Sustained Outrage

This Sunday’s New York Times had a major story on the oil- and gas-drilling boom that concluded:

While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.

The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.

But the E.P.A. has not intervened. In fact, federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008.

In other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in by all these plants is safe.

Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

Gazette statehouse reporter Alison Knezevich reports this morning that West Virginia lawmakers are significantly scaling back any efforts to regulate the boom in Marcellus gas drilling across the state. As Alison explained:

The House Judiciary Committee cut a more than 200-page bill on Marcellus issues down to 33 pages. The Senate Energy, Industry & Mining Committee whittled 180 pages down to about 60.

The pending bills (HB2878, SB424) address permit fees, environmental regulations, and protections for property owners, among other topics related to the state’s natural gas boom.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said the House bill was “narrowed down to the issues we could really agree on with the so-called stakeholders.”

Alison also reported:

On the House floor Thursday morning, Delegate Barbara Fleischauer read her colleagues a news report from Washington County, Pa., where three workers were injured Wednesday night in a fiery explosion at a Chesapeake Energy drilling site.

The Monongalia County Democrat urged them to pass legislation that would fund inspectors and protect the environment and workers.

“We don’t have to ask permission from the gas companies to protect the public,” she said. “That’s not our job. Our job is to protect the public.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers are putting on the fast track another piece of legislation, HB3099, giving tax breaks aimed at encouraging spin-off businesses related to Marcellus drilling.

One of the more interesting things about this bill is the Fiscal Note, which projects the legislation won’t cost the state a cent — because it doesn’t examine how much the potential tax breaks would amount to, instead focusing only on this:

Although this legislation contains several incentives designed to attract energy related industries as well as promote the use of alternative fuel supplies , it does not have any specific effects on the cost operations of the Development Office or the Division of Energy.

Is the Marcellus boom a good idea?

West Virginia political leaders and their campaign spinmeisters are furiously promoting the boom in drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Folks seem to be eager to count the money that might be generated.

We’re hearing less from most of them about legislation that the state’s environmental protection secretary, Randy Huffman, has said is urgently needed to regulate this drilling.

With that backdrop, there was a fascinating report released last month by the respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University. The report examines the question of whether the U.K. should advance drilling into shale gas formations. In trying to find answers, U.K. scientists looked at what’s happened so far in the United States in the Marcellus Shale.

Citing concerns about water pollution, public health and — most of all, climate change — the report questions the whole idea that this natural gas boom is a good thing, saying:

…In an energy hungry world, any new fossil fuel resource will only lead to additional carbon emissions. In the case of shale gas there is also a significant risk its use will delay the introduction of renewable energy alternatives.

Professor Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre said:

Consequently, if we are serious in our commitment to avoid dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in the ground.

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Tomblin backs drilling, but still no word on regulation

Acting W.Va. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s backing of the state’s natural gas drilling industry, without also pushing for needed regulation of that industry, continues …

The acting governor’s office issued this statement today in conjunction with a press conference at the Capitol:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin today, joined by leaders in the natural gas and chemical industries, announced the formation of a Marcellus to Manufacturing Task Force. This Task Force will research and develop potential economic development opportunities related to Marcellus Shale and natural gas byproducts such as ethane and ethylene.

And, according to this comment from Tomblin, he doesn’t appear to think there are any problems related to increased drilling across the state:

The environmentally responsible manner in which the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus Shale occurs will bring countless jobs to West Virginia. In addition, if we can feasibly develop thermal or steam crackers to make use of the ethane and ethylene associated with gas, we will have a great opportunity to reinvigorate our manufacturing sector. I have asked this Task Force to look at all of the possibilities and identify how we can take the expansion surge from the natural gas industry to positively impact our chemical and manufacturing industries.

Tomblin must have missed the news about Clean Water Act violations by Chesapeake energy and the reports of what happened at Buckeye Run in Doddridge County — let alone the recommendations from his own Department of Environmental Protection Secretary, Randy Huffman, for more inspectors and tougher permitting and enforcement rules on this growing industry.

One of the two major bills pending at the Legislature was introduced at the request of WVDEP, but the governor’s office specifically noted that it was not an administration bill. And Tomblin was not among the state leaders who turned out for a press conference last week urging “balance” as West Virginia pushes forward into the Marcellus boom.

