Tag Archives: energy

Muskrat Falls hydroelectric – Who buried the risk assessment report?

Muskrat Falls, Labrador. Site of a proposed hydro electric project by the governments of Newfoundland and Quebec. This is downriver from the Churchill Falls Hydro project in Labrador. Photo by Greg Locke © 2017 DCS Files

Muskrat Falls on the Churchill River, Labrador in 2006 before construction of an ill-conceived hydro-electric project by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Photo by Greg Locke ©2017

ROGER BILL
November 25, 2017

ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland — The man in charge of finishing the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project on the Churchill River in remote central Labrador calls the venture a “boondoggle”. The Newfoundland and Labrador government has established a commission of inquiry to determine why the project is wildly over budget and years behind schedule. A good place for the Commissioner, Judge Richard D. LeBlanc, to start is to find out who buried the warning that there was a “very high risk” of a multi-billion dollar cost overrun barely four months after the massive project was green-lighted in December, 2012.

 

The warning came in the form of a risk assessment undertaken by SNC-Lavalin, the engineering company retained by the Nalcor Energy, the provincial government agency managing the project. SNC-Lavalin officials, who were responsible for construction management and procurement on the project, conducted the risk assessment when initial prices for some major construction elements came in well above the original estimates in the $6.2 billion December, 2012 budget. The experts at SNC-Lavalin warned their Newfoundland client the project could go over-budget by an additional $2.4 billion. The warning was buried for four years.

 

Some critics of the Muskrat Falls project argue that warnings were ignored long before 2013but when the SNC-Lavalin risk assessment finally surfaced in June of this year it was too much to ignore and according to Newfoundland and Labrador’s premier Dwight Ball too late to put the brakes on the project

 

 According to Nalcor Energy’s CEO, Stan Marshall, the Province is now staring at a total cost of $12+ billion to bring the megaproject in two years behind schedule and the Province wants Judge LeBlanc to inquire into “any risk assessments, financial or otherwise” and whether “Nalcor took possession of the reports” and “made the government aware of the reports and assessments”

 

Judge LeBlanc will find that, yes, there was a risk assessment done by SNC-Lavalin in April, 2013 and maybe Nalcor Energy took possession of it or maybe not, and according to the provincial Minister of Natural Resources in April, 2013, no, the provincial government was not made aware of the SNC-Lavalin risk assessment.

 

Ed Martin, former president and CEO of Nalcor Energy. Photo by Greg Locke © 2017

Ed Martin, former president and CEO of Nalcor Energy. Photo by Greg Locke © 2017

What is a matter of public record is the following: Ed Martin, Nalcor Energy’s CEO, parted company with the provincial government in 2016. Whether he was dismissed or resigned is still a bit of a puzzle, but he was succeeded by Stan Marshall, a very successful executive with the private energy company, Fortis Inc. Stan Marshall says he heard about the 2013 SNC-Lavalin risk assessment from a former SNC-Lavalin engineer, but could not find a copy of it in Nalcor Energy’s files. Finally, Stan Marshall says he asked SNC-Lavalin for a copy of the risk assessment, received it, gave it to the provincial government, and it was released by the Premier and Minister of Natural Resources on June 23, 2017 (External Link to CBC story)

 

A spokesperson for SNC-Lavalin told The Telegram newspaper and www.allnewfoundlandlabrador.com that they “attempted” to hand over the risk assessment to Nalcor. Ed Martin, the former Nalcor CEO told the media the risk assessment was never “presented” to him. Premier Dwight Ball told the media that he had been advised that the risk assessment results were presented by SNC-Lavalin at a meeting attended by Nalcor officials including Ed Martin. Obviously, either Premier Dwight Ball has been poorly advised or Ed Martin is not telling the truth or the word “presented” has a very narrow and specific meaning in the world of engineers and consultants that outsiders fail to understand.

 

The expression “attempted to hand it over” makes one wonder if an official of SNC-Lavalin held the nine-page risk assessment document in their hand and reached out to give it to a Nalcor Energy official who refused to accept it. Or, maybe there was a meeting where the SNC-Lavalin, motivated by what is described in the risk assessment as a sense of “urgency” to convey their findings verbally briefed Nalcor Energy officials on the results of the risk assessment, but did not have the report in hand. When engineers are under oath and lawyers from Judge LeBlanc rather than journalists are asking questions about who told who what and who gave what to who then the people who will ultimately pay for the “boondoggle” will know who buried what.

