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Necropolitics in Mexico and Central America

By Ariadna Estévez
December, 2016

Despite the presence of armed forces in the street, the most violent neighbourhoods of Honduras are plagued by insecurity. Children can rarely go out and play, even during daytime. Families’ movements are restricted by gangs, who impose “invisible borders” between their gang territories. European Commission photo, by A. Aragón 2016/Flickr

Despite the presence of armed forces in the street, the most violent neighbourhoods of Honduras are plagued by insecurity. Children can rarely go out and play, even during daytime. Families’ movements are restricted by gangs, who impose “invisible borders” between their gang territories. European Commission photo, by A. Aragón 2016/Flickr

Gang violence is forcing people to flee Central America and Mexico, heading north to the United States in record numbers. Right?

That’s the standard narrative: organised crime and drug trafficking have given Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) the highest homicide rates on earth, sending scared citizens packing.

Indeed, Honduras ranks second, behind Syria, among the world’s most dangerous countries, followed by El Salvador (6th), Guatemala (11th) and Mexico (23rd). And San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, has the highest homicide rate on the planet.

This is a humanitarian crisis and regional tragedy. And as far as the United Nations and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, are concerned, bad guys are to blame.

But this common received wisdom about violence in Central America and Mexico overlooks two facts.

Both areas are rich in natural resources, including fine woods (such as mahogany) and metals (such as iron, lead, gold, nickel, zinc and silver). And not all the violence plaguing the region is gang-related; it also encompassses feminicide, the killing of environmental activists and political murders and forced disappearances.

My argument is that criminal violence, while potent, is just part of a dangerous cocktail that serves to “cleanse” places where local communities are defending their home territory.

Necropolitics: a killer agenda

This isn’t a conspiracy theory, and this hypothesis is not mine alone. Data indicates that in resource-rich countries, the concurrence of forced displacement with criminal, misogynistic and political violence cannot be a coincidence.

This killer combination reflects a policy of forced depopulation aimed at obtaining “conflict-free” exploitation of natural resources that are increasingly valuable in the modern global economy, such as minerals used by new technologies and renewable or clean energy sources.

To execute this strategy, a variety of armed actors, including drug traffickers and gang members but also mercenary killers, security guards and “sicarios” – in Mexico and Central America are selling their killing expertise to powerful entities, from repressive governments to transnational corporations (or both, working together). Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe has called this phenomenon Private Indirect Government.

This “necropolitics” – the politics of death – is the violent core of what scholar Bobby Banerjee defines as necrocapitalism, that is, profit-driven deaths.

Why negotiate with poor indigenous communities sitting atop valuable oil, water, wood and ore if they can be pushed off their land with hidden criminal, political and misogynistic forces?

Central America’s resource curse

Nearly every Latin American country confronting high homicide levels also has precious woods, metals and hydrocarbons. For the purposes of my argument, let’s look at illegal and legal logging in Honduras, mining across Central America and hydrocarbon extraction along the US-Mexico border. These situations demonstrate how forced displacement, political repression, criminal and gender violence in resource-rich territories coincide.

In Honduras, displacement patterns indicate that criminal violence may not the main push factor. According to a 2016 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the number of displaced persons increased nearly 600% from 29,000 to 174,000 between 2014 and 2015.

Oddly, that’s precisely when homicide rates decreased. The report is vague on this paradox, suggesting that the increase may relate to worsening economic conditions.

I would counter that the increasingly violent repression of environmental activism, not criminal violence, was the primary displacing force during that period.

From 2010 to 2014, more than 100 Honduran environmental activists were killed. By 2014, the country was seeing massive demonstrations against corporate activity in Río Blanco – the same river defended by environmentalist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016.

Honduras is rich in natural resources, with 41.5% of its territory covered with forests. Yet it is the third-poorest country in the Americas. Conditions there have worsened there since a 2009 coup d’etat.

The poorest Hondurans live in rural areas, where longstanding agricultural, logging and livestock activities have created an environmental crisis. Widespread deforestation, erosion and environmental degradation are exposing communities to natural disaster. That’s why farmers and indigenous groups are increasingly organising against corporate interests in their jungles, and why they’re being killed and displaced.

While much of Honduras’s criminal violence takes place in cities such as San Pedro Sula, it is also concentrated in supposedly protected rural areas that have illegal mining and logging activities.

The Río Plátano biosphere, one of the country’s three major protected areas, and the La Ceiba district, near the Pico Bonito conservation zone, both have gang and cartel activities, and are among the areas sending the greatest number of child refugees to the US.

The government is a partner in this illicit extraction. According to a Global Witness report, from 2006 to 2007, the Honduran state paid more than US$1 million to timber traffickers.

Women, the environment and murder

It’s a common mistake to consider violence against women a private, non-political act. But women are often on the front lines of environmental activism because they tend to oppose activities that are harmful to their children, homes and communities. While there’s no data on the exact number killed, the necropolitical dangers women face is sufficient to merit a network of female environmentalists.

In 2015, Honduras had the world’s highest feminicide rate. The most famous case is that of 44-year-old Honduran indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, who was killed in March 2016.

In her final days, Cáceres received texts and calls warning her to give up her fight against the Agua Zarca dam and had recently had an altercation with employees of a Honduran energy company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., or Desa. She was eventually shot dead in her home.

Feminicide has similarly flourished in Mexico’s most shale-rich states. There, the case of Josefina Reyes Salazar is iconic, though still shrouded in mystery.

A women’s rights and environmental activist in Valle de Juárez, Salazar was killed in 2010 along with other members of her family, because they opposed the militarisation of their town, which was located in an area rich in shale gas.

The Mexican case

According to a forced displacement report, of the 287,000 Mexicans displaced by violence and 91,000 displaced by disaster, most are in the states of Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, Durango, Michoacán, Guerrero and Veracruz.

Beyond their high levels of drug-related violence, all of these states are also rich in minerals, renewables and shale gas. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll focus here on shale gas extraction along the US-Mexico border.

A significant number of the forced disappearances and murders in which the army and criminal gangs are involved have taken place in this swath of land, located above a major Texas shale gas source known as Eagle Ford Shale Basin.

This area is also, notoriously, run by gangs, from the Juarez Cartel that once made Ciudad Juarez the world’s most violent city to the Zetas, who are responsible for thousands of Mexico’s 300,000 forced disappearances, and the Gulf Cartel, whose leaders were protected by local politicians.

Fracking, the method used to extract shale gas, has significant environmental costs, requires 7.6 to 15 million litres of water per extraction and contains contaminating chemicals.

27,000 wells fuel Eagle Ford’s shale gas exploitation. In an arid place where water is already scarce, this intense water use is hurting agriculture and leading to increasing protests.

