natural gas

David Blackmon plays both sides on fracking regulations

  • Posted on: 8 April 2015
  • By: JesseColeman

Inside Climate News has revealed that a key leader of oil and gas industry front groups that oppose new fracking regulations may have been playing both sides of the issue. In an investigation into the funding of the Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) work on oil and gas regulation, Inside Climate News discovered that a key EDF funder had hired FTI Consulting's David Blackmon to promote fracking regulations. Unbeknownst to his employer, Blackmon is a longtime oil industry consultant who is paid to oppose regulation of the fracking industry. 

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation 

The funder in question is the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, established by the late George Mitchell, known as the "father of fracking." George Mitchell owned and operated Mitchell Energy, the first company to combine horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett shale, which sparked the "shale revolution." Mitchell created the foundation with part of the $3.5 billion sale of Mitchell Energy to Devon Energy. The Mitchell Foundation describes itself as "a grantmaking foundation that seeks innovative, sustainable solutions for human and environmental problems." While its goals seem noble, the fortunes of the foundation and the people who run it continue to be inexorably linked to the success of the oil and gas industry. The foundation itself has more than $38 million in stock in Devon Energy. Three of George Mitchell's beneficiaries own over $21 million of Devon Energy apiece. Altogether the Mitchell Foundation and the Mitchell heirs own over one fifth of Devon Energy. One such heir is Todd Mitchell, who sat on the foundation's board for years and worked for Devon Energy for a decade. He currently runs oil and gas production companies and an investment business built on the assumption that gas will provide the baseload for electricity generation around the globe. The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation has funded a series of greenwashing efforts that have portrayed the shale and fracking industry as safe, clean, and reliable. These efforts include an online-based "virtual reality" well pad that makes no mention of water or air quality concerns. In fact, the "virtual well pad" does not mention any of the environmental or social impacts that communities near shale drilling experience. However, the Mitchell Foundation has also dedicated millions of dollars to groups that are trying to "green" the shale industry, like the Environmental Defense Fund. Since 2012 the foundation has given over $1 million to EDF. The funding was for studies of methane emissions from the fracking industry. These studies, which have been criticized as incomplete, are built on a base assumption that the drilling can be done "right." They have also led to some of the first federal regulations on the shale industry, including the methane regulations announced by the Obama administration in early 2015. The foundation also gives to a range of environmental groups, some of which are strongly opposed to fracking and oil and gas development, like the Tides Foundation and the Sierra Club. 

David Blackmon and FTI Consulting's Conflicts of Interest

 


David Blackmon
David Blackmon

 

While the Mitchell family's finances are tied to the success of the gas industry in general, the foundation's funding of efforts to limit pollution from fracking appears genuine. That is what makes the Mitchell Foundation's hiring of David Blackmon and FTI Consulting so peculiar. In 2012 the Mitchell Foundation selected Blackmon of FTI Consulting to run the foundation's gas strategy. FTI Consulting is a PR firm that has worked with the shale and fracking industry to limit shale regulations by attacking journalists and community groups. FTI Consulting runs Energy in Depth, an oil and gas industry front group that maintains a hard line of attack against those who would regulate or criticize its corporate funders. The Mitchell Foundation paid FTI Consulting $120,000 to "start a dialogue between fossil fuel concerns and environmentalists around natural gas." Blackmon himself has long been a power player in the world of pro-fracking PR. Blackmon started his career as an oil industry flack, doing communications work and lobbying for Shell, Tesoro, and various other oil and gas companies. More recently, he has had top positions with nearly every major pro-fracking front group, including the Consumer Energy Alliance, Energy in Depth, and the industry's biggest lobbying arm, America's Natural Gas Alliance. That Blackmon was in charge of the Mitchell Foundation's gas strategy is troubling. His career has been dedicated to obstructing and delaying regulation on the oil and gas industry, especially in regard to fracking. While working for Mitchell, he led industry-funded groups that opposed the very methane regulations he was hired by Mitchell to promote. It is also troubling because of Blackmon's personal denial of the science of climate change, and his aggressive denial of the environmental and health impacts of fracking, which he called an "attention-grabbing boogeyman for all manner of nutcases, chicken littles and radicalized environmental organizations." Tweets from Blackmon's Twitter account reinforce the fact that he denies some of the basic pieces of climate-change science:

 

 

Fracking has been shown to pose a serious threat to the climate, given that methane, natural gas' primary component, traps 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 does. Blackmon and FTI Consulting's anti-regulatory and pro-fracking work constitute a potentially major undisclosed conflict of interest. Marilou Hastings, the communications manager for the Mitchell Foundation, admitted to Inside Climate that before settling on FTI, she approached and was turned down by "more than a dozen consulting firms" due to conflicts of interest. When she approached FTI Consulting and Blackmon, they not only accepted the job but failed to reveal their anti-regulatory work to Hastings. Inside Climate News writes that Hastings "didn't know of FTI Consulting's ties to anti-regulatory efforts." Furthermore, at the same time that Blackmon was being paid by the Mitchell Foundation, Energy in Depth, which is run by FTI Consulting and boasts Blackmon as a "field director," attacked the very studies Blackmon was paid to promote. All the while, Blackmon was using his position as a contributor to Forbes to promote the Mitchell Foundation's work without disclosing his financial incentives. This potentially violated Forbesconflicts of interest clause. This raises the question: Did David Blackmon use his position with the Mitchell Foundation, in which he was tasked with promoting regulation, to feed information to his colleagues at FTI Consulting, which is paid to oppose regulation?

