Thursday, April 25, 2013

Unknowns about Eaton Township injection well tell story ...Observations from the field in Ohio

A tanker empties a load of fracking waste at a well in Eaton Ohio
Ohio’s Class II injection wells, depicted on a map as red dots, look like a rash spread over the eastern half of the state. These are end points for fracking waste.

While regulators and industry officials say properly constructed and regulated injection wells are a safe and effective answer to the growing waste stream from shale gas production, others view them as nothing more than sanctioned dumping of industrial toxins. Concerns over the long-term consequences of the practice are compounded by a lack of information about the composition of fracking waste, and distrust of an industry that operates outside of the authority of local jurisdictions and the line of public vision.

There are currently 179 wells in Ohio accepting drilling waste, much of it from Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, I went to see what one of these red dots on the map actually looks like. I was in Oberlin to give talks at the college and a nearby Quaker-inspired retirement community called Kendal at Oberlin. My host and guide was John Elder, an Oberlin College alumnus and Kendall resident with a broad background ranging from elder-community planner to Harvard theologian. Joining us on the field trip was Dennis Hubbard, a geology professor at the college.

We drove east from Oberlin on a series of county roads though a flat landscape of working class single-story homes -- the modest suburban homogeneity sporadically broken by a 19th century farmhouse or an empty field. The neighborhoods, cleared for farming in the 1800s, were later parceled into the kind of post-World War II American dream grounded in conformity, order, and gainful employment at nearby steel and auto plants. Those jobs are disappearing, and some homes are fairing better than others under the weight of change. These kinds of rust-belt neighborhoods are the underdogs in the 21st century’s post-manufacturing economy, and you can’t help but root for them.

John slowed and turned his Toyota van through an open gate onto a dirt lane running along a hedgerow flanking a dormant field amid houses in the Town of Eaton. Within several hundred feet of the road, three holding tanks and a chain link fence came into view. A solitary red tanker truck was on the far end, hooked up by a hose. (I later learned the tanks provide means for operators to recover any remaining traces of gas or oil from the waste before it’s injected.) The entire operation could have fit into a small barn. This was the visible aspect of the Suater well, which extended underground for 20 acres.

The Sauter well was developed in the mid 1980s to produce gas from Clinton Sandstone at a depth of 2,500 feet, a venture that proved unfruitful. In 1985, it was converted into a Class II injection well. It’s relatively small, and used mostly by conventional drilling operators. According to records from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, between 500,000 and 2 million gallons of waste per year is injected under this lot -- less than what is typically produced by a single shale gas well. The red dots to the east, closer to booming Marcellus Shale gas fields in Pennsylvania and new exploration ventures into the Utica Shale in Eastern Ohio, represent busier and more conspicuous operations. According to a report by Aaron Marshall of The Plain Dealer, state records showed Ohio was on pace to store a record amount of drilling waste in 2012 -- nearly 14 million barrels (588 million gallons) -- with about 56 percent coming from out of state, and from Pennsylvania in particular.

It’s likely that Ohio’s potential as a waste importer will continue to expand in the foreseeable future. Aaron reports that applications are pending or have recently been approved for 35 new injection wells in the state. In the northeast corner of Portage County, east of Eaton Township (in Loraine County), work has resumed on a cluster of 14 production and disposal wells that will operate around the clock to accommodate 270 to 300 tankers daily. Public concern has interrupted the plans, but not stopped them. Applications were temporarily suspended statewide in 2012 after state officials determined a dozen earthquakes in 2011, including a 4.0 trembler in Youngstown, were caused by injections wells along a previously unknown fault line. (See report here.) Permits resumed last fall, after officials modified construction standards and included a provision for seismic testing at the discretion of ODNR staff.

Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials are working on a proposal to support the shale gas boom by opening inland waterways to ship fracking waste. The policy would allow flowback, which includes fracking chemicals, brine and other waste that comes from deep formations, to be transported by barge on the Allegany and Ohio Rivers from burgeoning gas fields in Pennsylvania.

