Sustained Outrage

Morgantown moves closer to ban on fracking

The City Council up in Morgantown moved a step closer last night toward a ban within the city limits on oil and gas “fracking.”

The AP has a short item on this, but the Dominion Post has a more detailed story (subscription required):

During its Tuesday meeting, city council voted 6-1 to approve the first reading of a law to ban horizontal drilling and fracturing — or fracking — in Morgantown and one mile around the city. A public hearing and second reading will be held before the law can be adopted.

This move is in reaction, of course, to the state Department of Environmental Protection’s issuing — without public notice or a hearing — two drilling operations just upstream from the city’s drinking water intake (see here and here).

The oil and gas industry, through its PR campaign called “Energize WV”, warned that a vote this way by Morgantown would “send the wrong message” to the industry and to potential developers of a “cracker” plant that political leaders promote as the state’s economic salvation. The industry’s blog said:

Drilling in the Marcellus can be a game changer for West Virginia. A cracker is estimated to create thousands of new, high paying jobs. Drilling alone will create 7,500 new jobs for North Central West Virginia over the next several years.

Of course, it’s not clear that the oil and gas “boom” is a big of a deal for local economies as the industry would have us believe.  And the industry’s rhetoric aside, there are plenty of questions about the potential environmental impacts of fracking, as documented here, here and here.

And still absent from the public debate over oil and gas drilling in West Virginia is whether natural gas is really the savior its advocates make it out to be, given the new questions about its greater-than-previously-thought greenhouse gas impacts.

Stay tuned …

There’s an interesting new report out from the Post-Carbon Institute about the role natural gas might — or might not — play in America’s future energy supply.

In a forward to the report, Richard Heinberg discusses three central assumptions about natural gas that he says must now be reconsidered:

— Assumption 1: That, thanks to new techniques for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling of shale, we have sufficient natural gas resources to supply the needs of our country for the next 100 years.

— Assumption 2: That the price of natural gas, which has historically been volatile, will remain consistently low for decades to come.

— Assumption 3: That natural gas is much cleaner and sfer than other fossil fuels, from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions and public health.

He goes on:

Based on these assumptions, national energy officials at the Energy Information Administration (EIA) foresee a major expansion of natural gas in the coming decades. President Obama touted natural gas as a cornerstone of his Administration’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” and endorsed plans for converting a sizable portion of the vehicle fleet to run on natural gas. Some environmental groups, rightfully concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, have called for large-scale replacement of coal-fired power plants with those that burn natural gas, despite increasing concern over the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

As this report details, all of these assumptions and recommendations need to be re-thought. What emerges from the data is a very different assessment.

Continue reading…

With the start of drilling approaching, the Morgantown Utility Board is seeking additional safeguards for the city’s water supply from any potential problems associated with Northeast Natural Energy’s plans for Marcellus Shale wells just upstream from the area’s water intake on the Monongahela River.

This week, MUB general manager Timothy L. Ball has sent two letters about the project to James Martin, director of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas.

The first letter, dated May 10 and posted here, notes that the wells “will be literally within sight of our raw water intake”. It continues:

The distance from the well pad to the raw water intake will be about 3,000 feet as the crow flies. More importantly, any substance that is discharged to a stream or drainage pipe from the well site will enter the Monongahela River a mere 1,500 feet (approximately) upstream of our raw water intake. These proximities are a cause of unique concern.

The letter also says:

… We are extremely disappointed and frustrated to learn that the subject permits were issued without providing MUB an opportunity to comment and to have input on the requirements to be included in the permit. We understand that the current regulations governing such permits apparently do not require public notice or solicitation of public input, but neither do they preclude such actions.

Continue reading…

The outside of a natural gas drill site owned by Chesapeake Energy in Leroy Township, Pa., is shown on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. A blowout at a natural gas well in rural northern Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water Wednesday, contaminating a stream and forcing the evacuation of seven families who live nearby as crews struggled to stop the gusher. (AP Photo/The Daily Review, C.J. Marshall)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just announced:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today directed six natural gas drillers to disclose how and where the companies dispose of or recycle drilling process water in the region. EPA continues to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) to ensure that natural gas production takes place safely and responsibly. These actions are among the ongoing steps EPA is taking to ensure drilling operations are protective of public health and the environment. Natural gas is a key part of our nation’s energy future and EPA will continue to work with federal, state and local partners to ensure that public health and the environment are protected.

