Monday, August 26, 2013

Finite fossils, energy poverty, and other benchmarks

I will be mostly off line through Labor Day as I attempt some vacation time in northern New York with family. Upon my return, I expect to follow-up with a post about the status of natural gas infrastructure in New York, and another about highly-anticipated health studies that are purportedly key to the outcome of the shale gas decision in New York.

Meantime, I offer some raw material for reflection through a very wide lens. First, a quote, cited in my last post by President Obama during his visit to Binghamton last week:

The bottom line is those (fossil fuels) are still finite resources.  Climate change is real.  The planet is getting warmer.  And you’ve got several billion Chinese, Indians, Africans and others who also want cars, refrigerators, electricity. And as they go through their development cycle, the planet cannot sustain the same kinds of energy use as we have right now.  So we’re going to have to make a shift.

Second, a short film from a fracking skeptic about renewable energy development in parts of the developed world and Germany in particular. It’s part of a series called Shale Gas Stories by Kirsi Jansa, an independent film-maker.

Third, a clip from a multi-media project depicting energy poverty – the term for the abject absence of fundamental resources, mostly in undeveloped countries -- by Peter DiCampo, another independent filmmaker. DiCampo’s work, title Life Witout Lights, makes tangible an idea that is mostly a distant abstraction for many of us who never have lived long without power at our fingertips.

I find each of these perspectives compelling and provocative in its own right. Collectively, they provide no outline or theme that suggests a broad and simple answer, but they give plenty to think about.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Obama’s upstate tour motivates anti-fracking activists President: ‘Fossil fuels finite. Climate change is real’

Anti-fracking protestors line the motorcade route at Binghamton University
It was tough going for the 400 protesters preparing for Obama’s visit to Binghamton University Friday. They faced traffic from a rush of returning students and a maze of construction barriers, detours, and police blockades. Parking on campus, limited under ideal circumstances, got predictably worse when police closed campus roads at 10 a.m., two and a half hours prior to the arrival of the presidential motorcade.

After getting an early morning start that began with a walk of a mile or more from remote parking spots, with NO FRACKING WAY placards and provisions in hand, the protesters – skewed heavily toward the baby boom generation but also including students -- gathered at a designated spot on the motorcade route in front of the university library. They rallied for hours while waiting for the president’s arrival.  They chanted “Yes We Can,” echoing both the president’s campaign slogan, and their intention to stop fracking. The cheers reverberated across quads and walkways at the center of campus that were mostly empty due to security measures, and the animation of the protesters offered stark contrast to the poised vigilance of police and secret service personnel stationed at every turn.

Behind the scene at the Town Hall meeting
I passed the protesters as I negotiated the series of barriers and yellow tape, hurrying to get to the press check-in at the university union before the cut-off. After getting cleared, I was directed through the press entrance to the venue, where I set up my laptop at a bank of workstations that accommodated about 40 other reporters on the periphery of the action. My view was partially obscured by the risers in front of me, which held cameras for photographers and broadcast outlets. The press pool, easily numbering more than 100, flanked one side of the small hall. The president’s podium was in the middle. Two other sets of risers – opposite and at a right angle to the risers for the press pool -- held students and faculty picked from a lottery. In the remaining space a row of folded chairs directly in front of the president was reserved for local officials and dignitaries.

A few hours later, with everybody in their assigned places, a helicopter churned overhead and the presidential motorcade turned onto campus. As the line of motorcycles with flashing lights, SUVs and a large black bus with the presidential seal made their way up the road, the activists by the library seized their brief moment and shouted and waved banners. Some glimpsed the president standing near the front of the bus, but it was difficult to discern a reaction behind the tinted class. It was over in an instant, and several minutes later, the president made his way into the Union from an unseen entrance.

Video of Obama's town hall meeting at Binghamton

Obama opened the meeting with a short talk about education as the essence of the American Dream. Predictably, he offered no passing mention of the subject that stirred the protest that greeted his arrival, or other protests that had been staged across various points of his two-day tour through upstate New York and Pennsylvania. The questions and answers of the two-hour town hall meeting were themed around equality and access and affordability of the American higher education system. (With due respect to the significance of the educational issues that were the focus of the president’s tour, I will not go into these much here, and leave that worthwhile work to other bloggers and educational beat writers.)

