Sustained Outrage

Will lawmakers get serious about gas industry safety?

Well Explosion

Fire crews from Marshall County battle a gas well fire in  Moundsville, WV, Monday June 7, 2010. The explosion and resulting fire sent seven people to area hospitals including three workers who were flown to a Pittbsurgh burn center. (AP Photo/The News-Register, Kef Howard)

A committee of West Virginia lawmakers spent some time over the last two days talking about a growing, but not very well publicized, issue facing the state as the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom continues. We’ve written about it before:

As West Virginia’s natural gas industry booms, more workers are paying the price as deaths on the job are increasing, according to new federal government data.

Thirteen workers in the state’s oil and gas industry died during the five-year period between 2008 and 2012, according to the data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than double the five workers who died in the industry during the previous five-year period, between 2004 and 2008, according to the bureau.

The increase in worker deaths came as natural gas production in West Virginia — fueled by the rush to tap into the Marcellus Shale reserves — also more than doubled, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

During an initial meeting on Tuesday, James Martin, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas, told the Joint Committee and Labor and Worker Safety Issues that, despite a mandate in the 2011 National Gas Horizontal Well Control Act for operators to submit safety plans to DEP, state officials leave worker safety mostly up to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Our focus is on the environmental side of it, so that’s what we look to. Obviously, there is overlap. The same issue could result in both safety and environmental concerns. But our focus is on the environment.

Charleston lawyer Tammy Bowles-Raines, testifying for the West Virginia Association for Justice, told the committee that injuries and deaths from being struck by moving equipment, explosions, and transportation accidents are on the rise in the state’s Marcellus boom:

Worker safety in the oil and gas industry is a growing concern.

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freedom aerial

Commercial Photography Services of West Virginia

The pressure continues to build on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call a special session so West Virginia can walk back the landmark chemical tank safety and public drinking water law that miraculously made its way through the Legislature in the wake of January’s Freedom Industries spill and the Kanawha Valley water crisis that followed.

Yesterday, Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Tim Miley issued a joint statement urging Gov. Tomblin to call that special session so they can roll back the deadline for chemical tank owners to determine if their tanks are safe and report that information to the state Department of Environmental Protection.  Here’s what they had to say in that joint release:

miley_timothykessler_jeffreyWe urge Governor Tomblin to call a brief special session during the upcoming September interim meetings to modify the date of implementation for the inspection and certification of the Above Ground Storage Tank Act (SB373). Doing so during the interim meetings will not incur any additional cost to the taxpayers.

While we are extremely proud of the comprehensive regulatory legislation produced earlier this year to protect drinking water for our state citizens, it has become apparent that the Jan. 1, 2015 deadline for these inspections is unattainable. Extending that deadline will allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to put in place, with public input, agency rules to fairly and effectively govern the inspection and certification process.

Any continued delay in taking action on this matter only causes uncertainty within affected industries and the families that rely on them for employment.

Meanwhile, the DEP will move forward with creating an inventory and conducting a risk assessment of above ground storage tanks statewide.

The usual suspects among our state’s media outlets are right on top of this. Hoppy Kercheval is all over this, and the MetroNews coverage sticks pretty close to his talking points:

As of now, as many as 40,000 tanks in West Virginia must be registered with the state by Oct. 1 and certified inspections of those tanks have to be completed by Jan. 1.  The state Department of Environmental Protection has not yet finalized the inspection protocols and, DEP officials have said, it could be December before those guidelines are available.

After appearing at times to actually care about drinking water protections, the Daily Mail editorial page is back to its old self, and repeating the same misinformation West Virginians are getting from MetroNews:

But the biggest issue is the uncertainty facing storage tank operators as the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency charged with enforcing the law, has yet to define the inspection parameters for storage tanks. Once it does, operators of the estimated 40,000 storage tanks affected by the law are unlikely to have time to complete their inspections by the Jan. 1 deadline.

It’s simply false to say that DEP has not yet issued “inspection protocols” or defined “the inspection parameters.” Officials at DEP, working very hard under tough deadlines and constant pressure from industry, published guidance for tank owners spelling out what should be examined in these inspections. It’s right here on the agency’s website. There’s a checklist for what the inspections should include and there are forms (see here and here) to use in certifying to DEP that you’ve done these inspections and your tanks are safe.

