Thursday, August 19, 2010

Yet another shale gas summit bites the dust.

First it was on, then it was relocated, then it was off.  Now it may be on again, but who knows where.  I'm talking about the EPA's public fracking meeting--the last of 4 held across the country.  First it was to be in Binghamtom, but was cancelled only days before--this after a large number of protestors (some traveling long distances) promised to make their presence known.  The EPA cited logistical & contract issues.  One would think these would have been worked out months ago rather than left to mere days before the event.  At any rate, it was relocated to Syracuse and now Syracuse, too, has pulled the plug.  Now there's talk of it being back in Binghamton, but the EPA is keeping their options open.  You can read more about the ongoing saga HERE.

Now it seems the massive gas shale summit scheduled for October 1st in Pittsburgh (it would have included Pennsylvania politicians in addition to gas company executives) has not only been cancelled--it's as if the thing was never even scheduled in the first place.  Again, a large contingent of protesters were planning to attend; the event was mentioned just a few weeks ago on our blog. As journalist Chris Potter writes, the event hasn't just been cancelled, "it's as if the summit was never scheduled at all."  On August 18th, Potter posted the following article on the Pittsburgh City Paper's website.

(Thanks to one of our FB fans for the "heads up" on this!)

Marcellus Shale Coalition cancels summit where protest was planned

The Marcellus Shale Coaltion has quietly cancelled a "shale gas summit" originally planned for Oct.1.

And by "quietly," I mean that for all appearances, it's as if the summit was never scheduled at all. The coalition Web page that once touted the summit now produces a 404 error. (Though a cached version of it can be found here.) No other mention of it appears on the site.

The summit was billed as a chance for "key stakeholders to showcase and highlight the Marcellus Shale’s economic and energy production potential." It was said to be attracting CEOs from big gas producers like Chesapeake Energy and Range Resources. It was also, however, likely to attract a sizable protest from people opposed to natural-gas drilling in the state.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the coaltion, confirms that the event has been cancelled. What role did the protest play in that decision? "None whatsoever, actually," he says.

Instead, he says, the event was called off due to "a host of logistical issues" including several competing events. Chief among them is the "DUG East" convention being held in Pittsburgh just over a month later. That event is slated to include at least one of the same keynote speakers -- Range Resources CEO John Pinkerton -- and Windle says the events would "be pulling from the same pool of attendees" as well. Another shale event is slated for a few days before the DUG conference.

This still raises the question about why the event was not so much cancelled as "disappeared." You might expect the Coalition to notify people that their event had been called off -- rather than, you know, simply scrubbing the website and acting as if it never happened.

Windle says that those who were interested in the event were notified, but "we didn't think it was necessary to issue a statement" beyond taking the web page down.

So if I'm a protester, I guess, I'm sending out "change the date" cards and planning my activities on Nov. 3-4 instead. And I'm hoping that gas wells are as easily dispensed with as the Oct. 1 conference was.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Perhaps our DEP could take some notes?

The Colorado EPA--despite push back from oil and gas reps--is interested in pursuing studies on the effect of fracking on groundwater.  As things stand now, private citizens are the only ones monitoring Pennsylvania water supplies, lakes, streams, rivers, etc.  If Colorado follows through and leads the way, perhaps Pennsylvania's DEP would consider doing the same. The following story appeared in Colorado's Daily Sentinel this past Saturday.

EPA considers expanding fracturing study to air quality
By Dennis Webb

Recently retired Environmental Protection Agency environmental engineer Weston Wilson is best known for criticizing his employer’s 2004 finding that hydraulic fracturing poses little or no risk to domestic groundwater.

Now, the Denver EPA whistleblower is encouraged by the agency’s interest in studying the natural gas development procedure’s potential impacts on air quality as well.

“I’m proud of EPA now,” not just for undertaking the study, but indicating it may expand the study’s reach beyond water, Wilson said.

His position puts him at odds with the oil and gas industry. At a Denver EPA meeting this summer, several industry representatives argued the study should be limited, as directed by a congressional committee, to the relationship between fracturing and groundwater. “And certainly not air quality,” as Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance put it.

But one of a number of Garfield County residents who say their health has been affected by drilling says he supports the idea of the EPA considering whether fracturing creates airborne health concerns as well.

“I think they should look at all aspects that affect public health,” Ron Galterio said.

He and several other Battlement Mesa residents say they’ve suffered ill effects from fumes from recent nearby fracturing operations by Antero Resources.

