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Thursday, August 29, 2013

More videos posted from UCS's forum on fracking (shameless self-promotion)

In July, I participated in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ forum on Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking in Los Angeles that I've blogged about previously. The full webcast of the event is available at this new link, and a summary video here.

UCS has posted two short companion videos: The Curious Case of Fracking and Reflections from Experts and Citizens.  The latter includes some brief commentary from me on the need for 3-part regulation of unconventional oil and gas development - a Federal floor upon which states can build regulations that reflect their geology and geography, and a measure of local control to protect the health and safety of citizens and the integrity of communities.  All of that regulation needs to be grounded in science. 

My section of the clip begins at about the 3:50 mark.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Proposed PA regs inadequately protect public lands from drilling

Yesterday, Pennsylvania's Environmental Quality Board approved over industry objections – a modest update of Pennsylvania’s drilling regulations.  While it contains some good provisions like requiring identification of abandoned wells, others, in my view, leave a lot to be desired. I want to focus on one particularly egregious aspect of the update – a provision that purports to “(p)rotect public resources to minimize impacts from oil and gas drilling” - that is, in fact, very weak.

The summary of the proposed regulation provided by PA DEP says that: 
With these proposed regulations, DEP has outlined a streamlined process for considering the potential impacts to public resources during the well permitting process. An applicant for a well permit will be required to notify the appropriate public resource agency (such as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources or Pennsylvania Game Commission) if a well site is within:
  • 200 feet of a publicly owned park, forest, game land or wild life area;
  • In or within the corridor of a state or national scenic river;
  • Within 200 feet of a national natural landmark;
  • In a location that will impact other critical communities (species of special concern);
  • Within 200 feet of a historical or archaeological site listed on the Federal or State list of historic places 
Within 200 feet?  Within the corridor of special rivers? Those provisions are completely inadequate to protect public resources. 

The same proposed regulation establishes the threshold for notification at 1,000 feet for a proposed well site located near “a water well, surface water intake, reservoir or other water supply extraction point used by a water purveyor.” Why the vastly smaller requirement for public lands, much of which are environmentally sensitive, or valuable for recreational, aesthetic, cultural, and economic reasons?

But it gets worse.

The proposed regulation, according to the summary, says that: 
the resource agency may provide comments and recommendations to DEP and the operator on the well permit application. DEP will make the final determination on the permit and has the ability to add conditions to a well permit to ensure operators mitigate any potential impacts. 
That's good. But when you – pardon the pun – drill deeper by looking at the actual proposed language, things go south.  It says, in section 78.15(f)(2): 
the public resource agency shall have 15 days to provide written comments to the Department [DEP] and the applicant on the functions and uses of the public resource and the measures, if any, that the public resource agency recommends the Department consider to avoid or minimize probable harmful impacts to the public resource where the well, well site and access road is located.  The applicant may provide a response to the Department to any such comments. 
15 days to analyze impacts to the public lands? Totally inadequate.

Section 78.15(g) goes on: 
If the proposed well, well site or access road poses a probable harmful impact to a public resource, the Department may [emphasis added] include conditions in the well permit to avoid or mitigate those impacts to the public resource’s current functions and uses.  
“May.”  Not “shall.”

And it doesn’t end there. The “shall” is then put in exactly the wrong place, if the purpose of the regulation is to protect public lands: 
The Department shall [emphasis added] consider the impact of any potential permit condition on the applicant’s ability to exercise its property rights with regard to the development of oil and gas resources and the degree to which any potential condition may impact or impede the optimal development of the oil and gas resources.  The issuance of a permit containing conditions imposed by the Department pursuant to this subsection shall be an action that is appealable to the Environmental Hearing Board.  The Department shall have the burden of proving that the conditions were necessary to protect against a probable harmful impact of the public resource. 
So, DEP may condition well permit approval to protect public lands, but it shall consider the impact of any conditions on the driller. And if it imposes any conditions, they are appealable, with the burden of proof falling on DEP, not the driller.

With this proposed regulation, the playing field is strongly tilted in favor of development, and against public lands protection.