According to a special report by the National Human Rights Commission, most of Mexico’s displaced people are farmers from communities with self-sustaining economies, environmental and human rights activists, small business owners, local government officials, and journalists.

This makes sense. With the exception perhaps of business owners, these populations represent a specific threat to extractive capitalist interests, either through resistance (activists, law-abiding public officials, farmers) or exposure (journalists).

Thus, while gangs and drug-related violence are major Latin American social problems, civil society must start discerning the entire array of depopulating strategies in Central America and Mexico.

Mexico’s national media is already drawing this link with shale gas extraction. It’s time to complicate the narrative of violence across Mexico and the Northern Triangle by examining the role of transnational corporations, local political elites, and economic oligarchies in the region’s daily displacement and production of death.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Ariadna Estévez 3 Articles 0 Comments Professor, Center for Research on North America, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) ProfileArticlesAriadna Estévez  received her doctorate in human rights from Sussex University in Brighton, UK; her master’s in political sociology from the City University in London, England; and her bachelor’s in journalism and collective communications from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She is currently a full-time researcher at the Center for Research on North America (CISAN-UNAM).

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

 

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Killing the Colorado: Water Rights and the Right to Waste

Lake Powell "LakePowell3" by G. Thomas at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LakePowell3.jpg#/media/File:LakePowell3.jpg

Lake Powell “LakePowell3” by G. Thomas at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LakePowell3.jpg#/media/File:LakePowell3.jpg

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, in collaboration with Matter
June, 2015

High in the Rocky Mountains, snowmelt fills a stream that trickles down into Ohio Creek and then onward toward the Upper Gunnison River. From there, it tumbles through the chasms of the Black Canyon, joining the Colorado River, filling the giant Lake Powell reservoir, and, one day, flowing to Los Angeles.

But before the water gets more than a few miles off the mountain, much of this stream is diverted into dirt ditches used by ranchers along the Ohio Creek Valley. Standing astride one of those ditches one day last fall, Bill Ketterhagen dug his boot soles against the concrete edge of a 5-foot-wide dam. He spun a steel wheel and opened a gate that allowed water to pour into his fields of hay crops.

Ketterhagen, 39, manages a 750-acre ranch outside the town of Gunnison, Colorado, for its out-of-state owners, mostly growing a mixture of Meadow Foxtail, Timothy, wheat grasses and some alfalfa. The grasses, knee-high with bursts of clover flowers and flat, slender leaves, are cut, baled and shipped to feedlots where they fatten cattle soon to be slaughtered for beef.

"Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, CO IMG 5651" by Billy Hathorn - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cattle_Feedlot_near_Rocky_Ford,_CO_IMG_5651.JPG#/media/File:Cattle_Feedlot_near_Rocky_Ford,_CO_IMG_5651.JPG

A cattle feedlot in Colorado. Photo Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Thickly built, wearing overalls and a four-day beard, Ketterhagen has a degree in biology and natural resource management and once worked in a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He knows his fields could thrive with much smaller amounts of water — he’s seen them do so in dry years — but the property owners he works for have the legal right to take a large supply, and he applies the water generously. 

“When we have it, we’ll use it,” he said. “You’ll open your head gate all the way and take as much as you can — whether you need it or not.”

Ketterhagen feels he has little choice. A vestige of 139-year-old water law pushes ranchers to use as much water as they possibly can, even during a drought. “Use it or lose it” clauses, as they are known, are common in state laws throughout the Colorado River basin and give the farmers, ranchers and governments holding water rights a powerful incentive to use more water than they need. Under the provisions of these measures, people who use less water than they are legally entitled to risk seeing their allotment slashed. 

There are few starker examples of how man’s missteps and policies are contributing to the water shortage currently afflicting the western United States. In a series of reports, ProPublica is examining how decisions on water management and growth have exacerbated more than a decade of drought, bringing the West to the point of crisis. The Colorado River is the most important source of water for nearly 40 million people across California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and supports some 15 percent of the nation’s food crops. 

But the river is in trouble, and water laws are one significant cause. Legal water rights and state allocations have been issued for more water than the river, in an average year, can provide. Meanwhile its annual flow has been steadily decreasing as the climate changes and drought grips the region. And so, for more than a decade, states and the federal government have tried to wring more supply out of the Colorado and spread it further, in part by persuading the farmers and ranchers who use the vast majority of the river’s water and have the largest water rights to conserve it.

But in many ways it’s the vast body of often-antiquated law governing western water rights, officials acknowledge, that actively undermines conservation, making waste — or at least heavy use — entirely rational.

“Water is money,” said Eugene Backhaus, a state resource conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which works to help ranchers use water more efficiently. “The way the current water law structure is, if they don’t use it for the assigned use, they could lose the water right.” 

Adding to the problems, the states linked by reliance on the Colorado govern their water resources separately and have not standardized their water laws. While states have made incremental adjustments to those laws, they have not recast them to address the new needs of a region undergoing vast changes. Some rules force ranchers to dry up entire streams; others ignore the ecological value of maintaining a healthy river. The common element of all these laws is the blunt ethos of the West: Water exists mainly in order to get used up, even if that means deepening the problems of neighboring states.

Ketterhagen understands that the ranch he runs sits atop a system under enormous stress and that he’s wasting water in a region that desperately needs it. But he also understands Colorado water law — rights are precious, and sometimes more valuable even than the land to which they are attached. 

Throughout the long, hot summer, Ketterhagen let water course through his fields, irrigating his pastures and vitalizing the gravelly soil beneath. Last spring, the water flowed over the grass’s roots, drowning them, and climbed past the first leaves of the sprouting plants until it stood calf-deep.

“She’s my gauge,” Ketterhagen said, pointing at Gilli, his black and white Aussie heeler mix, who bounded around the field. “When I see a little bit of spray kicking up behind her, it’s just right.”

The body of law governing how water is distributed in the West was shaped by the gold rush. 

As people were lured to settle vast, uninhabited and arid parts of the country, they staked their claims to land and water only to face fierce competition upstream as rivers were diverted to sluice for treasure. Courts decreed that water would be saved for the first to use it. Since most property was far from streams and there was little rain, officials then gave settlers formal rights to take water out of rivers and move it across dry land where it could be used to mine minerals or turn rocky fields into farms. 

As western territories became states, those states institutionalized the rules — sometimes in their state constitutions — first locking in water rights for those who were already there and then issuing more to those who requested them, on a first-come-first-served basis. For irrigation, shares were apportioned according to crude 19th-century notions of how much water was needed to get 40 acres of dry soil to produce a crop. In times of drought, those with the oldest, or most senior, rights to water would get it first; those with the newest rights would have to wait at the back of the line. 

