By Ajit Niranjan
In the last 10 years, companies including BP, ExxonMobil and Shell have invested $89 billion (€82 billion) in 210 chemical projects linked to America's shale gas boom alone, according to the American Chemistry Council. And a further 133 projects are being planned or in the process of being built.
Petrochemicals, which make up 99% of all plastics, are the versatile building blocks of modern life. Derived from petroleum and fossil gas, they are found in clothes, paper, fertilizers and cleaning products — and even food preservatives and medicine.
Petrochemicals are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil consumption, a report by the International Energy Agency found in 2018. They are set to account for a third of the growth in demand to 2030 and half of the growth to 2050, ahead of trucks, planes and ships.
As demand for fuel peaks, petrochemicals may be the "last man standing," said Theo Jan Simons, a plastics and chemicals expert at consultancy McKinsey.
Energy companies have recognized that shift in official documents.
Saudi Aramco said in a recent investor report that its chemical investments have removed risk from its portfolio. Shell, in a 2018 energy transition report, said that strong earnings from its downstream business — which includes petrochemicals — have helped offset a downturn in oil and gas prices.
ExxonMobil said last year that growth in chemicals could counter falling fuel demands from electric cars, Mother Jones reported earlier this month, while BP has excluded petrochemicals from its recent pledge to go carbon-neutral by 2050.
With fuel demand depressed by coronavirus and a price war threatening to pump out more oil, the industry's traditional revenue streams are on even shakier ground. That could spur them to make more petrochemicals for a market that some analysts warn is already saturated.
Plastic Pollution Already Dangerous
Plastic production has increased about 200-fold since 1950, but only 9% of the plastic ever made has been recycled, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances in 2017. The rest of the waste was burned or thrown into landfills and nature, where it is growing into a symbol of ecological neglect.
What's more, plastic also carried a carbon footprint in its production and when burned as waste. This is responsible for about 2% of global emissions, though the net effect on the climate may be lower, because plastic packaging reduces food waste and lightweight plastics save fuel in transport.
The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) projected in a report last year that annual global plastic emissions will rise from 0.86 gigatons of carbon dioxide in 2019 to 2.8 gigatons by 2050 — or the equivalent of building 400 medium-sized coal plants.
Supply, Demand for Plastics an Illusion?
Despite its many uses, some experts say the proliferation of plastics is not driven by demand.
For decades, oil and gas companies needed to create markets for byproducts or manage them as waste streams, and responded by creating new markets, said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for Environmental Law and lead author of the report on plastics and climate change.
"We're seeing that very clearly with the market for single-use plastics. Much of that increase is driven not by consumer demand but [the] need to offload supply," said Muffett.
A spokesperson for Shell disputed this, saying that the company was expanding its chemicals business to meet the rising demand from economic growth. Echoing this, Simons, the McKinsey consultant, also said the rise in petrochemicals is in line with growth of the overall economy.
Still, in a market beset by green technology and volatile geopolitics, petrochemicals may represent a more stable source of revenue than fuel.
There is a growing emphasis by the fossil fuel industry to make more plastic because of falling oil demand and prices, said Kevin Stairs, chemicals policy director at Greenpeace EU.
A price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia on the back of the coronavirus pandemic pushed oil prices down 30% at the start of March. The fall, according to market research from Wood Mackenzie, is set to result in a "severe overcapacity" of ethylene, the biggest petrochemical by volume and value and the foundation of plastic bags and bottles. Other experts argue that a slowdown in the economy might decrease demand and spur the industry to cut production.
Plastic Falling out of Favor With the Public
From coastal villagers lamenting spoiled beaches to citizens concerned about microplastics in drinking water, communities have pressured governments into regulating plastics.
Across Africa, 34 countries have banned or taxed single-use plastics, according to the United Nations. China and India plan to phase them out by 2022. A rise in alternative materials and a shift toward circular economies have put petrochemical producers under pressure, said Hans-Josef Fell, president of think tank Energy Watch Group.
Oil and gas companies have taken a "huge gamble" on demand for plastic that hasn't materialized, said Muffett. "What they're running up against is that the global south is increasingly rejecting plastics in a growing number of forms."
As more and more countries turn away from plastic, "the case that there's some massive unmet market out there begins to crumble," he added.
Reposted with permission from DW.
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And while the oil giant has been responsible for massive methane releases, Exxon has now proposed a new regulatory framework for cutting emissions of this powerful greenhouse gas that it hopes regulators and industry will adopt. As Exxon put it, the goal is to achieve "cost-effective and reasonable methane-emission regulations."
So, why is Exxon asking to be regulated?
The answer may be simply that Exxon is very good at public relations. As industry publication Natural Gas Intelligence reported, this announcement "comes as energy operators face increasing pressure from lenders and shareholders to engage in decarbonization by following environmental, social, and governance standards."
ExxonMobil is proposing new rules to cut methane emissions. We think it makes sense for industries to work together… https://t.co/NnLNZ2yO5O— ExxonMobil (@ExxonMobil)1583281279.0
Exxon's proposed regulations have three main objectives: finding and detecting leaks, minimizing the direct venting of methane as part of oil and gas operations, and record keeping and reporting.
Casey Norton, Exxon's Corporate Media Relations Manager, explained to DeSmog that Exxon's proposal was not expected to be adopted as-is by regulatory agencies. "This is a starting point for conversations with policy makers and other regulators," he said. "For example, New Mexico, Argentina, the EU, who are all considering new regulations for methane emissions."
Under President Trump, the federal government last year rolled back Obama-era rules for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions and for restricting these emissions during drilling on public lands.
This isn't Exxon's first foray into voluntary regulations of methane. The corporation's natural gas subsidiary XTO started a voluntary methane emissions program in 2017. In June 2018, XTO noted that the voluntary program, which was mostly about replacing leaking valves, had reduced methane emissions by 7,200 metric tons since 2016.
However, leaking valves are not the biggest source of methane emissions. In February 2018, four months before XTO was touting the success of its methane reduction program, the company experienced the second largest methane leak in U.S. history. A gas well it operated in Ohio suffered a blowout, releasing huge amounts of the heat-trapping gas.
Did XTO's voluntary program accurately report this? As The New York Times reported, "XTO Energy said it could not immediately determine how much gas had leaked."
But a group of scientists using satellite data eventually did pin down the amount released — 120 metric tons an hour for 20 days. That adds up to roughly 50,000 metric tons more released than the 7,200 metric tons in reductions XTO was claiming months later. That one leak was estimated to be more than the methane emissions of the total oil and gas industry of countries like Norway.
As DeSmog reported, XTO is also flaring the most natural gas of any company in the Permian oil field (natural gas is almost 90 percent methane). While flaring isn't as bad for the climate as directly venting the methane into the atmosphere, it is increasing the levels of carbon dioxide and toxic air pollutants and is another problem the industry is saying it will address even as the practice continues on a large scale.
And now the same company is recommending that the rest of the industry and regulators adopt their approach to regulating methane emissions.
"It is not target-based, it is not volume-based," Exxon's Norton said. "Again, it's starting a conversation, saying these are things that you can look at."
Robert Howarth, a biogeochemist at Cornell University whose work focuses on methane emmissions in the oil and gas industry, drew attention to areas of Exxon's framework he thought were lacking. For starters, he pointed out that the proposed framework does not mention emissions from "imperfect well casings and from abandoned wells," which Howarth says "can be significant." He also noted that the proposal does not describe "a methodology for characterizing any of these emissions; there are techniques for doing so, but there is not much demonstrated use of these techniques by industry."
Finally — and this is the real danger with any sort of industry self-regulation — Howarth said there must be some type of independent oversight to assess actual emissions instead of relying on the industry to self-report. XTO's well blowout in Ohio is an excellent example of why this third-party verification is critical. Without oversight, the "system is ripe for abuse," according to Howarth.
Sharon Wilson of environmental advocacy group Earthworks documents the oil and gas industry's current widespread practices of flaring and venting methane. Sharing her concerns about Exxon's methane emissions proposal, she told DeSmog,"Exxon's recent announcement is too little too late when it comes to the climate crisis they've help cause and are still making worse. Reducing methane emissions by any percentage is not enough when Exxon continues to expand sources of the same climate pollution."
Wilson called for the company to support federal and state rules to cut methane.
Trump Administration Reversed Existing Methane Regulations
Methane emissions have become a much bigger issue in the last decade since the U.S. boom in shale oil and gas produced by fracking. Despite overseeing a huge rise in oil and gas production, the Obama administration acknowledged the methane problem and proposed and adopted new methane emissions regulations, which the Trump administration has since repealed.
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.
"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."
The problem with this free-market assumption is that Wheeler is wrong about the industry's financial incentive to limit methane emissions.