Industry: 
Company or Organization: 

EPA's National Study of Fracking Crippled by Industry Pressure

  • Posted on: 5 March 2015
  • By: JesseColeman

Fracking companies had extensive influence over a critical study of the groundwater impacts from fracking, according to insider documents released by Greenpeace. In 2010, amidst growing worries about the environmental impacts from fracking, Congress compelled the EPA to conduct a study. The study was supposed to be a definitive look at the issue, exploring if and how fracking contaminates groundwater supplies. That study was supposed to be released in 2012, but has been delayed until 2016. Documents released as part of Greenpeace investigation have found that the EPA was forced to rely on shale companies like Chesapeake Energy for data, funding, and access to fracking sites. The shale industry in turn constrained the study, limiting what could be studied and when. These constraints led to the eventual cancellation of perhaps the most important part of the study - the "prospective" section.  

Industry Actions leads to the Cancellation of Science

When the EPA's study was first conceptualized, it was supposed to include retrospective and prospective portions. The retrospective pieces would examine data collected by the industry in the past. The prospective section was where new scientific study would be done. The prospective studies were supposed to take baseline data from groundwater in areas that had not yet been drilled, and compare them to samples taken after drilling and fracking occurred. This type of prospective study, which starts pre-fracking, has never been done before and represented a major advance in the scientific study of fracking's impacts. The prospective portions would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers. One EPA scientist told Inside Climate News "The single most important thing you could do is prospective studies.” However, the EPA was reliant on two shale companies for access to areas that had not yet been fracked, an arrangement that led to the full cancellation of the entire prospective section of the EPA's study. Documents obtained by Greenpeace show that Chesapeake Energy, one of the companies that initially agreed to cooperate with the EPA on the prospective portions of the study, actually drilled wells at their prospective study site, before the EPA was able to collect baseline data. This effectively torpedoed the entire project, and attempts at replacing the location, originally in Louisiana, with one in Oklahoma, also ended in failure. The correspondence between Chesapeake and EPA includes a draft press release announcing the cancellation of the prospective study in Louisiana conducted with Chesapeake. The release blames the cancellation on  "scheduling conflicts, " resulting in Chesapeake drilling the well before baseline data could be collected. The press release was jointly edited by EPA and Chesapeake, but never released to the public. The EPA would never publicly announce the cancellation of the prospective studies, and only after increased pressure from Greenpeace did they reference it's cancellation deep on the study's website. The second prospective study, to be conducted with Range Resources, has also been cancelled. The cancellation of the prospective pieces has had a major impact on the usefulness of the study. "We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago," said Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA's 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study. (from Inside Climate News)

Water Supply Problems

Kids in Pennsylvania hold tap water contaminated by nearby shale drilling

Delay and Obstruct - Study attacked on all sides by Industry

The documents reveal a number of instances where the fracking industry delayed and obstructed the EPA’s attempts to study fracking. The industry waged an attack from every side, political, scientific, and procedural. As Sharon Kelly writes for Desmog, "Watered-down federal research weakens the possibility for future regulations. It also has been used to justify loopholes in federal environmental laws for the oil and gas industry." Kelly points out the 3 step process that various industries have employed to impact unwanted studies:

Step one: using a rhetoric of collaboration and “non-adversarial” relationships, the industry effectively establishes inside access to what otherwise should be an independent research process. This allows the industry to meddle with study methodologies, pick and chose its own favored experts, and distort findings. Step two: through inside access, the industry affords itself the authority to contest, after the fact, any findings that it is not able to water down on the front end. Step three: this access also allows industry the ability to impose infeasible methodological demands on the agency, slowing the process to a crawl and at times forcing the agency to give up trying to get answers to certain key questions.

Fracking for natural gas in Pennsylvania.

This Pennsylvania resident's water changed color and taste after a fracked well was placed near her property.

Here is a list of findings from the documents:

  • Chesapeake only allowed for baseline sampling after the fracking wells had initially been drilled, rather than beforehand, as EPA scientists preferred. Without having baseline data pre-drilling, the industry can claim that contaminates existed there before their drills pierced the aquifer. The Industry has claimed this in multiple cases where groundwater impacts from fracking have occurred.
  • Chesapeake demanded the EPA reduce the depth of their study from 300 to 150 feet, and demanded that the EPA focus solely on the fracking stage, not drilling, completion, or other stages where contamination can occur.
  • API and ANGA tried to have their own consultants shadow the EPA's scientists during the study. This proved to be distracting to the scientists conducting the study.
  • At the same time, Chesapeake and Range, the two companies that were supposed to cooperating with EPA on the prospective study, were attacking other EPA studies of water contamination cases. While initially finding evidence of contamination from Chesapeake Energy wells in Pennsylvania and Range Resources wells in Texas, The EPA never pursued any regulatory action.
  • Chesapeake was, as one EPA email put it “part of the team here” when it came to the water study.
  • The Inspector General of the EPA tried to investigate “the EPA’s and states’ ability to manage potential threats to water resources from hydraulic fracturing.” In response, pro-fracking Congressional representatives demanded the investigation “immediately end.”

