I do not envy the Environmental Protection Administration right now.
In 2004, it conducted a study into Marcellus Shale drilling, which concluded that the âEPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing.â
That 2004 study was used to enact the so-called "Halliburton Loophole" which exempted Marcellus Shale drillers from complying with a slew of environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act.
What you may be thinking is: If drinking water is not contaminated by hydraulic fracturing, why would gas drillers need to be exempted from environmental regulations?
It's a good question. And a whistleblower came forward from the EPA to offer an answer: the study was âscientifically unsound.â
A subsequent study by ProPublica just to throw one example out there (because there are many) found more like 1,000 examples of groundwater contamination from Marcellus Gas wells instead of zero.
This spring, the EPA acknowledged or at least implied that they may have overlooked some stuff in 2004 study. And in response, officials within the EPA have scheduled a series of four public gatherings nationwide aimed at understanding public concerns over issues related to drilling for natural gas buried a mile into the earth.
Those four locations were: Fort Worth, Texas on July 8; Denver, Colo. on July 13, Bunghamton, N.Y. on Aug. 12; and last night at the Hilton Garden Inn, about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh.
Why 15 miles south of Pittsburgh? Because there's a major boom out here. Thousands of wells are being contracted in the more rural counties outside Allegheny County, and drilling leases have been signed not only within Allegheny County (where Pittsburgh sits), but actually within the City of Pittsburgh.
Which concerns some people. Ron Gulla is one of them.
Gulla sold pieces of his land to various drilling companies years ago. He pulled in some major cash as much as $20,000 per month in the early 1990s and then he got hit with reality: Not only was his drinking water turning into sludge, and not only was his house beginning to smell of kerosene and gasoline and other chemicals, but his take from the Marcellus Shale wells on his rural property was depreciating alarmingly year by year. Why? Because his neighbors were also selling their mineral rights and also smelling the unpleasant odors of commerce and also washing their faces at night with stinking watery mud seeping from their faucets. In short: The bubble had burst, and all that remained was severely unclean tap water and landowners who didn't really know what they had gotten themselves into.
You see where this is going? Stories like that have ended up in outlets like CNN, the New York Times, Reuters pretty much everywhere.
âEPA is developing a research study to examine the potential relationships between [hydraulic fracturing the process by which Marcellus Shale is extracted from the ground] and drinking water. A key goal of the EPA study is to generate data and information that can be used to assess risks and ultimately to inform decisions.â
Part of that approach involves what the EPA calls âstakeholder input.â Which is what last night's romp was all about.
Hundreds of people signed up some traveled from as far as Albany and Virginia to speak publicly at the meeting about any anxiety related to Marcellus Shale drilling.
A lot of these speeches were nearly identical, but each represented some very real concerns.
Jay McDowell, for example, is a landowner with property surrounded by Marcellus Shale wells. He says: âMany businesses have managed to abuse financial, environmental and economic conditions. Day by day, they empty their residual waste trucks into the creeks and streams surrounding my home. What they are drawing out of and putting into these waters is unknown to most. As an individual, if I were to do the same, I would no doubt be arrested and pulled away from my family.â
Another example concern came from Faith Bjalobok, a local university professor, who scolded the EPA for thinking of economic concerns above environmental ones.
âMy concern is the poisoning of our water and the lack of regulation,â she says. âNothing against our local officials, but they lack the knowledge base to make regulations [for Marcellus Shale drillers]. I am calling on the EPA to impose a moratorium until an objective scientific study not funded by the industry can be performed. âLater, she says: âPennsylvania has another very rich resource: our rural nature, our agriculture, and our farms. They stand to be endangered by fracking. The EPA was designed to protect the environment, not to create jobs.â
This went on and on. In total, 125 people spoke at the EPA meeting. Each had a two-minute time limit. And while most of the commentary came from folks who either lived on property that was negatively affected by Marcellus Shale drilling, or were concerned about how widespread drilling would harm the region's clean water sources, a few representatives from companies like Halliburton and the American Petroleum Institute came forward to offer their version of The Sentence,and to make points like this one, made in the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review yesterday:
â[An] industry-backed study shows that drilling for Marcellus shale natural gas in Pennsylvania and West Virginia could generate $1 billion a year in taxes and indirectly support 100,000 jobs during the next decade as investments filter through the local economy.â
But most of the folks last night didn't really want to hear that.