 

What does not take any clarifying are the words of Tom Marshall, the provincial Minister of Natural Resources in 2013. When the SNC-Lavalin risk assessment surfaced in June, 2017. I asked Tom Marshall if he saw the risk assessment in 2013. He said, “I never saw that report.” Asked if he had been advised of the risk assessment findings Mr. Marshall said, “No.” Did he think Ed Martin, the Nalcor CEO who he met with regularly at the time, held back the risk assessment’s findings Mr. Marshall said, “That would be terrible. I can’t fathom if that is the case.” Would it have made a difference if he had known? “It would have rung all kinds of alarm bells”

 

Eleven months after the SNC-Lavalin risk assessment warning Tom Marshall’s successor as Minister of Natural Resources, Derrick Dalley addressed the House of Assembly to reassure members that the government’s oversight of the Muskrat Falls project was “robust.” Mr. Dalley said, “senior staff with the Department of Natural Resources and Finance have met regularly with Nalcor’s CEO and their staff. As well, the provincial cabinet has had regular meetings and ongoing reports from the CEO of Nalcor”

 

For those who gamble on political affairs the question Mr. Dalley’s assurances in 2014 raise is this; what are the odds that Judge LeBlanc will hear testimony from one single senior staff or cabinet member who met regularly with the CEO of Nalcor who will recall hearing the words, “SNC-Lavalin risk assessment” or “serious concerns” or “very high risk of cost overruns” in any of those meetings?

 

Two days later the Minister again sought to reassure the members of the House of Assembly that there was no very high risk of cost overruns, “Nobody is putting my signature on a paper that costs my children $6 billion and $7 billion into the future. I can tell you the work is done. The oversight is there” he said.

 

When the Muskrat Falls Inquiry releases its schedule of witnesses make a note of the date of Mr. Dalley’s appearance.

 

Copyright Roger Bill 2017

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Japan Wary of Nuclear Power in Fukushima’s Wake

Anti-nuclear demonstration in front of the Japanese Diet, June 22, 2012. Matthias Lambrecht, Creative Commons via Flickr

Anti-nuclear demonstration in front of the Japanese Diet, June 22, 2012. Matthias Lambrecht, Creative Commons via Flickr

By Tatsujiro Suzuki
March, 2017

Six years have passed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, but Japan is still dealing with its impacts. Decommissioning the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant poses unprecedented technical challenges. More than 100,000 people were evacuated but only about 13 percent have returned home, although the government has announced that it is safe to return to some evacuation zones. The Conversation

In late 2016 the government estimated total costs from the nuclear accident at about 22 trillion yen, or about US$188 billion – approximately twice as high as its previous estimate. The government is developing a plan under which consumers and citizens will bear some of those costs through higher electric rates, taxes or both.

The Japanese public has lost faith in nuclear safety regulation, and a majority favors phasing out nuclear power. However, Japan’s current energy policy assumes nuclear power will play a role. To move forward, Japan needs to find a new way of making decisions about its energy future.

Uncertainty over nuclear power

When the earthquake and tsunami struck in 2011, Japan had 54 operating nuclear reactors which produced about one-third of its electricity supply. After the meltdowns at Fukushima, Japanese utilities shut down their 50 intact reactors one by one. In 2012 then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government announced that it would try to phase out all nuclear power by 2040, after existing plants reached the end of their 40-year licensed operating lives.

Now, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office at the end of 2012, says that Japan “cannot do without” nuclear power. Three reactors have started back up under new standards issued by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was created in 2012 to regulate nuclear safety. One was shut down again due to legal challenges by citizens groups. Another 21 restart applications are under review.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

In April 2014 the government released its first post-Fukushima strategic energy plan, which called for keeping some nuclear plants as baseload power sources – stations that run consistently around the clock. The plan did not rule out building new nuclear plants. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which is responsible for national energy policy, published a long-term plan in 2015 which suggested that nuclear power should produce 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2030.

Meanwhile, thanks mainly to strong energy conservation efforts and increased energy efficiency, total electricity demand has been falling since 2011. There has been no power shortage even without nuclear power plants. The price of electricity rose by more than 20 percent in 2012 and 2013, but then stabilized and even declined slightly as consumers reduced fossil fuel use.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

Japan’s Basic Energy Law requires the government to release a strategic energy plan every three years, so debate over the new plan is expected to start sometime this year.

