Virginia House Votes to Keep Fracking Chemical Cocktails a Secret
Virginia's House of Delegates voted 59-37 on Monday in favor of a bill that would allow fracking companies to keep their chemical cocktails a secret.
HB 1678 states that "chemical ingredient names, the chemical abstracts number for a chemical ingredient, or the amount or concentration of chemicals or ingredients used to stimulate a well" are exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
As the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, while fracking is not heavily used in Virginia, some energy companies have shown interest. Texas energy company Shore Exploration and Production Corp. has acquired about 86,000 acres of gas and oil leases for Virginia's Taylorsville basin.
9,942 Citizen-Reported #Fracking Complaints Reveal 14-Years of Suppressed Data https://t.co/eWg0zo83L4 @MarkRuffalo @joshfoxfilm @FrackActio— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1485788342.0
The bill was sponsored by Republican delegate Roxann L. Robinson, who introduced a similar bill last year. During Friday's debate of the bill, she argued that "by protecting that actual recipe, it will foster more efficient and more advancements in the fracking industry."
She claimed that HB1678 has since evolved into a "transparency bill" after it was amended to only cover information about chemical concentrations, not the chemicals themselves, according to the Times-Dispatch.
Robinson has also sponsored HB 1679, a separate bill that "authorizes the Director of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (Director) to disclose [chemical names and concentrations] to additional Department staff or state or local officials to assist the Department in responding to an emergency."
Many Virginians, however, have criticized the measures.
"As a physician, I have grave concerns about the dangers this may pose," wrote Kimberly M. Cheek, M.D. of Stuarts Draft in an op-ed. "The director may disclose information in an emergency, but there could be no further dissemination."
"Who determines what constitutes an emergency?" Cheek continued. "What happens to those who slowly develop symptoms caused by leaching of chemicals? I doubt vague and confusing symptoms that appear over time will be considered an 'emergency.' If we can't share information, how do physicians ever identify common symptoms?"
During fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals gets injected into shale deposits under the surface of the Earth to release oil and natural gas.
In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a limited but alarming report that found there are nearly 700 chemicals used in the fracking process. Hydrochloric acid, methanol and hydrotreated light petroleum distillates were the most common additives. As EcoWatch noted then, even in low doses, these chemicals are known to cause skin irritation, chemical burns, headaches and blurred vision. At higher concentrations, exposure to these chemicals can cause shortness of breath, blindness and possibly death.
In December, the EPA released its widely anticipated final report on fracking confirming that the controversial drilling process impacts drinking water "under some circumstances." In the report, the EPA identified cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the fracking water cycle.
The Sierra Club's Virginia chapter is petitioning against HB1678 and its companion bill SB1292, warning that "big polluters want the toxic cocktail of chemicals used in fracking to be kept under wraps—and these bills would make it perfectly legal."
"If fracking is going to happen, residents who could be affected should...know what’s being pumped into the ground." https://t.co/MwQvuY2PJC— Sierra Club Virginia Chapter (@Sierra Club Virginia Chapter)1485792052.0
At a subcommittee meeting on Thursday, Miles Morin, the executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, spoke in favor of Robinson's bill as it protects industry's secrets while maintaining full disclosure to regulators, The Northern Virginian Daily reported.
"With this protection, Virginia would still have one of the strongest chemical disclosure requirements in the country," Morin said.
However, in an editorial from the Free Lance-Star, the editors note that this argument from energy companies "isn't good enough" for residents fearful of fracking contamination:
"The argument from energy companies, using some state legislators as their megaphones, is that disclosure of the chemicals pumped into the ground would give away trade secrets.
"That argument isn't good enough, considering what's at stake in our part of the state. Leaders in King George and Westmoreland counties are trying to get a grip on what could be a major change in the character of one of the state's most pristine areas. They want to be assured that the water supply in a rural region whose residents depend on well water is not going to be endangered. A refusal to reveal exactly what is being pumped into the ground might make one wonder if there isn't a bit of risk involved."
Travis Blankenship of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters explained to The Northern Virginian Daily that "this legislation goes far beyond protecting the competitive trade secrets the legislation attempts to get at and actively prevents landowners from knowing chemicals affecting their drinking water."
Emily Francis of the Southern Environmental Law Center agreed.
"Specifically, we are concerned that localities would not have access to this information ahead of time in order to prepare for any potential accident," Francis said.
The bill would have to be pass the state's Senate before it reaches the desk of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.