Ohio is a favored destination for drilling waste partly due to geology, partly due to its proximity to Pennsylvania, and partly due to regulatory matters. In 1983 the EPA, the body that regulates injection wells, granted Ohio officials authority to oversee those operating within the state. Ohio qualified for this status, called “primacy,” under the Reagan administration. It did this through an application process to show it meets minimum federal requirements to protect drinking water sources. Primacy has since been a key to Ohio’s waste disposal business, because it keeps permitting, record keeping, and inspections in the hands of state officials, easing the kind of bureaucratic hassles associated with federally regulated waste disposal programs.

Another factor comes into play, and it’s not limited to Ohio: The drilling and fracking industry is exempt from federal hazardous waste disposal laws. Consequently, fracking waste can be injected into Class II wells, which have less stringent specifications and lower costs than Class I wells mandated for hazardous waste. For drilling or fracking operators from Pennsylvania, it’s cheaper to get rid of waste in Class II wells, and cheaper still in Ohio, which has both the regulations and subterranean space, such as the Sauter well.

The red tanker at the Sauter well was operated by a burly man in a t-shirt and jeans. He approached us in a manner that suggested varying degrees of menace and curiosity and waited for us to explain ourselves. He fingered an unlit cigarette. His boss didn’t say anything about us being there, he said in a southern drawl.

Dennis, dressed in jeans, boots, t-shirt and work vest, looks like a man who has spent much of his ample career in the field. Dennis did the talking for our party, and his confidence in the subject, along with his observation that “there are people on all sides of this issue,” seemed to gain some purchase with the truck driver. I didn’t want to discourage the conversation by pulling out a note pad, so I left them to talk, trusting that I would be able to draw on state records to flesh out what little was visible from the scene.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Oil and Gas Data base has online production records that show the early history of the Sauter well, when it was developed by Dome Producing, but nothing since it was converted to an injection well in the early 1990s under the ownership of S & H Water Service. Mark Bruce, a spokesman for the DNR, explained that the agency was still adding to its online data base, and he forwarded me files that I had requested. They included 10 notices of violations between 1991 and 2009 for leaks, substandard equipment specifications, missing records, and a complaint by a town zoning official on behalf of residents about noise, smells and truck traffic. 

Citations are not unusual for injection and production wells, and it’s hard to gauge their significance and effectiveness in the broader context of things. ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten offered this perspective in a June, 2012 piece for Scientific America:

A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.

Lustgarten cites an injection well in Chico, Texas as one example. Despite engineering models and calculations, officials had no idea the well would fail until one day in 2003 when, as described by Chico Public Works Director Ed Cowley, waste began bubbling up from the ground from other points on the property like artesian springs. How often does this sort of thing happen? Lustgarten’s attempt to quantify information – including the rate of failure on injection wells -- based on EPA records lead to dead ends due to a lack of information.

… the EPA acknowledged it has done very little with the data it collects. The agency could not provide ProPublica with a tally of how frequently wells fail or of how often disposal regulations are violated. It has not counted the number of cases of waste migration or contamination in more than 20 years. The agency often accepts reports from state injection regulators that are partly blank, contain conflicting figures or are missing key details, ProPublica found.

In 2007, the EPA launched a national data system to centralize reports on injection wells. As of September 2011 — the last time the EPA issued a public update — less than half of the state and local regulatory agencies overseeing injection were contributing to the database. It contained complete information from only a handful of states, accounting for a small fraction of the deep wells in the country.

The waste is not subject to testing or disclosure requirements, so its hard to know what is in a given load, but flowback from oil and gas wells typically contain salts, naturally occurring radio isotopes, heavy metals, petroleum byproducts such as benzene and various volatile organic compounds, and undisclosed array of chemicals used in fracking. Accidents sometimes happen, and sometimes they make news. Last spring, an injection well tank exploded in Parker County Texas after a “vapor management system” failed and gasses backed up into the storage tank, according to the fire marshal, as reported by the Weatherford Democrat. There were no injuries. Firefighters eventually extinguished the blaze and hazardous waste crews were dispatched to contain the resulting spill. In 2003, an explosion killed three operators who were pumping waste from trucks into a well in Rosharon, Texas. 