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the seven states whose territory was touched by the Colorado River and its tributaries began to compete for access to the source of that water. Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, led negotiations in which the states agreed on an estimate of the amount of water in the river. The rights to most of the flow were split between states in the upper and lower basins. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico got half, while Arizona, California and Nevada got the rest. This was, in part, to keep California — already the most populous and industrious of western states — from taking it all. Each state continued to govern the rights to water distributed within its borders. 

But even in that first 1922 compact, more water was divvied up on paper than would actually run through the river. Officials, it turned out, had estimated the Colorado’s average flow after a period of unusually wet conditions, calculating that 18 million acre-feet flowed through the river each year, and dividing up some 15 million acre-feet, or 4.8 trillion gallons of water, between the states. Within two decades they began to understand their folly: During many years as little as 12 million acre-feet flowed, and under normal conditions the river would rarely yield close to the amount of water expected. And yet the states piled on more obligations, bringing the amount of water parceled out even higher. In 1944, for instance, Congress signed a treaty promising an additional 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, where the Colorado River naturally ends. 

Today, 15 years into an epochal drought, 16.5 million acre-feet of water have been allocated, while the river, during the recent drought, has been flowing at a rate of around 12.4 million acre-feet each year.

Still, aside from a 2007 temporary pact to divide the pain of river shortages between them, officials in the seven states have never renegotiated the original river compact or fundamentally changed the foundations of water law that lead to overuse. The result is a set of codified principles designed for a different era and divorced from today’s environmental realities. 

The term “water law” in the Colorado River basin has come to refer to a monstrous volume of federal statutes and agreements, court precedents and state laws and regulations that can differ from place to place and have changed incrementally over the years but are structured by the interstate agreements to divide the river. Most of those state laws share the basic principle that the first people to arrive in the West should hold the most senior rights to its water. 

The notion of “first in time, first in right” has persisted even as the need for water has exploded in urban areas that sprang up long after most water rights were distributed and therefore rank lowest in priority. 

Fly-fishing, rafting and mountain tourism contribute billions of dollars to Colorado’s economy, yet in most cases state law distributes rights to a majority of water in streams and tributaries to farmers and ranchers and incentivizes them to leave little, if any, for recreational use. Many small streams in the Rockies run dry by midsummer, often because ranchers don’t have a reason to let water pass them by. 

“Ninety percent of water users thought water running downstream was wasted water,” said Cary Denison, the Gunnison basin project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a sportsmen’s and river conservation group working with ranchers to get them to use less water. 

Years of worsening water scarcity passed before those ranchers began to appreciate how their practices — and the laws guiding them — were contributing to the problem. “Only recently do we start to see articles in the paper about the drought, and we think, gosh, we have some effect on this,” Denison said.

The Kawuneeche Valley near the source of the river in the Rockies. Photo by Darekk2 , Creative Commons via Wikimedia

The Kawuneeche Valley near the source of the river in the Rockies. Photo by Darekk2 , Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Even when there is no more water to distribute, Colorado officials can certify place holders in an endless line, assuring that water will be overallocated forever and that someone will always use whatever the last person leaves untouched.

“The whole system is designed towards preserving the status quo,” said Jim Lochhead, the chief executive of the urban utility Denver Water, who formerly represented Colorado on interstate water negotiations. The most pragmatic approach, he thinks, is to build off existing water law while reforming its worst parts. But in a perfect world, he said, “I would abolish Colorado water rights law and start all over again with a clean slate.”

None of the antiquated parts of what across the entire basin is referred to loosely as “water law” play as much a role in stressing the water system — or seem as fixable — as the one known as “use it or lose it.” 

Originally devised in part to keep speculators from hoarding water to build wealth and power, the intent of “use it” laws was to make sure the people who held rights to water exercised them. They could keep those rights indefinitely, passing them on through generations or selling them, attached to the land, at great profit, as long as they constantly put the water to what most Western water laws refer to as “beneficial use.” 

Each Colorado River basin state has a variation of rules promising to confiscate water rights if water users don’t maximize their use. While some of the laws allow for state-approved conservation or other flexibility, legal experts say ranchers often understand the laws to be absolute. Colorado authorities keep a list of property owners whose water rights are primed for “abandonment,” meaning that the full extent of the rights haven’t been exercised, by intent and on average, over a 10-year period.

The provision leaves landowners feeling they have little choice but to take as much as they are allowed, and many do it year in and year out to preserve the value of their property. “I would say to my clients: ‘You have to protect yourself … by using the water that is appropriated,'” said John McClow, a prominent water rights attorney who represented the state on the Upper Colorado River Commission, the interstate water management coalition, and now serves on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But maximizing their rights keeps the river under maximum strain. 

It’s not just ranchers who feel they must use up water for fear of losing rights to it. Towns, counties and even states do more or less the same thing, not necessarily because they are bound by abandonment clauses like ranchers but because they harbor fears of losing their water as it flows out of state. There is a push for Colorado to maximize its use of all the water it can. 

“The state of Colorado is supposed to double in size by 2050,” said Marc Catlin, who sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and represents Montrose County, which has filed applications to snatch up additional conditional water rights for its own future growth. “And somebody has got to be thinking about the future if that’s the case.”

The effects of “use it or lose it” laws are so significant that policy experts warn that western states won’t be able to begin untangling larger issues of drought and conservation without dealing with it first. “It’s fundamental,” said Laura Ziemer, senior counsel for Trout Unlimited and a leading expert on water law. 

Any reform would probably have to happen state by state. States are fiercely protective of their sovereign rights to govern their water resources, and the federal government has repeatedly pledged not to interfere. Challenging state leaders on that, said Pat Mulroy, the former head of Las Vegas’ water authority and Nevada’s former negotiator on the Colorado River, is a sure way to “see eyeballs start popping out and bones start showing up on the side of their backs.” 

At the state level, suggestions that the “first-in-time” water rights policies might be modified triggers an equally radical reaction, conjuring fears of property seizure and a nearly religious opposition to change. Even the most ardent supporters of such changes — people like Lochhead of Denver Water — admit water laws are probably too sensitive to be reformed any time soon. 

Still, overhauling “use it or lose it” clauses would protect property, could offer quick improvement for water supplies and has the support of many ranchers. 

Recognizing that its groundwater aquifers were being rapidly depleted, Kansas passed legislation protecting farmers’ full water rights even if they choose to use less water in any given year. But efforts to pass a similar measure in Colorado have so far failed. Last year Colorado’s governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed ranchers to use less water without jeopardizing their long-term entitlements, and an effort to revive the issue earlier this year hit a dead end. Some ranchers — including Ketterhagen — wanted to see the water they didn’t need stay in the river, where it would support the state’s booming fishing and outdoor tourism economy. But others, including those with more junior water rights, didn’t want to give water to trout — or to lower basin states.

