Saturday, June 22, 2013

Obama’s plans for shale gas diminish EPA involvement

It’s no mystery that President Obama is tying the country’s energy future to shale gas development. He articulated this commitment first in his campaign and later in his State of the Union Address. Now his actions show just how supportive his administration is to the industry’s quest to build demand and discourage regulation.

Last month, Obama approved policy for shale gas export terminals – a move the industry needs to capitalize on global markets and buoy prices needed to support aggressive expansion of domestic wells, infrastructure, and exploration.  Those banking on shale gas received more good news last week, when the president, speaking to an international audience from Berlin, announced a federal plan to regulate CO2 emissions from coal. Coal regulations impact shale gas markets, as natural gas is a cheap alternative to coal at power plants. (I won’t get into the broader discussion here on shale gas versus coal as greenhouse gasses, other than to acknowledge there is fierce debate about the wisdom of embracing policy that encourages another generation of fossil fuel extraction.)

The administration’s gas industry-friendly stance, while good for natural gas investors, does not bode well for those hoping the federal government will step up regulations, or at least close loopholes to federal environmental laws. An exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act allows operators – with no disclosure -- to inject hazardous chemicals into the ground to stimulate well production; and exemptions from federal hazardous waste laws allows the industry to dispose of toxic waste through conventional methods.

Hours after the president announced to the world his proposal to regulate coal emissions, his EPA issued a press release without fanfare stating the agency is dropping a key investigation into a link between fracking and ground water contamination. Consequently, the agency will be turning its probe of groundwater pollution in Pavillion, Wyoming over to the state. It’s hard to overstate the symbolic importance of this. The EPA’s findings in Pavillion –- that fracking could be linked to groundwater pollution -- ran directly counter to claims by the industry that no such evidence exists. The EPA’s decision not to pursue the Pavillion case in the face of industry opposition illustrates how policy is made at the intersection of politics and science.

Obama has made his politics on shale gas clear. So what about the science? It’s mixed, inconclusive, and largely out of the line of public scrutiny because the industry controls it almost exclusively. There are places, however, where groundwater contamination has become so bad around shale gas fields that the EPA has stepped in. Among these places are Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania.

In Pavillion, the agency issued a summary of its investigation into polluted water wells near fracking operations on the Wind River Indian Reservation in 2011.  Testing of two deep monitoring wells found:

detection of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels. Given the area’s complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time.

Testing of two drinking wells found:

chemicals consistent with those identified in earlier EPA samples include methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds. The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production. Detections in drinking water wells are generally below established health and safety standards. In the fall of 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reviewed EPA’s data and recommended that affected well owners take several precautionary steps, including using alternate sources of water for drinking and cooking, and ventilation when showering. Those recommendations remain in place and EnCana [an operator] has been funding the provision of alternate water supplies.

Similarly, analysis of water tests prompted a federal investigation in Dimock in December, 2011. Following tests from the Pennsylvania DEP showing that methane from nearby drilling had polluted wells along Carter Road, officials at the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry found evidence of elevated levels of various solvents, metals, and glycols that posed “a possible chronic public health threat based on prolonged use of the water” in “at least some” of the Dimock wells. A follow up investigation by the EPA last year found elevated levels of arsenic, barium, manganese, and methane in five of 64 water wells.

So those are small but important examples of the science and politics at work. What was the policy outcome?

In Dimock, the EPA determined  “no further action” necessary because the industry, which has denied responsibility for the pollution, has provided alternative drinking water or filtration systems to the affected homes.  The EPA turned its results back over the ATSDR, with no timetable for the release of further analysis.

In Pavillion the EPA was working against the wishes of Encana, the company implicated in the investigation and which has denied responsibility. The EPA was also working against the wishes of the state of Wyoming, where officials were angered by the suggestion that the state’s efforts to control the industry fell short. Hence, the EPA’s announcement last week the was cast in an awkward tone attempting to defend its work while yielding to officials at Encana and the state who wanted the agency to butt out:

While EPA stands behind its work and data, the agency recognizes the State of Wyoming’s commitment for further investigation and efforts to provide clean water and does not plan to finalize or seek peer review of its draft Pavillion groundwater report released in December, 2011. Nor does the agency plan to rely upon the conclusions in the draft report.

