By Emily Pontecorvo and Naveena Sadasivam
On a spring weekend morning a few weeks ago, Judy Kelly stepped outside of her house in Broomfield, Colorado, to grab the newspaper when her nose perked up. It smelled like something was burning.
An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.
Broomfield vs. Extraction<p>The unsettling bind that the stay-at-home order put many residents in was not lost on Laurie Anderson, a Broomfield city councilwoman who lives just half a mile from the fracking site in another neighborhood called Anthem Highlands. The night Governor Polis' order came down, a special meeting of the city council was scheduled to <a href="https://drive.google.com/file/d/10m9nX3vilG4IEOl0zJdfMsKIZz68jte8/view" target="_blank">discuss</a> the potential dangers of work continuing at the Livingston site during the pandemic. The council decided to draft a proposal ordering Extraction to postpone flowback — a process where the chemical-laden water used to fracture open the shale flows back to the surface and must be collected, treated, and disposed of — until the stay-at-home order was lifted.</p><p>"The thought was to protect these residents, to delay flowback, understanding that it has to happen because they've already fracked these wells," said Anderson, who is also an organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, a national advocacy group that fights polluters. "It was only going to delay them for a couple weeks."</p><p>Of particular concern was Anthem Ranch, where the median age is 70 years old. The city's public health staff drafted up an order and included <a href="https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vLyFee6vdXi_uaZliyDRYTkdKP1wmHoE/view" target="_blank">data</a> showing that people over 65 are more susceptible to COVID-19 complications, that the top symptom reported by older Broomfield residents in the city's <a href="https://broomfield.org/2842/File-an-Immediate-Concern" target="_blank">oil and gas complaint system</a> was "anxiety/stress," and that stress and anxiety are linked to poor health outcomes in general.</p><p>But two days later, before the council could discuss the draft proposal, Extraction headed them off at the pass. The company secured a temporary restraining order from the Seventeenth Judicial District Court in Colorado, which prohibited the city from halting or delaying its operations. According to court documents, Extraction alleged that the city was acting in bad faith, trying to "shut down Extraction's operations not because they pose any real health risk, but because they are unpopular." Then, on March 30, the company filed an official complaint with the district court against the city, seeking damages for a breach of contract.</p><p>It's true that this was far from the first time Broomfield had tried to interfere with Extraction's … extraction. The city has battled the company at every stage of the drilling process in response to complaints from residents about odors, health symptoms, and <a href="https://www.kunc.org/post/broomfield-tried-limiting-oil-and-gas-noise-now-company-pushing-back-0#stream/0" target="_blank">noise</a>.</p>
An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.
‘Why Didn’t You Protect Us?’<p>Leading up to that final vote, the city council was flooded with emails begging them to forge ahead with the public health order. After it decided to drop the issue, community members were on edge. Kelly said she understands why the city did what it did. But others are incredibly frustrated with the outcome. "I get so many calls from people that say, 'why didn't you protect us?'" she said. "They're so concerned about their health that they would have rather seen us in court."</p><p>One concern is what residents will do in case there is an emergency, like a major emissions release or an explosion like the one in Weld County. The Broomfield police department has told families that live within a half-mile of the site to keep a bag packed in case an evacuation is necessary. But Elizabeth Lario is not sure where her family would go. Under normal circumstances, the city's emergency shelter is its recreation center, but as long as social distancing is necessary, that no longer feels like a safe option. "The evacuation plan is to wait and hear what the evacuation plan is," Lario said.</p>
An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.<p>On April 13, the Broomfield Office of Emergency Management held a telephone town hall to present evacuation instructions. Residents told Grist that instructions on where they should go were not very clear, and that the evacuation plan was fluid depending on the scale of emergency and the status of the pandemic. "It was a plan left in chaos, in my opinion, that fortunately hasn't had to be used," said Anderson.</p><p>The Broomfield police department told Grist that it uses a cell phone alert system for emergency notification. An "Emergency Management Update" powerpoint created by the department instructs residents to "follow the instructions you receive" and monitor the situation on the city's social media accounts. In the case of an evacuation, it says to go to the home of a family member or friend — and to go to the recreation center only if needed. The department advises that residents who do elect to evacuate to the recreation center remain in their cars "if quarantined/isolated."</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jessica Corbett
As calls for a People's Bailout in response to the coronavirus pandemic continue to grow across the United States, a new analysis warns that the country's Big Oil companies "stand to reap yet another billion dollar bailout" thanks to the Federal Reserve's plans to buy up to $750 billion in corporate debt.
