Sustained Outrage

CSB outlines dangers to public from gas well sites

Here’s the latest in today from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board:

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) today released a new study of explosions at oil and gas production sites across the U.S., identifying 26 incidents since 1983 that killed 44 members of the public and injured 25 others under the age of 25, and is calling for new public protection measures at the sites.

The report examined in detail three explosions that occurred at oil and gas production facilities in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, that killed and injured members of the public between October 2009 and April 2010.

Board investigators found:

… Children and young adults frequently socialize at oil sites in rural areas, unaware of the explosion hazards from storage tanks that contain flammable hydrocarbons like crude oil and natural gas condensate. The unintentional introduction of an ignition source (such as a match, lighter, cigarette, or static electricity) near tank hatches or vents can trigger an internal tank explosion, often launching the tank into the air and killing or injuring people nearby.

For local readers, none of the incidents the CSB documented occurred in West Virginia, but still:

The report identified regulatory gaps at the federal and state levels and called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state regulatory bodies to improve current safety and security measures at exploration and production sites such as warning signs, full fencing, locked gates, locks on tank hatches, and other physical barriers.

Board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

After reviewing the work of our investigators I believe that these incidents were entirely preventable. Basic security measures and warning signs – as well as more safely designed storage tanks – will essentially prevent kids from being killed in tank explosions at these sites.

And here’s the board’s safety video on this issue:

While I was down in Beckley earlier this week, some potential news came in concerning the PPG Industries plant up in Natrium, W.Va.  The website “Marketwatch” was reporting:

As part of our North American Project Database, Industrial Info is tracking about $200 million in PPG spending on active projects in the U.S., including the $100 million conversion of a mercury cell chlorine plant in New Martinsville, West Virginia.

This was potentially huge news, given the long campaign by state and national environmental groups to convince (or force) PPG to eliminate the huge mercury emissions from its chlor-alkali facility (see previous coverage here, here and here).

In fact, the group Oceana sent us this statement about this potential development:

“PPG’s intention to convert its New Martinsville plant to mercury-free technology is long-overdue, very welcome news. PPG’s plant on the Ohio River has needlessly fouled the air and water of West Virginia and neighboring states with mercury pollution for the past 54 years,” said Oceana senior campaign director Jackie Savitz. “We sincerely hope that PPG Industries does convert the plan to modern technology, and that the company also keeps its recovered mercury out of the global environment,” she added.

Oceana has campaigned since 2005 to end mercury use in the production of chlorine and caustic soda in the United States. Only nine U.S. chlorine plants used the outdated technology in 2005. If PPG does convert its New Martinsville mercury cell chlorine plant to cleaner technology, there will be only one U.S. plant, operated by Ashta Chemicals of Ashtabula, OH, that has failed to convert its chlor-alkali plant to cleaner technology.

Well, I checked with PPG spokesman Jeremy Neuhart and here’s what he said:

Yes, we saw the announcement from Industrial Info that references a “$100 million conversion of a mercury cell chlorine plant in New Martinsville, West Virginia.”

This information is inaccurate.

PPG has made no announcements to this effect, and we have no current plans to make such a conversion at the PPG Natrium plant near New Martinsville.

Keep in mind, though, that PGG has pledged — as part of a court settlement with the state of Maryland (not West Virginia) to reduce its mercury emissions and to consider even more reductions in the future … so stay tuned …

Secret meetings, Oct. 21, 2011

This week’s issue of The State Register contains one meeting that violated the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law. The agency? The Board of Examiners for Registered Professional Nurses.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

There’s a fascinating new paper out on the website of the journal Environmental Health, reporting “for the very first time a significant association between serum PFC levels and the risk” of breast cancer.

The paper is available here, and it was written by researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Interestingly, the paper examines breast cancer among the  Inuit population of Greenland and Canada. The authors offered some cautions:

There are some weaknesses in the presented study. Firstly, the few subjects involved, 31 cases and 115 controls, gives a poor statistically power. However, the highly related serum PFC levels with the risk of BC cancer did persist in all our effort to make up a better case control frequency match.

And they also said:

The recent increase in BC incidence might be explained by the high burden of legacy POPs and increased exposure to new emerging POPs such as PFCs together with the recent transition in the Inuit diet from the traditional marine food to more western food and lifestyle factors such as smoking and alcohol intake.

