Federal Government is Longtime Supporter of Fracking

Friday August 23 marked the end of the public comment period for the Department of Interior’s draft “fracking rule” on public lands. The rule, originally proposed by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in May 2013, has three main components: it would require drillers to disclose the chemicals used in fracking on public lands; it would setup standards for well integrity to safeguard against groundwater contamination; and it would require drillers to have a plan in place to deal with flow back.

Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX)

The oil and gas industry have put up stiff resistance with cries that regulation will kill off any hopes of “energy independence.” House Republicans oppose the measure, and as Greenwire reported, Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) put forth legislation that would block BLM’s fracking rule. Flores, the former CEO of Phoenix Exploration, an oil and gas company, argued at a subcommittee hearing in July, “[t]he Bill before us today is about empowering local self-government in placing a check on the growth of an out-of-control, one-size-fits-all federal government.” Congressman Flores seemed to have not realized (or more likely willfully ignored) that BLM’s rule applies to federal lands, not state lands.

Despite vociferous rhetoric from Republicans in Congress and the oil and gas industry to the contrary, the federal government has long-been in bed with the industry.

In 2005 President George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act into law (then Senator Obama supported the bill) with a provision that specifically exempted fracking activities from certain provisions in the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. The provision is known as the “Halliburton loophole” as it was included at the request of then Vice President Dick Cheney. The loophole has successfully removed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate fracking.

Diana DeGette (D-CO)

Some members of Congress have since fought to close the loophole, without success. Rep. Diane DeGette (D-CO) sponsored The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act in 2009 that would have repealed the Halliburton loophole, but it died in committee.

When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, there was new hope that the oil and gas industry would no longer receive such favorable treatment. In 2009 the EPA began sampling wells in Pavillion, WY in response to complaints from local residents near drilling sites that their well water appeared to be dark and dirty, and smelled of petroleum. EPA officials ran tests in areas fracked by Encana Oil & Gas in what would become a closely watched study because of its potential impact on future regulation of the industry.

In 2011 the EPA issued a draft report with results from Wyoming that discovered the presence of synthetic chemicals used in the fracking process. It also found benzene in quantities above what is considered safe, as well as high levels of methane. The report was the first significant and official link between fracking and groundwater contamination. The industry disputed the findings, arguing that the report was flawed, but the study was seemingly a watershed moment in the unfolding fracking narrative.

Yet, on June 20, 2013, EPA dropped its investigation and handed it over to the state of Wyoming.

The decision came only five days before President Obama laid out his plan to fight climate change in a major speech at Georgetown University, which relied heavily on natural gas. Environmental groups are outraged over what they see as a calculated political move by the White House, directing the EPA to stop work on the study.

Because natural gas theoretically emits only half of the greenhouse gases compared to coal, President Obama made increased natural gas production a central pillar of his plan, stating, “Sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this:  We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY)

By favoring natural gas, the President seemed to be providing cover for other parts of his climate plan, which may over time force the shutdown of many of the nation’s existing coal plants. He is using natural gas to kill off coal.

This is why, some think, the EPA was pressured into backing off its fracking study, handing over responsibility to the state of Wyoming. The study will be funded by Encana, the company that owns the wells in the area.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)

Industry supporters cheered, as did Wyoming’s congressional delegation. In a press release, Senator John Barrasso (R) said, “EPA’s decision to not rely on premature conclusions in its 2011 draft report is a positive and wise step.”  Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (R) added, “Today they finally recognized that the very best place for their report on fracking in Pavillion is in the dust bin of history.”

The fact that the administration seems to be fully embracing natural gas does not bode well for rigorous regulatory oversight. And for the first time, industry is looking to lease Eastern national forests. While the oil and gas industry may oppose BLM’s proposed fracking rule for fear of burdensome regulation, if history is any guide, they have little reason to worry.

The Bomb Plant

The P Reactor at the Savannah River Site
The P Reactor at the Savannah River Site

Thanks to funding from the Colombe Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America and an anonymous donor, National Security News Service reporters spent the last two years investigating the most secretive institution in the federal government: the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its radioactive weapons facility – the Savannah River Site (SRS). Continue reading The Bomb Plant

Taking It to the Streets

At a time when science itself is under assault and the Environmental Protection Agency’s future is challenged, NASA scientist and global climate change awareness activist James Hansen spoke at the National Press Club on Monday in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL – a 1700-mile, $7 billion pipeline which would carry heavy crude oil from “tar sand” mines in Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Texas and Louisiana coasts.

Environmental protesters have been picketing in front of the White House in opposition to the pipeline. On Friday, the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs issued its final environmental analysis that said TransCanada’s proposed pipeline will have “limited adverse environmental impacts.” The Obama administration is expected to approve or reject Keystone XL by the end of the year.

