Archive for the ‘Wastewater’ Category

Do We Have Your Attention Now?

via WikiMedia Commons

via WikiMedia Commons

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. – Samuel Johnson

Nobody ever said it would be easy. There’s lots of natural gas in the ground. We’ve been siphoning it up from the ground for years. But supplies dwindled as traditional fields yielded less and less gas. Fracking has brought a new production bonanza to states around the Union. Inevitably, protests have come hand in hand with increased production. This summer has been dubbed #FearlessSummer by environmentalists opposed to the extraction and carbon energy industries.

Fracking is dirty work. It can pollute ground water, endangering wells and agricultural water, and it produces a tremendous amount of waste. The byproduct of fracking is a wicked stew of proprietary chemicals and water used to force natural gas out of its ancient hiding places underground.

One of the sources of particular ire in the environmental circles is the seeming impunity with which energy companies have been able to pursue natural gas over hill and under dale. The companies rely on eminent domain to site their drilling rigs, and have been largely shielded from liability for environmental damage they have caused while feeding the country’s unquenchable demand for energy.

XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil settled with the Environmental Protection Agency over a 50 thousand gallon spill of fracking slurry at one of its storage tanks in Pennsylvania. Without admitting liability, it agreed to pay a $100,000 fine and implement a more rigorous waste water management regime. It also hauled away some 3,000 tons of contaminated soil.

All well and good as far as the Feds and XTO were concerned. Environmentalists,  not so much. Also not so pleased – the Pennsylvania state Attorney General. Last Tuesday, Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed criminal charges against XTO over the 2010 spill. Not civil. Criminal. That’s a first. No other Marcellus Shale production company has ever faced criminal charges.

Environmentalists are giddy over the prosecution, comparing it to the genteel supervision the company has received from state regulators. Energy industry representatives went ballistic, as well they might, accusing Kane of doing some polluting of her own – of the business environment – and sending a “chilling message” to the energy business.

But Kane’s office insists it wasn’t going off half-cocked. “The prosecutorial powers of this office are used carefully and with great consideration,” First Deputy Attorney General Adrian R. King Jr. said through a spokeswoman. “We closely examine the facts and the applicable law in each case and proceed accordingly.” And Kane’s office didn’t arrive at the charges by itself. It was a grand jury that handed down the charges.

Settlements like the one XTO reached with federal regulators are just a cost of doing business for an enormous company like ExxonMobil. Criminal charges, on the other hand, take the risk/benefit calculation to a whole new level. The Pennsylvania charges have ignited a furor and are sure to be fought by an industry red in tooth and claw. But as the good doctor observed to his friend Boswell, the gallows sharpens the mind. The prospect of standing in the dock is likely to do the same for the captains of the energy industry.



Still Not Gone

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

I hate to keep beating the proverbial dead horse, but Fukushima is the gift that keeps on giving. Or the problem from hell.

Last week I wrote about how the Fukushima disaster had re-entered the news cycle, and not in a good way. After largely vanishing from public consciousness, the stricken reactors had emerged from the memory hole after Tepco, the plants’ operator, announced that massive amounts of radioactive water had escaped from temporary holding tanks and was headed for the open seas. In that post, I described Tepco’s response to the disaster from the get-go as hapless. That adjective hardly seems sufficient to describe the Inspector Clouseau of energy companies.

Following hard on the heels of last week’s announcement that, its prior multiple protestations notwithstanding, the situation at the devastated plants was not contained (and notwithstanding its hallucinatory plan to freeze the ground to prevent contaminated water from leaching into the ocean) comes word that the situation at the stricken plants is even worse than Tepco has ever let on. Or, more to the point, ever knew.

All along, Tepco has reported that the radiation emitted by the leaking water was around 100 millisieverts an hour. Well, the equipment the company was relying on to make those readings could only measure up to 100 milisieverts.  So, apparently, they took that as the actual reading of the radiation level.  Turns out the actual amount of radiation is 1,800 millisieverts an hour.  Garbage in, as they say, gives garbage out.

And how much is that? Enough to prove lethal in a mere four hours. Pause a moment to think of the workers who have been struggling to contain those leaking tanks.

You have to wonder where Tepco got their Geiger counters. Army surplus? Did Tepco simply not have the equipment to accurately measure the radiation? Did it know the amount and hope to keep mum about it? At this point, it scarcely matters. The company, the devastated plants, and Japan at large seem destined to stumble from one appalling revelation to another. Please join me in hoping I don’t have to post about Fukushima next week.

Fracking in California and Moviemaking in Pennsylvania

The Promised Land? Photo by Alan Bowring, some rights reserved.