Ned Mulcahy, an attorney with Three Rivers Waterkeeper, helped to summarize the meeting and his hopes for the EPA study, which is set to conclude in 2012:
âThe EPA is on the cusp of losing all credibility as a regulatory agency,â he said. âAnd it has been put into a lot of minds that they are not to be trusted. But this is a chance they have to earn back some modicum of public trust. And I really do think they will do that.â
One problem, he said, is that the study is going to take two years. And so if the EPA really does have concerns about the safety of hydraulic fracturing and if they really do want to study how Marcellus Shale wells influence the environment shouldn't they put a moratorium on drilling until the study's complete?
Probably, but they won't. The Marcellus Shale play is a moving train.
âIf they want to clean house, they can,â he said. âThe EPA can make companies stop drilling if they want to.â But a more realistic expectation is that âthe study will produce data that would lead regulatory decisions to be done with water protection as an utmost concern, that it would require drillers to drill in areas that have been determined to be geologically isolated, and that drilling will generally be done in ways that won't amount to human health threats.â
âAnd that's about the best we can hope for,â he says.
While a state House bill, sponsored by state Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), that would ban further leasing of state forest for Marcellus Shale gas drilling lingers in the state Senate, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has quietly supplied supporters of the bill and, for that matter, opponents and those undecided with new data showing the impact of current drilling, and the potential impact of any more drilling on state forest land.
"There are proposals, that the governor is supporting, to have a moratorium on additional leasing of state forest land. What we wanted to do is make accessible to the public the thinking about the future of leasing of state forest in [that] context," DCNR Secretary John Quigley told me over the phone today.
Quigley says the idea is to show "that there are limits to the amount of leasing that can be sustained and that we're probably there."
They've posted a small mountain of highly-technical documents much more than I can sift through on my own. So, readers: help yourself and please report back anything you find that seems worth reporting either by email, or by posting a comment below.
That said, the feature presentation a 46-page .pdf slide show gets the main point across: Using a map of the state's forests, the presentation shows a step-by-step layering of drilling sites and potential drilling sites along with factors that DCNR says should render land ineligible for drilling like sensitive and wild areas and areas identified as "priority" forest patches.
Now take out everything already leased and which cannot sustainably be leased, and you get this:
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has just released its report on the explosion of a Marcellus Shale drilling well in Clearfield County. You can view it here.
I haven't had time to look it over yet, so stay tuned: but your input, readers, is always welcome and needed. Email tips, suggestions, etc.
In other news: opinion being divided over whether to keep "FrackTrack" or find another name, we're delaying action until next week.
Gas industry wants power to force landowners to allow drilling, and donated to lawmakers who now support it
Introducing our new series "Fracktrack" ongoing coverage of the Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry in Pennsylvania. Copy or bookmark this link to check for future updates or send us an email for notifications.
When Harrisburg passed a state budget two weeks go, the legislature included in that budget a theoretical tax on the production of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania theoretical, because the tax still doesn't exist, except in theory: the details have yet to be worked out, and the gas industry, unsurprisingly, is lobbying hard for concessions.
Last Friday, I began hearing rumors that chief among those concessions desired is the power to implement "forced pooling," essentially, the power to force reluctant landowners to lease or open their land for drilling, whether they want to or not.
Sure enough: this weekend, the Scranton Times-Tribune reported that two state representatives Marc Gergely, D-35, Allegheny County, and Garth Everett, R-84, Lycoming County have co-sponsored a bill which would do just that.
