Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Can Gas Drilling Emissions Cause Heart Attacks?

That's the question I raised a month ago when writing about the need for health impact studies. Anecdotal evidence in one Barnett Shale community found an increase in the rate of heart attacks and exposure to drilling emissions.

People living near wells are exposed to a whole host of potential pollutants, many airborne.  For example, they breathe in volatile organic chemicals much higher than what's considered "potentially harmful" to public health. And drilling sites aren't the only problem: airborne toxins from compressor stations are finding their way into people's lungs and bloodstream. They also breathe in more particulates.

But one of the real killers hiding in the emissions may be ozone - not an emission itself, but something created when nitrogen oxides combine with volatile organic compounds in the sunlight. It's such a concern that NY's Department of Environmental Conservation (and PA's Department of Environmental Protection)  issues "ozone alerts" on very hot days, warning people to stay inside.

Now new research shows that high levels of ozone can increase the risk for heart attacks and stroke. EPA toxicologist Robert Devlin exposed healthy young volunteers to high levels of ozone - levels that reflect the same cumulative dose they would receive had they been working outside for eight hours in a place like Los Angeles. Or the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming, where ozone levels can get as high as 124 parts per billion (ppb)  - that's way over the US federal limit of 75 ppm and higher than Los Angeles on its smoggiest day.

The problem boils down to inflammation. Ozone exposure triggers high blood levels of inflammatory agents that stick around in the blood for a long time. In turn, the body could perceive the inflammation as a wound and turn on a clotting response, potentially blocking blood flow. Ozone also changed the levels of some proteins involved in blood clotting and affected the heart rate.

Monday, June 18, 2012

I Feel the Earth Move

According to the latest report from the National Academies of Science, the risk of earthquakes from hydrofracking is low. There is a potential for induced seismicity - that's what they call man-made quakes - any time humans inject fluid into the earth.

In the past year fracking has been pointed to as the cause of two quakes - one in Oklahoma (measuring 2.8) and another in England (2.3). But injecting shale gas wastes into injection wells has caused hundreds of tremors. According to the report, California and Oklahoma feel most of these quakes, though Arkansas gets its fair share. And Colorado has measured three injection well-caused quakes at 5.0 to 5.5 - enough to rattle the china and shake you out of bed.

It's not just injection wells, either. Northern California has recorded anywhere from 300 to 400 small quakes a year (since 2005) due to geothermal energy extraction.

Injecting fluids deep, and under pressure, can trigger tremors because it changes the pressure of the soil and rock - pressure that keeps faults from moving. However, those technologies that are designed to keep a balance between the amount of fluid being injected and withdrawn appear to produce fewer tremors, says the report. Injection wells, on the other hand, don't maintain a fluid balance because nothing is removed.

Earlier this spring USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth and his research team presented data showing a spike in earthquakes near oil and gas drilling operations. The number of earthquakes last year was a sixfold increase over previous levels.

So while fracking shale to extract gas may cause only the occasional tremor,  it's getting rid of the millions of gallons of waste produced by unconventional gas extraction that's the real problem.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pennsylvania Farmers Support Drilling Moratorium

Yesterday the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) published a strong statement in favor of a state-wide moratorium on unconventional gas drilling. Such drilling, they say, affects local farmers, their farms, the food they produce and the people who eat it.

PASA urged PA Governor Tom Corbett and the state legislature to enact a moratorium on shale gas drilling “until it is determined that this practice will not impair the ability of farms to profitably produce healthy food while respecting Pennsylvania’s air quality, water resources and the natural environment.”

PASA calls for studies to assess the impacts of drilling on the integrity, health and long-term sustainability of the food supply. PASA supports baseline testing of water and soil, as well as animal welfare, prior to and after extraction. They also suggest that drilling companies post a bond that would be held in escrow to cover environmental clean-up costs. Read the entire statement here.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Drilling Waste Needs Better Oversight

updated June 12
Last month Environmental Advocates of New York wrote a report, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” that documents how the state is monitoring – or isn’t monitoring – the transport and treatment, or disposal of gas drilling waste. Their conclusion: NY isn’t doing a good job, and based on the proposals under review, the state isn’t ready to oversee the millions of gallons of waste fluids that high-volume fracking will generate.

The group is calling on Governor Cuomo to declare drilling wastes as hazardous hold fracking waste to the same standards as other waste*, prohibit sewage plants from accepting drilling waste, and ban road spreading. 

(* Currently NY classifies drilling waste as industrial, not hazardous. The report calls for this defacto exemption to be repealed and frack waste treated on par with other waste generated in the state: if it contains hazardous material, it would be treated as hazardous waste; if not, it would be treated like other industrial wastes.)

Their report is based on review of nearly 100 Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) permits for the state’s operating gas wells.

Katherine Nadeau, Water & Natural Resources Program Director for Environmental Advocates of New York, says that under state law, DEC asks drillers two questions during the application process regarding waste disposal:

1.    How will drilling fluids and stimulation fluids be contained and disposed of?
2.    If brine will be stored onsite, how will it be stored and disposed of?

Environmental Advocates’ review of drillers’ responses shows that in at least 16 cases, drillers failed to identify where waste was hauled or disposed of. At least 25 permit applications stated that wastes would be disposed of at “approved facilities” without identifying the facilities. Another nine cases indicated that waste would be disposed of per DEC regulations without specifying what this means.