The unreal natural gas prices in the #Permian get even more unreal: Nat gas at the Waha hub (near El Paso) have ho… https://t.co/Zfj0XfXIJh— Javier Blas (@Javier Blas)1554326358.0
There is too much natural gas, aka methane, flooding world energy markets right now. Current prices to buy it are lower than the costs to produce it. The methane currently produced in Texas' Permian Basin spent a good portion of last year at negative prices. There is no financial incentive for producers in the Permian to voluntarily cut methane emissions in the current market environment.
That is why Permian producers are flaring (openly burning) it at record levels as well as directly releasing (venting) methane into the rapidly warming atmosphere. So much for letting the free market address the issue.
Even the Remaining Regulations Are Controlled by Industry
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.
While Exxon did publicly say in 2018 that it didn't support repealing the existing methane regulations, the company also wrote to the EPA voicing support for certain aspects of the American Petroleum Institute's (API) comments on the issue, and the API approved removing the regulations. 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?
Excerpt from Exxon letter to EPA about methane regulations. ExxonMobil
The Wall Street Journal 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.
In 2019, the Trump administration revised the rule, weakening it, 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 undergoing a legal challenge.)
Industry crafted protocol. Just the thing Exxon is now proposing.
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.
Reuters reported on internal communications at Boeing which revealed the airplane maker simply would not let simulator training be required by regulators:
"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.
"Boeing will not allow that to happen. We'll go face to face with any regulator who tries to make that a requirement."
Boeing got its way. And 346 people died.
Nearly a year after a second crash of a Boeing 737 MAX that led to its grounding, the full extent of the company’s… https://t.co/uUHyItbBrD— The Daily Beast (@The Daily Beast)1583592004.0
For the past six years, I have reported on the failed regulatory process governing the moving of dangerous crude oil by rail (and even wrote a book about it). The only meaningful safety regulation that resulted from a multi-year process was requiring oil trains to have modern electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.
As I reported, shortly after this regulation was enacted, Matthew Rose, CEO of the largest oil-by-rail company BNSF, told an industry conference that "the only thing we don't like about [the new regulation] is the electronic braking" and "this rule will have to be changed in the future." As per the wishes of Matthew Rose, that rule was repealed despite the substantial evidence clearly showing this modern braking system greatly increases train safety.
A recent op-ed from an editor at the trade publication Railway Age referred to these oil trains as a "clear and present danger." Nevertheless, these trains hauling volatile oil through North American communities are still operating with braking systems engineered in the late 1800s.
Exxon Touts 'Sound Science' Despite Its History
Exxon's methane proposal states that any regulations should be based on "sound science." This statement is coming from a company whose scientists accurately predicted the impacts of burning fossil fuels on the climate decades ago and yet has spent the time since then misleading the public about that science.
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.
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.
"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."
Reposted with permission from DeSmog.
- Methane Reporting Gap Widens in Oil and Gas Industry - EcoWatch ›
- EPA Expected to Allow More Methane Emissions From Oil and Gas Industry - EcoWatch ›
- Exxon Plans to Increase Its Climate Pollution - EcoWatch ›
- Scientists Say Methane Release Is Starting in Arctic Ocean. How Concerned Should We Be? - EcoWatch ›
- ExxonMobil Lambasted Over 'Grossly Insufficient' Emissions Reduction Plan - EcoWatch ›
Medically reviewed by Anna H. Chacon, M.D.
From eating foods for healthy skin to switching up your morning and routines, taking care of the largest organ in the body can get overwhelming. Recently, vitamin C has grown in popularity in the skincare world — but do the best vitamin C serums live up to the hype?
Vitamin C is not only an essential supplement for your immune system and overall health, but it's also a great skincare ingredient that can help limit inflammation, brighten skin, dull fine lines and wrinkles, fight free radicals, and reduce discoloration and dark spots.
Adding vitamin C to your skincare routine seems like a no-brainer, but before you start shopping for a serum, it's important to be aware that vitamin C is an unstable ingredient. Dermatologists say it's important to find legit and properly formulated vitamin C serums to capitalize on the benefits of the antioxidant. In this article, we'll help you find the right dermatologist-approved vitamin C serum to add to your routine.
Our Picks for the Best Vitamin C Serums of 2021
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. You can learn more about our review methodology here. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
- Best Overall: ZO Skin Health 10% Vitamin C Self-Activating
- Best for Sensitive Skin: Paula's Choice RESIST Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum
- Best Budget-Friendly Serum: CeraVe Vitamin C Serum with Hyaluronic Acid
- Best Cruelty-Free Serum: Timeless Skin Care 20% Vitamin C Plus E Ferulic Acid Serum
- Best Anti-Aging Serum: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Combination Antioxidant Treatment
- Best Brightening Serum: The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%
Skincare Benefits of Vitamin C
Also known as ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C is an antioxidant that is present in the formation of collagen and that protects against aging, according to Dr. Anna Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist with MyPsoriasisTeam. A vitamin C serum may be a solid addition to your skincare routine because it has a great safety profile, and it's safe for most skin types.
"Vitamin C serum restores and neutralizes environmental stressors that accelerate signs of aging and can be used morning and evening," Dr. Chacon says. However, she warns, "it does not come with sun protection, so additional use of sunscreen is recommended."
As an antioxidant, vitamin C protects skin cells from being damaged by free radicals from things like UV exposure, vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke. It also hampers melanin production, which can help to lighten hyperpigmentation and brown spots and even out your skin tone.
6 Best Vitamin C Serums
Based on dermatologist recommendations and our market research, the following products are the best vitamin C serums available today.
Best Overall: ZO Skin Health 10% Vitamin C Self-Activating
Our overall recommendation for the best vitamin C serum is the ZO Skin Health 10% Vitamin C Self-Activating serum. The product contains 10% vitamin C, which has anti-aging properties and minimizes the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and sunspots by promoting collagen production. "I have this in my bathroom," Dr. Chacon says. "It is gentle and non-irritating, and it leaves your skin radiant afterward."
Customer Rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars with under 100 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: Along with L-ascorbic acid, this serum includes ingredients like Coenzyme Q10 for multi-layer antioxidant protection and plant-derived squalane for added hydration. ZO Skin Health's products are all cruelty-free.
Best for Sensitive Skin: Paula's Choice RESIST Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum
Made with plant- and vitamin-derived antioxidants including vitamin C, vitamin E, peptides and CoQ10, Paula's Choice RESIST Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum will help rejuvenate your skin. The formula fights dullness, enhances firmness and reduces the appearance of wrinkles.
Customer Rating: 4.6 out of 5 stars with about 300 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: This product is paraben-free, fragrance-free and cruelty-free, as it's not tested on animals. The container is 100% recyclable through TerraCycle, and it's formulated and manufactured in the U.S.
Best Budget-Friendly Serum: CeraVe Vitamin C Serum with Hyaluronic Acid
CeraVe Vitamin C Serum with Hyaluronic Acid offers high value at a reasonable price. It is a hydrating vitamin C serum that's fragrance-free, paraben-free, non-comedogenic and budget-friendly to boot. The formula uses 10% pure vitamin C to prevent free radical damage as well as soothing vitamin B5 and hyaluronic acid to make the skin look smooth and create a moisture barrier for your skin.
Customer Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars with over 20,000 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: Chacon calls CeraVe "a trusted, dermatologist-oriented brand" that comes at drugstore prices, so it's a great choice if you want to try out a budget-friendly vitamin C serum.
Best Cruelty-Free Serum: Timeless Skin Care 20% Vitamin C Plus E Ferulic Acid Serum
Timeless Skin Care's vitamin C serum promotes healthy cell turnover to help minimize the effects of hyperpigmentation and even out your skin tone. According to Dr. Chacon, "vitamin C, E and ferulic acid are all key ingredients that help to brighten skin, building up collagen and evening out tone." This product's formula is non-greasy and lightweight, so it absorbs quickly and clearly into the skin.
Customer Rating: 4.3 out of 5 stars with over 1,700 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: The Timeless Skin Care formula is paraben-free, synthetic dye-free, fragrance-free and polyethylene glycol-free. The company doesn't test on animals, and the product is made in the U.S. from natural ingredients. It's also part of the TerraCycle recycling program.
Best Anti-Aging Serum: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Combination Antioxidant Treatment
Using dermatologist-approved ingredients, SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Combination Antioxidant Treatment is lightweight and helps to firm, smooth, and brighten the skin for a more youthful look. The formula utilizes 15% pure vitamin C as well as vitamin E and ferulic acid to protect against environmental damage from things like sunlight, ozone pollution and diesel engine exhaust. Plus, it helps firm the skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
Customer Rating: 4.1 out of 5 stars with over 200 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: The SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Combination Antioxidant Treatment is one of the best vitamin C serums for anti-aging purposes. It has an oil-like formulation that goes on smoothly and works effectively without clogging pores.