“Do we want to fix it in a way that sends more water to Arizona?” asked McClow, the water attorney. “We’re still parochial about that. If we save some water, I think we want to use it ourselves.”

Across the fields from the ranch managed by Ketterhagen lives Bill Trampe, a significant user of Colorado water and one of the most influential.

Like his father and grandfather, Trampe, 68, harvests alfalfa on what is now 6,000 acres of picturesque rolling hay crops and grassland 30 minutes outside the town of Crested Butte. His grandfather cleared stones and dug the miles of irrigation ditches that bring water to the ranch with his own hands.

Trampe sits on the boards of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee. Many of the River District members at first supported Colorado’s attempt to fix the “use it or lose it” law last year. But when Trampe — who argued the law would embroil ranchers in expensive legal and engineering fights to defend their water rights — came out in opposition, momentum shifted against the bill, and the governor ultimately killed it. 

Trampe, like many alfalfa ranchers, flood irrigates his pastures, and he says that while the water he dumps on his fields can seem excessive, it serves other invisible but essential purposes. He fears a law that encourages farmers to conserve water would have unintended consequences on a complex natural system. 

Driving his combine tractor, his thick, calloused hands wrapped over the vinyl steering wheel, Trampe described his fields in the way that only someone who has spent his entire life on the land can. Because his rocky soil drains quickly, the extra water he applies seeps downward and keeps the underlying aquifer full, he says. What water isn’t sipped up by his own plants flows underground downhill to benefit his neighbors, and ultimately to provide a steady flow of water back into the river itself. 

Before there was farming, Trampe says, there wasn’t much of a ground water supply in his part of the valley north of Gunnison. But today households there depend on water wells for bathing and drinking, and those wells tap into a water table that is kept artificially high by the overuse of irrigation water on the ranches. There is also the drain water: “return flows” that seep back into the river to be claimed again by “junior” water rights holders downstream. 

Return flows are an essential component of Colorado water accounting, and ranchers like to say their water is recycled four or five times by the time it gets all the way down to the main stem of the river. Among Trampe’s concerns is that conservation would wind up cutting off return flows the next farmer counts on. 

“Over a century, we’ve been irrigating this country, and we’ve established an ecology based on what we’ve been doing,” he said.

Trampe also sees conservation efforts as a sort of Trojan horse. He says that, squeezed between Denver to the east and all the big thirsty desert cities downstream, Colorado’s ranchers are under siege. 

“The municipalities will come here and condemn us, or buy us out,” he said.

Indeed, western cities have become increasingly critical of the imbalance between rural and urban regions when it comes to rights to water. “There is a very small number of people that control a huge amount of water,” said Douglas Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. “Is it truly equitable that water was allocated 100 years ago and now we are locked into that forever?”

Denver and other eastern Colorado cities already take 154 billion gallons of water across the Continental Divide from western Colorado each year. Schemes to build more tunnels to divert more water from rural western areas like Gunnison are a constant concern. And last July the utilities and groups that represent the lower river states’ biggest urban areas — including Las Vegas, Denver and Los Angeles — proposed a pilot program to find additional water supplies in the agriculturally rich parts of Colorado, in part by paying people like Trampe to fallow fields, be more water-efficient or perhaps lease or sell their water rights. 

“The cities continue to grow and grow and grow — and they expect me — or us as an industry — to give up water,” Trampe said. “Why should I suffer for their sprawl?” 

Mercury Pool, Caesar's Palace, Los Vegas. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Mercury Pool, Caesar’s Palace, Los Vegas. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

In 2012, it hardly snowed in Colorado. Even in the Colorado River’s uppermost reaches, streams narrowed to a desperate trickle in the early summer, and long before Gunnison’s ranchers could take their water, Ohio Creek and the other tributaries nearly ran dry. A strange thing happened as a result. 

Walking through shoulder-high Garrison grass, Ketterhagen recounted the lessons of that summer: His fields did great, perhaps better than they have done since. He has come to think the grasses — a pasture mix of slender wheat, Garrison, clover and alfalfa — suffer with too much water. The dry year trained them to withstand the rigors of water shortages in the future. “If you are able to irrigate your crops with less water over time,” Ketterhagen said, holding his arms out and letting the silky plumes brush his palms, “I think you could create a more drought-resistant hay crop.”

There’s no quicker way to make a Colorado rancher bristle than to suggest that the water he applies to his meadows is wasted, but the science — and Ketterhagen’s observations — suggest many water users could get by with less. 

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Backhaus, an alfalfa plant in particular, set in saturated soil, will grow weak roots only half as deep as normal. The saturation can bring more disease and insects and grow a plant deficient in iron. Alfalfa is the thirstiest crop grown in western Colorado, consuming as much as 3 acre-feet of water per acre of crop each year. But it’s not uncommon for local ranchers to deliver 4 to 6 acre-feet of water, taking twice as much water from the river as their crop needs. If it doesn’t drain, that much water can suffocate the plants and they will be overtaken by sedges and other species. 

“Saturated soil actually doesn’t have oxygen in it, and so you will start seeing more of that wetland type plant growing in it,” Backhaus said. “By continually irrigating — letting the water go over a field and never stopping it — it could turn into an artificial wetland.”

Even where crops aren’t overwatered, water is lost just by transporting it from the river to the field. Copious amounts evaporate out of the ditches that line the hillsides and seep out the bottom into the loamy soil, well before the water even gets to ranchers’ fields. Ranchers know this; they open the gates long before they need the water, allowing extra time for the soil to get saturated enough to hold water. 

Along the banks, the roots of weedy tamarisk shrubs guzzle even more water, and sedges grow in depressions — a sign of moisture pooling where it isn’t needed. As Trout Unlimited’s Denison points out, flood irrigation is just 35 percent efficient, meaning nearly two-thirds of the water taken out of the river is lost, and never gets used by the grasses it is meant to nourish. The extra water is presumed to ultimately return to the river — and is counted that way when the state tallies up its usage — but Denison and others say only some of it actually does. 

Denison sees opportunity in the margins. Rather than a black-or-white struggle between agriculture and cities, a compromise could send more water downriver while keeping the farms in business. But finding it requires rethinking water entitlements, and more flexibility than existing laws allow. California has been grappling with this realization as its most senior water rights holders have begun to relinquish part of their share. “There is plenty of water to meet current needs, but we have to define what needs are, versus what a ‘right’ is,” Denison said. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers financial incentives to help ranchers upgrade equipment and adopt new, more efficient irrigation technologies. A pivot irrigation system — in which a long sprinkler pipe is set on wheels and rotates from a fixed point, leaving lush green crop circles — can potentially cut water use in half. Remote-controlled water ditch gates allow ranchers to shut off flows they otherwise leave running for months at a time because they are too far up in the mountains to visit. Drip irrigation for vegetable crops, in which small amounts of water are emitted right at a plant’s roots, is estimated to be as much as 95 percent efficient. 