The report went on to explain that the agency was working on a broader evaluation of fracking and groundwater. But the status of that, too, remained unclear. According to the press release, the report is expected next year. But an Associated Press report earlier this week said that the EPA report has now been delayed until 2016.

These are all clear signs that the EPA’s investigation into the safety of shale gas development – along with federal regulatory possibilities – have been put on the back burner if not abandoned all together. In the meantime, policing of the national shale gas boom will continue to be left to individual states in the absence of federal baselines, regional planning, and uniform rules. Measures to gauge and control the cumulative impact of fracking and waste disposal on water supplies, and the legacy of abandoned infrastructure for future generations, will be left to faith in the belief that capital markets can adequately protect public health and the environment.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Diesel not allowed for fracking, except when it’s allowed State, federal policies leave door open for petro-distillates

Conventional wisdom and certain regulations suggest that injecting diesel fuel into the ground is generally not an environmentally sound idea. Diesel fuel, to nobody’s surprise, contains toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, including The Big Four: Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylene, collectively known in regulatory terms as BTEX. While part of a potent energy formula that has added vitally to the industrialization of our country – these compounds cause serious risks when let loose in nature. They can cause cancer, damage vital organs and wreck nervous systems. They dissolve easily in water. They are toxic at very low levels. Their individual dangers are compounded when they are mixed.

Diesel fuel contains all of these compounds, and despite calls for an outright ban of diesel as a primary fracking agent, it’s allowed with a Class II injection permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. There are also ways around the federal permitting process. Operators can add BTEX to fracking fluids and avoid federal regulations as long as the hydrocarbon mix doesn’t meet the technical definition of diesel. It’s up to states to regulate fracking, and because fracking is exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, there are few restrictions on additives or requirements for their public disclosure.

The well service industry likes to use petroleum distillates because they are cheap and effective. According to a report from a U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, BTEX compounds appeared in 60 hydraulic fracturing products between 2005 and 2009. During that period operators knowingly injected 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical. Despite all the talk about “green fluids” from the PR branch of the industry, many operators favor petroleum distillates to produce shale gas, and have fought hard to keep them in the mix.

Recent legislation passed in Illinois, a place where state officials have touted rules as the toughest in the land, is an example. What I find striking, after being tipped by comments from several SGR readers on my last blog-post, are eleventh hour revisions to the Illinois statute dealing with the issue of petroleum compounds as fracking agents. HB 2615, the original version of the bill, would have made it “unlawful to perform any high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations by knowingly or recklessly injecting diesel or any petroleum distillates.” (Emphasis my own.) In the face of industry resistance, the final bill (SB 1715) dropped the term “petroleum distillates” and, further, defined diesel as any one of six particular chemical profiles listed by the Chemical Abstracts Service, or as “additional substances regulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as diesel fuel.” (The National Resources Defense Council, one of many environmental groups with mixed reviews of the Illinois regs, characterized them as falling short of safeguards, but better than "a very bad situation" of proceeding with no policy at all. You can read NRDC staffer’s Ann Alexander’s blog here. Sandra Steingraber, an environmental activists, characterized the Illinois legislation as a lame compromise at the expense of open government and public health.)

That federal policy, meanwhile, remains inconclusive and incomplete after a history of ineffectiveness.  After determining in 2004 that fracking with diesel “may pose environmental concerns,” the EPA worked with delegations from some of the largest well service companies, including Halliburton, who agreed in a memorandum of understanding to voluntarily remove diesel fuel from fracking fluids. But when the companies found that diesel suited their needs in the field, they used it anyway. According to an ensuing Congressional investigation, oil and gas service companies injected over 32 million gallons of diesel fuel or hydraulic fracturing fluids containing diesel fuel into wells in 19 states between 2005 and 2009. For this, there were no permits issued, nor were fines levied. Since then, the EPA has begun a process to update its regulations on diesel and fracking and to provide a statutory definition of diesel. A precise definition is still pending along with final policy.

