Hickenlooper’s Fifth Misdeed: Recording a misleading radio ad for oil & gas lobbyists

In 2012, Gov. John Hickenlooper recorded a misleading radio ad paid for by the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. In the ad, the governor parses his words to make the claim that Colorado has not had a single instance of drilling and fracking contaminating groundwater, since 2008.

“In 2008, Colorado passed tough oil and gas rules. Since then, we have not had once instance of groundwater contamination associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing.” – Gov. John Hickenlooper

The records show that Gov. Hickenlooper’s claim is a nice, industry-friendly talking point. But, it’s entirely misleading when it comes to the facts about spills in the Centennial State.

A review of the Colorado Oil and Gas Information System shows that approximately 20 percent of all spills in 2012 resulted in water contamination; 22 of those spills impacted surface water, while 63 impacted groundwater. Fifty-seven percent of spills during the year occurred within 1,500 feet of surface water, and 28 percent of the spills occurred within 500 feet of surface water. Thirty-seven percent of spills – 147 of 402 – occurred less than 50 feet from the shallowest ground water, eight percent occurred between 50 and 100 feet from groundwater, and 9 percent occurred more than 100 feet from groundwater.

In June of this year, Bruce Finley at the Denver Post reported that, according to Colorado Oil and Gas Commission records, 179 oil and gas industry spills occurred in the state, just during the first half of 2013. In 26 of those spills, groundwater was contaminated, and 15 of them directly polluted ponds and creeks.

In one of the highest profile spills, people living near Parachute Creek learned in March that an ongoing hydrocarbon spill near Williams Midstream’s Parachute Gas Plant dumped more than 10,000 gallons of hydrocarbons into the ground.

Today, the Parachute Creek spill has been ongoing for more than six months, and testing in July shows that levels of benzene – a carcinogen – are elevated, again. Parachute Creek is a tributary to the Colorado River, a main water source for the region, and the benzene levels in the creek exceed state water quality standards.

In a second well-known spill that occurred in June, WPX Energy reported the release of 2,100 gallons of water that had been polluted by the drilling and fracking process. The spill occurred two miles south of the Colorado River, and most of the contaminated water was absorbed into the soil.

When Gov. Hickenlooper plays word games, like he did in COGA’s radio ad, he’s following industry’s lead. They like to parse the term fracking and then claim it’s never hurt water supplies. This is the sort of wordplay usually heard from teenagers explaining why they didn’t actually break curfew. The entire drilling and fracking process contaminates water – groundwater and otherwise – removing millions of gallons from the water cycle, in addition to what it pollutes on the surface.

Gov. Hickenlooper is being dangerously dishonest with Coloradoans when he says that fracking has never contaminated groundwater. He needs to stop prioritizing oil and gas companies over the safety of the people who elected him.

This is the fifth installment in our blog series “Hickenlooper’s Misdeeds” which shines a spotlight on how Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has put the interests of oil and gas companies ahead of the health of Colorado families and local communities.

Oil shale causes 80 percent of Estonia’s pollution

The hits just keep coming against Estonian oil shale. A new story from Estonian Public Broadcasting sheds more light on the devastating environmental impact oil shale has on the small, European nation.

“The oil shale industry, which produces the bulk of Estonia’s energy, is responsible for about 80 percent of the pollution and carbon emissions produced by Estonia, as well as nearly all of the sulfur emissions. Quarries and landfills have also spoiled around 15 percent of Ida-Viru County’s territory, as 150 square kilometers of land has sunk or become unstable.”

Just the week before, Estonia’s Environmental Minister said that the country has maxed out on oil shale due to high water use and pollution.

Oil shale waste piles are also prone to catching fire. Last week the Estonian government had to allocate 38 million Euros [$4.9 million according to today’s conversion rate] to extinguish a fourteen-acre fire at an oil shale site.

If these problems weren’t enough, the Estonian Economy Minister is under fire for a sour investment it made with Eestia Energia, known as Enefit in the U.S., to build a new controversial oil shale plant – which has since been abandoned. A majority of Estonians surveyed want to see the Minister resign over this deal and other questionable decisions.

Thankfully, on this side of the Atlantic, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently finalized a smart approach to costly oil shale speculation that should help the United States avoid Estonia’s problems. The Salazar plan requires companies to prove they’ve developed oil shale technology that works, is commercially viable and won’t deplete our scarce water resources or harm our air, land and wildlife, before any commercial leases are considered.