Standing at the top of a meadow full of Timothy and wheat grasses, Ketterhagen points to a 12-inch PVC pipe running beside an empty 2-foot-deep dirt ditch that it replaced. He worked with advisers from the NRCS to design the pipe system and install it on part of the ranch. The pipes don’t lose water en route to the field and let Ketterhagen distribute water more evenly. Within a week, he says, his water use on that section of the ranch seemed to drop by about half.

Federal officials believe the subsidy program could successfully prod ranchers to put hundreds of billions of gallons of water back into the river and help relieve the shortages plaguing states downstream. “If every producer did that … there would be measurable gains,” said the NRCS’s Backhaus. “If 50 percent of them did it and they got a 10 percent gain, that would still be measurable.”

And yet ranchers have been slow to adopt changes. Their reasoning varies from the practical — Gunnison-area ranches often grow only one cutting of alfalfa a season, putting the $90,000 cost of some pivot irrigation systems out of reach — to the cynically ideological. “If you save it you lose it. You don’t get paid for it. You just give it up,” said Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, a national farmer advocacy group that advises Washington policymakers, repeating complaints he says he hears from some of his members. “So why would you give up water for use you don’t even believe in, for nothing?” 

The risk to long-term water rights figures prominently in ranchers’ thinking. If Ketterhagen piped every ditch on the ranch he runs, the pipes might not even carry enough water for the owners to be able to take their full allotment out of Ohio Creek. The Colorado authorities could confiscate their water rights. Ketterhagen’s employers would lose much of the value of their land, and Ketterhagen expects he’d be out of a job. Federal officials say similar concerns weigh on other ranchers, and that “use it or lose it” statutes create a strong headwind for the government’s conservation program, prompting ranchers to worry about becoming too efficient for their own good. 

“It kind of runs crosswise with the goal of our program,” said John Scott, a former district conservationist for the NRCS in Gunnison.

Many of the same ranchers who insist they need all of their water also say they could use less if their rights were protected and they benefitted from the savings. “Why shouldn’t we have a say in how those savings are used?” asked Ken Spann, one of western Colorado’s significant water users, who farms thousands of acres between Crested Butte and the town of Delta downstream. “Do I have a moral and ethical obligation as a citizen of Colorado to ensure that they can continue to expand the metropolitan area toward the Kansas line? I don’t think I do.” 

Spann would support a change in the law if it allowed him to retrieve the water he saved one year and use it the next. For now, he says, he has no good reason to use less water.

“People behave rationally,” said the University of Colorado’s Kenney. “The incentives are structured in a way that they are encouraged to act in a way that isn’t in society’s best interest.”

There is a consensus that this status quo has got to change. There is going to be less water and increasing pressure to use it efficiently. 

“It’s like I’ve got a devil and an angel on my shoulder,” Ketterhagen said. He wants to see a healthy river and applauds an effort last spring to send a surge of water to the river’s end to restore its delta. “On the one hand the Colorado River flowed all the way into the Sea of Cortez this year, it brings a tear to my eye.”

“On the other, we give them our water and what do we get in return?”

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Naveena Sadasivam contributed to this story. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter

~~~

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. If you value journalism, please help sustain us.

 

Posted in Also tagged , , |

Fracking: Canada’s top court to review Alberta’s duty to citizens

Gas flare from drill rig near a home in Hythe, Alberta, Photo by Greg Locke © 2009

Gas flare from drill rig near a home in Hythe, Alberta. Photo by Greg Locke © 2009

By Chris Wood

Does a Canadian provincial government have any responsibility to protect your natural security? Nope. Nada. Rien. It can pretty much do as it likes, wrecking your water and any other part of the environment that it likes in the process. And you can just go pound sand.

That, in non-legal language, was pretty much what an Alberta Court ruled in the case of Jessica Ernst, a former oilfield biologist who lost the use of the water wells on her small ranch east of Calgary after a gas company hydro-fracked several drill-holes nearby. Ernst had appealed for help to the Alberta public agency that supposedly oversees its oil and gas industry, and was not only turned away but vilified for her efforts. The provincial court upheld the agency’s dismissal of Ernst’s complaint.

It was an astonishing ruling, but it’s about to get a second look. The Supreme Court of Canada has now agreed to hear Ernst’s appeal of the Alberta ruling. Its verdict, of course, is months away and impossible to predict. But the high court has already overturned a series of attempts by the federal government to illegally circumvent Canadians’ Charter-guaranteed Rights and Freedoms. It now has a chance to re-affirm that provinces also have an obligation to protect their citizens, and cannot simply set that duty aside in order to provide carte blanche to corporations.

To meet Jessica Ernst and learn more about her case and the risks and alleged benefits of hydro-fracking, read my article Risky Business: The facts behind fracking,  on Facts and Opinions. (subscription required)

References:

Risky Business: The facts behind fracking,  by Chris Wood, Facts and Opinions (paywall)

Search for “Ernst” for background and links to previous judgements in the Bulletin of Proceedings, Supreme Court of Canada, May 1, 2015

Landmark Fracking Case Gets a Supreme Court Hearing, The Tyee : http://thetyee.ca/News/2015/04/30/Ernst-Heads-to-Supreme-Court/

~~~

Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.

Posted in Current Affairs Also tagged , , |

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?”

Posted in All, Canadian Journalist, Current Affairs Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Journalism Underpinned New York’s ban on Fracking

Alberta Gas well

New York banned fracking after investigative journalism revealed risks. Above, a gas well in Alberta, Canada. Photo © Greg Locke 2013

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
December 18, 2014

When natural gas companies first pressed into New York in 2008, state environmental regulators barely understood the process of “hydraulic fracturing.” On Wednesday December 17, 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 frackingF&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)

 

Posted in Also tagged |

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)

 

Posted in Canadian Journalist, Current Affairs Also tagged , |

Fracking Water Contamination Feared in California Drought

 

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
July 18, 2014, 11:50 a.m.

California officials ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review more than 100 others in the state’s drought-wracked Central Valley in July, out of fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers there.

The state’s Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources on July 7 issued cease and desist orders to seven energy companies warning that they may be injecting their waste into aquifers that could be a source of drinking water, and stating that their waste disposal “poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources.” The orders were first reported by the Bakersfield Californian, and the state has confirmed with ProPublica that its investigation is expanding to look at additional wells.