The piece quotes Kathryn Klaber of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, explaining that the law's intent is to ensure that gas development is "not a crazy quilt" and adding that, although models for such laws exist in other state, the Marcellus Coalition has "not found another state's pooling statute that stands out as a model for what they would like to see in Pennsylvania."
Meanwhile, a (very) cursory examination of Pennsylvania campaign finance records by CP shows that both representatives sponsoring the bill have received contributions from the gas industry:
Rep. Gergely received at least $6,000 from Allegheny Energy PAC in two donations last summer, at least $1,500 in donations including $1,000 donated just a few months ago from Chesapeake Energy Corp, one of PA's largest drilling companies.
Rep. Everett received donations from Chesapeake also: a $500 donation and two tickets to the Phillies, worth (according to Everett's campaign) $140.
A letter, headed up by the Campaign for Clean Water and signed by more than a dozen representatives of environmental groups is calling on the legislature to oppose so-called "forced pooling":
Forced pooling not only will require landowners to sign leases they do not want to sign, but it does this for the sole purpose of the gain of a private entity. Some landowners have decided they do not want to lease their mineral rights after deliberative consideration. The oil and gas industry would like the General Assembly to overturn the landowners' decisions. This essentially extends the concept of eminent domain but instead of using private property for the public good, it takes private property for private gain.
The recent explosion of a Marcellus Shale mine only the latest and worst in a series of spills, leaks, well contaminations, and other environmental damage resulting from the hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") method of gas drilling in Pennsylvania seems to finally have got some of our representatives questioning the pace at which fracking is allowed to develop in this state.
So far, that pace has been as fast as possible, damn the risks as evinced by the more than one thousand environmental violations racked up against the industry in just the last two years, including more than a hundred spills, according to Department of Environmental Protection documents reviewed by the City Paper.
But it looks like the pressure to keep that pace fast or increase it is mounting in the wake of the BP spill, which has investors looking at the natural gas below Pa. with new attention.
A couple of days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Chesapeake Energy a major player in hydraulic fracturing here is selling stock in its company like hotcakes:
"Chesapeake Energy Corp. said it has sold $900 million in preferred stock to a group of private investors, including Asian sovereign wealth funds, cashing in on heightened interest in onshore energy following the BP PLC offshore drilling disaster.
Turns out, Chesapeake isn't the only Marcellus Shale company cashing in on increasing thirst for this region's gas. Reports the Motley Fool:
The increasing presence of Asian funds clearly comes as interest in natural gas ratchets higher worldwide. Other deals have involved India's Reliance Industries forking over $1.7 billion in April to Atlas Energy (Nasdaq: ATLS) in exchange for a sizable position in the Marcellus Shale. Also, two months earlier, Japan's Mitsui paid $1.4 billion for about a third of Anadarko's (NYSE: APC) Marcellus holdings.
With this kind of global pressure to keep drilling, it becomes even more important to ask whether our state officials, legislators and the increasingly beleaguered regulators both, will be able to keep this industry in check or whether it's time for a federal agency like the EPA to take this thing over. (Currently, fracking is exempted from federal oversight by a loophole in the energy bill masterminded by former V.P. Dick Cheney).
Josh Fox's film "Gasland" an expose on deep well natural gas drilling (hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking") airs tonight, 9 PM Eastern, on HBO. Among other fascinating tidbits, the film includes footage of a homeowner in Dimock, Pennsylvania lighting his water on fire, a feat made possible by the migration of methane into his well supply after many of the small town's residents leased land for drilling.
If you're just catching up on the issue, Pennsylvania has become a unique test case in what happens when the gas drilling industry rushes headfirst into a state with (even the head of our Department of Environmental Protection has acknowledged) insufficient regulation in place.
The rush is due to a unique geologic formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which lies below much of the state. (Click here for more of our coverage of Marcellus Shale drilling.)
