Environmental Protection Agency

Wed, 2014-05-28 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Exclusive: Leaked EPA Draft Fracking Wastewater Guidance Suggests Closer Scrutiny for Treatment Plants

One of the most intractable problems related to fracking is that each well drilled creates millions of gallons of radioactive and toxic wastewater.

For the past several years, the Environmental Protection Agency has faced enormous public pressure to ensure this dangerous waste stops ending up dumped in rivers or causing contamination in other ways.

But the drilling boom has proceeded at such an accelerated pace in the United States that regulators have struggled to keep up, to control or even track where the oil and gas industry is disposing of this radioactive waste. As a consequence, hundreds of millions of gallons of partially treated waste have ended up in the rivers from which millions of Americans get their drinking water. 

An internal draft EPA document leaked to DeSmog gives a small window into how, after a full decade since the start of the drilling boom, the agency is responding.

The document, dated March 7, 2014, is titled “National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permitting and Pretreatment for Shale Gas Extraction Wastewaters: Frequently Asked Questions.”

It's revealing for what it shows about how EPA staff are taking the hazards of fracking wastewater more seriously — and also how little things have changed.

“In general, the EPA memo does a good job of making clear that fracking wastewater discharges are covered under the Clean Water Act, and that proper discharge permitting is required, including setting limits to protect water quality standards and to comply with technology based standards in the Clean Water Act,” explained Clean Water Action attorney Myron Arnowitt, who was asked by DeSmog to review the document. “It is mostly an increased level of detail for regional EPA staff regarding permitting issues under the Clean Water Act, compared to the pervious memo in 2011.”

The document, intended as a guide for local regulators on how the Clean Water Act should be interpreted and applied, is impressive in many ways.

Mon, 2014-05-19 18:00Steve Horn
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Southwestern Energy Executive Mark Boling Admits Fracking Link to Climate Change

An Executive* of a major shale gas development company has conceded what scientists have been saying for years: global shale gas development has the potential to wreak serious climate change havoc.

Best known for his company's hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) activity, Southwestern Energy Executive Vice President* Mark Boling admitted his industry has a methane problem on the May 19 episode of Showtime's “Years of Living Dangerously” in a segment titled, “Chasing Methane.”

“I think some of those numbers, they certainly concern me,” Boling says on the show. “How could you say that that methane emission rate was one and a half percent - very, very difficult to there from here for that.” 

Boling goes toe to toe in the segment with Cornell University Professor Anthony Ingraffea, who co-authored the 2011 paper now best known as the “Cornell Study.”

That study was the first to say that over its entire lifecycle, shale gas production is dirtier than coal due to the greenhouse gas trapping capacity of leaking methane. Numerous studies since then have depicted high leakage rates throughout the production lifecycle. 


Cornell University Professor Anthony Ingraffea; Photo Credit: Cornell University

Brendan DeMelle, DeSmogBlog Executive Director and Managing Editor, is also a featured guest on tonight's episode. He discusses the well-funded climate change denial machine and attacks on renewable energy development in a segment titled, “Against the Wind.”

Thu, 2014-05-15 05:00Sharon Kelly
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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.

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:09Sharon Kelly
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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.

Tue, 2014-04-08 05:00Julie Dermansky
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Eight Members of Congress Call for EPA to Reopen Contaminated Water Studies Near Fracking Fields

Eight members of Congress, led by Democratic Representative Matt Cartwright (PA), have written to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking it to “investigate and address” water contamination in Dimock, PA, Parker County, TX, and Pavillion, WY.

The EPA's initial investigations indicated drinking water contamination was caused by oil and gas extraction. The EPA compelled industry to provide clean water to those affected, but later abandoned its investigations without issuing final reports, letting industry off the hook. 

In the letter to Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA, requesting the agency reopen its investigations, the congressmen state, “A patchwork of state regulations, exemptions from many of our federal environmental laws and a lack of enforcement have forced communities living in and near to heavily drilled areas to pay the price for the [fracking] boom.” 

