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Permanent Protest Set Up at US Oil Sands Project in Utah

The first tar sands strip mining project in the U.S. is gearing up to start operation in Utah, but not without resistance from a group that announced on May 29 that it is setting up a permanent protest vigil at the site.

The Canadian company US Oil Sands Inc. (USOS) leased over 32,000 acres in the Bookcliffs range in eastern Utah near the PR Spring campground for what it calls the first bitumen mining operation in the U.S.  Bitumen is the sticky black substance also known as asphalt, with a viscosity similar to cold molasses.

US Oil Sands plans to dig up huge amounts of sand containing the bitumen and then heat the sand to release the bitumen, separate out the sand, and then use solvents to thin the gooey substance enough so it will flow through pipes and into trucks. USOS got the green light to go ahead with the pilot project from the Utah Water Quality Board in 2012, and then solicited investors to fund the project. 

In mid-May, USOS announced (pdf) that its tar sands pilot project was fully funded, and they are purchasing equipment and moving into the operational phase.

Groups Say CO Governor Hickenlooper Evading Public Input on Fracking Policy

Eleven grassroots citizens groups are demanding that Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper allow them access to meetings he is holding about a proposed special legislative session to address fracking. 
 
Gov. Hickenlooper and the drilling industry have been trying to strike a “grand bargain”-style, watered-down bill to circumvent a slew of powerful anti-fracking initiatives currently working their way towards the state ballot. Colorado's regular legislative session ended early in May, and the governor wants to call a special session to pass his compromise bill.
 
The groups protesting their exclusion from the governor's meetings are the same ones that led successful efforts to pass anti-fracking ballot initiatives in six front-range communities, and which continue to represent communities impacted by fracking.
 
Colorado newspapers like the Denver Post and Denver Business Journal have widely reported that oil and gas industry executives and other “stakeholders” have been attending discussions with the governor to craft new state legislation pertaining to drilling and fracking.

But none of the citizen and environmental groups that moved the moratoria and bans forward in the last 18 months in the six cities representing over 400,000 citizens, including Fort Collins, Loveland (pending), Longmont, Boulder, Broomfield, and Lafayette, have been informed about the meetings or invited to attend.  

Groundbreaking Anti-Fracking Ballot Initiative Clears Key Hurdle in Colorado

Fracking protest

The citizen-led anti-fracking battles in Colorado ratcheted up a notch May 22 when the Colorado Community Rights Network announced that Ballot Initiative #75, the Community Right Amendment (also known as “Right to Local Self-Government”), has cleared its final legal hurdle with the Colorado Supreme Court and has the go-ahead to start gathering signatures to get the measure on the November ballot.

Initiative #75 would give cities and towns the right to regulate or ban outright any for-profit enterprise that threatens the environment or the health, safety or welfare of its citizens. In addition to letting localities regulate drilling as they see fit, it would give citizens the right to ban pursuits such as hazardous waste dumps, factory farms or genetically modified crop farming within their cities' borders.

Currently, only the state has the authority to regulate oil and gas drilling in Colorado, but as drilling companies exploit more land for energy production, rigs are springing up next to homes, schools, playgrounds and shopping areas. Citizens are alarmed when they find out they have little power to stop it. 

Interactive Map Shows Extent of Oil and Gas Fouling of Colorado

Photos of Colorado's spectacular Rocky Mountains draw tourists to the state from all over the world, but if people could see the extent to which oil and gas drilling is polluting the state, they might think again about visiting. 
 
DeSmogBlog has posted infographics about oil spills resulting from transportation, pipeline leaks and other disasters. Now the nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities has posted a detailed, interactive Western Toxic Release Map that plots over 13,600 spills from oil and gas operations that occurred in New Mexico and Colorado between 2000 and 2013. 
 
The color-coded map tells whether the spills consisted of oil, brine, drilling water, or other substances. It shows that the highest number of spills occurred in four main areas of Colorado: between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs on the central western side of the state, the area surrounding Rangely in the northwest, an area around Durango, Farmington (NM) and Trinidad in the south, and around Greeley in the northeast.  

Each dot on the map represents a documented spill, and each dot links to a full details about the spill as reported to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. 
 
These are just reported spills.
 
Using a sort function, map users can also see the number of documented spills that occurred each year. 
 
The map also helpfully sums up the number of documented spills, along with the total quantity of fluids spilled by oil and gas operations in this area from 2000 to 2013: 1,479 total spills and a total of 8,021,118 gallons of hazardous fluids.   

Spike in Stillborn and Neonatal Deaths Reported in Heavily Drilled Vernal, Utah

Natural Gas and Oil Drilling in Utah

A midwife in Vernal, Utah, has raised a red flag about a spike in the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths in the small town in 2013.

The concern has arisen alongside explosive growth in drilling and fracking in the area. Energy companies have flocked to Vernal in the last few years to develop massive oil and gas fields beneath Uintah County.

The midwife, Donna Young, who has worked in the Vernal area for 19 years, delivered the first stillborn baby she's seen in all her years of practice in May 2013. Doctors could not determine a reason for the baby's death.

While visiting the local cemetery where the baby was buried, Young noticed other fresh graves of babies who were stillborn or who died shortly after birth.

Young started researching obituaries and mortuary records on stillbirths and neonatal deaths and found a large spike in the number of infant deaths in the Vernal area in recent years. She documented 11 other incidents in 2013 in which Vernal mothers had given birth to stillborn babies or in which babies died within a few days of being born. Vernal's full-time population is only about 9,800.