The analysis (pdf), released Wednesday by the advocacy group Friends of the Earth (FOE), explains that this expected bailout for polluters relates to a controversial $500 billion corporate slush fund included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress passed in March.
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by Andrea Germanos
The Trump administration on Friday released a new land use plan for southwestern Colorado that community and conservation advocacy groups warn is a "dangerous" pathway towards increased fossil fuel extraction that makes no "climate, ecological, or economic sense."
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By Tara Lohan
A sign at the north end of Kanab, Utah, proclaims the town of 4,300 to be "The Greatest Earth on Show."
Kanab, UT is a popular tourist destination. Tara Lohan<p>There, a company called <a href="https://www.srsands.com/" target="_blank">Southern Red Sands LLC</a> had announced plans to build a facility to mine and process massive amounts of sand for use by oil and gas companies conducting hydraulic fracturing. The sand is a lesser-known but substantial aspect of the fracking process. Round grains of silica sand serve as a "proppant" to keep underground fissures in the shale open as oil and gas are pumped out. Fracking a single well can require thousands of tons of sand.</p><p>"I really wanted to keep an open mind, but the more I learned about the project, the more concerned I got," Hand told The Revelator when I visited Kanab in September.</p><p>She had reason to be worried. The first decade of the fracking boom relied heavily on so-called "frac sand" sourced mostly from Midwest states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where mining reduced verdant green hills to piles of dust.</p>
Frac sand in Wisconsin. Tara Lohan<p>But mining in the Midwest has its limits. Sand is expensive to ship across the country, so as fracking has taken off in Utah, Texas and New Mexico, companies have looked to find more local sources to trim costs.</p><p>That's when the proposed mine in Kanab entered the story.</p><p>Southern Red Sands, a two-person start-up backed by Utah real-estate developer Kem Gardner, hoped to establish the region's next frac sand mine in a scenic area of state-owned lands outside Kanab called Red Knoll.</p><p>City and county officials quickly gave their blessing — and a combined 1,200 acre-feet of water rights a year — after only cursory consideration.</p><p>But residents became concerned about impacts to scenic beauty, water resources and local businesses. They teamed up to fight back, forming a community group called <a href="https://keepkanabunspoiled.org/" target="_blank">Keep Kanab Unspoiled</a>.</p><p>It was beginning to feel like a familiar story.</p><p>The struggle between extractive industries and environmental protection is not a new one in Utah. A fight is still raging nearby over the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both of which <a href="https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2019/08/23/new-grand-staircase-plans/" target="_blank">President Trump slashed</a> in order to increase drilling and mining opportunities.</p><p>Despite public pushback and some legal challenges, though, the frac sand mine seemed to be cruising toward approval as recently as October. It still needed an environmental impact assessment from the Bureau of Land Management, and the two water transfers needed approval from the state engineer. The project definitely wasn't a done deal, but in industry-friendly Utah, it had a good shot.</p><p>So it may have come as a surprise to a number of residents when Southern Red Sands announced at the beginning of January that it was abandoning the proposed project.</p><p>What happened? And are there any lessons that other communities fighting extraction threats can learn?</p><p>"Speak out, pull together like-minded neighbors, organize and don't give up," Hand told me after hearing the news. "But also, try to be nice."</p><p>Surprisingly, it's that last bit that may have made a big difference — along with a good hard look at the economics of the endeavor.</p>
The Threats<p>Von Del Chamberlain is a white-haired, soft-spoken Kanab resident. Born in 1934, he spent his youth exploring the red rock and his career studying the stars. The astronomer and former director of Salt Lake City's Hansen (now Clark) Planetarium retired to his hometown 15 years ago and hoped to start a public observatory.</p><p>He realized that Kanab's prized dark-night skies would be threatened by a 24-7 mining operation. But that wasn't even his biggest concern with the project.</p><p>"The beauty here is the thing that will sustain this area economically for as far in the future as we can possibly see," he said.</p><p>Opponents like Chamberlain usually cited two big concerns: environmental impacts, particularly the threat to water resources, and the local economy. But in Kanab it's hard to separate the two.