Sharon Kelly

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Sharon Kelly is an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other publications. Prior to beginning freelance writing, she worked as a law clerk for the ACLU of Delaware.

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.

EPA Sued Over Disclosure Rules for Toxic Pollution from Drilling and Fracking

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been sued over toxic chemicals released into the air, water and land by the oil and gas industry, a coalition of nine environmental and open government groups announced today.

The extraction of oil and gas releases more toxic pollution than any other industry except for power plants, according to the EPA's own estimates, the coalition, which filed the lawsuit this morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, noted.

But the industry has thus far escaped federal rules that, for over the past two decades, have required other major polluters to disclose the type and amount of toxic chemicals they release or dispose. The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) is a federal pollution database, established under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and can be used by first-responders in the event of a crisis as well as members of the general public.

People deserve to know what toxic chemicals are being used near their homes, schools and hospitals,” said Matthew McFeeley, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For too long, the oil and gas industry has been exempt from rules that require other industries to disclose the chemicals they are using, so communities and workers can better understand the risks. It’s high time for EPA to stop giving the oil and gas industry special treatment.”

Roughly one in four Americans live within a mile of an oil or gas well, making the air emissions from the industry a matter of local concern to a fast-growing number of families.

As New York Bans Fracking, Calls for Moratorium in Pennsylvania Grow Stronger

This week, New York Governor Cuomo announced that his state would ban fracking, due in large part to concerns about impacts on public health. But right across the border in Pennsylvania, one of the fastest-moving shale booms in the country still proceeds at breakneck speed.

While Governor-elect Tom Wolf campaigned on promises to tax shale gas extraction, evidence continued to grow that Pennsylvania has struggled to police the drilling industry or even keep tabs on its activities. A scathing report issued in July by State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found that record-keeping was “egregiously poor,” and environmental regulators do “not have the infrastructure in place to meet the continuing demands placed upon the agency by expanded shale gas development.”

For the past several years, Pennsylvania has had a history of lax regulation of the shale rush and its impacts on drinking water. For example, in 2011, the state made national headlines for allowing shale wastewater laced with toxic and radioactive materials to be discharged after incomplete treatment into rivers and streams that were not capable of fully diluting the waste, according to internal EPA documents. Even now, toxic waste from the fracking industry is only tracked via industry self-reporting, which a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation found has led to major gaps in tracking and reporting.

“I think there is a strong feeling in Pennsylvania that what happened in New York is in large part because of the demonstrated damage caused by gas production here,” said Myron Arnowitt, State Director of Clean Water Action.

“It appears that the leadership in New York has been more responsive to what has been happening to Pennsylvanians than the leadership in Pennsylvania.”

New Report Highlights Fracking's Global Hazards

A new report, issued the same day the latest round of global climate negotiations opened in Peru, highlights the fracking industry's slow expansion into nearly every continent, drawing attention not only to the potential harm from toxic pollution, dried-up water supplies and earthquakes, but also to the threat the shale industry poses to the world's climate.

The report, issued by Friends of the Earth Europe, focuses on the prospects for fracking in 11 countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America and Europe, warning of unique hazards in each location along with the climate change risk posed in countries where the rule of law is relatively weak.

“Around the world people and communities are already paying the price of the climate crisis with their livelihoods and lives,” said Susann Scherbarth, climate justice and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. “Fracking will only make things worse and has no place in a clean energy future.”

The 80-page document describes plans for fracking in Brazil's Amazon rainforest (and the deforestation that would go along with that drilling), highlights the hazards the water-intensive process poses to already-disappearing aquifers in arid regions of northern Africa, and notes that licenses for shale gas drilling have been issued in the earthquake-prone zone at the foot of the Himalaya mountains in India.

It comes as representatives from 195 countries gathered Monday in Lima, with the goal of negotiating new limits on greenhouse gasses and staving off catastrophic climate change. Prospects for those talks seemed grim, with The New York Times reporting that it would be all but impossible to prevent the globe from warming 2 degrees.

