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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.
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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Thanks to a bill passed this June by the state legislature, Pennsylvania now has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the nation to abandon oil and gas regulations after they've been fully developed and publicly reviewed. While other states have modernized oil and gas oversight in the wake of the shale boom, no other state has exempted a major part of the oil and gas industry in the process.
But that's exactly what SB 279 does. Called the Penn Grade Crude Development Advisory Council bill, it wipes out updated environmental protection requirements for conventional oil and gas operations (known as Chapter 78). In effect, 178 state representatives and senators just overturned what it took five years, 12 public hearings, 30,000 public comments and affirmative votes by public regulatory commissions and the legislature to accomplish.
Unfortunately, Gov. Wolf just signed SB 279 into law, sounding the death knell for Chapter 78 in the process. Equally unfortunate, official statements from his administration have completely ignored the negative impact SB 279 will have on Pennsylvanians—even as the Governor declares victory for new rules that will go into effect only for unconventional oil and gas operations.
Such political spin may be Harrisburg's status quo, but in this case it's a dangerous affront to Pennsylvanians whose air, water and health is damaged by oil and gas development..
On the same day as the SB 279 vote, the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), Earthworks and the FracTracker Alliance released OilandGasThreatMap.com. Using state well location data and U.S. Census Bureau data, it shows that nearly 25 percent of Pennsylvania's population lives within a half-mile of oil and gas wells and facilities—a distance at which serious health impacts are most clearly linked, according to the majority of peer-reviewed science.
Threatened residents include large proportions of several Pennsylvania counties including Warren (86 percent); McKean (72 percent); Venango (58 percent); and Forest (30 percent). Data from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) show that in 2014, those four counties comprised more than 90 percent of all the conventional oil and gas wells drilled statewide.
According to the accompanying report, Fossil Fumes (by CATF with support from the Alliance of Nurses for a Healthy Environment and Earthworks), eight Pennsylvania counties have an elevated cancer risk directly attributable to toxic emissions from oil and gas operations (Armstrong, Clarion, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Indiana, Jefferson and Washington). DEP data indicate that 60-99 percent of all active oil and gas wells in these counties are conventional ones.
Throughout the long debate over Chapter 78, the oil and gas industry and its legislative champions propagated the fantasy that conventional operations have limited, if any, environmental and health impacts. Yet just like their shale-drilling cousins, modern-day conventional activities rely on hydraulic fracturing and chemicals, generate toxic waste, and cause hazardous spills and air pollution.
In fact, between 2008-2014, conventional operators were responsible for 60 percent of the cases in which oil and gas activities contaminated the private water supplies of Pennsylvanians. In 2014, conventional drillers were responsible for three-quarters of regulatory violations issued by DEP. Conventional operations are clearly a big problem with which a vastly understaffed DEP will have to continue to contend, though now without the benefit of stronger regulations.
Another part of SB 279 requires the use of public funds to run an advisory council made up primarily of oil and gas industry representatives.
So not only does the bill eliminate environmental protections from oil and gas operations, it holds any future attempts to improve them hostage to oil and gas industry interests. This runs directly counter to the public interest and epitomizes the misplaced legislative priorities that SB 279 represents.
One can only hope that going forward, elected officials will find the courage to stand up to this undue industry pressure and finally give Pennsylvanians the respect and environmental protections they deserve.
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Interactive Map Shows Where Toxic Air Pollution From Oil and Gas Industry Is Threatening 12.4 Million Americans
By Earthworks, Food & Water Watch, Our Longmont, Sierra Club
Today, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the rights of Coloradans to protect their health, safety and wellbeing from fracking through the use of local bans. The justices denied residents their “right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; and of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness" as outlined in the Colorado Constitution, by determining that oil and gas development is pre-empted by the state.
This decision overturns the democratically enacted measure to ban fracking passed overwhelmingly by Longmont residents in 2012 and strips all Coloradans of their Constitutional right to say “no" to fracking in their communities in order to prevent problems inherent in fracking, including air pollution, health complications, water contamination and reduced property values.
"It is beyond comprehension that the Colorado Supreme Court still fails to recognize the rights of people to live in a safe and healthy environment," Kaye Fissinger, president of Our Longmont, said. "The state has declared that fostering oil and gas development is in its interest. That the court apparently equates a government interest superior to human rights is a severe slap in the face. Our country's founding fathers are most certainly turning over in their graves."
In 2012, residents in Longmont passed a city charter amendment, Measure 300, which banned fracking and the disposal of its waste products, including injection wells within city limits, to protect homes, schools and public parks. The local ban passed with an overwhelming 60 percent majority despite being outspent 30-1 by the oil and gas industry. Gov. Hickenlooper and the oil and gas industry sued Longmont over this democratically enacted measure.
“Today's decision deals a devastating blow not just to Longmont residents, but to all Coloradans who have been stripped of a democratic process that should allow us the right to protect our health, safety and property from the impacts of this dangerous industrial activity," Lauren Petrie, Rocky Mountain region director with Food & Water Watch, said.