Best Brightening Serum: The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%
The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2% is a topical form of vitamin C that's rich in antioxidants to target aging and brighten the skin. It uses a high concentration of L-ascorbic acid as well as hyaluronic acid spheres for skin hydration. The brightening serum helps enhance skin smoothness and radiance without being too harsh. However, to test skin sensitivity, it is always recommended to perform a patch test before a full application.
Customer Rating: 4.3 out of 5 stars with over 4,500 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: This vitamin C brightening serum is cruelty-free and vegan and does not contain alcohol, phthalates, gluten, fragrance, nuts, oil, silicone, parabens or sulfates. The moisturizing serum is good for all skin types, including acne-prone skin and dry skin.
FAQ: Best Vitamin C Serums
What vitamin C serum is the most effective?
Our top recommended vitamin C serum is the ZO Skin Health 10% Vitamin C Self-Activating serum. It is a dermatologist-approved antioxidant powerhouse, yet it is gentle, non-irritating and leaves you with glowing skin.
Should you use vitamin C serum every day?
Dermatologists recommend using vitamin C serum either every day or every other day. After you cleanse and tone your face, use your vitamin c product before applying moisturizer and reef-safe sunscreen with at least SPF 30.
Does vitamin C serum really work?
According to dermatologists, the best vitamin C serums work to protect against skin aging. However, if you do not purchase a doctor-recommended product, you run the risk of wasting your money on a low-concentration serum that won't give you any benefits.
What are the drawbacks of vitamin C serums?
Many vitamin C serums on the market, especially cheaper products, have nearly immeasurable concentrations of antioxidants, which makes them ineffective. Additionally, as with any skincare product, some individuals may have reactions to vitamin C serums including itchiness and redness.
Anna H. Chacon, M.D. is a dermatologist and author originally from Miami, Florida. She has authored over a dozen peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and has been published in JAAD, Archives of Dermatology, British Journal of Dermatology, Cosmetic Dermatology and Cutis.
By Justin Mikulka
In over their heads with debt, U.S. shale oil and gas firms are now moving from a boom in fracking to a boom in bankruptcies. This trend of failing finances has the potential for the U.S. public, both at the state and federal levels, to be left on the hook for paying to properly shut down and clean up even more drilling sites.
Expect these companies to try reducing their debt through the process of bankruptcy and, like the coal industry, attempting to get out of environmental and employee-related financial obligations.
The Bankruptcy of EP Energy
In October, EP Energy — one of the largest oil producers in the Eagle Ford Shale region in Texas — filed for bankruptcy because the firm couldn't pay back almost $5 billion in debt, making it the largest oil and gas bankruptcy since 2016.
EP Energy hasn't produced a profit since 2014 and Bloomberg reported that the company would need oil to be at "a price closer to $70 per barrel" for EP to be profitable. Oil has not come close to averaging over $70 a barrel since 2014.
Despite its financial struggles at current low oil prices, the company plans to continue operating after restructuring and eliminating up to $3 billion in debt. However, EP has not identified any funds that it would be setting aside for well cleanup, which is not unusual for an oil and gas company.
In response, as part of the bankruptcy proceedings, the U.S. Department of the Interior filed a document arguing that EP Energy is still responsible for its obligations to assure the "decommissioning, plugging, and abandonment" of any of the EP Energy wells that are located on leased federal and tribal lands.
Ideally, that would mean EP Energy sets aside funds for the proper cleanup and end-of-life processes for its oil and gas wells, which number more than 800 in the Eagle Ford region.
However, the federal government hasn't even named a number yet for how much that should be. The Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs "are currently still assessing the status of reclamation and plugging and abandonment obligations across the Debtors' onshore federal and Indian leases," writes the Interior Department.
In EP Energy #bankruptcy, US Interior Department wants to make sure that enough money is set aside for cleanup. For financially struggling companies, cleanup is becoming the tail that's wagging the dog. https://t.co/LDrnMr01rn— Clark Williams-Derry (@ClarkWDerry) November 16, 2019
The federal government is only getting around to assessing EP Energy's potential liabilities once the firm is already in the bankruptcy process, revealing one of the flaws in the current system. Federal and state governments have not been holding fracking companies fully liable for the environmental damage and cleanup costs of their drilling activity.
Joshua Caleb Macey, a visiting assistant professor at Cornell law school who specializes in bankruptcy and energy law, told DeSmog that the situation with EP Energy was "frustrating and completely normal."
According to the Interior Department filing, "Regardless of its bankruptcy, the Debtor is required to comply with all applicable federal laws."
As I've reported before, oil and gas companies are legally required to hold a certain amount of funds to pay for well cleanup costs, a process known as bonding that varies by state and for public lands.
Because companies are rarely required to have those funds available before they start drilling (and thanks to industry-friendly regulators and politicians), in reality oil and gas companies can walk away from cleanup obligations with relative ease, which has become the pattern for bankrupt coal companies.
Including Cleanup Costs Would Make Extraction 'Uneconomic'
Federal and state regulators have been failing to require companies to fully fund expected cleanup liabilities, which helps mask the true cost of oil and gas production. Passing environmental cleanup costs on to the taxpayer amounts to a backdoor subsidy for the oil and gas industry.
Requiring oil and gas companies to pay for shutting down and cleaning up wells would greatly increase the cost of drilling for many oil and gas wells. The fracking industry already can't make money pumping fossil fuels out of shale in the U.S., and that's without these firms coming even close to fully funding their cleanup costs.
However, more state governments are realizing the scale of this problem and starting to look at increasing and enforcing bonding requirements for oil and gas well cleanup. However, in oil-rich places like Alberta, Canada, and Alaska, regulators are realizing that the money just isn't there.
Hey @jkenney @Alberta_UCP after your sustained attacks on the Liberal government, why are you now begging for taxpayer money to clean up Alberta's abandoned oil wells? Oil companies must pay for that. Not us. Hands off our tax dollars. The oil shareholders should pay. #cdnpoli— Trish Palmer (@TrishPalmerYVR) December 1, 2019
In 2018, the natural gas driller Amaroq Resources acquired the Nicolai Creek assets in southwest Alaska from the bankrupt Aurora Gas. This transaction was delayed when the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC) announced $7 million in bonding required for the gas wells associated with the purchase. This is the point where the state government had the power to make Amaroq provide adequate bonding for well cleanup.
The AOGCC then agreed to reduce that amount to $200,000 and the deal went ahead.
Since that deal, the commission increased the minimum statewide bonding level to $400,000 per well for the first one to 10 wells. Amaroq would be required to abide by these new regulations and has appealed this decision. Company president Scott Pfoff explained that these new bonding requirements make the business "uneconomic."
And that is the reality. If oil and gas companies were required to pay for the full end-of-life cost of their wells, much of their inventory becomes uneconomic. This is where taxpayers come in.
Fracking Industry Wants to Dump Wastewater in Streams and Rivers to Save Money
Failure to require adequate bonding for oil and gas cleanup costs is just one of many backdoor government subsidies for the oil and gas industry. The failure to regulate flaring and venting of the potent greenhouse gas methane during oil drilling is another example.
Fracking firms, which spend a lot of borrowed money to pump out a lot of oil and gas for not much (or any) profit, are experiencing a collapse in financing. Thanks to the industry's failed business model, these companies are desperate for ways to cut costs.
One of the major costs associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is acquiring, pumping and disposing of water, which, after a driller is finished with it, typically contains corrosive levels of salts and contaminants including naturally occurring radioactive materials, chemicals and oil residues. This area has become a major target for the industry to save money.
A graphic showing the water cycle during hydraulic fracturing. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016
As The Washington Post pointed out in 2015 (and as I highlighted last year), when it comes to fracked shale oil and gas production, "currently there is no way to treat, store, and release the billions of gallons of wastewater at the surface." The industry's current range of (legal) approaches to disposing of its massive amounts of wastewater involves injecting it underground, which in some cases is tied to increased earthquake activity, using it to irrigate crops or de-ice roads, and sending it to municipal water treatment plants lacking equipment to properly treat it.
Treating oil and gas drilling wastewater is possible, but expensive. As S&P Global Platts recently reported, according to a study by the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers and Independent Petroleum Association of America, for Permian drillers in Texas, "Economically, treatment costs must come down."
The study concludes that dealing with wastewater is already a limiting factor in this prolific region: "Some Permian sub-basins are currently constrained due to insufficient injection well capacity. Projected production growth will worsen the situation."
With this glut of wastewater combined with high costs, the industry is looking for a cheap alternative. The latest preferred approach seems to be lobbying governments to change the rules to allow dumping wastewater with limited treatment into rivers and streams.