In keeping with the heart of the theme of his second term – working for the middle class -- Obama projected an approachable and informal manner throughout his upstate tour, which included spontaneous stops to greet surprised onlookers at soccer-fields, diners, and cafes. And he kept  up that manner at Binghamton University.  “I’m interested in hearing your stories, getting your questions,” he said. “And this will be a pretty informal affair -- well, as informal as it gets when the President comes -- (to laughter) -- and there are a bunch of cameras everywhere.” After calling on a student in an Obama T-shirt, he advised “here’s a general rule in the presidential town hall:  If you want to get called on, wear the president's face on your shirt.” (The student’s question: How does your administration plan to address the major budget cuts that are happening with Head Start schools around the U.S.? Obama’s answer: As the deficit continues to fall with the economic recovery, he sees more resources for federal funding. But it remains a political fight, and he will fight for worthwhile programs like Head Start.)

Near the end of the meeting, Obama called on a man with something other than education on his mind. His name was Adam Flint, coordinator of a Cooperative Extension program called Broome Energy Leadership Program. Flint began with a bit of context: Fossil fuels might last another generation. And then what? He was worried about his children’s futures, and he was guessing that the president, with adolescent daughters of his own, shared his concern. “Is there any good news for green economy of future?” Flint asked.

Behind that simple question lies a convoluted political dilemma, and the president’s answer reflected this, if little else. On the one hand, Obama said, with record production of domestic fossil fuel “we’ve actually achieved, or are on the verge of achieving about as close as you can get to energy independence as America is going to see.” He notably chose to avoid the word “fracking” – the controversial method of splitting rock with pressurized chemical solutions. This technology, exempt from federal regulations that govern chemicals that go into the ground and waste that comes out of the ground, is largely responsible for prolonging and enabling our fossil fuel-based energy system.

Without mentioning these exemptions, Obama pushed on to the crux of the question: The future. “The bottom line is those (fossil fuels) are still finite resources.  Climate change is real.  The planet is getting warmer.  And you’ve got several billion Chinese, Indians, Africans and others who also want cars, refrigerators, electricity. And as they go through their development cycle, the planet cannot sustain the same kinds of energy use as we have right now.  So we’re going to have to make a shift.”

The shift will require new technology, he said. But immediate improvements can come through conservation measures now within reach that could reduce the country’s energy consumption by 20 percent to 30 percent.  Retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, as well as building new energy-efficient buildings and communities, can create jobs as well as decrease energy dependence. But even a relatively simple approach like this – what Obama called the “low hanging fruit” of the energy question – involves a problem. The problem is rooted deeply in prevailing influence of Big Energy on Capitol Hill, and ideological factors that “tend not to be particularly sympathetic to alternative energy strategies,” Obama said.

“In some cases, we’ve actually been criticized that it’s a socialist plot that’s restricting your freedom for us to encourage energy-efficient light bulbs, for example.  I never understood that.  But you hear those arguments.  I mean, you can go on the Web, and people will be decrying how simple stuff that we’re doing, like trying to set up regulations to make appliances more energy-efficient -- which saves consumers money and is good for our environment -- is somehow restricting America’s liberty and violates the Constitution.

“A lot of our job is to educate the public as to why this can be good for them -- in a very narrow self-interested way.  This is not pie in the sky. This is not tree-hugging, sprout-eating university professors. This is a practical, hardheaded, smart, business-savvy approach to how we deal with energy.”

Obama is dealing with energy in a somewhat different way than his fellow Democratic leader, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Obama has embraced an “all of the above” approach to encourage sources of domestic energy production, including fossil fuels and renewables, and in previous speeches he has identified fracking for natural gas and oil as “a priority.” Obama’s words have been supported by his actions: His EPA has dropped two critical investigations into groundwater pollution near drilling sites in Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania. Both investigations found chemicals associated with drilling in residential water wells, and this finding, if pursued, could have provided ammunition for policy reform and a threat to the industry’s exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act. Also, Obama’s Department of Energy has begun permitting facilities to export gas, a move that will encourage more exploration and production at home.

