California Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed new restrictions on oil exploration in his state yesterday by putting a moratorium on hundreds hydraulic fracturing permits until the projects are reviewed by independent scientists, as the AP reported.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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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Trump Administration Reversed Existing Methane Regulations<p>Methane emissions have become <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2019/08/14/fracking-shale-gas-drilling-methane-spike-howarth" target="_blank">a much bigger issue</a> in the last decade since the <span style="background-color: initial;">U.S.</span> boom in shale <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/oil-and-gas">oil and gas</a> produced by <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/fracking" rel="noopener noreferrer">fracking</a>. Despite <a href="https://money.cnn.com/2016/07/21/investing/trump-energy-plan-obama-oil-boom/index.html" target="_blank">overseeing a huge rise in oil and gas production</a>, the Obama administration acknowledged the methane problem and <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/05/12/administration-takes-historic-action-reduce-methane-emission-oil-and-gas-sector" target="_blank">proposed and adopted new methane emissions regulations</a>, which the <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2019/09/10/key-facts-trump-epa-plan-obama-methane-leaks-rule" target="_blank">Trump administration has since repealed</a>.</p><p>The Trump administration has staffed regulatory agencies with former industry executives and lobbyists who have been quite successful at rolling back environmental, health, and safety rules.</p><p>Last August former coal lobbyist and current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/andrew-wheeler" target="_blank">Andrew Wheeler</a> <a href="https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-proposes-updates-air-regulations-oil-and-gas-remove-redundant-requirements-and-1" target="_blank">explained the reasoning</a> for removing the Obama methane rules.</p><p>"EPA's proposal delivers on President Trump's executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry," Wheeler said. "The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use."</p><p>The problem with this free-market assumption is that Wheeler is wrong about the industry's financial incentive to limit methane emissions.</p>
Even the Remaining Regulations Are Controlled by Industry<p>While the Trump administration has rolled back many regulations for the oil and gas industry, the regulatory system in the U.S. was already designed to protect industry profits — not the public or environment. When the federal government creates regulations, the process can be heavily influenced by industry lobbyists, and if they don't agree with the regulations, there are many ways they can get them revised to favor their companies.</p><p>While Exxon <a href="https://www.axios.com/exxon-epa-regulate-methane-emissions-oil-gas--0befdde6-e0fe-49db-a200-38299853b43d.html" target="_blank">did publicly say </a>in 2018 that it didn't support repealing the existing methane regulations, the company also wrote to the <span style="background-color: initial;">EPA</span> voicing support for certain aspects of the <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/american-petroleum-institute" target="_blank">American Petroleum Institute's</a> (<span style="background-color: initial;">API</span>) comments on the issue, and the <span style="background-color: initial;">API</span> <a href="https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2019/08/oil-gas-lobby-split-by-trump-rollback-of-methane-rules/" target="_blank">approved removing the regulations.</a> In that letter Exxon used the same language it is now using with its propsed regulations, saying any rules need to be "cost-effective" and "reasonable." But if the regulations are cost-effective, will they actually be effective in reducing methane emissions in a meaningful way?</p>
Excerpt from Exxon letter to EPA about methane regulations. ExxonMobil<p><a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-safety-rules-on-oil-drilling-were-changed-some-staff-objected-those-notes-were-cut-11582731559" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a> recently highlighted the influence that the oil and gas industry and its major U.S. trade group the American Petroleum Institute can have over regulations. After the deadly 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the federal government put into place new safeguards known as the "well control rule" in order to prevent another disaster during deepwater offshore drilling.</p><p>In 2019, the Trump administration revised the rule, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/05/03/720008093/trump-administration-moves-to-roll-back-offshore-drilling-safety-regulations" target="_blank">weakening it</a>, even though, as the Journal reported, federal regulatory staff did not agree "that an industry-crafted protocol for managing well pressure was sufficient in all situations, the records show." The staff was ignored. (And the move is <a href="https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/suit-filed-over-well-control-rule-repeal" target="_blank">undergoing a legal challenge</a>.)</p><p>Industry crafted protocol. Just the thing Exxon is now proposing.