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Pennsylvania Environmental Regulators Flunk State's Own Shale Gas Audit

In January 2013, Pennsylvania's auditor general announced that he would conduct an investigation into whether state regulators were effectively overseeing the impacts from the shale gas drilling rush.

A year and a half later, the results are in: the state's environmental regulators are failing badly in at least eight major areas, at times declining to cite drillers who broke the law. In a damning 158-page report, the state's auditor general highlighted the agency's wide-ranging failures. The report detailed the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) use of a legal “loop hole” to avoid inspecting wells and described the agnecy's failure to fulfill its duty to track the industry's toxic waste. The report also faulted the agency for a reliance on voluntary measures in policing the industry.

The federal government has largely taken a hands-off approach to policing the drilling boom. What federal rules do exist have various broad exemptions exemptions for the oil and gas industry. Pennsylvania, which features a large swath of the Marcellus shale, is widely viewed as ground zero for the current fracking boom. In the unusually candid report released this week, state auditors have concluded that the state is overwhelmed by the industry and is providing insufficient oversight.

“It is DEP’s responsibility to protect the environment from these environmental risks and to ensure that laws and regulations which govern potential impacts to water quality are enforced,” Pennsylvania's auditors wrote. “Unfortunately, DEP was unprepared to meet these challenges because the rapid expansion of shale gas development has strained DEP, and the agency has failed to keep up with the workload demands placed upon it.”

Auditors described state environmental regulators as woefully outgunned and unprepared for the sudden arrival of the shale gas drilling frenzy.

Oklahoma Earthquake Swarm Spurs Fracking Wastewater Disposal Debate

Last weekend, a swarm of seven earthquakes in just 14 hours between Saturday evening and Sunday morning in Oklahoma made national headlines.

Those seven quakes were immediately preceded by another earthquake that measured 4.3 on the Richter scale in Langston, OK, which struck at noon on Saturday. And on Monday, a quake that measuring 3.9 hit just northeast of Harrah, OK, followed in the same region just hours later by a 3.8 magnitude earthquake, data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows.

The ground in Oklahoma keeps shaking, and state, federal and independent researchers have pointed to the shale gas rush as the likely culprit for many of the tremors. Some in the state have called for a halt to fracking and wastewater injection. Others are pushing to allow the injections to continue in the hopes that more research will allow scientists to pinpoint what makes individual disposal wells pose greater or lesser risks.

The problem highlights the intractability of one of the biggest problems created by fracking and drilling: what to do with the over 660 billion gallons of oil and gas industry wastewater created every year, largely by the rush to drill for shale oil and gas. The most common answer is to pump the waste deep underground, but a growing body of research shows that the process is causing earthquakes nationwide.

Over the past seven days, Oklahoma has experienced more than 20 earthquakes, roughly half of them over 3.0 magnitude, USGS data reveals. These quakes are usually small, with little immediate damage reported, but homeowners say they fear for their foundations and some larger earthquakes over the past several years have led to hospitalizations from falls. The 4.3 magnitude quake on Sunday shattered windows and cracked the walls of a local police station.

Oklahoma has had more earthquakes than any other state in the U.S. this year, shaken by more than double the number of tremblers that have hit California, a state twice its size that sits atop the notoriously active San Andreas fault line.

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.

Over $48 Trillion Energy Investment Needed by 2035, IEA Report Concludes

It will cost $48 trillion to keep up with rising energy demand worldwide over the next two decades, a newly released report by the International Energy Agency concludes.

That's a massive jump from the $16 trillion predicted the last time the report was fully updated in 2003.

“The headline numbers revealed by this analysis are almost too large to register,” the IEA World Energy Investment Outlook special report notes.

The costs of supplying the world with energy, the report finds, have already more than doubled since 2000. And the costs of fossil fuels are projected to rise, even without accounting for any increase in demand. By 2035, the world's energy will require a $2 trillion investment every year. The vast majority of the $1.6 trillion spent on energy last year – a total of $1.1 trillion – went to extracting fossil fuels, oil refining and building power plants that burn fossil fuels.

Over the next two decades, the world would need to invest over $20 trillion to replace production from aging, declining oil and gas fields.

To put that $20 trillion into perspective, the Iraq war cost the U.S. government $1 trillion over its nine years, according to White House estimates. That means the financial investment needed by fossil fuel projects over the next two decades would equal the cost to U.S. taxpayers of twenty Iraq wars.

An alternate plan, aimed at limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius, would add another $250 billion to the average yearly price tag, the IEA adds, and require a focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy sources and reduced spending on oil, gas and coal.

But this approach could ultimately be less expensive, because less will need to be spent compensating for the harmful effects of global warming.

"Fracking Pennsylvania": New Book Recounts History of the Northeast's Shale Rush

Walter Brasch begins his new book, Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting with Disaster, by explaining in the introduction that he never intended to write an anti-fracking book. “But,” he writes “as I accumulated mounds of evidence, I realized that fracking, even under the best of conditions, is a problem.”