New York, the only state with major shale gas potential where permitting remains on hold, is also working on regulations that state officials have touted as the “best in the country.” Yet these regulations, as proposed, do not outlaw BTEX and other petroleum distillates. Nor do they forbid diesel fuel unless it is used as “a base fluid.” In other words, diesel can be added to fracking recipes, as long as the fluid is not the base ingredient. (In that case, operators would have to get a permit under the still undeveloped federal policy.)

The use of petroleum distillates to serve our lives is not unusual or categorically dangerous – Gasoline after all contains BTEX and inherent risks, and there is little doubt about consequences of using it improperly. Yet most of us encounter the handling and burning of gasoline in our workaday travels. This is because the use of gasoline – and risks related to spills or dumping – are tightly controlled.

With fracking, the regulatory controls are much weaker, due largely to the failure of state and federal governments to keep pace with the rapid advancement of the domestic shale gas industry along with its monumental stakes on public welfare.

Friday, June 7, 2013

HBO’s Gasland II will amp up national fracking debate Partisans will love, hate sequel. What about mainstream?

Competing visions of fracking went head to head last night in upstate New York.

Josh Fox screened his much-anticipated Gasland II at a school auditorium in the City of Binghamton, before a crowd of more than 500 people.* Phelim McAleer, a drilling supporter staking his career on discrediting the work of Fox, screened Frack Nation in front of several hundred viewers at an American Legion post in Vestal, about 20 minutes away.

After airing on AXS Cable TV early this year, Frack Nation continues to make the rounds in civic halls throughout the country. Similarly, Josh Fox is screening Gasland II in various communities as part of a “grass roots tour” prior to its television premier on HBO in July. It’s no coincidence that the films aired at the same time at nearly the same place this week. Broome County, which borders Pennsylvania, represents a strategic point in the frack wars, both symbolically and tactically. It sits over a prime part of the Marcellus Shale, a worldclass natural gas reserve, in a state where the fate of fracking is in the hands of an undecided governor, and stakeholders for and against it have been campaigning hard during a moratorium on permitting enacted almost five years ago.

I dropped by the American Legion just prior to the Frack Nation screening and found a full parking lot with strong representation from the pickup and SUV crowd, a horse shoe game going on outside, and a neon sign advertising Coors Light at the bar inside. Frack Nation promotes the industry view that natural gas development is harmless and economically critical, and portrays those who are victimized and their champion, Josh Fox, as phonies.

Running short on time, and having already seen and reviewed Frack Nation (more on that here), I moved on to the West Middle School in Binghamton and the upstate premier of muckraker Josh Fox’s latest film. Gasland II is a sequel to the 2010 film that depicts a deceitful, greedy, and destructive industry building profits off the backs of residents and the environment. It is not without flaws. It is one-sided, didactic, and prone to dramatization at the expense of depth. But it’s underlying premise, the industry wields unmatched influence that allows it to cover up problems, silence critics, and take what it wants through a mismatch of legal and lobbying power, is fair game. Its cinematography is masterful. Those who are skeptical that plutocrats are looking out for the greater social good will find the film a powerful rallying point. Those who feel Big Oil is being unfairly demonized will find it over-wrought and sensationalistic. But the true test of the movie is how it’s received by those with no particular view – the mainstream HBO audience it will reach this summer.

Fox emphasizes the scope and intensity of the on-shore drilling boom, spurred by the massive shale reserves that have become part of President Obama’s domestic energy strategy. These pay zones underlie dozens of states, including areas previously untouched by mineral extraction. Fox again showcases stories that served as the foundation for his original film – contamination in Pavillion, Wyo., Dimock, Pa., and pending development near his ancestral home in the Delaware Water basin in Milanville, Pa. Fox revisits these places for an update, and to establish a connectedness with down home America and a range of characters. In transition he explains: “My back yard is tied to national policy, which is tied to tiny places like Pavillion, Wyoming.”

There are parts of the movie, intended to be provocative, that just seem out of whack. I found an opening sequence pairing explicit footage of the devastating BP Gulf Oil disaster to the thumping groove of the Beach Boys Good Vibrations to be sardonic and more importantly off point. It doesn’t really tell us much. Perhaps the attempt with the music was to instill a sense of ignorantly blissful detachment to the cruel reality of what is happening, and perhaps that might work on a subliminal level for some. Or, it might just be weird.

