Sharon Kelly's blog

Wed, 2013-09-25 05:00Sharon Kelly
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What a Secretly-Negotiated Free Trade Agreement Could Mean for Fracking in the U.S.

A trade agreement being secretly negotiated by the Obama administration could allow an end run by the oil and gas industry around local opposition to natural gas exports. This agreement, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is being crafted right now – and the stakes for fracking and shale gas are high.

While the vast majority of the opposition to fracking in the US has focused on domestic concerns – its impact on air and water, local land rights, misleading information about its finances – less attention has been paid to a topic of colossal consequence: natural gas exports.

At least 15 companies have filed applications with the federal Department of Energy to export liquified natural gas (LNG). The shale gas rush has caused a glut in the American market thanks to fracking, and now the race is on among industry giants to ship the liquefied fuel by tanker to export markets worldwide, where prices run far higher than in the U.S.

As drilling has spread across the U.S., grassroots organizing around unconventional oil and gas drilling and fracking has grown to an unprecedented level in many communities. Public hearings and town halls from New York to California have been flooded with concerned scientific experts, residents and small business owners and farmers who stand to be impacted by the drilling boom.

Drilling advocates have become increasingly concerned about how grassroots organizing has expanded over the past 5 years. “Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has largely failed to appreciate social and political risks, and has repeatedly been caught off guard by the sophistication, speed and influence of anti-fracking activists,” one consultant warned the industry last year.

Some of the most resounding setbacks the drilling industry has faced have come at the state or local level. Bans and moratoria have led drilling companies to withdraw from leases in parts of the country, abandoning, at least for the short term, plans to drill.

But when it comes to natural gas exports – which many analysts have said are key for the industry’s financial prospects –independent experts and local organizers may soon find themselves entirely shut out of the decision-making process, if the oil and gas industry has its way.

Mon, 2013-09-23 21:12Sharon Kelly
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Fracking Main Street: New Report Shows Social Costs for Rural Communities

What’s it like living in a small town that’s gone from rust belt farmland to fracking boomtown?

First, residents often say, there’s the traffic.  Communities have been unexpectedly flooded with heavy tractor trailers that locals say turn 10 minute commutes into hour-long ordeals, choke back roads and decimate pavement so badly that in some areas, drilling companies are barred from entering until they agree to pay for road repairs. “The traffic here is horrendous,” Towanda, PA resident Joe Benjamin told NPR.

Others often describe the impacts on the social fabric – a “wild west” atmosphere that brings with it increased crime and public health problems.

But these reports have been largely anecdotal, with little to quantify how big these impacts are or how much of it is due to fracking. Until now.

A new report by Food and Water Watch examines the social impacts of fracking, comparing traffic, crime and sexually transmitted infections in rural Pennsylvania counties. Using a decade worth of county-level data, they compare the differences between counties with substantial fracking and without, and how these counties have changed over time, from before the boom until after it set in.

“Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom has brought thousands of new gas wells, a number of transient workers and a host of social problems,” the report says. “This study is the first detailed, long-term analysis of the social costs of fracking borne by rural Pennsylvania communities.”

FWW documented sharp differences in traffic accident rates, petty crimes, and sexually transmitted infections. According to the report:

Fri, 2013-09-13 06:00Sharon Kelly
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Never-Released Energy Department Report Predicts Increasing Domestic Conflicts over Water, Energy

Last summer, the United States experienced the worst drought since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

At the same time, the country was experiencing one of the biggest onshore drilling booms in history, powered by one of the most water-intensive extraction technologies ever invented: hydraulic fracking.

The tension between these two realities could not be clearer.

This year, as the drilling industry drew millions of gallons of water per well in Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, residents in these states struggled with severe droughts and some farmers opted to sell their water to the oil and gas industry rather than try to compete with them for limited resources.

Even the Atlantic coast's mighty Susquehanna River faced record lows last year, leading regulators to suspend dozens of withdrawal permits – the majority of which were for fracking Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale.

Researchers for the Federal Department of Energy saw problems like this coming, according to thousands of pages of documents about the topic provided to DeSmog, but their recommendations and warnings were consistently edited and downplayed and the final version of their report has yet to be released.

Tue, 2013-08-13 07:00Sharon Kelly
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Greenwashing Concerns Mount as Evidence of Fracking's Climate Impact Grows

Several years ago, Utah public health officials realized they had a big problem on their hands – one with national implications as other states were racing to increase oil and gas drilling. Smog levels in the state’s rural Uintah basin were rivaling those found in Los Angeles or Houston on their worst days.

