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Marcellus Shale Fracking Rush Brings Worries of Boom-Bust Cycle

Across the U.S., the shale gas industry's arrival has been marked by wariness, not only of the environmental impacts associated with fracking, but also due to the oil and gas industry's long history of flashy booms followed by devestating busts.

In towns across the state, the lingering effects of past economic downturns – the flight of manufacturing, the 2008 financial collapse, the slow erosion of the auto and steel industries – have left communities eager for jobs, but also experienced with job loss.

Nowhere better illustrates the potential for a shale rush to heal old economic wounds, or communities' vulnerability to new ones, than Cameron County, Pennsylvania. At the eastern edges of the rust belt, Cameron County has been hit hard by the decline of the American auto industry.

Hopes for a shale renassiance are running up against some difficult realities. A report released Monday by the Post-Carbon Institute, titled “Drilling Deeper: A Reality Check on US Government Forecasts for a Lasting Tight Oil & Shale Gas Boom,” concludes that the Marcellus shale is unlikely to fully live up to government forecasts, and that natural gas prices will have to rise to keep drilling going across the state. The vast majority of the Marcellus shale is not the same high quality as the areas where drillers are currently focusing most of their efforts, referred to in the industry as “sweet spots,” making the gas there more expensive to produce.

The report also finds that shale gas production in the Marcellus is expected to reach it's peak in 2018 or 2019 – meaning that within five years, production will begin dropping. “These projections are optimistic in that they assume the capital will be available for the drilling treadmill that must be maintained to keep production up,” the report says. “This is not a sure thing as drilling in the poorer quality parts of the play will require higher gas prices to make it economic.”

Oil and Gas Industry's "Endless War" on Fracking Critics Revealed by Rick Berman

Leave it to Washington's top attack-dog lobbyist Richard Berman to verify what many always suspected: that the oil and gas industry uses dirty tricks to undermine science, vilify its critics and discredit journalists who cast doubt on the prudence of fossil fuels.

In a speech at an industry conference in June, surreptitiously recorded by an energy executive, Rick Berman, the foremost go-to guy for Republican smear campaigns, gave unusually candid advice to a meeting of drilling companies.

Think of this as an endless war,” he told executives in a speech, which was leaked to The New York Times by an attendee at the conferenece who was offended by Berman's remarks.

And you have to budget for it.” He said the industry needs to dig up embarrassing tidbits about environmentalists and liberal celebrities, exploit the public’s short attention span for scientific debate, and play on people’s emotions.

Fear and anger have to be a part of this campaign,” Berman said. “We’re not going to get people to like the oil and gas industry over the next few months.”

Berman also advised that executives continue to spend big. “I think $2 to $3 million would be a game changer,” he said. “We’ve had six-figure contributions to date from a few companies in this room to help us get to where we are.”

But always cover your tracks, he suggested, adding that no is better equipped at doing so than his firm. “We run all this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity,” he said. “People don’t know who supports us. We’ve been doing this for 20-something years in this regard.”

Berman, whose tobacco ties were profiled yesterday by DeSmog contributor John Mashey, is the founder and chief executive of the Washington-based Berman & Company consulting firm. He attended the conference in Colorado, hat in hand, looking to raise money from energy companies for an advertising and public relations campaign he started called Big Green Radicals.

When the Shale Runs Dry: A Look at the Future of Fracking

If you want to see the future of the shale industry — what today's drilling rush will leave behind — come to Bradford, Pennsylvania.

A small city, it was home to one of America's first energy booms, producing over three quarters of the world's oil in 1877. A wooden oil rig towering over a local museum commemorates those heady days, marking the first “billion dollar oil field” in the world.

But times have changed dramatically in Bradford. Most of the oil has been pumped out, leaving residents atop an aging oil field that requires complicated upkeep and mounting costs. Since its height in the 1940's, Bradford's population has steadily declined, leaving the city now home to only 8,600 people, down from over 17,000. 

The story of Bradford these days is a story of thousands of oil and gas wells: abandoned, uncapped, and often leaking.

To drive through McKean County, home to Bradford and much of the Allegheny National Forest, is to witness an array of creative ways people have found to hide the remnants of this bygone boom. Rusted metal pipes — the old steel casings from long abandoned wells — jut from lawns and roadsides. Mailboxes are strapped to some of the taller pipes. In autumn, abandoned wells are tucked behind Halloween props and hay bales in front yards.

The aging steel pipes aren't just on land. They line creek beds, water flowing around one rusted pipe then another.

Hundreds are even submerged in the Allegheny Reservoir, small bubbles of methane gas the only visible sign of their existence. But in many cases, these rusted top hats from now deceased wells simply protrude from locals' lawns.

They are visual reminders that, for local communities where mining or drilling happens, fossil fuel wealth burns hot and short. Where there's a boom, there's bound to be a bust.

