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As Fracking Companies Face Bankruptcy, U.S. Regulators Enable Firms to Duck Cleanup Costs
By Justin Mikulka
In over their heads with debt, U.S. shale oil and gas firms are now moving from a boom in fracking to a boom in bankruptcies. This trend of failing finances has the potential for the U.S. public, both at the state and federal levels, to be left on the hook for paying to properly shut down and clean up even more drilling sites.
Expect these companies to try reducing their debt through the process of bankruptcy and, like the coal industry, attempting to get out of environmental and employee-related financial obligations.
The Bankruptcy of EP Energy
In October, EP Energy — one of the largest oil producers in the Eagle Ford Shale region in Texas — filed for bankruptcy because the firm couldn't pay back almost $5 billion in debt, making it the largest oil and gas bankruptcy since 2016.
EP Energy hasn't produced a profit since 2014 and Bloomberg reported that the company would need oil to be at "a price closer to $70 per barrel" for EP to be profitable. Oil has not come close to averaging over $70 a barrel since 2014.
Despite its financial struggles at current low oil prices, the company plans to continue operating after restructuring and eliminating up to $3 billion in debt. However, EP has not identified any funds that it would be setting aside for well cleanup, which is not unusual for an oil and gas company.
In response, as part of the bankruptcy proceedings, the U.S. Department of the Interior filed a document arguing that EP Energy is still responsible for its obligations to assure the "decommissioning, plugging, and abandonment" of any of the EP Energy wells that are located on leased federal and tribal lands.
Ideally, that would mean EP Energy sets aside funds for the proper cleanup and end-of-life processes for its oil and gas wells, which number more than 800 in the Eagle Ford region.
However, the federal government hasn't even named a number yet for how much that should be. The Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs "are currently still assessing the status of reclamation and plugging and abandonment obligations across the Debtors' onshore federal and Indian leases," writes the Interior Department.
In EP Energy #bankruptcy, US Interior Department wants to make sure that enough money is set aside for cleanup. For financially struggling companies, cleanup is becoming the tail that's wagging the dog. https://t.co/LDrnMr01rn— Clark Williams-Derry (@ClarkWDerry) November 16, 2019
The federal government is only getting around to assessing EP Energy's potential liabilities once the firm is already in the bankruptcy process, revealing one of the flaws in the current system. Federal and state governments have not been holding fracking companies fully liable for the environmental damage and cleanup costs of their drilling activity.
Joshua Caleb Macey, a visiting assistant professor at Cornell law school who specializes in bankruptcy and energy law, told DeSmog that the situation with EP Energy was "frustrating and completely normal."
According to the Interior Department filing, "Regardless of its bankruptcy, the Debtor is required to comply with all applicable federal laws."
As I've reported before, oil and gas companies are legally required to hold a certain amount of funds to pay for well cleanup costs, a process known as bonding that varies by state and for public lands.
Because companies are rarely required to have those funds available before they start drilling (and thanks to industry-friendly regulators and politicians), in reality oil and gas companies can walk away from cleanup obligations with relative ease, which has become the pattern for bankrupt coal companies.
Including Cleanup Costs Would Make Extraction 'Uneconomic'
Federal and state regulators have been failing to require companies to fully fund expected cleanup liabilities, which helps mask the true cost of oil and gas production. Passing environmental cleanup costs on to the taxpayer amounts to a backdoor subsidy for the oil and gas industry.
Requiring oil and gas companies to pay for shutting down and cleaning up wells would greatly increase the cost of drilling for many oil and gas wells. The fracking industry already can't make money pumping fossil fuels out of shale in the U.S., and that's without these firms coming even close to fully funding their cleanup costs.
However, more state governments are realizing the scale of this problem and starting to look at increasing and enforcing bonding requirements for oil and gas well cleanup. However, in oil-rich places like Alberta, Canada, and Alaska, regulators are realizing that the money just isn't there.