In July, we wrote about the scramble to regulate fracking. Last month, California entered the fray, releasing a “discussion draft” of hydraulic fracturing regulations and seeking comments from interested parties ahead of the formal rulemaking process set to begin in February.

California’s Department of Conservation’s Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Division released the draft, detailing testing, monitoring, operating, and disclosure requirements (thanks to Arnold Porter for their advisory). The Division will operate a chemical disclosure directory to which operators will have to disclose information about the chemicals and concentrations used as well as data on the amount of fluid recovered. There is a trade secret exemption, but in the case of an operator withholding information, they must submit documentation of the type of information withheld, why it was withheld, and that the proprietary information could not be gathered through testing. However, operators would have to be able to provide the information immediately if necessary to investigate a release of fracking fluid or to a doctor to treat an individual exposed to fracking fluid.

Information from required pre-fracking testing would be available to the public before fracking at a particular well begins, and operators would be required to monitor certain variables in and around a well during fracking and for thirty days after.

A personal tidbit of my own says something on the topic as well.

I just saw Matt Damon and John Krasinski’s Promised Land, which seems to encourage viewers to focus on its exploration of selling mineral rights leases to gas companies rather than its characters and story, so I will do just that. Centered on a Pennsylvania town whose struggling farms are sitting on millions of dollars of natural gas, Matt Damon’s character as a representative of Global Crosspower Solutions claims to be offering the town its last chance to fund and prolong the myth of the small town of family-run farms. At a town meeting, an influential local science teacher raises questions about the risks surrounding the type of drilling Global plans to do – fracking – leaving some of the community hesitant to join farmers promised a big payout in their enthusiasm for the gas company’s drilling plans.

And though the appearance of a fake environmental advocate employed by Global to discredit environmental concerns portrays townspeople as uncritical pawns of interest groups, the point that such tactics may not be far from the truth is certainly taken. The questions Promised Land raises are as much emotional and cultural as scientific and political, but maybe with the information gathered through California’s regulations the debate in the future can be informed by a more measured understanding of its risks.

USGS Links Fracking to Earthquakes

A hydraulic fracturing drilling rig. Image by Cliff Weathers. Some rights reserved.

The American Midwest has seen something of an earthquake boom in recent years, and speculation that the earthquakes are related to shale gas drilling has run rampant. In 2001, the frequency of earthquakes from Montana to Alabama began to rise, the number of quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater reaching 87 in 2009. The 134 quakes of that magnitude recorded in 2011 represent a sixfold increase over 20th century levels.

As shale gas production has grown at a rate of 50 percent per year over the past 5 years, official concern has been growing. Back in November, we wrote about a report from the Secretary of Energy laying out recommendations to improve the safety and reduce the environmental impact of shale gas development, including a section on eliminating the use of diesel in fluids used for hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” is a method of extracting gas and petroleum from source rocks. The injection of fracturing fluid into a drilled wellbore creates an extended crack in underground rocks typically under high pressure, allowing petroleum or gas to flow from the porous rocks where it is trapped to a natural reservoir from which it can be extracted.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently released the abstract of its report finding a link between fracking and the sharp jump in earthquakes, the latest in a wave of research on the process. It follows a USGS report from last August that noting a series of 50 small earthquakes that came shortly after fracking operations began in Oklahoma. In November, a British shale gas developer admitted that they likely caused small earthquakes in the vicinity of their operations, and in March, Ohio regulators found that some fracking processes probably induced twelve earthquakes in northeastern Ohio.

The USGS thinks most of the earthquakes are caused not by the fracking itself, but from the disposal of the millions of gallons of wastewater produced by each well – often by injecting it back into the earth, as regulators found in Ohio. The bottom line is that the dramatic increase in earthquakes has never been seen outside of volcanic activity or in the absence of a main earthquake, neither of which exist in this region.

NRC Report Champions the Benefits of Wastewater

Photo by Pam_Broviak. Some rights reserved.

As the National Research Council made clear way back in 2001, “In this new century, the United States will be challenged to provide sufficient quantities of high-quality water to its growing population.” According to a new report authored and released by the NRC’s Water Science and Technology Board (made up of sixteen government officials, researchers, and industry specialists), approximately 12 billion gallons of used water is discharged each day into oceans, rivers, and groundwater by American municipalities, when this wastewater could be easily “captured and reused.”

As climate change and population growth force the need for more stringent water conservation methods ever higher, this new report argues that the current practice for disposing of this used water is to treat it by recycling it back through larger bodies of water, when in fact this “natural treatment” step may be entirely unnecessary, when this water could be put to immediate use in bolstering out national water supply.