</p><p>"It doesn't matter what kind of an economy you want to develop here," said Hand. "Even if you have an industrial economy or an extractive economy — if you don't have water, you're out."</p><p>The water supply, which draws on underground aquifers, currently supports the town's tourist-driven economy, ranching, and the county's biggest employer — <a href="https://bestfriends.org/" target="_blank">Best Friends Animal Society</a>, known worldwide through the <em>Dogtown</em> TV series on the National Geographic Channel. The nonprofit owns a 3,700-acre sanctuary, the country's largest no-kill animal shelter, and would have been the mine's closest neighbor.</p><p>Best Friends, which employs 400 locals and draws 35,000 out-of-town visitors a year to its sanctuary, came to see the proposed mine as an existential threat. Their property relies on wells, seeps and springs that come from the same aquifer the project's two wells would tap.</p>
Groundwater seeps to the surface at the Best Friends animal sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. Tara Lohan<p>Last July Kanab's city council approved a 50-year contract for 600 acre-feet a year of water rights for the project and Kane County Water Conservancy District, which oversees water servicing for the unincorporated areas of the county, agreed to provide an additional 600 acre-feet of water. That combined amount equals about 740 gallons per minute, although Southern Red Sands contended it would use only about a third of that.</p><p>Many local residents were shocked by the water-rights transfer. A <a href="https://lpputah.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2016-Water-Needs-Assessment.pdf" target="_blank">2016 water needs assessment</a> found that Kane County Water Conservancy District's reliable supply would be in deficit by 2035. And the district's executive director, former state representative Mike Noel, has been a <a href="https://www.sltrib.com/news/2018/03/17/in-new-complaint-group-says-utah-rep-mike-noel-hid-potential-conflicts-as-he-sought-lake-powell-pipeline-water-for-land-he-owns/" target="_blank">vocal advocate</a> for a pricy proposed pipeline to send Lake Powell water to southern Utah communities, including near Kanab, under the premise that the region is already running short on water.</p><p>"We knew that it would damage our seeps and our springs, and we weren't sure yet the full impact besides some drawdown to our groundwater, but we were really concerned," Bart Battista, an environmental engineer responsible for facilities management at Best Friends' Kanab sanctuary, told me. "It boggles my mind that the city wasn't as concerned."</p><p>But documents unearthed by local radio station KUER showed that officials at nearby Zion National Park already <a href="https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6558286-191002-ZionNationalPark-LetterOfConcern.html" target="_blank"><em>were</em> concerned</a> that the project could reduce flows into the East Fork of the Virgin River, which flows through the park, by reducing the amount of water from underground seeps and springs that feed the river.</p><p>Wanting to learn more about how the project could affect the region's water, Best Friends <a href="https://www.waterrights.utah.gov/docImport/0618/06184902.PDF" target="_blank">commissioned a study</a> from hydrogeologist Kenneth Kolm of Hydrologic Systems Analysis, a firm that's completed water studies for other Utah towns.</p><p>Kolm found that the mine posed the potential for decline in productivity to wells owned by both Best Friends and the city's water supply. The project could also decrease flows into nearby Kanab Creek and dry up perennial streams and springs, including one that feeds an area of habitat that's home to the Kanab ambersnail — currently federally protected as endangered.</p><p>The amount of water being withdrawn wasn't the only issue. The proposed project site and its sandy soil are also vitally important to local hydrology.</p><p>"The sand is the first ticket to collecting water," said Hand. It captures rain and holds it in place long enough for it to sink into the water table and not run off. But the sand is exactly what would be removed from the site, further threatening the region's water supply.</p><p>"I realized for the first time how small and vulnerable our watershed actually is," she added.</p><p>Southern Red Sands hoped to start digging on 640 acres of land around Red Knoll, an aptly name rise of coral-colored rock and sand. The area is managed as part of Utah's School and International Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), where state-owned property can be leased (often for resource extraction), with revenue being funneled to education.