Environmental Must-Reads – March 27, 2015


Water Use for Fracking Has Skyrocketed, USGS Data Show

As a concept, hydraulic fracturing has changed very little since the first wells were drilled in the late 1940s. In practice, however, what most people now know as fracking has undergone a transformation.

Then, as now, a well is drilled into a shale rock formation, and then fluid is pumped in at high pressure, opening cracks that release oil, gas, or both.

The combination of this technique with horizontal drilling and other advances has brought both the boom and the controversy now associated with fracking.

Colombian tribe scores ‘historic’ victory versus Big Gas

The indigenous U’wa people living in north-east Colombia have won what observers call an “historic” and “decisive” victory after state oil and gas company Ecopetrol dismantled a gas drilling site in their territories.

The U’wa Association of Traditional Authorities and Councils (Asou’wa) reported in February last year the arrival of an “avalanche of heavy machinery” and increasing numbers of soldiers at the site, called Magallanes, where Ecopetrol intended to drill three wells. After statements fiercely opposing operations and a series of meetings with government and company representatives, Ecopetrol agreed to suspend operations last May and announced a decision in July to withdraw equipment – but only finished doing so in January this year.

Activists protest at Algerian fracking facility

Since the start of January thousands of protestors have gathered in the southern Algerian town of Ain Salah to rally against plans to exploit shale gas there.

Demonstrators say the government’s $70 billion dollar hydraulic fracturing project will pollute the groundwater and damage the environment.

Minnesota ramps up hunt for arsenic in wells

On an unexpectedly warm March afternoon, Emily Berquist knelt in the slick mud of a recently cleared driveway, a plastic sample jug wedged between her thighs. In her hands, she held a filtering tube attached to a pump powered in turn by the battery of her nearby Chevy Equinox.

The car idled with its hood up, urging a thin stream of water into the tube to remove sediment from the well water just collected outside a new house on a patch of wooded land near St. Michael, at the northwestern edge of the Twin Cities exurbs.

EARTHQUAKES: Okla. officials expand scrutiny of disposal in quake-prone zones

State oil and gas officials here are doubling the number of disposal wells under scrutiny for signs they could be causing earthquakes.

As part of that scrutiny, officials at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) also could order about nine wells, and possibly many more, to shut down and be temporarily reworked because they permitted companies to drill too deep.

EARTHQUAKES: In Okla. quake country, still doubt about links to drilling

R.J. Parrish came to a town hall meeting about earthquakes here last night skeptical about the connection between the shaking and the oil and gas industry.

He left just as doubtful.

“I’m not fully convinced it’s not just nature,” said Parrish, a farmer from nearby Hunter, as people ambled out of the hall. “I don’t want to stop the industry from doing anything.”

Study of oil and gas activity in B.C. ‘suggests’ health risks low

A long-awaited provincial government-commissioned study on the health effects of oil and gas activity in northeast B.C. “suggests” health risks are low.

The study released Thursday afternoon also included a review of regulations and concluded they are “extensive and broadly protective of health.”

But some northeast residents are questioning the findings of the study or reserving judgment until they can have a closer look at the data.

Recent Trends In U.S. Land Drilling Market: Re-fracking, Growing Well Inventory, Lower Rig Count

The tight oil boom in the United States has been largely responsible for the present turmoil in the global oil markets. Average annual production growth in the U.S. has stood at about 1 million barrels per day over the last four years, taking production to current levels of over 9 million barrels a day. WTI crude, the U.S. benchmark, is currently trading at levels of about $47 per barrel, down by about 50% since mid-June 2014. The tight oil industry has been affected by the glut as well, owing to the high marginal cost of production (average break-even upwards of $60 per barrel, although this can vary by basin), which is making a large portion of U.S. production unviable at current prices.