</p><p>This type of industry control over the regulatory process was also brought to light after two Boeing 737 MAX planes crashed and killed 346 people. Boeing had fought to make sure that pilots weren't required to undergo expensive and lengthy training to navigate the new plane.</p><p><a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-boeing-737max/designed-by-clowns-boeing-employees-ridicule-737-max-regulators-in-internal-messages-idUSKBN1Z902N" target="_blank">Reuters reported </a>on internal communications at Boeing which revealed the airplane maker simply would not let simulator training be required by regulators:</p><p>"I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required to transition from NG to MAX," Boeing's 737 chief technical pilot said in a March 2017 email.</p><p>"Boeing will not allow that to happen. We'll go face to face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement."</p><p>Boeing got its way. And 346 people died.</p>
Exxon Touts 'Sound Science' Despite Its History<p>Exxon's methane proposal states that any regulations should be based on "sound science." This statement is coming from a company whose scientists <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/content/Exxon-The-Road-Not-Taken" target="_blank">accurately predicted the impacts of burning fossil fuels</a> on the climate decades ago and yet has spent the time since then <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2017/09/03/study-finds-exxon-misled-public-withholding-climate-knowledge" target="_blank">misleading the public</a> about that science.</p><p>The current regulatory system in America does not protect the public interest. Letting Exxon take the lead in the place of regulators doesn't seem like it's going to help.</p><p>Megan Milliken Biven is a former federal analyst for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency that regulates the oil industry's offshore activity. Milliken Biven explained to DeSmog what she saw as the root cause of the regulatory process's failure.<br><br>"Regulatory capture isn't really the problem," Milliken Biven said. "The system was designed to work for industry so regulatory capture isn't even required."</p>
By Nina Lakhani
Living near active oil and gas wells during pregnancy increases the risk of low-birthweight babies, especially in rural areas, according to the largest study of its kind.
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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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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>
Supreme Court Rules Atlantic Coast Pipeline Can Cross Appalachian Trail, but the Battle Might Not Be Over
The Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 Monday that the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) can pass underneath the Appalachian Trail.
The ruling removes one barrier to the pipeline, which has been delayed six years, but it still requires eight other permits, and environmental groups vowed to keep fighting.
"With the ACP still lacking 8 permits, this decision is just plugging just one hole on a sinking ship," director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign Kelly Martin said in a statement. "Nothing in today's ruling changes the fact that the fracked gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a dirty, dangerous threat to our health, climate and communities, and nothing about the ruling changes our intention to fight it."
Supreme Court decision today is dissapointing, but proposed fracked gas pipeline still lacks eight needed permits.… https://t.co/9ZsZ6IPguI— Kelly Sheehan Martin (@Kelly Sheehan Martin)1592248189.0
At stake in Monday's decision is the part of its route that would cross the Appalachian Trail in Central Virginia where the trail overlaps with the George Washington National Forest.
The Forest Service granted the pipeline a permit for the crossing in 2018, but a coalition of environmental groups led by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) sued, arguing that the trail crossing was under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and tossed the Forest Service permit in December of that year.
But the companies appealed and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor Monday, arguing that the Forest Service controlled the land and had just granted the National Park Service a right of way to maintain the trail.
"If a rancher granted a neighbor an easement across his land for a horse trail, no one would think that the rancher had conveyed ownership over that land," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, NPR reported.
Only Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan disagreed.
"In her noteworthy dissent, Justice Sotomayor clearly gets what should be obvious: that the Appalachian Trail is land in the National Park system," Natural Resources Defense Council Climate & Clean Energy Program attorney Gillian Gianettti said in a statement. "And under federal law, a pipeline plainly cannot cross land in the National Park system."
Here’s why we’re fighting the #AtlanticCoastPipeline every step of the way: https://t.co/AculcWu8FP— NRDC 🌎🏡 (@NRDC 🌎🏡)1592257093.0
Dominion celebrated the court's decision.
"Today's decision is an affirmation for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and communities across our region that are depending on it for jobs, economic growth and clean energy," the company said in a statement reported by Reuters. "We look forward to resolving the remaining project permits."