In light of tonight's airing, and as state lawmakers actively consider harsher regulations, a few sobering stats:
- Well permits issued so far in 2010: 1,272
- Number of permits denied, returned, or withdrawn, 2010: 15, or 1.2%
- Drilling applications submitted to DEP since 2005: 4,248
- Drilling applications denied, returned, or withdrawn since 2005: 58, or 1.3%
- Number of violations found in 2009: 638
- Number of violations recorded so far in 2010: 421
- Number of violations for illegal/improper "discharge" of toxic materials 2010: 58
New standards approved for salts in gas drilling wastewater but it's still OK to discharge carcinogens!
|Photo | Isaiah Thompson|
Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved new regulations aimed at protecting Pennsylvania surface waters from potential impacts of drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The regulations can still be challenged by the House or Senate environmental resources committees, but given Governor Rendell's support of these measures, it seems unlikely.
Probably most significant is a limit on Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) salty chlorides and sulfides in discharged fracking water.
Lest the gentle reader think a stream's "saltiness," isn't a big deal, check out the contamination and massive fish kill that resulted from elevated TDS levels in Dunkard Creek in western Pennsylvania.
Interestingly, Marcellus Shale Coalition executive director Kathryn Klaber issued a statement yesterday saying rather inexplicably that the standards would "not provide any additional environmental benefit."
While environmental watchdog groups like Penn Environment and Clean Water Action praise the new rules, they point out that these regulations don't cover other toxic discharges like carcinogens benzene and arsenic.
"This rule is about setting a discharge standard, but we don't have that for chemicals," Myron Arnowitt, PA State Director for Clean Water Action, told me over the phone. "There are contaminants being discharged in Marcellus Shale wastewater that there need to be more standards for."
Erika Staaf, Clean Water Advocate for Penn Environment, agreed, pointing me to a report authored by the Environmental Working Group's Dusty Horwitt, who reports that gas companies may be regularly injecting "toxic petroleum distillates" which contain benzene into wells:
Companies that drill for natural gas and oil are skirting federal law and injecting toxic petroleum distillates into thousands of wells, threatening drinking water supplies from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. Federal and state regulators, meanwhile, largely look the other way.
These distillates include kerosene, mineral spirits and a number of other petroleum products that often contain high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen that is toxic in water at minuscule levels. Drillers inject these substances into rock under extremely high pressure in a process called hydraulic fracturing that energy companies use to extract natural gas and oil from underground formations.
Ready for the really scary quote?
In a worst case scenario, the petroleum distillates used in a single well could contain enough benzene to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water to unsafe levels, according to drilling company disclosures in New York State and published studies. ... That is more than 10 times as much water as the state of New York uses in a single day.
Uh, or you know, not really.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said it plans to "investigate aggressively" after natural gas and drilling fluids spewed from an out-of-control well in Clearfield County on Thursday night and all Friday morning.
As Tara Lohan at Alternet reminds us, This spill is likely a toxic mix of who know what (because industry wont reveal whats in their fracking fluid). So yeah, its not just off-shore drilling that is an environmental and human health threat and its not just oil.
CPs own Isaiah Thompson reported on the many environmental dangers of fracking and Marcellus Shale drilling in this story, which is as good a primer as any:
Perhaps more importantly, the need for natural gas is skyrocketing. In Pennsylvania, natural gas prices quadrupled between 2002 and 2008. This surge is driven largely by the fact that the energy sources that powered the last two centuries oil and coal are running out. Not to mention, they are both primary contributors to climate change. Among the fuel sources often discussed as short-term alternatives, natural gas has a special allure. It's a fossil fuel, yes, but it's cleaner than coal, immediately available (unlike solar and wind), and we don't have to buy it from the Middle East. In 2008, billionaire oil magnate T. Boone Pickens made headlines with his so-called "Pickens Plan" to move the U.S. off foreign oil, which relied upon natural gas as the "energy bridge" to the future.
The Marcellus Shale holds enough of it to power an energy bonanza that could rival the California Gold Rush.
The mighty gas-drilling industry powered by the even-mightier oil industry proclaims the shale a godsend. Its gas will create jobs, generate tax revenues and spur growth. The shale, drilling proponents say, is the magic carpet that will carry the United States to the future of energy independence.