Young found that the rate of neonatal deaths in Vernal has climbed from about equivalent to the national average in 2010 to six times the national average in 2013.

Along with the surge in oil and gas drilling in the Vernal area in the last few years, the winter air in the Uintah basin, where Vernal sits, has become dense with industrial smog generated by drilling rigs, pipelines, wells and increased traffic.

Colorado Report on Birth Anomalies Near Fracking Sites Omits Key Factors

Oil flare stack

Last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment announced it would investigate a spike in rare fetal anomalies reported in Garfield County, the second most heavily-drilled and fracked county in the state.

The newly released report, which the department quietly put on its website without public announcement, does little to address fears about the safety of drilling and fracking in Colorado's communities.

The report says that overall, the department found no single predominant risk factor common among the majority of women studied. 

The agency studied about a dozen risk factors, most of which focused on the mothers' personal characteristics and behavior, such as ethnicity; alcohol, tobacco and drug use; use of medications, vitamins and supplements; and family history.

But the report has glaring gaps in what the state examined, and what it didn't.

Colorado Oil and Gas Operations Emitting Far More Benzene, Methane Than Expected

Gas pumpjack in Weld County, Colorado

Scientists affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have determined that oil and gas operations on Colorado's front range are pumping almost three times more methane and seven times more benzene into the air than previously estimated.

Benzene is a regulated air toxin that causes cancer and methane is 20 to 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere.

Researchers collected air samples from an airplane over Weld County over two days in May 2012. Previous studies measured air samples taken at ground-level or from a 985-foot tall tower. This is the first study to measure airborne contaminants from an airplane.

Researchers found that 24,000 active oil and gas wells active in Weld County in May 2012 were emitting a total of 19.3 tons of methane each hour, or about triple the amount the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated would come from industry-reported emissions.

Drilling operations emitted benzene at a rate of 380 pounds each hour, or about seven times more than the 50 pounds an hour the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment estimated based on industry-reported data.

American Sands Energy Corp. To Become Third Company to Mine Tar Sands in Utah

Utah tar sands
 
Yet another company is poised to start grinding up and spitting out eastern Utah's wilderness for its tar sands.  
 
Until now, the biggest threat to eastern Utah's wilderness has been the Canadian company U.S. Oil Sands, which amid protests in 2013 succeeded in starting a strip mining operation for tar sands at PR Spring, in eastern Utah's Bookcliffs range, about 35 miles west of the Colorado border. 
 
In what's shaping up to be a new rush to riches by producing dirty oil from unconventional sources in the western U.S., now another company, American Sands Energy Corporation (ASEC), has obtained the rights to mine tar sands and bitumen (asphalt) on 1,800 acres of private property in an area called Sunnyside, about 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
 
The company calls the project the “Sunnyside Project” or the “Gibbs Project,” after the Gibbs family, which owned the property 30 years ago. William Gibbs is the chairman of the board and CEO of American Sands Energy Corporation.
 
ASEC couldn't possibly have found a friendlier place in the U.S. for its fossil fuel extraction project.
 
Sunnyside, population 274 in 2012, is a former coal town in Carbon County, and is so friendly to energy interests that up until 1994, it never had an elected mayor. Before that time, the town's mayor was the superintendent of mines for the Utah Fuel Coal Company. After Kaiser Steel took over the local mines in 1950, Sunnyside's mayor was the head of Kaiser Steel. 

Seismologists Warn Fracking Boom Can Lead to More Earthquakes

Seismologists are warning that disposing of fracking wastewater by injecting it into underground rock formations may pose a far greater risk of setting off dangerous earthquakes than formerly believed. 
 
At the 2014 annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America in Anchorage, Alaska, scientists presented new evidence indicating wastewater injection wells can affect earthquake faults located miles away from the wells themselves. The new research comes amid mounting evidence demonstrating that oil and gas drilling operations in North America are causing man-made earthquakes, also called “induced seismicity,” or “frackquakes.”
 
Unfortunately, scientists say that there is no way to forecast which drilling or wastewater disposal wells will induce seismic events, but said induced seismicity could post a significant risk to the integrity of critical infrastructure, like dams, roads and bridges. 
 
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates over 2 billion gallons of fracking fluid are disposed via underground injection each day in the United States.
 
Fracking has already been directly linked to earthquakes, and scientists say drilling, fracking and wastewater disposal are responsible for an uptick in earthquakes in the U.S. in the last several years. Two geophysicists with the U.S. Geological Survey, Art Garr and Justin Rubenstein, found that a high volume of injected wastewater combined with a high injection rate increases the likelihood of triggering earthquakes powerful enough to be felt by humans. 

Energy Industry Makes Last-Ditch Effort to Short Circuit Colorado Fracking Ballot Initiatives

Colorado's oil and gas industry is trying to short-circuit proposed ballot initiatives that would strictly regulate drilling and fracking by pushing a watered-down, last-minute bill in the state legislature.
 
The industry-backed “grand bargain” bill would give local governments limited, feel-good regulatory authority over oil and gas operations, like the ability to determine setbacks from drilling rigs and to charge “reasonable” fees for inspecting drilling operations. 
 
Colorado's legislative session ends May 7 though, leaving precious little time for the legislature to take up the measure. The bill faces only a 50/50 chance of even being introduced within the next couple of days. It would need a minimum of three days to get through the legislature. 

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