There is no question that Brasch, a former journalism professor, did his research before arriving at that conclusion. His 400-page tome is rife with footnotes (over 1,400 citations) and quotes from various experts on the history of Pennsylvania and the industry that has come to dominate much of its politics over the past several years.

It's a story with national implications, as the state is home to the nation's most productive shale gas field, attracting attention from politicians in Washington D.C. — and also providing numerous cautionary tales for other states undergoing similar shale booms.

The book, a remarkably timely primer that seems like it would be well at home in a college classroom, is divided into three main parts.

Part I reviews historical, political and economic issues, beginning with a look back at energy policies nationwide going back centuries. For Pennsylvania, that has meant a long line of extractive industries: lumber companies clear-cut the state, in part to fuel massive iron forges, then coal companies arrived, first delving deep into underground mines then strip-mining the surface and leaving behind 2,500 miles of streams heavily polluted by acid mine run-off.

But it's the state's most recent energy bonanza that is the main focus of the book: the Marcellus shale and the natural gas industry's drilling rush.

Loopholes Enable Industry to Evade Rules on Dumping Radioactive Fracking Waste

As the drilling rush proceeds at a fast pace in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale, nearby states have confronted a steady flow of toxic waste produced by the industry. One of Pennsylvania's most active drilling companies, Range Resources, attempted on Tuesday to quietly ship tons of radioactive sludge, rejected by a local landfill, to one in nearby West Virginia where radioactivity rules are still pending. It was only stopped when local media reports brought the attempted dumping to light.

“We are still seeking information about what happened at the Pennsylvania landfill two months ago when the waste was rejected, and about the radiation test results the company received from the lab,” Kelly Gillenwater, a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which had tracked the waste after it was rejected by a Chartiers, PA landfill because it was too radioactive. “For now this is still under investigation.”

It's one of a series of incidents involving the disposal of fracking's radioactive waste. Collectively these incidents illustrate how a loophole for the oil and gas industry in federal hazardous waste laws has left state regulators struggling to prevent the industry from disposing its radioactive waste in dangerous ways.

Shale Rush Hits Argentina as Oil Majors Spend Billions on Fracking in Andes Region

While many countries, including France, Germany and South Africa, have banned or delayed their embrace of fracking, one country is taking a full-steam-ahead approach to the unconventional drilling technology: Argentina.

The country is welcoming foreign shale companies with open arms in the hope that oil and gas drilling will help combat one of the world’s highest currency inflation rates. But the government there is also facing violent clashes over fracking in arid regions of the Andes mountains and allegations from locals of water contamination and health problems.

Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale formation — estimated to hold an amount of oil and gas nearly equal to the reserves of the world’s largest oil company, Exxon Mobil — has already attracted billions in investment from the major oil and gas company Chevron.

In April, the government drew global attention when it announced plans to auction off more acreage. “Chevron, Exxon, Shell have shown interest in Vaca Muerta. They will compete for sure,” Neuquen province Energy Minister Guillermo Coco told potential investors on a road show in Houston on April 30th.

Argentina, which the EIA estimates could hold even more shale gas than the U.S., already has over 150 shale wells in production, more than any country in the world aside from the U.S. and China. California-based Chevron, in partnership with Argentina’s state-owned oil company YPF, invested $1.24 billion in a pilot program last year. Last month, Chevron announced an additional $1.6 billion effort for 2014, part of Chevron's overall investment plan that could top $15 billion. The company is hoping that this plan will allow it to extract 50,000 barrels a day of shale oil plus 100 million cubic feet of shale gas per day from the country’s Andes mountain region.

American drillers have talked up Argentine shale as the next big thing. “Vaca Muerta is going to be an elephant compared to Eagle Ford,” Mark Papa, CEO of EOG Resources told the Argentine press in 2012, referring to a major oil-producing shale formation in Texas.

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.

“All of the Above” or “Action now?”: Obama’s Natural Gas Contradiction

At a talk in Vermont last week, the nation's top energy official offered up his thoughts on a problem the White House has said calls for “urgent action”: climate change.

“We need to mitigate the effects of climate change and need to adapt at the same time,” said Dr. Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy, as he described the findings of a White House report issued earlier this month outlining the dangers of global warming and the impacts already felt nationwide.

But Moniz's talk also highlighted a fundamental flaw in the approach that President Obama has taken to energy and the environment.

The president has begun sounding alarm bells about the hazards and costs of worsening climate disruption. At the same time, he has aggressively promoted the nation's ongoing shale gas rush. And yet, experts warn this drilling frenzy may have wiped out most of the gains made by slashing carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal.

It's a paradox that the Washington Post labeled “a jarring juxtapostion” and “the contradiction at the heart of President Obama's climate change policy.” 

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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