A Shift from Fossil Fuels Could Provide $1.8 Trillion in Savings, Two New Reports Conclude

A worldwide transition to low carbon fuels could save the global economy as much as $1.8 trillion over the next two decades, according to two reports published Thursday by the Climate Policy Initiative.

By switching to renewable energy sources, the high costs associated with extracting and transporting coal and gas could be avoided, the reports, titled Moving to a Low Carbon Economy: The Financial Impact of the Low-Carbon Transition, and Moving to a Low Carbon Economy: The Impact of Different Policy Pathways on Fossil Fuel Asset Values, conclude.

This would free up funds to bolster financial support for wind, solar and other renewables – with enormous sums left over, the reports conclude. Following an approach aimed at capping climate change at 2 degrees Celsius will require walking away from massive reserves of fossil fuels, stranding the assets of major corporations, many researchers have warned. The new reports give this issue a closer look, demonstrating that more than half of the assets at risk are actually owned by governments not corporations.

This finding could be double-edged, since that means taxpayer money in many countries is at stake and those governments have the power to establish policies that could promote or repudiate the fossil fuels they control. But the reports' conclusion that trillions could be freed up if governments and private companies abandon those assets could make it easier for governments to leave those fossil fuels in the ground.

Workers at Fracked Wells Exposed to Benzene, CDC Warns Amid Mounting Evidence of Shale Jobs' Dangers

For years, the oil and gas industry has worked to convince Americans that the rush to drill shale wells across the country will not only provide large corporations with lavish profits, but will also create enormous numbers of attractive and high-paid jobs, transforming the economies of small towns and cities that greenlight drilling.

The industry's numbers are often picked up by policy-makers and politicians who back drilling, in part because talk of job growth is an especially alluring idea in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse.

But numerous independent studies have conclude that the industry vastly overstated the number of jobs that fracking has created, and that the economic benefits have been overblown.

A growing body of research suggests that not only does the industry create fewer jobs than promised, the jobs that are created come with serious dangers for the workers who take them.

Research made public late last month suggests that some of those jobs may be even more hazardous to workers than previously believed, calling into question the true benefits of the boom.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released preliminary results from its workplace hazard evaluations at unconventional oil and gas wells – and they show that workers can be exposed to high levels of benzene during fracking flowback.

A striking 15 of 17 samples were over workplace limits set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH standards are often used by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to gauge whether a chemical exposure is illegally high.

Shale Industry Resorts to Conspiracy Theories to Explain Opposition to Fracking

As evidence mounts concerning the hazards of fracking, the oil and gas industry is increasingly trying to redirect public discussion of the topic, focusing instead on the funding behind the environmental groups rather than the actual science of the matter.

Aside from showing a certain desperation, the tactic is especially disingenuous since this industry has no small experience with astro-turf campaigns and buying faux research to promote its interests.

Again and again, it has turned out that scientific research downplaying the risks of fracking or hyping the benefits of the shale gas rush was actually funded by the oil and gas industry, and oftentimes, that funding was not properly disclosed.

In 2010, Penn State administrators retracted a study by Timothy Considine, which predicted tens of thousands of jobs and billions in revenue from the shale rush, when a local watchdog group, the Responsible Drilling Alliance complained that the study had been funded by a shale industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, but that funding was never disclosed, which school administrators later labeled a “clear error.”

In 2012, the State University of New York at Buffalo shut down its Shale Resources and Society Institute after the Public Accountability Initiative revealed that research it produced was severely flawed and that its authors never disclosed their industry ties. (DeSmog also investigated conflicts and undisclosed funding at the Institute.)

It's a problem repeated enough that it's often referred to simply in shorthand: frackademia.

With all this attention focused on how research is funded, many shale gas boosters, like bloggers at Energy in Depth, a PR organization formed by the oil industry, have begun trying to turn the criticism around.

They've focused on the role played by several non-profit foundations, claiming that research funded by these foundations and endowments should be treated just as skeptically as research funded by shale companies.

It's a false equivalence, a child's “I'm rubber but you're glue” taunt. But, in some instances, it's helped the industry turn around narratives told in the press.

Pennsylvania Plant Agrees to Stop Dumping Partially-Treated Fracking Wastewater in River After Lengthy Lawsuit

A Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plant alleged to have dumped toxic and radioactive materials into the Allegheny River has agreed to construct a new treatment facility, under a settlement announced Thursday with an environmental organization that had filed suit against the plant.

Back in 2011, Pennsylvania made national headlines because the state's treatment plants – including municipal sewage plants and industrial wastewater treatment plants like Waste Treatment Corporation – were accepting drilling and fracking wastewater laden with pollutants that they could not remove.

