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Greenwashing Concerns Mount as Evidence of Fracking's Climate Impact Grows

Several years ago, Utah public health officials realized they had a big problem on their hands – one with national implications as other states were racing to increase oil and gas drilling. Smog levels in the state’s rural Uintah basin were rivaling those found in Los Angeles or Houston on their worst days.

The culprit, an EPA report concluded earlier this year: oil and gas operations. The industry was responsible for roughly 99 percent of the volatile organic compounds found in the basin, which mixed under sunlight with nitrogen oxides – at least 57% of which also came from oil and gas development – to form the choking smog, so thick that the nearby Salt Lake City airport was forced to divert flights when the smog was at its worst.

But the haze over the Uintah isn’t the most dangerous air pollutant coming from the oil and gas fields in the valley.

A string of studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that the core ingredient in natural gas, methane, is leaking at rates far higher than previously suspected.  This methane has climate change impacts that, on a pound-for-pound basis, will be far more powerful over the next two decades than the carbon dioxide emissions that have been the focus of most climate change discussions.

The smog problem is especially pronounced in Utah. But a growing body of research nationwide suggests that methane is leaking from the natural gas industry at levels far higher than previously known.

In Washington D.C., pressure is mounting to ignore these methane leaks. The oil and gas industry says there is no time to waste. We must proceed immediately with the “all-of-the-above” national energy strategy they say, code for “drill baby drill”. This pressure is coming not only from the natural gas industry itself, but also from a surprising ally: the Environmental Defense Fund, which has supported natural gas development as a “bridge” from coal to renewables.

This position has drawn renewed accusations that the EDF is “greenwashing” for the natural gas industry.

Another Pennsylvania Wastewater Treatment Plant Accused of Illegally Disposing Radioactive Fracking Waste

A Pennsylvania industrial wastewater treatment plant has been illegally accepting oil and gas wastewater and polluting the Allegheny river with radioactive waste and other pollutants, according to an environmental group which announced today that it is suing the plant.
 
“Waste Treatment Corporation has been illegally discharging oil and gas wastewater since at least 2003, and continues to discharge such wastewater without authorization under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Streams Law,” the notice of intent to sue delivered by Clean Water Action reads.
 
Many pollutants associated with oil and gas drilling – including chlorides, bromides, strontium and magnesium – were discovered immediately downstream of the plant’s discharge pipe in Warren, PA, state regulators discovered in January of this year. Upstream of the plant, those same contaminants were found at levels 1 percent or less than those downstream, or were not present at all.
 
State officials also discovered that the sediments immediately downstream from the plant were tainted with high levels of radium-226, radium-228 and uranium. Those particular radioactive elements are known to be found at especially levels in wastewater from Marcellus shale gas drilling and fracking, and state regulators have warned that the radioactive materials would tend to accumulate in river sediment downstream from plants accepting Marcellus waste.
 
“To us, that says that they are discharging Marcellus Shale wastewater, although no one admits to sending it to them,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania State Director for Clean Water Action.

Growing Doubts on the Numbers from Fracking Giant Chesapeake Energy

America is in the midst of the biggest onshore oil and gas rush in recent history, with excitement spreading across the U.S. Oil and gas companies have cashed in on this frenzied excitement by courting huge investment domestically and abroad.

But a growing chorus of independent analysts and law enforcement agencies have their doubts and have questioned whether shale drillers are overhyping their financial prospects and overestimating how much oil or gas they can profitably pull from the ground. Just this week, one of America's biggest agricultural lenders, the Netherlands-based Rabobank, announced that it would no longer lend money to companies that invest in shale gas extraction (nor to farmers worldwide who lease their land to these drillers).

The way that oil and gas companies describe their prospects in their financial statements matters because investors – and not just the uber-wealthy ones but also pension funds, university endowments, average folks with retirement savings or 401(k)s – can lose catastrophically if the information they rely on is faulty.

This matters to taxpayers too, since lawmakers need accurate information when making long-term decisions about the industry subsidies and tax breaks granted to encourage the drilling boom. The shale fracking rush could prove to be an expensive bust for taxpayers if oil and gas wells do not perform as promised.

Concern that companies have been over-exuberant about shale led Wall Street's two top cops, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the New York Attorney General to investigate whether oil and gas companies have been “overbooking” their reserves (translation: inflating their appeal by promising investors more fossil fuels than their wells can actually deliver).

One company in particular – Chesapeake Energy – has attracted the most attention from these investigators.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz Relies on Dubious Coal Tech for Obama Climate Strategy

The key takeaway from President Obama's major climate change announcement this week was his intent to batten down on coal. But if history is any indication, the man Mr. Obama selected to run the Department of Energy may have different plans.

Ernest J. Moniz has a long history of supporting coal-powered electricity, staking his arguments in favor of coal on a technology that remains entirely unproven: carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

Mr. Moniz will be in a uniquely influential position when it comes to confronting these problems. President Obama announced that he would rely on executive agencies instead of Congress, so Mr. Moniz's Energy Department will play a crucial role in determining precisely how Obama’s strategy is administered.  

The day after Obama's speech, Moniz told Congress  “the President advocates an all-of-the-above energy strategy and I am very much in tune with this.”

What’s wrong with an all-of-the-above strategy? It extends reliance on fossil fuels, at a time when scientists warn that we can only burn twenty percent of current reserves before the world tips past the crucial 2 degree Celsius point. Beyond two degrees, some of the most devastating impacts of global warming will be felt. Keep in mind that, if all of the world’s coal is burned, global temperatures could rise by a jaw-dropping 15 degrees Celsius, a study published in the prestigious journal Nature last year concluded.

The stakes, when it comes to controlling American greenhouse gas emissions, are huge.

A Gamble on Shale Job Growth Fails to Pay Off for Governor Corbett, as Fracking Worries Grow Nationwide

Last Friday in Philadelphia, a small crowd gathered outside the Franklin Institute, protest signs in hand. Only a few days before, word went out that Governor Tom Corbett, one of the nation’s least popular governors, would be in Philadelphia, a city that has borne the brunt of many of Mr. Corbett’s crippling budget cuts, and protest organizers said they had mobilized fast.

Inside the museum, Mr. Corbett was speaking at a shale gas summit sponsored by the Keystone Energy Forum, and he was once again touting the benefits of the Marcellus fracking boom.

 “The shale gas industry is helping to sustain more than 240,000 jobs in every corner of our state,” Corbett said. (Many analysts say these numbers are overblown and the impact on the state’s employment has been negligible.)

The speech was textbook Corbett — unapologetic championing of the oil and gas industry, puzzlement at the mounting tide of opposition to fracking, a deep-seated faith in the good intentions of drillers and the benefits they want to bring to Pennsylvania and America.

During this speech, Mr. Corbett made no mention of one drilling services company — Minuteman Environmental Services — that he had extolled as “an American success story” a year ago in a similar speech only to see the company raided by the FBI months later.

And for all the talk about jobs and drilling, no one in the crowd asked him about the recent ranking of Pennsylvania as 49th of 50 states in terms of new job creation.

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.

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.

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.

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.
 

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.

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