As Neela Banerjee writes in Inside Climate News: "The industry balked at the scope of the study and sowed doubts about the EPA's ability to deliver definitive findings. In addition, concerns about the safety of drinking water conflicted with the Obama administration's need to spur the economy out of recession while expanding domestic energy production."

A Chesapeake drilling site warns of water contamination

A Chesapeake drilling site warns of water contamination

Does Fracking Contaminate Water Supplies?

Studies conducted since the EPA’s study began have found evidence that fracking affects groundwater supplies. A 2013 Duke University study found that within a kilometer of fracking wells, methane concentration in drinking-water wells was 6 times higher than the surrounding area.  A University of Texas-Arlington study from 2013 found elevated levels of arsenic and heavy metals in groundwater near fracking sites in Texas’ Barnett Shale. See Greenpeace's fracking page for a list of groundwater contamination incidents.

Industry: 

Dubious LNG exports study was conducted in secret by contractor with ties to coal and oil industries

  • Posted on: 7 January 2013
  • By: JesseColeman

A study on the economic effects of exporting gas fracked in the US has opened the door for what Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) have called “a transfer of wealth from consumers to oil and gas companies.”

The study was conducted in secret by NERA, a consulting company that has a history of producing industry funded studies that obscured the health effects of tobacco and coal.

This particular study, which focuses on the economic impacts of exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG), was commissioned by the US Department of Energy, and will heavily influence the DOE’s decisions on the permitting of 15 proposed LNG export facilities.

Because of the way that exports of natural gas are regulated, the oil industry must convince the US Department of Energy that exporting America’s fracked gas is in the best interest of the country, in order for the DOE to approve any LNG export projects.

Alarmingly, the DOE kept the identity of NERA a secret from the public, and refused to answer Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by Greenpeace, as well as requests from senators’ offices.  The DOE’s excuse? According the DOE FOIA officer I spoke with, they didn’t want outside groups to “influence” the study.

It was Reuters that eventually revealed the identity of NERA, weeks before the DOE publicly released the the details of the contract.  Reuter’s credited “industry sources” for the information.

So to recap, the DOE refused to tell the public the identity of group conducting an extremely important study on natural gas exports, citing a desire to protect the contractor from “influence,” a tacit admission that these studies are somehow corruptible. Then we find out that the notoriously unscrupulous gas industry knew the identity of the contractor before the DOE announced it publicly - the same gas industry willing to use psychological warfare techniques on rural Pennsylvanians - and it was the industry that leaked the contractor’s identity to the press.

Now the study has come out, and surprise, surprise, it says everything the gas industry wanted to hear.  The NERA study supports the unlimited export of natural gas, which opens the door for the gas industry to sell fracked gas in foreign markets. Not only will that lead to higher gas prices here in the US, making fracking more profitable and therefore assuring the drilling of many more wells, but it also means more natural gas infrastructure, more methane leaks, and another blow to our already fragile climate. All the while increasing the profits of oil and gas corporations, like ExxonMobil.

According to NERA’s study:

"Across all these scenarios, the U.S. was projected to gain net economic benefits from allowing LNG exports. Moreover, for every one of the market scenarios examined, net economic benefits increased as the level of LNG exports increased. In particular, scenarios with unlimited exports always had higher net economic benefits than corresponding cases with limited exports."

Considering the DOE considers NERA to be vulnerable to outside influence, and we know the gas industry knew of NERA’s study before the public did, the NERA study and its results must be questioned.

Industry: 

Southern Company CEO Admits Kemper "Clean Coal" Plant is a Bust

  • Posted on: 27 February 2017
  • By: Connor Gibson

Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz tour the Kemper facility construction site in 2013. Photo credit: Terri Ferguson Smith and The Meridian Star.

This article was written by Dan Zegart at the Climate Investigations Center. I am crossposting this with his permission. 

Update: I've added some of the FOIA documents, below, from the CIC's investigations into the Kemper facility, courtesy of the Energy and Policy Institute.

In an apparent first salvo in a public relations campaign to shift blame for the Kemper power plant boondoggle away from himself and corporate management and onto state regulators, Southern Company chief executive officer Tom Fanning admitted this week that Kemper plant is not economically viable as a coal-burning power plant.

The startling reversal came during an earnings call Thursday at a time when Southern faces intense scrutiny from federal and state regulators and the Securities and Exchange Commission - - and as its Mississippi Power Company subsidiary, the plant's owner, faces a Moody's downgrade over Kemper's skyrocketing costs and failure to operate despite being three years past its promised operating date.  Southern took a 27 percent hit to its fourth quarter net income thanks to Kemper schedule delays.