</p><p>The operation would have started by bulldozing all the trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs, then scraped up to 30 feet of the earth from the exposed surface. The sand would then be processed — washed with water and chemicals, then dried and sorted — in a facility with up to six 120-foot-tall silos. After that it would be loaded into trucks and hauled out.</p><p>A small fraction of the remaining sediment — mostly the fine silts and clays — would be put back on the land. But that change in geology could mean a big change for the aquifer. How big would depend on the scope of the project, though.</p><p>In addition to the SITLA land, Southern Red Sands had acquired placer claims — mineral exploration rights — for 12,000 surrounding acres managed by the BLM. And although the company said it planned to mine only 700,000 tons a year from the SITLA property, the facility would have had the capacity and water rights to accommodate much more.</p><p>"If they're building a plant with a capacity of 3 million tons a year, that's presumably because they expect to be able to produce that," Dean Baker, a Kanab resident and opponent of the project told me in December. "They may never do that, but you don't build extra capacity without the idea that you might use it."</p>
The Resistance<p>Water issues are paramount in arid Utah, but the mine was likely to come with some other potential problems.</p><p>If Southern Red Sands did build out to end of their claims, they'd be within 10 miles of Zion National Park and workers at Best Friends would be looking over their fence line at the operation — not to mention potentially breathing its dust.</p><p>Mining, processing and trucking frac sand can release tiny particles of crystalline silica into the air. Inhaling those particles regularly can cause lung disease, including cancer and silicosis, a chronic disease that, like "black lung" for coal miners, can be deadly.</p>
Dust in the air at a frac sand processing facility in Wisconsin. Tara Lohan<p>The facility would likely run with lights and noise 24-7, which could be <a href="https://therevelator.org/fracking-wildlife/" target="_blank">detrimental to wildlife</a>. And adding more diesel-spewing, slow-stopping big rigs hauling 50,000 pounds of sand down the town's one main road concerned residents, too.</p><p>With so much at risk, opponents employed a number of tactics to try to fight the mine.</p><p>Keep Kanab Unspoiled held community meetings. They invited Kolm, the geologist who did the independent study, to report his findings, and started <a href="https://www.change.org/p/gardner-company-stop-the-zion-kanab-frac-sand-mine" target="_blank">an online petition</a> to discourage the company from moving forward.</p><p>Best Friends — an established national nonprofit with considerably more financial resources — took the lead role in mounting legal challenges. The organization filed an appeal of a conditional use permit approved by the county and formally objected to the water transfers, which needed to be approved by the state engineer.</p><p>But during the fall, Best Friends decided to shift tactics. Lawsuits could just lead to years of legal battles, something beyond the organization's longstanding mission.</p><p>"We might alienate our donors and members," Battista explained. "The appeal of Best Friends crosses party boundaries — animal welfare is something everybody can support." Apparently environmental action is not.</p><p>They decided the best approach was to sit down and talk with the company and its backers.</p><p>Battista couldn't disclose details of the negotiations — which went on for months — but on Jan. 9 Best Friends and Southern Red Sands released a <a href="https://therevelator.org/joint-statement-from-southern-red-sands-and-best-friends-animal-society/" target="_blank">joint statement</a> saying that the company "had decided not to pursue its business ventures in Kane County."</p><p>The members of Keep Kanab Unspoiled were elated by the news.</p><p>"It's so heartening how so many people from our community came together to amplify a voice that is seldom acknowledged by our elected representatives and institutions," Hand tells me. "I'm relieved that an area I love won't be sacrificed on the altar of fossil fuel consumption. I'm grateful that this threat to our travel and tourism economy is diminished."</p><p>It would be comforting to think that the driving force behind the decision boiled down to preserving the scenic beauty or the region's groundwater resources, but it's more likely it had to do with money.</p><p>"Economics played some role," Battista said. "The market for frac sand has changed and [Best Friends] had financial viability assessments of the project to show that the mine wouldn't be a good idea. Economically it just didn't make sense to any of us. I think that our studies corroborated that."