However, SELC said the remaining permits could be a major hurdle to the project. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the Forest Service permit on three other grounds not covered by the Supreme Court decision, NPR reported. The project also lacks permits relating to its impacts on endangered species, air and water, SELC pointed out.
The organization also pointed out that the decision comes as both Virginia and North Carolina are moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. Virginia passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act in April, which requires utilities to shut down all gas plants by 2045. And North Carolina's Clean Energy Plan requires the state to reduce emissions to 70 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A pending case before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will determine if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was correct in determining the ACP necessary when it granted it a permit in 2017.
"This is not a viable project," SELC program director DJ Gerken said. "It is still missing many required authorizations, including the Forest Service permit at issue in today's case, and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will soon consider the mounting evidence that we never needed this pipeline to supply power. It's time for these developers to move on and reinvest the billions of dollars planned for this boondoggle into the renewable energy that Virginia and North Carolina customers want and deserve."
"This is not a viable project," with 8 permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline still in question, despite today's S… https://t.co/5e32mv1tid— SELC (Environmental Law) (@SELC (Environmental Law))1592248927.0
The Supreme Court decision could greenlight another contested Appalachian pipeline however, Reuters pointed out. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would run 300 miles from West Virginia to Southern Virginia, also crosses the Appalachian Trail in the Jefferson National Forest. It is almost finished, but construction at the trail crossing was halted to await the outcome of the ACP case.
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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.
By Tara Lohan
In January 2015 North Dakota experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in its history: A pipeline burst, spilling nearly 3 million gallons of briny, saltwater waste from nearby oil-drilling operations into two creek beds. The wastewater, which flowed all the way to the Missouri River, contained chloride concentrations high enough to kill any wildlife that encountered it.
Fracking trucks and equipment in Doddridge Co, West Virginia.
Tara Lohan<p>Then there's the sand that's mined for use during the fracturing of underground rock to release natural gas or oil. There are also new pipelines, compressor stations and other related infrastructure that need to be constructed. And there's the truck traffic that surges during operations, or the disposal of fracking wastewater, either in streams or underground.</p><p>The cumulative footprint of a single new well can be as large as <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1470160X14005664" target="_blank">30 acres</a>. In places where hundreds or thousands of wells spring up across a landscape, it's easy to imagine the toll on wildlife — and even cases with ecosystem-wide implications.</p><p>"Studies show that there are multiple pathways to wildlife being harmed," said ecologist Sandra Steingraber, a distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College who has worked for a decade compiling research on the <a href="https://www.psr.org/blog/resource/compendium-of-scientific-medical-and-media-findings-demonstrating-risks-and-harms-of-fracking/" target="_blank">health effects of fracking</a>. "Biodiversity is a determinant of public health — without these wild animals doing ecosystem services for us, we can't survive."</p>
Losing Ground<p>The most obvious threats fracking poses to wildlife comes in the form of habitat loss.</p><p>As rural areas become industrialized with each new well pad and its associated infrastructure, vital habitat for wildlife is altered or destroyed.</p>
Habitat fragmentation in North Dakota's Bakken shale.
