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Widely-Used Tool Can Lowball Methane Pollution Rates, Scientists Report, With Huge Implications for Climate Policy

An EPA-approved methane sampler widely used to measure gas leaks from oil and gas operations nationwide can dramatically under-report how much methane is leaking into the atmosphere, a team of researchers reported in a peer-reviewed paper published in March.

The researchers, one of whom first designed the underlying technology used by the sampler, warn that results from improperly calibrated machines could severely understate the amount of methane leaking from the country’s oil and gas wells, pipelines, and other infrastructure.

“It could be a big deal,” study co-author Amy Townsend-Small, a geology professor at the University of Cincinnati, told Inside Climate News, adding that it’s not yet clear how often the machine returned bad results, in part because figuring out whether there’s an error would have required using a different kind of device to independently test gas concentrations at the time levels were originally recorded.

As Researchers Tie Fracking and Radon, Pennsylvania Moves to Keep Drilling Radioactivity Data Under Wraps

Last week, research into the connection between fracking and radon, an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas, drew international attention, making headlines in English, German and Italian.

The study, published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that buildings in Pennsylvania counties where fracking is most common had significantly higher radon readings than the levels found in counties with little shale gas drilling — a difference that emerged around 2004, when the shale rush arrived.

The potential link between fracking and radon in people's homes was surprising, the researchers, based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said.

“We found things that actually didn’t give us the reassurance that we thought it would when we started it,” Brian S. Schwartz, MD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins told the Baltimore Sun.

In a little-noticed move just one day after the Johns Hopkins report was released, a Pennsylvania court allowed the state's environmental regulators to keep the public from reviewing data from radioactivity testing at oil and gas drilling sites.

New Federal Fracking Rules Rely on FracFocus Even as EPA Research Highlights Site's Flaws

It's a classic case of the government's left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Days after the Bureau of Land Management issued new federal rules for fracking on federal land, relying heavily on an industry-run site called FracFocus, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a study mainly noteworthy for the shortcomings of the site that it revealed.

More than 70 percent of the chemical disclosure statements that drillers posted on FracFocus between January 2011 and February 2013 were missing key information because drillers labeled that data “confidential business information,” the EPA reported.

On average, drillers reported using a mix of 14 different chemicals at each well site. At sites where information was withheld, an average of five chemicals were not named.

In fact, FracFocus allowed drillers to conceal the identity of more than one out of every ten chemicals whose use was “disclosed” on the site, EPA researchers found.

This made it impossible for EPA's researchers, who received over 39,000 disclosure statements from FracFocus in March 2013 and published their study two years later, to definitively say what chemicals drillers used most often, how much of each chemical was injected underground, or even to simply create a list of all the chemicals used at the wells.

"Frack Pack" Bills Introduced, Aim to Rein in Environmental Damage From Fracking Industry

On Thursday, Congressional Democrats introduced a set of four bills aimed at countering the environmental harms from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the continuing shale gas rush.

Four Representatives — Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis of Colorado, Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois — and one Senator, Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, together announced the proposed legislation, dubbing the bills the “Frack Pack” and saying they were designed to roll-back loopholes in existing federal laws.

EPA's National Study into Fracking Narrowed as Key Goals Fall by Wayside Due to Industry Pressure

In 2010, when Congress tasked the EPA with launching a national study of the risks posed by hydraulic fracturing, environmentalists were cautiously optimistic.

“At least the EPA is paying attention,” Don Young, founder of Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Operations told the Christian Science Monitor in 2010. 

And for a while, there seemed to be strong signs that the EPA planned to conduct a rigorous investigation. At the outset, the agency's plans included investigations into public health impacts, air pollution, well failures, run-off, and a range of other harms associated with the shale drilling rush.

And into 2011, EPA withstood intense pressure from the shale gas industry and its supporters in Congress to sharply narrow the scope of their research, and in particular to focus exclusively on one part of the process, the actual frac job, rather than to look at the full range of impacts from shale oil and gas extraction.

But at the same time, the goals of the national study were drastically narrowed. Plans, for example, to model the hazards potentially posed by dumping radioactive fracking wastewater at sewage treatment plants — essentially flushing it down the drain and allowing it to enter rivers only partially treated, as was common in Pennsylvania at the time — were slashed from the study.

That industry pressure has continued in the years since, and over time, EPA has indeed dramatically lowered its ambitions and limited the scope of its research, leaving only a small fraction of the original study standing, based on a review by DeSmog of internal EPA documents and emails.

Internal Documents Reveal Extensive Industry Influence Over EPA's National Fracking Study

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched an ambitious and highly consequential study of the risks that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, poses to American drinking water supplies.

This is about using the best possible science to do what the American people expect the EPA to do – ensure that the health of their communities and families are protected,” Paul Anastas, Assistant Administrator for the agency's Office of Research and Development, said in 2011.