</p><p>This was a main talking point of Keep Kanab Unspoiled, bolstered by research done by Baker, who also happens to be <a href="http://cepr.net/about-us/staff/dean-baker" target="_blank">an economist and cofounder</a> of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.</p><p>The frac sand industry — and the larger fracking industry — is volatile. The number of rigs drilling for oil tends to fall when prices get low. Rigs plunged with falling prices from 2014 to 2016 and last year saw <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-rigs-baker-hughes/u-s-drillers-cut-oil-rigs-for-record-11th-month-baker-hughes-idUSL2N27A0L0" target="_blank">record declines</a> in rig numbers. In addition, fracking costs more than traditional drilling — and the industry has also been overspending to keep the fracking boom from going bust.</p><p>A research organization in Norway found that the amount of money being spent to drill for oil by 40 U.S. shale oil companies outpaced the money being made by selling that oil. That deficit cost companies almost $5 billion in just the first quarter of 2019, <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2019/08/08/bleak-financial-outlook-us-fracking-industry" target="_blank">DeSmog reported</a> in August.</p><p>It's a scenario that's happened before.</p><p>With oil prices now around $60 a barrel, the industry is hanging on. If prices dip much lower, it could be trouble. A decade into the fracking frenzy, investors are worried that the best spots have been drilled and many debts won't be paid.</p><p>There's even more uncertainty when it comes to producing and selling the sand. Companies used to rely almost exclusively on Midwest sand, but now more areas are getting in on the game.</p><p>The consequences of failures in the fracking business model are real.</p><p>Falling oil prices and a shifting market for frac sand recently took down Emerge Energy Services — owner of eight frac sand facilities in Wisconsin — which <a href="https://www.wpr.org/frac-sand-producer-wisconsin-declares-bankruptcy" target="_blank">filed for bankruptcy</a> last summer and left behind unsafe levels of <a href="https://www.wpr.org/arsenic-levels-bankrupt-frac-sand-mine-7-times-higher-state-cleanup-standards" target="_blank">arsenic and heavy metal contamination</a> for the community to clean up.</p><p>That's a scenario that Baker worried could happen in Kanab. Southern Red Sands said their intended market was in Utah's Uintah Basin 350 miles north, but a new frac sand mine just opened in the basin. "It's almost inconceivable they'd be able to compete with them because the biggest cost with frac sand is the shipping," said Baker. "There are some operations in the San Juan basin [in New Mexico and Colorado] but it's not clear to me that they could beat those out either."</p><p>Even though economics played a role in halting the project, he believes community efforts were important, too.</p><p>"The fact they faced serious legal obstacles at every step in their path had to be a factor," he said. "It is a nice, and unfortunately rare, victory for the environment."</p><p>Best Friends worked to ensure the hard-earned victory wasn't short-lived, either. It also purchased Southern Red Sands' 12,000 acres of mineral rights.</p><p>"We want to make sure that no one else comes in here in two years if the market's better and tries to put in another sand mine, we just don't think that it's the right thing for this area," said Battista. "We want to make sure that in perpetuity, there's not a threat to the sanctuary."</p><p>As for Hand, she's now looking at the bigger picture. She saw the fight over frac sand in Kanab as a microcosm of the global fight over fossil fuels and climate change.</p><p>"While we can embrace a sense of triumph, it's likely to be brief," she said. "When it comes to protecting wild places and using our resources carefully, our work will never be done. The next development project is already bubbling. I do feel more hopeful for each success, but climate change marches on."</p>
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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.
A graphic showing the water cycle during hydraulic fracturing. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016
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By Wenonah Hauter
Donald Trump's scheduled visit to a fracking industry gathering in Pittsburgh this week is a hugely symbolic moment for the 2020 election campaign, as well as the urgent battle to contain climate catastrophe.
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Susan Vineyard / iStock / Getty Images Plus
By Justin Mikulka
Increasingly, U.S. shale firms appear unable to pay back investors for the money borrowed to fuel the last decade of the fracking boom. In a similar vein, those companies also seem poised to stiff the public on cleanup costs for abandoned oil and gas wells once the producers have moved on.
