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A fuel truck carries fuel into a fracking site past the warning signs Jan. 27, 2016 near Stillwater, Oklahoma. J Pat Carter / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

For more than three decades, the U.S. government has mismanaged toxic oil and gas waste containing carcinogens, heavy metals and radioactive materials, according to a new Earthworks report — and with the country on track to continue drilling and fracking for fossil fuels, the advocacy group warns of growing threats to the planet and public health.

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By Tyler Rivlin and Leann Leiter

Allen Young and his family are surrounded. They can see three sizable natural gas plants–operated by Dominion and Energy Transfer Partners–without taking a step off their property. Over the past three years, these facilities have taken over the boomerang-shaped ridge less than a half-mile from the Young's home in Powhatan Point, Ohio.

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Flare from gas well. Ken Doerr / Flickr

A federal judge reinstated a widely supported methane waste rule that President Trump's administration has repeatedly tried to stop.

Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled Thursday that Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) decision to suspend core provisions of the 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule was "untethered to evidence."

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ksblack99 / Flickr

by Jessica Corbett

Despite protests from conservationists, local tribe leaders, Democratic lawmakers and even the United Nations' expert on Indigenous rights, at 6 a.m. on Friday the Trump administration will allow citizens and companies to start staking claims on sections of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah so the new stakeholders can conduct hard rock mining on the formerly protected lands.

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Bakken shale gas flare in North Dakota. Hitting Home/Flickr

A federal court ordered the Trump administration Wednesday to reinstate an Obama-era methane rule it stayed this summer—the same day the Interior Department made a different kind of legal attempt to further delay the rule's implementation.

The Bureau of Land Management stayed the regulations on oil and gas producers in June, following a failed vote in the Senate to repeal the rule under the Congressional Review Act. However, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte of California ruled this week that the administration had not offered sufficient reasoning for the stay, and ordered the rule to be reinstated immediately.

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The Oil & Gas Threat Map

A new analysis of state and federal data shows 2.9 million children enrolled in schools and daycares across the country are threatened by oil and gas air pollution. Released by the national environmental group Earthworks, this new analysis is part of a larger update to The Oil & Gas Threat Map, a map-based suite of tools designed to inform and mobilize Americans about the health risks from the oil and gas industry's toxic air pollution.

The Obama-era U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Interior Department issued rules to limit this type of oil and gas pollution. The Trump administration is now trying to block and revoke these rules before they go into effect.

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Tom Reichner | Shutterstock.com

Three days before oral arguments are scheduled in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Bureau of Land Management safety measures to regulate fracking operations on public lands, the U.S. Department of Interior is moving ahead with its plan to rescind the 2015 rule.

The rule, which was the product of nearly five years of agency work, expert input, public comments and hearings, never went into effect after it was challenged immediately by oil and gas industry trade associations. After a district court judge set aside the rule in 2016, BLM and citizen groups appealed to the 10th Circuit in late 2016.

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A methane flare at Pawnee National Grasslands. WildEarth Guardians / flickr / cc

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a two-year delay on the implementation of Obama-era regulations requiring fossil fuel companies to curb methane emissions Tuesday evening.

In its announcement of the stay, the EPA acknowledged that the move may have a "disproportionate impact" on children's health, but reasoned that the temporary nature of the stay would ensure "limited" harm to children.

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Methane flaring at an oil and gas well in Colorado. Wild Earth Guardians

By Joanne Spalding and Andres Restrepo

The Sierra Club and its allies sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt today for delaying crucial safeguards that reduce climate pollution, smog-forming compounds and air toxins from oil and gas facilities. This action represents the first lawsuit against the Trump administration for rolling back EPA climate standards.

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Wetland destroyed by spilled drilling fluids during construction of the Rover Pipeline. Ohio EPA

Community activists and organizations sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Wednesday, signed by 118 groups, demanding the agency halt all construction of the Rover gas pipeline and embark upon an extensive review of its approval policies.

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A fracking site in the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: EcoFlight.

The Trump administration intends to scrap and rewrite an Obama-era rule designed to make fracking on federal lands safer.

Drilling has taken place on federal lands for years, with more than 100,000 wells in existence. In 2015, the Interior Dept. issued new standards aimed at making the process safer, including stricter and higher design standards for wells and waste fluid storage facilities to mitigate risks to air, water and wildlife. Companies would also be required to publicly disclose chemicals used in fracking.

However, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl blocked the Obama rule in June after accepting the argument from energy companies and several states that federal regulators lack congressional authority to set rules for fracking.

The Obama administration appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit, but the rule could be killed for good. The Trump administration said in court filings Wednesday it is withdrawing from the lawsuit.

Justice Dept. lawyers representing Interior and the Bureau of Land Management asked the court to "continue the oral argument and hold these appeals in abeyance pending a new rulemaking" on the issue.

