Earthworks

'Biggest Oil Find' of 2016 Puts Crown Jewel Texas Oasis in Crosshairs for Fracking

Water birds land on Balmorhea Lake in West Texas

REEVES COUNTY, TEXAS — Travelers crossing the long stretch of arid desert spanning West Texas might stumble across an extraordinarily improbable sight — a tiny teeming wetlands, a sliver of marsh that seems like it should sit by the ocean but actually lays over 450 miles from the nearest coast.

This cienega, or desert-wetlands (an ecosystem so unusual that its name sounds like a contradiction), lies instead near a massive swimming pool and lake, all fed by clusters of freshwater springs that include the deepest underwater cave ever discovered in the U.S., stretching far under the desert's dry sands.

Famous as “the oasis of West Texas,” Balmorhea State Park now hosts over 150,000 visitors a year, drawn by the chance to swim in the cool waters of the park's crystal-blue pool, which is fed by up to 28 million gallons of water a day flowing from the San Solomon springs. The pool's steady 72 to 76 degree Fahrenheit temperatures make the waters temptingly cool in the hot Texas summer and surprisingly warm in the winter, locals say — part of the reason it's been called “the crown jewel of the desert.”

Documents: IOGCC-Spawned Loophole Creating Frackquake Crisis Faces Federal Lawsuit

On May 4, several environmental organizations filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), calling for an end to the regulatory exemption it carved out in the late 1980s for the oil and gas industry with regards to how it handles industrial waste.

That exemption to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976, a recent DeSmog investigation showed, was pushed in the forefront almost from day one of RCRA's passage by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC). IOGCC is a U.S. Congress-chartered interstate compact consisting of U.S. oil and gas producing states, with a membership roll that includes state-level regulators, industry lobbyists and executives.

The EPA, which granted the oil and gas industry the RCRA exemption in 1988, serves as an IOGCC affiliate member.

An ongoing DeSmog investigation into IOGCC has exhibited that it often behaves like an unregistered lobbying node for the oil and gas industry. DeSmog has also obtained more documents, published here for the first time, revealing IOGCC's role in pushing for and creating the RCRA loophole. 

The Only Legal Challenge To Local Fracking Bans In California Was Just Quietly Dropped

The only lawsuit seeking to overturn any of the local fracking bans in the state of California has been dropped.

Southern California-based Citadel Exploration filed a suit on February 27 against San Benito County’s Measure J, which voters approved by a wide margin last November despite the oil and gas industry outspending its opponents 13-to-1 in an attempt to defeat the measure.

Citadel had called Measure J an “illegal local statutory scheme” and argued that only the state has the right to regulate oil and gas development, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The company has not released any further statements or responded to requests for comment on why it chose to drop the suit.

But anti-fracking activists and others who have worked on the fracking bans have their own theories.

“It's pretty clear to me now that the oil industry was bluffing,” Andy Hsia-Coron, a retired schoolteacher who helped run the Measure J campaign, told the San Jose Mercury News. “As they examined their hand, they realized it was pretty weak.”

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.

Environmental Groups File Motion to Intervene in Defense of Denton Fracking Ban

Just days after attorneys representing Denton, Texas submitted their initial responses to two legal complaints filed against Denton — the first Texas city ever to ban hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)  environmental groups have filed an intervention petition. That is, a formal request to enter the two lawsuits filed against the city after its citizens voted to ban fracking on election day.

Denton Drilling Awareness Group and Earthworks are leading the intervention charge, represented by attorneys from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and EarthjusticeThe drilling awareness group runs the Frack Free Denton campaign.

Those groups have joined up with attorneys representing Denton to fight lawsuits filed against the city by both the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Commission.

Bush Family and Its Inner Circle Play Central Role in Lawsuits Against Denton, Texas Fracking Ban

George P. Bush, Texas Land Commissioner-Elect

On November 4, Denton, Texas, became the first city in the state to ban the process of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) when 59 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of the initiative. It did so in the heart of the Barnett Shale basin, where George Mitchell — the “father of fracking” — drilled the first sample wells for his company Mitchell Energy.

As promised by the oil and gas industry and by Texas Railroad Commission commissioner David Porter, the vote was met with immediate legal backlash. Both the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGAfiled lawsuits in Texas courts within roughly 12 hours of the vote taking place, the latest actions in the aggressive months-long campaign by the industry and the Texas state government to fend off the ban.

The Land Office and TXOGA lawsuits, besides making similar legal arguments about state law preempting local law under the Texas Constitution, share something else in common: ties to former President George W. Bush and the Bush family at large.

In the Land Office legal case, though current land commissioner Jerry Patterson signed off on the lawsuit, he will soon depart from office. And George Prescott Bush — son of former Florida Governor and prospective 2016 Republican Party presidential nominee Jeb Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush — will take his place.