Hey @jkenney @Alberta_UCP after your sustained attacks on the Liberal government, why are you now begging for taxpayer money to clean up Alberta's abandoned oil wells? Oil companies must pay for that. Not us. Hands off our tax dollars. The oil shareholders should pay. #cdnpoli— Trish Palmer (@TrishPalmerYVR) December 1, 2019
In 2018, the natural gas driller Amaroq Resources acquired the Nicolai Creek assets in southwest Alaska from the bankrupt Aurora Gas. This transaction was delayed when the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC) announced $7 million in bonding required for the gas wells associated with the purchase. This is the point where the state government had the power to make Amaroq provide adequate bonding for well cleanup.
The AOGCC then agreed to reduce that amount to $200,000 and the deal went ahead.
Since that deal, the commission increased the minimum statewide bonding level to $400,000 per well for the first one to 10 wells. Amaroq would be required to abide by these new regulations and has appealed this decision. Company president Scott Pfoff explained that these new bonding requirements make the business "uneconomic."
And that is the reality. If oil and gas companies were required to pay for the full end-of-life cost of their wells, much of their inventory becomes uneconomic. This is where taxpayers come in.
Fracking Industry Wants to Dump Wastewater in Streams and Rivers to Save Money
Failure to require adequate bonding for oil and gas cleanup costs is just one of many backdoor government subsidies for the oil and gas industry. The failure to regulate flaring and venting of the potent greenhouse gas methane during oil drilling is another example.
Fracking firms, which spend a lot of borrowed money to pump out a lot of oil and gas for not much (or any) profit, are experiencing a collapse in financing. Thanks to the industry's failed business model, these companies are desperate for ways to cut costs.
One of the major costs associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is acquiring, pumping and disposing of water, which, after a driller is finished with it, typically contains corrosive levels of salts and contaminants including naturally occurring radioactive materials, chemicals and oil residues. This area has become a major target for the industry to save money.
A graphic showing the water cycle during hydraulic fracturing. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016
As The Washington Post pointed out in 2015 (and as I highlighted last year), when it comes to fracked shale oil and gas production, "currently there is no way to treat, store, and release the billions of gallons of wastewater at the surface." The industry's current range of (legal) approaches to disposing of its massive amounts of wastewater involves injecting it underground, which in some cases is tied to increased earthquake activity, using it to irrigate crops or de-ice roads, and sending it to municipal water treatment plants lacking equipment to properly treat it.
Treating oil and gas drilling wastewater is possible, but expensive. As S&P Global Platts recently reported, according to a study by the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers and Independent Petroleum Association of America, for Permian drillers in Texas, "Economically, treatment costs must come down."
The study concludes that dealing with wastewater is already a limiting factor in this prolific region: "Some Permian sub-basins are currently constrained due to insufficient injection well capacity. Projected production growth will worsen the situation."
With this glut of wastewater combined with high costs, the industry is looking for a cheap alternative. The latest preferred approach seems to be lobbying governments to change the rules to allow dumping wastewater with limited treatment into rivers and streams.
In November, E&E News reported that there's movement to allow or expand such wastewater dumping in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, all states with major fracking industries. "Within a year, Oklahoma could get approval from EPA to start issuing permits that will allow the oil industry to dispose of briny oil field waste in waterways," E&E wrote.
As space for injection wells becomes scarce, the industry hopes to dump its wastewater in streams and rivers, once again passing on potential environmental and financial liabilities to the public.
A 2017 working group looking for alternatives for Oklahoma oil field wastewater (also known as "produced water") found "the most cost-effective means of reducing disposal is for oil companies to treat and clean that produced water so it can be reused for things like fracking," reported NPR's StateImpact Oklahoma.
However, recycling produced water to again frack wells results in more toxic produced water, which can't be recycled indefinitely. With injection wells increasingly unable to handle the volume of water produced by the industry, shale firms have been seeking cheap alternative disposal methods, including dumping the water in rivers and streams.
