharon Kelly
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Fracking Coming to Washington D.C.'s Drinking Water?

Over the past several years, the battle over fracking has brought Congressional hearings, protests and huge industry money to Washington DC. But in recent months the topic has taken on a new, more local turn in the nation's capital as oil and gas companies push to drill in a national forest near in the city's backyard and an unusual cast of charaters are lining up to oppose it.

The fight is over access to drill for shale gas in the George Washington National Forest and officials from the Environmental Protect Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service have come out in opposition, even though some of these same federal agencies have in other contexts helped to promote expanded shale gas drilling.

The forest is one of the East Coast’s most pristine ecosystems, home to some of its last old growth forests.

Horizontal drilling, key to shale gas extraction, has never before been permitted in the George Washington National Forest. But as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service prepares a new 15-year plan, drillers are pushing hard for the ban to be lifted despite the industry’s long record of spills, air pollution and water contamination on public lands.

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