Monday, March 14, 2011

If the fracking water don't get you, the benzene air might

In this Jan. 22, 2010 photo, antelope graze not far from gas drilling rigs in western Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin, where ozone levels last week exceeded the worst days in major U.S. cities last year. Local residents complain of runny eyes, nosebleeds and shortness of breath and say the air is hazy. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver)

The natural gas drilling industry has a bit of an image problem. 

First there were the poisoned wells in Dimock, Pa. Then the exploding drilling pad. Then the Gasland interview with the homeowner whose tap water burst into flames.

More recently, the New York Times let us in on the little secret that seemed to have escaped the attention of most everyone at the federal and state regulatory agencies--wastewater from the hydrofracturing (fracking) process contains radioactive properties. It's running through public treatment plants that are not equipped to detect or remove it and ending up in streams and rivers that millions of people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey rely on for drinking water.

That revelation caused such a stir that the EPA paid Pennsylvania a hurried visit to urge officials there to tighten up on their water-monitoring practices and two committees in the neighboring New Jersey Legislature released bills that would ban (Senate version) or freeze (Assembly version) any natural gas drilling in the Garden State (not that there is any).

But that's not the end of Big Gas's problems. The Associated Press now reports that natural gas drilling in the Upper Green River Basin of outdoorsy Wyoming produced ozone levels last week that exceeded the worst days in major U.S. cities last year.

Yes, the smog in Wyoming's gasland is worse than the smog in Los Angeles!

"It is scary to me personally. I never would have guessed in a million years you would have that kind of danger here," Debbee Miller, a manager at a Pinedale snowmobile dealership, said Monday.

"In many ways, it's a haze of prosperity: Gas drilling is going strong again, and as a result, so is the Cowboy State's economy. Wyoming enjoys one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates, 6.4 percent. And while many other states are running up monumental deficits, lawmakers are projecting a budget surplus of more than $1 billion over the coming year in this state of a half-million people.

"Still, in the Upper Green River Basin, where at least one daycare center called off outdoor recess and state officials have urged the elderly to avoid strenuous outdoor activity, some wonder if they've made a bargain with the devil. Two days last week, ozone levels in the gas-rich basin rose above the highest levels recorded in the biggest U.S. cities last year.

"They're trading off health for profit. It's outrageous. We're not a Third World country," said Elaine Crumpley, a retired science teacher who lives just outside Pinedale."

In Pennsylvania, it's see-no-evil, full fracking speed ahead

If  Pennsylvania's new Republican Governor Tom Corbett has made any 'bargains,' the devil must have come away smiling. For, although the state faces enormous budget problems, Corbett has no plans to offset any of his state's revenue shortfall with a tax on gas extraction. Instead he's proposing deep cuts to education and other programs.

But it gets curiouser still. ProPublica, the investigative news organization that focused on fracking's risks long before most of the mainstream media, reported last week that Corbett "wants to hand authority over some of the state’s most critical environmental decisions to C. Alan Walker, a Pennsylvania energy executive with his own track record of running up against the state’s environmental regulations." 
"Walker, who has contributed $184,000 to Corbett's campaign efforts since 2004, is CEO and owner of Bradford Energy Company and Bradford Coal, which was once among Pennsylvania's largest coal mining companies. He also owns or has an interest in 12 other companies, including a trucking business and a central Pennsylvania oil and gas company.

"Walker was Corbett's first appointee — he chose him to lead the Department of Community and Economic Development in December, before taking office.
Now, as Corbett stakes much of the state's economy on Marcellus Shale gas drilling, a paragraph tucked into the 1,184-page budget gives Walker unprecedented authority to "expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted."

That includes, presumably, coal, oil, gas and trucking.

And yesterday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took at look at Governor Corbett's newly appointed Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission and concluded that it is "stacked with energy executives and campaign contributors -- including one with a history of environmental violations."

Image problem?  What image problem?

Radioactive water, flaming tap water, prairie smog worse than an L.A. morning. The industry's track record is turning into an icy turnpike pileup, but few of  the people who have the power to force changes seem to care.

To his credit, New York's former governor David Paterson imposed a temporary moratorium on fracking. Tom Corbett, in contrast, and most of the members of PA's General Assembly, appear reluctant to take any action that could be viewed as an imposition on gas drillers. Corbett's latest appointments, in fact, may signal a true laissez-faire approach to industry oversight.

Even in New Jersey, where the environmental committees did a lot of saber-rattling last week, the one bill that could have had a significant impact on the gas industry got yanked from the Senate committee's agenda.

That measure would have required New Jersey's representative to the Delaware Regional Basin Commission (DRBC) to oppose the multi-state agency's proposed natural gas regulations. (See: Second NJ committee backs anti-fracking legislation)

The DRBC rules impose some restrictions on fracking but, once adopted, would allow the drilling to go forward, despite pleas from environmental critics who want to agency to wait until an extensive EPA study is completed.

Let's err on the side of safety, the critics urge.  'Let them eat smog' seems to be the reply.

Wyoming plagued by big-city problem: smog
PA Governor Gives Energy Executive Supreme Authority Over Environmental Permitting

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