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By Trisha Marczak

North Carolina senators are taking an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) style approach in their efforts to push through legislation that allows oil companies a loophole in regulations requiring disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations.

The North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C. Photo credit: Jim Bowen via Wikimedia Commons.

This week, a state Senate committee approved a version of what is normally an annual environmental “housecleaning bill,” according to the Associated Press. While the House version of the bill was a mere four pages, the Senate version contained 44 pages and language relating to the regulation of the fracking industry.

The Senate’s version allows companies to withhold “trade secret” chemicals used in the drilling process. Similar provisions are seen in model ALEC legislation that has been adopted by states throughout the nation—including Florida and, most recently, Illinois.

The regulations came as a surprise to North Carolinians, as the legislature voted earlier this year to create an Energy and Mining Commission, a body whose purpose is to create regulations for the industry. The commission’s most recent attempts were axed after Halliburton, a leader in the industry, claimed the regulations were too intense.

With fracking poised to begin in the state by 2015, environmental advocates are calling out the most recent Senate move as an attempt by pro-fracking forces to steamroll the process of creating fracking regulations.

Oil companies have already purchased more than 9,000 acres of land for drilling in Chatham, Lee and Moore Counties, according to Environment North Carolina.

North Carolina’s Tug-of-War Over Fracking

Republican state Sen. Bob Rucho is the likely suspect behind the somewhat secretive moves made by the Senate this week. Sen. Rucho is a staunch advocate of the would-be fracking industry in the state.

In June 2012, when debating the issue in the Senate, Rucho was quoted by McClatchy News Service in a debate over the safety of the fracking industry, saying, “The only way you’ll ever know is by actually punching down some wells.”

In February, Rucho co-sponsored SB 76, which set March 2015 as the goal for the issuance of fracking permits, undoing a previously issued moratorium. The bill also set Oct. 1, 2014, as the deadline for the state to come up with a “modern regulatory program for the management of oil and gas exploration and development activities.”

On June 7, the House voted in favor of a version of SB 76 that would also allow permits to be issued by March 1, 2015.

“Nothing will get done if you don’t have a timeline,” Rucho told Stateline, the news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “We believe we have a significant resource here … the upside potential is tremendous.”

In July 2012, Republicans, with the help of one accidental Democratic vote, overrode Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of a fracking bill, ushering in the Clean Energy and Economic Security Act. The legislation called for the creation of the Energy and Mining Commission, which would be responsible for coming up with regulations by October 2014.

Those in the state concerned with fracking saw it not as a step in the direction of caution, but one that paves the way for the oil and gas industry to move in without adequate environmental review.

As environmentalists saw it, regulations were not an appropriate substitute for an environmental review.

“Without allocating funding to this effort, the bill directs to develop a massive new oil and gas regulatory infrastructure, but ignores the DENR’s [Department of Energy and Natural Resources] recommendation that more studies are needed to determine if fracking can be done safely in NC [North Carolina], given the state’s unique geology,” Sierra Club’s North Carolina branch said in a statement following the move.

That new regulatory department, the Energy and Mining Commission, has already come under scrutiny by environmental groups for caving to industry pressure.

Minutes from the commission’s March meeting indicate it had already been looking into a chemical disclosure system that allowed for “trade secrets” to be left out. However, it would have required chemicals to be released for each well.

Like other states, the commission was looking at the industry-created FracFocus website, an online platform that allows companies to disclose chemicals used at each well, aside from those deemed trade secrets.

“Committee Chairman (George) Howard stated that the trade secret disclosure rule would require all companies to submit a master chemical family name list of fracturing fluid additives before being permitted for operations,” minutes for the March 2013 meeting state. “Emergency responders and health professionals would be notified within two hours of a request for trade secret information via telephone.”

The commission’s move to potentially institute chemical disclosure rules of any kind were halted when Halliburton, a leader in the fracking industry, flexed its muscles. According to the News Observer, Halliburton told the Commission that the regulations were too strict.

Halliburton runs its own chemical disclosure operation on its website. In 2010, in the midst of a debate with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about disclosure regulations, the company launched its own “honesty policy” website, showcasing chemicals used in the states in which it operates.

“While it’s nice to see Halliburton acknowledging that desire, it’s not meaningful or sufficient unless the information is fully disclosed on a site-by-site basis,” Natural Resources Defense Council’s Amy Mall told The New York Times in 2010.

This isn’t the first time Halliburton has influenced fracking politics. The entire oil and gas industry in the U.S. is exempt from the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, thanks to exemptions issued in the 2005 energy bill that were supported by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton.

What’s the Big Deal?

According to a 2009 North Carolina Geological Survey report, the state has two potential areas for commercial oil extraction, and one of them—the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf formation—extends nearly 50 miles into coastal waters.

“The offshore Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf remains prospective and may be tested in the future,” the 2009 report states.