A new multiyear study found that people living or working within 2,000 feet, or nearly half a mile, of a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drill site may be at a heightened risk of exposure to benzene and other toxic chemicals, according to research released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE)
A fracked natural gas well in northwest Louisiana has been burning for two weeks after suffering a blowout. A state official said the fire will likely burn for the next month before the flames can be brought under control by drilling a relief well.
Well Blowout<p>DeSmog obtained drone video footage shot 13 days after the blowout, which occurred early in the morning on August 30, the day after the well was hydraulically fractured. A tower of flames reportedly shot into the air that could be seen from more than 30 miles away. While the flames are no longer as intense, the fire is still visible from a distance of more than a mile. GEP Haynesville, LLC, the well's operator, told <a href="https://www.kpvi.com/news/national_news/multi-well-natural-gas-fires-continue-to-burn-in-coushatta/article_c5778d02-afeb-5728-b067-3dbaff892351.html?fbclid=IwAR2sROJHdxV9zUD9s-azyXuf2bMrly_950ChIPkr1myWNwJ2H7tuiFsmL20" target="_blank">local ABC affiliate KPVI </a>that the fire started during flow-back operations, but the exact cause has not been determined yet.</p><p>Experts have voiced concerns over the pollution being released, especially given the length of time this <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/fossil-fuels">fossil fuel</a> well has been leaking and burning.</p><p>"Blowouts are (unintended) large, uncontrolled pollutant sources with potentially significant health and environmental consequences," Gunnar W. Schade, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University, told me via email after viewing the drone video obtained by DeSmog. "Blowouts need to be shut down as soon as possible."</p><p>Sharon Wilson, Texas coordinator of environmental advocacy group Earthworks, outlined what happens during well blowouts like this.</p><p>"The gas is under pressure so if they lose control, the gas, frack fluid, produced water, and oil/condensate all blast out of the hole," Wilson said during a call after viewing the video. "They have to get specialized teams to come shut the well in." </p>
Air Quality Impacts?<p>The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) has determined that the blowout and fire present no major air quality concerns. "LDEQ responders consider this a very low-impact event," Greg Langley, LDEQ spokesperson, said via email. "The well is clean, it's gas and what is being released is being consumed in the fire." </p><p>"LDEQ is receiving daily air monitoring results from the environmental response contractor hired by the well owner," Langley explained. "The company set up four air monitors to test for sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and lower explosive limit. LDEQ also does periodic air monitoring with our own equipment. All meter readings have been below detection limits." </p><p>Most of the air monitoring is being done with a chemical detector called MultiRAEs, according to Langley. When asked which <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/clusters/fallon/glossary-voc.pdf" target="_blank">volatile organic compounds</a>, a class of air pollutants that includes the carcinogen benzene, were present, Langley replied, "Nothing was detected." </p><p>"It's laughable that they say there are no air impacts from this event," Wilson said. She frequently monitors oil and gas industry sites with an optical gas imaging camera that detects leaking <a href="http://www.ecowatch.com/tag/methane">methane</a> and other pollutants invisible to the naked eye. Wilson's videos have been instrumental in identifying numerous leaking wells in various shale regions across the United States, including Louisiana's Haynesville Shale, where this blowout is burning. Wilson reports her findings to state regulatory agencies, which on occasion have fined operators for the leaks she flagged. </p><p>"Even without my optical gas imaging camera, I know there are air impacts because I can see them with my naked eyes. You can see that the gas coming up is not all being burned off and the plume of smoke and gases is traveling a very far distance," Wilson said, based on the drone footage.</p><p>Wilson recommends placing air sampling equipment on a drone to survey the area above the fire and leaking well.</p><p>"The problem is the plume is up much higher than an LDEQ inspector standing on the ground holding a MultiRae meter," she said.</p><p>Wilma Subra, a technical advisor for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, agrees that using drones would be advisable and that air canister testing should be done too. This latter approach captures air samples over a period of days and measures how much of each compound is present. Subra thinks air canister testing is the best way to know if the emissions around the blowout are a threat to human health.</p>