And DEP was very, very clear about how this is going to work for the initial inspections due Jan. 1 and for future annual inspections:

For the certification due on or before January 1, 2015, compliance with a nationally recognized tank standard such API or STI following the attached checklist shall be deemed compliance with the requirements. Subsequent Annual Certifications will be required to comply fully with legislative rules promulgated by the Secretary.

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We’ve written many times before about the climate change problem facing the nation’s boom in natural gas drilling (see here, here, here and here). Today, there’s a new peer-reviewed study out that adds to the concerns.

Here’s the news, summarized in a press announcement from NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder:

During two days of intensive airborne measurements, oil and gas operations in Colorado’s Front Range leaked nearly three times as much methane, a greenhouse gas, as predicted based on inventory estimates, and seven times as much benzene, a regulated air toxic. Emissions of other chemicals that contribute to summertime ozone pollution were about twice as high as estimates, according to the new paper, accepted for publication in the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

“These discrepancies are substantial,” said lead author Gabrielle Petron, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Emission estimates or ‘inventories’ are the primary tool that policy makers and regulators use to evaluate air quality and climate impacts of various sources, including oil and gas sources. If they’re off, it’s important to know.”

The new paper provides independent confirmation of findings from research performed from 2008-2010, also by Petron and her colleagues, on the magnitude of air pollutant emissions from oil and gas activities in northeastern Colorado. In the earlier study, the team used a mobile laboratory—sophisticated chemical detection instruments packed into a car—and an instrumented NOAA tall tower near Erie, Colorado, to measure atmospheric concentrations of several chemicals downwind of various sources, including oil and gas equipment, landfills and animal feedlots.

AP: Traffic deaths up in drilling states

Drilling Traffic Deaths

In this photo made on Saturday, March 1, 2014, the graves of 7-year-old Nicholas Mazzei-Saum and his 8-year-old brother Alexander Mazzei-Saum, are decorated at the cemetery in Clarksburg, W. Va. In March of 2013, a truck carrying drilling water overturned onto a car their mother, Lucretia Mazzei, was driving, killing the two elementary school students. An analysis of traffic fatalities in the busiest new oil and gas-producing counties in the U.S. shows a sharp rise in deaths that experts say is related to the drilling boom. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

We’ve written before in this space about the traffic dangers parts of West Virginia have been experiencing as a result of the boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Now, reporters from The Associated Press have tried to quantify that issue. They report:

Booming production of oil and natural gas has exacted a little-known price on some of the nation’s roads, contributing to a spike in traffic fatalities in states where many streets and highways are choked with large trucks and heavy drilling equipment.

An Associated Press analysis of traffic deaths and U.S. census data in six drilling states shows that in some places, fatalities have more than quadrupled since 2004 — a period when most American roads have become much safer even as the population has grown.

“We are just so swamped,” said Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva of Karnes County, Texas, where authorities have been overwhelmed by the surge in serious accidents.

The industry acknowledges the problem, and traffic agencies and oil companies say they are taking steps to improve safety. But no one imagines that the risks will be eliminated quickly or easily.

“I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” Villanueva said.

Specifically, the AP explains:

In North Dakota drilling counties, the population has soared 43 percent over the last decade, while traffic fatalities increased 350 percent. Roads in those counties were nearly twice as deadly per mile driven than the rest of the state. In one Texas drilling district, drivers were 2.5 times more likely to die in a fatal crash per mile driven compared with the statewide average.

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Marcellus reforms not on W.Va. Democrats’ agenda

Natural Gas, fracking

When West Virginia lawmakers more than two years ago approved Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Horizontal Drilling Act, they included requirements for a wide variety of studies. Follow-up reports were to look at water pollution, impoundment safety, air pollution, noise and economic impact.

Well, those studies are in, and they’ve shown clearly that more is needed if West Virginians are to be protected as the Marcellus Shale boom continues in our state (see here, here, here, here and here). Most troubling has been the fact that Commerce Department officials continue to flaunt a legal requirement that they report publicly on the number of Marcellus workers who are actually from West Virginia, as opposed to out-of-state employees of drilling companies. If that weren’t enough, an interim meeting earlier this week highlighted the fact that some of the key research on potential water quality impacts of Marcellus waste disposal didn’t even study wastes from the Marcellus.