According to McClatchy News Service, the federal government estimates there are 1.7 cubic feet of natural gas in a 150-mile stretch of the Deep River Basin. The estimated extraction potential would provide 5.6 years of use, based on the state’s 2010 consumption rates.

Fracking, which injects water, silica sand and chemicals into the Earth to break up rock formation, allowing oil to be extracted, is a concern for those living near fracking wells. At the top of the list of concerns is groundwater contamination, which can result when the flow of chemicals used makes its way into the groundwater table.

According to Environment North Carolina, the drinking water of more than 2.4 million people who live on the coast and the piedmont—areas where oil has been identified—would be at risk.

There’s debate over how frequently this occurs. A study published this week by North Carolina’s Duke University profiles water contamination in Pennsylvania, a frack-heavy state. The study sampled water from 141 drinking water wells throughout the area.

The report indicates that methane was detected in 82 percent of drinking water samples, with “average concentrations six times higher for homes” less than 1 kilometer from fracking wells. Ethane levels were 23 times higher in homes less than 1 kilometer from fracking wells. Propane was detected in 10 water wells, all within a kilometer of fracking operations.

The North Carolina Senate bill regulations, like those in other ALEC bills, aim to provide a form of transparency, allowing residents access to the chemicals being used in the drilling process.

Yet without full knowledge of chemicals, anti-fracking advocates are claiming the so-called regulations don’t do much good.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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Sign the petition today, telling President Obama to enact an immediate fracking moratorium:

Beyond Pesticides

Just as Pollinator Week began last week, an estimated 50,000 bumblebees, likely representing more than 300 colonies, were found dead or dying in a shopping mall parking lot in Wilsonville, OR. Authorities confirmed Friday that the massive bee die-off was caused by the use of a neonicotinoid pesticide, dinotefuran, on nearby trees. Then on Saturday, it was reported by The Oregonian that what could be hundreds of bees were found dead after a similar pesticide use in the neighboring town of Hillsboro.

According to the Xerces Society, this is the largest known incident of bumblebee deaths ever recorded in the country. Bumblebees, which are crucial to the pollination of multiple berry and seed crops grown in the Willamette valley—as well as many other food crops across the country—have recently experienced dramatic population declines, a fate similar to other pollinators.

Dan Hilburn, director of plant programs at the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), told Oregon Live that he’s “never encountered anything quite like it in 30 years in the business.” The incident highlights the difficulty of permitting in commerce such a highly toxic material that indiscriminately kills beneficial insects.

A recent study—an overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides—published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, documents that neonicotinoid persistence in soil and water can cause broad, far-reaching impacts on ecosystem health, much of which has undergone little scientific scrutiny. The author asserts that world leaders have failed to meet their commitment made at the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity—to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss. David Goulson, Ph.D, of the University of Sussex, author of the study, points to neonicotinoids as a potential cause of this failure, due to their long-term persistence in soil and water. He specifically points to soil dwelling insects, benthic aquatic insects, grain-eating vertebrates and pollinators as being in particular danger from the use of these chemicals.

The ODA and Xerces Society had been working together to investigate the pesticide poisoning. After interviewing the landscaping company that maintains dozens of ornamental trees around the parking lot, the ODA investigators learned that Safari, a pesticide product with the active ingredient dinotefuran, had recently been applied on June 15 to control aphids. Dinotefuran is a neonicotinoid pesticide that is highly toxic to bees; the product’s label strictly forbids its use if bees are in the area.

Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, noted that the pesticide was applied to the tree while it was flowering, an action that violates the product’s instructions.

“Beyond the fact that a pesticide was applied to plants while they were attracting large numbers of bees, in this case the pesticide was applied for purely cosmetic reasons. There was no threat to human health or the protection of farm crops that even factored into this decision,” stated Black.

Neonicotinoids, including dinotefuran, can be broadly applied as a spray, soil drench or seed treatment, however, the ability of these chemicals to translocate through a plant as it grows has led to the creation of a large market within chemical-intensive landscaping and agriculture. Once these systemic pesticides are taken up by a plant’s vascular system, they are expressed through pollen, nectar and guttation droplets from which pollinators such as bees then forage and drink. Neonicotinoids kill sucking and chewing insects by disrupting their nervous systems.

Beginning in the late 1990s, these systemic insecticides also began to take over the seed treatment market. Clothianidin and imidacloprid are two of the most commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides. Both are known to be toxic to insect pollinators, and are lead suspects as causal factors in honey bee colony collapse disorder. An extensive overview of the major studies showing the effects of neonicotiniods on pollinator health can be found in Beyond Pesticides’ What the Science Shows.

Several different crops in the Willamette valley of Oregon rely heavily on the pollination services provided by bumblebees. Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and crop seed production, which are grown in Oregon, all rely on bumblebees for pollination. Mace Vaughn, pollinator conservation program director with the Xerces Society, told Oregon Live, “Bumblebees are the single most important natural pollinator in Oregon.”