In November, E&E News reported that there's movement to allow or expand such wastewater dumping in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, all states with major fracking industries. "Within a year, Oklahoma could get approval from EPA to start issuing permits that will allow the oil industry to dispose of briny oil field waste in waterways," E&E wrote.
As space for injection wells becomes scarce, the industry hopes to dump its wastewater in streams and rivers, once again passing on potential environmental and financial liabilities to the public.
A 2017 working group looking for alternatives for Oklahoma oil field wastewater (also known as "produced water") found "the most cost-effective means of reducing disposal is for oil companies to treat and clean that produced water so it can be reused for things like fracking," reported NPR's StateImpact Oklahoma.
However, recycling produced water to again frack wells results in more toxic produced water, which can't be recycled indefinitely. With injection wells increasingly unable to handle the volume of water produced by the industry, shale firms have been seeking cheap alternative disposal methods, including dumping the water in rivers and streams.
However, the 2017 analysis concluded that treating produced frack water to the point it could be safely dumped into rivers or used to irrigate agriculture wasn't economically viable.
Owen Mills, the director of water planning for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, explained to StateImpact Oklahoma why this wasn't an option for the industry: "It's incredibly expensive to do that and it takes a lot of energy."
To properly treat the fracking wastewater to the point it is no longer a threat to human health and the environment would be incredibly expensive, and that is why the industry is lobbying to change the rules about disposing its wastewater. If it succeeds, expect the eventual clean up costs — also incredibly expensive — to be billed to the American public.
Reposted with permission from DeSmogBlog.
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By Nik Martin
In April, the price of oil turned negative for the first time in history, just after the coronavirus pandemic hit. As lockdowns were ordered across the world, demand for black gold plummeted, prompting producers to literally pay buyers to take the commodity off their hands.
The price collapse was exacerbated by the Saudi-Russian price war which blew up around the same time, after Moscow refused to moderate oil production to keep prices at a reasonable level. Overproduction, particularly by US shale producers, amplified the effects of the worst oil crisis in decades.
In the first nine months of this year, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and Total made a total loss of $36.4 billion (€30.6 billion), compared with last year's $50 billion in profit. As investors took flight, the oil majors were forced to slash costs.
Investment Slashed, Jobs Cut
Exxon, once the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company, said in the summer that capital expenditure would shrink by 20%, and just last week, announced it would cut 15% of its workforce — shedding some 50,000 jobs. Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and others have made similar moves, with most slashing investor dividends for the first time in years.
"The next few years are going to be very difficult," Helal Miah, investment research analyst at The Share Centre, told DW. "But the oil majors have done it before. During the financial crisis, these companies were very good at slashing costs."
Dozens of smaller firms, however, will struggle to survive. The New York Times reported that more than 50 North American oil and gas companies had already sought bankruptcy protection this year. Many of them took huge risks and even bigger loans to try to compete with the majors.
This fall, the second wave of the pandemic has forced renewed lockdowns across Europe and will likely prompt a more robust response from US President-elect Joe Biden, who has vowed to create a pandemic task force as soon as he takes office in January. Those measures could cause a further shakeout.
"The longer the pandemic goes on, the more we'll see the smaller and mid-cap sized oil companies go under, or be taken over by the larger ones," Miah added.
ConocoPhillips last month bought the independent exploration firm Concho Resources, days after Chevron completed the takeover of rival Noble Energy.
Peak Demand or Bottom of Cycle?
Some analysts believe global oil demand may have already peaked, while others believe that if oil prices haven't already, they are close to bottoming out. Seven months on from the unprecedented negative oil price shock, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude, one of the benchmarks for calculating oil prices, stood at $38.15 on Monday.
The price is still 67% lower than its 2014 peak of $114 a barrel, but closer to the $50 that most large oil companies need to break even. Exxon needs prices of around $75, according to analysts. All the same, the oil majors are not expected to reach their pre-COVID profitability levels until at least the end of 2022.
Already facing pressure to lead the energy transition and help the world ween itself off its fossil fuel addiction, oil giants have vowed to exploit the crisis to speed up investments in renewable energies.
"Prior to COVID this [energy transition] was a gradual trend," Peter Hitchens, oil analyst at the London-based Progressive Research, told DW. "The question is will COVID accelerate this trend?"
European firms like France's Total, the UK's BP and the Anglo-Dutch giant Shell have already begun to prioritize renewable energy, and plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. BP and Shell have announced major offshore wind projects this year.
US Oil Giants Shield by Trump
Their US counterparts, on the other hand, have enjoyed protection from outgoing US President Donald Trump's climate skepticism and continue to focus on their traditional oil and gas businesses. If the Biden administration reenters the Paris Climate Agreement, from which Trump withdrew six months after taking office, it will likely put pressure on American oil majors, although it is unlikely to curtail the drilling for hard-to- reach oil through fracking.
Biden has also hinted at building ties with OPEC members Iran and Venezuela, which are currently subject to harsh sanctions on their oil trade. The Democrats' plan for a huge infrastructure plan, dubbed the Green New Deal, to meet the climate change challenge will still require oil prices to be high enough to make clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels competitive.
Despite their moves to step up investment in renewables, the Share Centre's Miah sees oil firms still mostly profiting from fossil fuels in the medium term,
"If we look a decade ahead, I would say that they will still be majority oil and gas companies rather than renewables-focused," he told DW. He added that most investors still see oil as a sensible way of achieving "good, solid returns."
Investors Give Wide Berth
Some major London-based institutional investors have taken a different view, however. Asset managers Fidelity International and Sarasin & Partners have blacklisted the likes of Shell and BP over concerns that the green shift will cripple profits.
Last month, the Daily Mail reported that several asset managers have written to the oil majors requesting full transparency on the true value of their assets, including oil fields, which they claim could be rendered worthless if a slump in oil demand became more permanent.
Others, like Hitchens, see the fortunes of the oil industry tied in with the duration of the pandemic and how quickly oil demand recovers, once business and everyday life return to normal.
"The performance will very much reflect the movement in oil prices" and "very much depends on the economic recovery after COVID," he told DW.
Other analysts are more bullish and think big oil firms, with their deep pockets, have the strength to ride out their worst crisis. They say they'll likely acquire renewable energy firms and continue to thrive despite likely flat oil demand.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
By Sharon Kelly
Former Trump administration Energy Sec. Rick Perry, who resigned from his cabinet-level post effective last month, has joined the board of directors of the general partner of Energy Transfer LP, according to a filing made today with the Securities and Exchange Commission by Energy Transfer.
Before joining the Trump administration, Perry had served on the board of Energy Transfer, the pipeline company behind controversial projects including Dakota Access, Bayou Bridge, and Mariner East, but resigned to become Secretary of the Department of Energy. On January 1, 2020, Perry was appointed as a director of LE GP, LLC, the general partner of Energy Transfer LP, according to today's SEC filing, made after the market closed. ("Energy Transfer is structured as a master limited partnership," Bloomberg reports.)
The news comes on the same day that Pennsylvania regulators announced a record $30.6 million fine for Energy Transfer over an explosion of the company's Revolution pipeline. State regulators said they would resume permitting for the firm's Mariner East project.
Energy Transfer is currently seeking to roughly double the flow of fossil fuels along its Dakota Access project, raising the pipeline's capacity to 1.1 million barrels a day, up from the 560,000 barrels of oil currently flowing through the Dakota Access system.
Perry first joined the board of the company, then known as Energy Transfer Partners, in February 2015, as he was facing state-level felony charges, dismissed a year later, for abuse of power during his term as Governor of Texas.
In 2017, after being chosen by President-elect Donald Trump to lead the Department of Energy, Perry said that he regretted his previous statements about eliminating the very department he would go on to lead. During his tenure in the Trump administration, Perry sent a proposed rule to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to speed the approval of a proposal which would ensure that nuclear and coal plants received compensation for the "resilience" they give to the power grid, The Washington Examiner reported.
Speaking at CERAWeek, an annual energy conference in Texas, in March 2018, Perry said "clean" fossil fuels are the future, and a focus on renewables isn't the answer. "Listen, we support renewables," he told the audience, but suggested that the focus under the Paris Agreement was not the right approach. "What are we supposed to do in the meantime?" he asked, pointing to projections that fossil fuels aren't going anywhere soon.
The Revolving Door Spins
The Trump administration has come under fire over revolving door concerns before — often involving the hiring of former corporate lobbyists for government roles. "At the halfway mark of President Donald Trump's first term, his administration has hired a lobbyist for every 14 political appointments made, welcoming a total of 281 lobbyists on board, a ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations analysis shows," ProPublica reported in October.