George P. Bush won his land commissioner race in a landslide, gaining 61 percent of the vote. Given the cumbersome and lengthy nature of litigation in the U.S., it appears the Land Office case will have only just begun by the time Bush assumes the office.

The TXOGA legal complaint was filed by a powerful team of attorneys working at the firm Baker Botts, the international law firm named after the familial descendants of James A. Baker III, a partner at the firm.

Baker III served as chief-of-staff under both President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush and as a close advisor to President George W. Bush on the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He gave George P. Bush a $10,000 donation for his campaign for his race for land commissioner.

James A. Baker III Campaign Contribution George P. Bush

Photo Credit: Texas Land Commission

The Energy Policy Act of 2005which exempts the oil and gas industry from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act for fracking, is seen by critics as the legacy of ashes left behind by the George W. Bush Administration.

Yet almost a decade later, the two lawsuits filed against Denton show the Bush oil and gas legacy clearly lives on and stretches from the state where the fracking industry was born all the way to Iraq and back again. 

Shale Oil Drillers Deliberately Wasted Nearly $1 Billion in Gas, Harming Climate

In Texas and North Dakota, where an oil rush triggered by the development of new fracking methods has taken many towns by storm, drillers have run into a major problem.

While their shale wells extract valuable oil, natural gas also rises from the wells alongside that oil. That gas could be sold for use for electrical power plants or to heat homes, but it is harder to transport from the well to customers than oil. Oil can be shipped via truck, rail or pipe, but the only practical way to ship gas is by pipeline, and new pipelines are expensive, often costing more to construct than the gas itself can be sold for.

So, instead of losing money on pipeline construction, many shale oil drillers have decided to simply burn the gas from their wells off, a process known in the industry as “flaring.”

It's a process so wasteful that it's sparked class action lawsuits from landowners, who say they've lost millions of dollars worth of gas due to flaring. Some of the air emissions from flared wells can also be toxic or carcinogenic. It's also destructive for the climate – natural gas is made primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and when methane burns, it produces more than half as much CO2 as burning coal.

Much of the research into the climate change impact the nation's fracking rush – now over a decade long – has focused on methane leaks from shale gas wells, where drillers are deliberately aiming to produce natural gas. The climate change impacts of shale oil drilling have drawn less attention from researchers and regulators alike.

As Energy Department Announces Methane Measures, Critics Call for Stronger Action

On Tuesday, the White House released a report estimating that delaying action on climate change could cause $150 billion a year in damage to the U.S. economy.

“These costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay,” the assessment warned.

That same day, President Obama announced moves to help reduce greenhouse gasses. But some critics charge that the President's actions have so far failed to be proportionate to the crisis the White House predicts.

As DeSmog reported, on Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency's program on natural gas pipeline leaks came under fire from the EPA's own internal watchdog. The EPA inspector general lambasted the agency for setting up rules that rely heavily on voluntary leak repairs by pipeline companies while turning a blind eye to state policies that allow those companies to simply pass the price of leaking gas to consumers instead of making costly repairs.

The resulting leaks, the EPA audit concluded, cost consumers over $192 million and the resulting greenhouse gasses each year were equal to putting an addition 2.7 million cars on the road.

On the heels of that report, the Obama administration announced that it would adjust its methane pollution controls — but the measures they announced fell far short of what some experts argue is necessary to curtail methane's climate hazards. The Department of Energy's new measures include adjustments to its voluntary leak control program and add funding for research into ways to better curb leaks.

While we applaud the commitments made by DOE, labor unions, utility groups, and other stakeholders,” Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel told the Oil and Gas Journal, “voluntary measures and new research initiatives don’t adequately protect communities and the climate.”

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.

Residents Deliver Petition to Ban Fracking to City Hall in Denton, Texas

A petition to ban hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in Denton, Texas, is being submitted to City Hall today, paving the way for Denton to become the first city in Texas to prohibit the controversial method of extracting natural gas.

Members of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, who are pushing for a ballot initiative, collected more than 1,871 signatures in support of a fracking ban within Denton city limits — three times more than were required and just 300 shy of the number of ballots cast in the last municipal election.

Once the signatures are certified, the city council will have to vote on the proposed ban. If council adopts a ban, fracking will be illegal inside Denton's city limits. If council votes against the ban, the initiative will likely be on the ballot in November, giving the public a chance to vote on the matter.

We hope the council will vote to approve the ban,” said Ed Soph, a member of the Denton Awareness Group. “But at a minimum, we hope they’ll respect their constituents and allow the Denton residents a chance to vote on the ban, not try to block it on a legal technicality.”

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