During the call, Fanning acknowledged that Kemper can only be feasible if it runs on natural gas as financial analysts questioned him about a just-released "economic viability" study by Southern that found that low gas prices for the long-term mean the plant can't profitably gasify lignite in the gasifiers Southern spent most of $7.1 billion to build.  

Fanning called a "reduction in the longterm gas price forecast" an "overwhelming change, the big change. Obviously, there are others. It is a point in time. When we had this plant certificated, we all thought that gas prices were going to be double digits and there was some spread that were way higher than where we are now."

Fanning's comments came as the company announced it will soon file a rate case with the Mississippi Public Service Commission seeking to recover its costs for the plant.  

Although Fanning has often reassured Mississippians that they are protected by a  $2.88 billion cost cap agreement limiting their liability for the plant's runaway budget,  he has failed to mention that once the plant is declared operational, the cap won't protect them from additional costs of some $4 billion. That includes $200 million a year in operation and maintenance costs, a disturbingly high figure that keeps going up for the novel "clean coal" plant.

To investors, Southern often touts its friendly relationships with state regulators in the four states in which its regulated utilities operate, but the fall 2015 Mississippi PSC election quickly became a referendum on Kemper, replacing two commissioners who reliably rubberstamped MPC's agenda with two new faces, Sam Britton and Cecil Brown, both of whom have pledged not to leave ratepayers holding the bag.

A source close to the Public Service Commission told CIC recently that the PSC staff has run the numbers and that even under the cap, electrical rates could increase by 40 percent or more - a catastrophic burden for MPC's 186,000 disproportionately lower-income customers in 23 counties in southern Mississippi.

 

Critics have noted that a natural gas facility comparable to the 582-megawatt Kemper facility would have cost about $500 million. 

During the earnings call, Fanning did not draw the obvious conclusion and admit the plant will never actually use its twin gasifiers to produce electricity.

In fact, while admitting the technology isn't viable, Southern nevertheless claimed in its annual report filed last week that it plans to have the plant on-line with both gasifiers operating by mid-March. 

Mississippi Power already faces three lawsuits over allegations that it misrepresented when the plant would be completed and how much it would cost during the project's seven-year history.  Those allegations, aired in a front page New York Times story last summer, are also the subject of a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

An important prong of Southern's PR strategy seems to be to shift the blame for Kemper onto the PSC itself.  During the earnings call, Fanning also said, as he has frequently of late, that Southern built the Kemper energy facility because the Mississippi PSC wanted a coal facility as a "hedge" against potential "double-digit" gas prices.

However, documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request from the Department of Energy, which has provided a total of $407 million in grants for Kemper, demonstrate that the impetus for the facility came from senior management at Southern, including then-chief operating officer Fanning, and from Mississippi Governor and longtime Southern Company lobbyist Haley Barbour, who pressured first the Department of Energy, and then enlisted the secretary of energy himself, to pressure Mississippi's three PSC commissioners into approving plans for the construction of Kemper.  

The documents also reveal that while possible gas price volatility was cited,  Southern Company's proposal relied almost entirely on the plant's promise as a test case for cutting CO2 emissions from burning coal - especially lignite coal, a dirty, low-energy, but plentiful variety found in eastern Mississippi and throughout the world.  

Barbour was both governor of Mississippi and still actively lobbying for the company in early 2008 when he and Southern officials launched an all-out campaign to convince the Department of Energy to transfer an existing grant to build a 285-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Orlando, Florida to a new site in Kemper County, near the Alabama border.

Taking advantage of the availability of hundreds of millions of dollars from DOE's Clean Coal Power Initiative, Southern doubled the size of the plant, added carbon capture and sequestration technology to the Orlando design, which used a first-of-its-kind technology developed by Southern Company and Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) called transport integrated gasification (TRIG) to heat coal under high pressure in a reactor and turn it into a syngas similar to natural gas to drive a turbine to generate electricity.

KBR and Southern hope that licensing the TRIG technology in coal-reliant countries like Poland where lignite is common will help pay back development costs.

This technology makes Kemper, for all practical purposes, a petrochemical plant, not a traditional coal-fired electric plant.  TRIG uses a KBR process called "catalytic cracking" that, according to DOE, "has been used successfully for over 50 years in the petroleum refining industry."

Notably, however, it had never been used to generate electricity.

Angling for a sizeable increase in support from DOE over what it received for its Orlando project,  Southern tricked out Kemper with additional goodies.  

These included carbon capture equipment,  plus a process to produce sulfuric acid from waste gases. The plan was to strip out the CO2 and connect the plant to an existing network of CO2 pipelines, then inject the gas into older, underproducing Mississippi oil fields to push up more oil - a process known as enhanced oil recovery.  

In so doing, however, Southern now added further complexity and uncertainty to the still-untested TRIG system.