This follows last month’s major spill from a Chesapeake Energy site in Pennsylvania, and EPA noted:

EPA’s action follows a request by PADEP asking drillers to voluntarily stop taking wastewater to Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plants by May 19. EPA wants to know where drillers are now going to dispose of their wastewater and will work with PADEP to ensure EPA has access to this information. The companies must report back to EPA by May 25 with information on the disposal or recycling of their drilling process water.

The companies receiving the information requests are: Atlas Resources L.L.C; Talisman Energy USA; Range Resources – Appalachia, L.L.C.; Cabot Gas and Oil Corporation; SWEPI, LP; and, Chesapeake Energy Corporation. These six companies account for more than 50 percent of the natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin said:

We want to make sure that the drillers are handling their wastewater in an environmentally responsible manner. EPA is continuing to work with PADEP officials who are on the frontlines of permitting and regulating natural gas drilling activities in Pennsylvania.


Huge news today on the oil and gas drilling front … and lots of coverage of it all over the place.

Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica reports:

For the first time, a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.

The peer-reviewed study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stands to shape the contentious debate over whether drilling is safe and begins to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand the risks.

Andrew Revkin put it this way on his DotEarth blog:

Researchers from Duke University say they have found a clear link between gas drilling in Pennsylvania and Upstate New York and high levels of flammable methane in drinking water — a situation that became a prominent talking point in the drilling debate after flaming faucets were featured in the documentary “Gasland.”

And  Dina Cappiello of The Associated Press explained:

Of the 60 wells tested for methane gas, 14 had levels of methane within or above a hazard range set by the Department of Interior for gas seeping from coal mines — all but one of them near a gas well. In nine wells, concentrations were so high that the government would recommend immediate action to reduce the methane level.

The study itself, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, put it this way:

In aquifers overlying the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York, we document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction.

But as a press release from Duke University explained:

The study found no evidence of contamination from chemical-laden fracking fluids, which are injected into gas wells to help break up shale deposits, or from “produced water,” wastewater that is extracted back out of the wells after the shale has been fractured.

Still, as ProPublica explained, the scientists:

… Were alarmed by what they described as a clear correlation between drilling activity and the seepage of gas contaminants underground, a danger in itself and evidence that pathways do exist for contaminants to migrate deep within the earth.

“We certainly didn’t expect to see such a strong relationship between the concentration of methane in water and the nearest gas wells. That was a real surprise,” said Robert Jackson, a biology professor at Duke and one of the report’s authors.


The Morgantown Dominion Post broke the story yesterday (subscription required) about the state Department of Environmental Protection approving two permits for Marcellus gas wells to be drilled just upstream from the area’s drinking water intakes along the Monongahela River.

As they reported:

Site preparation has begun, said Michael John, president of Northeaste Natural Energy, the Charleston-based company that will do the drilling …

… John said the two permits — issued March 10 and March 23 — allow the company to drill two wells on the pad — MIP No. 4H and No. 6H. If various factors pan out — including the wells’ productivity and pipeline capacity — the company may drill four more on the same pad.

The Dominion Post has a follow-up story today (subscription required), reporting:

A Monongahela River watershed group wants the Department of Environmental Protection to study the potential health ans safety risks of two Marcellus wells planned for the Morgantown Industrial Park — and preferably hold the permits until the risks can be assessed.

The letter from the WV/PA Monongahela Area Watershed Compact (which I’ve posted here) raises a number of issues:

— Any leakage, seepage, spillage, or blow-out of liquid pollutants would be a direct threat to the water intake of the Morgantown Utility Board (MUB), that serves the greater metropolitan area of nearly 100,000 people, including many residential and business areas, and the entire populace of West Virginia University ( about 40,000 people). MUB supplies to Morgantown, Westover, Granville, Laurel Point, Scotts Run, Star City, Pleasant Valley, Cheat View, and Stewartstown as well as Milan Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and the Ft. Martin and Longview power plants.