In Ohio, John Elder and I left Dennis to chat with the tanker operator and we walked across the street where a local activist was talking with a neighbor. With only a fraction of the operation visible above ground, the telltale sign of an injection well’s status is truck traffic. And traffic to this well, along with news about the earthquakes in other areas and general concerns about Ohio’s status as a drilling waste importer, had made the Sauter well an item of curiosity and suspicion. Activists and some community members saw the well as both precedent and harbinger, and they were making inquiries of their own.

John Pais, a member of Oberlin’s Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, was chatting with a woman who lives across the street in a tidy Cape Cod style house with a swing set in the yard. It’s where she and her husband raised their children, now mostly grown. Pais was jotting notes on a yellow legal pad in the interest of self-education and to share with officials from the town zoning board. The woman’s husband was fighting brain cancer, he learned.  The woman noted trucks coming and going, and something that once smelled like burning rubber for days on end, but although she had lived there for a significant part of her life, she knew little about the history or current status of the operation “or what they are taking out of there.” I explained that it was an injection, well – that they were putting stuff in rather than taking it out. “They’re putting stuff in?” she asked, incredulously.

I didn’t see, in this particular field trip, the Big Story: hard evidence that injections wells are categorically bad, or reasons to believe they are harmless. But I did see a recurring theme in the broader story of local residents waking up to regional impacts of shale gas development: a disconnect between the industry and the communities in which it operates. It’s likely that people who live across the street from a chicken farm, auto plant, forgery, saw mill, furniture manufacture, trash incinerator, or quarry sometimes have issues with their business neighbors, but those issues are generally guided by an understanding of what they are dealing with, how they operate, and whether they conform to local ordinances. Unresolved issues can go before the town board. Likewise, the functions of a quarry truck, a milk truck, a UPS truck, or a manure spreader are familiar to the people who see them, and perhaps their operators less guarded about people approaching them for information.

Regardless, people tend not to like waste disposal operations in their neighborhoods, and there is a Home Rule movement afoot in Ohio working against injection wells. As Marshal reports in the Plain Dealer, nearly 63 percent of voters in the Town of Mansfield, in the southern part of the state, approved a home rule charter amendment that opens the door for local municipalities, rather than the state, to site injection wells. A waste disposal company with state approval to operate a pair of injections wells in the town is challenging the case in a federal court in Cleveland. Meanwhile, injection well bans passed in Cincinnati, Yellow Springs and Niles will serve as similar legal tests for the jurisdiction of local governments.

Waste disposal is an essential component to cheap energy production, but it is not comprehensively factored into the cost of doing business. Is shale gas production, as many proponents suggest, an eco-friendly bridge to a sustainable future and if so, have the legacy costs of injection wells been accounted for? Can large (and undetermined) volumes of undisclosed waste injected into the ground be counted on to remain put despite geological changes and physical deterioration of well casings over generations? More broadly, how is a well that the government sanctions as a waste repository different from a production well where a large percentage of the frack fluid pumped into the ground to stimulate production remains unrecovered?

The risks and rewards of shale gas development need to be deeply considered. Shale gas development offers energy independence to this country over the short term, and carbon fuels in general offer the promise of relief to energy-impoverished countries striving for the same standard of living that Americans have enjoyed for generations. But it’s hard to weigh all the factors fully and fairly over the long term with an industry that tends to operate out of public view.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Anti-frackers score victory on upstate NY home front... Town of Sanford board forced to repeal fracking gag law

Under legal pressure from anti-fracking groups, the Town of Sanford has repealed a law that prohibits people from publically discussing fracking at town meetings.

With the repeal, officials from The Natural Resources Defense Council announced this week they are dropping their case against the town.

In September, members of the Sanford Town Board passed a resolution banning the discussion of fracking during the public comment period at town meetings. The NRDC filed the lawsuit in February with the Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy in the U.S. Court of the Northern District of New York. The Town of Sanford resolution is unconstitutional, according to the complaint, because it bans speech at public meetings “about a matter of substantial public interest that has generated significant political activity.”