The action comes as California’s agriculture industry copes with a drought crisis that has emptied reservoirs and cost the state $2.2 billion this year alone. The lack of water has forced farmers across the state to supplement their water supply from underground aquifers, according to a study released this week by the University of California Davis.

The problem is that at least 100 of the state’s aquifers were presumed to be useless for drinking and farming because the water was either of poor quality, or too deep underground to easily access. Years ago, the state exempted them from environmental protection and allowed the oil and gas industry to intentionally pollute them. But not all aquifers are exempted, and the system amounts to a patchwork of protected and unprotected water resources deep underground. Now, according to the cease and desist orders issued by the state, it appears that at least seven injection wells are likely pumping waste into fresh water aquifers protected by the law, and not other aquifers sacrificed by the state long ago.

“The aquifers in question with respect to the orders that have been issued are not exempt,” said Ed Wilson, a spokesperson for the California Department of Conservation in an email.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation of more than 700,000 injection wells across the country found that wells were often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, outcomes that were likely polluting underground water supplies that are supposed to be protected by federal law. That investigation also disclosed a little-known program overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that exempted more than 1,000 other drinking water aquifers from any sort of pollution protection at all, many of them in California.

Those are the aquifers at issue today. The exempted aquifers, according to documents the state filed with the U.S. EPA in 1981 and obtained by ProPublica, were poorly defined and ambiguously outlined. They were often identified by hand-drawn lines on a map, making it difficult to know today exactly which bodies of water were supposed to be protected, and by which aspects of the governing laws. Those exemptions and documents were signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also was governor in 1981.

State officials emphasized to ProPublica that they will now order water testing and monitoring at the injection well sites in question. To date, they said, they have not yet found any of the more regulated aquifers to have been contaminated.

“We do not have any direct evidence any drinking water has been affected,” wrote Steve Bohlen, the state oil and gas supervisor, in a statement to ProPublica.

Bohlen said his office was acting “out of an abundance of caution,” and a spokesperson said that the state became aware of the problems through a review of facilities it was conducting according to California’s fracking law passed late last year, which required the state to study fracking impacts and adopt regulations to address its risks, presumably including underground disposal.

California officials have long been under fire for their injection well practices, a waste disposal program that the state runs according to federal law and under a sort of license — called “primacy” — given to it by the EPA.

For one, experts say that aquifers the states and the EPA once thought would never be needed may soon become important sources of water as the climate changes and technology reduces the cost of pumping it from deep underground and treating it for consumption. Indeed, towns in Wyoming and Texas — two states also suffering long-term droughts — are pumping, treating, then delivering drinking water to taps from aquifers which would be considered unusable under California state regulations governing the oil and gas industry.

In June 2011, the EPA conducted a review of other aspects of California’s injection well program and found enforcement, testing and oversight problems so significant that the agency demanded California improve its regulations and warned that the state’s authority could be revoked.

Among the issues, California and the federal government disagree about what type of water is worth protecting in the first place, with California law only protecting a fraction of the waters that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires.

The EPA’s report, commissioned from outside consultants, also said that California regulators routinely failed to adequately examine the geology around an injection well to ensure that fluids pumped into it would not leak underground and contaminate drinking water aquifers. The report found that state inspectors often allowed injection at pressures that exceeded the capabilities of the wells and thus risked cracking the surrounding rock and spreading contaminants. Several accidents in recent years in California involved injected waste or injected steam leaking back out of abandoned wells, or blowing out of the ground and creating sinkholes, including one 2011 incident that killed an oil worker.

The exemptions and other failings, said Damon Nagami, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in an email, are “especially disturbing” in a state that has been keenly aware of severe water constraints for more than a century and is now suffering from a crippling drought. “Our drinking water sources must be protected and preserved for the precious resources they are, not sacrificed as a garbage dump for the oil and gas industry.”

Still, three years after the EPA’s report, California has not yet completed its review of its underground injection program, according to state officials. The scrutiny of the wells surrounding Bakersfield may be the start.

Creative Commons

Further reading on Facts and Opinions:

Risky Business: The facts behind fracking, By Chris Wood, F&O Natural Security columnist 
Aggressive Tactic on the Fracking Front, by Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica 
Landowners often losers in deals with U.S. energy companies by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
Drilling for Certainty: The Latest in Fracking Health Studies, by Naveena Sadasivam ProPublica

 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? If you’d like to support our journalism, for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1. Subscriptions are required for most of our original work.) 


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Aggressive Tactic on the Fracking Front

 

by Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica
July 2, 2014

For the last eight years, the American state of Pennsylvania has been riding the natural gas boom, with companies drilling and fracking thousands of wells across the state. And in a little corner of Washington County, some 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh, EQT Corporation has been busy — drilling close to a dozen new wells on one site.

It didn’t take long for the residents of Finleyville who lived near the fracking operations to complain — about the noise and air quality, and what they regarded as threats to their health and quality of life. Initially, EQT, one of the largest producers of natural gas in Pennsylvania, tried to allay concerns with promises of noise studies and offers of vouchers so residents could stay in hotels to avoid the noise and fumes.

640px-HydroFrac2.svg

Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking. Illustration by Mike Norton, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

But then, in what experts say was a rare tactic, the company got more aggressive: it offered all of the households along Cardox Road $50,000 in cash if they would agree to release the company from any legal liability, for current operations as well as those to be carried out in the future. It covered potential health problems and property damage, and gave the company blanket protection from any kind of claim over noise, dust, light, smoke, odors, fumes, soot, air pollution or vibrations.

The agreement also defined the company’s operations as not only including drilling activity but the construction of pipelines, power lines, roads, tanks, ponds, pits, compressor stations, houses and buildings.

“The release is so incredibly broad and such a laundry list,” said Doug Clark, a gas lease attorney in Pennsylvania who mainly represents landowners. “You’re releasing for everything including activity that hasn’t even occurred yet. It’s crazy.”

Linda Robertson, a spokeswoman for EQT, said in a statement that the company had worked hard and conscientiously to address the concerns of the residents. She said consultants had been hired, data collected on noise and health matters, and that independent analysis had shown the company was in compliance with noise and air quality requirements. She would not comment in detail on the financial offers.

“When landowner and leaseholder concerns arise, it is a standard practice for EQT personnel to work diligently to listen to and understand their concerns, particularly those related to the temporary inconveniences of living near a production site,” Robertson said. “Regarding the neighbors on Cardox Road, the majority of whom are leaseholders, we have been in regular and ongoing communications with residents and local officials to address and resolve questions as they arise.”

Hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — has provoked a litany of health and environmental concerns since it gained popularity within the last decade. Many environmentalists and public health experts contend that the practice can pollute groundwater aquifers, drastically reduce air quality and endanger the health of residents living near wells.