Louisiana’s Response and Oversight<p>The Louisiana State Police's hazmat (hazardous materials) team and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR), which regulates oil and gas production, are also monitoring the blowout.</p><p>Like LDEQ, these two agencies concluded the accident did not warrant alerting nearby residents of potential health concerns. A few people live within a mile and a half of the site.</p><p>"Any time there is a loss of well control, there is a concern about environmental impacts," Patrick Courreges, communications director for LDNR, told me. DNR's "first concern is for the physical safety of the workers on site and for any people potentially affected in nearby homes and businesses," but in this case the site is fairly remote and air monitoring, in place since the first day of the blowout, hasn't indicated any potential immediate impacts of harmful gases, he explained.</p><p>"Currently, well control contractors are on site, under the supervision of the operator and State Police Incident Command to keep the impacts contained as much as possible, using water to help control the heat and potential spread of flame," Courreges said. "While there is no good news in a blowout, the fire does actually help with lessening the impact of the escaping methane by burning much of it off, though obviously the goal is to get the flow of methane stopped and the fire out as soon as possible."</p><p>"The longer-term solution is likely to be the drilling of wells to intercept the affected wellheads and stop the flow of gas in the damaged wellheads," he told me. That might take a month. A design for a relief well has not been submitted yet to DNR, though one is being planned. Drilling a relief well was the same basic approach which ultimately stopped the flow of oil from BP's Macondo well blowout deep under the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.</p><p>"Full-on blowouts in hydraulically fractured Haynesville Shale wells are rare," Courreges said. "While there have been instances of valves or piping giving way over the years that required emergency response, I don't recall any blowouts on this scale from those type of wells."</p><p>Wilson is skeptical of that response. "We don't know how common this is because the industry tries very hard to keep these events quiet," Wilson said. "If they happen in a remote area, no one finds out. They are always downplayed and the regulators help with the deception." She believes that "there has never been a system in place to adequately regulate this industry, so they are allowed to self-regulate by doing their own testing."</p><p><span style="background-color: initial;">"</span>For decades we have endured these oil and gas disastrous accidents that have harmed health and pushed us into a <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-change">climate crisis</a>," Wilson said, "but we don't have to put up with this anymore because the technology to transition to clean renewable energy is available today and it's cheaper. The only thing holding us back is the political will."</p>
Natural Gas Blowouts<p>Methane, the main component in natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that is <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-bad-of-a-greenhouse-gas-is-methane/" target="_blank">up to 86 times more potent </a>than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after entering the atmosphere. A study organized by the Environmental Defense Fund (<span style="background-color: initial;">EDF</span>) and published in June last year reports that the U.S. oil and gas supply chain is <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2018/06/21/methane-leaks-oil-gas-60-higher-epa-estimates-science-study-edf" target="_blank">leaking roughly 60 percent more </a>methane than previous Environmental Protection Agency (<span style="background-color: initial;">EPA</span>) estimates, which largely relied on industry self-reports.</p><p>Wilson compared this blowout to the 2015 <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2018/03/23/aliso-canyon-disaster-phmsa-natural-gas-storage-regulation" target="_blank">Aliso Canyon</a> catastrophe in southern California and the <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-exxon-xto-natgas-ohio/exxons-xto-caps-leaking-ohio-gas-well-20-days-after-blowout-idUSKCN1GJ355" target="_blank">2018 XTO blowout in Ohio</a>, which both gushed large amounts of methane. "This blowout is a huge deal," Wilson said. "We are at the climate breaking point and no one can even say how much methane is blasting into the air."</p><p>Schade told me that estimating the amount of pollutants released from the "flare" (the industry term for intentionally burning natural gas in oil fields) is possible by looking at data from the <a href="https://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/eog/viirs/download_global_flare.html" target="_blank">National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS)</a>. This source will show data about the flare detected by satellite, allowing the atmospheric scientist to calculate the estimated amount of heat and emissions. </p><p>After reviewing the satellite data available so far, Schade reported the heat generated from this burning Louisiana well is at least three times the magnitude of the largest flares in the Permian oil fields of neighboring Texas. According to his estimates, this burning well may be releasing approximately 8,700 pounds of <a href="https://www3.epa.gov/region1/airquality/nox.html" target="_blank">nitrogen oxides</a>, pollutants that lead to smog and acid rain, each day.</p><p>"The emissions from such a source can be enormous," said Schade.</p>
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