But if you’re looking for something to do while we wait for Gov. Tomblin’s State of the State address this evening, read through the House Democratic leadership’s agenda — here, here and here — and try to find where any of these pressing issues about the Marcellus boom are addressed.

Study looks at drilling, hormone-disrupting chemicals


There’s a new study out today that might be of interest to West Virginians who follow the debate over the boom in natural gas drilling in our state’s Marcellus Shale region. Here’s the press release from The Endocrine Society:

A controversial oil and natural gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses many chemicals that can disrupt the body’s hormones, according to new research accepted for publication in The Endocrine Society’s journal Endocrinology.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, are substances that can interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine system. EDCs can be found in manufactured products as well as certain foods, air, water and soil. Research has linked EDC exposure to infertility, cancer and birth defects.

… The study examined 12 suspected or known endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in natural gas operations and measured their ability to mimic or block the effect of the body’s male and female reproductive hormones. To gauge endocrine-disrupting activity from natural gas operations, researchers took surface and ground water samples from sites with drilling spills or accidents in a drilling-dense area of Garfield County, CO – an area with more than 10,000 active natural gas wells – and from drilling-sparse control sites without spills in Garfield County as well as Boone County, MO.

The water samples from drilling sites had higher levels of EDC activity that could interfere with the body’s response to androgens, a class of hormones that includes testosterone, as well as the reproductive hormone estrogen. Drilling site water samples had moderate to high levels of EDC activity, and samples from the Colorado River – the drainage basin for the natural gas drilling sites – had moderate levels. In comparison, little activity was measured in the water samples from the sites with little drilling.

Here’s a link to the study, and a link to criticism of the study from the industry group Energy in Depth, which says, among other things:

The study focuses on water samples from five areas in Garfield County, Colo., that are known to have had “a spill or incident related to natural gas drilling processes” within the past six years. These data are compared against a small number of samples from “drilling sparse locations” in the same county and a “drilling absent location in Boone County.” That’s Boone County, Missouri, by the way.

We all know spills are bad and can cause problems, so what exactly did they expect to find?  If this were about advancing the state of knowledge about the risks of development, the study would have focused on areas with oil and gas development where no known incidents had occurred. That might actually tell us something relevant about safety, since it would help determine if there are any unknown impacts that we should take care to safeguard against.

Instead, they investigated a known problem area and declared it a problem area. Real cutting edge stuff.

Natural Gas, fracking

There’s a story running on West Virginia MetroNews this morning that’s headlined, DEP catches up with Marcellus Shale industry that recounts the state Department of Environmental Protection’s progress in adding new oil and gas staffers following passage of the 2011 horizontal drilling law:

Two years have made a difference for the state Department of Environmental Protection in its oversight of the Marcellus Shale drilling industry in West Virginia …

According to DEP spokesman Tom Aluise the nearly two-year-old law is beginning to reap dividends. Aluise told MetroNews the DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas has nearly doubled its staff in two years going from just 25 workers to 46. Thirty workers are now in the inspection and enforcement department with 27 of those out in the field.

“That helps us be more responsive to the public. Be more responsive to citizens’ complaints and be responsive to the industry as well as our efficiency at reviewing applications is improving,” Aluise said.

But up at the statehouse, there was another important shale-drilling story being repeated — and the question now is whether lawmakers are going to listen to the recommendations they’re getting about problems with part of that 2011 law. It happened during a legislative interim committee hearing where WVU researcher Michael McCawley was recounting the findings of work he did for WVDEP (under a legislative mandate) to study potential air quality and public health impacts of drilling in the Marcellus region.

Now, the results of these studies (see here and here) have been generally downplayed in some of the previous media reports, with stories like this one that focused on the conclusion — pulled from this DEP letter to lawmakers — that there is no “public health emergency” revealed by the data.

During his presentation this morning, Dr. McCawley didn’t exactly dispute the WVDEP conclusion, noting that the data showed areas around drilling sites complied with federal EPA air quality standards. He added, “I want to make sure that nobody takes away the wrong message, that there are things out there that are an imminent danger.” But there’s more to it than that. McCawley did find locations where another set of health-based standards from the CDC are exceeded, particularly for benzene levels.