Tara Lohan<p>And it's not just the area containing the well. The land or water just outside of the operation, known as "edge habitat," also degrades with an increase in the spread of invasive plant species, among other concerns.</p><p>And large-scale development, such as miles-long pipelines, can change the way species move and hunt, often resulting in an increase in predation. The oil and gas development in Alberta, Canada, for example, created "wolf highways" that gave the predators easy access to an <a href="https://thenarwhal.ca/topics/endangered-caribou-canada/" target="_blank">endangered herd of woodland caribou</a>.</p><p>Roads, another kind of fragmentation, can be particularly dangerous for wildlife. A single fracked well can be responsible for 3,300 one-way truck trips during its operational lifespan, and each journey can injure or kill wildlife large and small. After all, it's hard to get out of the way of a tanker truck carrying 80,000 pounds of sand.</p><p>And then there's the big picture. Drilling within large, "core" forest areas previously located far from human development can be permanently detrimental for species such as migratory songbirds.</p><p>In one study, published in Biological Conservation in 2016, researchers examined the effects of unconventional gas drilling on <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320716302439" target="_blank">forest habits and populations</a> of birds in an area of West Virginia overlaying the Marcellus and Utica shales. The area has been at the center of the shale gas boom, with the number of unconventional wells in central Appalachia jumping from 111 in 2005 to 14,022 by the end of 2015. The study found that shale-gas development there during that period resulted in a 12.4 percent loss of core forest and increased edge habitat by more than 50 percent — and that, in turn, changed the communities of birds found in the forest.</p><p>The areas near well pads experienced an overall decline in "forest specialists" — birds that prefer interior forest habitat, among them the hooded warbler and Kentucky warbler, which are of high conservation priority, as well as cerulean warblers. These sky-blue endangered migratory songbirds have been dropping in numbers for decades, but researchers noted that the decline was 15 percent higher in their study area than in the greater Appalachian Mountains region during the same period.</p>
Kentucky warblers prefer large core forest habitat and researchers have found they decline in numbers around shale gas development.
Andrew Weitzel / CC BY-SA 2.0<p>"For migratory songbirds, large blocks of forest are very important," explains<a href="https://ecosystems.psu.edu/directory/mxb21" target="_blank"> Margaret C. Brittingham</a>, a professor of wildlife resources at Penn State University who has studied the effects of fracking on wildlife. The birds do best in interior forest habitat with mature trees. They also serve as an important part of the forest ecosystem, helping to prevent or suppress insect outbreaks that can damage trees. "They're co-evolved with the forest, feeding on insects and keeping those forests healthy," she said.</p><p>Not all species declined in numbers from fracking development. The study found an increase in the kinds of birds that do well among humans and in developed areas — "habitat generalists" such as the American robin, blue jay and brown-headed cowbird, the latter of which are notorious <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/is-it-okay-remove-cowbird-eggs-host-nests" target="_blank">brood parasites</a> that leave their eggs in nests of other birds.</p><p>"I think the most alarming thing about all of this is what bird declines may indicate about the declining health of overall ecosystems," said <a href="http://silvis.forest.wisc.edu/staff/farwell-laura/" target="_blank">Laura Farwell</a>, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the <em>Biological Conservation </em>study. "I know it's a cliché, but forest interior birds truly are 'canaries in the coal mine' for Appalachian forests experiencing rapid loss and fragmentation."</p><p>Farwell adds that many other kinds of development contribute to habitat loss that result in biodiversity declines. Fracking is one more added pressure, but the consequences are quite significant.</p><p>"It just happens to be disproportionately affecting some of the largest remaining areas of undisturbed, mature forest left in the eastern U.S., and these forests are incredibly valuable for biodiversity," she said.</p><p>Out West the industry is carving up a different kind of habitat, and that has other species on the ropes. <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2015/06/saving-the-greater-sage-grouse-the-most-hotly-debated-bird-since-the-spotted-owl-photos/" target="_blank">Greater sage grouse</a>, for example, depend on large home ranges composed of intact areas of sagebrush. Cattle ranching and development of all kinds have pushed the grouse near extinction, and continued <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/06/climate/trump-sage-grouse-oil.html" target="_blank">unbridled oil and gas extraction</a> in its remaining habitat could tip it over the edge.</p><p>A <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25188826" target="_blank">2014 study</a> co-authored by Brittingham found that oil and gas infrastructure and related disturbances to sage grouse can cause the birds' populations to decline — or even disappear in areas with particularly high levels of oil and gas development.</p><p>Sage grouse have also been shown to exhibit high levels of stress from noise.</p><p>Noise poses additional risks for birds that depend on their hearing. A study published in <em>Biological Conservation</em> in 2016 found that noise from compressor stations, which run 24 hours a day, reduced the ability of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/human-noise-robs-owls-their-ability-hunt" target="_blank">northern saw-whet owls to catch prey</a>. The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320716301343" target="_blank">researchers found</a> that for owls and other "acoustically specialized predators," noise can cause significant negative impacts on behavior, like a decreased ability to hunt, and that can ripple through the ecosystem.</p>
Lights on a drilling site in West Virginia can affect nocturnal wildlife.