Over the years, the industry has vehemently denied that its work is a threat, and has often pointed to a lack of conclusive proof that gas drilling operations are to blame for any harmful health or safety issues. The industry has undertaken an array of efforts to quell these worries and preserve its business — lobbying state legislators, conducting its own scientific studies and occasionally settling quietly out of court with landowners who have threatened to sue.

The liability agreements EQT has used in Finleyville — they are often known as nuisance easements — have been used in other circumstances. Residents living close to airports, for instance, are often offered such easements as compensation for having to bear with the noise, vibrations and fumes from air traffic. Property owners close to landfills and wind farms may also sign similar agreements.

But experts say such easements are rare in the oil and gas industry.

“This is only the second time I’ve seen one,” said Clark, the Pennsylvania attorney. “They’re absolutely not common at all.”

Clark says it is unlikely that companies will start handing out such agreements en masse, saying doing so could decrease landowners’ confidence about the safety of the company’s operations and their personal health.

“People are going to say the gas companies must be concerned about air pollution because they’re offering these easements,” said Clark. “Everybody’s going to get suspicious.”

Earlier this year, a couple in Texas was awarded $3 million in a lawsuit against a gas drilling company. The couple alleged that the company’s operations had affected their health, decreased their property value and forced them to move away. The case was one of the first successful lawsuits alleging that air pollution from gas drilling activity caused health issues.

Experts say that verdict and others like it have emboldened landowners to take their claims to court. Nuisance easements may be one way to ensure that the company can easily block landowners from claiming damages.

Apart from drilling and fracking wells, EQT also builds and operates the infrastructure — pipelines and compressor stations — necessary to move natural gas to market. Its operations are headquartered in Pennsylvania but it also owns wells in Kentucky and West Virginia.

In 2008, landowners in Finleyville signed a gas lease for drilling with Chesapeake Energy. The company only drilled one well, but last year it sold its leases to EQT, which has since drilled 11 additional wells.

So far the company’s strategy to reduce its liabilities has worked with some landowners.

Muriel Spencer, whose house is about 500 feet from the drilling, took the money. She said she did not consult with a lawyer, but had asked the company to put a five-year time frame around the release. The initial contract released the company from liabilities indefinitely.

“I cannot complain about the drilling to this point,” Spencer said, adding that EQT “has been nothing but fair with me.”

The company’s spokeswoman would not comment on how many landowners EQT approached with the proposed agreements, but said that “approximately 85% of the residents” had signed them.

An initial version of the proposed standard agreement listed 30 Finleyville residents and required that they all sign the agreements in order to receive the $50,000. When the residents refused, EQT modified the agreement such that the compensation was not contingent on all landowners signing it.

ProPublica found that at least four of the 30 residents have agreed to some version of the initial agreement that EQT proposed and have received $50,000 in exchange. It is unclear what changes were made to the agreement during negotiations.

Robertson, the company spokeswoman, said in her statement that “any changes made to the agreements during negotiations were based on requests directly from the resident, and/or their attorney.”

But some of the residents have refused to negotiate with the company.

“I was insulted,” said Gary Baumgardner, who was approached by EQT with the offer in January. “We’re being pushed out of our home and they want to insult us with this offer.”

Baumgardner says his house is like an amphitheater, constantly vibrating from the drilling. At times the noise gets up to 75 decibels, equivalent to a running vacuum cleaner, he said. Earlier this year, EQT Corp. put up a sound barrier to limit the noise, but Baumgardner says it has made little difference to his quality of life.

“We took the pictures down in the bedroom because they still vibrate at night,” he said.

Baumgardner says he has had to leave his house at least three times so far because the gas fumes from the well site were too much to bear. A local health group has installed air quality monitors in his home and several of his neighbors. Last year when the one of the monitors began flashing red, his daughter, pregnant at the time, fled the house. She has since moved away after her doctor advised her not to live close to a drilling site.

“Our house is most often not livable,” said Baumgardner. EQT’s response to his complaints, he said, has been “constant dismissals, excuses, delays and broken promises.”

Robertson would not respond to Baumgardner’s specific assertions. She did point to several mitigation efforts she said the company had taken, including the sound wall, but also involving switching to quieter machinery and applying for permits to transport water via pipes instead of trucks.

Baumgardner believes the nuisance easement he was offered is a part of the industry’s tactic to silence landowners.

“Throughout the last several months, an EQT regional land manager, one of our community advisers, and our community relations manager have all been engaged in phone calls and personal meetings with residents, attended township meetings, and visited the production site on multiple occasions to identify and confirm the reported issues, if any,” Robertson’s statement said.

“The easements are part of our overall consistent and ongoing effort to address leaseholder concerns.”

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Further reading:
Risky Business: The facts behind fracking. By Chris Wood, Facts and Opinions.
Landowners often losers in deals with U.S. energy companies, by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica 
Drilling for Certainty: The Latest in Fracking Health Studies, by Naveena Sadasivam ProPublica
Frack fluids can migrate to aquifers within years, study predicts by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

 

 

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Drilling for Certainty: The Latest in Fracking Health Studies

 

by Naveena Sadasivam ProPublica
Published on F&O March 8, 2014

For years, environmentalists and the gas drilling industry have been in a pitched battle over the possible health implications of hydro fracking. But to a great extent, the debate — as well as the emerging lawsuits and the various proposed regulations in numerous states — has been hampered by a shortage of science.

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In 2011, when ProPublica first reported on the different health problems afflicting people living near gas drilling operations in the United States, only a handful of health studies had been published.  Three years later, the science is far from settled, but there is a growing body of research to consider.

Below, ProPublica offers a survey of some of that work. The studies included are by no means a comprehensive review of the scientific literature. There are several others that characterize the chemicals in fracking fluids, air emissions and waste discharges. Some present results of community level surveys.

Yet, a long-term systematic study of the adverse effects of gas drilling on communities has yet to be undertaken. Researchers have pointed to the scarcity of funding available for large-scale studies as a major obstacle in tackling the issue.

A review of health-related studies published last month in Environmental Science & Technology concluded that the current scientific literature puts forward “both substantial concerns and major uncertainties to address.”

Still, for some, waiting for additional science to clarify those uncertainties before adopting more serious safeguards is misguided and dangerous. As a result, a number of researchers and local activists have been pushing for more aggressive oversight immediately.

The industry, by and large, has regarded the studies done to date — a number of which claim to have found higher rates of illness among residents living close to drilling wells — as largely anecdotal and less than convincing.

“The public health sector has been absent from this debate,” said Nadia Steinzor, a researcher on the Oil and Gas Accountability Project at the environmental nonprofit, Earthworks.

Departments of health have only become involved in American states such as New York and Maryland where regulators responded to the public’s insistence on public health and environmental reviews before signing off on fracking operations. The states currently have a moratorium on fracking.