But to its critics, the shale is the opposite: a catastrophe of opportunity. They point to the alleged dangers of fracing, which then-Vice President Dick Cheney managed to get exempted from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, thus stripping the Environmental Protection Agency of the ability to regulate it. (U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pennsylvania, has proposed legislation that would remove this exemption.) Environmentalists point to numerous reports of various kinds of contamination associated with fracing particularly an ongoing investigative series by the nonprofit journalism group ProPublica, which has catalogued such troubling episodes as the April 2009 incident in which 16 cows in Louisiana dropped dead after drinking "a mysterious fluid adjacent to a natural gas drilling rig," as well as the time, in September 2009, that nearly 8,000 gallons of fracing fluid leaked from a gas-drilling pipe system into a freshwater stream in Dimock, Pa., a small town near the New York border.
Love it or hate it, fracing has arrived in Pennsylvania. The state has permitted some 2,765 wells since 2005; in 2010 alone, that number stands to double. The pressure to lease state-owned forestland for Marcellus Shale drilling has been building for years. The development of new technology, coupled with the ever-growing need, made for the perfect storm.
|Courtesy of Pennsylvania DCNR|
When City Paper's Isaiah Thompson wrote a bang-up piece on companies drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, and the environmental and political concerns that go along with it, a brilliant commenter named "Why Whyserson" said thusly: "This would be an important story in Philadelphia if they were drilling in Fairmount Park."
As it turns out, it's not as easy as that. (Can you believe someone commenting on a website oversimplified things?!) If companies drill in the Delaware River Basin, aka our watershed, this indeed will be quite an important story in Philly and in fact, conservation officials say that about 300 square miles of watershed land have already been leased.
All of these details can get rather complicated, which is why Damascus Citizens for Sustainability is hosting a lecture titled "Gas Mining: What is there to be worried about?" tonight from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Blauvelt Theatre at the Friends Select School (17th Street and Ben Franklin Parkway). It will address how drilling could affect Philly's water, and what City Council and citizens can do. Mr. Whyserson, why not join us?
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has ordered Cabot Oil & Gas Corp to halt drilling in Dimock, PA after some 14 residential water wells were contaminated with methane gas that "migrated," into the wells, DEP says, as a result of the company's drilling activities in the area.
Funny enough, I wrote about Dimock and its bubbling wells, at which Cabot has installed vent pipes to relieve some of the methane, and which sound like turkeys gobble-gobbling in this week's "Man Overboard.":
Bubbling is only one of the magical properties the Sautners' well water has taken on since they first leased land to Texas-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. for natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale geologic formation two years ago. The water has also turned brown, tested positive for strange salts, metals and chemicals and started clogging things: "[Cabot] cut into a pipe that was less than a year old," says Craig Sautner, "and it looked like solid peanut butter in there."
Cabot, the Inquirer reports, continues to deny responsibility:
Despite agreeing to plug and abandon the three gas wells, Cabot maintains those wells are not at fault - it says the methane comes from shallow shale formations and is seeping into groundwater through natural fractures. Pre-drilling tests on more recent wells show preexisting methane concentrations in groundwater in that area, Cabot says.
"We're agreeing to plug the wells in order to comply with the order," said Kenneth S. Komoroski, a Cabot spokesman. "We do not believe they are a source of methane migration or contamination."
Interesting especially, since the order, which is signed by a Cabot attorney, says that Cabot agrees to take responsibility and not to challenge the DEP's findings in "any matter or proceeding involving Cabot and the Department" apparently that doesn't hold true for Cabot and the news media:
Not that Cabot has been put out of business. Reports the Inquirer:
But Dan O. Dinges, the Cabot chief executive who met with Hanger Wednesday, said in a news release that the DEP's order does not affect the number of wells planned for 2010, or its expected production.
The ban on drilling affects only the Dimock area, Komoroski said. Cabot has about 25 permits to drill wells in other parts of Susquehanna County.
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