The environmental devastation and questionable investments from Estonian oil shale are good examples of why we need Sec. Salazar’s common sense oil shale plan.

Eyes on Enefit: Oil shale extraction an environmental threat

Eyes On Enefit Logo

Contaminated groundwater, 600-foot high piles of oil shale waste that spontaneously ignite, and the emission of “lots of carbon dioxide”; all of this comes from a company that claims to be “highly dedicated to lessening the environmental impact of our production processes.” A look at the facts reveals that, despite its claims, Estonian oil shale company Eesti Energia’s operations have been anything but environmentally friendly.

For several decades Eesti Energia, an Estonian government-owned corporation, has been extracting oil shale, and using it to generate Estonian electricity at a stunning environmental cost. In the United States, Eesti Energia is known as Enefit. In 2011, Enefit bought the largest privately held oil shale reserve in Utah, and since then it has been experimenting with oil shale found on that land.

Since Eesti Energia has brought its oil shale technology to our shores through Enefit’s Utah project, we think a quick review of the company’s environmental record is in order. That way, Utahns can see what could be in store for them.

A polluted lake near an “ash” mountain in NE Estonia. Source: EcoCrete Project

First off, let’s see what the Estonians think of oil shale. A member of the Estonian Parliament described oil shale waste as a problem “for which there is no solution at present.” Researchers at Estonia’s Tallinn University of Technology and the Estonian Fund for Nature describe the oil shale industry’s environmental impacts as “huge.”

Scientists at Tartu University and the Institute of Ecology even wrote a paper in which they explain how Estonian oil shale’s waste is hazardous.

“[The] Processes of oil shale mining, combustion in power plants, and thermal processing in chemical plants generate a huge amount of solid waste…Semi-coke dumps surrounding the plants of oil shale thermal processing. Semi-coke is a residue classified as environmentally harmful due to its components like sulphides, volatile phenols, benzo(a)pyrene, etc.”

– “Artificial Mountains in North-East Estonia: Monumental Dumps of Ash and Semi-Coke.” Tartu University and the Department of North-East Estonia. 2005.

In fact, these waste products are so unstable, they have been known to spontaneously combust and contaminate groundwater and soil. As of 2005, 27 percent of oil shale landfills in Estonia had self-ignited.

“Observation of groundwater and soil illustrate that the environment close to burning landfills is contaminated with molybdenum, copper, sulphate, arsenic, oil products, and PAHs…”

– “Life Cycle Analysis of the Estonian Oil Shale Industry.” Estonian Fund for Nature and Tallinn University of Technology. 2005.

In spring 2012, The Baltic Course magazine reported that one of these massive oil shale waste piles caught fire during the winter, and still continued to burn. The magazine also noted there is, “no universal solution to extinguish such a fire.”

In addition to water and ground pollution, Eesti Energia’s CEO, Sandor Liive admitted producing energy from oil shale creates significant global warming pollution, or “lots of carbon dioxide,” as he puts it.

“The risk concerning the price of carbon dioxide is relatively high for Eesti Energia because our production involves the emission of lots of carbon dioxide.”

–  Sandor Liive, CEO Eesti Energia. Interview with Eesti Paevaleht. BBC Monitoring Europe. 04 July 2011.

Arial photo of a pile of oil shale ‘ash’ in Estonia. Source: EcoCrete Project.

Eesti Energia isn’t the only company experimenting with the rock that admits oil shale has negative environmental impacts. In 2012, Anton Dammer, a former Senior VP at oil shale company Red Leaf Resources, testified to Congress:

“I worked in Estonia for several years…The old antiquated surface retorts that [Eesti Energia] use are pretty nasty business…They produce a lot of semicoke. You know, they call them the Estonian Alps…I can’t tell you exactly all the technical details of it, but it’s – it’s much improved, but you would never want the retorts that are operating – operating in Estonia to come to the United States.”

– Anton Dammer, Senior Vice President of Red Leaf [Resources]. CQ Transcript, House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. 10 May 2012.

