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Friday, September 12, 2014

Connecting some dots on drilling wastewater

Sometimes, the process of making some sense out of the mass of information that’s constantly coming out about the impacts of unconventional natural gas development involves the ability to connect some dots.   

Wastewater from drilling provides a case in point.

This article from Inside Climate News reports on a new study published in the journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts that analyzed what's in the water that comes back out of a well after it’s been fracked and put into production – called produced water.

Organic compounds in produced waters from shale gas well, according to the report, shows that:
fracking-produced water shouldn't be allowed near drinking water…
[R]researchers identified 25 inorganic chemicals in the waste. Of those, at least six were found at levels that would make the water unsafe to drink—barium, chromium, copper, mercury, arsenic and antimony. Depending on the chemical, consuming it at high levels can cause high blood pressure, skin damage, liver or kidney damage, stomach issues, or cancer. 
But the study's innovation involved examining and identifying over 50 organic chemicals in the waste—an area that's been little studied previously. Some of these are potentially dangerous, depending on their concentrations, such as the cancer-causing toluene and ethylbenzene... 
Those findings are of obvious concern, but unfortunately, 
Researchers did not look closely at the waste's naturally occurring radioactive materials. 
That’s especially pertinent for Marcellus development, where NORM and TENORM are huge, looming, unresolved issues.

But there's more: 
According to the study authors, the most surprising find was the presence of group of organic compounds called halocarbons, some of which are potentially toxic. These chemicals are not native to the geology of the area being drilled; nor are they found in the man-made fluids purposefully injected down a well during fracking. 
These toxic chemicals result from chemical reactions that occur down-hole. That is an area that is very poorly understood, and needs lots more study, illumination - and regulation and reporting. Here's why:
[T]he study author…said the observed levels of these inorganic compounds are minimal and "not a cause for panic."
At higher levels, however, some of the observed halocarbons—including a type called organobromides, which has been associated with liver damage—could pose a public health risk. And their unanticipated presence indicates that the way wastewater is treated should be reviewed... 
(Incidentally, in saying “A single fracked well can use over 2 million gallons of water”, the article vastly understates the amount of water used, at least in the Marcellus play.)

Meanwhile, in Utah, state regulators fined an operator of wastewater impoundments for allowing fracking chemicals like methanol and other volatile organic compounds into the air. Previously, regulators had assumed that the emissions from these impoundments were minimal, but discovered that they were woefully wrong.

The article goes on to say that: 
Other states are beginning to impose stricter regulations. Pennsylvania might be a sign of things to come for pond regulations. In 2010, after the state had a spate of high-profile fracking water spills, including one that spilled 50,000 gallons of wastewater at a drilling site, the state beefed up enforcement of environmental regulations regarding ponds and now has some of the most stringent regulations in the nation, including requirements for groundwater monitoring and environmental remediation. 
Pennsylvania should NOT be the exemplar.  The state’s requirements are not nearly tough enough, because - connecting the dots - it's obvious that the water that comes back out of the well during after after fracking contains hazardous, volatile chemicals. It should not be allowed to be stored in impoundments for any duration.  These impoundments leak, have contaminated groundwater and soil, and present a severe public health risk - the apparent magnitude of which grows with each new study.  

Drilling wastewater impoundments must be banned.  Period.  Closed-loop, closed-container systems for all drilling-related fluids must be required.

Will regulators connect the dots?  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Study - people who live near fracking sites more likely to become sick

The impacts of unconventional gas drilling on public health is a frequent topic of this blog. It's a vital question – especially here in Pennsylvania, where the Governor and General Assembly failed the public by refusing to create a public health registry to study the health impacts of drilling.  Since then, there have been revelations of official throttling of state health department employees when it comes to handling health complaints about gas drilling, followed by a weak attempt at face-saving

The calls for intensive studies grow increasingly urgent.  A health symptom survey conducted in Washington County, Pennsylvania has found an association between proximity to active gas wells and respiratory and skin irritations.

Proximity to Natural Gas Wells and Reported Health Status: Results of a Household Survey in Washington County, Pennsylvania discusses the results of a survey of 492 persons in 180 randomly selected households with ground-fed water wells in an area of active natural gas drilling in that county.  It was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, and found: 
an increased frequency of reported symptoms over the past year in households in closer proximity to active gas wells compared to households farther from gas wells. This association was also seen for certain categories of symptoms, including skin conditions and upper respiratory symptoms...
The results of this study suggest that natural gas drilling activities could be associated with increased reports of dermal and upper respiratory symptoms in nearby communities and support the need for further research into health effects of natural gas extraction activities. Such research could include longitudinal assessment of the health of individuals living in proximity to natural gas drilling activities, medical confirmation of health conditions, and more precise assessment of contaminant exposures. 
Clearly, as the researchers concluded, more study is needed.  Urgently.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bad news for birds - and us

The bad climate news keeps coming.

