Environmental Must-Reads – December 31, 2014


Attention Turns to Fracking’s Impact on Air Quality

Fracking’s impacts on air quality took the spotlight this year, fueled by new research and broad media coverage.

The modern shale boom has created a massive influx of oil-and-gas wells, compressor stations and other infrastructure that spew toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the air. The consequences for public health and climate change are increasingly recognized as serious issues, on par with the water contamination concerns that once dominated debates over the pros and cons of fracking.

After New York ban, Pennsylvania renews focus on fracking health impacts

New York State banned fracking earlier this month, citing the potential risks to public health. In Pennsylvania, where shale gas drilling has boomed, the state has not studied those risks systematically and some say, deliberately ignored them. A new governor says he wants to take a different approach.

At a news conference the day after New York announced its ban, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor-elect Tom Wolf summed up his views on fracking:

“I want to have my cake and eat it, too,” he said. “I don’t want to do what New York did.”

2014 countdown: A fatal fire & state accused of ignoring fracking complaints

Our countdown ends with the two most popular web stories of 2014*: A gas well fire in Greene County that claimed a young man’s life, and allegations from former state health workers that Pennsylvania ignored public complaints about gas drilling.

Disused oil and gas wells wells a major source of methane

Long-disused oil and gas wells in the US have been found to be a ‘significant’ source of the super greenhouse gas methane, writes Richard Heasman. The climate impact of oil and gas is underestimated, as this long term impact is not included in existing calculations.

Three million abandoned oil and gas wells in the US appear to be leaking substantial amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, a study by Princeton University reveals.

Air Monitoring Ongoing At Airport Fracking Site

This past year, the Allegheny County Health Department began monitoring air quality at Pittsburgh International Airport to gauge the potential health risks of fracking.

Jim Thompson, the deputy director of environmental health for the department said they’re monitoring at the Imperial Point Development, which is approximately 2,500 feet from well pad #2 at the airport.

Judge: Big Flats wells not contaminated by gas drilling

A federal judge has ruled against nine Chemung County homeowners who claimed their drinking water was contaminated by a nearby natural gas well drilled by Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp.

U.S. District Judge Charles Siragusa in Rochester decided the homeowners had failed to prove the silt and methane that befouled their wells was caused by the gas well drilled a half mile from their homes in 2010. The decision was filed on Dec. 17.

Fiery Accident Spurs Safer Rail Transport For Crude Oil

It’s been one year since an oil train derailment outside Casselton, N.D. Since then, state and federal regulators have taken steps to make it safer to transport crude by rail.

The oil boom in North America has raised a question. How do you transport that much oil safely? Well, a year ago today, a train carrying North Dakota crude derailed and exploded outside the small town of Casselton, North Dakota. This came on the heels of a deadly derailment in Quebec. These incidents were a wake-up call for trackside communities. And regulators have been trying to make it safer to transport crude oil by rail. Emily Guerin from Prairie Public Radio reports on how secure residents of Casselton, North Dakota, are feeling these days.

The explosive dangers of North America’s oil-by-rail

Transportation of shale oil by rail has increased in tandem with ramped up U.S. production. This year, railway explosions have exposed safety issues within this practice.

Journalist Marcus Stern has been following the changes to the regulations closely for his investigation titled “Boom: North America’s Explosive Oil-By-Rail Problem.”

Oil and Gas Regulatory Push Coming from Obama Administration

The Obama administration is planning to release in the coming months a series of regulations on the oil and natural gas industry, a response to the nation’s energy boom that also is aimed at burnishing President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy in his final two years.

The coming rules—at least nine in total—would include the first-ever federal standards addressing methane emissions, stricter controls on hydraulic fracturing, drilling requirements in the Arctic, new rules governing oil shipped by trains and tougher standards on offshore drilling technology.

The Politics of Drinking Water

On January 9, 2014, American Water warned 300,000 customers in and around Charleston, West Virginia, that local tap water was no longer safe. Ten thousand gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean coal, had leaked from a rusty holding tank into the Elk River, upstream of the water treatment facility. State officials warned that exposure to the licorice-scented solvent could cause “burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.” Given the paucity of information on MCHM’s effect on the human body, no one could predict the long-term consequences of exposure.