Eesti Energia’s environmental track record shows its claims of environmental friendliness ring hollow. Oil shale production’s health and environmental risks present a clear case against allowing oil shale companies increased access to public lands. Until they can prove they have a commercially viable technology that won’t pollute our communities’ air and water supplies with harmful waste, they shouldn’t receive more handouts.

This blog is part of a series about Enefit, known at home in Estonia as Eesti Energia, covering the company’s financial outlook, background and status of its Utah project.

The Five Rules for Natural Gas

Hal Harvey, founder of ClimateWorks, has a sharp piece on natural gas in today’s Los Angeles Times. Hal served  on the first President Bush’s Energy Task Force of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, and later on the Energy Panel of President Clinton’s President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology.

In this op-ed, Hal provides a thoughtful and critical look at making sure natural gas development is done right for our climate, our water, and our great outdoors.

Click to read it on the LA Times website.

Natural gas: Cheap, clean and risky

Natural gas has a key role in our energy future, but it must be handled with care.

By Hal Harvey

January 3, 2012

Political leaders from both parties argue that natural gas could save our economy, the environment and promote our national security. Is this so? Or is it just a dream?

It turns out that the way one develops natural gas will determine whether it is a serious help to our energy and climate problems, or a dangerous extension of bad habits.

On the face of it, natural gas looks terrific. The United States — and many other countries — have abundant domestic supplies. The cost, per delivered unit of energy, is about a third of that of oil. It is cheap and fast to build power plants fueled by natural gas. And when burned, it emits only half as much carbon as coal. So what’s not to like?

Well, things are not so simple. Under the best conditions, we may enjoy those benefits, but under more adverse conditions, gas can be a worse generator of greenhouse gas than coal, can wreak massive local environmental destruction and can undermine energy efficiency and renewable energy. And without a strong set of policies to guide natural gas development, the worst case is far more likely.

Start with climate change: Generating a kilowatt-hour’s worth of electricity with a natural gas turbine emits only about half as much CO2 as generating the same electricity at a coal plant. Half-off is pretty good. But unburned natural gas turns out to be a very powerful greenhouse gas: One molecule of leaked gas contributes as much to global warming as 25 molecules of burned gas. That means that if the system for the exploration, extraction, compression, piping and burning of natural gas leaks by even 2.5%, it is as bad as coal.

So, how much does the gas system leak? No one knows: Estimates range from 1.5% to as high as 8%. Even near the low end of that range, gas can be as bad as coal. And whatever the leaks in the U.S. system, it is likely to be far worse in, say, Russia.

This gives us Rule One for smart natural gas development: No leaks in the system. We have to know, for certain, that the whole process is tight, and stays that way.

There’s more we need to ensure, because of the economics of energy systems, and how that drives the choice of options in the electricity system. It starts with a basic economic truth: Once a coal-fired plant is built, it is incredibly cheap to run. Once built, our coal plants run forever. The median age of a coal plant in the United States is 44 years, and fully a third of them were built during or before the Eisenhower administration.

What this means is that when we add new natural gas power plants to the electricity system, it does not, through pure market forces displace coal. Instead, it displaces other new alternatives, which generally means new renewable energy. If half-CO2 gas is displacing zero-CO2 renewables, well, that’s hardly a victory. So, Rule Two: Use gas to shut down old coal. Make this an explicit condition.

The final three rules have to do with local environmental conditions. We have all seen the films of people’s tap water catching fire after a nearby gas well was put in. That’s because of lousy construction quality: Bad well casings allow gas to leak into the aquifer. They can also allow in fluids from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) when that method is used to tap a new gas well. Rule Three: Strong standards for wells, with effective monitoring and enforcement.

Then there is the damage that wells can do to the gas site. Many wells extract brackish water and other nasty byproducts, like benzene and toluene from deep underground, and spill the mixture onto nearby farmlands — literally salting the earth. The water is a large-scale byproduct of the gas extraction, and, at the request of then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force, it is exempted from any regulations under the Clean Water Act. Rule Four: Don’t allow these toxic streams to poison the land.

Finally, choosing where and how to drill is important. Many of the new natural gas technologies entail massive surface disturbance. Roads, drilling rigs, compressors, pipelines, drainage ponds and large amounts of heavy equipment are required for each well. And wells are densely placed, sometimes one for every 10 acres. This means that many natural gas fields are industrial wastelands. After drilling, cattle ranches in the West have been left unsuitable even for cows, never mind wildlife.