Other former high-level Trump officials have also come under fire for accepting roles in industries previously under their purview, including former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. In July last year, Bloomberg reported that Zinke began working as a consultant for oil and mining firms after leaving the Interior Department, drawing criticism from good governance watchdogs. Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly similarly drew condemnation when he joined the board of Caliburn International, operator of the largest U.S. center for housing migrant children, after playing a role in policy debates over the separation of migrant children from their families. And former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt was reportedly in talks in September 2019 to work as a consultant for a Kentucky coal mining executive, according to The New York Times.
A January 28, 2017 executive order issued by President Trump requires executive branch appointees to pledge that they will not lobby agencies where they previously worked for five years.
'Historic' Fine for Energy Transfer Announced in Pennsylvania, Permitting Bar Lifted
Perry joins a company with a troubled track record when it comes to the law.
On the same day as the SEC filing announcing Perry's new role, Pennsylvania announced that it had reached an agreement with ETC Northeast Pipeline, LLC, an Energy Transfer subsidiary, over the 2018 explosion of the Revolution pipeline, part of the state's expanding network connecting the shale gas industry and the plastics and petrochemical industry.
The agreement includes a $30.6 million fine, one of the largest in commonwealth history — dwarfing the $13 million in prior fines issued as of September last year by state regulators for environmental violations during Mariner East pipeline construction. It also lifts a permit bar that blocked Energy Transfer from obtaining new permits for its pipeline construction projects, including an ongoing expansion of its Mariner East pipeline system.
"The settlement announced Friday means the company can also begin the process of repairing the Revolution pipeline, which links shale wells in Beaver and Butler counties to an Energy Transfer gas processing plant in Washington County," the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports.
In August, state auditors reported that Revolution pipeline's permits were "reviewed and authorized" by a county-level office that lacked authority to review so-called "gathering" pipelines like Revolution.
Pennsylvania environmentalists decried the commonwealth's lifting of the permit ban, which was established in early February 2019 after Energy Transfer struggled to repair the site of the Revolution blast and repeatedly created sinkholes that exposed buried portions of the Mariner East 1 pipeline project.
"There has been a failure by Energy Transfer and its subsidiaries to respect our laws and our communities," Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said in a statement when the bar was announced. "This is not how we strive to do business in Pennsylvania, and it will not be tolerated."
Last month, Energy Transfer and its security contractors were charged with criminal conspiracy, bribery, and other related offenses in the state over allegations centering on alleged intimidation tactics used by the firm's security guards, who also served as Pennsylvania state constables, in what prosecutors referred to as a "buy-a-badge" scheme. "We do not believe these charges have any merit," an Energy Transfer spokesperson told The Intercept when those charges were announced.
"Given the disastrous environmental degradation Energy Transfer caused with its Revolution pipeline, the company has lost its social license to operate," Joseph Otis Minott, attorney for the Clean Air Council, said in a statement today on Pennsylvania's agreement with Energy Transfer.
Reposted with permission from DeSmogBlog.
By John R. Platt and Tara Lohan
Let's be honest, 2019 was a rough year for the planet. Despite some environmental victories along the way, we saw the extinction crisis deepen, efforts to curtail climate change blocked at almost every turn, and the oceans continue to warm. We also heard new revelations about ways that plastics and chemicals harm our bodies, saw the political realm become even more polarized, and experienced yet another round of record-breaking temperatures.
So what should we expect for 2020? Here are eight of the big environmental topics we think will capture headlines in the year ahead.
1. The Poster Child of the Extinction Crisis
Tom Jefferson / NOAA Fisheries West Coast
We expect to see a wide range of endangered species in the news this coming year, but few will face threats so urgently as the vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus).
As we've written here before, the vaquita is in perilous territory, with a population of as few as 10 now remaining. The good news is that scientists recently observed adult vaquitas with two newborn calves, so they're still finding each other and breeding. The bad news is that Mexico has failed in its promises to keep fishermen and illegal gillnets off the water, so the pressures on this species continue to rise.
We anticipate that 2020 will show whether human beings will let this species go extinct in full view of the world or step up to save it.
2. The Supreme Court
Mark Fisher / CC BY-SA 2.0
The lasting impact of the Trump administration may soon be felt in the courts, especially in the Supreme Court, where Brett Kavanaugh has made clear his devotion to the "less is more" principles of government espoused by the Federalist Society.
If the Society and Kavanaugh get their way, the federal government could lose much of its ability to allow agencies like the EPA to regulate…well, anything. As Ian Millhiser wrote recently in Vox:
"It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of this issue. Countless federal laws, from the Clean Air Act to the Affordable Care Act, lay out a broad federal policy and delegate to an agency the power to implement the details of that policy. Under Kavanaugh's approach, many of these laws are unconstitutional, as are numerous existing regulations governing polluters, health providers, and employers."
The conservative wing of the Supreme Court currently holds the majority, and that's not likely to change anytime soon (thanks, Mitch McConnell), so we expect this issue to rear its ugly head sooner rather than later, and well beyond the next presidential election.
3. Climate Change: Peak or Panic?
Greta Thunberg at a climate change rally in Denver, Colorado, 2019. Anthony Quintano / CC BY 2.0
Will we experience a true climate tipping point this year? If so, which way will it tip?
On the one hand, people are clamoring more and more loudly for climate action, with activists like Greta Thunberg leading the charge.
On the other hand, the most recent UN climate change conference (COP25) was…a bit of a disappointing failure, thanks in no small part to the fact that the fossil fuel industry sponsored much of the event.
Still, we're going to see a lot of new data and science come out this year, and we may find out if the efforts we've already started making have paid off yet. One noteworthy example: The coal industry is in the process of dying a slow death, so even though total worldwide emissions are up, coal emissions are headed down.
What does that mean? According to the experts, this could be the year greenhouse gas emissions peak or flatline — or they could start climbing even more. It's up to us.
Good thread. Here’s my take: Emissions are still climbing, but now climbing at a very slow rate — and it could… https://t.co/8xTZIj1J6U— Dr. Jonathan Foley (@Dr. Jonathan Foley)1575484985.0
4. Drinking Water
After the federal government dropped the ball in 2019, we expect to see another push this year for meaningful action to limit the harm caused by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — the suite of toxic "forever chemicals" that stubbornly don't break down in the environment or our bodies.
PFAS are found in thousands of consumer and industrial products, including nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant furniture, food wrappers, personal care goods and firefighting foam. They've been linked to cancer, liver damage and reproductive and immune-system problems. Millions of Americans are believed to be drinking water contaminated with PFAS, including the residents of 175 military installations, and the dangerous chemicals have been found in soil and food, too.
After federal agencies did nothing substantial on the issue, it looked like there might be congressional action. But language that would have required the EPA to set a drinking-water standard for PFAS and for the federal government to aid in cleaning polluted areas was dropped from the National Defense Authorization Act in December. Democrats have vowed to take up the issue again this year, and advocates want to see a federal standard strict enough to protect public health. We expect vigorous discussions and more than a few worries along the way.
5. Ocean Action
Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / public domain
In 2019 we got serving after serving of bad news about how climate change is warming waters, driving oxygen loss and increasing sea level rise in the ocean — threatening biodiversity, fisheries and coastal communities.
This year we could see some steps toward solutions.
Drawing on language from the much-discussed Green New Deal for equitable environmental action, ocean advocates in 2019 called for a Blue New Deal — a comprehensive plan for protecting our oceans and coastal communities. Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren picked up the gauntlet before the year closed out, releasing her own Blue New Deal that would expand marine protected areas, end offshore drilling, build more offshore renewable energy, reform flood insurance, boost fisheries and invest in regenerative ocean farming.
Expect to hear more about action on ocean protection this year, not just in the U.S. but internationally. After years of talks, the United Nations is set to finalize a global ocean treaty in 2020, although there's a fear it will fall far short of what's needed to thwart the biodiversity crisis.
6. Public Lands
Many of the country's most remote and wild public lands face big threats this year, continuing the trend we've seen since the last presidential election. Two will remain particularly noteworthy.
One, the Forest Service is expected to finalize a Trump administration proposal to lift the Roadless Area Conservation Rule for Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The rewrite, due this summer, could open millions of acres of old-growth forest and salmon spawning habitat to timber, mining and other development.
Two, the decades-long battle over drilling continues in the wildlife-rich and culturally important Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A rider in a 2017 tax bill passed by the Republican-led Congress greenlighted two oil and gas lease sales in the refuge's coastal plain. The Trump administration is likely to hold those in 2020. It's unclear yet how interested oil companies will be, but a move to begin drilling in the refuge is staunchly opposed by Indigenous communities, environmental groups and the majority of U.S. voters.
7. Plastic Pollution
John Platt / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
With pending legislation that aims to cut plastic waste 75 percent by 2030, California will take another run this year at passing a first-of-its-kind (in the United States) effort to hold companies that make plastic products accountable for their waste. The bill stalled last year, but proponents will renew efforts in 2020.
