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Fri, 2013-06-07 09:42Sharon Kelly
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New Documents in West Virginia Coal Lawsuit Shine Light on Judicial Corruption Allegations

“Extreme by any measure.” Those four words were used by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark 2009 decision to describe judicial corruption and corporate influence in the West Virginia courts.

That opinion by the nation’s highest court famously reversed the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals justices who had thrown out a lawsuit against a major coal company and represented an unusually forceful reprimand of a lower court. It also symbolized a turning point for a state where coal has been king for much of the past two hundred years.

Another decision — one levied last month by the Supreme Court in neighboring Virginia — has garnered far less attention but marks yet a further blemish on West Virginia and it highlights the role that coal continues to play in politics and law in that state.

The little-noticed decision handed down by the Virginia court was a major setback to one of the coal industry's kingpins, Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy. For over a quarter of a century, Mr. Blankenship was the guiding figure and intellectual architect behind his company’s obliteration of the United Mine Workers union and the coal industry's wholesale shift toward a relatively new and environmentally-ruinous form of mining called mountaintop removal, which essentially involves blowing off the top of mountains to reveal the coal seams underneath.

Thu, 2013-06-06 08:00Sharon Kelly
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The Epic Rise and Fall of Don Blankenship, former Massey Energy CEO

Three years ago, 29 miners died at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine. It was the worst mining disaster in decades, caused by a methane-fueled blast that was so strong it killed miners more than a mile away and left steel rail lines tangled.

Appalachia has seen its share of these sorts of accidents over the years and normally companies get fined, but mine operators almost never face criminal charges. This time was different.

For the past two years, the U.S. Attorney in West Virginia, R. Booth Goodwin II, has been systematically working his way up Massey’s hierarchy, arguing that beyond the managers who supervised that mine, there was a broader conspiracy led by still unnamed “directors, officers, and agents.” Goodwin has based his prosecutions on conspiracy charges rather than on violations of specific health and safety regulations, which means he can reach further up into the corporate structure. So far, he has convicted four employees including the Upper Big Branch mine superintendent who admitted he disabled a methane monitor and falsified mine records.

But in February, the case took a surprising turn. In pleading guilty to conspiracy charges, Dave Hughart, former President of a Massey subsidiary who is cooperating with the government, said that the person who had alerted him to impending mine inspections was Massey’s CEO, Don Blankenship – an accusation that sent a gasp through the entire coal industry.

Mon, 2013-06-03 08:00Sharon Kelly
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Radioactive Waste From the Marcellus Shale Continues to Draw Concern

Amid all the pushback to fracking, most of the attention has focused on what drillers put into the ground. The amount of water used. The chemicals that make up energy companies' secret mix. Whether these dangerous chemicals will contaminate our drinking water. But one of the biggest problems of fracking, indeed, the Achilles heel of this innovative drilling technique that is giving fossil fuels a second lease on life is the waste that comes out of the ground.

How will we handle the massive amounts of toxic waste that each well produces when fracking is used?  Will we dump the millions of gallons of wastewater produced from each well into rivers, pass it through sewage treatment plants, allow it to evaporate in open-faced pits, inject it into the ground at special disposal sites?

One of the reasons these questions are so urgent is that this wastewater is often radioactive. When it was revealed in February, 2011 that Pennsylvania was not only sending millions of gallons of this waste, sometimes with radium levels 3,000 times the safe level, through sewage treatment plants incapable of correct for radioactivity which then discharged into rivers, state officials panicked and denied there was cause for concern.

Mon, 2013-04-29 11:44Sharon Kelly
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Faster Drilling, Diminishing Returns in Shale Plays Nationwide?

Today's shale gas boom has brought a surge of drilling across the US, driving natural gas prices to historic lows over the past couple of years. But, according to David Hughes, geoscientist and fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, in the future, we can expect at least the same frenzied rate of drilling – but less and less oil and gas from each well on average.
 
“It’s been a game changer,” Mr. Hughes said of the shale gas boom at a talk last week in Maryland, “but I would say a temporary game changer.”
 
After crunching data from hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells across the U.S., Mr. Hughes found that just five of the country's 30 best shale plays have been responsible for 80 percent of domestic shale gas production: the Haynesville shale in Louisiana; the Barnett shale in Texas's Fort Worth region; the Marcellus shale, which underlies New York, Pennsylvania, and parts of Maryland and West Virginia; the Fayetteville shale in Arkansas; and Oklahoma's Woodford shale. When it comes to natural gas, all of the other plays pale in comparison to these five regions.
 
But the data reveals that in four of these top five shale-gas plays, drillers have been less and less successful in hitting the next big strike-it-rich well. Average well productivity in four of the five best American shale plays has been falling since 2010, Hughes found. The exception, at least for now, is the Marcellus.
 
Mon, 2013-04-22 11:05Sharon Kelly
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Josh Fox's Gasland Part II Faces Aggressive Oil and Gas Public Relations Campaign

It’s coming,” a baritone voice warns as images of a fiery hellscape flash across the screen. “Lies. Deception,” someone whispers, just before the narrator launches into a diatribe about Josh Fox’s new documentary, Gasland Part II, in a youtube clip whose esthetic falls somewhere between b-horror movie and election season attack ad. It’s the sort of video that might be campy if it wasn’t made with an actual budget.

Posted last November under the account energyforamerica, the faux trailer is one of the first hits in a Gasland 2 youtube search.

 “I think it’s kinda unprecedented,” Mr. Fox said after the mock trailer appeared on youtube five months ago. “I don’t know of any other trailer that has attacked a film before even the actual trailer of the film has come out.”

Mr. Fox, the documentarian who made the Emmy-winning Gasland in 2010, and whose new movie Gasland Part II is now making its world premiere at Tribeca, has already withstood an aggressive P.R. campaign the likes of which few journalists and film-makers have ever experienced. The man who forever linked fracking to flaming tap water in the public mind has found himself, once again, in the oil and gas industry’s doghouse.

With funding from an array of oil companies, front groups like Energy in Depth have created entire websites devoted to “debunking” the first-hand reports shown in the first Gasland, produced their own film titled Truthland, and maneuvered behind the scenes to undermine Gasland’s credibility amongst the media.

Now the oil industry is gearing up for a new campaign to attack the sequel. And early signs indicate they plan to pull out all the stops.

Thu, 2013-03-28 05:00Sharon Kelly
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More Financial Worries Coming to Light in Domestic Shale Drilling Industry

Virtually anyone who has followed the onshore drilling bonanza knows the name Aubrey McClendon and the company he co-founded, Chesapeake Energy.

McClendon was the hard-driving CEO and chairman of one of America’s most aggressive drilling companies, but he was brought down earlier this year after a string of financial scandals and potential conflicts of interest came to light. It turned out that at the heart of the natural gas industry’s poster child lay financial practices that drew the ire of investors, the attention of SEC investigators and the fixation of the news media.

But in the past several months there have been a series of largely under-reported events that demonstrate that Mr. McClendon's problems are by no means distinct.

Might the drilling industry have broader financial issues?

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