In July 2013, Clean Water Action alleged in a lawsuit that Waste Treatment Corp. of Warren, PA violated the federal Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, along with Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law by continuing to discharge partially treated wastewater, carrying corrosive salts, heavy metals and radioactive materials into the river, which serves as the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, including much of the city of Pittsburgh. 

Under the terms of the settlement, within 8 months, Waste Treatment Corporation must install advanced treatment technology that will remove 99% of the contaminants in gas drilling wastewater.

Until those treatment methods are in place, Waste Treatment Corporation agreed to stop accepting wastewater from Marcellus shale wells, notorious for its high levels of radioactivity, and to cut the amount of wastewater it can accept from conventional gas wells by over a third.

“The settlement represents the first time an existing industrial treatment plant discharging gas drilling wastewater in Pennsylvania agreed to install effective treatment technology to protect local rivers,” Clean Water Action wrote in a press release.

Shale Oil Drillers Deliberately Wasted Nearly $1 Billion in Gas, Harming Climate

In Texas and North Dakota, where an oil rush triggered by the development of new fracking methods has taken many towns by storm, drillers have run into a major problem.

While their shale wells extract valuable oil, natural gas also rises from the wells alongside that oil. That gas could be sold for use for electrical power plants or to heat homes, but it is harder to transport from the well to customers than oil. Oil can be shipped via truck, rail or pipe, but the only practical way to ship gas is by pipeline, and new pipelines are expensive, often costing more to construct than the gas itself can be sold for.

So, instead of losing money on pipeline construction, many shale oil drillers have decided to simply burn the gas from their wells off, a process known in the industry as “flaring.”

It's a process so wasteful that it's sparked class action lawsuits from landowners, who say they've lost millions of dollars worth of gas due to flaring. Some of the air emissions from flared wells can also be toxic or carcinogenic. It's also destructive for the climate – natural gas is made primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and when methane burns, it produces more than half as much CO2 as burning coal.

Much of the research into the climate change impact the nation's fracking rush – now over a decade long – has focused on methane leaks from shale gas wells, where drillers are deliberately aiming to produce natural gas. The climate change impacts of shale oil drilling have drawn less attention from researchers and regulators alike.

As Energy Department Announces Methane Measures, Critics Call for Stronger Action

On Tuesday, the White House released a report estimating that delaying action on climate change could cause $150 billion a year in damage to the U.S. economy.

“These costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay,” the assessment warned.

That same day, President Obama announced moves to help reduce greenhouse gasses. But some critics charge that the President's actions have so far failed to be proportionate to the crisis the White House predicts.

As DeSmog reported, on Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency's program on natural gas pipeline leaks came under fire from the EPA's own internal watchdog. The EPA inspector general lambasted the agency for setting up rules that rely heavily on voluntary leak repairs by pipeline companies while turning a blind eye to state policies that allow those companies to simply pass the price of leaking gas to consumers instead of making costly repairs.

The resulting leaks, the EPA audit concluded, cost consumers over $192 million and the resulting greenhouse gasses each year were equal to putting an addition 2.7 million cars on the road.

On the heels of that report, the Obama administration announced that it would adjust its methane pollution controls — but the measures they announced fell far short of what some experts argue is necessary to curtail methane's climate hazards. The Department of Energy's new measures include adjustments to its voluntary leak control program and add funding for research into ways to better curb leaks.

While we applaud the commitments made by DOE, labor unions, utility groups, and other stakeholders,” Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel told the Oil and Gas Journal, “voluntary measures and new research initiatives don’t adequately protect communities and the climate.”

EPA Internal Audit Finds Flawed Pipeline Oversight Adds $192 Million a Year to Gas Bills, Harms Climate

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog, the inspector general released a scathing report on the agency's failure to control leaks from the nation's natural gas distribution system.

The report, titled “Improvements Needed in EPA Efforts to Address Methane Emissions From Natural Gas Distribution Pipelines,” describes a string of failures by the EPA to control leaks of one of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane, from the rapidly expanding natural gas pipeline industry.

“The EPA has placed little focus and attention on reducing methane emissions from pipelines in the natural gas distribution sector,” the report begins. “The EPA has a voluntary program to address methane leaks — Natural Gas STAR — but its efforts through this program have resulted in limited reductions of methane emissions from distribution pipelines.”

To date, the industry has faced little binding regulation on leaks, in part because the EPA assumes that pipeline companies will not allow the product they are attempting to bring to market to simply disappear. But the reality is that when gas is cheap and repairs are expensive, pipeline companies often put off repairs unless there's a threat of an explosion.

Under many state policies, pipeline companies would have to pay upfront costs for pipeline repairs — or they simply choose to pass the cost of lost gas from unrepaired leaks on to consumers, an issue that the audit faults the EPA for failing to take into account.

Nationwide, the Inspector General report concluded $192 million worth of natural gas was lost from pipelines in 2011 alone.

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