shale

"Carbon Copy": How Big Oil and King Coal Ghost Write Letters for Public Officials, Business Groups

The Billings Gazette has revealed that coal mining company Cloudpeak Energy ghost wrote protest letters to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) on behalf of allied policymakers and business groups. 

Reporter Tom Lutey examined numerous letters written to DOI from Montana-based stakeholders and noticed something unusual: the language in every single letter was exactly the same. That is, the same except for a parenthetical note in one of them instructing the supposed writer of it to “insert name/group/entity.”

The “carbon copied” (pun credit goes to Lutey) letters requested for the DOI to give states a time extension to begin implementing new rules dictating the coal industry give states a “fair return” on mining leases granted to industry by the states. DOI ended up giving King Coal the 60-day extension.

“Last month, coal proponents scored a major victory by convincing the Department of Interior to hold off on its rule making for 60 days so that more people could respond,” Lutey wrote. “Members of the Montana Legislature, along with county commissioners and mayors from Montana and Wyoming communities put the weight of their political offices behind letters asking the DOI for more time. What they didn’t offer were their own words.”

Among those who submitted a “carbon copied” letter originally written by Cloudpeak Energy include the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Billings Chamber of Commerce, Montana Coal Council, Montana Sen. Debby Barrett and the Yellowstone County Board of Commissioners.  

Unlike others, the Montana Chamber of Commerce embarassingly forgot to take out the boilerplate “insert name/group/entity” language. 

Montana Chamber of Commerce Ghostwriting Coal Letter
Image Credit: Quit Coal

Cloud Peak responded by saying this was a “sample letter…included as part of…briefings,” but did not clarify if those allied stakeholders were supposed to send them to DOI in verbatim fashion, as did the Montana Chamber.

BNSF Challenges Lawsuit From Engineer Who Ran For His Life From Exploding Oil "Bomb Train"

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) has responded defensively to the oil-by-rail lawsuit filed by former BNSF locomotive engineer Bryan Thompson, a case recently reported on by DeSmogBlog.

BNSF — the top rail carrier of oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin — denied all charges. The company also argued that some federal laws protect the company from liability for injuries allegedly suffered by Thompson. 

The  Answer to the Complaint signals the likelihood of a protracted legal battle ahead. Lee A. Miller, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based attorney representing BNSF against Thompson, filed the company's response in Cass County, North Dakota. 

Miller argued that the damages allegedly suffered by Thompson — which include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from living through and running away from the December 2013 Casselton, North Dakota oil train explosion — were “caused or contributed to by Plaintiff's own contributory or sole fault.”

He also argued that the explosion occurred due to “unknown causes for which BNSF is not responsible” and “are the result of acts or omissions of persons, entities, or corporations other than BNSF…over whom” they have “no control or right to control at the time of the alleged incident.”

BNSF Responds to Former Engineer Lawsuit
Image Credit: State of North Dakota District Court; East Central Judicial District

BNSF Engineer Who Manned Exploding North Dakota "Bomb Train" Sues Former Employer

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) employee who worked as a locomotive engineer on the company's oil-by-rail train that exploded in rural Casselton, North Dakota in December 2013 has sued his former employer

Filed in Cass County, the plaintiff Bryan Thompson alleges he “was caused to suffer and continues to suffer severe and permanent injuries and damages,” including but not limited to ongoing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) issues.

Thompson's attorney, Thomas Flaskamp, told DeSmogBlog he “delayed filing [the lawsuit until now] primarily to get an indication as to the direction of where Mr. Thompson's care and treatment for his PTSD arising out of the incident was heading,” which he says is still being treated by a psychiatrist.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the oil-by-rail world, the only time to date that someone working on an exploding oil train has taken legal action against his employer using the Federal Employers' Liability Act.

BNSF Engineer Casselton Lawsuit

Image Credit: State of North Dakota District Court; East Central Judicial District

Industry-Stacked Energy Department Committee: Shale Running Dry, Let's Exploit the Arctic

A report assembled by an industry-centric US Department of Energy committee recommends the nation start exploiting the Arctic due to oil and gas shale basins running dry. 

In the just-submitted report, first obtained by the Associated Press, the DOE's National Petroleum Council — many members of which are oil and gas industry executives — concludes that oil and gas obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) will not last beyond the next decade or so, thus the time is ripe to raid the fragile Arctic to feed our fossil fuel addiction. 

The NPC just launched a website and executive summary of the report: Arctic Potential: Realizing the Promise of U.S. Oil and Gas Resources.

Confirming the thesis presented by the Post Carbon Institute in its two reports, “Drill Baby, Drill” and “Drilling Deeper,” the National Petroleum Council believes the shale boom does not have much more than a decade remaining.

The NPC report appears to largely gloss over the role of further fossil fuel dependence on climate change, or the potentially catastrophic consequences of an oil spill in the Arctic.

The first mention of climate change appears to refer to “concern about the future of the culture of the Arctic peoples and the environment in the face of changing climate and increased human activity,” but doesn't mention the role of fossil fuels in driving those changes. Instead, the report immediately pivots to focus on “increasing interest in the Arctic for tourist potential, and reductions in summer ice provide an increasing opportunity for marine traffic.”

