Friday, January 1, 2016

Oklahoma Sets New Earthquake Record

Last year Oklahoma recorded 857 quakes.  That’s more than all the remaining states (excluding Alaska) combined.
The previous year (2014) Oklahoma had a record-setting year logging in 585 quakes, after the 2013 record-setting year with 106 quakes. 

To end the year, a series of 2.9 or greater earthquakes shook the Edmond area, the northeast part of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. Those quakes have at least one state legislator up in arms. “This has been going on for five years,” says State Rep. Richard Morrissette (D. 92). “At what point are we, the policy makers, going to address this issue and take it seriously? We need to shut these wells down.”

Morrissette claims the state’s Corporation Commission has the authority to act, but is doing nothing. "This is a preventable disaster that our policy makers at 23 and Lincoln and the Corporation Commission refuse to address, because they're afraid politically to act," he told local news reporters.

Or it could be that the energy companies are refusing to comply with the Commission’s directives. On December 2, the state sent out letters to six energy companies ordering them to reduce waste water disposal or shut their wells down all together. One company, Sandridge Energy, has refused to close the six problem wells.

letter to policy holder re: earthquakes
Residents left with cracked foundations and other damage wonder who’s going to pay. Some insurance companies have already said they will not offer coverage for man-made earthquakes, such as those caused by injection or fracking. Others will, but require their clients to buy endorsements to their homeowner’s policies.

You can read more about fracking-related earthquakes here and here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Fracking Lowers Home Values by $30 K says Duke Study

A study published just this month in the American Economic Review shows that fracking can cause steep drops in home values in some neighborhoods. The study examined home sales in 36 Pennsylvania counties between 1995 and 2012. The analysis controlled for potentially confounding variables such as effects of the Great Recession and the benefits homeowners may receive in the form of lease payments.

Researchers found that home prices dropped by an average of $30,1676 when shale drilling occurred within a distance of 1.5 kilometers (almost one mile). That’s for homes that depend on groundwater. Homes that had water piped from a municipal source actually gained an average of $4,800.  

But, write the authors of the study, “it is important to keep in mind that our estimates do not fully capture the total costs associated with groundwater contamination risk. Owners of groundwater-dependent homes may purchase expensive water filters to clean their drinking water when faced with a shale gas well nearby [and] whole home filters can cost thousands of dollars.”

The paper is among the first to quantify the impact of fracking on property values in a wide geographic area, Christopher Timmins told the press. He’s one of the co-authors of the study and specialized in environmental economics at Duke University.

“Our results show clearly that housing markets are responding to homeowners’ concerns about groundwater contamination from shale gas development,” Timmins said. “We may not know for many years whether these concerns are valid or not. However, they are creating a real cost to property owners today.”

One thing the authors found is that the distance between a shale well and a home matters greatly for home prices. Among homes that rely on well water, a shale well located within one kilometer (0.6 mile) was associated with a 13.9 percent average decrease in home values. But if the nearest shale gas drilling site was at least two kilometers away (1.2 miles), property values remained constant.

It was in neighborhoods with a piped water supply where they found that home values rose slightly – perhaps due to royalty payments. Even so, home values rose only when shale wells were out of view.

What does this mean for homeowners?  Right now more than 15 million Americans live within a mile of the hundreds of thousands of fracked gas and oil wells that have been drilled since 2000.

A 2013 survey conducted by business researchers at the University of Denver showed a strong majority would not buy a home near a drilling site. The study, published in the Journal of Real Estate Literature, also showed that people bidding on homes near fracking locations reduced their offers by up to 25 percent

Homeowners near drilling sites often have to move because of industrial activity. One homeowner found the fumes, lights, and noise unbearable. Forced to move, they were only able to sell their Cleveland suburban home for half its appraised value.

And a Texas family found their 10-acre ranchette plunge in value from $257,000 to $75,000—a decrease of more than 70 percent – just one year after the first drilling rig went up on the property.

With all of this evidence that no one wants to live near a fracking well, why on earth would towns embrace  fracking?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Can You Hear the People Speak?

The people of Candor value their small town atmosphere. On a sunny day you can walk around the Village in less than an hour – including pauses to enjoy the views of the river, listen to birds, or stop by the farmer’s market to buy locally grown produce and locally crafted wares. It’s the sort of town where “children are cherished and raised to be good citizens, where businesses are responsible to their neighborhoods, where government is responsive to its citizenry and where neighbors strive to maintain the civility that a rural life requires.”

It is the sort of town that seeks to balance a “logical and efficient use” of natural resources with the desire to protect open space, historical sites, agricultural soils, and the aquifer which supplies everyone with fresh water.

At least it was until last week. On November 10 the town board voted to radically change wording of the proposed update to the Town Comprehensive Plan, the document that will guide development for the next decade or so. Prior to the board meeting, town supervisor Bob Riggs called the chairman of the planning board Art Cacciola into his office and insisted that language in the comprehensive plan be changed to specifically include development of oil and gas resources and, in particular, express support for the technology of fracking.

Cacciola explained that the plan needs to be generic and not that specific, as no one knows what technology will be available in the future. He also explained that the plan did not specifically name any natural resources, as advised by the Executive Director of the NY Planning Federation. Furthermore, Cacciola said, “the Executive Director said we should not include anything in the plan which is currently illegal, such as fracking.”

Apparently the town supervisor is as immune to common sense and sound advice as he is to comments from the public. That evening, after inserting his own language into the Comprehensive Plan, Riggs asked the town board to approve the newer, frackier version supporting gas extraction. [He also told Cacciola that he’d no longer be chairman of the planning board and asked for his resignation. Cacciola declined and intends to serve out his term.]