But the EPA's study has been largely shaped and re-shaped by the very industry it is supposed to investigate, as energy company officials were allowed to edit planning documents, insisted on vetting agency contractors, and demanded to review federal scientist's field notes, photographs and laboratory results prior to publication, according to a review by DeSmog of over 3,000 pages of previously undisclosed emails, confidential draft study plans and other internal documents obtained through open records requests.

Company officials imposed demands so infeasible that the EPA ultimately dropped a key goal of the research, their plans to measure pollution levels before and after fracking at two new well sites, the documents show.

All told, the documents raise serious questions about the study's credibility and they highlight a certain coziness between the EPA and Chesapeake Energy, one of the most aggressive oil and gas companies in the shale gas rush.

“[Y]ou guys are part of the team here,” one EPA representative wrote to Chesapeake Energy as they together edited study planning documents in October 2013, “please write things in as you see fit”.

Chesapeake took them up on the offer.

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.

Company Presses Forward on Plans to Ship Fracking Wastewater via Barge in Ohio River, Drawing Objections from Locals

A major dispute is brewing over transporting wastewater from shale gas wells by barge in the Ohio River, the source of drinking water for millions of Americans.

On January 26, GreenHunter Water announced that it had been granted approval by the U.S. Coast Guard to haul tens of thousands of barrels from its shipping terminal and 70,000-barrel wastewater storage facility on the Ohio River in New Matamoras, Ohio.

“The U.S. Coast Guard approval is a significant 'win' for both GreenHunter Resources and our valued clients,” Kirk Trosclair, Chief Operating Officer at GreenHunter Resources, Inc., said in a statement announcing the Coast Guard's approval. “Our ability to transport disposal volumes via barge will significantly reduce our costs, improve our margins and allow us to pass along savings to our clients.”

Outraged environmental advocates immediately objected to the news.

Despite the thousands of comments from residents along the Ohio River opposing the risk of allowing toxic, radioactive fracking waste to be barged along the Ohio River, the Coast Guard quietly approved the plan at the end of 2014,” said Food & Water Watch Ohio Organizer Alison Auciello.

The Coast Guard is risking man-made earthquakes, drinking water contamination, leaks and spills. This approval compromises not only the health and safety of the millions who get their drinking water from the Ohio River but will increase the amount of toxic fracking waste that will be injected underground in Southeast Ohio.”

But the company's announcement was in fact made before the Coast Guard completed its review of the hazards of hauling shale gas wastewater via the nation's waterways – a process so controversial given the difficulty of controlling mid-river spills and the unique challenges of handling the radioactivity in Marcellus shale brine that proposed Coast Guard rules have drawn almost 70,000 public comments.

GreenHunter's move drew a sharp rebuke from Coast Guard officials. 

Junk Science? Report Finds Shale Industry Cited 'Retracted and Discredited' Studies

Since the beginning of the shale gas rush, the drilling industry has insisted that the process is relatively benign, arguing that its critics are simply fear-mongering and that a sober scientific review of the data fails to prove, for instance, that fracking has ever contaminated water supplies.

In the wake of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's decision to disallow fracking in that state, for example, one of the most active boosters of the shale drilling rush, the industry-funded Energy in Depth, issued a statement labeling the ban “'Junk Science' and 'Political Theater.”

In the wake of news reports, academic publications, or policy decisions that it opposes, Energy in Depth often circulates lists of sources that it describes as debunking “junk science.” But how reliable is the science that EID cites?

A report issued today by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) reviews a list of over 130 studies cited by Energy in Depth (EID), testing its sources for markers of credibility.

How often was the research cited peer-reviewed? Was it accurately labeled? Was the research funded by the oil and gas industry, and if so, was that funding properly disclosed or was it concealed? Were any of the papers cited revoked or rescinded?

The answers, found in the report titled “Frackademia in Depth,” are striking.

“Of the 137 unique studies on EID's list that could be located, only 19 were peer-reviewed,” the PAI writes. “This suggests that there is a significant shortage of serious scholarly research supporting the case for fracking.”

New Report Spotlights Toxic Air Pollution from Oil and Gas Sites in California

A new report from Earthworks shines a light on air pollution, including methane leaks, from oil and gas wells in California, the nation's third largest oil producing state in 2013 – highlighting the ways that potentially toxic gases from the sites raise red flags for the health of those living nearby.

Published Thursday, the report is the first analysis of California's oil and gas air pollution based on infrared video footage combined with air sample testing and revealed toxic gases in the air surrounding oil and gas wells in Kern County and Ventura County. Many of the sites tested were at existing oil and gas wells, including one sample drawn while a well was abandoned. People living near the sites were also surveyed.

“Air sampling revealed the presence of 15 compounds known to have negative effects on human health, as well as 11 compounds for which no health data is available,” the researchers reported.

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