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Friday, August 8, 2014

Earthworks: PA's regulation of oil/gas industry falls far short

Environmental non-profit Earthworks has issued a detailed report on the state of natural gas regulation in Pennsylvania.

Blackout in the Gas Patch: How Pennsylvania Residents are Left in the Dark on Health and Enforcement finds that " Pennsylvania’s oversight of the gas and oil industry is falling far short of the demands posed by surging development" due to severe budget cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection, a lack of transparency, and a very pro-industry stance by the Corbett Administration.

Earthworks' 25 key findings are presented on pages 7-9 of the report, which offers recommendations on public information, air and water quality, permits and waivers, and oversight and enforcement.

The report is essential reading.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Inexcusable on two counts

This Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story reports that three wastewater impoundments used in shale gas development in Washington County, Pennsylvania have leaked, contaminating soil and groundwater.

One company - Range Resources Inc. - operates all three. The company has nine impoundments in Washington County.  So, a third of them have leaked and caused contamination.  A .333 average in baseball in great.  Here, it's inexcusable.

The use of these impoundments is a severe risk to not only soil and groundwater, but to public health - and to company bottom lines.  It's past time for Pennsylvania to ban them and mandate closed-loop, closed container systems. There's no excuse for failing to enact this commonsense requirement.

How many more contamination incidents will state regulators tolerate?  How many more will the citizens of Pennsylvania tolerate?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Must the boom go bust?

Pennsylvania’s history is punctuated by waves of natural resource extraction - and by the boom and bust cycle that tragically accompanied them. The effects of that cycle are typically regional – after all, even stupendous shale gas production has not created statewide prosperity.  They're always felt locally. Usually, painfully.

While natural gas production in Pennsylvania is still on an amazing upward trajectory, it's not too soon - actually, past time - to look ahead.  Is the Keystone State condemned to repeat the mistakes of its past? One part of Pennsylvania, at least, is determined to chart a wiser course.

A new study released by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and Washington & Jefferson College’s Center for Energy Policy & Management (W&J Center) explores “best practices to forestall or mitigate” a “bust” that could come at the end of Pennsylvania’s shale gas boom.

To avoid the bust potential…(k)ey strategies to maintain economic viability include seeking economic diversification, as well as recognizing and preserving a base of renewable natural resources that can sustain outdoor recreation, travel, and tourism. Similarly…local governments have zoning authority that may allow them greater influence over shale gas siting decisions…Local governments can use their zoning powers to recognize locally-meaningful distinctions in land forms and compatible and incompatible land uses. [That authority and alternatives include] operator-community engagement and consensus building... 
(S)pecific best practices that could advance community well-being over the long run and avoid or ameliorate any potential for a bust [include] the need for jobs and workforce training, a careful examination of housing values and the effects of water use, potential preventative responses to damaged roads, opportunities to examine and seek correction of environmental impacts, priorities for needed public health research, planning for durable investments resulting from expenditures of short-term impact fees, use of zoning powers to recognize incompatible land uses, and the opportunity to take advantage of community engagement plans and consensus methods. 
The study – and other research results from this collaboration -  provide a set of must-read tools for local officials across the state – and beyond.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Adult supervision needed

Natural gas-powered electricity has been variably described as a bridge to a renewable future, a hedge against the worst ravages of global climate disruption, a bridge to nowhere, and, hyperbolically, as a bridge to hell

So, which is it?

Probably all of the above, depending on location, politics, economics, regulation, and energy policies.

This Financial Times piece sums up the symbiotic relationship between natural gas-fired electricity and renewable energy in Europe:
(T)he rise of renewables has made gas power more necessary, at precisely the time gas plants are struggling – partly because of renewables.
Alas, we don't have that "problem" - actually, an opportunity - in the US, as growth in renewables is modest overall. But the relationship is achievable on this side of the pond, too, from California to Texas to the East.

To be sure, there are limits to how far natgas can take us in the fight for a sustainable global climate.  And even more certainly, market forces alone won't get us to the most sustainable outcomes, and simply won't work unless the playing field is levelled and a price is placed on carbon.

But wouldn't we be better off if we shaped the future, instead of talking past each other, settling for good but incremental policies, and letting an unbalanced and dysfunctional market shape it for us?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Half of fined PA gas drilling spills not reported by industry

The risks to groundwater, the environment, and public health from leaks and spills from unconventional gas drilling are significant.  There should be a zero-tolerance policy by both regulators and drillers.  But in Pennsylvania, it appears that the latter, at least, just ain't so.

This Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article is a must-read. The newspaper reviewed "hundreds of thousands of state and company documents for every incident at a Marcellus well site that led to a fine against a driller through the end of 2012" and found that: 
Half the spills at Marcellus Shale well sites that resulted in fines weren’t spotted by gas companies, which are required by state law to look for and report spills of drilling-related fluids... 
The Post-Gazette investigation using well permit file documents and other DEP data focused on 425 incidents involving 48 companies that resulted in nearly $4.4 million in fines. 
Of those 425 fines, 137 were due to spills at or near a well site.
And half of those spills weren't detected by the drillers themselves.

(t)he Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group that represents all of the main drillers in the state, dismissed the Post-Gazette’s analysis of spills and fines because the number of incidents represented just a small percentage of active well sites in the state (more than 6,000 wells drilled through 2012).
So, are 137 spills - that were documented - acceptable to the industry?

Is the fact that half of them weren't detected by drillers also acceptable to the industry?

Regardless of percentages, neither should be acceptable to the industry - whose social license to operate remains at risk - nor to regulators, nor to the citizens of Pennsylvania.

Self-regulation doesn't work.  Period.  There's no substitute for performance by the industry - every well, every time - and for tough regulations, ubiquitous monitoring, and strict enforcement.  

Bravo to the Post-Gazette for its investigative reporting - a true public service.