Public mistrust

The most serious challenge that policymakers and the nuclear industry face in Japan is a loss of public trust, which remains low six years after the meltdowns. In a 2015 poll by the pro-nuclear Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, 47.9 percent of respondents said that nuclear energy should be abolished gradually and 14.8 percent said that it should be abolished immediately. Only 10.1 percent said that the use of nuclear energy should be maintained, and a mere 1.7 percent said that it should be increased.

Another survey by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun in 2016 was even more negative. Fifty-seven percent of the public opposed restarting existing nuclear power plants even if they satisfied new regulatory standards, and 73 percent supported a phaseout of nuclear power, with 14 percent advocating an immediate shutdown of all nuclear plants.

Who should pay to clean up Fukushima?

METI’s 22 trillion yen estimate for total damages from the Fukushima meltdowns is equivalent to about one-fifth of Japan’s annual general accounting budget. About 40 percent of this sum will cover decommissioning the crippled nuclear reactors. Compensation expenses account for another 40 percent, and the remainder will pay for decontaminating affected areas for residents.

International Atomic Energy Agency experts review plans for decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, April 17, 2013. Photo by Greg Webb, IAEA, creative commons via Flickr

Under a special financing scheme enacted after the Fukushima disaster, Tepco, the utility responsible for the accident, is expected to pay cleanup costs, aided by favorable government-backed financing. However, with cost estimates rising, the government has proposed to have Tepco bear roughly 70 percent of the cost, with other electricity companies contributing about 20 percent and the government – that is, taxpayers – paying about 10 percent.

This decision has generated criticism both from experts and consumers. In a December 2016 poll by the business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, one-third of respondents (the largest group) said that Tepco should bear all costs and no additional charges should be added to electricity rates. Without greater transparency and accountability, the government will have trouble convincing the public to share in cleanup costs.

Other nuclear burdens: Spent fuel and separated plutonium

Japanese nuclear operators and governments also must find safe and secure ways to manage growing stockpiles of irradiated nuclear fuel and weapon-usable separated plutonium.

At the end of 2016 Japan had 14,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear power plants, filling about 70 percent of its onsite storage capacity. Government policy calls for reprocessing spent fuel to recover its plutonium and uranium content. But the fuel storage pool at Rokkasho, Japan’s only commercial reprocessing plant, is nearly full, and a planned interim storage facility at Mutsu has not started up yet.

The best option would be to move spent fuel to dry cask storage, which withstood the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Dry cask storage is widely used in many countries, but Japan currently has it at only a few nuclear sites. In my view, increasing this capacity and finding a candidate site for final disposal of spent fuel are urgent priorities.

Japan also has nearly 48 tons of separated plutonium, of which 10.8 tons are stored in Japan and 37.1 tons are in France and the United Kingdom. Just one ton of separated plutonium is enough material to make more than 1,200 crude nuclear weapons.

Many countries have expressed concerns about Japan’s plans to store plutonium and use it in nuclear fuel. Some, such as China, worry that Japan could use the material to quickly produce nuclear weapons.

Now, when Japan has only two reactors operating and its future nuclear capacity is uncertain, there is less rationale than ever to continue separating plutonium. Maintaining this policy could increase security concerns and regional tensions, and might spur a “plutonium race” in the region.

As a close observer of Japanese nuclear policy decisions from both inside and outside of the government, I know that change in this sector does not happen quickly. But in my view, the Abe government should consider fundamental shifts in nuclear energy policy to recover public trust. Staying on the current path may undermine Japan’s economic and political security. The top priority should be to initiate a national debate and a comprehensive assessment of Japan’s nuclear policy.

Creative Commons

Tatsujiro Suzuki is Professor and Director, Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Can clean power plants be things of beauty?

The proposed Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay power station consists of a large artificial lagoon formed by a sea wall, with water allowed in and out through underwater electricity turbines. Electricity is harvested from the difference between low and high tides.

The proposed Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay power station consists of a large artificial lagoon formed by a sea wall, with water allowed in and out through underwater electricity turbines. Electricity is harvested from the difference between low and high tides. Image: Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay

NICOLE PORTER, University of Nottingham 
March, 2016

Energy suppliers often refer to their industry as being caught in a “trilemma”, as people demand electricity that is both secure and cheap, while also being clean.