Lawmakers unhappy with new fracking rules

Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House have found something in common: Many have issues with the Obama administration’s new regulations requiring companies that drill for oil and natural gas to disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Republicans say the new regulations, announced last week, will delay new drilling projects and take marginal lands out of production. Democratic lawmakers say the regulations are so mild that they won’t change current operating standards.

Canada’s New Brunswick province bans fracking, plans study

Lawmakers in New Brunswick voted on Thursday to prohibit fracking in the eastern Canadian province, committing to study the controversial method of extracting oil and gas for one year before reconsidering the ban in 2016.

The province’s Liberal-led government said it will require five conditions be met before the moratorium is lifted. These include beefed-up environmental and health regulations, a plan for waste water disposal, consultations with aboriginal groups, a royalty structure, and the establishment of a “social license,” which is the approval by local communities and stakeholders.

Mexico’s Pemex Lands Pipeline Deal With BlackRock, First Reserve

National oil company Petróleos Mexicanos has landed its first major investment since an overhaul opened the energy sector to private investors last year, with U.S.-based BlackRock Inc. and First Reserve Corp. putting up about $900 million for a 45% stake in a pipeline project that will bring U.S. natural gas to central Mexico, the companies said on Thursday.

The investment—and similar deals being pursued by Pemex—will help ease the effects of a planned $4 billion in budget cuts at the company this year because of lower oil prices, Pemex officials said.

Senators Introduce Legislation After Series Of Oil Train Accidents

A group of Democratic senators wants to improve the safety of transporting oil by rail in the United States, following a series of high-profile derailments that led to fires and explosions.

Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Wednesday introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act, which would direct the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to bar the use of older, riskier types of tankers and ask it to set standards for the volatility of gases in tank cars — meaning they won’t explode as easily. The legislation would also set standards for new tankers, requiring thicker shells, thermal protection and pressure relief valves.

Oil trains put US on target for more derailments, warn experts

Activists call them “bomb trains,” and they’re likely rolling through a town near you.

The oil boom in North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, has put a record number of train cars on tracks carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil each day all across the U.S. Several accidents have already happened, and local leaders say it is a matter of time until more occur.

Oil spill money targeted for Louisiana colleges, under proposal

Higher education leaders are eyeing Gulf oil spill recovery money as a possible long-term financing source for Louisiana’s college campuses.

The Board of Regents on Wednesday supported a proposal to be sponsored by Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, that could steer to public colleges some of the money Louisiana is expected to receive from BP to pay for economic damage caused by the 2010 spill.

N.J. Assembly OKs two bills dealing with environmental settlements

The Assembly passed two bills born out of the Christie Administration’s pending settlement with Exxon Mobil that has sparked outrage.

One of the bills, which passed 43 to 30, would designate up to half the money awarded to the state in major environmental settlements toward cleanup and restoration by amending the current budget. The bill was introduced following the report late last month that Governor Christie’s administration plans to settle a decade-old, $8.9 billion lawsuit with Exxon for $225 million, a move viewed by critics as a quick infusion of cash to help balance the 2016 budget.

New Jersey lawmakers send post-Exxon pollution bill to governor

New Jersey lawmakers sent a bill to Governor Chris Christie on Thursday that calls for more money from environmental settlements to fund cleanups.

The legislation came after the Christie administration announced a controversial $225 million deal with Exxon Mobil Corp on March 5 over environmental contamination from two of its former New Jersey refineries.

Ameren settles lawsuit over contamination near St. Charles water wells

Ameren Missouri has joined a group of companies that are keeping chemicals from polluting St. Charles’ drinking water wells.

The utility settled a lawsuit last month with several companies in charge of cleaning up contamination at the nearby Hayford Bridge Road Superfund site. Those companies — Pfizer Inc., Mallinckrodt LLC, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Findett Real Estate Corp — sued Ameren in late 2012, accusing it of not paying its fair share for a cleanup in the area.