The New York Times points out that in some areas of the U.S., local governments are already implementing such measures. The Southwest Florida Water Management District has been using un-treated wastewater for decades across a broad spectrum of uses (none of which involve any human consumption, which seems to be the biggest hang-up for the American consumer, a POV that was considered in the parameters of the NRC report). Ten percent of total water use in this district employs recycled water, whereas this figure stands at less than three-tenths of 1 percent nationwide.

Despite the obvious benefits, and though the study concludes that there are no significant risks in these potable reuse water projects (finding no comparable differences between common drinking water sources and potable reuse water), the legalities of enforcement of these standards on a larger federal level are somewhat dicier. The EPA is on shaky ground enforcing national water reuse standards under the Clean Water Act, and so, at least for now, the decision to reuse wastewater seems to rest on a district-by-district-level. I’ve linked to the full version of the NRC report above, and you can read a nice summary of the report here.

Duke University Study Finds Methane Contamination in Drinking Water Near Fracking Sites

Photo by Augapfel. Some rights reserved.

Last month it was Cornell, and this month it’s Duke, but all these universities are telling us the same thing: hydraulic fracturing comes with environmental risks.

While the study from Cornell focused on the global warming effects of methane that escapes from natural gas fracking, a recent study from Duke University found that escaped methane from shale wells is also making it into surrounding groundwater.

Specifically, concentrations of methane in drinking water wells near active drilling and extraction areas were found to be 17-times higher on average than in wells by non-active drilling areas.  “Although dissolved methane in drinking water is not currently classified as a health hazard for ingestion,” the study points out, “it is an asphyxiant in enclosed spaces and an explosion and fire hazard.”

Of course, the results of a study like this won’t go uncontested. One article questioning the study’s reliability points to an industry spokesman who claims that “the authors (of the Duke University study) admit they have no baseline data at all, which makes it impossible to characterize the state of those water wells prior to recent development.”

However, one good – and surprisingly less publicized – piece of news for the gas industry is that this particular study found no evidence of drinking water contamination from the fracturing fluids themselves or from “produced” water (wastewater that results from the fracking process). Still, the EPA announced yesterday that they are continuing to seek information from natural gas drillers on their wastewater disposal processes to “ensure that natural gas production takes place safely and responsibly.”

For more information on the study, check out this Fulbright & Jaworski Briefing.

The Dramatic Dance Between the EPA and CAFOs Continues in Fifth Circuit

Photo by Iain McDonald. Some rights reserved.

The relationship between the Environmental Protection Agency, environmentalist groups, industry representatives, and the federal court can become easily strained by contention over policy, as perfectly indicated by the long-enduring struggle over the EPA’s ability to regulate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations’ (CAFOs) waste disposal under the Clean Water Act. The Act in its original form required a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for any entity intending to discharge any pollutants or toxins from a point source into open U.S. waters. In this original form, CAFOs (which the EPA defines as “agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations” – learn more at their “About CAFOs” page) were to be held accountable for any water pollution, although authority was granted to most state departments to regulate these CAFOs themselves.

In 2003, EPA tightened their regulations by issuing a rule requiring all CAFOs to apply for and obtain an NPDES permit even if they had only vague intentions of discharging waste, which was challenged by industry insiders who felt the agency was overstepping its regulatory boundaries. In 2005, an official lawsuit appeared (Waterkeeper Alliance v. EPA) in which the Second Circuit ruled that the EPA did not have the regulatory authority to force CAFOs to apply for waste permits based on potential discharges, and that only CAFOs with discharges on record would be required to first file for an NPDES permit. The EPA reworked these parameters slightly in the published 2008 final rule, which stated that CAFOs with actual waste discharges or the intention to discharge would be held accountable for permits, where unpermitted discharges would now face penalty.

This final rule catalyzed into a larger debate between industry representatives and environmental activist groups, with either side arguing that the rule was either too strict or too lax with its enforcement policies, even as the EPA issued clarifying guidance for CAFOs proposing to discharge. The rule was petitioned for review in a series of courts, until the issue was finally consolidated in the Fifth Circuit. In the most recent case in this string of decade-old litigation, this month’s National Pork Producers Council v. EPA, the Fifth Circuit made the decision that the EPA in fact does not have the administrative power to regulate CAFOs in any “duty to apply” sense under the Clean Water Act, nullifying this most recent advancement of the final rule, and also stripping the EPA of any enforcement power in the case of CAFOs failing to acquire permits.

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