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10 Years Later: Fracking and the Halliburton Loophole

Fracking
10 Years Later: Fracking and the Halliburton Loophole

This past Saturday, marked a notable 10th anniversary. But it was certainly nothing to celebrate. Ten years ago, President George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The giant energy bill included massive giveaways for the fossil fuel, nuclear and ethanol industries and provided only token incentives for renewables and improved energy efficiency. But the most infamous piece of the law was what is now commonly known as the “Halliburton Loophole,” an egregious regulatory exemption that ushered in the disastrous era of widespread oil and gas fracking that currently grips our nation.

Fracking—the extreme oil and gas extraction method that involves blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with toxic chemicals underground at enormous pressures to break apart subterranean rock—has exploded in the last decade. More than 270,000 wells have been fracked in 25 states throughout the nation. More than 10 million Americans live within a mile of a fracking site. This means that 10 million Americans—and truly many more—have been placed directly in harm’s way. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have connected fracking to serious human health effects, including cancer, asthma and birth defects.

For this we can thank the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the law that holds the Halliburton Loophole. Named after Dick Cheney and the notorious corporation he led before becoming vice president, the law (championed by Cheney and disgraced Enron founder Kenneth Lay, among others) explicitly exempted fracking operations from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. These exemptions from one of America’s most fundamental environmental protection laws provided the oil and gas industry the immunity it required to develop a highly polluting process on a grand national scale.

One of the most troubling repercussions is how fracking companies hide the contents of their toxic water and chemical solutions pumped into the ground. Contamination of underground drinking water sources from fracking fluids is a glaring threat to public health and safety. Yet even doctors responding to fracking-related health complaints can’t access data on what particular chemicals their patients may have been exposed to.

But the Halliburton Loophole wasn’t the only fracking enabler in the Energy Policy Act. The act granted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) sweeping new authority to supersede state and local decision-making with regard to the citing of fracked gas pipelines and infrastructure. It also shifted to FERC industry oversight and compliance responsibility for the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, another key law. This was akin to putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

As it stands, FERC is entirely unaccountable to public will. It is unaccountable to Congress and even the White House. Commissioners are appointed to five-year terms and can do as they please. Until a law reigning in FERC is passed, the commission will continue to act as a rubber-stamp for the fossil fuel industry.

Additionally, the Energy Policy Act repealed an important anti-monopoly law, the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA). PUHCA safeguarded consumers from the overreach of the oil and gas industry and banks that did business with those companies. It prevented the formation of giant state and regional energy cartels that could manipulate energy costs, engage in profiteering and exert undue influence over political debate. The Energy Policy Act transferred most of this oversight to FERC. Since then, the largest American energy companies have grown significantly more powerful and spent almost a billion dollars on federal lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.org.

The 10th anniversary of the Energy Policy Act is indeed a sad occasion, but it provides us with a ripe opportunity to reexamine our nation’s disastrous policy of doubling-down on fossil fuels over the last decade, thanks to the extreme process of fracking. For the sake of countless Americans who are currently suffering health effects caused by fracking and the countless more who will suffer in the future, we must immediately curtail our dependence on oil and gas and turn decisively toward a truly clean, renewable energy future.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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