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Thu, 2014-04-17 05:00Sharon Kelly
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After Over a Decade of Fracking, Oversight of Industry's Radioactive Waste Still Lacking

It has been roughly twelve years since fracking launched the great shale rush in the U.S. and the biggest problem with the technology — how to safely dispose of the enormous quantities of toxic waste generated — remains unsolved.

In particular, regulators have struggled to fully understand or police the hazards posed by radioactivity found in fracking waste.

The most common form of radioactivity in shale waste comes from radium-226, which happens also to be an isotope that takes the longest to decay. To be exact, radium-226’s half-life of roughly 1,600 years means that well over a millennium and a half from now, more than half of the radium that fracking brings to the surface today will still be emitting dangerous radioactive particles.

Concern about the waste has taken on renewed urgency in light of a detailed report published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a peer-reviewed scientific journal which is backed by the National Institutes of Health. The study concluded that worrisome and extensive gaps in federal and state oversight of this radioactivity problem still persist.

At the federal level, radioactive oil and gas waste is exempt from nearly all the regulatory processes the general public might expect would govern it,” the researchers wrote. “State laws are a patchwork.’”

This is not an entirely new finding. Several years ago, a New York Times investigative piece highlighted how the oil and gas industry routinely dumped radium-laced waste water into rivers. State regulators in Pennsylvania and the oil and gas industry adamantly denied there was a problem.

So what's changed? The recent academic study concludes that even several years later, worrisome oversight lapses remain. As such, the researchers wrote, there is continuing reason for concern.

We are troubled by people drinking water that [could potentially have] radium-226 in it,” David Brown, a public health toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, told the researchers (insert in original). “When somebody calls us and says ‘is it safe to drink our water,’ the answer is ‘I don’t know.’”

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:09Sharon Kelly
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Study Finds Methane Leaks 1,000 Times EPA Estimates During Marcellus Drilling

This week, a United Nations panel on climate change issued one of its most urgent warnings to date, explaining that unless major changes to greenhouse gas emissions are made within the next few years, it will become extraordinarily difficult to ward off the worst impacts of climate change.

We cannot afford to lose another decade,” Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist and co-chairman of the committee, told The New York Times

With the time to cut emissions running out, the Obama administration has seized upon the hope that greenhouse gasses can be cut dramatically by switching from coal to natural gas, because gas gives off half as much carbon dioxide as coal when it’s burned. Indeed, when the EPA published its annual greenhouse gas inventory this Tuesday, it credited a switch from coal to natural gas with helping to cut carbon emissions nationwide.

But a new scientific paper, also published Tuesday in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, further upends the notion that the current shale gas drilling rush is truly helping the U.S. cut its total greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, the evidence suggests, the Obama administration has understated the full climate impacts of natural gas, focusing too much on only carbon dioxide and failing to take into account another key greenhouse gas: methane.

The paper, the first to directly measure methane plumes above natural gas drilling sites in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, recorded methane leaks far more powerful than EPA estimates. Methane is especially important because its global warming effects are at their strongest during the first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere — in other words, during the small window of time identified as crucial by the U.N.’s climate panel.

Mon, 2014-04-07 12:25Steve Horn
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ANR Pipeline: Introducing TransCanada's Keystone XL for Fracking

When most environmentalists and folks who follow pipeline markets think of TransCanada, they think of the proposed northern half of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. 

Flying beneath the public radar, though, is another TransCanada-proposed pipeline with a similar function as Keystone XL. But rather than for carrying tar sands bitumen to the Gulf Coast, this pipeline would bring to market shale gas obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

Meet TransCanada's ANR Pipeline System.

Although not actually a new pipeline system, TransCanada wants ANR retooled to serve domestic and export markets for gas fracked from the Marcellus Shale basin and the Utica Shale basin via its Southeast Main Line. 

“The [current Southeast Main Line] moves gas from south Louisiana (including offshore) to Michigan where it has a strong market presence,” explains a March 27 article appearing in industry publication RBN Energy


Map Credit: RBN Energy

Wed, 2014-02-05 05:00Sharon Kelly
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At State and Federal Level, Regulators Continue to Struggle With Fracking Wastewater

The oil and gas industry often complains about the patchwork of rules that exist from state to state and county to county. They say that the rules are so variable that it’s like having to get a new driver’s license every time you drive across a state line. Public safety advocates suggest a simple fix: federal oversight of drilling. Standardize the rules. But the drilling industry recoils at the very notion.