Hard Times in a Boom Town: Pennsylvanians Describe Costs of Fracking

If you're looking for the shale gas boom, northeastern Pennsylvania is the place to start.

The Marcellus is the largest and fastest growing shale gas play in the U.S. and more than half of its 50 most productive wells were drilled in Susquehanna County in the northeast. Susquehanna and neighboring Bradford County produced 41 percent of all Marcellus gas this June.

While drilling is down in other shale gas plays across the US, with major oil companies selling off their stakes and CEO's expressing regret for buying in, the Marcellus has bucked some of the downward trends so far.

A recent report from the Post Carbon Institute, “Drilling Deeper: A Reality Check on U.S. Government Forecasts for a Lasting Tight Oil and Shale Gas Boom,” has grave warnings about the Energy Information Administration's figures nationwide, concluding that two-fifths of the shale gas the agency expects to be produced between now and 2040 will likely never materialize. While many high-profile shale gas plays have already peaked in terms of gas production per well, the Marcellus appears to be an outlier in terms of productivity, researcher David Hughes concludes.

Enormous amounts of shale gas are being produced in Pennsylvania. In the first six months of this year, drillers here pumped 2 trillion cubic feet of gas. And much of this gas came from the Marcellus shale's twin sweet spots, in the Northeast and Southwest corners of the state.

In the whirlwind of activity, some locals in here struck it rich – those who owned large tracts of land and negotiated their deals at exactly the right moment. Driving through the county, it seems like every back road has a red-and-white permit sign marking a shale gas well, a water impoundment, or other Marcellus-related infrastructure.

As Chesapeake Energy Reveals Department of Justice Investigation, Other Lawsuits Piling Up

Earlier this month, Chesapeake Energy Corp. revealed that it has been subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice, along with multiple states, over alleged wrong-doing in the company's business dealings.

Federal prosecutors and state attorneys have demanded that the company turn over documents, provide information, and give testimony in cases centering on the royalty payments that Chesapeake Energy pays to landowners who allow them to tap the shale oil and gas beneath the surface of their land.

Separately, the company said, it has received subpoenas from both federal and state attorneys general over potential violations of anti-trust laws, the laws designed to protect against abuse of monopoly power or collusion between competitors.

This is hardly the first time the company has found itself in legal trouble.

Across the U.S., Chesapeake faces a large number civil lawsuits from angry landowners, investors and other business partners. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, it faces racketeering counts, under the same law often used to convict members of organized crime. In Texas and Oklahoma, dozens of landowners have sued the company for shortchanging them.

Prosecution of Don Blankenship a Historic Moment for Coal Industry

This week's indictment of former Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, was as much a political turning point for West Virginia as it was a moment of reckoning economically for the coal industry writ large. It marked the wane of one of America's last great robber barons and yet another ominous warning for the country's dirtiest and deadliest of fossil fuels.

The decision represented a political shot across the bow by a smart, dogged and politically ambitious US attorney, R. Booth Goodwin II. For several years now, Goodwin has systematically worked his way up Massey’s hierarchy, convicting not only low-level supervisors, but also executives higher and higher within the corporate hierarchy. 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.

Goodwin's pursuit of Blankenship was politically daring — and, if the indictment is to be trusted — based on solid evidence. But it was also a welcome development for the state's democrats since for over a decade Blankenship had single-handedly dismantled the mine workers union and bank-rolled a resurgent GOP movement in the state, altering the make-up of the state Supreme Court and funneling funds to astro-turf 501c drives for pet issues like “tort reform”.

More than anything, though, the indictment was a small vindication for the families of the 29 men who died at the Upper Big Branch mine on April 5, 2010 in the worst explosion of the past 40 years. But the incident, a range of investigators concluded, was less an accident and more the outcome of deliberate wrongdoing by Massey.

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