On February 6, 2008, Eric Burgeson of BGR, Haley Barbour's lobbying firm, requested that then-Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman meet with himself, Barbour, then-Southern CEO-David Ratcliffe,  and other officials Southern Company and Mississippi Power officials to discuss moving and expanding the DOE's commitment from the Orlando project to Kemper.  The initial cost projection was $1.2 billion.  DOE would put up $270 million on top of $23 million spent in Orlando - where the project was already substantially over-budget.

"Front-end Engineering and Design (FEED) is underway to support operation in Kemper County in June 2013," Burgeson wrote, although Southern later admitted that very little FEED had been completed.

Barbour had personally lobbied for Southern Company for more than a decade before he became governor and began representing it again upon leaving office in 2012.  Despite the questionable ethics of a sitting governor working hand-in-glove with his own lobbying firm to reel in more than a quarter of a billion dollars in DOE money for Southern Company (Barbour defends himself by noting he put his 50,000 shares of BGR in a "blind trust" when he became governor),  the meeting with DOE Secretary Bodman took place on February 26th.

By the fall of 2008, a funding package of almost a billion dollars in DOE grants and federal tax credits was in place.  By then the cost had already gone up to $2.4 billion and the schedule had been pushed back to spring 2014. DOE also waived repayment obligations for what was supposed to have been a loan.

To get the project rolling, however, Southern needed a "certificate of convenience and necessity" from the Mississippi Public Service Commission to certify that the project was needed and allow construction to begin

However, the PSC voted against the project in April 2010, then reversed its decision weeks later. In between, Barbour wrote the Commission urging approval, as did Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. James Markowsky, head of the department's Office of Fossil Energy, responsible for developing new coal technologies, wrote several such letters to the PSC.

There are reasons to doubt that the current PSC, despite campaign promises to the contrary, will actually hang tough with Mississippi Power if the utility tries to stick customers with an outsized bill for Kemper.

While neither of the new commissioners - Sam Britton and Cecil Brown - has made a public statement on the project lately,  Britton's campaign manager during his PSC run was Austin Barbour, Haley's nephew, and a principal in the GOP-focused Clearwater Group, whose other partner is Arnie Hederman, former chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party. 

Though his gubernatorial term ended in 2012, Barbour himself was deeply involved in the PSC races, and is believed to have hand-picked Britton to run in the Southern District against Democrat Tom Blanton, who financed a series of legal actions that overturned an 18 percent rate hike by Mississippi Power to help pay for Kemper. 

Britton is also connected to Barbour through his wife, Robin Robinson, director of organization, development and corporate communication at Sanderson Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the country and a major Barbour financial and political backer.  While governor,  Barbour appointed Robinson to the board of trustees of the state's Institutions of Higher Learning, which oversees public higher education.  Britton spent more than $300,000 on the campaign, an enormous sum for a PSC race, most of which came from his own pocket.  Barbour is thought to have ageed to back Robinson for lieutenant governor in the next election in return for Britton spending so lavishly on his PSC campaign.

All three commissioners have expressed concern that a too-tough stance on Kemper could bankrupt Mississippi Power, an unlikely scenario given past financial support by Southern for its troubled subsidiary. Asked about such a possibility during the earnings call,  Southern's Fanning said he believed that "we will maintain our support for Mississippi Power" and that it's "just not in anybody's interest to consider in any serious way something other than that."

In his remarks to the analysts, Fanning leaned heavily on the argument that low gas prices had suddenly made the coal plant idea economically unsound.  In fact, gas prices were trending far lower than Southern's forecasts when the project was approved by the PSC in 2010,  and opponents argued as far back as 2009 that the plant as proposed was uneconomic given natural gas prices.  

When the PSC held hearings in October 2009 to determine if the state actually needed additional electrical power, the Sierra Club pointed out that Mississippi already had 12 natural gas plants that sat idle 85 percent of the time and could provide up to 7,995 MW of power. Many of these were so-called merchant plants that were for sale for $500 million or less. 

Later, in April 2012, when the PSC reauthorized its approval for Kemper, Louie Miller, director of the Mississippi Sierra Club, complained to a reporter that the project was again being rubberstamped by a compliant PSC, ignoring ultra-low gas prices.

"There is no way they can justify Kemper under current conditions in the energy market," Miller said

 

Industry: 

DeSmogBlog: Obama EPA Shut Down Weatherford, TX Shale Gas Water Contamination Study

  • Posted on: 17 January 2013
  • By: Connor Gibson

Originally posted by Steve Horn at DeSmogBlog.

The Associated Press has a breaking investigative story out today revealing that the Obama Administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) censored a smoking gun scientific report in March 2012 that it had contracted out to a scientist who conducted field data on 32 water samples in Weatherford, TX.

That report, according to the AP, would have explicitly linked methane migration to hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in Weatherford, a city with 25,000+ citizens located in the heart of the Barnett Shale geologic formation 30 minutes from Dallas.

It was authored by Geoffrey Thyne, a geologist formerly on the faculty of the Colorado School of Mines and University of Wyoming before departing from the latter for a job in the private sector working for Interralogic Inc. in Ft Collins, CO. 