State lawmakers slam oil regulators after embarrassing lapses

The agency that regulates the oil industry in California is — by its own admission — in disarray. After a series of embarrassing disclosures about regulatory lapses that allowed drilling in protected aquifers, officials at the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources are trying to untangle years of chaotic operation.

But the fixes aren’t happening fast enough to satisfy many state lawmakers. In recent weeks, elected officials have publicly chided the agency, launched their own investigations and introduced at least a half-dozen bills that aim to recast DOGGR’s mission to prioritize protecting public health and the environment over promoting energy development.

The Harsh Reality of Oil Spill Cleanups (Excerpt from ‘Pipeline Nation’)

A pipeline network more than 2.5 million miles long transports oil and natural gas throughout the United States — but a top official in the federal government’s pipeline safety oversight agency admits that the regulatory process is overstretched and “kind of dying.” A recent spike in the number of spills illustrates the problem: the Department of Transportation recorded 73 pipeline-related accidents in 2014, an 87 percent increase over 2009.

Despite calls for stricter regulations over the last few years, the rules governing the infrastructure have largely remained the same. Critics say that this is because of the oil industry’s cozy relationship with regulators, and argue that violations for penalties are too low to compel compliance.

Canada gov’t asks pipeline regulator for safety guidelines by 2016

Canada’s Conservative government has given the energy regulator about a year to deliver up-to-date guidelines for pipeline companies to improve safety and protect the environment.

Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford instructed the National Energy Board to study the issue and report its findings with new safety guidelines by next year, according to a Feb. 5 letter released to Reuters through an access to information request.

Oil Spill: Environmentalists Accused Shell of Intimidating Communities

Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria, ERA/FoEN, and Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, have differed on oil spills investigation process in Bayelsa State.

ERA/FoEN, an environment non-governmental organisation, accused Shell of withholding Joint Investigation Visit, JIV, reports of oil spill incidents traced to equipment failure to evade payment of compensation but promptly reports sabotage induced spills.

Antarctic ice shelves melting 70% faster, study shows

The frozen fringes of western Antarctica have been melting 70% faster in the last decade, raising concern that an important buttress keeping land-based ice sheets from flowing to the sea could collapse or vanish in coming decades, a new study shows.

An acceleration in the flow of massive ice sheets would add substantially to the ongoing rise of sea levels, according to Fernando Paolo, a geophysics PhD candidate at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and lead author of the study published online Thursday in the journal Science.

Shell conducts drills with Arctic oil spill response system

Shell’s Arctic oil spill response system is undergoing drills in waters near Bellingham, Washington, with government officials observing the exercises.

Shell Oil Co. is conducting the testing as it plans a new round of exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska later this year.

Despite low oil prices, recent mishaps, DOE advisory council pushes for Arctic drilling

The U.S. should immediately begin a push to exploit its enormous trove of oil in the Arctic waters off of Alaska, or risk a renewed reliance on imported oil in the future, an Energy Department advisory council says in a study to be released Friday.

The U.S. has drastically cut imports and transformed itself into the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas by tapping huge reserves in shale rock formations. But the government predicts that the shale boom won’t last much beyond the next decade.

As world expands nuclear power, US grapples with decades of waste

A nuclear power renaissance is underway in much of the world, but in the US you would hardly notice.

Shifting energy economics and public safety concerns have made new American nuclear reactors rare, even as China and others ramp up investment in the carbon-free power source.

But now, the US government is seeking to stay relevant in an evolving global nuclear industry, in part by proposing new ways to confront a decades-old challenge: handling mounting nuclear waste.

Feds probe PG&E report on California nuclear plant safety

Federal investigators have launched a probe into whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission erred when it let Pacific Gas and Electric Co. change earthquake safety standards at the Diablo Canyon power plant without public hearings, The Chronicle has learned.

The regulatory agency’s own internal watchdog — the Office of the Inspector General — has been delving into the issue, which is the subject of a lawsuit filed in the fall by environmentalists trying to close Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear plant.