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New report details drilling damage to Fernow forest

Foliar injury of trees damaged by aerial release of drilling fluids on May 29, 2008, from the B800 well. Pit containing drilling fl uids is shown in the foreground. Photo taken June 11, 2008. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

We’ve written before about the problems at the Fernow Experimental Forest related to a drilling gas drilling operation conducted there by Berry Energy (See previous posts here, here and here).

Now, a new report by U.S. Forest scientists details the damage that was done.  ProPublica’s Nicholas Kusnetz first reported on the findings on Friday:

The report traces the construction and drilling of a single well and an accompanying pipeline on a sliver of the 4,700 acre forest that federal scientists have been studying for nearly 80 years. It found that the project felled or killed about 1,000 trees, damaged roads, eroded the land and—perhaps most important—permanently removed a small slice of the forest from future scientific research.

The report said the drilling didn’t appear to have a substantial effect on groundwater quality. The scientists did not monitor the forest’s most sensitive ecosystems, including extensive caves, and did not evaluate the operation’s impact on wildlife. The authors also did not test for any of the chemicals added to drilling and hydraulic fracturing fluids.

The report, and the well in question, hints at a larger story of the tensions that have emerged as drilling expands across federal lands in the eastern United States. The B800 well, as it’s called, drew controversy [2] within the Forest Service when it was planned and approved in 2007. In a letter [3] obtained by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, three Forest Service scientists criticized the decision to approve the well, saying it threatened endangered bats and the interconnected caves where they live. The scientists also said the well threatened the long-term research performed in the forest. The employees requested a legal opinion on the matter, but were reportedly rebuffed by their superiors.

The report, whose authors include the three scientists who criticized the decision, notes that some of the scientists’ worst fears, including that turbid water would fill the area’s caves, did not occur. Instead, the greatest impacts of drilling were unexpected. A planned release of wastewater killed scores of trees, and drilling trucks proved much more damaging to the roads than normal logging traffic.

Are greenhouse benefits of natural gas overstated?

A drilling rig used to bore thousands of feet into the earth to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shales deep underground is seen on the hill above the pond on John Dunn’s farm in Houston, Pa., in October.Photo by Keith Srakocic/Associated Press.

This morning at the Capitol, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association will be promoting a report that details the economic impacts of drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation.

But a new report out this morning from Abrahm Lustgarten at ProPublica may have more important news regarding the natural gas industry in West Virginia and across the country:

The United States is poised to bet its energy future on natural gas as a clean, plentiful fuel that can supplant coal and oil. But new research by the Environmental Protection Agency—and a growing understanding of the pollution associated with the full “life cycle” of gas production—is casting doubt on the assumption that gas offers a quick and easy solution to climate change.

Advocates for natural gas routinely assert that it produces 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal and is a significant step toward a greener energy future. But those assumptions are based on emissions from the tailpipe or smokestack and don’t account for the methane and other pollution emitted when gas is extracted and piped to power plants and other customers.

The EPA’s new analysis doubles its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation’s emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported.

When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.

Even accounting for the new analysis, natural gas—which also emits less toxic and particulate pollution—offers a significant environmental advantage. But the narrower the margins get, the weaker the political arguments become and the more power utilities flinch at investing billions to switch to a fuel that may someday lose the government’s long-term support.

You can read the whole ProPublica story here, and they’ve posted two reports that support the story here and here.

Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin speaks to an assembly of state legislators, distinguished guests, and public officials, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, in Charleston, W.Va., during the State of the State address. (AP Photo/Howie McCormick)

Acting W.Va. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is certainly on the Marcellus Shale bandwagon … but he’s not bought into efforts by his own Department of Environmental Protection to come up with better regulation of the gas drilling industry.

In his State of the State address tonight, Tomblin offered these remarks about the Marcellus Shale, just after his long pledge of allegiance to the state’s coal industry:

West Virginia’s economic future lies not only in its continued use of coal as a resource. Lying just a mile below the surface of much of our State is a rock formation called the Marcellus Shale. This formation is rich in natural gas and new technology and techniques have made access possible for the oil and gas industry.

The development of the Marcellus Shale formation for natural gas production is an economic development opportunity for the State, and we need to embrace it! Billions of dollars of private capital have already been invested in this activity and with it has come many jobs.