This isn't the first time Thyne's scientific research has been shoved aside, either. Thyne wrote two landmark studies on groundwater contamination in Garfield County, CO, the first showing that it existed, the second confirming that the contamination was directly linked to fracking in the area.

It's the second study that got him in trouble.

"Thyne says he was told to cease his research by higher-ups. He didn’t," The Checks and Balances Project explained. "And when it came to renew his contract, Thyne was cut loose."

 

From Smoking Gun to Censorship: Range Resources Link

The Obama EPA's Weatherford, TX study was long-in-the-making, with its orgins actually dating back to a case of water contamination in 2010. The victim: Steve Lipsky. 

"At first, the Environmental Protection Agency believed the situation was so serious that it issued a rare emergency order in late 2010 that said at least two homeowners were in immediate danger from a well saturated with flammable methane," the AP wrote

AP proceeded to explain that Lipsky had "reported his family's drinking water had begun 'bubbling' like champagne" and that his "well...contains so much methane that the...water [is] pouring out of a garden hose [that] can be ignited."

The driller in this case was a corporation notorious for intimidating local communities and governmental officials at all levels of governance: Range Resources. Range, in this case, set up shop for shale gas production in a "wooded area about a mile from Lipsky's home," according to the AP

As DeSmogBlog revealed in November 2011, Range Resources utilizes psychological warfare techniques as part of its overarching public relations strategy.

Due to the grave health concerns associated with the presence of methane and benzene in drinking water, the Obama EPA "ordered Range...to take steps to clean their water wells and provide affected homeowners with safe water," wrote the AP

Range's response? It "threatened not to cooperate" with the Obama EPA's study on fracking's link to water contamination. The non-cooperation lead to the Obama EPA suing Range Resources. 

It was during this phase of the struggle where things got interesting. As the AP explained,

Believing the case was headed for a lengthy legal battle, the Obama EPA asked an independent scientist named Geoffrey Thyne to analyze water samples taken from 32 water wells. In the report obtained by the AP, Thyne concluded from chemical testing that the gas in the drinking water could have originated from Range Resources' nearby drilling operation.

Despite this smoking gun, everything was soon shut down, with the Obama EPA reversing its emergency order, terminating the court battle and censoring Thyne's report. The AP explained that the Obama EPA has "refused to answer questions about the decision."

"I just can't believe that an agency that knows the truth about something like that, or has evidence like this, wouldn't use it," Lipsky, who now pays $1,000 a month to have water hauled to his family's house, told the AP.

"Duke Study" Co-Author Confirms Veracity of Thyne's Study 

Robert Jackson, a Professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke University and co-author of the "Duke Study" linking fracking to groundwater contamination did an independent peer review of Thyne's censored findings. He found that it is probable that the methane in Lipsky's well water likely ended up there thanks to the fracking process. 

Range predictably dismissed Thyne and Jackson as "anti-industry."

Americans Against Fracking: An "Unconscionable" Decision

Americans Against Fracking summed up the situation best in a scathing press release:

It is unconscionable that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is tasked with safeguarding our nation’s vital natural resources, would fold under pressure to the oil and gas industry...It is again abundantly clear that the deep pocketed oil and gas industry will stop at nothing to protect its own interests, even when mounting scientific evidence shows that drilling and fracking pose a direct threat to vital drinking water supplies.

There's also a tragic human side to this tale. 

"This has been total hell," Lipsky told the AP. "It's been taking a huge toll on my family and on our life."

Photo CreditShutterStock | Aaron Amat

ALEC, CSG, ExxonMobil Fracking Fluid "Disclosure" Model Bill Failing By Design

  • Posted on: 4 December 2012
  • By: Connor Gibson

Written by Steve Horn, crossposted from DeSmogBlog.

Last year, a hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") chemical fluid disclosure "model bill" was passed by both the Council of State Governments (CSG) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It proceeded to pass in multiple states across the country soon thereafter, but as Bloomberg recently reported, the bill has been an abject failure with regards to "disclosure."

That was by design, thanks to the bill's chief author, ExxonMobil

Originating as a Texas bill with disclosure standards drawn up under the auspices of the Obama Administration's Department of Energy Fracking Subcommittee rife with oil and gas industry insiders, the model is now codified as law in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Bloomberg reported that the public is being kept "clueless" as to what chemicals are injected into the ground during the fracking process by the oil and gas industry.

"Truck-Sized" Loopholes: Fracking Chemical Fluid Non-Disclosure by Design 

"Drilling companies in Texas, the biggest oil-and-natural gas producing state, claimed similar exemptions about 19,000 times this year through August," explained Bloomberg. "Trade-secret exemptions block information on more than five ingredients for every well in Texas, undermining the statute’s purpose of informing people about chemicals that are hauled through their communities and injected thousands of feet beneath their homes and farms."

For close observers of this issue, it's no surprise that the model bills contain "truck-sized" loopholes

"A close reading of the bill...reveals loopholes that would allow energy companies to withhold the names of certain fluid contents, for reasons including that they have been deemed trade secrets," The New York Times explained back in April.