"As part of this process, the Department has begun reviewing the 2015 Final Rule (and all guidance issued pursuant thereto) for consistency with the policies and priorities of the new Administration," the motion reads. "This initial review has revealed that the 2015 Final Rule does not reflect those policies and priorities."

A spokeswoman for Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke confirmed with the Associated Press that the administration intends to submit a new rule.

Neal Kirby of the Independent Petroleum Association of America praised the withdrawal of the rule, calling it "unnecessary, duplicative and would further drive away independent producers from federal lands."

"Every energy-producing area has different needs and requirements, which is why the states are far more effective at regulating hydraulic fracturing than the federal government," he said.

Many environmental advocates felt that the 2015 rule was already too lenient, but the Trump administration's latest action could be even more worrisome to fracking opponents.

"This disturbing decision highlights Trump's desire to leave our beautiful public lands utterly unprotected from oil industry exploitation," said Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Backing away from these modest rules is doubly dangerous given the administration's reckless plans to ramp up fracking and drilling on public lands across America."

Other environmental organizations spoke out against the announcement.

"Today's news demonstrates the degree to which Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration are in the pocket of the oil and gas industry," said Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman.

Earthworks policy director Lauren Page said: "By moving to overturn these common-sense protections, the Trump administration is positioning itself against the disclosure of toxic chemicals, protecting clean water and preserving our public land."

Groundwater contamination is one of the biggest concerns about unconventional oil and natural gas production. While the industry maintains the safety of the process, in December the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its highly anticipated final report identifying cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.

The disposal of fracking wastewater into underground wells has also been linked to the alarming increase in seismic activity in states such as Oklahoma and Kansas.

"With [Wednesday's] decision, Trump is making it clear that he thinks we need more fracking operations contaminating our drinking water, causing earthquakes and polluting our environment, not less," Sierra Club Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign director Lena Moffitt said. "The Sierra Club will continue to defend this rule, ensuring that our publicly-owned lands remain protected from fracking and Donald Trump."

President Trump has plans to open up federal lands for more energy development. As a candidate, Trump campaigned on a promise to "unleash America's $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves."

He accused President Obama of "denying millions of Americans access to the energy wealth sitting under our feet" by restricting leasing and banning new coal extraction.

Incidentally, the actions of the current administration go against the sentiments of the majority of Americans, who are opposed to fracking and drilling of public lands, according to a new Gallup poll.

The poll, released on Tuesday, determined that 53 percent of Americans oppose fracking as a means of increasing the production of natural gas and oil in the U.S. Only 46 percent support for opening up federal lands for oil exploration, compared to 65 percent who favored it in 2014.

"Americans Tilt Toward Protecting Environment, Alternative Fuels"Gallup

The Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans support spending more government money on energy alternatives such as solar and wind power. About two-thirds of Americans favor more strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations and setting higher emissions standards for business and energy.

Public opposition to fracking has grown in recent years, as counties and cities across the country are passing resolutions and ordinances to ban the practice.

Even states are getting behind the action. The Maryland House of Delegates passed a milestone bill earlier this month that would ban fracking statewide.

Fracking opponents are now urging the Maryland Senate to pass the same legislation. On Thursday morning, a group of protesters‚ including including faith leaders and western Maryland residents, barred the entrance to the State House in a peaceful act of civil disobedience. Thirteen were arrested.

"As stewards of God's creation, United Methodists are opposed to hydraulic fracturing because of the serious consequences for the environment, including damage to water and geological stability," said Rev. Julie Wilson, chair for the Board of Church and Society for the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. "We support a ban on fracking."

Garrett County in western Maryland is likely to be the first area targeted if fracking is allowed. The demonstrators say that fracking would threaten the area's local economy, which relies heavily on tourism and agriculture.

"Western Maryland would be targeted first by fracking, and western Marylanders overwhelmingly know that we can never allow it to take place," said Ann Bristow, Garrett County resident and member of Gov. O'Malley's Marcellus shale advisory commission.

"The more we learn about fracking, the more we know we need a ban. Our water, health and climate are far more important than short term gain for the natural gas industry. Once free of worrying about fracking in Maryland, we can all turn our attention to a renewable and sustainable future."

Ray Kemble of Dimock, Pennsylvania, holds a jug of discolored water from his well, contaminated by nearby fracking operations while standing outside of the U.S. EPA building in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Food & Water Watch

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its widely anticipated final report on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, confirming that the controversial drilling process indeed impacts drinking water "under some circumstances." Notably, the report also removes the EPA's misleading line that fracking has not led to "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."

"The report, done at the request of Congress, provides scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances," the agency stated in a media advisory.