They face stiff opposition from plastic and fossil fuel companies that are busy turning cheap fracked gas into more plastics. Petrochemical companies are planning a massive buildout of infrastructure in the Gulf coast and the Ohio River Valley to facilitate the production of more plastics, both at home and abroad.
We expect to see continued efforts to inform consumers about their buying choices, but in the next year the fight against plastic pollution will be much less about straw bans and more about fighting the root causes and stopping it at the source.
8. The 2020 Election
The upcoming presidential election will dominate the conversation in the coming months, but let's make sure to pay attention to every other race out there on the federal, state and local level. All these elections will add up — and collectively they could determine the future of just about every environmental issue listed above.
In other words: Stay tuned.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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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."
It's a rare case of truth in advertising.
Kanab sits just seven miles north of the Arizona state line, at the crossroads of some of the Southwest's most beautiful places. In every direction a geologic wonderland awaits. To the north is Zion National Park with its breathtaking valley of 2,000-foot-tall rust and white sandstone cliffs. The sweeping expanse of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument stretches to the east of town, and just to the south you'll find the Grand Canyon's North Rim.
You don't even need to leave Kanab, which is ringed by the famously red-hued Vermillion Cliffs, to get socked by jaw-dropping beauty.
It's this landscape that drew Susan Hand to Kanab 25 years ago when she opened Willow Canyon Outdoor to sell gear, maps, books and coffee to local and visiting adventurers. And it's this landscape and the community's gateway-to-the-wonderland experience, the economic bedrock of this tourism-dependent town, that she worried would be destroyed by a new industrial project proposed for development 10 miles north of town last year.
Kanab, UT is a popular tourist destination. Tara Lohan
There, a company called Southern Red Sands LLC 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.
"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.
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.
Frac sand in Wisconsin. Tara Lohan
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.
That's when the proposed mine in Kanab entered the story.
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.
City and county officials quickly gave their blessing — and a combined 1,200 acre-feet of water rights a year — after only cursory consideration.
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 Keep Kanab Unspoiled.
It was beginning to feel like a familiar story.
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 President Trump slashed in order to increase drilling and mining opportunities.
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.
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.
What happened? And are there any lessons that other communities fighting extraction threats can learn?
"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."
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
The water supply, which draws on underground aquifers, currently supports the town's tourist-driven economy, ranching, and the county's biggest employer — Best Friends Animal Society, known worldwide through the Dogtown 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.
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.
Groundwater seeps to the surface at the Best Friends animal sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. Tara Lohan
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.
Many local residents were shocked by the water-rights transfer. A 2016 water needs assessment 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 vocal advocate 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.
"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."
But documents unearthed by local radio station KUER showed that officials at nearby Zion National Park already were concerned 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.
Wanting to learn more about how the project could affect the region's water, Best Friends commissioned a study from hydrogeologist Kenneth Kolm of Hydrologic Systems Analysis, a firm that's completed water studies for other Utah towns.
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.
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.
"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.
"I realized for the first time how small and vulnerable our watershed actually is," she added.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
Water issues are paramount in arid Utah, but the mine was likely to come with some other potential problems.
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.
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.
Dust in the air at a frac sand processing facility in Wisconsin. Tara Lohan
The facility would likely run with lights and noise 24-7, which could be detrimental to wildlife. 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.
With so much at risk, opponents employed a number of tactics to try to fight the mine.
Keep Kanab Unspoiled held community meetings. They invited Kolm, the geologist who did the independent study, to report his findings, and started an online petition to discourage the company from moving forward.
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.
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.
"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.
They decided the best approach was to sit down and talk with the company and its backers.
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 joint statement saying that the company "had decided not to pursue its business ventures in Kane County."
The members of Keep Kanab Unspoiled were elated by the news.
"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."
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.
"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."
This was a main talking point of Keep Kanab Unspoiled, bolstered by research done by Baker, who also happens to be an economist and cofounder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
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 record declines 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.
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, DeSmog reported in August.
It's a scenario that's happened before.
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.
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.
The consequences of failures in the fracking business model are real.
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 filed for bankruptcy last summer and left behind unsafe levels of arsenic and heavy metal contamination for the community to clean up.
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."
Even though economics played a role in halting the project, he believes community efforts were important, too.
"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."
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.
"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."
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.
"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."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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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.
"It's starting to become out of control, and we want to rein this in," Bruce Hicks, assistant director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, said in August about companies abandoning oil and gas wells. If North Dakota's regulators, some of the most industry-friendly in the country, are sounding the alarm, then that doesn't bode well for the rest of the nation.
In fact, officials in North Dakota are using Pennsylvania as an example of what they want to avoid when it comes to abandoned wells, and with good reason.
The first oil well drilled in America was in Pennsylvania in 1859, and the oil and gas industry has been drilling — and abandoning — wells there ever since. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) says that while it only has documentation of 8,000 orphaned and abandoned wells, it estimates the state actually has over a half million.
"We anticipate as many as 560,000 are in existence that we just don't know of yet," DEP spokesperson Laura Fraley told StateImpact Pennsylvania. "There's no responsible party and so it's on state government to pay to have those potential environmental and public health hazards remediated."
According to StateImpact, "The state considers any well that doesn't produce oil and gas for a calendar year to be an abandoned well."
That first oil well drilled in Pennsylvania was 70 feet deep. Modern fracked wells, however, can be well over 10,000 feet in total length (most new fracked wells are drilled vertically to a depth where they turn horizontal to fracture the shale that contains the oil and gas). Because the longer the total length of the well, the more it costs to clean up, the funding required to properly clean up and cap wells has grown as drillers have continued to use new technologies to greatly extend well lengths. Evidence from the federal government points to the potential for these costs being shifted to the tax-paying public.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report this September about the risks from insufficient bonds to reclaim wells on public lands. It said, "the bonds operators provide as insurance are often not enough to cover the costs of this cleanup." The report cited a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) official's estimate of $10 a foot for well cleanup costs.
StateImpact Pennsylvania noted that costs to reclaim a well could add up to $20,000, and DEP spokesperson Fraley said they could be "much, much higher." The GAO report noted that "low-cost wells typically cost about $20,000 to reclaim, and high-cost wells typically cost about $145,000 to reclaim."
In North Dakota, where state regulators have raised concerns about this growing problem, one of the top industry regulators, State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms, estimated that wells there cost $150,000 to plug and reclaim.
And this problem isn't just in the U.S. Canada is facing a similar cleanup crisis.
We always talk about the oil biz in Canada as BIG MONEY on the one hand, environmental issues on the other. But this episode taught me that cleaning up abandoned oil wells will soon COST Canada $50 Billion+. So....? https://t.co/qcn3d2invI— Jesse Brown (@JesseBrown) May 14, 2019
Financial Bonding Requirements for Well Cleanup
Legally, oil and gas companies are required to set aside money to pay for well cleanup costs, a process known as bonding. These requirements vary by state and for public lands, but in all cases, the amounts required are so small as to be practically irrelevant.
The GAO report reviewed the bonds held by the Bureau of Land Management for wells on public lands and found that the average bond per well in 2018 was worth $2,122.
The Western Organization of Resource Councils summarized bonding requirements by state, and none of them came even close to being adequate to cover estimated costs to deal with old wells. In North Dakota, a $50,000 bond is required for a well. But a $100,000 bond can cover up to 6 wells, which comes out to $16,667 per well — or approximately one tenth of the estimated cost to reclaim a well in that state.
North Dakota has a history of bending to oil and gas industry pressure when it comes to regulations. While North Dakota's bonding rules fall far short of what's needed to actually cover full cleanup costs, the reality on the ground is much worse. Regulators allow companies to "temporarily abandon" wells, which requires no action from companies for at least seven years. Wells can hold this "temporary status" for decades. And another practice in the state allows a company to sell old, under-performing wells to another company, passing along the liability but not the bonding funds.
By any measure, the amount of private money currently allocated in the U.S. to plug and reclaim oil and gas wells is a small fraction of the real costs. That means oil and gas wells — and the U.S. had one million active wells in 2017, and even more abandoned — will either be left to fail and potentially contaminate the surrounding water, air and soil, or the public will have to pick up the tab. This represents just one of the many ways the public subsidizes the oil and gas industry.
Statewide, 639 oil wells are considered abandoned.— TXsharon (@TXsharon) October 3, 2019
The fund has a balance of $22 million, yet Helms estimates the state could potentially be on the hook for a far greater amount.https://t.co/58Oz4rrQ5i
A South Dakota Case Study
South Dakota allows companies to post a $30,000 bond for as many wells as the company chooses to drill. Spyglass Cedar Creek is a Texas-based company that was operating in South Dakota and recently abandoned 40 wells, which the state has estimated will have a cleanup cost of $1.2 million.