Tara Lohan<p>Light, too, can be a problem. Oil and gas operations in some places have turned once-dark rural areas into blazing mini-cities in quick time. A 2012 <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2013/01/16/169511949/a-mysterious-patch-of-light-shows-up-in-the-north-dakota-dark" target="_blank">photo</a> revealed that gas burned off from wells in North Dakota's Bakken Shale was so bright it was visible from space — something not seen just six years before. <a href="https://therevelator.org/blinded-light-pollution/" target="_blank">Light pollution</a> like this can be deadly for migratory birds and disrupt other nocturnal animals.</p>
It’s in the Water<p>The fracking process uses a lot of water and much of that contaminated H2O returns to the surface, bringing with it heavy metals, radioactivity, toxic chemicals (many of which are industry trade secrets) and high levels of salinity. Disposing of all that wastewater has created headaches for the industry and in some cases it's now proving to endanger wildlife.</p><p>Spills or intentional dumping of wastewater or fracking fluid released 180 million gallons into the environment between 2009 and 2014, according to an investigation by the <a href="https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2015/10/25/fatal-flow-brine-from-oil-gas-drilling-fouls-land-kills-wildlife-at-alarming-rate/" target="_blank">Associated Press</a>. Unsafe levels of some contaminants have been found to <a href="https://cen.acs.org/articles/94/web/2016/05/Toxic-chemicals-fracking-wastewater-spills.html" target="_blank">persist for years</a>, as was the case in North Dakota.</p><p>Not all spills and intentional releases of wastewater in streams create noticeable impacts like fish going belly up — some are more subtle and harder to see — but they may still take a real toll on aquatic life.</p><p>A <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0147651319302672?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">2019 study</a> in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety looked at what happens when insects called water fleas encounter a fracking-fluid spill. Researchers found that even when the fluids were diluted in a stream, their high salinity could decrease insect mobility and survival. The Canadian province of Alberta, the researchers noted, has recorded 100 such large-volume spills.</p><p>Lowly water fleas — in this case a species called <em>Daphnia magna</em> — may not seem like animals we should worry about, but like so many small creatures, they occupy an important niche.</p><p>"They are the basis of the freshwater ecosystem," Steingraber explained. "When the water fleas are gone, the guys that feed on them are gone — frogs and fish die, and those that feed on <em>them</em> die and suddenly you have a biodiversity problem because you've knocked out a species at the bottom of the aquatic food chain."</p><p>Some of this may already be playing out in other locations. A 2016 <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309148416_Fracked_ecology_Response_of_aquatic_trophic_structure_and_mercury_biomagnification_dynamics_in_the_Marcellus_Shale_Formation" target="_blank">study</a> published in Ecotoxicology that found a decrease in biodiversity of macroinvertebrates in Pennsylvania streams where fracking was occurring in the watershed — and, even worse, "no fish or no fish diversity at streams with documented frackwater fluid spills." In some cases streams that once contained large numbers of brook trout had none left. The researchers concluded that "fracking has the potential to alter aquatic biodiversity…at the base of food webs."</p>
Brook trout have disappeared from some streams in central Appalachia following fracking spills.