EPA to propose discharge standards for gas drilling

This just announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is announcing a schedule to develop standards for wastewater discharges produced by natural gas extraction from underground coalbed and shale formations. No comprehensive set of national standards exists at this time for the disposal of wastewater discharged from natural gas extraction activities, and over the coming months EPA will begin the process of developing a proposed standard with the input of stakeholders – including industry and public health groups. Today’s announcement is in line with the priorities identified in the president’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, and is consistent with the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board recommendations on steps to support the safe development of natural gas resources.

“The president has made clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our energy economy. That is why we are taking steps — in coordination with our federal partners and informed by the input of industry experts, states and public health organizations — to make sure the needs of our energy future are met safely and responsibly,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “We can protect the health of American families and communities at the same time we ensure access to all of the important resources that make up our energy economy. The American people expect and deserve nothing less.”

Recent technology and operational improvements in extracting natural gas resources, particularly shale gas, have increased gas drilling activities across the country. Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount just a few years ago to almost 15 percent of total U.S. natural gas production and this share is expected to triple in the coming decades. The sharp rise in domestic production has improved U.S. energy security and created jobs, and as with any resource the administration is committed to ensuring that we continue to leverage these resources safely and responsibly, including understanding any potential impact on water resources.

Continue reading…

Getting the right information on Marcellus Shale

West Virginia’s political leadership and much of the media continue their push to show how great Marcellus Shale drilling is going to be for our state, and to dispel any notion that the state’s tax structure and regulatory requirements are not tough enough on the industry.

Take today’s top story in the Charleston Daily Mail, in which statehouse reporter Ry Rivard writes:

West Virginia appears to place a higher tax burden on natural gas operators than five surrounding states, according to a recent study by the Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research.

A team led by professor Calvin Kent compared West Virginia to 18 other states, including Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

“West Virginia places more taxes and fees on natural gas production than most of the other states which were studied,” Kent and his team concluded. That includes Pennsylvania, which is in direct competition with West Virginia for drilling activity.

Before we’re too tough on our buddy Ry, though, let’s not forget that the Gazette’s statehouse reporter, Phil Kabler, took this Marshall spin without question, writing last week:

A report by the Marshall Center for Business and Economic Research found that West Virginia’s taxes and fees imposed on natural gas production are comparable overall with other natural gas producing states, but noticeably higher than surrounding states.

West Virginia’s severance tax, 5 percent of gross value, is higher than neighboring states, including the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland, which have no severance tax on natural gas.

“You’ve got a huge advantage in Pennsylvania right now, because natural gas is being exploited out of that state with very minimal taxation,” Marshall professor Cal Kent told an interim committee on Finance.

The report said it is impossible to determine what impact the tax rates will have on development of Marcellus Shale drilling in the state, since taxation is only one of many factors that determine where companies will locate.

Now, this Marshall University report is certainly being promoted by industry groups and their supporters. But if anybody had bothered to dig a little deeper, they might have found this preliminary analysis by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, which explains that simply comparing the basic tax rate isn’t enough — it doesn’t show the full picture. To do that, as the center explains, you have to look at “effective rates” of taxation:

However, effective rates are often lower than statutory rates. The effective rate is the end result after you adjust for deductions, limits and credits.

As we’ve written before over on the Gazette’s Coal Tattoo blog, that sort of review paints quite a different picture, showing that West Virginia’s severance tax (for all mining – industries, including coal and natural gas):

Using this method, West Virginia has an effective severance tax rate of 3.2%, well below the average of 5.2% for the top ten states. Alaska had the highest effective rate at 11.2%. Of the ten state’s most reliant on the severance tax, West Virginia ranked 7th for effective rate. West Virginia also had a lower effective rate than neighboring energy producer Kentucky, and a lower rate than the western states whose production is growing more competitive with West Virginia every year.

Continue reading…

Secret meetings, Oct. 14, 2011

Today’s issue of The State Register contains no meetings that violate the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

A natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy, top, viewed from Morgantown on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/David Smith)

Here’s a report from the AP’s Larry Messina on yesterday’s legislative interim meeting:

West Virginia would expand the buffer zones between Marcellus shale wells and homes, livestock and drinking water through provisions added Wednesday to a regulatory proposal for the rich natural gas reserve.