We need to zone the natural gas development so that it is kept out of ecologically important areas, and we need strong drilling, operating and reclamation standards so that gas doesn’t become a scorched-earth energy strategy.

Gas can do a great deal for our energy future. But if it is mishandled, it can instead serve up great problems — in land destruction, water quality and climate change. Five rules get it right: Don’t allow leaky systems; use gas to phase out coal; have sound well drilling and casing standards; don’t pollute the landscape with brackish water; and drill only where it is sensible. Let’s do this right.

Hal Harvey is the founder of the ClimateWorks Foundation. He has served on presidential commissions under the first President Bush and President Clinton, and he serves on an advisory board for the Department of Energy.

Public health voice absent from fracking study

Shutting out public health perspectives is becoming common place, this time its being done by the federal government

On Monday the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board’s (SEAB) Natural Gas Subcommittee issued several recommendations to, “improve environmental safety and performance from extracting natural gas from shale formations.”

Initial reaction to the report is mixed and that’s no accident considering the split membership of the subcommittee. The seven-member committee is made up of scientists, researchers and experts who have ties to both the fossil fuel industry and the environmental community. But absent from the committee’s membership was someone from the public health community. This exclusion has become commonplace as communities from coast to coast try to get to the bottom of hydrofracking.

Click here to see those on the subcommittee.

This latest omission was pointed out during public conference call shortly after the report was issued.

“I find it very interesting that this report contained absolutely no input from medical professionals. But on page eight of your report it outlines that public health is one of the four areas that you are trying to address,” said one of the first callers on Monday.

Between other prepared statements from callers on both the pro-fracking and anti-fracking sides another citizen pointed to the absence of a focus on public health.

“We are concerned and I am concerned, as a health care professional, about the health impacts of this practice. Why would you let a practice like this continue without knowing what the chemicals can do once they are placed underground,” said Ernie Hernandez of West Virginia.

It seems public health is where the line is drawn when it comes to studying fracking. Earlier this year, Garfield County, Colorado, wrestled with this very same issue after elected officials refused to recognize a health impact study that the county directed $250,000 of taxpayer money towards.  The three members of the Garfield County Commissioners, who are heavily funded by the gas industry, unanimously pulled the plug on the report. The report’s findings were believed to be damning to the industry. The second draft of the executive summary stated, “The principal findings of the HIA are that health of Battlement Mesa residents will most likely be affected by chemical exposures, accidents/emergencies resulting from industry operations, and stress-related community changes.”

This was hardly the first time a professional assessment of the public health concerns associated with hydrofracking had come back to reflect poorly on the gas industry. Just before the Garfield County health scandal, Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, well-known author and Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College, reported that chemicals used in hydrofracking could be an “enormous” risk that could cause complications with pregnancies.

“Do we want introduce into the environment more chemicals for which we have demonstrable evidence can harm pregnancies. They are reproductive toxins,” said Steingraber in an interview with the Checks and Balances Project in May.

Despite these well-documented findings and reports, the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board’s Natural Gas Subcommittee contained no voices from the public health community. This isn’t to say the board’s recommendations were entirely beneficial to the gas industry. The board’s call for the industry to disclose the toxic chemicals it injects into the ground was received well by those in the environmental community. On Monday’s call the chairman of the Natural Gas Subcommittee John Duetch said, “while our recommendations were all unanimous, I think each member of the committee would have done it very differently it were up to the individual.” Even if there were true, it’s hard to imagine public health getting more attention considering the lack of representation.

BREAKING: Checks and Balances Project Video Star Running for Office

Dana Dolney, the woman many in Pennsylvania know for standing up for her right to be heard at a public meeting, says she is going to run for the Democratic nomination for County Executive in Alleghany County. The Checks and Balances Project posted an interview Dolney gave in April, at a fracking information meeting in Harrisburg. Dolney says after that video was replayed on a local news station and various websites, several of her neighbors encouraged her to join the primary race.

“I think that the citizens of Alleghany County have the right to a candidate who is not in the back pocket of the natural gas industry,” said Dolney during an interview with Checks and Balances Project Director Andrew Schenkel. Mark Patrick Flaherty and Richard Fitzgerald are the two other candidates in the Democratic primary, which will be held Tuesday.