I found other parts of the film broke significant ground. Fox gets Lisa Jackson, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, on record in an exclusive interview stating that there are “many cases of ground water and drinking water contamination” and that “states are going to have to step up” to regulate and enforce gas drilling.

Fox’s approach is urgent and unsettled – and in the hyper-tasking 21st Century media style, he packs an excessive number of visual cues and audio bites per minute of film. He moves from place to place, issue to issue, victim to victim, story to story, grounding the film in the occasional return to his own back yard, where the gas companies are closing in on a pristine section of the Delaware Water shed. Along the way, he sheds light on some important issues: the revolving door between the government institutions and the gas industry, the psychological war fare tactics the industry employs as a public relations strategy, and the chronic issue of methane migration found at drill sites globally.

He targets those who support gas, but never challenges the motives or stories of those who oppose it. I know that’s not a fit with the narrative line, but an effort to broaden his view would help his credibility and diminish a sense that he is cherry picking. I know through my own reporting that there are indeed many just cases and grievances against the industry from people pulled into the controversy by their own bad judgment or naivete, as well as from victimized innocent bystanders. But there are also cases where the industry becomes an attraction for opportunist, political or otherwise, posing as victims or champions of victims. Beyond that, Fox tends to mix images that are not clearly explained or sourced to amp things up. And while the visual style and frenetic pacing of the film will leave an impression on an audience that otherwise isn’t going to last through a plodding policy discussion, it will likely alienate those looking for a sense of precision and parity. (Surely, there are some people in the industry who are working to improve things?)

As with his first film, Fox excels at showing the gas development through deeply personal moments, and he improves, to some degree, his explication of the mechanics behind the problems. The flaming faucet that became iconic of Fox’s first film is presented again in various forms in Gasland II. Drilling increases the risks and complications of methane migration – the more holes you put in the ground, the more conduits you create for methane to move into places where it can blow things up. The risks go up when drilling into and through pressurized methane-baring zones. In this film, Fox uses Cornell University professor and fracturing expert Tony Ingraffia – a good choice -- for a tutorial on cement casing failure that plagues the industry. But flammable water is also a natural phenomenon, and by failing to explain this or even address it in either Gasland or Gasland II, Fox has left open the door for McAleer and other industry supporters eager to attack his work.

Still, Fox scores critical points for accuracy in a part of the discussion that has been muddied by the gas industry propaganda and they come at a place where McAleer’s movie runs aground as credible journalism. That is the part detailing the EPA’s investigation in Dimock, Pa, where methane migration and other problems associated with shale gas development became Exibit A for the anti-fracking movement. (I'm very familiar with this, as it's one of several story lines in Under the Surface.) It is a matter of record that, after Norma Fiorentino’s water well exploded on Jan. 1, 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found nearby drilling had caused water contamination in an aquifer that supplied homes along Carter Road. A subsequent investigation by the federal EPA also found high levels of methane, arsenic, and various heavy metals – all elements associated with drilling -- in some of the Carter Road wells. The EPA ended its investigation late last year without “need for further action,” as Fox correctly documents, amid the election season and growing pressure on the Obama administration and Congress. Government officials in Texas, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and other gas states did not like the EPA looking over their shoulders and, further, there was fear that federally documented problems would encourage political action that would eliminate industry exemptions to the Safe Drinking Water Act and hazardous waste disposal laws. Without these exemptions, the industry would have to disclose the hazardous chemicals that go into and come out of the ground.

The mainstream media, encouraged by industry press releases, generally interpreted the EPA’s handling of the Dimock case as a signal that the water was “safe.” In fact, the EPA said in the text of its analysis that, although pollution was found at "levels that could present a health concern ... no further action” was required because the companies had offered filters and bottled water to residents with contaminated wells. Then the agency quietly turned the case over to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a sister agency that handles health investigations. That ATSDR review, which Fox doesn’t address, is still pending. You can read more about it here.

McAleer, along with various industry PR firms, seized the headlines that touted Dimock water as safe and presented them as vindication. There was no problem, and malcontents on Carter Road had made it all up to bolster their legal claims. This detail is important because it cuts to a point made in Fox’s film that rings true to me, after years of reporting. As with an addict, the industry’s unwillingness to recognize it has any problems is the biggest hurdle to any meaningful reform or improvement.