One of the Bureau’s responsibilities is representing the country on global climate change issues. Its website says:

The United States is taking a leading role in addressing climate change by advancing an ever-expanding suite of measures. We have initiated a number of polices and partnerships that span a wide range of initiatives from reducing our emissions at home to developing transformational low-carbon technologies to improving observations systems that will help us better understand and address the possible impacts of climate change. Our efforts emphasize the importance of results-driven action both internationally and domestically.

Hansen says the oil produced through this unconventional fossil fuel process is “extremely dirty stuff.” In its place, he supports instituting a $10 a ton tax on carbon for 10 years and giving these monies ($600 billion by his estimation) to American families to offset the costs of alternative energy sources. “Tax carbon and give the money to the people. That would stimulate the economy,” he says in response to a question about the jobs the pipeline project would create. He believes that giving money directly to families (he says between $6000 to $9000 per year) is better than previously pursued “cap and trade” policies that would be overtaken by big bank trading instruments.

He is joining several religious leaders today in Washington protesting the Keystone XL pipeline project. Their efforts are to draw attention to “the moral duty to preserve creation.”

He says in his meeting with Senator John Kerry about these issues, the senator called his ideas “unrealistic.” With the Obama administration’s support for the pipeline and leading Republican presidential candidates who do not believe global warning exists or, if it does, humans do not contribute to it, he is turning his attention away from politics and to grassroots advocacy to educate the public on climate change issues.

Hansen says the country is falling behind on alternative energy research and countries like China are investing in future technologies like solar, wind and nuclear. As a physicist, he supports pursuing “fourth generation” nuclear reactors as one of the few on-demand power sources that could meet the world’s energy needs. He believes new reactor designs will produce less waste that is dangerous only for decades rather than the waste current reactors generate that is dangerous for centuries and for which there is no permanent storage facility.

Read more at The Washington Post and The New York Times.


Airline Industry Fights European Union Carbon Cap

Over the last century, innovation in global air transport has opened the door for endless possibilities worldwide. Because of these innovations we get to explore new parts of the world, visit our favorite destinations, or meet with international colleagues and friends.

As someone who travels quite often, my own trips abroad have introduced me to people and exposed me to new issues and ideas. On some of these travels, I have witnessed how climate change has created new vulnerabilities in the agriculture sector because climate change is challenging farmers with increasingly unpredictable water supply and temperature extremes. I have met with farmers who are unable to grow food to feed their families because of the weather changes. I have met children who must stop going to school in order to spend time searching for water or helping to cultivate their families’ small farms. The impacts of climate change are devastating.

Few of us think about how much the very flights we take are actually contributing to the impacts of climate change. Yet, as the industry grows, their emissions may triple or quadruple in the next forty years.

In order to reduce the impact of airline travel on the environment, the European Union has created a law to cap carbon emissions from flights arriving to and departing from the EU. By selling a portion of pollution permits to airlines, the law also generates finance that can be used to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change. This law – even as modest as it is – helps the airline industry to face the inevitable: when it comes to climate change, no one gets a free ride.

The EU law makes smart business sense. The Associated Press reported over Memorial Day weekend that fuel accounts for more than one-third of airline operating budgets this summer. Greener fleets and newer technologies like GPS systems to reduce flight paths exist and will reduce fuel costs, save money, and lower emissions – and airlines need to get serious about these steps now. The law requires that airlines reduce their emissions 3 percent below 2004-2006 levels by 2013 and 5 percent by 2020. Sooner or later the industry is going to have to face the challenge of lowering carbon emissions or consumers will face the consequences of climate impacts. Moreover, poor people in the United States and other countries will face the brunt of these impacts and yet have the least capacity to respond.

Sadly, instead of seizing an opportunity to develop further innovation in the airline industry, the Air Transportation Association of America (ATA), American Airlines, and United Airlines filed a lawsuit to exempt themselves from the law. The airlines are touting their environmental commitments while fighting measures to address climate change. Lawsuits, marketing and lobbyists will not make flight emissions go away.

The airlines aren’t the only entity fighting an opportunity; the Obama administration is too. Just recently the administration raised its strong objections to the EU law. This is unfortunate, as the EU law would actually help the United States meet its international climate commitments. Back in 2009, the U.S. government made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. It also made a commitment to work with other countries to mobilize $100 billion per year for climate action in developing countries. The EU law would help the United States meet its international commitments to reduce emissions and generate finance. Of course, regulating the airline industry is only part of the solution, but it is a start.

Airlines and the U.S. government have a responsibility to reduce emissions which cause climate change and to support poor countries and communities who are experiencing the impacts of climate change. If the airlines can figure out how to fly us across the world, surely they can figure out how to do it in a more environmentally and socially conscious manner.