In the midst of the all the attention that is focused on the loss of honey bees and colony collapse disorder, wild pollinator losses are often overlooked. Pesticide risk mitigation measures intended to protect honey bees do not always constitute risk mitigation for other pollinators like bumblebees because they have different foraging practices, social structures and genetics. Minimal research has also been done on pesticide toxicity for wild pollinators.

This massive bee death marked an unfortunate beginning to National Pollinator Week, which was first declared in 2006 by Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to raise awareness about the global decline of many pollinator species. During Pollinator Week and year round, Beyond Pesticides urges communities to come together to highlight the importance of pollinators through public education, the creation of pollinator friendly habitats and other important activities, while hundreds of actions to support pollinators took place across the U.S.

Though pollinator week is over, there are still many ways that you can get involved and help protect pollinators, from providing bee habitat in your yard, to keeping bees in your backyard or simply choosing to eat organic foods. Beyond Pesticides’ BEE Protectivecampaign has all the educational tools you need to help pollinators.

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Center for Environmental Health

The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) today released a new report outlining the health risks to pregnant women and young children from harmful chemicals used in fracking. The report, Toxic and Dirty Secrets: The Truth About Fracking and Your Family’s Health, shows how chemicals related to the oil and gas industry when conducting fracking operations can pollute the air and water in communities around fracking sites and pose health risks especially to pregnant women and children, who are most vulnerable to chemical exposures.

The report
Toxic and Dirty Secrets: The Truth About Fracking and Your Family’s Health by Center for Environmental Health.

“Many harmful chemicals that we have been working so hard to eliminate from consumer products are now being used in mass quantity by fracking operations. In many instances, residents near fracking sites have already suffered from chemical pollution in their air and water,” said Ansje Miller of CEH, a co-author of the report. “Current regulations allow companies to hide the fact that they are poisoning us with these chemicals under a claim of ‘trade secret.’ This is unacceptable, and leads to serious health risks, especially to pregnant women and children.”

The chemicals used in fracking operations, from extraction to processing, distribution, transport and waste disposal, can pollute surrounding air and water. These harmful chemicals pose serious health risks to surrounding communities, and in particular to pregnant women and children. Just some of the harmful substances commonly used in fracking include methane, BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes), arsenic, radium, ozone, formaldehyde, radium, radon, nitrogen oxides, methylene chloride and silica sand. These substances are associated with low birth weight, birth defects, respiratory problems, cancer and fertility problems.


According to New York State Sen. Tony Avella, "More and more individuals are starting to realize that hydrofracking is an extremely dangerous drilling practice and its effects, both known and unknown, are too dangerous to not have a comprehensive and transparent health impact analysis. There have been a variety of illnesses associated with residents living near hydrofracking sites, such as loss of smell, memory problems, headaches, respiratory illness and stillbirths. This is why an impact study remains paramount in determining the effects of hydrofracking prior to even considering allowing fracking in our State. I commend the Center for Environmental Health for releasing this important report which further focuses on health effects on mothers and children as a direct result of hydrofracking. The evidence is simply overwhelming against this dangerous practice. I will therefore continue to advocate for the State of New York to heed these warnings.”

Fracking has also been found to alter the social fabric of the communities where it occurs. The process increases road traffic, which increases stress, injuries and fatalities. Fracking also causes industrial noise, which is correlated with hypertension, sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, stroke, increased aggression, depression and cognitive impairment. Fracking has also caused social disruption, and has been correlated with increases in sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse and violent crime.

“Nurses are deeply concerned about the irreparable harm fracking inflicts upon the people and communities in their care,” said Kathy Curtis, LPN, Board Member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. “Environmental damage, diseases and disorders and negative social impacts are just part of the problem. What we don’t hear much about is another chemical industry dirty little secret: much of the fracked gas will supply cheap energy and feedstock to make yet more toxic chemicals. Further, our communities will be irrevocably contaminated, not to provide inexpensive home heating as has been advertised, but to ship the gas to China.”

"Fetuses and children are disproportionately vulnerable to the deleterious effects of exposure to environmental toxicants,” said Dr. Sheila Bushkin, MD, MPH. “Although health impacts from industrial chemicals already exist in our population, the magnitude of risk would be greatly increased if High-volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) is permitted within the state of New York. Exposure to industrial chemicals and to ionizing radiation cause greater injury during development and early life. This may result in greater likelihood of birth defects, cognitive and behavioral development and lifelong disabilities. Likewise, environmental exposures to these substances, place pregnant women at greater risk from complications of gestation, resulting in increased maternal illnesses and mortality. From an ethical point of view, it is the responsibility of the medical community and legislative leaders to protect the health of the people of New York State and future generations. The first step would be to conduct a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment, prior to permitting the onset of HVHF activities within this beautiful state."

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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Sign the petition today, telling President Obama to enact an immediate fracking moratorium:

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