This is welcome news for people like Texan Shelly Perdue, who can set her water on fire. She lives about 600 feet from the Range Resources' hydraulic fracturing site that the EPA held responsible for contaminating Steven Lipsky's well water in 2011.

Thu, 2014-03-27 16:03Steve Horn
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BP Doubles Initial Size Estimate of Lake Michigan Oil Spill

Three days after spilling crude oil into Lake Michigan, BP has doubled its spill estimate to between 470 and 1228 gallons. The leak happened at its refinery in Whiting, Ind.

Although some of the oil has been cleaned up, it's unclear how much is left in the lake, a drinking water source for about seven million Chicagoans.

Located just across the Illinois-Indiana state border, Whiting is home to the sixth largest refinery in the U.S. The refinery just went through a $4 billionmodernization project,” giving it “the capability of processing up to about 85 percent heavy crude.” That's up from its original 20 percent, says BP's website.

“Frigid temperatures caused some of the oil to harden into a waxy consistency that made it easier to collect,” BP spokesman Scott Dean told The Chicago Tribune. “Crews used vacuum trucks to suck up any liquid oil that washed ashore.”

The day after the spill, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), as well as U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) issued press releases in which they pledged to hold BP accountable for the spill. Durbin and Kirk also wrote a follow-up letter to BP, requesting a meeting with BP.

“Any unanticipated spill is cause for concern, but given the Whiting refinery’s recent expansion of its operations to double the amount of heavy oil sands being processed, this spill raises questions about the long-term safety and reliability of BP's new, expanded production at Whiting,” they wrote

Thu, 2014-02-20 15:22Mike Gaworecki
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Peabody Energy Faces Popular Revolt at Illinois EPA Coal Hearing

Last night, at an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hearing about a water quality permit for the expansion of a Peabody Energy strip mine in Rocky Branch, IL, local residents made it clear that they've had enough of the coal industry's destructive presence in their community.

According to writer Jeff Biggers, residents outnumbered Peabody supporters four-to-one among those willing to make public comments, and they had one overriding message: “We the people of Rocky Branch,” one resident, Jennifer Dumberis, said, “we will decide what happens to us and our civil rights—not Peabody.”

This is not the first time Illinois residents have taken their concerns directly to Peabody and the regulatory bodies who are failing to protect Illinois communities from the impacts of the company's mining operations. Residents have presented ample evidence of what has been done to Cottage Grove township, which is adjacent to the strip mine Peabody is seeking to expand: blasting that is like “small earthquakes”toxic coal dust that seeps through cracks in their homes caused by the blasts, and polluted waterways that some residents fear will eventually make their homes uninhabitable altogether.

Peabody had already started clearcutting the area intended to become its Rocky Branch Mine, just south of the Cottage Grove strip mine, but federal regulators stepped in and ordered Peadody to stop logging immedately because it was being done in violation of the law.

It's unclear what, if any, benefits Peabody can offer the residents of Rocky Branch should its strip mine be allowed to expand. No jobs are expected to be created, and the state already loses an estimated $20 million annually to support the coal industry.

Citizen action to hold coal companies and regulators accountable is more important than ever in Illinois, as the coal industry does not seem to be waning in the state. Even while coal is losing market share across the country and renewable energies like wind power are rapidly achieving cost parity (in fact, wind is already cheaper than coal in Iowa, Illinois' neighbor), Illinois just received a $1 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue the controversial “clean coal” project FutureGen.

Fri, 2014-02-14 12:40Sharon Kelly
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New Study Shows Total North American Methane Leaks Far Worse than EPA Estimates

Just how bad is natural gas for the climate?

A lot worse than previously thought, new research on methane leaks concludes.

Far more natural gas is leaking into the atmosphere nationwide than the Environmental Protection Agency currently estimates, researchers concluded after reviewing more than 200 different studies of natural gas leaks across North America.