However, the 2017 analysis concluded that treating produced frack water to the point it could be safely dumped into rivers or used to irrigate agriculture wasn't economically viable.
Owen Mills, the director of water planning for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, explained to StateImpact Oklahoma why this wasn't an option for the industry: "It's incredibly expensive to do that and it takes a lot of energy."
To properly treat the fracking wastewater to the point it is no longer a threat to human health and the environment would be incredibly expensive, and that is why the industry is lobbying to change the rules about disposing its wastewater. If it succeeds, expect the eventual clean up costs — also incredibly expensive — to be billed to the American public.
Reposted with permission from DeSmogBlog.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tom Duszynski
The coronavirus is certainly scary, but despite the constant reporting on total cases and a climbing death toll, the reality is that the vast majority of people who come down with COVID-19 survive it. Just as the number of cases grows, so does another number: those who have recovered.
In mid-March, the number of patients in the U.S. who had officially recovered from the virus was close to zero. That number is now in the tens of thousands and is climbing every day. But recovering from COVID-19 is more complicated than simply feeling better. Recovery involves biology, epidemiology and a little bit of bureaucracy too.
How does your body fight off COVID-19?<p>Once a person is exposed the coronavirus, the body starts producing <a href="https://www.mblintl.com/products/what-are-antibodies-mbli/" target="_blank">proteins called antibodies to fight the infection</a>. As these <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/27/serological-tests-reveal-immune-coronavirus/" target="_blank">antibodies start to successfully contain the virus</a> and keep it from replicating in the body, symptoms usually begin to lessen and you start to feel better. Eventually, if all goes well, your immune system will completely destroy all of the virus in your system. A person who was infected with and survived a virus with no long-term health effects or disabilities has "recovered."</p><p>On average, a person who is infected with SARS-CoV-2 will feel ill for about seven days from the onset of symptoms. Even after symptoms disappear, there still may be small amounts of the virus in a patient's system, and they should stay <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html" target="_blank">isolated for an additional three days</a> to ensure they have truly <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">recovered and are no longer infectious</a>.</p>
What about immunity?<p>In general, once you have recovered from a viral infection, your body will keep cells called lymphocytes in your system. These cells "remember" viruses they've previously seen and can react quickly to fight them off again. If you are exposed to a virus you have already had, your antibodies will likely stop the virus before it starts causing symptoms. <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.5114%2Fceji.2018.77390" target="_blank">You become immune</a>. This is the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK27158/" target="_blank">principle behind many vaccines</a>.</p><p>Unfortunately, immunity isn't perfect. For many viruses, like mumps, immunity can wane over time, leaving you <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160421145747.htm" target="_blank">susceptible to the virus in the future</a>. This is why you need to get revaccinated – those "booster shots" – occasionally: to prompt your immune system to make more antibodies and memory cells.</p><p>Since this coronavirus is so new, scientists still don't know whether people who recover from COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/faq.html" target="_blank">immune to future infections of the virus</a>. Doctors are finding antibodies in ill and recovered patients, and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/clinical-guidance-management-patients.html" target="_blank">that indicates the development of immunity</a>. But the question remains how long that immunity will last. Other coronaviruses like <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.25685" target="_blank">SARS and MERS produce an immune response</a> that will protect a person at least for a short time. I would suspect the same is true of SARS-CoV-2, but the research simply hasn't been done yet to say so definitively.</p>
