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By Sharon Kelly
Dark Waters, the new film starring Mark Ruffalo as attorney Rob Bilott, is set in the Ohio River Valley city of Parkersburg, West Virginia — a place about 150 miles downstream from where Shell is currently building a sprawling plastics manufacturing plant, known as an "ethane cracker," in Beaver, Pennsylvania.
PNAS published a paper today by nuclear and fossil fuel supporters, which is replete with false information for the sole purpose of criticizing a 2015 paper colleagues and I published in the same journal on the potential for the U.S. grid to stay stable at low cost with 100 percent renewable wind, water and solar power. The journal also published our response to the paper.
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By Yosola Olorunshola
Whether it's through fashion or protest, Vivienne Westwood is not a woman afraid of making a statement.
On May 23, she rocked up to the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury in London with a special guest—the Grim Reaper—to issue a strong statement on the Church of England's position on fracking.
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."
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.
"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."
The Maryland House of Delegates passed a milestone fracking ban bill Friday with unprecedented bipartisan support. House Bill 1325, which passed by a vote of 97 to 40, would ban hydraulic fracturing statewide.
Public opposition to the practice has grown over the past year, as more than a dozen counties and cities across the state have already passed local resolutions and ordinances to ban fracking and more than 1,000 Marylanders marched through the state capitol last week to demand a fracking ban.
"We cannot afford to put our health, our ecology or the growing economy of Western Maryland at risk for fracking. That is why a total ban is necessary and supported by the people of Maryland," said Kumar Barve, chairman of the House Environment & Transportation Committee that put forth the bill.
"As a longtime proponent of legislative initiatives to protect Maryland from the dangers of fracking, I commend the Maryland House of Delegates for voting in support of a fracking ban," said Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo who introduced the bill. "Across the country, fracking is polluting the air and water of countless communities and making people sick. The passing of this bill is a huge step forward in securing Maryland as a national leader in combating climate change and protecting our citizens."
Residents from across the state have sent more than 35,000 petitions and letters in support of a ban to the General Assembly. More than 200 businesses, the majority from Western Maryland, and more than 200 Maryland health professionals sent letters to the General Assembly in support of the bill.
"The passing of the fracking ban bill through the House by a 57 vote margin is truly a watershed moment for Maryland," said Mitch Jones, senior policy advocate at Food & Water Watch. "The current overwhelming support from Maryland delegates shows an understanding that without a ban, public health and local businesses cannot be protected. We applaud this critical step towards preserving the resources and economy of Maryland and call on the Senate to follow the lead of the House."
Lawyers representing fossil fuel defendants in a youth climate lawsuit filed a motion Friday with a U.S. District Court seeking an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on a Nov. 10, 2016 order in Juliana v. United States. As reported by The Washington Post, the Trump Administration filed a similar motion requesting appeal on Tuesday. Fossil fuel defendants support the Trump Administration's motion.
By Joshua Axelrod
When he turned the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from dead and gone into a reawakened zombie, President Trump claimed that his doing so would mean new construction jobs, steel manufacturing jobs and money for the U.S.
Before he was elected, he used the pipeline to show how he was going to enrich America, promising that we'd get 25 percent of TransCanada's profits. All in all, the basic message continues to be: This is a great deal for America. But what, actually, is the "deal?"
The short answer is: What deal?
The real deal here is a bad one. Just like the last time around, Keystone XL is not in our national interest. It would lock in decades of increased climate pollution driven by expanded tar sands production in Alberta. It would threaten our waterways and drinking water sources with the toxic legacy of a spill that can't be fully cleaned up. And it would serve Gulf Coast refineries who are exporting growing volumes of both refined products and crude oil to international markets. In other words, this is a pipeline that creates major environmental risks all to carry tar sands oil that America doesn't need and wouldn't use.
And what TransCanada has offered in "round three" doesn't improve on anything they've offered before, despite President Trump's bluster. Here's the rundown:
The application submitted by TransCanada to the State Department on Jan. 26, is basically the same application they submitted to the State Department back in 2012. The big change really comes down to what looks like the loss of the so-called "Bakken on-ramp" or Bakken Market Link project.