(Spoiler alert) Fox saves the most compelling scene for the end, and it will surely resonate with a broad audience without need for technical interpretation. As the industry presses Congress to have the EPA stand down, Fox is denied entry to document a Congressional hearing questioning the agency’s role in investigating water pollution cases. Fox persists, citing his First Amendment rights. After a few tense moments, Committee Chairman Andy Harris – a gas supporter with financial ties to the industry -- has Fox arrested. Harris had denied Fox’s prior request for media credentials to attend the hearing, and the ensuing scene likely makes more compelling video and gripping narrative than anything Fox might have gained at the hearing. It will surely resonate with mainstream audiences who are skeptical of government ties to Big Oil or any corporate interest.

Liberty is a sacrosanct ideal, but its governmental underpinnings, in practice, can fill a person with a sense of ineffectiveness, tedium, and saturation of discussion ad nauseam. Still, we take comfort in knowing that we are always welcome in this discussion, if and when we choose, whether at public meetings or at the voting booth. We elect officials who enlist wonks and lawyers to make the fine print of government and its service to people, even those with competing ideological values, into policy that hopefully provides net improvement to our everyday lives. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. By extension, we count on media to provide access into the discussion by recording and analyzing government’s workings. While many residents might not find the time to make it to a town board meeting, much less a Congressional hearing, they are reassured in knowing that these hearings are accessible for coverage by reporters with recording equipment. When people are arrested for insisting on their First Amendment rights – the most fundamental tool for government by the people -- alarms should go off with anybody who values liberty.

Gasland aired on HBO in the summer of 2010. It earned Fox an Academy Award nomination and an Emmy, and brought the issue of fracking to mainstream audiences. The sequel is expected to reach similarly large audiences on HBO this summer. I expect most viewers, because of Fox’s gift to combine story-telling with arresting imagery, will sit through and perhaps be moved by a film about issues involving policy that is otherwise dense and obscure.

Frack Nation is a film built on the basis of discrediting Gasland. It will please a political niche, but it’s not enough to gain traction with a universal audience. In this country, powerful institutions have traditionally made attractive targets for mainstream media. Joseph Pulitzer built a newspaper empire on this approach that would set the mold for 20th century journalism; and the work of Upton Sinclair – an earlier recipient of the Pulitzer Prize– popularized a name for it: muckraking.

Shining the media light on rich and powerful people and institutions – raking the muck -- is a revered function of the working press. Exposes of critics of rich and powerful, on the other hand, may find a place in the news hole, but are not typically front page candidates. In this regard, McAleer’s success is married to the success of Fox. The more famous Fox becomes, the more relevant McAleer’s efforts to discredit him.

But there is something more:  We are no longer in the days of Pulitzer or Sinclair.  The post-20st century media is shaped by a business model with less resources for reporting, which is expensive, and more room for talking heads, reality television, and other content that is inexpensive. The Internet has made news reporting and consumption more fragmented and segmented, with endless choices to fit ideological views. (This is not all bad, but that’s another discussion.)

Spread across this media, the shale gas debate is fragmented by political ideology over science, and at the core of this fragmentation are opposing views about the role government plays in a free country. In the shale gas debate, government is seen as both an intruder on free enterprise and a protector of people’s rights from the intrusion of others. In both Gasland movies, Josh Fox represents the liberal view that corporate America has run amuck at the expense of the planet and the well-being of its citizens, and government policing is the first step toward justice for those who have been wronged and the final step to bring things back into balance. McAleer represents the conservative view that free enterprise, in this case represented by gas industry, is benevolent and government is, at best, a hindrance.

It’s a discussion that applies to many facets of our life, including property rights, land use, public health, and standard of living, and it’s a discussion that was easy to ignore when energy was mostly produced in far-away places and global warming was less real. Hopefully, we will all not only get engaged, but think about the broad and collective impact of our personal energy decisions, aside from our political beliefs.

* I originally wrote "about 400" and changed it after an organizer noted that the school auditorium holds 900, and it was more full than not.