The ground-breaking study, published today in the prestigious journal Science, reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has understated how much methane leaks into the atmosphere nationwide by between 25 and 75 percent — meaning that the fuel is far more dangerous for the climate than the Obama administration asserts.

The study, titled “Methane Leakage from North American Natural Gas Systems,” was conducted by a team of 16 researchers from institutions including Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and is making headlines because it finally and definitively shows that natural gas production and development can make natural gas worse than other fossil fuels for the climate.

The research, which was reported in The Washington Post, Bloomberg and The New York Times, was funded by a foundation created by the late George P. Mitchell, the wildcatter who first successfully drilled shale gas, so it would be hard to dismiss it as the work of environmentalists hell-bent on discrediting the oil and gas industry.

Thu, 2014-02-06 08:58Sharon Kelly
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In Pavillion, Wyoming Water Contamination Case, Questions Continue To Swirl About Oil and Gas Industry's Role

A funny thing happened when Idaho Dept. of Lands Oil and Gas Program Manager Robert Johnson stepped to the microphone at a public hearing this past fall. He said something that many have long suspected, but few officials have actually been willing to say bluntly and publicly.

He said that the oil and gas industry was responsible for the contaminated groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming — referring to a high-profile case where environmentalists have alleged oil and gas drilling and fracking caused a town’s water supplies to go bad.  

Everybody's heard of Pavillion, Wyoming,” Mr. Johnson said. “OK. Pavillion was a leaking above ground pit that was not lined.”

Did the industry cause it?” Mr. Johnson said. “Yes they did.”

Later in his talk, Mr. Johnson also pointed to a faulty cement casing in a natural gas well as another factor in the case, describing EPA data showing pollution was caused “by a bad cement job on an Encana well that was drilled in 1985.”

His statement is noteworthy because, before coming to Idaho, Mr. Johnson was directly involved with the Pavillion investigation. He worked for the groundwater division of the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, which has taken the lead role in the contamination investigation.

The comments, which were recorded by county officials and distributed by anti-drilling advocates, were also significant because they were so candid and because the state of Wyoming maintains that more study is needed before blame can be assigned. The state is currently investigating the Pavillion incident and expects to publish a report in September of this year.

Asked about the comments, Idaho state officials said that the remarks about wastewater pits were intended “to illustrate that the State of Idaho requires lined pits to avoid surface contamination,” adding that Mr. Johnson, an Idaho official, was not speaking on behalf of the State of Wyoming. Mr. Johnson worked for the oil and gas industry before joining the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office.

Fri, 2014-01-31 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Amid Calls for EPA to Reopen Fracking Investigations, States Confirm Contaminated Groundwater

Republican Sen. James Inhofe said it. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said it. Even former Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson said it.

For over a decade, oil and gas executives and the policy makers who support them have repeated a single bold claim: there has never been a single documented case where fracking contaminated groundwater. 

But a blockbuster investigative report by the Associated Press offered up new evidence earlier this month that the shale industry’s keystone environmental claim is simply not true.

Multiple states confirmed that drilling and fracking contaminated groundwater supplies, the investigation found. There have been thousands of complaints from people living near drilling over the past decade, the AP reported, and three out of the four states from which the AP obtained documents confirmed multiple instances where oil and gas companies contaminated groundwater.

Out of the four states the AP obtained documents from, only Texas reported no confirmed oil and gas-related groundwater contamination. But one high-profile incident in Texas has again come under scrutiny, as a report quietly released by the Obama administration on Christmas Eve has called the adequacy of the state’s investigation into question.

On Monday, over 200 environmental groups called on President Obama to reopen the federal investigations into that case and others in Pennsylvania and in Wyoming, and to personally meet with people whose drinking water supplies have been polluted.

“The previously closed EPA investigation into these matters must be re-opened,” said the letter, sent the day before Mr. Obama's State of the Union address. “These three are among a growing number of cases of water contamination linked to drilling and fracking, and a significant and rapidly growing body of scientific evidence showing the harms drilling and fracking pose to public health and the environment.”

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