Cuomo, on the other hand, leads a state that sits over a lucrative part of the Marcellus and Utica shales – world class gas reserves. Yet Cuomo has not allowed shale gas development. A defacto-moratorium on permitting is now entering its sixth year, while the Cuomo administration continues to evaluate health and environmental impacts of fracking and the broader consequences of shale gas development.

In the meantime, political action groups both for and against fracking have used the delay to pressure Cuomo. Fracking supporters also appeared with signs  – Drill a Well, bring a soldier home -- within view of the presidential motorcade yesterday. That protest, at Otsiningo Park boarding Route 81 several miles north of Binghamton, was much smaller and less visible than the one on campus, and the difference between the two protests illustrates the way things are going in New York state.

Walter Hang, an anti-fracking activist and an organizer of the Binghamton University protest, said the logistically difficult demonstration on campus was a reflection of the organizational ability and commitment of the anti-fracking push from the grass roots that has stalled the development of shale gas at the Pennsylvania border.

“When Obama’s office announced he would be taking a bus tour through upstate, we knew this was a chance to get our message out nationally,” said Hang, a career activist who worked as a community organizer for New York Public Interest Research Group for decades. Hang emphasizes the importance of tactics and execution in political action campaigns. “We’re out-organizing the industry in New York state,” he said.

In addition to well-organized grass roots campaigns in upstate New York, the movement is also getting help from Cuomo’s broader progressive base, which includes a host of institutions and influence from the Hudson Valley and New York City areas strongly opposed to fracking.

Cuomo, seen by many as a rising star in the Democratic party and a possible successor to Obama, neatly sidestepped this chapter of the shale gas controversy. After greeting the president at the Buffalo airport Thursday, he took his daughters back to college while the president made his rounds upstate.

On a related note: While most drilling takes place on private land, the federal government is considering a set of rules to regulate fracking on federal and Indian lands. This recent article by Keith Johnson of the Wall Street Journal explains the fight between the industry and environmentalists over the scope of proposed rules by the Bureau of Land Management.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Obama’s NY/Pa tour raises profile of Dem’s and fracking Cuomo’s cautious approach contrasts president’s action

Governor. Cuomo and President Obama
This week President Obama will travel across upstate New York and Pennsylvania with a message of support for the working class. His shirt-sleeves bus tour takes him across contested territory – the Marcellus and the Utica shales – two of the world’s largest shale gas reserves, which extend under both states.

Obama is scheduled to visit Buffalo, Syracuse, and Binghamton before heading into Pennsylvania as he pitches his vision for rust belt revival. While energy development is not billed as a focus of the trip, it’s implicit in many of the political issues the president faces, ranging from foreign affairs to jobs to environmental preservation and public health. Obama will tour a region that has been split by the controversy over the role of fossil fuel development and fracking in particular in all of these issues. The splits, locally and regionally, tend to travel along ideological lines, and the differences between New York and Pennsylvania represent high-profile examples.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, has enthusiastically embraced shale gas. Accordingly, Pennsylvania has been held up as an icon by both supporters and critics of all that is good and all that is bad with a shale gas boom. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is not so enthusiastic. His Department of Environmental Conservation is yet to complete a policy overhaul necessary for high volume fracking to begin in New York. Lacking this document, Cuomo has effectively extended a moratorium for permitting shale gas wells – now entering its sixth year -- while his administration considers whether the health and environmental risks outweigh the rewards. This moratorium has become a showpiece for the anti-fracking movement, and those who believe that the pause is just what is needed for the nation to begin shifting to renewable sources.

Obama supports shale gas development as a means of energy independence and, according to his line of politics, jobs for the working class, and his policy decisions reflect this. In sharp contrast to Cuomo’s cautious approach, Obama’s EPA has recently dropped investigations in Pavillion Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania (which is not on the president’s list of stops). In both locations, the EPA staff had documented ground water pollution from chemicals associated with nearby shale gas development, but aborted plans to trace the pollution to its source. Obama’s administration has also begun to permit natural gas export facilities, which will increase markets and encourage more exploration and development of domestic shale gas reserves.