The culprit, an EPA report concluded earlier this year: oil and gas operations. The industry was responsible for roughly 99 percent of the volatile organic compounds found in the basin, which mixed under sunlight with nitrogen oxides – at least 57% of which also came from oil and gas development – to form the choking smog, so thick that the nearby Salt Lake City airport was forced to divert flights when the smog was at its worst.

But the haze over the Uintah isn’t the most dangerous air pollutant coming from the oil and gas fields in the valley.

A string of studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that the core ingredient in natural gas, methane, is leaking at rates far higher than previously suspected.  This methane has climate change impacts that, on a pound-for-pound basis, will be far more powerful over the next two decades than the carbon dioxide emissions that have been the focus of most climate change discussions.

The smog problem is especially pronounced in Utah. But a growing body of research nationwide suggests that methane is leaking from the natural gas industry at levels far higher than previously known.

In Washington D.C., pressure is mounting to ignore these methane leaks. The oil and gas industry says there is no time to waste. We must proceed immediately with the “all-of-the-above” national energy strategy they say, code for “drill baby drill”. This pressure is coming not only from the natural gas industry itself, but also from a surprising ally: the Environmental Defense Fund, which has supported natural gas development as a “bridge” from coal to renewables.

This position has drawn renewed accusations that the EDF is “greenwashing” for the natural gas industry.

Thu, 2013-07-18 08:02Sharon Kelly
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Another Pennsylvania Wastewater Treatment Plant Accused of Illegally Disposing Radioactive Fracking Waste

A Pennsylvania industrial wastewater treatment plant has been illegally accepting oil and gas wastewater and polluting the Allegheny river with radioactive waste and other pollutants, according to an environmental group which announced today that it is suing the plant.
 
“Waste Treatment Corporation has been illegally discharging oil and gas wastewater since at least 2003, and continues to discharge such wastewater without authorization under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Streams Law,” the notice of intent to sue delivered by Clean Water Action reads.
 
Many pollutants associated with oil and gas drilling – including chlorides, bromides, strontium and magnesium – were discovered immediately downstream of the plant’s discharge pipe in Warren, PA, state regulators discovered in January of this year. Upstream of the plant, those same contaminants were found at levels 1 percent or less than those downstream, or were not present at all.
 
State officials also discovered that the sediments immediately downstream from the plant were tainted with high levels of radium-226, radium-228 and uranium. Those particular radioactive elements are known to be found at especially levels in wastewater from Marcellus shale gas drilling and fracking, and state regulators have warned that the radioactive materials would tend to accumulate in river sediment downstream from plants accepting Marcellus waste.
 
“To us, that says that they are discharging Marcellus Shale wastewater, although no one admits to sending it to them,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania State Director for Clean Water Action.

Wed, 2013-07-03 06:00Sharon Kelly
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Growing Doubts on the Numbers from Fracking Giant Chesapeake Energy

America is in the midst of the biggest onshore oil and gas rush in recent history, with excitement spreading across the U.S. Oil and gas companies have cashed in on this frenzied excitement by courting huge investment domestically and abroad.

But a growing chorus of independent analysts and law enforcement agencies have their doubts and have questioned whether shale drillers are overhyping their financial prospects and overestimating how much oil or gas they can profitably pull from the ground. Just this week, one of America's biggest agricultural lenders, the Netherlands-based Rabobank, announced that it would no longer lend money to companies that invest in shale gas extraction (nor to farmers worldwide who lease their land to these drillers).

The way that oil and gas companies describe their prospects in their financial statements matters because investors – and not just the uber-wealthy ones but also pension funds, university endowments, average folks with retirement savings or 401(k)s – can lose catastrophically if the information they rely on is faulty.

This matters to taxpayers too, since lawmakers need accurate information when making long-term decisions about the industry subsidies and tax breaks granted to encourage the drilling boom. The shale fracking rush could prove to be an expensive bust for taxpayers if oil and gas wells do not perform as promised.

Concern that companies have been over-exuberant about shale led Wall Street's two top cops, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the New York Attorney General to investigate whether oil and gas companies have been “overbooking” their reserves (translation: inflating their appeal by promising investors more fossil fuels than their wells can actually deliver).

One company in particular – Chesapeake Energy – has attracted the most attention from these investigators.

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