Cat litter blamed for $240m radiation leak at New Mexico nuclear waste dump

A radiation leak at an underground nuclear waste dump in New Mexico was caused by “chemically incompatible” contents, including cat litter, that reacted inside a barrel of waste causing it to rupture, scientists said on Thursday.

The US Energy Department report on last year’s radiation accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad showed that a drum of waste containing radioisotopes like plutonium was improperly packaged at the Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe before arriving for disposal.

Worker exposed to radiation at TVA nuclear plant in Alabama

A Browns Ferry nuclear plant worker was cut and suffered radiation exposure after a five-foot fall at the nuclear plant Wednesday, the Tennessee Valley Authority said today.

The worker received a “minor amount of radiological contamination” after he fell and suffered a laceration to his forehead, TVA said.

The worker was conducting an inspection of the dry well as part of a planned refueling outage in Browns Ferry’s Unit 2 reactor, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said. The refueling outage began March 13.

Compensation rules for ill Hanford nuclear workers likely to be eased

Some employees who contracted cancer linked to radiation exposure at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington State will likely face an easier process to receive government compensation in coming months.

That means a certain class of employees who developed radiation-linked illnesses like cancer will automatically receive government compensation, instead of having to endure a long process of proving they were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Cancer and Infant Mortality at Three Mile Island

The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, March 28, 1979, involved the loss-of-coolant, the melting of half its fuel, a hydrogen explosion in the “containment” building,i the uncontrolled, frightening buildup of explosive hydrogen in the reactor vessel, the venting of radioactive gases, and the dumping of contaminated water into a major source public drinking water. The accident caused such a scare that it ended the expansion of nuclear power in the US. Today, reactor builds can’t keep up with closures.

Robots go where engineers fear to tread in hunt for Fukushima radioactive hot-spots

When the Fukushima nuclear reactor blew its top, the fuel in the No1 reactor melted and fell into the reactor’s containment unit. Two other reactors appear to have suffered a similar fate according to The Telegraph.

Before the plant can be made safe, engineers need to know where the radioactive hotspots are. They can’t go in there themselves, because even after four years the radiation levels are just too high for human beings.

Japan wants to share the lessons it learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster

When professional boxer and model Tomomi Takano heard that children in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture were becoming unfit and overweight as the 2011 nuclear crisis there limited the time they could play outside, she decided to use her skills to help.

Early this month, the glamorous 27-year-old taught some 200 junior high school students in the village of Otama an indoor workout based on boxing moves

The $6.8 Billion Great Wall of Japan: Fukushima Cleanup Takes on Epic Proportion

‘The Great Wall of Japan’ may be able to prevent future disasters, but the cleanup could take another forty years before it’s complete

More than four years after the catastrophic tsunami that crippled several nuclear reactors in Fukushima, the Japanese utility that owns the site is struggling to deal with a continuous flood of radioactive water.

The Fukushima Cleanup Wasted Half a Billion Dollars on Bad Technology

The cleanup of Fukushima’s leaking nuclear plant has been long, expensive, and plagued with problems. Now, the AP reports a government audit has found that more than a third of the budget for cleanup was wasted—totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

The previous allegations of incompetence and straight-up lies that surround Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, the company responsible for the cleanup, might make you wonder if any of those millions were lost to corruption. But the Associated Press says that most of it was wasted because no one really knew how to clean up the site. The company spent millions on systems and machines that theoretically might have worked. But didn’t.

Setback at Fukushima No. 1 plant threatens reactor 3 rod removal

Tokyo Electric Power Co. has disclosed that a 35-ton piece of machinery debris might be resting on the inner gate of the spent fuel pool for reactor 3 of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant and that the gate is slightly out of position.

Tepco said Thursday that a fuel-handling machine dislodged during the March 2011 quake, tsunami and meltdown-triggered hydrogen explosions is touching one of two gates that stand between the pool and the reactor containment vessel.

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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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