Disclosure Goes Through FracFocus, PR Front For Oil and Gas Industry

The model bill that's passed in four states so far mandates that fracking chemical fluid disclosure be conducted by FracFocus, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, claiming it has produced chemical data on over 15,000 fracked wells in a promotional video

The reality is far more messy, as reported in an August investigation by Bloomberg

"Energy companies failed to list more than two out of every five fracked wells in eight U.S. states from April 11, 2011, when FracFocus began operating, through the end of last year," wrote Bloomberg. "The gaps reveal shortcomings in the voluntary approach to transparency on the site, which has received funding from oil and gas trade groups and $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy."

This moved U.S. Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) to say that FracFocus and the model bills it would soon be a part of make a mockery of the term "disclosure."

"FracFocus is just a fig leaf for the industry to be able to say they’re doing something in terms of disclosure," she said.

"Fig leaf" is one way of putting it.

Another way of putting it is "public relations ploy." As Dory Hippauf of ShaleShock Media recently revealed in an article titled "FracUNfocusED," FracFocus is actually a PR front for the oil and gas industry.

Hippauf revealed that FracFocus' domain is registered by Brothers & Company, a public relations firm whose clients include America’s Natural Gas Alliance, Chesapeake Energy, and American Clean Skies Foundation - a front group for Chesapeake Energy. 

Given the situation, it's not surprising then that "companies claimed trade secrets or otherwise failed to identify the chemicals they used about 22 percent of the time," according to Bloomberg's analysis of FracFocus data for 18 states.

Put another way, the ExxonMobil's bill has done exactly what it set out to do: business as usual for the oil and gas industry.

Image Credit: ShutterStockbillyhoiler

Industry: 
Company or Organization: 

Halt Fracking! 68 Groups Say to Obama

  • Posted on: 8 August 2011
  • By: Connor Gibson

The impact of fracking on clean water and health is questionable. Photo credit.

Written by Kyle Ash, crossposted from Greenpeace USA.

This morning, CEOs, founders, and other leaders of 68 organizations sent a letter to President Obama, urging that he do what he can to stop the dangerous extraction of shale gas that is occurring across the country without any federal public safeguards. Often called 'fracking,' communities from Pennsylvania to Texas to Minnesota are already suffering from the numerous environmental problems connected with this process to force “natural” gas from shale several thousand feet below ground.

The letter states,

'Fracking involves shooting millions of gallons of water laced with carcinogenic chemicals deep underground to break apart rock to release trapped gas. Despite its obvious hazards, regulation necessary to ensure that fracking does not endanger our nation’s water supply has not kept pace with its rapid and increasing use by the oil and gas industry.

To date, fracking has resulted in over 1,000 documented cases of groundwater contamination across the county, either through the leaking of fracking fluids and methane into groundwater, or by above ground spills of contaminated and often radioactive wastewater from fracking operations. Rivers and lakes are also being contaminated with the release of insufficiently treated waste water recovered from fracking operations. In addition, fracking typically results in the release of significant quantities of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere despite the availability of cost-effective containment measures.'

Fracked gas may be no 'bridge fuel,' and it certainly is not 'clean energy.' Burning natural gas releases about half the greenhouse gas as burning coal, but fracked gas may produce so much more methane during extraction and processing that it could be as bad or worse than coal for the climate.

The oil and gas industry have good lobbyists, and have achieved years ago exemptions under virtually every federal environmental law, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act. Companies like Conoco Phillips, Chesapeake Energy and Talisman Energy are not even required to disclose the more than 900 different chemicals used in the fracking process, which contaminate aquifers. Talisman has even targeted children in its lobbying, with 'Terry the Fracosaurus' who promotes an industry that is polluting drinking water with toxic chemicals.

Oil and gas companies have spent over three hundred million dollars in the last two years lobbying against federal protections from their pollution, so it is not too surprising that the federal government has decided to 'shoot now, ask questions later.' There are few efforts by Congress and the administration to mitigate the public health impacts of fracking.

In the next week or two we should see some results fom a panel of experts set up by the Department of Energy, which is supposed to reach conclusions on how to frack safely. However, the panel is stocked with only frack-friendly experts. EPA is studying impacts on water quality, but that study will take years to complete and is limited in its scope.

While further knowledge about impacts is a certainly a good thing, in this case 'more research' means political procrastination. EPA found 24 years ago that fracking contaminates water supplies. So far the only legislation to get much traction is the 'FRAC Act,' spearheaded by Democracts from Pennsylvania, New York, and Colorado. This bill is an important step to closing one legal loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act, and would require that industry disclose which chemicals they're using.

Industry: 

Amid Reports of Lax Enforcement, PA Governor Puts a “Leash” on Hydrofracking Regulators

  • Posted on: 6 April 2011
  • By: JesseColeman

Tom Corbett, Governor of Pennsylvania

In the wake of a New York Times series that revealed a serious lack of oversight of the gas industry by state regulators, the Governor of Pennsylvania has taken decisive action.  He ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection not to report violations by gas companies without approval from his hand picked environmental chief.  That’s right - Tom Corbett, the republican governor of Pennsylvania, ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to stop issuing violations against drillers without prior approval from DEP Secretary Micheal Krancer, who he personally selected as chief of the agency.