But maybe it’s time to add a forth consideration to the list – beauty.

Just as we marvel at Roman aqueducts or Victorian railways, so we could design power plants, solar panels, turbines and other infrastructure to be beautiful additions to the landscape. As we move away from ugly coal and gas, we have a great chance to celebrate low carbon energy with imaginative new designs.

United Kingdom energy minister Amber Rudd seems to agree. Speaking last year about nuclear energy, she stated: “I think it is a reasonable ambition to make sure that these big projects have aesthetic appeal as well [as being functional] to help win the public over.”

Yet there are two problems to look out for. First, it is unreasonable to merely mask controversial or potentially environmentally damaging developments with a veneer of “attractiveness”. Managing public opinion with pretty designs does not supplant other valid concerns such as the choice of location or huge construction costs.

Second, even where “beautiful” design is sought as part of an environmentally responsible scheme, how individuals define and perceive “beauty” will certainly be a highly variable affair. One person’s majestic wind turbine is another person’s imposing eyesore. Like any type of architecture, judgements about beauty will depend on highly personal preferences, and how the new design relates to its existing context.

The quest to find an appropriate aesthetic when designing novel infrastructure is not new. When the Victorians built the UK’s railway system a century and a half ago, the scale of this new technology and the visual and environmental changes it brought to urban and rural landscapes alike were immense – and hotly debated.

Engineers and architects designed large viaducts and impressive stations to be beautiful as well as functional. Though their alien structures were decried by some as ugly impositions, with time those same buildings have come to be part of the cherished character of British landscapes.

In the 1950s, nuclear power once again called for unprecedentedly large and unusual buildings. At Trawsfynydd in Wales, the leading designers of their time took up the challenge. Architect Sir Basil Spence and landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe designed a nuclear power station in a bold modernist style.

Although decades have passed and the plant has been decommissioned, opinions about its aesthetic value continue to be divided; some praise the architecture as “optimistic, triumphant [and] pioneering” while others would be happy to see the building completely disappear.

We need innovative and sensitive design ideas for new energy systems, not just to “win over” the public but to actually improve the environment. Recent examples of well considered and multifunctional energy landscapes do exist.

At Georgswerder Energy Hill in the German city of Hamburg, large wind turbines stand proudly atop an artificial mountain of landfill in a post-industrial area. Purified groundwater onsite is captured and used for energy, and the sunny side of the mountain is graced by solar panels. Visitors learn about renewable energy at a visitor centre before walking up to an elegant public “horizon line” walkway that encircles the mountain and gives expansive views of the city beyond.

In Norway, the Øvre Forsland hydroelectric power station similarly aims to be educative, to reflect the local context, and to unapologetically attract attention.

One interesting example on the drawing board is the proposed Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay. The power station consists of a large artificial lagoon formed by a sea wall, with water allowed in and out through underwater electricity turbines. Electricity is harvested from the difference between low and high tides.

The plans include space for walkers and cyclists along the top of the sea walls, and an iconic, ark-shaped offshore visitor centre (pictured above, by Juice Architects) on the far side of the lagoon. Landscape architects LDA have already received the highest accolade in their field – the Presidents’ Medal – for creatively developing a scheme which “puts place-making at its heart and seeks to integrate a major renewable energy project into the lives of local people”.

Given the grim consequences of climate change and the political stakes associated with generating energy, the question of aesthetics may seem trivial. Investments in renewables obviously need to be based on more than just appearances.

However, as society quickly transitions to better sources of energy, designers are embracing the opportunity to reflect and celebrate the change. Seeing how big power plants, as well as hugely important small-scale community initiatives, can fit within the landscapes that people use and enjoy is a real challenge.

There will probably never be a power plant or solar panel that everyone deems beautiful. But debating beauty and design alongside function is vital to achieve better renewable energy developments.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Nicole Porter is an Assistant Professor, Architecture & Built Environment, University of NottinghamThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Fracking: it’s everywhere (at least in America)

By Peter Dykstra, Environmental Health News
January, 2015 

Well head of a tracking operation. Photo by Joshua Doubek via Wikipedia

Well head of a tracking operation. Photo by Joshua Doubek via Wikipedia

Forget, for the moment, whether you think fracking is an energy godsend or an endtimes disaster. Just consider how it’s everywhere.