— The diverse air emissions including controlled and inadvertent releases, fugitive emissions, blow-outs, and accidental incidents that represent a major threat to the people and property here in the Monongahela River valley.

— Fire and explosion hazards, as evidenced by a number of incidents in northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania; this includes the flash-fire in Washington County (PA) on February 23rd that resulted in serious injuries to three workers, two of whom were WV residents; and the recent Marcellus well blow-out in Bradford County (PA) which spread toxic fluids over a wide area despite the engineering and operating best practices of the drilling company involved. This also resulted in a temporary halt to fracking by this company in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The citizen group told DEP Secretary Randy Huffman in its letter:

We believe that these permitted wells plus those that may be added, can present a significant and real threat to the health and safety of residents of this area. Your office is empowered to take substantive actions when such threats to public health and safety occur; and, we herewith request that you do so without delay.

DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco told the Dominion Post her agency would review the letter, but added:

We’re following the regulations that we have to follow; until we have more, we don’t have the authority behind us on a lot of things they want us to do.

One thing that these particular drilling permits are sure to cause a stir about: The lack of any requirement for DEP to issue a public notice or seek public comments — let alone hold a public hearing — before it issues permits for drilling that might impact public health and safety.

As Kathy Cosco told me in an e-mail message last night:

… There was no public hearing or comment period for these permits. Oil and Gas regulations do not call for public hearings or a comment period for well work permits. The company is required to notify the surface property owner or owners, the natural gas owner, coal owners, coal lessees and operators, and those parties have 15 days to submit comments related to the permit.

The lack of public involvement is in stark contrast to the regulations that govern many other industrial activities, and certainly quite less stringent than what the coal industry has to follow in West Virginia.

Earlier this year, the West Virginia Environmental Council made adding a requirement for public notice and comment among the top priorities for any new legislation on oil and gas drilling in the state, saying in a position paper:

The impacts of Marcellus Shale operations are felt far beyond the surface tracts being disturbed. Impacts can occur to public lands, special places, high quality streams, neighboring landowners, and local infrastructure. Therefore, EVERY permit application to drill a horizontal should be officially noticed to the public (via newspaper ads, etc.), and should include a 30-day public comment period (this is in addition to all the appropriate notice provisions to surface owners and others).

Tomblin reschedules Marcellus task force meeting

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, has rescheduled the first meeting of his “Marcellus to Manufacturing Task Force” for next week. From the online meeting list at the Secretary of State’s office:

Date of Meeting: May 4, 2011

Time of Meeting: 10:30 AM

Location:

West Virginia Technology Park

2001 Union Carbide Drive Building 2000

Room 1220

South Charleston, West Virginia

The notice also said:

Discuss organizational matters; Review Executive Order No. 1-11 and duties of Task Force; Consideration of matters related to ethane and natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia; Discussion of ethane, ethane conversion facilities and ethylene generally; Discussion of available resources in West Virginia that could be utilized to promote investment in ethane to ethylene conversion facilities; Discussion of potential economic impact of ethane conversion facility locating in West Virginia; Formation of Task Force Subcommittees and related matters; Consideration and adoption of meeting procedures; Discussion related to formation of a comprehensive Marcellus to Manufacturing Action Plan generally; Consideration of other matters related generally to the foregoing. An agenda will be available three days prior to the meeting in Room M-146, Office of General Counsel, Office of the Governor, 1900 Kanawha Boulevard, East, Charleston, West Virginia.

UPDATED: Tomblin cancels Marcellus meeting

UPDATED: Just heard from Kurt Dettinger, general counsel for the governor’s office, and he informed me that they’ve called off tomorrow’s task force meeting, citing the inadequate public notice.

“It was determined that we needed to give more notice,” Dettinger said. The meeting will be rescheduled for early May, Dettinger said.

—————————————————————————-

It’s been more than two months since Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, created a “task force”  to encourage further development of the Marcellus Shale and to try to lure spin-off industries into West Virginia.

That group appears to be actually starting to get down to work, with a meeting scheduled for tomorrow at the Capitol … Interestingly, the meeting is being billed — and was filed with the Secretary of State’s office — as an “emergency meeting.”