The Philidelphia Inquirer reports:

John Hines, the DEP executive deputy secretary, sent an e-mail March 23 to other senior staff, including four regional directors and the head of the department's oil and gas division.

"Effective immediately," it said, all violations must first be sent to him and another DEP deputy secretary in Harrisburg - with "final clearance" from Michael Krancer, DEP secretary.

"Any waiver from this directive will not be acceptable," Hines wrote. Regional directors reinforced the stern message in their own e-mails to staff.

Considering that notices of violation are the inspectors' main tool for enforcing compliance with environmental rules, Governor Corbett has basically kneecapped the DEP’s ability to control wayward hydrofrackers.  The new policy has been met with disbelief and anger by people familiar with regulating the industry.

"They are putting us on a leash," said the one inspector, who spoke to the Enquirer on condition of anonymity because of a fear of retaliation.

Even John Hanger, ex DEP chief and good friend of fracking was against the directive.  In an interview with the Enquirer, he said:

"I could not believe it. It's extraordinarily unwise. It's going to cause the public in droves to lose confidence in the inspection process."  According to Hanger, there has never been a similar directive in DEP.

Hanger said the "extraordinary" policy was akin to forcing a highway trooper to get approval from the head of the state police before writing a ticket.

"It is a complete intrusion into the independence of the inspection process," he said.

Why would Corbett pander so brazenly to the Natural Gas industry?  The Enquirer points out that Corbett received more than $800,000 in campaign contributions from drilling interests last year.  A good investment for the fracking industry, considering that since taking office in January, Corbett's administration has overturned a moratorium on drilling in state forests and has refused to consider any extraction tax on drillers.  Pennsylvania is the only major natural gas-producing state without such a tax.

A hydrofracking well pad in Pennsylvania.  Image source

Industry: 

ExxonMobil Refuses to Tell the Fracking Truth

  • Posted on: 21 March 2011
  • By: JesseColeman

ExxonMobil, proud owner of the gas company XTO (bought in 2010 for $31B), attempted to parry criticism of the gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing in a recent  letter to the editor featured in the New York Times.  The letter, written by Vice President Ken Cohen, contained all of the untruths and PR manipulations one would expect from the anti-climate, anti-environment, oil and gas supermajor ExxonMobil. 

Ken writes in retaliation to a New York Times Business Day article by largely pro-gas and pro-industry “journalist” Christopher Swann, in which Swann refers to ExxonMobil’s strategy of forming a “united front against regulation" as “myopic.”  Ken tacitly denies opposing regulation, saying “Along with other companies, ExxonMobil works with state regulatory authorities to develop sound, science-based regulations for oil and gas drilling.”  If the implication of this statement is that Exxon supports legitimate fracking regulation, then this is a lie.  Exxon opposes any attempt at regulation of their business reflexively and has opposed all attempts at regulation on fracking specifically

Ken goes on to parrot the industry mantra of how vital “clean-burning” gas is for “national energy security” and “well-paying jobs.”  No mention of how fracking poisons drinking water with radiation and toxic sludge.  When weighing the importance of fresh water versus the “billions of dollars” that stand to be made by energy profiteers, Ken has definitely picked a side.  Ken’s letter also spouts the common industry-created rhetoric that fracking has been used safely since 1940.  The truth is that the type of fracking practiced currently is significantly different than the processes used since the 40’s, and none of these processes should be labeled 100% safe.  Just ask the residents of Wiliamsport, Pennsylvania, where Exxon and XTO spewed 13,000 gallons of toxic sludge into waterways used for drinking water.  So much for the “responsible development” touted by Ken Cohen and ExxonMobil.

Industry: 

New York Times Exposes Dangers of Natural Gas Extraction

  • Posted on: 1 March 2011
  • By: JesseColeman

In a ground breaking expose of the natural gas industry, Ian Urbina of the New York Times chronicles the dumping of radioactive watewater into the rivers and streams of Pennsylvania, among other abuses.  The article describes how natural gas companies have taken advantage of lax regulation and unprepared regulators to thwart what few environmental safeguards exist to control gas extraction.  Natural gas is extracted through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short.  This process uses millions of gallons of water, which becomes contaminated with heavy metals, radioactive elements, and other toxins.  This wastewater must then be disposed of.  In Pennsylvania the waste has been dumped into waterways, upstream of freshwater intake for cities and towns. 

Here is a video describing the fracking process.  Keep in mind it was made by Chesapeake Energy, a company heavily invested in hydrofracking, so there is no mention of what happens to the toxic wastewater.

 

Natural gas has long courted a "green" image because gas is less carbon intense than coal and some other fossil fuels.  Gas companies have even gone as far as calling the burning of gas an inexpensive form of clean energy.  However, the cost of natural gas is enormous: polluted water, the release methane (a powerful green house gas), exploding houses and water wells, cancer, and waste of money and capital that should be going to real clean energy (i.e. solar and wind).

Pages