In the long run, fracking will impact our lives far more than four of its fellow inductees into the Merriam-Webster dictionary this past year: Hashtags, selfies, tweeps, and turduckens all have their place in society. But none touch everyone’s lives like fracking will, and already has. 

The coal industry readily admits that it’s being undercut by low natural gas prices. A growing boneyard of shuttered coal-fired power plants, and rushed plans to salvage the U.S. coal industry by creating export markets to Asia are a direct impact of the fracking boom, and a domestic oversupply of oil and natural gas.

Nuclear power is on the ropes as well. The December shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuke plant followed other closures in Wisconsin, California and Florida. Judgment day is nearing for nukes in Ohio, Illinois, and New York where cheap natural gas has made nuclear power too costly.

And the oil and gas industry’s fracking windfall is even claiming victims in the oil and gas industry. Citing the collapse in oil prices, energy giants Royal Dutch Shell and Suncor both announced layoffs and cutbacks in tarsands production this week.

The huge increase in supply of fracked petroleum leaves U.S. consumers with few complaints about gasoline prices, plummeting to near $2 a gallon. Automakers, whose sales surged in December, are pleased, too. Thanks largely to the low pump prices, SUV’s, trucks, and low-mileage luxury vehicle buys led the way in the sales boom – all a little bit of buzzkill for climate action.

In the long run, fracking will impact our lives far more than four of its fellow inductees into the Merriam-Webster dictionary this past year: Hashtags, selfies, tweeps and turduckens. Has there been another energy boom that’s literally caused the Earth to move? Unprecedented numbers of small earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma – places with little seismic history – have been directly linked to the fracking process. 

Fracking also has left a couple of craters in world politics. After his annexation of the Crimea, Vladimir Putin was said to be “living in another world” by his German counterpart, Angela Merkel. Western sanctions had an impact on Putin’s Russia, but falling world prices have put Russia’s natural gas-reliant economy in peril, and possibly returned Putin to Earth.

And OPEC, once thought to be well-insulated from world political pressure, broke with tradition in the face of falling oil prices. Led by the Saudis, OPEC in its heyday would routinely cut production to drive prices back up. This time, in an uncharacteristically Zen-like response, they didn’t bother. In a recent interview, Saudi oil billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal said we’d never see $100-a-barrel oil prices again (they’re currently less than half that). 

Fracking also has drilled its way into more frivolous pop-culture pursuits.

The biggest divorce in history has helped fuel TMZ-like stories such as the mega-divorce of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Hamm of Tulsa. Harold founded Continental Resources, where he met and married a staff attorney, Sue Ann Arnall. While Continental struck it rich in the oil and gas of North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, the tycoon and the lawyer never had a prenuptial agreement. A protracted legal back-and-forth may have ended last week. The soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Hamm first rejected, then deposited, a settlement check for Nine Hundred Seventy Four Million Seven Hundred Ninety Thousand Three Hundred Seventeen and 77/100 Dollars. Arnall had threatened to hold out for much, much more, and Hamm, who was Mitt Romney’s Energy Advisor in the 2012 Presidential election, contemplated reducing the size of the payoff as plummeting gas prices cut into his fortune.

There’s even a fracking angle for ESPN fans: Fracking fortunes prompted three American cities to either lose, gain, or save one of their sports teams. In 2008, an investor group including Aubrey McClendon, then-chair of Chesapeake Energy, moved the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City, where they play in the Chesapeake Energy Arena.

There’s even a fracking angle for ESPN fans: Fracking fortunes prompted three American cities to either lose, gain, or save one of their sports teams.And last year Terry Pegula of oil and gas giant East Resources bought the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, vowing to keep the team in Buffalo amidst wide speculation that they’d move out. A thankful New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said “God bless Terry Pegula.” Pegula, who also owns hockey’s Buffalo Sabres, made billions on the sale of his assets in the Marcellus Shale, the fracking bonanza beneath Pennsylvania, New York and other states.

Then on December 17, the ever-thankful Cuomo banned fracking in New York. No word on whether he got to keep his personalized Buffalo Bills jersey, presented by Bills legend Jim Kelly (left), but this is where the story gets serious again. 

There had been a six-year de facto ban on fracking in the state, put in place by Cuomo’s predecessor, David Paterson. Following Cuomo’s election to a second term, a long-awaited health study cited “significant health risks” including air and water pollution from fracking. Industry supporters, and some of the science studies on fracking, dispute this.