Dolney, a breast cancer survivor and community organizer, says she became interested in the fracking issue because of her own health problems.

“After beating breast cancer, I became obsessed with prevention. Then I see that Pennsylvania allows potentially damaging chemicals to just be dumped in our waterways. Anyone who is about preventing health problems would be against this,” said Dolney.

Now, after more than 18,000 people saw her video, Dolney says she sees this as an opportunity to raise awareness about the health risks caused by hydraulic fracturing. While she doesn’t expect to win the primary with so little time before the polls open, Dolney says she may try to run in November as a third party candidate or just inspire someone else to take up her cause.

The video of Dolney explaining to a member of the Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor’s staff exactly how citizens were being shut out of a fracking public hearing in Harrisburg can be seen below.

Breaking from DeSmogBlog

DeSmogBlog today released a comprehensive report on the dangers posed by hydraulic fracturing to public drinking water, land and our health. Based on the findings of the report and recent events, DeSmogBlog is calling for a national moratorium on fracking until further independent research demonstrates that the process does not contaminate drinking water, pollute land or impact the global climate.

See DeSmogBlog’s post below and study here.

Fracking the Future: How Unconventional Gas Threatens Our Water, Health and Climate – Report

The United States is at the center of a high profile controversy over the threats posed by unconventional gas drilling, particularly surrounding the industry’s hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling techniques. Amidst the dirty energy industry’s rush to drill the last of America’s dwindling fossil fuel reserves, a growing number of independent scientists, politicians, environmental organizations and impacted citizens are urging the nation’s lawmakers to adopt a more cautious and informed approach to the fracked gas boom.The oil and gas industry, however, is fighting back against calls for caution, suggesting that it has everything under control – much like it did prior to BP’s offshore drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a new report released today, “Fracking the Future: How Unconventional Gas Threatens Water, Health, and Climate,” DeSmogBlog details the concerns that scientists, cancer specialists, ecologists, investigative journalists and others have raised about the unconventional gas boom. Featuring original interviews and unpublicized reports, “Fracking The Future” delves into many of the key issues in the unconventional gas debate.

DeSmogBlog is calling for a nationwide moratorium on fracking, citing the fact that the potential impacts on water, health, and climate appear greater than previously understood. A moratorium is necessary to protect the public while fracking is studied much more thoroughly in order to determine if the risks of this practice outweigh the benefits.

Additionally, since state regulators have failed to safeguard the public from the ill effects of gas fracking, federal health and safety officials must be empowered to hold the gas industry accountable for damage to public health, drinking water and the environment.

The report traces the massive industry lobbying efforts to confuse the public and stifle long-overdue federal oversight of the unconventional gas drilling bonanza. We review the sordid history of industry favoritism by the Bush administration, typified by the infamous Halliburton Loophole, which created a recipe for recklessness that has led to air and water contamination and drilling-related accidents.  But the prioritization of industry greed above public health and safety didn’t start there.

Since the Reagan era, those charged with protecting health and the environment have instead worked with the gas industry to minimize public awareness of its practices, and to hide the early warning signs regarding the inherent dangers of drilling deeper into the Earth for fossil fuels. State agencies have been pressured to accommodate the industry’s increasingly dangerous drilling techniques, and have largely enabled the poor, unmonitored practices common in the industry today.

The gas industry is investing millions of dollars each year to restrict oversight to the state level and thwart all federal involvement. The number of gas industry lobbyists has increased seven-fold in recent years, exhibiting the dangerous political sway the dirty energy industry exercises in Washington and at the local level across the nation.

Industry front groups like Energy in Depth (EID) play a pivotal role in the dissemination of misinformation and efforts to attack and silence those who attempt to call polluters to account.

Despite EID’s claims to represent small, independent “mom and pop” gas producers, internal industry documents uncovered by DeSmogBlog reveal that the group was created with seed funding from Big Oil multinationals. When communicating with its industry friends, EID continues to repeatedly tout the funding it receives from BP, Halliburton, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and other oil giants that certainly don’t fit the “mom and pop shop” characterization.

With international attention focused on the U.S. experience with unconventional gas, “Fracking the Future” urges a cautious approach and much greater industry transparency.  The public deserves to know the true costs of fracked unconventional gas before allowing the oil and gas industry to carry on with its pursuit of this fossil fuel.