The Bakken on-ramp was added to the Keystone XL proposal in 2012 after outcry from U.S. oil producers forced TransCanada to add a "feeder" pipeline that could bring up to 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) of U.S. oil into the Keystone XL pipeline system in Montana. The Bakken Market Link addition allowed Keystone XL's advocates to build support for the project from the U.S. oil industry. Now, it looks like they're doing what they can to make that gift to U.S. producers disappear.
In 2012, TransCanada wrote in its application:
"The related Bakken Market Link Project will include the construction of 'on-ramp' facilities in Fallon County, Montana to allow Bakken crude oil to access the pipeline system for delivery to Steele City and then to the Gulf Coast."
Note the use of the word "will" in that sentence. This on-ramp pipeline was part of the plan, as in, they were going to build it and Bakken producers were the planned beneficiaries from the added pipeline capacity. But in 2017, their application says:
"Subject to commercial demand, the related Bakken Market Link Project would include the construction of 'on-ramp' facilities in Fallon County, Montana to allow Bakken crude oil to access the pipeline system for delivery to Steele City and then to the Gulf Coast."
But the market case for pipelines in North Dakota and Montana has deteriorated since Keystone XL was proposed in 2008—the region now has more pipeline capacity than production and more is on its way. According to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, more than one million bpd of new pipeline capacity has been built since Keystone XL was first proposed, with more expected. Meanwhile, low oil prices have blunted once projected increases in Bakken oil production.
TransCanada's injection of uncertainty into their new Keystone XL application allows them to avoid a commitment they were previously willing to make. And it's likely they'll do so—as they may have a difficult time finding U.S. producers interested in signing long-term shipping contracts on Keystone XL without an easy way of getting their oil into the pipeline. In 2014, the key proponent of the Bakken on-ramp, Harold Hamm, said of Keystone XL, "It's not critical any longer… They just waited too long. The industry is very innovative and it finds other ways of doing it and other routes." If U.S. producers already admitted Keystone XL wasn't useful in 2014, you can bet it's even less useful to them now.
In the meantime, their new application is mum on President Trump's repeated demand that new pipelines be built from U.S. steel, his promise that the U.S. is going to get a big share of profits or his promise of tens of thousands of new construction jobs.
Then there's the strangely weak case TransCanada has submitted for why Keystone XL is in America's national interest. Last time around, TransCanada provided significant detail about the ways in which the pipeline fulfilled the State Department's criteria for making National Interest Determinations.
This time around, they've boiled their case down from 29 pages to seven bullet points. In sum, these points basically say that Keystone XL gives the U.S. access to more Canadian oil and allows Canada to get its oil to U.S. refineries more cheaply. What they don't mention is that these refineries—and the Gulf Coast region in general—are exporting more and more refined products and crude oil as U.S. demand weakens.
The same job and financial benefits that were highlighted the last time around are there and then there's the sweeping statement that approving Keystone XL will send a signal that large infrastructure projects can happen in America. These bullets obfuscate a few critical factors:
1. Keystone XL is, in part, about increasing the profits of Canadian tar sands producers (TransCanada talked a lot about this in 2012, but has since deleted that section).
2. Oil demand in the U.S. is slowing, meaning the long-term access to new oil reserves promised by TransCanada is a red herring—a majority of the oil processed by the refineries potentially served by Keystone XL is currently exported and that trend is growing (TransCanada is also mum on this topic in 2017, even though they acknowledged this reality in 2012).
As recently as his speech before Congress on Feb. 28 and his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24, President Trump has continued to claim that the Keystone XL pipeline, if approved, will be built from U.S. steel. This promise is empty for many reasons, the biggest being that TransCanada has already purchased most of the steel pipe it would use to build Keystone XL.
What's more, only 50 percent of that steel was produced in the U.S., meaning his promise would require TransCanada to re-purchase hundreds of miles of new pipe. This would dramatically increase the cost of the project, which in 2014 stood at $8 billion (and is likely higher today, given five years of inflation since TransCanada last figured its costs).