However, there is a twist to this story. That $30,000 bond doesn't really exist. The owners of the company had put $20,000 of it into a Certificate of Deposit. But when the state went looking for that money, the owners said they had cashed it in 2015 because, as reported by the Rapid City Journal, "company officials did not remember what the money was for."
Spyglass Cedar Creek does not have the money set aside that was required to clean up these wells, the state does not have recourse to get that money, and some of the wells are reportedly leaking. So, what can be done?
According to Doyle Karpen, member of the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment, the answer is for the taxpayers of that state to cover the cost.
"I think the only way we can correct this is go to the Legislature and ask for money," Karpen said earlier this year.
Following the Coal Industry Business Model
What is starting to unfold with the oil and gas industry is very similar to what has already been playing out with the U.S. coal industry.
According to a Center for Public Integrity investigation, more than 150 coal mines (and dozens of uranium mines) have been allowed to idle indefinitely, enabling their owners to avoid paying for the costs of cleanup.
In April, the Stanford Law Review published the paper, "Bankruptcy as Bailout: Coal Company Insolvency and the Erosion of Federal Law," which notes that almost half the coal mined in the U.S. is done so by companies that have recently declared bankruptcy.
The paper notes how the bankruptcy process is used by coal companies to rid themselves of environmental cleanup liabilities and pension costs "in a manner that has eviscerated the regulatory schemes that gave rise to those obligations."
This summer, Blackjewel famously failed to pay its coal miners, and even pulled funds out of their bank accounts, after the company suddenly declared bankruptcy in July. That prompted workers to sit on train tracks in Kentucky, blocking a $1 million shipment of coal, in a two-month protest. And Blackjewel is poised to leave behind thousands of acres of mined land in Appalachia without adequate reclamation.
Privatize the Profits, Socialize the Losses
The mineral extraction business model in the U.S. is set up to maximize profits for executives, even as they lose investor money and bankrupt their companies. That is true of the coal industry and that is true of the shale oil and gas industry.
At the same time, the regulatory capture by these industries at both state and federal levels allows private companies to pass on environmental cleanup costs to the public, and the inadequate bonding system for oil and gas well reclamation represents just one more example.
The so-called fracking revolution in America has resulted in many new records: record amounts of U.S. oil and gas exported (to the detriment of a livable climate), new levels of human health impacts on surrounding communities, record numbers of industry-induced earthquakes, record amounts of flaring natural gas in oil and gas fields, and record-breaking depths and lengths of wells.
And the cleanup costs for the fracking boom are also poised to be staggering.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
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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.
It wasn't the first such disaster in the state. In 2006 a spill of close to 1 million gallons of fracking wastewater into the Yellowstone River resulted in a mass die-off of fish and plants. Cleanup of that spill was still ongoing at the time of the 2015 spill, nearly a decade later.
Spills like these highlight the dangers that come with unconventional fossil-fuel extraction techniques that go after hard-to-reach pockets of oil and gas using practices like horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as fracking).
But events like these massive spills are just the tip of the iceberg. Other risks to wildlife can be more contained, subtle or hidden.
And while many of the after-effects of fracking have grabbed headlines for years — such as contaminated drinking water, earthquakes and even flammable faucets — the consequences for wildlife have so far been left out of the national conversation.
But those consequences are very real for a vast suite of animals including mussels, birds, fish, caribou and even fleas, and they're as varied as the species themselves. In some places wildlife pays the price when habitat is destroyed. Elsewhere the damage occurs when water is sucked away or polluted. Still other species can't take the traffic, noise and dust that accompany extraction operations.
All this damage makes sense when you think about fracking's outsized footprint.
It starts with the land cleared for the well pad, followed by sucking large volumes of water (between 1.5 and 16 million gallons per well) out of rivers, streams or groundwater.
Fracking trucks and equipment in Doddridge Co, West Virginia.
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.
The cumulative footprint of a single new well can be as large as 30 acres. 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.
"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 health effects of fracking. "Biodiversity is a determinant of public health — without these wild animals doing ecosystem services for us, we can't survive."
The most obvious threats fracking poses to wildlife comes in the form of habitat loss.
As rural areas become industrialized with each new well pad and its associated infrastructure, vital habitat for wildlife is altered or destroyed.
Habitat fragmentation in North Dakota's Bakken shale.
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.
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 endangered herd of woodland caribou.
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.
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.
In one study, published in Biological Conservation in 2016, researchers examined the effects of unconventional gas drilling on forest habits and populations 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.
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.
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
"For migratory songbirds, large blocks of forest are very important," explains Margaret C. Brittingham, 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.
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 brood parasites that leave their eggs in nests of other birds.
"I think the most alarming thing about all of this is what bird declines may indicate about the declining health of overall ecosystems," said Laura Farwell, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the Biological Conservation 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."
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.
"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.
Out West the industry is carving up a different kind of habitat, and that has other species on the ropes. Greater sage grouse, 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 unbridled oil and gas extraction in its remaining habitat could tip it over the edge.
A 2014 study 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.
Sage grouse have also been shown to exhibit high levels of stress from noise.
Noise poses additional risks for birds that depend on their hearing. A study published in Biological Conservation in 2016 found that noise from compressor stations, which run 24 hours a day, reduced the ability of northern saw-whet owls to catch prey. The researchers found 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.
Lights on a drilling site in West Virginia can affect nocturnal wildlife.
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 photo 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. Light pollution like this can be deadly for migratory birds and disrupt other nocturnal animals.
It’s in the Water
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.
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 Associated Press. Unsafe levels of some contaminants have been found to persist for years, as was the case in North Dakota.
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.
A 2019 study 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.
Lowly water fleas — in this case a species called Daphnia magna — may not seem like animals we should worry about, but like so many small creatures, they occupy an important niche.
"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 them die and suddenly you have a biodiversity problem because you've knocked out a species at the bottom of the aquatic food chain."
Some of this may already be playing out in other locations. A 2016 study 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."
Brook trout have disappeared from some streams in central Appalachia following fracking spills.
Elsewhere, it's possible that contamination of surface waters has already taken a toll on the Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla), a bird that breeds along forest headwater streams and feeds on macroinvertebrates. A 2015 study 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.
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.
And that raises even bigger concerns.
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."
A similar line of inquiry is being pursued by other researchers. Nathaniel Warner, 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.
Warner and his colleagues have also found elevated levels of strontium 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.
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.
"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.
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."
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 don't know. And with natural gas still projected to be one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States, the time to understand its impacts on wildlife grows short.
"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."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Scott L. Montgomery
The Trump administration has announced that it is opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development – the latest twist in a decades-long battle over the fate of this remote area. Its timing is truly terrible.
Low oil prices, a pandemic-driven recession and looming elections add up to highly unfavorable conditions for launching expensive drilling operations. In the longer term, the climate crisis and an ongoing shift to a lower-carbon economy raise big questions about future oil demand.
I've researched the U.S. energy industry for more than 20 years. As I see it, conservative Republicans have backed oil and gas production in ANWR since the 1980s for two overriding reasons. First, to increase domestic oil production and reduce dependence on "foreign oil," a euphemism for imports from OPEC countries. This argument now is largely dead, thanks to the fracking revolution, which has greatly expanded U.S. oil and gas production.
The other motive for drilling in ANWR, I believe, is to score a major, precedent-setting victory over government policies that prioritize conservation over energy production and environmental advocacy groups that have fought for years to protect ANWR as "one of the finest examples of wilderness left on Earth." Capturing ANWR and transforming it into a locus of fossil fuel extraction would be a massive physical and symbolic triumph for politicians who believe that resource extraction is the highest use of public lands.
President Trump seems to understand this, based on his recent comment that "ANWR is a big deal that Ronald Reagan couldn't get done and nobody could get done." But global, national and oil industry circumstances are overwhelmingly arrayed against Trump getting it done.
Years of Debate
ANWR is inarguably an ecological treasure. With 45 species of mammals and over 200 species of birds from six continents, the refuge is more biodiverse than almost any area in the Arctic.
This is especially true of the 1002 coastal plain portion, which has the largest number of polar bear dens in Alaska. It also supports muskoxen, Arctic wolves, foxes, hares, migrating waterfowl and Porcupine caribou, which calve there. Most of ANWR is designated as wilderness, which puts it off-limits for development. But this does not include the 1002 Area, which was recognized as a promising area for energy development when the refuge was created in 1980 and left that way after a 1987 study confirmed its potential.
Climate change is causing especially rapid warming in the Arctic, with probable negative effects for many of these species. Environmental advocates argue that fossil fuel production in ANWR will add to this process, damaging habitat and impacting the Indigenous people who rely on the wildlife for subsistence. But the situation is complex: There are also Indigenous groups who support ANWR development for the jobs and income it would bring.