Beyond the quakes and pollution risks, fracking is blamed for breakneck pursuit of resources, from water supplies in parched Texas to sand mines in the Upper Midwest.

There are enormous, unanswered questions on the impact of the chemicals used in the fracking process. In the U.S., that’s due in part to the 2005 efforts by Vice President Cheney to allow fracking companies to conceal the proprietary chemical mixes they inject into the ground in the fracking process. Though some parts of this enormous loophole have been closed, frackers still enjoy exemption from key parts of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Then, there’s the methane.

A far more potent short-term greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane releases are on a roll paralleling that of fracking. A report last year by the Environmental Defense Fund projected a 4.5 percent increase in methane emissions in the U.S. over a seven-year period ending in 2018. 

Methane flaring at fracking sites – the burning off of excess, wasted gas — is spiking. A satellite, nighttime view of the upper Midwest shows three metropolis-sized patches of light: Chicago/Milwaukee, the Twin Cities of Minnesota, and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that one-third of North Dakota’s natural gas went “nonmarketed” – mostly burned off into the atmosphere – in 2013. The Obama Administration announced this week that it will take action on methane releases as part of its climate change efforts.

Look around you: In your wallet, on Wall Street, on the highway, in Congress, on the world stage, on ESPN and TMZ, and possibly in your lungs or drinking water. Fracking’s everywhere, whether you like it or not.

 Creative Commons

This story was originally published by Environmental Health News, here. For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Peter Dykstra at pdykstra@ehn.org or Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

Related reading on F&O:

Risky Business: The facts behind frackingF&O Magazine, by Chris Wood (subscription)

F&O NATURAL SECURITY column, by Chris Wood (subscription)

The Global Implications of Oil Renormalization: a three part series, by Jim McNiven, Thoughtlines (F&O column)

Fracking Water Contamination Feared in California Drought (ProPublica)

Aggressive Tactic on the Fracking Front (ProPublica)

Landowners often losers in deals with U.S. energy companies  (ProPublica)

Drilling for Certainty: The Latest in Fracking Health Studies (ProPublica)

Frack fluids can migrate to aquifers within years, study predicts (ProPublica)

 

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Artists call for ban on fracking near national park

FAO-BonneBay_GSL8376

Gros Morne National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bonne Bay, Newfoundland, Canada. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

Thirty two well known artists sent an open letter to Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper, and  Newfoundland & Labrador Premier Paul Davis, calling on them to establish a permanent buffer zone free of industrial activity around Gros Morn National Park  and UNESCO World Heritage Site on the west coast of the island of Newfoundland.

The area has been the target of many unsuccessful oil exploration attempt over the past two decades. In 2012 a number of companies proposed to conduct hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) drilling right up to the park’s boundaries. Last summer, UNESCO called on Canada to do more to protect the site. There was much public opposition, and in 2013 the proposals failed. There is currently a moratorium on fracking while the provincial government reviews a commissioned industry study.

The artists include musician Tim Baker of Hey Rosetta, authors Lawrence Hill, Lisa Moore, Michael Crummy and Joseph Boyden, astronaut Dr. Roberta Bondar, painter Mary Pratt, and actor Greg Malone, who said, “If we can’t protect the most brilliant places in our province and in our country, what are we doing?”

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The back story behind New York’s fracking ban

Alberta Gas well

New York banned fracking after investigative journalism revealed risks. Above, a gas well in Alberta, Canada.

 

Careful, evidence-based journalism underpinned New York’s decision Wednesday to ban fracking in the state. This story by the not-for-profit investigative news room ProPublica provides the back story of the state governor’s announcement.

Fracking — the technique of fracturing underground rock by piping in hydraulically pressurized liquid  — has boosted oil and gas extraction around the world. The boom in fracking in the U.S. especially has vastly increased America’s domestic energy supply, and is a factor in the recent plunge in global oil prices. Fracking has also led to conflicts over land use, and is also linked to human health and environmental risks, and earthquakes under some conditions. 

Jurisdictions that have banned or suspended fracking include, as of this posting, several counties and municipalities in other American states; parts of Spain; France; Germany; the Netherlands; Bulgaria; and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec.1 Other jurisdictions have banned or regulated some of the chemicals used in fracking. 