That designation allowed the governor’s office to avoid the five-day-in-advance public notice requirement when the meeting hit the State Register on Friday.

But is this really an emergency meeting?

Under state law, such meetings may be held only when there is some facts or circumstances “requiring immediate official action,” and those “facts and circumstances” must be spelled out in the meeting notice.

In this instance, the task force says it is having an emergency meeting “to discuss organizational matters.”  There is no mention of a need for immediate government action …

The meetings is set for 2 p.m. in the Governor’s Cabinet and Conference Room.

The Associated Press had a story over the weekend about the differing views of various candidates for governor of West Virginia about Marcellus Shale drilling … and the Sunday Gazette-Mail included the following questions and answers from the candidates on the issue:

Do you believe West Virginia needs new regulations for oil and gas drilling? If so, what specific requirements should be in the legislation?

— Clark S. Barnes:

We must address: Surface owners’ rights, protection of the aquifer which residents depend upon for their personal needs and for livestock use, the amount and location of water removal needed for the drilling and “fracking” process and, the disposal of chemically treated fluids used in the drilling process.

— Mitch B. Carmichael:

I believe that existing regulations for oil and gas drilling are working well. I do support additional DEP inspectors to ensure that regulations are enforced, water supplies are pure, and surface owners are protected.

— Ralph William “Bill” Clark:

We need lower corporate taxes and a competitive severance tax for energy companies, to guarantee profitability, but higher permit fees to pay for more inspectors. We must protect water quality and quantity and surface owners’ rights — now and for the future — and require disclosure of chemicals used in the fracturing process.

— Larry Faircloth:

While capitalizing on natural resources, the environment and property rights must be respected. As governor I will introduce legislation to protect landowners, water systems, rivers and streams as we explore for and extract oil and gas reserves.

— Betty S. Ireland:

— Predictable regulatory process

— Responsive, consistent, balanced permitting process

— Process for local governments/municipalities to provide feedback

— Citizens assured that drilling provides a direct and significant economic benefit

— Consistent and predictable process for individual landowners to insure fair and equitable treatment

— Assurance of outstanding water resources with exemplary water quality

— Bill Maloney:

We already have regulation on oil and gas, including the Marcellus Shale. When I’m governor, West Virginia will drill. We need to streamline the permitting process to ensure we take advantage of this huge potential, while protecting property rights and addressing environment concerns.

— Mark A. Sorsaia:

Yes we do need new regulations that will insure the quality of ground water, and public safety. Our regulations must place us in a competitive position that will promote the development of our gas resources.

The outside of a natural gas drill site owned by Chesapeake Energy in Leroy Township, Pa., is shown on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. A blowout at a natural gas well in rural northern Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water Wednesday, contaminating a stream and forcing the evacuation of seven families who live nearby as crews struggled to stop the gusher. (AP Photo/The Daily Review, C.J. Marshall)

UPDATED:

Rory Sweeney, a spokesman for Chesapeake, just clarified that Chesapeake has halted  “fracking” operations at all of its eastern operations, including in West Virginia, while it investigates the Pennsylvania incident.

This just in from The Associated Press:

CANTON, Pa. (AP) — A natural gas company has suspended “fracking” at all of its wells throughout Pennsylvania until it figures out the cause of a spill in the northern part of the state.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. said Thursday that crews have significantly reduced the flow of chemical-laced water from its out-of-control well near Canton in Bradford County.

Spokesman Brian Grove says that the exact cause of Tuesday night’s breach is unknown, but that it’s located in a wellhead connection.

Thousands of gallons of drilling fluids were spilled. They escaped containment, crossed over farm fields and went into a stream.

Grove says initial testing of area waterways has shown “minimal impact, if any.”

The gas drilling technique is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It involves blasting chemical-laced water into the ground. Critics say it could poison water supplies; the gas drilling industry says it’s safe.

I was curious why Chesapeake was only halting its fracking operations in Pennsylvania and not other states, like West Virginia. So far, I haven’t been able to get any of the company’s public relations people on the phone to explain the decision … I’ll update this post if I hear back from them.

Continue reading…