Energy companies' interest in ANWR, meanwhile, has risen and fallen over time. The discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, followed by two oil shocks in the 1970s, sparked support for exploration and production in the region. But this enthusiasm faded in the late 1980s and '90s in the face of fierce political and legal opposition and years of low oil prices.
A majority of Americas of all political leanings believe the U.S. should develop alternative energy sources rather than expanding production of oil, coal and natural gas. Pew Research Center, CC BY-ND
Scientists performed two major assessments of oil reserves in the 1002 Area in 1987 and 1998. The latter study concluded that ANWR contained up to 11 billion barrels of oil that could be profitably recovered if prices were consistently high. But when prices rose between 2010 and late 2014, companies chose to focus instead on areas to the west of the refuge, where new discoveries had been made.
In the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, a Republican-controlled Congress directed the Trump administration to open the 1002 Area to leasing. The bill required one lease sale within four years, and at least two sales within a decade. But as the Interior Department tried to comply, it was hampered by political controversies and environmental assessment requirements.
The new Record of Decision, released on Aug. 17, 2020, determines where and how leasing will occur. It represents the Trump administration's last chance to bring forward a well-designed leasing plan, and is certain to spark legal challenges from environmental and wildlife organizations.
Is ANWR Oil Worth It?
Today the oil industry is facing its greatest set of challenges in modern history. They include:
- A collapse in oil demand and prices due to the global pandemic, with a sluggish and uncertain recovery
- Companies canceling and reducing activity worldwide, with bankruptcies in the U.S. shale industry and drilling rig counts falling back to 1940 levels
- New uncertainty about future global oil demand as climate concerns push public interest and government policy toward electric vehicles, and automakers respond with new EV designs
- The growing possibility of Democratic victories in the November 2020 elections, which would likely lead to policies reducing fossil fuel use
- Increasing investor pressure on banks and investment firms to reduce or eliminate support for fossil fuel projects.
All of these factors compound the challenges of leasing and drilling in ANWR. Well costs there would be among the highest anywhere onshore in the U.S. Only one well has ever been drilled in the area, so new drilling would be purely exploratory and have a lower chance of success than in better-studied areas. Under these conditions, it would make more sense for companies that are active on Alaska's North Slope to pursue sites they currently have under lease, which pose much lower risk.
Alaska's North Slope outside of ANWR remains rich in oil, according to the latest U.S. Geological Survey assessment. USGS
What's more, as I have argued previously, it's not clear that there's a need to drill in ANWR. Energy companies have made new discoveries elsewhere south and west of Prudhoe Bay – most recently, the Talitha Field, which could yield 500 million barrels or more.
Companies that pursue leases in ANWR also will have to weigh the prospects of litigation, investor anger and a tarnished brand – especially large firms with public name recognition. Shell's experience in 2015, when it abandoned plans to drill offshore in the Arctic under heavy pressure, indicate what other companies can expect.
If Trump is voted out of office, I expect that a Biden administration would quickly move to reverse the directive for leasing in ANWR. In my view, this contested area will have far more meaning and value as a wildlife refuge in a warming world that is starting to seriously move away from hydrocarbon energy.
Scott L. Montgomery is a Lecturer, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington.
Disclosure statement: Scott L. Montgomery does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Julia Conley
New research by a scientist at Cornell University warns that the fracking boom in the U.S. and Canada over the past decade is largely to blame for a large rise in methane in the earth's atmosphere — and that reducing emissions of the extremely potent greenhouse gas is crucial to help stem the international climate crisis.
Professor Robert Howarth examined hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, over the past several decades, noting the fracking boom that has taken place since the first years of the 21st century. Between 2005 and 2015, fracking went from producing 31 billion cubic meters of shale gas per year to producing 435 billion cubic meters.
Nearly 90 percent of that fracking took place in the U.S., while about 10 percent was done in Canada.
The fracking method was first used by oil and gas companies in 1949, but Howarth concluded that fracking done in the past decade has particularly contributed to the amount of methane in the atmosphere. As Kashmira Gander wrote in Newsweek:
While methane released in the late 20th century was enriched with the carbon isotope 13C, Howarth highlights methane released in recent years features lower levels. That's because the methane in shale gas has depleted levels of the isotope when compared with conventional natural gas or fossil fuels such as coal, he explained.
"The methane in shale gas is somewhat depleted in 13C relative to conventional natural gas," Howarth wrote in the study, published Wednesday in the journal Biogeosciences. "Correcting earlier analyses for this difference, we conclude that shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade."
"The commercialization of shale gas and oil in the 21st century has dramatically increased global methane emissions," he added.
Other scientists praised Howarth's study on social media.
Excellent new research by Prof. Howarth @howarth_cornell confirms that U.S. #Fracking is responsible for a significant & global spike in atmospheric #methane emissions— Prof Peter Strachan (@ProfStrachan) August 14, 2019
More reason than ever to embrace clean & cheap #RenewableEnergy solutions @mzjacobson
A new Cornell University study published today in the scientific journal Biogeosciences helps to explain what sparked the surge in #methane concentrations, both here in the U.S. and around the world.— DeSmogBlog (@DeSmogBlog) August 14, 2019
One big culprit: shale drilling and #fracking.https://t.co/F3dDJVMoOk
In addition to being the second-biggest contributor to the climate crisis after carbon dioxide, methane has been known to cause and exacerbate health issues for people who live in areas where large amounts of the gas is present in the environment.
Chest pains, bronchitis, emphysema and asthma can all be caused or worsened by high levels of methane. The process of fracking has also been linked to pollution in drinking water.
The Trump administration has no plans to reduce the amount of fracking that is taking place in the U.S. — rather, President Donald Trump has moved to open up public lands to gas and oil companies looking to purchase leases for fracking.
Howarth urged fossil fuel companies — and the government agencies charged with regulating them — to reverse course, shift to a renewable energy economy and "move as quickly as possible away from natural gas, reducing both carbon dioxide and methane emissions."
Cutting emissions of methane promptly would have a positive impact on the atmosphere and could help to slow the climate crisis, because the atmosphere reacts quickly to the addition and subtraction of the gas.
"This recent increase in methane is massive. It's globally significant. It's contributed to some of the increase in global warming we've seen and shale gas is a major player," Howarth said in a statement.
"If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate," he added. "It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It's the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
Fracking companies are going bankrupt at a rapid pace, often with taxpayer-funded bonuses for executives, leaving harm for communities, taxpayers, and workers, the New York Time reports.
Nearly 250 U.S. oil and gas companies are expected to file for bankruptcy by the end of next year — more than went under in the last five years combined — as demand craters due to the pandemic, a global price war, and falling renewable energy prices. These failing companies often neglect well maintenance and plugged well repairs to save money, causing tons of ultra-heat-trapping methane to continue gushing into the atmosphere.
Shale wells typically cost $300,000 to close — far more than the estimates used by companies, regulators and financial analysts — and an analysis prepared for the Times found companies have failed to reserve sufficient funds, as required by law, to remediate their well sites, leaving taxpayers to foot the cleanup bill.
As a result, early estimates show substantial increases in methane concentrations over Texas and New Mexico oil fields in March and April 2020 compared to the previous year. The Trump administration is seeking to effectively eliminate methane leak detection and repair requirements.
One drilling site, abandoned by Extraction Oil & Gas in Greeley, Colorado, is situated just 700 feet from an elementary school serving the community's fast-growing immigrant population where air pollution monitors recorded 100 periods of elevated levels of toxic benzene over the course of seven months last year.
Those wells were originally planned to lie closer to a more affluent, majority white charter school, but were moved after an outcry from that school's parents. Extraction Oil & Gas paid 18 of its officers and key employees a combined $6.7 million in "retention agreements" last month, three days before it filed for bankruptcy protection.
Extraction is hardly alone, Chesapeake Energy declared bankruptcy in May after paying $25 million in executive bonuses just weeks before. Diamond Offshore Drilling got a $9.7 million COVID-stimulus tax refund in March and then paid its executives the same amount as cash incentives to remain with the company as it undergoes bankruptcy proceedings.
"It seems outrageous that these executives pay themselves before filing for bankruptcy," Kathy Hipple, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and a finance professor at Bard College told the Times. "These are the same managers who ran these companies into bankruptcy to begin with."
The recent spate of oil & gas bankruptcies hurts the firms' workers as well, with lawsuits against the companies arising from workers injured and killed on the job put on hold.
For a deeper dive:
- Plunging Oil Prices Trigger Economic Downturn in Fracking Boom ... ›
- Fracking Boom Bursts in Face of Low Oil Prices - EcoWatch ›
- As Fracking Companies Face Bankruptcy, U.S. Regulators Enable ... ›