Several of the board members have direct financial stakes in the outcome of fracking and, be extension, policy being influenced in town halls on the controversial practice of extracting gas from bedrock using high volumes of undisclosed pressurized chemical solutions. Town Supervisor Dewey Decker is among those who signed a lease with XTO Energy to produce gas from the Marcellus Shale under his land. Decker leads a coalition of farmers who negotiated a deal with XTO Energy in 2008 to lease 50,000 acres for $110 million plus 13.5 percent royalties. Since then, development has been on hold pending a policy review on the impacts of shale gas development by state health and environmental officials

Sanford Town board meetings were becoming a draw for outspoken activists and residents opposed to fracking. Acting in the capacity of Town Supervisor, Decker sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo last fall urging the state to expedite the pending health and environmental policy review, and complaining that a delay was “only empowering opponents.” Prior to that, the board passed a resolution urging the state to move forward, and rejecting calls for the town to ban fracking.

Decker was out plowing his fields today and unavailable. He doesn’t carry a cell phone and he takes his lunch with him, his wife Dawn told me. I will update this post after I reach him.

“This is a vindication of the right to free speech,” NRDC attorney Kate Sinding said in a statement. “And it sends a message to communities everywhere. As Americans, we have the right to speak up when we feel threatened. And it is our government’s responsibility to listen.”

Status report: In my last post a stated my “next post” would be about injections wells in Ohio. To finish that, I’m waiting for some records from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which I expect by early next week.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Scale of shale “oil patch” beyond historical comparison

I drove across part of the oil patch this week. I left early Monday morning from Endicott, New York and headed west at a good clip on Intestate 86. By late afternoon, 390 miles down the road, I was in Oberlin Ohio.

Oil patch --- It’s a term of endearment in oil and gas circles that suggests the colloquial charm and Ol’ Boy character of the industry. Unthreatening, familiar, folksy, agricultural, and local … Like a pumpkin patch. It conjures a notion that – contrary to hype -- there’s nothing really new or fanciful about fracking.

Yet, nomenclature aside, there is nothing old-fashion about 21st century shale gas development. The scale of resource alone – take a drive across Devonian ”oil patch” sometime – is a primary distinction. So are the “unconventional” practices that make drawing gas from rock possible. High volume hydraulic fracturing and computer-modeled horizontal drilling have spurred an on-shore drilling boom as dissimilar to yesteryear’s oil patches as Big Ag and ethanol production is to Ma and Pa’s back 40.  Even so, regulatory controls on the industry remain stuck in the past – a time prior to regional planning and national hazardous waste disposal laws, when toxic loads were legally disposed of in the ground or injected into rivers.

I drove across portions of the Marcellus and Utica shales that collectively encompass the sub-surface of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, including many regions that have never before been touched by the extraction industry. The sheer footprint of these resources and others like them throughout the country have increased the number of stakeholders with futures, for worse or better, tied to their development. (For an areal view of the oil patch, check out this video by Peter Saltonstall.)

What will this look like and what legacy will it leave for the next generation? Numbers, information and reports on the Internet have provided a convenient way to extract information on demand, often minus complexity, nuances and noises of real life.  But, as editors like to emphasize to reporters, nothing replaces being there. Writing Under the Surface has provided me with an unexpected windfall of information, perspective, and sources that comes with invitations from various stakeholders to speak on the subject. Inevitably this brings me to places where I would not have otherwise gone, and puts me in touch with stories I would not have otherwise seen. This past week I visited with activists at a potluck dinner at the basement of Peace Community Church in Oberlin, Ohio; spoke with a worker on the job at an injection well in central Ohio; and visited an area where wildcatters have begun exploring the Utica shale in western Pa. More on that in my next post.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sustainable shale development… hype, hope or hoax? CSSD “standards” reflect chronic transparency problem

We learned last month from the Associated Press that “Energy firms, environmental groups agree on tough new fracking standards.” Specifically, the report by Kevin Begos characterized these standards as a breakthrough, a product of “an unlikely partnership between longtime adversaries” once at odds over assessing merits and risks of shale gas development. The reconciled parties include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Heinz Endowments, and a group called “Clean Air Task Force” representing environmental interests, and Shell, Chevron and others representing industry.