Cuomo is widely cited as a potential standard bearer for Democratic party’s future. The New York governor’s differences with the president over fracking as a fundamental tool for economic revival are worth paying attention to this week. The president’s detailed itinerary is yet to be released. We know that the governor is scheduled to greet the president when he arrives in Buffalo, but has no plans to accompany him further.  While it is tempting to read much into that, the shale gas issue is surely one of a legion of factors that come into play here.

Meantime, protestors have been busily organizing to make their presence known at the presidential stops. Those on either side of the issue see this rare confluence of national and state agendas on local ground as opportunity to push their own visions. And isn’t that American politics at its best?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Records add context to EPA’s aborted Dimock mission Letter from federal hazmat chief shows focus on Cabot

EPA officials begin investigation in Dimock in January 2012
More records are coming to light that show the EPA ended its investigation last year into the impact on fracking on Dimock water wells in the face of political pressure.

After finding arsenic, barium, manganese, chromium, and methane in wells at levels “that could propose a health concern” the agency declared no follow up was required because residents of affected homes had been notified and polluted wells were taken off line or equipped with filters. The contamination -- in roughly 8 percent of 61 wells tested -- was from naturally occurring compounds that are also used in or associated with drilling operations, which can exacerbate existing problems or introduce new ones.

The issue – one of national policy (or not) -- is recently getting the attention it deserves. Last month Neela Barnerjee of the LA Times reported that an internal EPA power point presentation showed that agency staff warned that methane pollution in Dimock was a likely result of shale gas operations that can cause long-term damage to aquifers. On this blog, I have reported that the EPA quietly turned the results of its investigation over to a sister agency called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, where the outcome faces an uncertain fate. The ATSDR lacks the enforcement muscle of the EPA, has a relatively small budget and staff, and is notoriously slow.

But there’s more to it, and much of the back-story can be found in a series of internal correspondence and documentation uncovered through a freedom of information request by Laura Legere, of the Scranton Times Union. These memos and others now available on line show EPA officials were urgently concerned about pollution documented in Cabot’s own testing of the water, as well as files kept by Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. This was the starting point of the EPA investigation, which intended to “characterize” conditions that were causing disconcerting test results.

A memo dated Dec. 7. 2011 (date corrected from original post) from Jon Capacasa, director of the EPA’s Water Protection Division, captures the urgency of the EPA’s request to the ATSDR to evaluate the health risk of chemicals already documented by Cabot and the DEP.

We believe that the private wells in and around the Dimock area have been negatively impacted by the Cabot natural gas drilling process as evidenced by the presence of methane, butane, propane, ethane, ethene, etc., related gas compounds and also the presence of high concentrations of secondary contaminants like aluminum, iron, manganese, etc. 
We have recently received additional data identifying additional organic chemicals Butyl benzyl phthalate, Triethylene Glycol and 2 Methoxyethanol among others....
This is an urgent matter to the Agency so completion of your review within the next two months is requested.

While EPA staff found the matter urgent, they also noted that test results were not produced by the agency itself. To get their own data, staffers were mindful about overstepping the agency’s jurisdictional boundaries, which are limited due to fracking industry’s exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In justifying the Dimock investigation, the EPA recognized the issue to be “nationally significant and precedent setting” under the federal Superfund law, as detailed in this Jan. 19, 2012 scoping memo from site coordinater Richard Fetzer.

EPA routinely acts under CERCLA [superfund] to protect public health first while it acts to further define contamination. …
Because the action appears to be nationally significant and/or precedent-setting, the Region will continue to coordinate closely with Headquarters. EPA also will maintain coordination and communications with the PADEP. In taking this action, EPA is aware of and has considered the potential applicability of the natural gas exclusion under CERCLA, the Bensten Amendment under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the exclusion to the definition of the “underground injection” under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). EPA has concluded that this action is appropriate under CERCLA at this time.