Texas law firm target of BP lawsuit

Two Texas attorneys have asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by three Mississippi businessmen who argue they are owed $7.9 million for steering to the lawyers thousands of people seeking to resolve claims against BP from the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Gulf Coast businessmen Scott Walker, Kirk Ladner and Steve Seymour, who is also a Hancock County supervisor, filed the lawsuit in October in U.S. District Court in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Kalamazoo oil pipeline protester not backing down

A man sentenced to probation for a 10-hour sit-in at an oil pipeline construction site in southwest Michigan says the date of his trial was significant.

“My trial on Dec. 16 was the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party,” Christopher Wahmhoff said. “That was an act of civil disobedience, and I don’t think the (American) Revolution would have happened without it.”

BLM extends comment period for proposed pipeline

The Bureau of Land Management is giving the public more time to comment on a proposed pipeline that would be capable of moving 50,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

The project by Saddle Butte Pipeline LLC would be made up of smaller pipelines that would gather oil at well pads and other points. A larger pipeline would then move the oil south to a distribution center near Interstate 40 in western New Mexico.

Keystone XL returns to Congress next week

The US Senate will hold a hearing on Wednesday, January 7th, on the Keystone XL oil pipeline between Canada and the United States, blocked until now by Democrats but a priority of the new Republican majority.

The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources of the Senate, now controlled by Republicans, said Tuesday that a hearing would take place the day after Congress returns from break.

Public Hearings Scheduled for Dakota Access Pipeline

We’ve heard a lot of debate about the Keystone XL Pipeline, but now a different pipeline will stir debate among South Dakota officials.

The Dakota Access Pipeline would carry oil from the Bakken formation in Western North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. About 271 miles of the 1,134 mile pipeline would be in South Dakota.

Oil & Gas Industry Fight Alaska Seal ProtectionsListing Alaska’s ringed seal as a threatened species based on climate change is unwarranted and unsupported by science, the oil and gas industry claim in court.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the American Petroleum Institute sued the National Marine Fisheries Service and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker on Dec. 23 in Anchorage Federal Court, challenging the decision to list the arctic subspecies of ringed seal (Phoca hispida hispida) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Norwegians Turn Ambivalent on Statoil, Their Economic Bedrock

This has not been a particularly good year for Statoil, the huge state-controlled oil company that has had a commanding presence in Norway’s economy and society for more than four decades.

In the spring, Statoil cut 1,000 jobs, or 4 percent of its work force. In September, it postponed a much-criticized project in the Canadian tar sands for at least three years. On Oct. 29, reflecting collapsing oil prices and a steep tumble of its stock, it reported its first quarterly loss since 2001. And in November, it announced disappointing results from the year’s program of drilling for new oil and gas in the Norwegian Arctic.

Fukushima Radiation to Reach Highest Levels By End of 2015

Radiation from the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant disaster in 2011 is still being released into the atmosphere, with potential impacts on both humans and wildlife, but a new study indicates that this fallout will reach its highest levels by the end of 2015. After that, they are expected to gradually decrease back to normal levels.

Study: It took 2.1 years for Fukushima radioactive plume to reach North America

How long did it take a radioactive plume to travel the waters of the Pacific from Fukushima, Japan, to the shores of North America?

The answer, according to a new study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), is about 2.1 years.

Fukushima contamination arrives off Canadian coast

The radioactive effects of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster appear to have arrived on North American shores this year, with their full impact expected to be felt in 2015, according to a new report.

And while a radioactive plume that has spread across the Pacific Ocean since the disaster is now just off the coast of British Columbia, experts say there is little reason to panic.

TEPCO’s sloppy handling of suppressant led to spread of radioactive dust in 2013

Tokyo Electric Power Co. diluted a dust suppressant that rendered it ineffective and allowed the spread of radioactive materials that contaminated 12 workers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in summer 2013, officials said.

The suppressant is supposed to prevent radioactive dust from getting into the air and spreading.

Last recommended evacuation warning lifted in Fukushima, but many remain wary

The central government lifted on Dec. 28 the last recommended evacuation advisory for several districts in this city, saying radiation levels from the nuclear accident fell below the annual exposure limit.

However, many of the residents of 152 households within these districts voiced their opposition to the lifting.

Fukushima mothers compile booklet derived from radiation seminars

Mothers living near the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant have compiled a booklet offering basic knowledge about radiation and explanations addressing safety concerns arising from the disaster.

The booklet, titled “Yoku Wakaru Hoshasen Kyoshitsu” (Radiation and Health Seminar), is available in both Japanese and English and was created by the Veteran Mothers’ Society, which consists of five mothers from the city of Minami-Soma.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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