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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By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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