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, a National Petroleum Council member, chimed in on the study in an interview with the Associated Press.  

“There will come a time when all the resources that are supplying the world's economies today are going to go in decline,” remarked Tillerson. “This is will [sic] be what's needed next. If we start today it'll take 20, 30, 40 years for those to come on.”

The National Petroleum Council also deployed the energy poverty argument, utilized most recently by coal giant Peabody Energy in its “Advanced Energy For Life” public relations campaign, to make its case for Arctic drilling as a replacement for fracking.

“But global demand for oil, which affects prices of gasoline, diesel and other fuels everywhere, is expected to rise steadily in the coming decades — even as alternative energy use blossoms — because hundreds of millions of people are rising from poverty in developing regions and buying more cars, shipping more goods, and flying in airplanes more often,” reads the report. “In order to meet that demand and keep prices from soaring, new sources of oil must be developed, the council argues.”

As Oil Prices Collapse, North Dakota Considers Weakening Standards on Radioactive Drilling Waste

As the collapse of oil prices threatens North Dakota's shale drilling rush, state regulators are considering a move they say could save the oil industry millions of dollars: weakening the state's laws on disposing of radioactive waste.

The move has been the subject of an intensive lobbying effort by drillers, who produce up to 75 tons per day of waste currently considered too hazardous to dispose of in the state.

For every truckload of that waste, drillers could save at least $10,000 in hauling costs, they argue. State regulators calculate that by raising the radioactive waste threshold ten-fold, the industry would shave off roughly $120 million in costs per year.

But many who live in the area say they fear the long-term consequences of loosened disposal rules combined with the state's poor track record on preventing illegal dumping.

“We don't want to have when this oil and coal is gone, to be nothing left here, a wasteland, and I'm afraid that's what might happen,” farmer Gene Wirtz of Underwood, ND told KNX News, a local TV station. “Any amount of radiation beyond what you're already getting is not a good thing.”

Environmental groups have also objected that the rule change would put private companies' profits before public health.

“The only reason we're doing this today is to cut the oil industry's costs,” Darrell Dorgan, spokesman for the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, which opposes the move, told Reuters.

UK Energy Minister Calls for More Tar Sands, Fracking and Climate Action at Same Time

The UK and Canada must strengthen their energy relationship by increasing investment in tar sands and fracking, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) energy minister Matthew Hancock said at today’s Europe-Canada Energy Summit in London.

There remains great potential for deepening our energy relationship further, including delivering more British investment in Canada’s energy industry, or growing Canadian investment in the UK,” Hancock said.

We want to see more British companies active in the energy supply chain across Canada,” he said, repeatedly pointing to opportunities in Alberta’s tar sands and Western Canada’s shale gas reserves.

Oil-by-Rail Fuels Record U.S. Imports of Canadian Oil

Oil by rail

In September, many of the major railroad stocks hit new all-time highs.

Investors Business Daily attributed much of the increase to the business of moving oil-by-rail.

While the majority of the oil moving by rail has been fracked light sweet crudes from places like the Bakken and Eagle Ford shale basins, the railroads are telling investors that to keep increasing profits they are looking to expand the business of tar sands by rail.

This past week, the Wall Street Journal reported Canadian Pacific’s chief operating officer Keith Creel’s optimistic position about the growth prospects of moving tar sands by rail.

The growth is shifting from the light sweet Bakken crude which is the more volatile and sensitive, to the heavy crude in northern Alberta,” Creel said. “It’s safer, less volatile and more profitable to move and we’re uniquely positioned to connect to the West Coast as well as the East Coast.”

In Blow to Oil Industry, New York's Top Court Upholds Local Fracking Bans

New York's highest state court ruled today that local governments have the legal authority to use zoning to bar oil and gas drilling, fracking and other heavy industrial sites within their borders. In a 5-2 decision, affirming the rulings of three lower courts, the justices dismissed challenges to fracking bans created by two towns, Middlefield and Dryden.

The case has been closely watched by the oil and gas industry in the Marcellus region and nationwide. Over 170 towns, villages and cities in New York state have crafted local moratoria or bans on fracking. Dozens more towns are expected to enact moratoria in the wake of this ruling, according to Earthworks, one of the public interest groups whose attorneys worked on the case.

Nationwide, nearly 500 local governments have enacted measures against fracking, according to Food and Water Watch which tracks local control actions, including towns in Texas, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado and California, each of which have been the focus of recent shale rushes.

The oil and gas industry had argued that allowing local control over fracking risked creating a patchwork of rules in different municipalities. Environmental groups countered that the rights of local communities to control development within their borders trumped those concerns, and that local governments had the clear legal authority to decide how development could proceed.

“On the one hand, you're saying yes, we should have a comprehensive strategy to deal with such an important issue to our state – energy,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman explained when the cases were argued before the court on June 3. “And on the other hand, municipalities believe (they can) determine how they're going to live. They want some voice in how they live.”

Today, less than a month later, the court's majority decided in favor of local control. “The towns both studied the issue and acted within their home rule powers in determining that gas drilling would permanently alter and adversely affect the deliberately-cultivated, small-town character of their communities,” the New York Court of Appeals wrote in its majority ruling.

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.

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.

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