This conclusion is a major reversal from the EPA's June 2015 pro-fracking draft report. That specific "widespread, systemic" line baffled many experts, scientists and landowners who—despite the egregious headlines—saw clear evidence of fracking-related contamination in water samples. Conversely, the EPA's top line encouraged Big Oil and Gas to push for more drilling around the globe.

But as it turns out, a damning exposé from Marketplace and APM Reports revealed last month that top EPA officials made critical, last-minute alterations to the agency's draft report and corresponding press materials to soft-pedal clear evidence of fracking's ill effects on the environment and public health.

Thomas Burke, EPA deputy assistant administrator and science advisor, discussed the agency's final report released Tuesday.

“There are instances when hyrdofracking has impacted drinking water resources. That's an important conclusion, an important consideration for moving forward," Burke told reporters today, according to The Hill.

Regarding the EPA's contentious "national, systemic conclusion," Burke said, "that's a different question that this study does not have adequate evidence to really make a conclusive, quantified statement."

In the new report, the authors heeded to the EPA's independent Science Advisory Board's advice to review the "widespread systemic impacts" line from the June 2015 draft study. The final 1,200-page report omits that line.

"Scientists put that language in the draft report, and scientists made the decision not to include it in the final report based on feedback from the Science Advisory Board and their interpretation of the available science," Burke explained.

The Science Advisory Board also took issue with how the draft report inexplicably omitted three critical fracking-contamination cases—Dimock, Pennsylvania; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyoming.

As Pavillion rancher and affected landowner John Fenton testified last year, "When EPA launched its national study of fracking's drinking water impacts, we thought they'd look first here in Pavillion where they'd already found pollution. But instead they ignored us without explanation. Science means taking the facts as they are. But EPA seems to be intent on finding the facts to support the conclusion they've already reached—'fracking is safe.'"

These specific cases studies are now mentioned in the final report.

In the new report, the EPA has identified cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle:

  • Water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater resources;
  • Spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources;
  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources;
  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources;
  • Discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and
  • Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.

Burke said that the EPA's assessment "provides the scientific foundation for local decision makers, industry, and communities that are looking to protect public health and drinking water resources and make more informed decisions about hydraulic fracturing activities."

"This assessment is the most complete compilation to date of national scientific data on the relationship of drinking water resources and hydraulic fracturing," he added.

Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry has criticized the report.

“It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door," American Petroleum Institute Upstream Director Erik Milito told The Hill. "The science and data clearly demonstrate that hydraulic fracturing does not lead to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources. Unfortunately, consumers have witnessed five years and millions of dollars expended only to see conclusion based in science changed to a conclusion based in political ambiguity."

The industry-funded group Energy In Depth added that despite change in the central conclusion, the report still “blows apart the anti-fracking campaign's most common claim, namely that hydraulic fracturing is polluting groundwater all across America."

Meanwhile, public health and environmental groups and activists are saying the opposite.

"At last the EPA confirms what independent science has overwhelmingly determined for years, that drilling and fracking contaminate drinking water," said actor and prominent environmentalist Mark Ruffalo on behalf of the national Americans Against Fracking coalition.

"Across the country, Americans have had their lives turned upside down as fracking has poisoned the water coming out of their faucets and has made their families sick. Now all of our federal and state elected officials need to take action to protect Americans by banning fracking. Water is life," Ruffalo said.

Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman agreed. "The EPA's final report on impacts of fracking on groundwater has concluded what too many Americans already know from personal experience: Fracking has caused lasting harm to drinking water sources throughout the country," Coleman said. "The most important findings from this study is that drilling, fracking, and the use of hazardous chemicals necessary to frack have caused groundwater contamination. This puts to rest the widely repeated lie that fracking is 'safe' and has never caused drinking water contamination."

Julia Walsh from Frack Action said, "The EPA has rightly reported that fracking causes water contamination. For all of the Americans living with this tragedy every day, they are finally validated by the federal government."

Similarly, David Braun, Rootskeeper director, said "Kudos to President Obama's EPA for embracing the science about fracking, which clearly demonstrates serious and inherent problems with the practice."

"The EPA could have bowed to pressure from the oil and gas industry and didn't, however, now that the EPA has acknowledged the serious inherent problems with fracking, it is incumbent upon the Obama Administration to stand with the thousands of Americans who have had their water poisoned, and protect them from this dangerous practice," Braun continued.

Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel said that President-elect Donald Trump and his pro-fossil fuels cabinet should take the EPA report to heart.

"By listening to its scientists instead of its political advisors, EPA's fracking study sets an example that we hope, but do not expect, the Trump Administration to follow," Pagel said. "But a Scott Pruitt EPA would have to ignore 5 years of scientific study, and years of community impacts, to do otherwise. Unfortunately for the still suffering citizens of Pavillion, WY, Dimock, PA and Weatherford, TX, their EPA investigations didn't have advisory boards to publicly remind EPA that science trumps politics."

And Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, said that "the EPA has confirmed what we've known all along: fracking can and does contaminate drinking water. We are pleased that the agency has acted on the recommendations of its Science Advisory Board and chosen be frank about the inherent harms and hazards of fracking."

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced it found the largest continuous oil and gas deposit ever discovered in the U.S. The Wolfcamp shale sits in West Texas and contains 20 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Map of the Midland Base and Wolfcamp shale site.USGS

According to the USGS, technically recoverable oil in the Wolfcamp shale—using modern-day horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—could yield three times as much as the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.

The Wolfcamp shale, in the Permian Basin, alone could supply the entire petroleum needs in the U.S. for nearly three years. The U.S. is already the world's largest petroleum and natural gas producer.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), "In today's oil world, anybody who can produce oil sells as much as possible for whatever price can be achieved." U.S. natural gas production is expected to grow to more than 40 trillion cubic feet by 2040, double the 2010 volume.

Projected U.S. natural gas production.U.S. Energy Information Administration

Despite current low oil prices, oil companies are engaged in a land rush to lock up acreage in the Permian Basin, which spreads across West Texas and parts of New Mexico. Its unique geological structure allows for very long horizontal drills. Some are already nearly two miles out from the wellhead, and more, possibly longer drills are planned. The record is a well in Ohio with a lateral drill 3.5 miles long.

The Permian is currently producing two million barrels of oil a day and has as many active oil rigs as the rest of the U.S. combined. There are already 3,000 horizontal wells drilled in the Wolfcamp shale, and that is expected to grow following the release of the new USGS numbers.

But, not everyone is happy about this new discovery.

Filmmaker Josh Fox told EcoWatch, "This is not good news for anyone except people who wish to rush the demise of civilization due to global warming. If the USGS discovered underground millions of rabid red ants, or zombies waiting to be unearthed to eat human flesh, or a dormant volcano underneath Manhattan the implication would be that we should definitely keep those things safely in the ground. That's exactly what we have to do with this oil if we don't want climate change to destroy the future."

Alan Septoff of Earthworks agrees. "This announcement is bad news on three fronts," he said. "First, because it signals the endangerment of one of Texas's most special places, Balmorhea Springs, which are fed by groundwater endangered by fracking. Second, because we know we can't extract previously announced oil reserves without guaranteeing catastrophic climate change. And third, because it suggests another boom bust cycle seen around the country—where the boom benefits shareholders the most and the bust hurts the community the most."

Texas isn't the only place where more drilling is planned.

The federal Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program is currently in development on its next five-year plan, covering 2017-2022. The draft plan currently calls for 10 leases in the Gulf of Mexico, where the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster released 4.9 million barrels in 2010.

Three sites in Alaska are included in the draft plan: Cook Inlet, Beaufort Sea and Chuckchi Sea. But, with a more fossil-fuel friendly administration coming to Washington, oil companies are looking to exploit even more of the 49th state, including the environmentally-sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

All of this runs up against the global carbon budget. A study published in Nature determined that a third of the world's oil reserves and half of its gas reserves need to stay unused in order to meet the target of 2 degrees Celsius of warming. "We show that development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 °C," wrote the London-based researchers.

In support of those finding, the Sierra Club, 350.org, Greenpeace and many other organizations launched the "Keep It in the Ground" campaign to "avoid the worst impacts of climate change."

"The fact is, oil corporations will have to use increasingly extreme and dangerous methods to get at fossil fuels that no one will need," Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman told EcoWatch. "On top of that, scientists say the climate can't handle the carbon pollution these extreme extraction projects would produce. Spending capital and resources on these 'new' fossil projects doesn't make sense any way you cut it."

Methane emissions and other pollutants are also a concern from increased extraction of oil and gas. According to the Texas Observer, "Every hour, natural gas facilities in North Texas' Barnett Shale region emit thousands of tons of methane—a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide—and a slate of noxious pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and benzene. The Aliso Canyon leak was big. The Barnett leaks, combined, are even bigger."

With increased drilling, west Texans may experience more than just increased oil and gas production. A study released in September proved the link between wastewater injection from fracking operations and a series of earthquakes that struck Texas between 2012 and 2013.

In January, 11 earthquakes struck Irving, Texas, in 24 hours. On Nov. 6, a 5.0-magnitude earthquake shook the oil hub town of Cushing, Oklahoma, damaging buildings and causing evacuations.

"Instead of blindly allowing destructive fracking to continue in our communities, we should extend statewide fracking bans, like the one in New York, and moratoriums, like the one in Maryland, that will keep dirty, climate-polluting fossil fuels like fracked gas in the ground and invest in truly clean, renewable sources of energy that don't come with the threat of poisoned drinking water and climate disaster," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, concluded.