The group established 15 voluntary “performance standards” that operators can follow to attain certification -- and an implicit stamp of approval for consumers. The standards range from the best way to case a well to least harmful waste disposal practices. Compliance will be self-reported and subject to audits from the sanctioning body -- a recently formed agency called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development made up of representatives from industry, environmental groups and independent stakeholders.

This was a story worth checking into. My search for what exactly the standards said took me to the CSSD website. Those who don’t like a lot of packaging with their policy information, beware. If you go here, you will spend a few minutes navigating pages of vague preamble about “unprecedented collaboration”, “constructive engagement”, “rigorous performance standards” and “commitment of various strategic partners ensuring safe and environmentally responsible development of our abundant shale resources,” along with carousel billboards of fern-lined trout streams and primary-colored drilling rigs.  With some clicking and negotiation, I came upon an outline of the standards themselves, and learned quickly where the bar was set. Here are a few examples:

Performance Standard No. 7 states:

Operators will not use diesel fuel in their hydraulic fracturing fluids

Performance Standard No. 8 states:

In the event of spill or release, beyond the well pad, Operators shall immediately provide notification to the local governing body and any affected landowner.

Some standards were more sophisticated. Some were not. Performance Standard No. 2 stated that the industry should recycle waste water “to the maximum extent possible” until a standard is set next year. A theme throughout seemed to be a lack of critical definitions – such as what precisely “recycling” is.

Searching for a point of clarity, I turned to an issue that, in my mind, would be a decisive test of how sincere this whole effort was, and whether my feeling of creeping skepticism was justified. Would the CSSD’s “rigorous performance standards” require operators to fully disclose fracking compounds?

The answer, I found in Performance Standard No. 7, is yes.

Operators will publically disclose the chemical constituents intentionally used in well stimulation fluids.

Followed by a no.

If an operator, service company or vendor claims that the identity of a chemical
ingredient is entitled to trade secret protection, the operator will include in its disclosures a notation that trade secret protection has been asserted and will instead disclose the relevant chemical family name. 

Note: The difference between knowing a specific compound rather than a general family can be huge in assessing exposure impacts to health and ecology. And the company can invoke the “trade secret” clause for just about anything.

And then came another qualification:

Operators will implement measures consistent with state law to assist medical professionals in quickly obtaining trade secret information from the operator, service company or vendor holding the trade secret that may be needed for clinical diagnosis or treatment purposes.

There was no explanation in the rules or anywhere on the CSSD website for that matter that, Under a law enacted by the Corbett administration in Pennsylvania, doctors cannot get the name of a fracking compound in an exposure case, even in an emergency, without first signing a contract that forbids them to share the information with anybody.

These, then, are the kinds of standards the oil and gas industry are aspiring to. Something that takes the guise of transparency dressed up on a green-looking website, with broad loopholes and no practical enforcement mechanism.

And in our country, the industry is understood to be better regulated than anyplace else in the world – a claim that has some credibility. Yet I saw nothing in the CSSD template that spoke to the monumental weaknesses in industry oversight – lack of regional planning for waste disposal and water consumption and other impacts, and exemptions from federal hazardous waste disposal and disclosure laws that allow the industry to operate with one foot in the pre-regulatory era.

So why are the EDF and the Heinz Foundation on board? The answer seems to be, it’s a start, and that in itself is something of an achievement.

“This coalition is a step in the right direction to better protect the quality of life for people living among the gas fields,” Mark Brownstein wrote in defense of the program after it received anticipated backlash from environmental groups representing both mainstream organizations and grass roots activists. Brownstein, Vice President & Chief Counsel of the US Energy and Climate Program at Environmental Defense Fund, was instrumental in arranging the CSSD collaboration, and he felt obligated to defend the program under attack with some points not mentioned on the CSSD web site.  The organization’s voluntary standards are no substitute for the real thing, he stressed.