The original scope of work, which was later dropped, included determining the source of pollution. In a letter dated Jan. 6, 2012 notifying Cabot attorney Kevin Cunningham of the investigation and a request for records, EPA’s hazardous cleanup director Ronald Borsellino stated the agency was “investigating the source, extent and nature of a release or threatened release of hazardous substances” related to the company’s operations.

Fetzer’s Jan. 29 internal memo sumed it up this way:

What is clear is that this data strongly suggests that hazardous substances have been released and are present in some home well at levels that may present a public health concern. 
Current data does show arsenic and manganese at higher levels than may be typically found in post drilling samples.  Since arsenic and manganese are naturally occurring substances, EPA’s assessment will include comparison of background concentrations present. 

All this qualification, of course, was partly the product of due diligence by the EPA to make its investigation withstand the expected pushback from the state and the industry and to make a case for involvement under Superfund.

States generally are protective of their jurisdiction over shale gas, and this is a critical piece of context. The EPA was conducting a similar investigation in Pavillion, Wyoming, where it found evidence that shale gas development polluted water wells of homes on the Wind River Reservation. Predictably, the agency faced a hostile reception by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a shale gas proponent who characterized the federal action as an example of regulatory overreach. (The EPA recently aborted its plans for a peer reviewed study of its work in Pavillion and turned the investigation over to the state.) The EPA faced a similar reaction from Pennsylvania state officials.

On Jan 5, 2012, (then) Pennsylvania DEP director Michael Krancer wrote to EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Gravin, citing Wyoming Governor Mead’s criticism of the EPA’s investigation in Pavillion. In Krancer’s words, that criticism involved:

the technical, scientific and cooperation shortcomings of EPA’s activities with respect to that state regarding Pavilion and there is no need here to catalogue those in his [Mead's] letter. Suffice it to say that we hope the EPA’s efforts here not be marked by the same rush to conclusions and other deficiencies here as it was and continues to be in respect to the Pavilion matter. . I ask that your efforts be guided by sound science and law rather than emotion and publicity.

Krancer copied a group of Pennsylvania legislators on his letter.

All this correspondence shows how the EPA was in a defensive position from the get go, even though its tests later affirmed a persistent problem with arsenic and methane in some wells. In one well, EPA tests found arsenic at nine times the federal safety standards, prompting the agency to call for an alternative source of water  because the levels posed “significant threat to the residents health,” according to an internal memo from Dennis Carney of EPA’s region 3 to his colleagues. (The name of the well's owner was redacted in the file.)

But there is still a missing piece: Why did the agency suddenly drop its investigation without accounting for the source of pollution in Dimock or characterizing the broader groundwater conditions, as it set out to do? The answer has something to do with jurisdictional limits due to the exemptions from federal law. But an overriding element involves Obama’s campaign platform for a second term, when the president was publically and enthusiastically pitching the merits of shale gas and portraying himself as an industry ally. As the campaign heated up in 2012, the EPA investigation could have backfired if held up in the hands of his opponents as evidence that the president is a regulatory zealot. In fact, Cabot Oil & Gas president Dan Dinges wasted no time exploiting this angle in an open letter -- shortly after the company was put on notice by the EPA – which was promptly featured in a report by Mark Drajem for Bloomberg:

EPA’s actions in Dimock appear to undercut the president’s stated commitment to this important resource,” Chief Executive Officer Dan Dinges wrote today in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “EPA’s approach has caused confusion that undermines important policy goals of the United States to ensure safe, reliable, secure and clean energy sources from domestic natural gas.
The EPA said Jan. 19 that it would deliver water to four families in Dimock, where residents say their water has been contaminated during hydraulic fracturing by Cabot. The EPA will also test water at 60 homes to assess whether any residents are being exposed to hazardous substances, the agency said.
Dinges, who also is Cabot’s chairman, said today that the company provided more than 10,000 pages of data to the EPA and there is “no credible evidence” that the water needs further analysis by the federal agency. 
“It appears as though the EPA’s decision is politically motivated and not based on a legitimate desire to address environmental concerns,” the company said in a statement issued with Dinges’s letter.

Dinges was clearly hitting effective buttons. In the world we live in, politics in addition to science is an element of policy making. And here is an example where the direction of science was driven by political forces and interpretations.