Gas Industry Spin Can't Cover Up Problems Caused by Fracking
It's like some in the gas industry are living in a different universe from the rest of us, when it comes to the risks from shale gas extraction via fracking. Call it the "Spin Zone."
At a Wall Street Journal conference last week, Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon told attendees he's unaware of any problems resulting from the thousands of fracking wells drilled in Fort Worth, Texas in recent years. McClendon peevishly referred to the fracking-related air pollution concerns I raised at the conference as "environmental nonsense."
Well, read on. Then decide who's talking "nonsense":
In December 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reported that oil and gas operations in the Dallas-Fort Worth region emit more smog-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than all cars, trucks, buses and other mobile sources in the area combined. This wasn't true before the fracking boom: TCEQ's data shows that VOCs from oil and gas production have increased 60 percent since 2006.
Ozone, a corrosive gas that can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases, is created when VOCs from petroleum operations mix with heat and sunlight. In 2011, Dallas-Fort Worthviolated federal ozone standards on more days than anywhere else in Texas. Dallas-Fort Worth is a "particularly extreme" example of higher air pollution in Texas, according to David Allen, a chemical engineering professor and state air-quality program director.
In 2010, TCEQ found elevated levels of benzene around 21 gas fields out of the 94 it tested in the Barnett Shale. According to TCEQ toxicologist Shannon Ethridge, their monitors in the Barnett Shale pulled up "some of the highest benzene concentrations we have monitored in the state."
In Texas, which had about 93,000 natural-gas wells in 2011, up from around 58,000 a dozen years ago, a hospital system in six counties with some of the heaviest drilling, including the Barnett Shale region, found that "children in the community ages 6-9 are three times more likely to have asthma than the average for that age group in the State of Texas." According to Baylor University, in 2009, childhood asthma rates in the Tarrant County area of the Barnett were more than double the national average, prompting a new study to evaluate asthma and pollution sources.
Up north in the Mountain States, the problem is just as serious:
According to a 2012 study from the Colorado School of Public Health, cancer risks were 66 percent higher for residents living less than half a mile from oil and gas wells than for those living farther away, with benzene being the major contributor to the increased risk. This same study reminds us that chronic exposure to ozone, prevalent at gas production sites, can lead to asthma and pulmonary diseases, particularly in children and the aged.
A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found elevated levels of methane coming from well sites in Northeastern Colorado. NOAA scientists say initial results from another study show high concentrations of butane, ethane and propane in Erie, east of Boulder, where hundreds of natural-gas wells are operating." "We are finding a huge amount of methane and other chemicals coming out of the natural-gas fields," said Russell Schnell, a NOAA scientist in Boulder. NOAA estimates that gas producers in this area are losing about 4 percent of gas to the atmosphere -- not including losses in the pipeline and distribution system.
Levels of ozone in Wyoming's fracking country are higher than in Los Angeles (Wyoming levels have been as high as 124 parts per billion, two-thirds higher than the federal EPA's maximum healthy limit). In 2009, Wyoming's environmental agency concluded "that elevated ozone at the Boulder [Wyoming] monitor is primarily due to local emissions from oil and gas (O&G) development activities: drilling, production, storage, transport, and treating."
Finally, let's not forget the 2011 Duke University study proving that drinking water wells near fracking sites have 17 times more methane than wells not located near fracking, and that this extra methane has a chemical fingerprint which shows it's coming from deep drilling. Fracking operations have generated billions of gallons of radiation-laced toxic wastewater that weren't managed properly and fracking has forced families to abandon their homes after they were poisoned by dangerous levels of arsenic, benzene and toluene.
Most drillers remain in deep denial, routinely choosing to circle the wagons rather than acknowledge environmental and public health problems. As one Wall Street Journal conference blogger pointedly observed, after I suggested that the gas companies deny problems and demonize critics, McClendon's next move was, well, to deny and demonize. To be fair, other pro-fracking conference panelists like former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell were somewhat more critical of the industry, arguing that the gas companies must accept blame for rushing fracking and relying on "cowboy" drillers.
In the end, conference attendees weren't buying the drillers' "don't worry, just keep buying more of our gas" message. After my and McClendon's mini-debate, an astonishing 49 percent of this business-friendly audience said that we need federal regulation of the gas industry. Only 7 percent thought the answer to our problems lies with self-regulation by the frackers.
Fracking and its impact on public health, in particular our children's health, is a serious issue that calls for swift action -- action that the gas industry repeatedly tries to block. In New York, for example, the industry recently helped kill a legislative proposal for a public health impact assessment which hundreds of medical professionals had joined community activists and environmentalists in supporting.
Let the gas companies continue to deny fracking's proven link to air and water pollution. The public isn't buying their spin. They know where the "nonsense" is coming from.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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