Then there's the jobs claim. President Trump can't seem to keep his numbers straight on this one, but we'll give him a pass on that fact this time around. When he signed the memo bringing Keystone XL back from the dead, he claimed 28,000 jobs. At the Conservative Political Action Conference he claimed 42,000. They're both big numbers that obscure the underlying facts. In terms of full time employment, the numbers are actually:
- 1,950 construction jobs (lasting two years)
- 35 full-time jobs (associated with running the pipeline after it is built)
These are well established numbers and have been for years. To be generous, you could claim a higher number—the State Department found 10,400 seasonal jobs—but each of those jobs would last four to eight months and then end. While there's no question that there are benefits to these short-term positions, if President Trump's job creation promises amount to short-term contracts spread across multiple states over two or more years, the benefits to local workers may be minimal indeed.
The last time I posted on this subject, I concluded with this thought: everything that was wrong with Keystone XL when it was proposed in the past is still wrong today. It's an environmental disaster waiting to happen, a climate-wrecking project with no place in today's energy mix and it's not in America's national interest. There are easier, less contentious and less expensive ways to create jobs—jobs that will outlast the inevitable decline of our dependence on fossil fuels and the boom and bust cycle of the environmentally destructive oil industry.
That sounds about right. A "better deal" in terms of what President Trump has laid out would kill Keystone XL. And Americans are starting to catch on to the fact that the pipeline, no matter how you slice it, just isn't a project in our country's interest: Polls now show that a majority of Americans—up to 51 vs. 38 percent in some polls—don't think the pipeline should be built. The raw deal TransCanada has offered up yet again isn't a salve for any of the challenges facing America's future energy needs, the need for stable employment in rural areas or the very real environmental impacts caused by global climate change.
The deadline set by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum for evacuating the Cannon Ball Dakota Access Pipeline protest site passed Wednesday and most protesters peacefully vacated before the 2 p.m. cutoff time.
Authorities arrested 10 remaining protesters refusing to leave the campground and an estimated few dozen people are still at the site. The Chicago Tribune reported this morning that the North Dakota's governor said the remaining people "will have another chance to leave peacefully Thursday."
New polling released from the Pew Research Center Wednesday shows nearly half of Americans oppose building the pipeline.
Despite continued public protest across the country—including divestment movements in several major cities—lawyers for the pipeline estimated in a court filing Wednesday that oil could be flowing as early as mid-March.
"These water protectors inspired people around the world by standing up for the right to clean water and a future free from fossil fuels," Greenpeace USA Climate Campaigner Mary Sweeters said. "Allies around the world acting in solidarity with Standing Rock cannot stop now. We must expose every institution pushing the Dakota Access Pipeline project through and projects like it."
For a deeper dive:
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has long been tied to environmental risks such as spills. The frequency of spills, however, has long been murky since states do not release standardized data.
Estimates from the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) vary wildly.
"The number of spills nationally could range from approximately 100 to 3,700 spills annually, assuming 25,000 to 30,000 new wells are fractured per year," the agency said in a June 2015 report. Also, the EPA reported only 457 spills related to fracking in 11 states between 2006 and 2012.
But now, a new study suggests that fracking-related spills occur at a much higher rate.
The analysis, published Feb. 21 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed 6,648 spills in four states alone—Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania—in 10 years.
The researchers determined that up to 16 percent of fracked oil and gas wells spill hydrocarbons, chemically laden water, fracking fluids and other substances.
For the study, the researchers examined state-level spill data to characterize spills associated with unconventional oil and gas development at 31,481 fracked wells in the four states between 2005 and 2014.
"On average, that's equivalent to 55 spills per 1,000 wells in any given year," lead author Lauren Patterson, a policy associate at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, told ResearchGate.
North Dakota reported the highest spill rate, with 4,453 incidents. Pennsylvania reported 1,293, Colorado reported 476 and New Mexico reported 426. The researchers created an interactive map of spill sites in the four states.
Although North Dakota is rich in oil, the state's higher spill rate can be explained by varying state reporting requirements. North Dakota is required to report any spill larger than 42 gallons whereas requirement in Colorado and New Mexico is 210 gallons.
Patterson points out that the different reporting requirements are a problem.
"Our study concludes that making state spill data more uniform and accessible could provide stakeholders with important information on where to target efforts for locating and preventing future spills," she told ResearchGate. "States would benefit from setting reporting requirements that generate actionable information—that is, information regulators and industry can use to identify and respond to risk 'hot spots.' It would also be beneficial to standardize how spills are reported. This would improve accuracy and make the data usable to understand spill risks."