This isn’t a problem unique to NY. The oil & gas boom in North Dakota has seen about 200 wells drilled each month in the northwest part of the state. Now they’re pumping twice as much oil as two years ago – and producing (and spilling) twice as much waste as before. Lines at injection wells have gotten so long that truckers are dumping their waste fluids rather than wait to dispose their waste fluids properly.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Small Towns Embrace Pro-Drilling Resolutions

Candor, NY
Last month two towns to the west of me, Van Etten and Spencer, NY passed resolutions stating that the towns supported gas drilling. Van Etten’s resolution was simple – a single sentence stating that the town has “decided to allow gas drilling in the Town of Van Etten.” Spencer’s is lengthier, commending the state’s leadership in developing a “comprehensive” statewide drilling program, stating their confidence in the state’s development of “safe” and “responsible” gas development, and all but promising to ignore any citizen petitions for moratoria or bans.

It is, word for word, the same resolution that will be considered by our town board at their next meeting on June 12. It’s already on the agenda: “Review/approve Planning Board recommendation on a resolution supporting natural gas development in the Town of Candor”. But, unlike previous resolutions, this one has not been posted for citizens to read prior to the meeting.

Last month our town supervisor, Bob Riggs received an email from the Tioga County Landowners Group urging the town to adopt the “pro-drilling” resolution.

The thing is, Riggs said in a phone interview Monday morning, while he feels that the board is mostly pro-drilling, he thinks this resolution is being rushed. The driving force, he says, is a news article in which Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens was quoted as saying that local land-use rules will “continue to be a consideration” in the permitting process for gas drilling.

Riggs admitted that the only ones who contacted him about considering the resolution were the head of the landowner’s group and another individual who doesn’t live in the town.

When asked whether the town is ready for drilling, Riggs noted that Candor does have a road use agreement and that the planning board has been reviewing a wellhead protection plan for the village. But the town has not yet completed a checklist of actions that will help prepare for industrialized drilling. That checklist comes from TING, a non-partisan county taskforce that developed a thick binder of information meant to guide towns through actions that will protect the town’s infrastructure and environment once drilling commences.

People move here for the small town, rural atmosphere
Neither has the town determined whether drilling is compatible with the Town Comprehensive Plan. That plan seeks to preserve the rural character of Candor, encourage small business and light industry, and maintain or improve property values – goals that conflict with large-scale industrialized shale gas drilling.

A few towns to the west, another town council is considering the same resolution. Theirs came in a thick envelope from Southern Tier Economic Growth, a Chemung county economic council that in 2011 received close to 75% of its funding from taxpayer dollars. And yes, the resolution was, word for word, identical to the one that Candor is considering; that Spencer passed; that went out to every town in Steuben county.

A council member in one of the Chemung county towns currently considering the resolution speculates that this resolution as a response to the growing movement to ban drilling. Towns don’t want to become embroiled in lawsuits by landowners angry that they can’t lease their land. On the other hand, he said, “if it can be proven that this resolution encourages drilling to come into a town, and if problems result, then towns could be sued for that. This resolution opens towns up to more lawsuits than if we do nothing.”

The other problem he sees is that people voting on this resolution have a vested interest in seeing drilling happen in their town. “Elected officials who have leases should not be voting for this kind of resolution,” he said. “Indeed, they should recuse themselves from voting on any of these issues where they have a financial stake in the outcome.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Stories from Beneath the Shale

If you want to understand shale gas drilling, you have to start with the rock, says Tom Wilber. He should know; he covered gas drilling in NY and PA for the Press & Sun Bulletin since before the Millennium Pipeline, and now has a book out on the topic: Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale.  

“Everything central to shale gas production – and the controversy surrounding it – involves understanding rock fractures,” he writes. But the shale isn’t the only thing being fractured in the rush to extract gas. Wilber also writes about the drilling debate fractures communities overlying the Marcellus.

Wilber’s book is steeped in a sense of place. He describes the roads and landscape of Dimock, the trailers and homesteads and contemporary homes tucked along back roads, the stone walls and swing sets of Dimock. He introduces the Carters, the Sautners, and other families brought together unexpectedly by the shale gas rush. He grounds us in history, from the first hand-excavated gas well in Fredonia NY (1825) to the intensely industrialized horizontal hydraulically fractured Marcellus wells of the new millennium.

Under the Surface examines the geology of shale, the technology of drilling, the promise of prosperity. Wilber’s evenhanded treatment gives voice to all involved: landowners and farmers hoping to capitalize on royalty income, regulators and politicians struggling with increasingly divisive issues, and residents-turned-activists trying to protect their water and air from contamination. Even when he is talking facts, complete with endnotes and citations, he maintains his role as a storyteller... one bent on uncovering the “truth”.

His book might be finished, but Wilber isn’t; he continues to follow the issue, writing about it on his blog. “Things are happening on a daily basis,” he says, noting home rule as one of the developing issues.

He’s been keeping tabs on the recent tests of Dimock water wells conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Though the EPA reports that they have found nothing of concern, test data show “traces of sodium, methane, arsenic, chromium, and lithium and other elements at or near action levels,” he says. Those are “red flags” – they indicate a need for more analysis. As for the people in Dimock, the ones who are complaining about contaminated drinking water …  “they are victims,” says Wilber. “They certainly didn’t make this stuff up.”