And overall, McCawley says the findings to date indicate a strong need for lawmakers to reconsider the new law’s 625-foot “setback” provision, which prohibits gas-drilling operations within that distance of an occupied dwelling. As Pam Kasey previously reported for The State Journal, WVDEP officials had already recommended changes in the setback language:

While the statutorily-specified location restriction is defined to be from the center of the well pad, there are a wide variety of pad sizes and configurations that may allow an occupied dwelling to be close to a well pad. Because of the potential for different well pad geometries, DEP recommends that the Legislature reconsider the reference point (i.e., from the center of the well paid) for the location restriction to occupied dwellings to reduce potential exposures.

One option to consider would be to establish location restriction from the Limit of Disturbance (LOD) of the well pad to provide for a more consistent and protective safeguard for residents in affected areas. The outermost sediment control barrier establishes the LOD around the well pad.

But as McCawley explained in person to lawmakers during today’s briefing, his report to WVDEP pointed out some problems with the whole method of using a specific “setback” distance to try to protect public health:

There does not appear to be a simple solution to specifying a single point from which to specify the set‐back distance to assure exposure control. There is no single geometry to which all drill site activities conform. The activities follow the terrain of the site and the needs of the process. There is no good reason to believe that using the center of the Pad as the reference point from which the setback is taken will assure that activity associated with some possible sources of the studied contaminants will not occur closer than 625 feet from the actual source. Studies have also shown that the meteorology (and topography) may be a more important factor than a distance measured on a map for determining air contaminant concentration.

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Natural Gas, fracking

We’ve written many times before here about the questions surrounding the climate change implications of the boom in natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale and other shale-gas formations around the country (see here, here, here, here and here).

Last week in the Gazette, we reported on the results of one of the most significant studies to date concerning methane emissions from natural gas drilling and production. The study is available online here, and here’s a bit of the way its results were described in the University of Texas press release:

A new study from The University of Texas at Austin reports on extensive measurements of methane emissions — including the first measurements for methane emissions taken directly at the well pad — during completion operations for hydraulically fractured wells. A team of researchers from UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering and environmental testing firms URS and Aerodyne Research completed measurements at 190 natural gas production sites across the United States.

The study, a unique partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund, participating companies, an independent Scientific Advisory Panel and the study team:

— Is based on measurements made directly at 190 production sites throughout the United States, with access provided by nine participating energy companies.

— Found that the majority of hydraulically fractured well completions, which were sampled during the study, had equipment in place that reduces methane emissions by 99 percent. Because of this equipment, methane emissions from well completions are 97 percent lower than calendar year 2011 national emission estimates, released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April 2013.

–Found that emissions from certain types of pneumatic devices are 30 percent to several times higher than current EPA estimates for this equipment; combined, emissions from pneumatics and equipment leaks account for about 40 percent of estimated national emissions of methane from natural gas production.

— Found that the total methane emissions from natural gas production, from all sources measured in the study, were comparable to the most recent EPA estimates.

In summarizing the study, The Associated Press put it this way:

Drilling and fracking for natural gas don’t seem to spew immense amounts of the greenhouse gas methane into the air, as has been feared, a new study says.

The findings bolster a big selling point for natural gas, that it’s not as bad for global warming as coal. And they undercut a major environmental argument against fracking, a process that breaks apart deep rock to recover more gas. The study, mostly funded by energy interests, doesn’t address other fracking concerns about potential air and water pollution.

And the L.A. Times put it this way:

Emissions of methane from natural gas well sites across the United States have fallen in a key part of the drilling process, despite the boom in natural gas development, according to a study published Monday.

The rise in natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has stoked concerns about leakage and venting into the atmosphere of methane, a chief component. Far more carbon dioxide is emitted than methane, but methane is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Researchers from the University of Texas found, however, that new equipment reduced emissions last year at 190 natural gas sites by 99% in one key step in the well-drilling process.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which helped organize the study, said this in its own press release:

The UT study, which only deals with the extraction phase of the natural gas supply chain, is the opening chapter in this broader scientific effort designed to advance the current understanding of the climate implications of methane emissions resulting from the U.S. natural gas boom. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas — 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. The nation’s largest single source of methane emissions is the vast network of infrastructure, including wells, pipelines and storage facilities, that supplies U.S. natural gas. Experts agree that methane leaked or vented from natural gas operations is a real concern, yet estimated emission rates vary greatly — from 1 to 8 percent of total production.