 

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

When natural gas companies first pressed into New York in 2008, state environmental regulators barely understood the process of “hydraulic fracturing.” On Wednesday, six and a half years after ProPublica first raised concerns that the drilling could threaten both the state’s water supply and its residents’ health, Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned the process across the state.

The ban makes New York, which holds large natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale, the largest and most significant region to bow out of the nation’s energy boom because of concerns that its benefits may be outweighed by the risk. 

The decision comes after a long-awaited report from the state’s Health Department this week concluded that the fracking would pose health risks to New Yorkers. It also follows an exhaustive state environmental review effort that began the day after ProPublica’s first story in July 2008.

Since then, New York has walked an indecisive line on drilling, while an energy boom provoked by advances in fracking technology took much of the rest of the country by storm. Today’s lower oil prices are due, in part, to an oil bonanza in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale that had barely begun when New York first put a temporary halt to new drilling in the state. Likewise, the gas drilling waves that have rippled through states from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Michigan, North Carolina, Maryland, Texas and Wyoming had yet to run their course.

But by delaying a decision on drilling for so many years, Cuomo also allowed a clearer picture of the impacts and changes that drilling activity would bring to emerge. That clearer picture ultimately dampened the enthusiasm for drilling in New York and validated many of the environmental and health concerns that anti-drilling groups have raised across the country.

Just across the state line from New York’s Southern Tier, where the richest Marcellus gas deposits lie, Pennsylvania landowners dealt with one incident of water contamination after another. They complained of illnesses caused by both the water and new air pollution brought by the drilling. State regulators in Pennsylvania 2013 once enthusiastic boosters of the process 2013 wound up cracking down on drilling companies’ messy practices and strengthening their own environmental laws as a result.

Across the country, similar stories emerged, many of them reported as part of a four-year-long investigation by ProPublica. From Texas and Louisiana to California, drilling waste was being spilled or leaking into drinking water aquifers and high pressures caused by fracking activities were causing wells to leak. Methane gushed from wells and pipelines. And residents’ allegations that the drilling was causing symptoms from nerve disorders to skin lesions and birth defects began to be substantiated through peer-reviewed scientific research.

The potential payoff for such risks 2013 which the drilling industry long maintained were minimal 2013 was that drilling would bring huge economic benefits to rural regions long desperate for new jobs and an injection of economic vigor. That economic promise has been born out across many parts of the country, but in some instances, those who needed the financial benefits most have been denied them.

An investigation by ProPublica earlier this year found that landowners in Pennsylvania who supported drilling and signed leases with drilling companies in order to earn a share of the profits were instead being cheated out their payments, called royalties. In fact, the stories showed, energy companies had withheld royalty payments worth billions of dollars from both landowners and the federal government across states from Texas and Wyoming to Louisiana and Colorado, substantially blunting the prosperity that could come from allowing drilling to proceed.

All of this, it now seems, must have made Cuomo’s decision this week a lot easier. But the ban also reflects the conclusion of a lengthy learning curve for New York State.

When ProPublica reporters, in a joint project with WNYC, first went to Albany to talk with the state’s environment regulators, those officials couldn’t answer basic questions about the process they were poised to permit: What chemicals would be pumped underground near drinking water supplies? Where would the waste be disposed of and did New York have facilities capable of handling it? State officials told ProPublica then that fracking had never once caused pollution to water supplies, and said they were unaware of the hundreds of cases brought to their attention by ProPublica where such damage had indeed taken place.

On the morning of July 23, 2008, then Gov. David Paterson called for those state environment officials to go back to the drawing board in their assessment of the risks of fracking before the state issued any new permits, effectively placing a moratorium on drilling that lasted until now.

Creative Commons

Notes:

1. Wikipedia page: Hydraulic fracturing by country
     Keep Tap Water Safe organization

Further reading on F&O:

Risky Business: The facts behind fracking, F&O Magazine, by Chris Wood (subscription)

F&O NATURAL SECURITY column, by Chris Wood (subscription)

Fracking Water Contamination Feared in California Drought (ProPublica)

Aggressive Tactic on the Fracking Front (ProPublica)

Landowners often losers in deals with U.S. energy companies  (ProPublica)

Drilling for Certainty: The Latest in Fracking Health Studies (ProPublica)

Frack fluids can migrate to aquifers within years, study predicts (ProPublica)

 

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