Tomblin noted today’s announcement by Dominion Energy that has selected a 56-acre site in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle for the construction of a plant to process natural gas from hundreds of producers tapping the rich Marcellus shale:

This project will allow for significant development opportunities in West Virginia. And it is not only about the production of natural gas. The development of the Marcellus Shale has the potential to restart the manufacturing industry in West Virginia. It is an opportunity that we simply cannot let go by.

WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman has previously made it clear that his proposal for an entirely new regulatory system for oil and gas drilling — and new permit fees to double the number of state inspectors — is his agency’s proposal, not the acting governor’s bill.

Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy told me this evening:

I was amazed he didn’t mention that DEP has been meeting with many of us over the past several months about the needs they have for more inspectors and better regulations to protect our state. He never even mentioned it. That’s a slight of what I would consider good efforts by DEP to address the problems that we all know exist.

WVDEP wants to double oil and gas staff

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has what amounts to a final draft of its proposed new oil and gas drilling legislation, and I’m told that Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has signed off on the package.

The bill won’t be a governor’s bill, but Tomblin has given WVDEP the OK to seek its own sponsor and to work toward passage when lawmakers come to town next week for the start of the session. (See previous posts about the upcoming debate on oil and gas drilling legislation here, here and here).

Chief among the WVDEP’s hopes for the bill — which I’ve posted here — is approval of a new special fee on horizontal wells that would provide enough money for the agency to double the size of its oil and gas office staff.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said yesterday:

We’ve got to have these people and to do that we’ve got to have money.

Some readers may recall that WVDEP’s small inspection staff for drilling operations — just 18 inspectors statewide — drew the attention last year of the ongoing investigation of oil and gas issues by ProPublica.

Under Huffman’s proposal, WVDEP would add 34 people to its oil and gas office’s current staff of 32, including doubling the number of inspectors to 36.

Marcellus Shale drives up gas reserve estimates

Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

This just in today from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration:

U.S. natural gas proved reserves, estimated as “wet” gas which includes natural gas plant liquids, increased by 11 percent in 2009 to 284 trillion cubic feet (Tcf), the highest level since 1971, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Summary: U.S. Crude Oil, Natural Gas, and Natural Gas Liquids Reserves, 2009, released today. “Shale gas development drove an 11 percent increase in U.S. natural gas proved reserves last year, to their highest level since 1971, demonstrating the growing importance of shale gas in meeting both current and projected energy needs,” said Richard Newell, EIA’s Administrator. “Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania were the leading states in adding new proved reserves of shale gas during 2009,” he said.

You can read the press release here and the full EIA report here.

EPA: Chesapeake illegally buried W.Va. streams

Here’s a new gas drilling story from Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press:

The Environmental Protection Agency says a subsidiary of Chesapeake Energy has promised to restore four northern West Virginia streams it filled illegally while building roads and laying pipeline for Marcellus shale gas drilling projects.

EPA spokeswoman Donna Heron confirmed Monday that federal inspectors cited Chesapeake Appalachia LLC after four site visits this fall in Wetzel and Marshall counties. In one case, inspectors found that Blake Fork stream and a picturesque waterfall near New Martinsville had been completely filled with gravel for a road.

Ed Wade, who took before and after photographs of the 20-foot wide stream, said many people used to visit the waterfall because of its beauty.

“I don’t know if there was a miscommunication about where the road should go or what,” he said, “but they just took their dozers and ripped it out.”

Blake Fork and three other streams affected by Chesapeake’s drilling activities are tributaries of Fish Creek, which flows into the Ohio River.

Chesapeake spokesman Matt Sheppard said the company is working with EPA on what he called “isolated issues concerning earth-moving activity.”

“As this matter is currently undergoing federal regulatory review, it would be inappropriate to offer public comment at this time,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding that Chesapeake is committed to responsible natural gas development.

Heron said Chesapeake has indicated it will abide by the EPA’s administrative compliance orders, which were issued in October and earlier this month.

Chesapeake is among dozens of companies rushing to tap the Marcellus shale field, a vast, mile-deep natural gas reserve underlying most of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and portions of Ohio. It is believed to hold trillions of cubic feet of gas, but breaking it free from the rock requires horizontal drilling and water-intensive hydraulic fracturing technologies.

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