Fracking Study Links Pollution, Earthquakes to Drilling in Texas Shale
A new analysis of Texas' oil and gas development underscores how there really are two sides to the energy debate. We know that drilling has brought the state billions in wealth, but its vast impacts on the environment cannot be ignored.
The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST)—the state's top scientific community—has released a comprehensive, peer-reviewed report today analyzing the wide-ranging environmental, economic and social impacts of shale oil and gas production in the Lone Star State.
"This study aims to help us better understand what is and is not known about the impacts of shale oil and gas development in Texas and it offers recommendations for future research priorities," the report states.
The 204-page Shale Task Force report was compiled by representatives from academia, environmental organizations, the oil and gas industry, and state agencies with a focus on six key areas: seismicity, land, air, water, transportation and economic and social impacts.
Citing the report, the Houston Chronicle noted that the shale boom has contributed to the state's economic gains but has also "degraded natural resources, overwhelmed small communities and even boosted the frequency and severity of traffic collisions as workers and equipment rush to oil fields."
The report also reveals that people living in shale communities feel conflicted over the oil and gas industry. They like its benefits to local, regional and state economies but dislike the impacts on traffic, public safety, environmental concerns and noise. For instance, the report calculated that rural crashes involving commercial vehicles have increased more than 75 percent in some drilling regions in Texas. Also, road damage from oil and gas operations in Texas costs an estimated $1.5 to $2 billion a year
Although Texas has not experienced as many human-induced-earthquakes as Oklahoma, according to the report, Texas recorded only two earthquakes a year before 2008. Since then, there have been 12-15 a year. Some of the earthquakes have been linked to wastewater disposal from oil and gas operations.
As for water usage, the report's authors found that while hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses 1-5 million gallons of water per well on average, accounting for less than 1 percent of total statewide water use, it could still account for 90 percent of total water use in some rural counties.
"Even though the overall amount of water used for hydraulic fracturing processes in Texas is low, there are areas within the state where the amount used is much more important and will be of more concern," said Danny Reible, a professor at Texas Tech University and member of the task force.
EcoWatch reached out to Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, author and founding member of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, to get her take on the study. She said:
The findings of the exhaustive, 204-page analysis from the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science boil down to this: drilling and fracking operations bring temporary prosperity to a few and serious health and safety risks to many. The TAMES report makes clear that in Texas—as everywhere else—wherever fracking goes, it brings along toxic air pollution, depleted and contaminated water sources, earthquakes, traffic accidents, soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. These results corroborate those of peer-reviewed reports from other independent expert groups, including Concerned Health Professionals of New York, of which I'm a member.
And yet, in its recommendations, the TAMES report is overly tame. Perhaps not surprisingly in a state so deeply invested in fossil fuel extraction, the academy's suggestions for further monitoring and data collection fall far short of what's needed to protect communities, wildlife and the climate from ongoing damage. The unstated assumption seems to be that gas and oil extraction is simply an unchangeable fact of life to which we all must accommodate. It's not. And monitoring harm is not the same as preventing it. Rachel Carson said it best, when she reminded us that, when confronted with evidence of senseless and frightening risks, "we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us." That course is 100 percent wind, water and solar power.
Renowned filmmaker Josh Fox also commented on the study. Fox told EcoWatch:
"This study is a typical oil and gas industry greenwash. There is no such thing as a sustainable approach to fracking because the very first thing that we need to do in creating a sustainable future is eliminate fossil fuels. Fracking is inherently contaminating and polluting to air and water and the practice perpetuates the use of climate change inducing fossil fuels.
"The oil and gas industry pours money into this kind of propaganda dog and pony show so that it can appear to be 'responsible' but no amount of PR can clean up the mess they have left in Texas and around the world. The only truly sustainable conclusion for such a report would be to ban fracking and phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible in favor of renewable energy."
Here are some key highlights from the report:
Geology and Earthquake Activity
The majority of known faults present in Texas are stable and are not prone to generating earthquakes. To date, induced earthquakes in Texas have been associated with wastewater disposal wells, not with hydraulic fracturing.
- Earthquakes have increased in Texas. Before 2008, Texas recorded about 2 earthquakes a year. Since then, there have been about 12-15 a year.
- Seismic monitoring stations in Texas will increase from 18 to 43.
Shale oil and gas development activities in Texas have resulted in fragmentation of habitat on the landscape. However, there is a lack of information and scientific data on what the impacts of fragmentation have been and are on landscape—vegetative resources, agriculture and wildlife.
- 95% of Texas lands are privately-owned, which limits data and studies on land impacts.
- Texas is the only major oil and gas producing state without a surface damage act to protect landowners. The state should study the advisability of adopting a surface damage act.
The production of shale oil and gas results in emissions of greenhouse gases, photochemical air pollutants and air toxics. Air emission sources from shale oil and gas development are diverse, have complex behavior and are distributed across a large number of individual sites.
- For most types of oil and gas emission sources, ~5 percent of emitters account for more than 50 percent of emissions.
- Recent federal regulations have reduced emissions.
The most common pathways for contaminating drinking water sources and causing environmental damage are with surface spills and well casing leaks near the surface. The depth and separation between oil-bearing and drinking water-bearing zones make contamination of potential drinking water unlikely.
- Hydraulic fracturing uses 1-5 million gallons of water per well on average.
- Water used for hydraulic fracturing activities accounts for less than 1 percent of total statewide water use, but it could account for the majority of total water use in some rural counties.
Transportation is one of the most far-reaching and consistent impacts of shale oil and gas development. Texas accounts for about half of the drilling activity in the country at any given time, and all of that activity requires a very large number of heavy truckloads, which have far greater impact on roads than typical passenger vehicle traffic.
- Road damage from oil and gas operations in Texas costs an estimated $1.5 to $2 billion a year.
- This damage also impacts the trucking industry in Texas: vehicle damage and lower operating speeds cost the industry an estimated $1.5 to $3.5 billion a year.
Economic and Social
For the most part, shale oil and gas development contributes positively to local, regional and state economies, with some unintended consequences, including impacts to local infrastructure such as roads and increased cost of living and not everyone within a community benefits equally from such developments.
Communities in shale regions:
- LIKE the economic benefits to property values, schools and medical services.
- DISLIKE the impacts on traffic, public safety, environmental concerns and noise.
Climate change, activities that contribute to it, and dams pose grave threats to America's rivers, according to American Rivers.
The annual report ranks the county's 10 rivers most endangered by human activity that also have a critical decision point coming in the next year that could change the river's fate.
Four dams are choking the Snake River — earning it the top spot in the report — obstructing salmon and posing an existential threat to Native American tribes in the region who depend on the fish for food, culture and their identities.
Advocates are calling on President Biden to remove the federal dams and revitalize the river and its ecosystem.
Toxic coal ash pollutes the Lower Missouri, which also is experiencing an increase in climate-driven flooding, putting it second on the list, while Iowa's Raccoon River, at number nine, faces threats from industrial agriculture.
Between them are rivers befouled by sewage, polluted or threatened by mining, and otherwise dammed or mismanaged.
"Rivers are among the most degraded ecosystems on the planet, and threats to rivers are threats to human health, safety and survival," American Rivers head Tom Kiernan said.
"If we want a future of clean water and healthy rivers everywhere, for everyone, we must prioritize environmental justice."
For a deeper dive:
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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