Several recent developments illustrate exactly why. Witness the two diametrically opposed directions federal and state regulators are heading. Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, on the one hand, are considering strengthening rules on how oil and gas wastewater is handled by classifying some of it as hazardous waste. Meanwhile, state regulators in Pennsylvania, where the most active Marcellus shale drilling is currently underway, are considering a move to loosen wastewater rules.

Pennsylvania is currently poised to enact rules that would encourage oil and gas companies to use the heavily polluted wastewater from abandoned coal mines, called acid mine drainage, instead of fresh water. While supporters of this rule change say it’s a win-win situation for the environment and for drillers, opponents of the bill say that a key incentive in the bill goes overboard and could wind up creating worse problems down the road.

Fri, 2014-01-31 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Amid Calls for EPA to Reopen Fracking Investigations, States Confirm Contaminated Groundwater

Republican Sen. James Inhofe said it. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said it. Even former Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson said it.

For over a decade, oil and gas executives and the policy makers who support them have repeated a single bold claim: there has never been a single documented case where fracking contaminated groundwater. 

But a blockbuster investigative report by the Associated Press offered up new evidence earlier this month that the shale industry’s keystone environmental claim is simply not true.

Multiple states confirmed that drilling and fracking contaminated groundwater supplies, the investigation found. There have been thousands of complaints from people living near drilling over the past decade, the AP reported, and three out of the four states from which the AP obtained documents confirmed multiple instances where oil and gas companies contaminated groundwater.

Out of the four states the AP obtained documents from, only Texas reported no confirmed oil and gas-related groundwater contamination. But one high-profile incident in Texas has again come under scrutiny, as a report quietly released by the Obama administration on Christmas Eve has called the adequacy of the state’s investigation into question.

On Monday, over 200 environmental groups called on President Obama to reopen the federal investigations into that case and others in Pennsylvania and in Wyoming, and to personally meet with people whose drinking water supplies have been polluted.

“The previously closed EPA investigation into these matters must be re-opened,” said the letter, sent the day before Mr. Obama's State of the Union address. “These three are among a growing number of cases of water contamination linked to drilling and fracking, and a significant and rapidly growing body of scientific evidence showing the harms drilling and fracking pose to public health and the environment.”

Wed, 2013-12-18 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Despite Flaws, Pennsylvania Regulators Fast Track FirstEnergy Coal Ash Disposal Plans

Across the U.S., the shale rush has unleashed a frenzy of excitement about domestic energy supplies.

But the oil and gas produced from fracking comes along with billions of gallons of wastewater and tons of mud and rock that carry radioactive materials and heavy metals.

As problems with disposal mount, the industry has offered mostly vague promises of “recycling” to describe how the waste will be handled over the long run.

As the nation gears up to produce vast amounts of shale oil and gas — and the toxic waste that comes along with it — it’s worth taking a look back at the failures of another industry to handle its toxic waste responsibly — the coal industry. 

Communities across America are still struggling to resolve problems left behind decades ago from coal mining and related industrial pollution.

These aren’t merely yesterday’s problems – the ash from burning coal at coal-fired power plants remains the single largest wastestream in the U.S.

Mon, 2013-11-25 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Banks Reluctant to Lend in Shale Plays as Evidence Mounts on Harm to Property Values Near Fracking

Over the past several years, the fossil-fuel industry has been highly adept at publicizing the economic upshots of fracking: royalty checks, decreased prices for oil and gas, profits for investors. 

But the industry is far less eager to discuss the hidden costs of the current drilling boom – the longterm price of air and water pollution, the consequences of undermining a nascent renewable energy industry, the harms from accidents when moving and storing all the hazardous waste fracking produces. 

Add to that list of hidden costs one that is starting to grab more attention from bankers and the real estate industry: property values and mortgage problems. New research, for example, demonstrates that the vast majority of prospective buyers say they would decline to buy a home near oil and gas drilling.

As millions of Americans sign oil and gas leases granting the right to companies to extract fossil fuels from their land, they are realizing that these documents often conflict with their mortgages, which is leading to all manner of legal and financial headaches, and make it harder to sell homes on land whose oil and gas rights are leased.

Concern about these impacts is spreading in southern states like Texas, Alabama and Florida, according to a survey due for release in the next several weeks from the University of Dever. In northeastern states like Pennsylvania, fracking worries have prompted lenders to begin rejecting mortgage applications due to gas drilling – on neighboring property. In Colorado, real estate brokers describe keeping a long list of sellers in heavily fracked areas, but a paucity of buyers. 