Why have so few people officially recovered in the US?<p>This is a dangerous virus, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being extremely careful when deciding what it means to recover from COVID-19. Both medical and testing criteria must be met before a person is <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/disposition-in-home-patients.html" target="_blank">officially declared recovered</a>.</p><p>Medically, a person must be fever-free without fever-reducing medications for three consecutive days. They must show an improvement in their other symptoms, including reduced coughing and shortness of breath. And it must be at least seven full days <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">since the symptoms began</a>.</p><p>In addition to those requirements, the CDC guidelines say that a person must test negative for the coronavirus twice, with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/care-for-someone.html" target="_blank">tests taken at least 24 hours apart</a>.</p><p>Only then, if both the symptom and testing conditions are met, is a person officially considered recovered by the CDC.</p><p>This second testing requirement is likely why there were so few official recovered cases in the U.S. until late March. Initially, there was a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/health/coronavirus-test-shortages-face-masks-swabs.html" target="_blank">massive shortage of testing in the U.S.</a> So while many people were certainly recovering over the last few weeks, this could not be officially confirmed. As the country enters the height of the pandemic in the coming weeks, focus is still on <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/hcp/clinical-criteria.html" target="_blank">testing those who are infected</a>, not those who have likely recovered.</p><p>Many more people are being tested now that states and private companies have begun <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/testing-in-us.html" target="_blank">producing and distributing tests</a>. As <a href="https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200406/coronavirus-in-ohio-from-its-rocky-start-testing-for-covid-19-slowly-ramping-up" target="_blank">the number of available tests increases</a> and the pandemic eventually slows in the country, more testing will be available for those who have appeared to recover. As people who have already recovered are tested, the appearance of any new infections will help researchers learn <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/24/we-need-smart-coronavirus-testing-not-just-more-testing/" target="_blank">how long immunity can be expected to last</a>.</p>
Once a person has recovered, what can they do?<p>Knowing whether or not people are immune to COVID-19 after they recover is going to determine what individuals, communities and society at large can do going forward. If scientists can show that recovered patients are immune to the coronavirus, then a person who has recovered could in theory <a href="https://www.vox.com/2020/3/30/21186822/immunity-to-covid-19-test-coronavirus-rt-pcr-antibody" target="_blank">help support the health care system</a> by caring for those who are infected.</p><p>Once communities pass the peak of the epidemic, the number of new infections will decline, while the number of <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/china-says-passed-peak-coronavirus-epidemic-covid-19-1491863" target="_blank">recovered people will increase</a>. As these trends continue, the risk of transmission will fall. Once the risk of transmission has fallen enough, community-level isolation and social distancing orders will begin to relax and businesses will start to reopen. Based on what other countries have gone through, it will be <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00154-w" target="_blank">months until the risk of transmission is low</a> in the U.S.</p><p>But before any of this can happen, the U.S. and the world need to make it through the peak of this pandemic. Social distancing works to slow the spread of infectious diseases and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/what-you-can-do.html" target="_blank">is working for COVID-19</a>. Many people will <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/2019-novel-coronavirus/" target="_blank">need medical help to recover</a>, and social distancing will slow this virus down and give people the best chance to do so.</p>
By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
The future for the world's oceans often looks grim. Fisheries are set to collapse by 2048, according to one study, and 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year, causing considerable damage to delicate marine ecosystems. Yet a new study in Nature offers an alternative, and more optimistic view on the ocean's future: it asserts that the entire marine environment could be substantially rebuilt by 2050, if humanity is able to step up to the challenge.
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Across the country, the novel coronavirus is severely affecting black people at much higher rates than whites, according to data released by several states, as The New York Times reported.
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By Zulfikar Abbany
Bread has been a source of basic nutrition for centuries, the holy trinity being wheat, maize and rice. It has also been the reason for a lot of innovation in science and technology, from millstones to microbiological investigations into a family of single-cell fungi called Saccharomyces.