The reason why the researchers' numbers vastly exceeded the 457 spills estimated by the EPA is because the agency only accounted for spills during the hydraulic fracturing stage itself, rather than the entire process of unconventional oil and gas production.
"Understanding spills at all stages of well development is important because preparing for hydraulic fracturing requires the transport of more materials to and from well sites and storage of these materials on site," Patterson explained. "Investigating all stages helps to shed further light on the spills that can occur at all types of wells—not just unconventional ones."
For instance, the researchers found that 50 percent of spills were related to storage and moving fluids via pipelines.
"The causes are quite varied," Patterson told BBC. "Equipment failure was the greatest factor, the loading and unloading of trucks with material had a lot more human error than other places."
For the four states studied, most spills occurred in the the first three years of a well's life, when drilling and hydraulic fracturing occurred and production volumes were highest.
Additionally, a significant portion of spills (26 percent in Colorado, 53 percent in North Dakota) occurred at wells with more than one spill, suggesting that wells where spills have already occurred merit closer attention.
"Analyses like this one are so important, to define and mitigate risk to water supplies and human health," said Kate Konschnik, director of the Harvard Law School's Environmental Policy Initiative in a statement. "Writing state reporting rules with these factors in mind is critical, to ensure that the right data are available—and in an accessible format—for industry, states and the research community."
Earthquakes in Pennsylvania are usually rare but fracking operations triggered a series of small temblors in Lawrence County last year, officials at the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced in a Feb. 17 report.
Hilcorp Energy Co., a Texas-based oil and gas company, was fracking a pair of wells in the Utica Shale when seismic monitors detected five earthquakes measuring between 1.8 and 2.3 on the Richter scale between April 25-26, 2016.
"Our analysis after doing the review... is that these events are correlated with the activity of the operator," DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell told Penn Live.
While the tremors were too small to be felt by humans or cause any damage, they are the first quakes in the state to be blamed on fracking. Pennsylvania happens to be the second largest natural gas-producing state in the country.
"At least within Pennsylvania, this is the first time that we have seen that sort of spatial and temporal correlation with [oil and gas] operator activity," Seth Pelepko, chief of well-plugging and subsurface activities for DEP's oil and gas management program, told Allegheny Front, a western Pennsylvania public radio program.
"No faults identified along portions of the well bore where these seismic events were detected," Pelepko continued.
Hilcorp spokesman Justin Furnace said operations were immediately suspended after learning about the tremors. Fracking and stimulation operations have since been discontinued at the well pad indefinitely.
The DEP said that Hilcorp was using a technique known as "zipper fracturing" at the time, which involves the concurrent fracking of two horizontal wellbores that are parallel and adjacent to each other.
So how did the earthquakes happen? As Penn Live explains:
Four wells were drilled to depth of about 7,900 feet in that location.
Evidence indicates that induced earthquakes occur when the separation between Utica Shale and basement rocks is lessened during drilling operations. That means, when someone drills too close to basement rocks, there can be earthquakes.
Pelepko said that seems to have been the case in Lawrence County, where the basement rock is shallow compared to other areas in the state.
The distance between Utica Shale and basement rocks were between 2,500 to 3,000 feet at the fracking site.
The DEP has since given a number of recommendations to Hilcorp, including the discontinuation of zipper fracturing near gas wells in North Beaver, Union and Mahoning Townships where the earthquakes occurred. Additionally, the company must shut down operations and notify the DEP should any earthquake larger than 2.0 or three successive quakes between 1.5 and 1.9 in magnitude occur within a three-mile distance of a wellbore path.
Earthquakes caused by fracking a well are uncommon. However, the notorious spate of earthquakes in Oklahoma, which were caused by the disposal of large quantities of fracking wastewater into underground wells, are rampant. The disposal of wastewater produced from fracking, has led to the alarming increase of earthquakes with magnitude-3 or larger by nearly 300 times, or 30,000 percent in north-central Oklahoma alone. In 2014, more than 5,000 earthquakes were reported.