Under the terms mortgage buyers like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require, “you cannot cause or permit any hazardous materials to be on your property and it specifically references oil and gas,” Greg May, vice president of residential mortgage lending at Tompkins Bank, told American Banker in an interview published Nov. 12. “That alone would make it a problem.”

The repercussions for the American real estate market could be enormous. More than 15.3 million Americans – roughly one out of every 20 people living in the U.S.– now live within a mile of an oil or gas well that was drilled since 2000, the Wall St. Journal recently reported

And that may be just the tip of the iceberg since shale gas and oil wells require ongoing drilling for them to stay productive. In 2010, for example, Pennsylvania regulators predicted a more than 10-fold increase in shale wells in their state over the next couple decades.

Mon, 2013-09-23 21:12Sharon Kelly
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Fracking Main Street: New Report Shows Social Costs for Rural Communities

What’s it like living in a small town that’s gone from rust belt farmland to fracking boomtown?

First, residents often say, there’s the traffic.  Communities have been unexpectedly flooded with heavy tractor trailers that locals say turn 10 minute commutes into hour-long ordeals, choke back roads and decimate pavement so badly that in some areas, drilling companies are barred from entering until they agree to pay for road repairs. “The traffic here is horrendous,” Towanda, PA resident Joe Benjamin told NPR.

Others often describe the impacts on the social fabric – a “wild west” atmosphere that brings with it increased crime and public health problems.

But these reports have been largely anecdotal, with little to quantify how big these impacts are or how much of it is due to fracking. Until now.

A new report by Food and Water Watch examines the social impacts of fracking, comparing traffic, crime and sexually transmitted infections in rural Pennsylvania counties. Using a decade worth of county-level data, they compare the differences between counties with substantial fracking and without, and how these counties have changed over time, from before the boom until after it set in.

“Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom has brought thousands of new gas wells, a number of transient workers and a host of social problems,” the report says. “This study is the first detailed, long-term analysis of the social costs of fracking borne by rural Pennsylvania communities.”

FWW documented sharp differences in traffic accident rates, petty crimes, and sexually transmitted infections. According to the report:

Thu, 2013-08-15 08:25Steve Horn
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Keystone XL Influence Peddling Web Extends into PA Governor's Race Via Katie McGinty

Pennsylvania Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate and former head of the PA Department of Environmental Protection, Kathleen “Katie” McGinty, has hired powerful PR firm SKDKnickerbocker for her campaign's communications efforts.

SKDKnickerbocker - once known as Squier Knapp Dunn - is co-owned by President Barack Obama's former Communications Director Anita Dunn and a member of Obama's national media team for his 2008 run for President, Bill Knapp. Both Dunn and Knapp previously did PR for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's 2004 run for President, as well.

One of SKDKnickerbocker's key clients is TransCanada, owner of the Keystone XL tar sands export pipeline.

Another key SKDKnickerbocker client: Association of American Railroads, that industry's version of the American Petroleum Institute. Rail is an increasingly viable alternative to pipelines for bringing tar sands - and fracked oil - to market. 

Both McGinty and Dunn also have key marital connections with skin in the game for the looming decision over the prospective northern half of Keystone XL: Karl Hausker and Robert “Bob” Bauer, respectively. 

Mon, 2013-08-05 10:23Steve Horn
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Exclusive: Censored EPA PA Fracking Water Contamination Presentation Published for First Time

DeSmogBlog has obtained a copy of an Obama Administration Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fracking groundwater contamination PowerPoint presentation describing a then-forthcoming study's findings in Dimock, Pennsylvania. 

The PowerPoint presentation reveals a clear link between hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for shale gas in Dimock and groundwater contamination, but was censored by the Obama Administration. Instead, the EPA issued an official desk statement in July 2012 - in the thick of election year - saying the water in Dimock was safe for consumption.

Titled “Isotech-Stable Isotype Analysis: Determinining the Origin of Methane and Its Effets on the Aquifer,” the PowerPoint presentation concludes that in Cabot Oil and Gas' Dimock Gesford 2 well, “Drilling creates pathways, either temporary or permanent, that allows gas to migrate to the shallow aquifer near [the] surface…In some cases, these gases disrupt groundwater quality.”  

Other charts depict Cabot's Gesford 3 and 9 wells as doing much of the same, allowing methane to migrate up to aquifers to unprecedented levels - not coincidentally - coinciding with the wells being fracked. The PowerPoint's conclusions are damning. 

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