Should Pennsylvania’s publicly-owned lands receive special protection as wells, roads, water impoundments - and compressor stations and pipelines, not covered by the proposed regulation - are sited? Should drillers be required to actually minimize ecological and other impacts on public lands when they decide where to drill near them?

Before this proposed regulation is finalized, the EQB will be accepting written public comments for 60 days, and will be scheduling at least six public hearings across the state. So, the answers to those questions are up to you.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fracking's health risks are showing and must be minimized - now

Does fracking makes people sick?  The question of whether hydraulic fracturing impacts public health is an essential one that must be answered definitively - and quickly. But troubling data is emerging on health impacts of localized air pollution from drilling operations.

Preliminary results from a study by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project in Washington County show:
27 cases where people in Washington County believe they were hurt by nearby drilling — seven cases of skin rashes, four of eye irritation, 13 of breathing problems and three of headaches and dizziness. The skin exposures were from water and the other cases were from air. The numbers don’t represent a full survey of the area, just cases with plausible exposures.
Volatilizing chemicals from open impoundments of drilling wastewater and drill cuttings are one likely source of the airborne irritation. Compressor stations and other gas-related equipment are other likely sources.

The Washington County project is not the first to report these kinds of localized harms.

To be sure, there are significant positive public health impacts from using natural gas compared to coal - locally, regionally, and globally. They need to be acknowledged. But these localized impacts from natural gas development are real - and avoidable. The path to minimizing them is straightforward.

Mandatory use of best available control technology (BACT) on all gas-related equipment is an absolute must. Open impoundments for storing drill cuttings and drilling waste, and for all drilling-related wastewater, should be outlawed, and closed-loop, closed container systems must be required. The latter has been recommended by the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, and some companies are already using these systems. It must become the standard, now. 

Until these commonsense measures are required, health-related fears about fracking will continue and grow as more wells are drilled and more compressor stations are built.   The industry's social license to operate will continue to be in jeopardy. And most importantly - people will suffer needlessly. That is simply unacceptable. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Report paints a bleak future for coal

In the first half of 2013, coal-fired power generation is up 10%, and natural gas generation fell by 13.7%. But the long-term outlook for coal – in the eastern US, at least – might be bleak, according to a recently-published Department of Energy-funded report. 

Current State and Future Direction of Coal-fired Power in the Eastern Interconnection concludes that low-price natural gas, in combination with much-needed Federal emissions regulations, renders the outlook for development of new coal-fired power plants "uncertain" and may well - eventually - doom coal:  
(W)ith persistent low natural gas prices and more environmental regulations, natural gas continues to be the most cost effective generation fuel source. The persistently low historical and near-term forecasted natural gas prices provide with plant developers tremendous incentives to build gas-fired generation capacity in the United States. Levelized costs of electricity are expected to remain low for gas-fired plants, implying that new generation capacity in the US is primarily gas-based. Meanwhile, both existing and new coal capacities face challenges from current and upcoming environmental regulations. New coal development appears to be difficult to justify due to high costs compared to natural gas plants, and a significant fraction of the existing coal capacity is expected to retire within the Eastern Interconnection.
If energy prices remain low, as is currently the case with low gas prices, low load growth, increasing demand resources, and capacity prices remain depressed due to the excess supply of capacity and other factors,  the additional costs of retrofits needed to comply with more stringent environmental regulations might force a greater fraction of the existing coal-fired fleet out of the market through retirement or conversion to natural gas... 
The outlook for coal worsens, according to the report, if carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is incorporated in coal plants: 
Any requirements to incorporate  CCS technology driven by climate change regulation, with its additional costs and technology risks, will further disadvantage new coal plants relative to gas.
The report says that the commercial viability of CCS is a “vital factor in determining the future of coal-fired plants in the United States,” but “the drive for CCS technologies has become moribund…(T)he development of fully integrated CCS projects is challenged by a variety of factors, including uncertainty in climate policy, commercial availability of the technology and high costs.” 

The report’s authors says that cheap gas – and what I view as the lower overall costs of applying CCS to natgas plants – suggest that future emphasis could be put on deploying CCS for natural gas—not coal—plants. That must happen if natgas is to be more than a short-term climate stabilization tool.