USFWS<p>Elsewhere, it's possible that contamination of surface waters has already taken a toll on the Louisiana waterthrush (<em>Parkesia motacilla</em>), a bird that breeds along forest headwater streams and feeds on macroinvertebrates. A <a href="https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1890/ES14-00406.1" target="_blank">2015 study</a> published in Ecosphere found that shale gas development had negative effects on the nest survival and productivity of waterthrushes and the researchers posited that "indirect effects on stream and terrestrial food webs from possible contamination" by the oil and gas industry could be to blame.</p><p>The research, which looked at sites in both the Marcellus and Fayetteville shale regions, showed that the birds' feathers contained elevated levels of barium and strontium — two heavy metals associated with the drilling process — in areas where fracking had taken place. Much like when lead shows up in a human's hair, the presence of these metals in the birds' feathers is a sign that contaminants in the environment are making their way into animals' bodies.</p><p>And that raises even bigger concerns.</p><p>As the researchers concluded in their paper: "Our finding of significantly higher levels of barium and strontium also suggests the possibility of surface water contamination by any of the hundreds of chemicals that may be used in hydraulic fracturing, including friction reducers, acids, biocides, corrosion and scale inhibitors, pH adjusting agents and surfactants."</p><p> A similar line of inquiry is being pursued by other researchers. <a href="https://www.cee.psu.edu/department/directory-detail-g.aspx?q=NRW6" target="_blank">Nathaniel Warner</a>, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State University, has been using the shells of freshwater mussels to read the changes in water chemistry in Pennsylvania's Allegheny River. Mussels record environmental conditions in their shells each year — much like tree rings.</p><p>Warner and his colleagues have <a href="https://pennstate.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/accumulation-of-marcellus-formation-oil-and-gas-wastewater-metals-2" target="_blank">also found elevated levels of strontium</a> in the shells of mussels living downstream from a site where treated fracking wastewater was discharged. Strontium, which is found in high concentrations in oil and gas wastewaters, is a naturally occurring metal with some medical benefits but which in large exposures can cause bone loss and other side effects.</p><p>But Warner says they are still trying to determine what the impacts are for mussels and aquatic ecosystems — not to mention the people who get their dinner from the river.</p><p>"We haven't really gotten to the point where we can say this is harmful or not," he said. "We really focused on the hard shell itself. But now we're looking more at what happens in that soft tissue because muskrats and fish don't really eat the shell that much, but they eat the soft tissue. And so what levels of contaminants or pollution ended up in that soft tissue compared to the shell?" He said that's probably more important for determining what this really means for wildlife or even human health.</p><p>University of Wisconsin's Farwell says that she'd also like to see more research on what the accumulation of contaminants in the bodies of waterthrushes means for other wildlife and for humans. "Air pollution is another important issue to consider," she added. "I'm not aware of any current studies that have looked directly at impacts of fracking air pollution on wildlife."</p><p>You can add these topics to the long list researchers are hoping to explore, but there will still be a lot about how fracking and other extraction technologies are affecting wildlife that we <em>don't</em> know. And with natural gas still projected to be one of the <a href="https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=41333" target="_blank">fastest growing energy sources in the United States</a>, the time to understand its impacts on wildlife grows short.</p><p>"The industry boomed at such a rapid pace, researchers and policymakers could barely keep up," she said. "And in most cases, we don't have baseline data at impacted sites to compare with current numbers. Unfortunately, most of us studying fracking impacts have been playing a game of catch-up since the beginning."</p>
By Jessica Corbett
With the nation focused on the coronavirus pandemic and protests against U.S. police brutality that have sprung up across the globe, the Trump administration continues to quietly attack federal policies that protect public health and the environment to limit the legal burdens faced by planet-wrecking fossil fuel companies.
<div id="18202" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b88aab098c5666a85c251e01b7a029bf"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1267581093349191680" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">And while attention is elsewhere, another Trump assault on the Clean #Water Act and the ability of states to protec… https://t.co/Utqe7IkGt9</div> — Peter Gleick (@Peter Gleick)<a href="https://twitter.com/PeterGleick/statuses/1267581093349191680">1591049857.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="17b4d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a0d99172630e2eaea81fb529e2c93c87"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1267802127273005056" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">.@epa’s rule change is a blatant attack on states’ rights and flies in the face of decades of Supreme Court rulings… https://t.co/k42d4AgTL5</div> — Environmental Protection Network (@Environmental Protection Network)<a href="https://twitter.com/EnvProtectioNet/statuses/1267802127273005056">1591102556.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Hauter vowed that Food & Water Action "will be pursuing all avenues available—legal, electoral, and otherwise—to ensure that states have the right to reject fossil fuels as they see fit, and support vulnerable communities everywhere seeking to protect themselves from this malicious administration."</p>
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