“Perhaps the constructive working relationship we’ve developed with the companies participating in CSSD will lead to a broader consensus on the full range of challenges confronting communities in the middle of the shale gale. We hope so, but we know we are not there yet…

Some of our environmental colleagues see the voluntary nature of the new standards as a way for the natural gas industry to avoid real oversight, and I understand their skepticism. But, like I said, CSSD’s standards aren’t being put forward in place of regulation and enforcement. To the contrary, by demonstrating that industry leaders have what it takes to produce shale gas safer, CSSD can help build a broad industry-environmentalist coalition in favor of getting the rules right.

The agency is “committed to setting clear guidelines for a rigorous certification and auditing process,” he said.  (The CSSD is yet to release any specifics about how that will work.) “The operative word is ‘can,’ Brownstein concluded. “Time will tell how effective this effort is, and whether it can or should to be replicated elsewhere.”

There are other factors at work. Last year the EDF received a three-year, $6-million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to “minimize the environmental impacts of natural gas operations through hydraulic fracturing,” according to an agency press release at the time. The funding is to “support EDF’s strategy of securing strong rules and developing industry best practices in the 14 states with 85 percent of the country’s unconventional gas reserves.” The charity is tied to its name sake, billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, who also happens to be the mayor of New York City, one of the largest energy consumers in the world.

Representatives from mainstream environmental groups were quick to distance themselves from the EDF’s involvement with the CSSD. Deb Nardone, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas Campaign, felt it necessary to reiterate that the Sierra Club “had no involvement” with the project:

Voluntary certification is in no way a substitute for rigorous safeguards, monitoring, and enforcement. Voluntary safety certification is akin to slapping a band aid on a gaping wound. We know the oil and gas industry cannot be trusted to police itself and we cannot afford to give a free pass to bad actors in the industry.

Sandy Buchanan, Executive Director of a group called Ohio Citizen Action, brought another perspective:

This is not a conflict between oil and gas companies and “environmentalists.” The drillers are up against landowners, neighbors, and taxpayers; people who drink municipal water, people who drink well-water; doctors, nurses, firefighters, EMS technicians, and so on. To portray this as just “environmentalists” makes it seem as though it is just two special interest groups at odds. It sets up a situation where one or more groups with the word “Environment” in their name think they can cut a deal with the drillers.

Criticism, ranging from harsh to caustic, focused on the title of the program as evidence of a sham. Is there really such a thing as sustainable shale gas development? Certainly not in the way the word sustainable is understood (and revered) in the environmental community. Dory Hippauf, a blogger on, wrote “Fracking Center and Fluffy Kittens.

WHOOO-HOOO, Frackers and Environmentalists collaborate!  At least that’s the headlines and spin from the natural gas PR people and the media echo chamber. 
What does this new collaboration have to do with fluffy kittens?  Not much. 
What does this new collaboration have to do with addressing the real issue of fracking?  Not much. 
This new collaboration is called the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD).  NOTE:  SUSTAINABLE SHALE DEVELOPMENT.

Many in environmental academic and policy circles, both grass roots and institutional, were buzzing. But not everybody was displeased and some influential voices supported the plan. Among them John Hanger, former Secretary for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Conservation and now an early candidate for the 2014 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. Hanger characterized the CSSD standards as a “game changing event” that will do for shale gas operators what sustainable certification program did for loggers:

Consumer preferences and this powerful market demand means that smart gas producers will join Consol, Equitable, Shell, and Consol in improving their gas production operations so that they can earn CSSD certification.  Whether gas producers like CSSD or not, CSSD just changed fundamentally their business world by empowering consumers to decide what gas they will buy and what gas they will not.

Maybe so, but Hanger did not explain that, unlike natural gas, forest products are genuinely a sustainable resource.

I will end here with my two cents. Performance standards are well and good. “Best practices” are something every industry should and often does strive for. But the very fact that a vague plan by the gas and oil industry to establish baseline standards becomes big news tells us something about the gas and oil industry. Beyond that, the Madison Avenue packaging and presentation of the new CSSD standards reflects a chronic problem with the industry: It’s short on policy and long on pitch.