Later in the evening Riggs used the new, fracked-up version of the Comprehensive Plan to justify approval of a resolution supporting the industrialized drilling and LPG fracking of a well in the town of Barton.

Just as happened at the October town board meeting, a majority of the people who showed up to comment were against the gas-fracking resolution. “It was clear that the public comments were just for show,” said one person (who asked not to be identified). “They knew they were going to vote for the resolution.”

“My biggest concern,” said the Candor resident, “is the vast amount of scientific evidence that this activity (industrialized gas drilling and fracking) is dangerous to human health and the environment. Our town board is not seriously considering that evidence. I feel that we’re being railroaded by people who have made up their minds and are not willing to look at new research.”

And herein lies the problem. Many of those who spoke against the fracking resolution are the same age as the children of the town board members. They are the young people who are buying homes and farms in town, who are coming back to raise families of their own. They want a safe, healthy place for their children to grow up, like the town they knew. And no one is listening to them.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Abandoned Wells are NOT a sign of "Responsible Gas Drilling"

One of the arguments from the pro-drilling faction in my town and surrounding region is that "gas drillers are good neighbors". If you are on the receiving end of lease money, it may seem that way - even if you have to put up with the inconvenience of a wellpad on your best pasture or some contamination in your water supply. They're certainly good neighbors if you're a truck driver or run a gravel mining operation. And I know some hard-working people have earned good money working for them.

An abandoned, unplugged well in PA
But when the going gets tough, some of these drilling companies cut and run - leaving thousands of abandoned wells that need to be plugged. And who picks up the bill? We do. The taxpayers. We pay the cost of plugging wells long after the drillers have pocketed their profits.

So what's the problem with these wells? If they are not properly plugged, they provide pathways for methane to travel into the atmosphere, adding greenhouse gases to an already growing climate catastrophe. They also provide pathways for chemicals and methane to flow from a current well into groundwater or drinking water wells.

This is the problem:
graphic from NPR article  

There are thousands of abandoned and unplugged wells, and drillers - and state regulators - don't know where they are. Back in 2012, the PA Department of Environmental Protection estimated there were about 200,000 abandoned wells - and that was before companies started drilling in the Marcellus.

This isn't just a Marcellus Shale problem; Alberta faces a growing number of abandoned wells. When the price of oil or gas declines, the companies just walk away - leaving the government to clean up after them. Alberta does have an "orphaned well" fund that helps cover the cost but - especially with deeper wells - remediating a site can cost up to $1 million and take 10 years. Responsible drillers don't do that to their neighbors.

Wyoming is facing the same problem, now that the gas boom is going bust. They've got more than 4,000 methane-bed gas wells to locate and plug - because the companies who drilled the wells up and left.  Granted, coalbed-methane wells are shallow, and only cost around $10,000 apiece to plug - but that adds up to $30 million - and, say regulators, the newer wells are deeper and cost tens of thousands more to plug. Once again, corporations pocket the profit and leave the public with the cleaning tab. Responsible drillers don't do that to their neighbors.

Despite evidence that drilling contributes to impacts to public health, including low birth weights premature births, and increased hospitalizations of people living near drilling sites; decreased  air quality (even if you live hundreds of miles away from the actual drilling site), potential human-induced seismic activity, and decreased water quality, the Candor town board is convinced that "everyone" in town wants to be fracked. They fully intend to pass a resolution supporting gas-fracking at their November 10 board meeting.

The proposed well isn't in our town, one board  member pointedly told someone during a previous meeting, so why are we all upset? (Maybe because air and water contamination don't respect town boundaries?) On the other hand, the proposed well isn't in our town, so why is our town board so headstrong adamant about passing this resolution? Could it have something to do with the old-boy network? Or the fact that our town supervisor traveled to Harrisburg, PA a couple days ago to meet with Pennsylvania lawmakers about how our town can secede from NY?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New Study shows Methane from Fracking Sites can flow to Abandoned Wells

USGS photo/ public domain ~ Fracking site on Marcellus Shale in PA

Last week the University of Vermont released a new study showing that methane from active fracking sites can escape through faults that connect to preexisting, abandoned oils and gas wells. The study, to be published in Water Resources Research on October 20, showed that methane release measured at abandoned wells near fracking sites can be significant but did not investigate how the process occurs.

In August, the EPA proposed measures that would cut methane and VOC emissions from the oil and natural gas industry and clarify permitting requirements. These regulations would help combat climate change, reduce air pollution that harms public health, and clarify Clean Air Act permitting requirements for the oil and natural gas industry, says EPA.

Since then, the industry has been hotly debating the proposed regulations on limiting release of methane during fracking operations. That debate, says James Montague, an environmental engineering doctoral student at the University of Vermont who co-wrote the paper, “needs to take into account the system that fracking operations are frequently part of, which includes a network of abandoned wells that can effectively pipeline methane to the surface.”

The researchers studied an area in New York state underlain by the Marcellus Shale formation, which had been fracked until a ban went into effect in the state in the summer of 2015. They used a mathematical model to predict the likelihood that the hydraulically induced fractures of a randomly placed new well would connect to an existing wellbore, putting that probability between .03 percent and 3 percent.

Since then, industry-sponsored information published vastly increased assumptions about the area impacted by a set of six to eight fracking wells known as a well pad - to two square miles -- increasing the probabilities cited in the paper by a factor of 10 or more.

Not all abandoned wells provide a pathway to surface for methane. But given the large number of abandoned wells, even a small percentage can potentially pose an environmental risk. You can read their abstract here.