Chemical leavening<p>If you like a little heft in your loaf, you will need a leavening agent.</p><p>For those short on time, you can use baking soda. That's a chemical compound of sodium bicarbonate mixed with potassium bitartrate, or cream of tartar.</p><p>Soda breads have their traditions in parts of eastern and central Europe, and in Ireland and Scotland, with Melrose loaves and "farls."</p><p>They can taste a bit bland, though, and are often considered only as an emergency solution on Sundays. No disrespect intended: They taste just fine fresh from the oven.</p><p>Whether it's chemical or more "natural," leavening relies largely on the production of carbon dioxide.</p><p>When you mix an acid, such as vinegar, buttermilk, yogurt or apple cider, with an alkaline compound like baking soda, you get CO2. That CO2 creates bubbles, which in turn capture steam in the oven and allow a bread to rise.</p><p><span></span>But it's better with yeast. Tastes better, too. It just takes more time. </p>
What is yeast?<p>There are yeasts all around us — on grains, in the air, in biofuels. It even lives inside us, but that's not always a good thing.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1090575/pdf/1471-2334-5-22.pdf" target="_blank">Candida yeast</a> can cause infections of the skin, feet, mouth, penis or vagina if it builds up too much in the body.</p><p>One of the most common yeasts, however, is <em>Saccharomyces cerevisiae</em>. That's <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/an-early-beer-archaeologists-tap-ground-at-worlds-oldest-brewery/a-45480731" target="_blank">"brewer's"</a> or "baker's" yeast.</p><p>You can get fresh baker's yeast, often in 42-gram (1.48-ounce) cubes, or as dried yeast (quick action or active, which requires rehydration) in a sachet of 7 grams.</p><p>There's little difference: One is compressed and the other is dehydrated and granulated. But they do the same thing, essentially. </p><p>Some commercial yeast producers add molasses and other nutrients. But natural yeast has plenty of useful nutrients in it anyway, including B group vitamins, so who knows whether it's good or necessary to add them. </p>
How does yeast work?<p>When you mix flour, yeast and water, you set off a veritable chain reaction. Enzymes in the wheat convert starch into sugar. And the yeast creates enzymes of its own to convert those sugars into a form it can absorb.</p><p>The yeast "feeds" on the sugars to create carbon dioxide and alcohol. The yeast burps and farts, releasing gases into the mix, and that creates bubbles to trap CO2. </p><p>It's a vital fermentation process that breaks down the gluten in the flour and helps make your bread more digestible.</p><p>The yeast cells split and reproduce, generating lactic and carbonic acid, raising the temperature and ultimately adding flavor to the mix.</p><p>The longer you leave the yeast to do its thing, the better for your bread. Time is more important than the amount of yeast. </p><p>In fact, that's an enduring question — how much yeast? I'll use 20 grams fresh yeast for 500 grams of flour. Others say that's enough yeast for 1 kilo. If you are converting a dry-yeast recipe to fresh yeast, some bakers advise tripling the weight. So, if a sachet of dried yeast is 7 grams, your fresh yeast is 21 grams.</p><p><span></span>But that also depends on the flours you are using, temperatures in the bowl and the room, and a host of other things. You'll just have to experiment and see. No number of books (and I've read a stack on bread) will help as much as trial and error.</p>
Wild yeast: Sourdough<p>So, good bread needs time. If you have a lot of time, why not move it up a notch and grow wild yeast — a sourdough starter — in your own home?</p><p>A sourdough starter is not to be mistaken (as it often is) for the leaven, or "mother," "sponge," or <em>levain</em>. That's more a second stage, a descendant of the starter. You take a scoop from your starter and add it to another flour and water mixture when you prepare the dough for a new loaf. </p><p>The sourdough process utilizes yeasts naturally present in flour and … yet more time. A longer fermentation process allows a richer lactic acid bacteria <em>lactobacilli</em> or LAB to evolve, and that can be healthy for your gut microbiome.</p><p>It's simple enough to start a sourdough starter. All you need is flour, warm water and time.</p><p>Some suggest equal measures of whole-grain flour and water at 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), some say room temperature — just don't let the water exceed 40 C or the yeasts will die. Some suggest two parts flour to three parts water. But it's up to you whether you want a drier or wetter starter. You will know only through experimentation. </p><p>Some say you should filter tap water to remove chemicals like fluoride and avoid using water that's boiled and then cooled. Others say that really doesn't matter.</p><p>The main thing is, keep it clean and give it time. Days, weeks, months and years.</p>
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