“We know that immediate methane reductions are critical to slow climate change,” said Fred Krupp, president of EDF. “But we don’t yet have a handle on how much is being emitted. We need better data, and that’s what this series of studies will deliver. As we understand the scope of what’s happening across the natural gas system, we will be able to address it. We already know enough to get started reducing emissions, and thanks to the first study, we know that new EPA regulations to reduce wellhead emissions are effective. EPA got it right.”

And here’s what the folks at the industry group Energy In Depth had to say:

For years, critics of hydraulic fracturing have alleged that “methane leaks” from development are not only astronomically high, but also make natural gas from shale a climate “disaster” and “gang-plank.” But a new, highly anticipated report from the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund might put that theory to rest – at last, and for good.

In my Gazette piece, I tried to take a pretty cautious approach with this study. Here’s how that story began:

A major study out this week has provided valuable new data about the global warming pollution from natural gas production, but still leaves unanswered questions about the climate change impacts of an industry that’s booming in West Virginia.

University of Texas researchers found slightly lower overall emissions rates for the powerful greenhouse gas methane than previously estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other scientific studies.

Working with industry and the Environmental Defense Fund, the researchers measured actual emissions from parts of the natural-gas production process at 190 sites around the country.

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U.S. oil and gas industry deaths on the rise


We’ve had several stories recently (see here and here) about deaths of workers in West Virginia’s booming Marcellus Shale natural gas business, so it’s worth checking out the new report issued today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found:

Fatal work injuries in the private mining sector rose in 2012, led by an increase in fatal injuries to workers in oil and gas extraction industries. Fatal work injuries in oil and gas extraction industries rose 23 percent to 138 in 2012, reaching a new high for the series.

The report continued:

Fatal work injuries in the private mining sector increased 14 percent to 177 in 2012 from 155 in 2011—the highest level since 2007. The number of fatal work injury cases in oil and gas extraction industries rose to 138 in 2012 from 112 in 2011; the 2012 figure represents a series high. Fatal work injuries in coal mining increased slightly, and fatal work injuries in support activities for mining increased 9 percent.

New warning on greenhouse impacts of natural gas


We’ve written before on this blog (see here, here, here, here and here) about the ongoing scientific debate over the impact that methane emissions from the natural gas industry could have on global warming, and on the potential for natural gas to help deal with that problem or, at least, serve as a “bridge” to a cleaner energy future based on renewables.

Now, there’s anther significant study out that adds to the discussion. The study itself provides a possible warning about natural gas emissions, but the report is already getting some criticism from both industry and environmental groups.

Here’s the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder:

On a perfect winter day in Utah’s Uintah County in 2012, scientists from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tested out a new way to measure methane emissions from a natural gas production field.

Their results, accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, constitute a proof-of-concept that could help both researchers and regulators better determine how much of the greenhouse gas and other air pollutants leak from oil and gas fields. The measurements show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.

And from that release, here’s the paper’s central conclusion:

The team determined that methane emissions from the oil and natural gas fields in Uintah County totaled about 55,000 kg (more than 120,000 lbs) an hour on the day of the flight. That emission rate is about 6 to 12 percent of the average hourly natural gas production in Uintah County during the month of February.

A recent federal report estimated that methane’s leak rate, nationally, is less than 1 percent of production; another report noted that emissions in the Uintah (“Uinta”) Basin, which produces about 1 percent of total U.S. natural gas, may have higher emissions than typical for western gas fields. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General has called for better emissions data from the natural gas sector, and this paper is one of the first published since. 

The industry group Energy In Depth has criticized the paper  noting it’s based on just one day’s worth of data, and commenting:

Some will see the publication of NOAA’s latest research as a reason to gin up fear about methane leaks from natural gas (and probably another excuse to write a story with “fracking” in the headline). But those of us who actually pay attention to details, data, and the growing consensus within the scientific community know better.


Also weighing in was Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, who provided a nuanced discussion of the paper here. And the Environmental Defense Fund also had a write-up on the study, including in it a mention of the uncertainty of the estimates presented:

The authors calculated the uncertainty of their measurements, finding a 68 percent chance the leak rate is between 6.2 and 11.7 percent, and a 95 percent chance it is between 3.5 and 14 percent.

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