After appealing the District Court's ruling in 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court to hear this case. In an unprecedented decision, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear this case and listened to oral arguments in December 2015, leading to this historic decision.
“Straight out of Orwell's Animal Farm, the Colorado Supreme Court just decided that the oil and gas industry is 'more equal' than other industries," Earthworks energy program director Bruce Baizel said. “Turning democracy on its head, today's ruling prohibits local communities from deciding whether and how to balance their health against the fracking industry's profits."
Physicians, Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy conducted an analysis of peer-reviewed studies on the impacts of fracking and shale gas development. It found that 21 of 25 papers published on the health impacts show potential risks or actual adverse outcomes, including increased incidence of cancer and birth defects associated with living in close proximity to oil and gas wells. The group's survey also showed that 33 of 48 water quality studies find either the potential for, a positive association with or direct evidence of water contamination. In addition, 30 of 34 focused on air quality found elevated levels of air pollution and that children are especially vulnerable to exposure to such pollution, according to the scientists.
As these inherent harms of fracking become ever-clearer, Gov. Hickenlooper's failed task force—formed in 2014 as a way to keep several anti-fracking measures off the ballot—has left municipalities frustrated as proposals to drill continue to encroach closer to homes and schools. In Adams County, a recent proposal to drill several new mega-facilities could place fracking wells within 100 feet from homes and a middle school. The governor's task force has failed to provide Coloradans with a way to protect their homes, families and futures from this dangerous, industrial activity.
“As a retired RN I am horrified that we continue to allow this toxic industry to operate next to our homes and schools," Karen Dike of the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter said. “The Colorado Supreme Court ruling discounts the inherent rights of the people of this state to have clean air to breath, fresh water to drink, land free of contamination and safe places to live, go to school and work. The ruling places profit of corporations before people and will allow the continuing toxic onslaught of this dangerous industry."
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Just as the worst methane leak in California’s history is sealed and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledged that America pollutes much more methane than previously estimated, Earthworks—the group that filmed the videos revealing the scope of the methane disaster in Los Angeles County—released a map of 180+ infrared videos of oil and gas methane pollution events across the country.
The map, created with the help of FracTracker Alliance, includes two new videos that epitomize the national methane pollution problem.
The first is of a well near Longmont, Colorado:
The second one is of a massive pipeline blowdown in North Dakota’s Bakken shale region:
"In November of 2012, the voters in Longmont banned fracking to protect our health, safety and wellbeing, especially because of air pollution," said Kaye Fissinger, president of Our Longmont.
"The air we breathe in Longmont is still subject to 'toxic trespass' from extreme extraction in communities nearby. It's long past time for government to stop tinkering around the edges and genuinely address the ever-growing damage that fracking and drilling inflict."
"For the past eight years I have witnessed the rapid increase of oil and gas industrialization and the environmental destruction that comes with it,” said Lisa DeVille of Dakota Resource Council and the Three Affiliated Tribes. “Finally we can see the air pollution that’s all around us. We are concerned about the harmful health and environmental impacts of methane and other air pollutants released from well sites. This is an unmeasurable cost to tribal members on Ft. Berthold and those downwind. We value our health and our lands."
With more being added every month, the 180+ infrared videos—filmed starting in September 2014—expose otherwise invisible air pollution from oil and gas development. Earthworks uses a FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) GasFinder 320 camera that is specially calibrated to detect approximately 20 pollutants associated with oil and gas development including methane (a climate pollutant more than 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over 20 years), benzene (a known carcinogen) and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Earthworks ITC-certified thermographers have documented air pollution from wells, compressor stations, transmission infrastructure and storage facilities.
“After crisscrossing the country for more than a year collecting these videos, we’ve learned oil and gas air pollution is inevitably associated with oil and gas development,” said Bruce Baizel, Earthworks energy program director. “These videos show we need strong state and federal rules for all new and and existing sources of this pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency in particular needs to propose rules covering existing pollution sources to accompany their proposal to cut pollution from new oil and gas facilities.”
The map comes on the heels of the Bureau of Land Management's proposal to cut methane pollution from oil and gas development on public lands from new and existing sources. Late last year the U.S. EPA proposed rules to cut methane pollution from new and modified oil and gas facilities. If the EPA does not begin a new rulemaking to address existing sources of air pollution, communities living next to this invisible oil and gas pollution will be left to breathe dirty air. Earlier this week in a draft, the EPA revised its estimate of U.S. oil and gas methane pollution upward by more than 25 percent.
“Infrared videos allow us to see the magnitude of EPA’s draft Greenhouse Gas Inventory revision in black and white. Oil and gas methane pollution is more severe than previously thought, and more widespread,” said Lauren Pagel, Earthworks’ policy director. “We need EPA to step up and set standards for oil and gas climate pollution from all facilities. But frankly the best way to eliminate this pollution is to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.”
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But thanks to boatloads of advertising and campaign contributions, oil and gas lobbyists has convinced many politicians, including President Obama, that replacing coal with natural gas is a viable way to stave off catastrophic climate change.