Josh Joswick of the San Juan Citizens Alliance told the EPA during its Denver meeting, “I don’t think you can study water without studying air.”

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into wells under high pressure to crack open formations and facilitate flow of gas and oil. The process has been key to developing gas in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, where gas is mostly locked in sandstone formations until fracturing occurs.

“Simply put, without hydraulic fracturing, western Colorado’s natural gas activity would virtually cease to exist,” Doug Flanders, director of policy for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, told the EPA at its Denver meeting.

But the process has raised fears that, in addition to drinking water aquifers, it could contaminate air when fracturing fluids and gas are brought to the surface.

Wilson, who obtained whistleblower protective status when he sent a report to Congress questioning his agency’s 2004 findings on fracturing, said part of the argument for looking into air-quality effects of fracturing arises from a health study conducted for Garfield County.

He said that study showed “mixed results” about what dangers gas development might present, but one disturbing finding involves benzene. The study said airborne benzene could exceed acceptable non-cancer health-risk levels within 250 meters downwind of well-flowback operations that don’t include gas recovery. It recommended use of “green” well completions to reduce this risk.

The report said neurotoxicity, depressed bone-marrow function, an impaired immune system and blood disorders are among the non-cancer risks of benzene, which also is a carcinogen.

“If that is an effect of oil and gas drilling, of fracking, it’s systemic, it’s endemic,” Wilson said. “It’s evaporating from the reserve pits and the condensate tanks. It’s not as if the current state of the art protects the public health from those volatile organics.”

Benzene is one of several volatile organic compounds associated with gas development. It can be contained both in fracturing fluid and the gas itself. Fracturing fluids also can contain numerous other toxic substances, which aren’t required to be disclosed to the public.

Some Battlement Mesa residents, including Galterio, recently complained of nausea, dizziness, coughing, burning eyes and other ill effects of fracturing by Antero just outside their community. They say the situation adds to their fears about what will happen if Antero proceeds with plans to drill 200 wells within Battlement Mesa.

Over the years, other Garfield County residents living near gas development have complained of similar symptoms from fracturing and other operations.

Marc Smith, executive director of the Western Energy Alliance (formerly the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States), said air quality is an important topic, and it’s not that the industry objects to studying it at some point as it pertains to fracturing.

“It’s always within the jurisdiction of EPA to look at human health and environmental issues, and by no means are we saying that the EPA doesn’t have a right to do that. What we do believe is that their interest in that area should not delay the timely completion of the study on hydraulic fracturing,” he said.

The EPA is still finalizing its study plans, but Smith said it appears to be vastly broadening the study scope. That would make it take longer to complete, and industry is anxious to see the agency issue findings that address the question of fracturing and groundwater.

“Industry believes it will provide the peace of mind to communities to have the EPA confirm what other reports have indicated, which is that state regulatory programs provide a high level of protection for groundwater,” he said.

Timely completion of the study is important because there are already federal legislative proposals “to address a problem that we don’t know even exists, and the sooner there is closure, the sooner good policy can be formulated,” Smith said.

The EPA also is going through a separate process to consider updating its air-pollution rules involving the oil and gas industry. Smith said that might be an appropriate process for considering fracturing and air quality, although he doesn’t know the best way the agency should be delegating its staff and resources.

Wilson said he can’t judge whether fracturing poses a serious threat to air quality.

“I don’t know. That’s sort of the Catch-22 of this industry, so little is known,” he said.

But he said people complaining of ailments deserve to at least have their concerns investigated.

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff have cited Antero with an alleged violation in the Battlement Mesa case. Galterio said the company says it is using a closed system rather than open pits, and is containing flowback and produced water in tanks, but that didn’t prevent the problem with fumes.

Jon Black, Antero’s local operations manager, said the company is using equipment that exceeds the state’s green completion requirements.

He said the company plans to incorporate additional “best management practices” during the next round of fracking and flowback. It also is using equipment to measure odors, a weather station and other means of applying science to what otherwise can be a subjective matter, he said.

“It’s one of those ambiguous issues, and the reason I say that is everybody’s got a different level of sensitivity and perception to odor,” he said.

But Galterio said that with people becoming ill, residents took issue with Antero’s contention during a recent meeting that the fumes were mere nuisance odors because they didn’t exceed air-quality standards.

“We told them that the odors were much more than a nuisance to some people,” he said.