The National Audubon Society has some profoundly disturbing news about the threat that global climate disruption poses to North America’s birds.

Audubon finds that more than half of all bird species on the continent are at grave risk:
Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.
Of the 314 species at risk from global warming, 126 of them are classified as climate endangered. These birds are projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050. The other 188 species are classified as climate threatened and expected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2080 if global warming continues at its current pace.

In Pennsylvania 84 species may greatly decrease or disappear entirely. 

The potential - or more accurately, likely - destruction is grotesque and immoral.

Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Association reports that atmospheric CO2 concentrations increased more between 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984, reaching a new record high in 2013. In fact, WMO says that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years.

Sometimes, additional commentary seems superfluous.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

PwC: we're headed for 4 degrees of warming

After reporting in 2013 that the global carbon budget will be blown by 2021, global consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is out with a new report that says the world's decarbonization efforts are severely lagging.

Two degrees of separation: ambition and reality, Low Carbon Economy Index 2014 says that to limit warming to 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-Industrial levels, the global economy needs to cut its carbon intensity by 6.2% a year, every year from now to 2100 - more than five times its current rate of reduction.

PwC unfolds the indictment of weak, to inadvertent, to non-existent policies in response to an existential threat: 
Emissions per unit of GDP fell in 2013 by 1.2%, marginally better than the average decrease of 0.9% since 2000. But with such limited progress in decoupling emissions growth from GDP growth, the gap between what we are doing and what we need to do has again grown, for the sixth year running. The average annual rate of decarbonisation required for the rest of this century for us to stay within the two degree budget now stands at 6.2%...While negotiations focus on policies to limit warming to 2°C, based on the decarbonisation rates of the last six years, we are headed for 4°C of warming in global average temperature by the end of the century, with severe consequences identified by the IPCC for ecosystems, livelihoods and economies.
In economic terms, PwC says that no one will be spared the price of our folly: 
The physical impacts of climate change will vary from country to country, and some countries may find that the impacts within its own borders are relatively limited or in some cases benign. But in a highly globalised economy, no country is likely to be spared as the impacts of climate change ripple around the world, affecting interdependent supply chains and flows of people and investment.
Four degrees Centigrade of warming will be catastrophic. Our grandchildren will inherit a fundamentally different world.  

PwC's analysis makes for grim reading.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Water experts urge environmental rules for shale gas extraction

In a report released last week, the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) has urged nations pursuing the development of shale gas resources to require strict monitoring and regulation, because of its environmental consequences and impacts on scarce water resources.
Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing: Framing the Water Issue makes these recommendations – all of which should be very familiar to frequent readers of this blog:

  • Central and/or local governments engaged in or contemplating shale gas extraction must have clearly defined policies and enforcement strategies in place if the adverse consequences of fracking are to be minimised or avoided. This requires the development and use of a check list that covers both the anticipated benefits of fracking (market value of the shale gas and its jobs and other positive economic impacts) and areas where poor practices and inadequate regulation can lead to negative impacts such as:
  1. Increased water demand.
  2. Inadequate treatment of returned water
  3. Improper disposal of waste water
  4. Possible triggering of seismic events
  5. Community and social disruption due to operational activities.
This check list should be based on best available science and informed by best practices elsewhere.  Regulations must be broadly implemented and adopted in a transparent, participatory process that allows all stakeholder voices to be heard.
Where conflicts arise between broad public interests and the protection of proprietary information, enforcement agencies must insist on full disclosure to ensure maximum protection of public health and the environment…
  • The current research gap on possible negative impacts related to fracking must be closed as quickly as possible, to facilitate informed decisions. 
These impacts include damage to water and air quality, global warming consequences from fracking operations, seismic damage from injected water, and community disruption.
Impacts research should also include analysis of the positive benefits of fracking and the costs of compliance. Research on improved fracking technologies and treatment of waste water returns needs to be encouraged and supported.
  • Water quantity and quality impacts must be fully reported, monitored, and regulated.
There must be full disclosure of fracking water sources, quantity and costs, monitoring and disclosure of waste water quality and disposal, a requirement for mining permits for the use of fossil (ancient, non-rechargeable) water, and identification of competing water uses. 
These are self-evident and common-sense recommendations. They were issued, plainly, because shale gas development in the US proceeded largely without them.