The special House-Senate committee drafting the bill adopted the various buffer zones by a non-unanimous voice vote. Before recessing in advance of a meeting Thursday, the lawmakers also agreed they will reconsider drilling permit fee hikes approved last month. Industry groups have objected to the proposed $10,000 for an initial well and $5,000 for each additional well at that site. Natural gas operators now pay just a few hundred dollars for permits.

The committee’s goal remains a regulatory measure capable of passage during a special legislative session. Gov.-elect Earl Ray Tomblin has said he will convene one if the committee’s draft attracts sufficient consensus. Efforts to pass a Marcellus rules bill failed during this year’s regular session, prompting Tomblin to order temporary emergency standards from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Wednesday’s proposed buffer zones include one of 625 feet between the center of a well site and a residence or building that houses dairy cattle or poultry. The committee voted after hearing from Marion County resident Casey Griffith, who said the dream house he built with his wife has been ruined by a well site 200 or so feet away. Around-the-clock noise, dust churned up by well construction and waste gas burned off at the site are among his family’s concerns, he said.

“I swore I would never live anywhere but in West Virginia,” said Griffith, a lifelong state resident. “I don’t believe that any more.”

Brett Loflin, an executive with Northeast Natural Energy, agreed that he wouldn’t want a well 200 feet from his house. But he said buffers larger than 625 feet would unfairly hinder operators. Lawmakers had also considered buffers of 750 feet and 1,000 feet.

“The primary concern is sterilizing acreage, and just not being able to put a well anywhere,” Loflin told the committee.

Continue reading…

Is it OK to refer to this as a ‘WVU study’?

Earlier this week, West Virginia University President James Clements announced during his State of the University address that WVU was forming a new research center to work on Marcellus Shale drilling issues.

It’s interesting then, that one yet-to-be completed “WVU study” is being touted already as proof that drilling does not have anything to do with methane ending up in groundwater supplies.  The website Marcellus Drilling News reported:

Dr. Shikha Sharma, an assistant professor at West Virginia University and the lead researcher of a new WVU study looking at the source of methane found in water supplies (see this MDN story), says those who think that hydraulic fracturing is the cause of methane found in their water supply may be wrong. And she can prove it—scientifically.

That post was apparently based on a Wheeling paper story that reported:

Those who believe their drinking water wells may be contaminated with methane released by natural gas fracking may be wrong, according to a West Virginia University professor.

“The source of methane gas can range from active or inactive deep coal mines, landfills, gas storage fields or microbial gas generated in a shallow subsurface,” said assistant professor Shikha Sharma, noting that dissolved methane gas already exists in groundwater where there is no shale gas drilling.

“As a scientist, it is my job to stay focused on the scientific perspective of this study while staying neutral on the political and social issues associated with it,” she added.

But the story also reported:

With the jury still out on whether fracking can release methane into groundwater, Sharma continues her study. It is being funded by a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey, provided through the West Virginia Water Research Institute. This money allows Sharma and her graduate student, Michon Mulder, to gather and test water samples from groundwater wells in the Monongahela River watershed.

Continue reading…

Here’s the latest from Larry Messina over at The Associated Press:

West Virginia lawmakers may revisit the proposed Marcellus shale permit fees that caused an outcry from the natural gas industry.

A special House-Senate committee is meeting Wednesday to resume work on a draft regulatory measure for drilling in the rich Marcellus reserve.

Committee members voted last month to set fees at $10,000 to drill an initial well and $5,000 for each additional well at that site. Natural gas operators now pay just a few hundred dollars.

The permit fee increases aim to provide enough funding to hire more gas field inspectors and support staff. The committee hopes to hear detailed estimates from the Department of Environmental Protection for the cost of additional needed employees. These specific figures could prompt lawmakers to lower the proposed fees and ease industry objections.

Recall that oil and gas companies objected — and claimed surprise — at the proposed fees, but that citizen groups said those were the numbers that had been talked about all along.

Industry officials and lawmakers are often fond of comparing West Virginia to other states (at least when trying to weaken environmental rules), so it’s worth remembering that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett recently proposed fees of up to $160,000 per well. By comparison, the West Virginia proposal is a bargain, even according to the Daily Mail.

Keep in mind that the idea here in West Virginia was to use the money from increased permit fees to beef up the Department of Environmental Protection’s oil and gas regulatory program, an effort that has been chronically understaffed and underfunded.

Today’s interim committee meeting should be available via webcast here. The meeting starts at 4 p.m.