New York State Health Commissioner Nirav Shah is in fact conducting a review of health studies to present to Governor Andrew Cuomo before he makes a decision on whether to allow fracking in the state. It is unclear when the results of the review will be publicly available.

Other states such as Pennsylvania and Texas, however, have been much more supportive of the gas industry. For instance, Texas has been granting permits for fracking in ever increasing numbers while at the same time the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency that monitors air quality, has had its budget cut substantially.

1.    An Exploratory Study of Air Quality near Natural Gas Operations. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 2012.

The study, performed in Garfield County, Colo., between July 2010 and October 2011, was done by researchers at The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a non-profit organization that examines the impact of low-level exposure to chemicals on the environment and human health.

In the study, researchers set up a sampling station close to a well and collected air samples every week for 11 months, from when the gas wells were drilled to after it began production. The samples produced evidence of 57 different chemicals, 45 of which they believe have some potential for affecting human health.

In almost 75 percent of all samples collected, researchers discovered methylene chloride, a toxic solvent that the industry had not previously disclosed as present in drilling operations. The researchers noted that the greatest number of chemicals were detected during the initial drilling phase.

While this study did catalogue the different chemicals found in air emissions from gas drilling operations, it did not address exposure levels and their potential effects. The levels found did not exceed current safety standards, but there has been much debate about whether the current standards adequately address potential health threats to women, children and the elderly.

The researchers admitted their work was compromised by their lack of full access to the drilling site. The air samples were collected from a station close to what is known as the well pad, but not the pad itself.

The gas drilling industry has sought to limit the disclosure of information about its operations to researchers. They have refused to publicly disclose the chemicals that are used in fracking, won gag orders in legal cases and restricted the ability of scientists to get close to their work sites. In a highly publicized case last year, a lifelong gag order was imposed on two children who were parties to a legal case that accused one gas company of unsafe fracking operations that caused them to fall sick.

In 2009, the Independent Petroleum Association of America started Energy In Depth, a blog that confronts activists who are fighting to ban fracking and challenges research that in any way depicts fracking as unsafe.

Energy In Depth responded to this Garfield County study and criticized its lack of proper methodology. The blog post also questioned the objectivity of the researchers, asserting that their “minds were already made up.”

The industry has also been performing its own array of studies.

Last year, for instance, an industry-funded study on the methane emissions from fracking wells was published in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It concluded that only very modest amounts of methane 2014 a known contributor to climate change 2014 was being emitted into the air during fracking operations.

The study came under heavy criticism from Cornell researcher Robert Howarth, who two years prior had published work that claimed methane emissions from shale gas operations were far more significant.

“This study is based only on evaluation of sites and times chosen by industry,” he said.

2.    Birth Outcomes and Natural Gas Development. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2014.

The study examined babies born from 1996 to 2009 in rural Colorado locations 2014 the state has been a center of fracking for more than a decade. It was done by the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University.

The study asserted that women who lived close to gas wells were more likely to have children born with a variety of defects, from oral clefts to heart issues. For instance, it claimed that babies born to mothers who lived in areas dense with gas wells were 30 percent more likely to have congenital heart defects.

The researchers, however, were unable to include data on maternal health, prenatal care, genetics and a host of other factors that have been shown to increase the risk of birth defects because that information was not publicly available. A common criticism of many scientific studies is that they do not fully analyze the possibility of other contributing factors.

The study has thus come under attack from both the industry and state public health officials. In a statement, Dr. Larry Wolk, the state’s Chief Medical Officer, said “people should not rush to judgment” as “many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored” in the study.

But Lisa McKenzie, one of the lead authors of the study, said there was value to the work.

“What I think this is telling us is that we need to do more research to tease out what is happening and to see if these early studies hold up when we do more rigorous research,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, Elaine Hill, a graduate student at Cornell University, obtained data on gas wells and births between 2003 and 2010. She then compared birth weights of babies born in areas of Pennsylvania where a well had been permitted but never drilled and areas where wells had been drilled. Hill found that the babies born to mothers within 2.5 kilometers (a little over 1.5 miles) of drilled gas sites were 25 percent more likely to have low birth weight compared to those in non-drilled areas. Babies are considered as having low birth weight if they are under 2500 grams (5.5 pounds).

Hill’s work is currently under review by a formal scientific journal, a process that could take three or four years.

3. Health Risks and Unconventional Natural Gas Resources. Science of the Total Environment, 2012.

Between January 2008 and November 2010, researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health collected air samples in Garfield County, Colo., which has been experiencing intensive drilling operations. Researchers found the presence of a number of hydrocarbons including benzene, trimethylbenzene and xylene, all of which have been shown to pose health dangers at certain levels.

Researchers maintained that those who lived less than half a mile from a gas well had a higher risk of health issues. The study also found a small increase in cancer risk and alleged that exposure to benzene was a major contributor to the risk.

“From the data we had, it looked like the well completion phase was the strongest contributor to these emissions,” said Lisa McKenzie, the lead author of the study.

During the completion phase of drilling, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced down the well at high pressure, and is then brought back up. The returning mixture, which contains radioactive materials and some of the natural gas from the geological formation, is supposed to be captured. But at times the mixture comes back up at pressures higher than the system can handle and the excess gas is directly vented into the air.

“I think we ought to be focused on the whole thing from soup to nuts because a lot of the potential hazards aren’t around the hydraulic fracturing step itself,” said John Adgate, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health and co-author on the study.

Energy In Depth, the industry blog, responded at length to this study and cited several “bad inputs” which had affected the results of the study. The researchers’ assumptions and data were criticized. For instance, the researchers had assumed that Garfield residents would remain in the county until the age of 70 in order to estimate the time period over which they would be exposed to the emissions.

“Unless the ‘town’ is actually a prison, this is a fundamentally flawed assumption about the length and extent of exposure,” Energy In Depth said.

Published by F&O under Creative Commons licence

Further reading:
Risky Business: The Facts Behind Fracking, by Chris Wood of F&O, in THINK/Magazine
Frack fluids can migrate to aquifers within years, study predicts, by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

 

 

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Lookin’ for love – not to get fracked

Chris Wood has a parent’s perspective on planetary etiquette in his new Natural Security column: if you’re looking to date “his” planet, you better be ready to treat her right. An excerpt:

Blue MarbleThese eight simple rules — borrowed from an American sit-com — are addressed to any person (corporate or otherwise) who asks to take my planet out for a date at the mines, the oil well, or the multi-acre Walmart parking lot. By all means, have fun, kids. Come home with a tattoo and a stray dog you found in the street, if you like. Just follow these …

Log in to read the column, Eight Simple Rules. F&O original columns are available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes.

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