Tag Archives: Environmental Defense Fund

NY TIMES: Environmental Activists Take to Local Protests for Global Results

Repost from the New York Times

Environmental Activists Take to Local Protests for Global Results

By John Schwartz, March 19, 2016
Bill McKibben was arrested during a protest at Seneca Lake near Reading, N.Y., on March 7. He was protesting the proposed expansion of a natural gas storage facility. Credit Monica Lopossay for The New York Times

READING, N.Y. — They came here to get arrested.

Nearly 60 protesters blocked the driveway of a storage plant for natural gas on March 7. Its owners want to expand the facility, which the opponents say would endanger nearby Seneca Lake. But their concerns were global, as well.

“There’s a climate emergency happening,” one of the protesters, Coby Schultz, said. “It’s a life-or-death struggle.”

The demonstration here was part of a wave of actions across the nation that combines traditional not-in-my-backyard protests against fossil-fuel projects with an overarching concern about climate change.

Activists have been energized by successes on several fronts, including the decision last week by President Obama to block offshore drilling along the Atlantic Seaboard; his decision in November to reject the Keystone XL pipeline; and the Paris climate agreement.

Bound together through social media, networks of far-flung activists are opposing virtually all new oil, gas and coal infrastructure projects — a process that has been called “Keystone-ization.”

As the climate evangelist Bill McKibben put it in a Twitter post after Paris negotiators agreed on a goal of limiting global temperature increases: “We’re damn well going to hold them to it. Every pipeline, every mine.”

Regulators almost always approve such projects, though often with modifications, said Donald F. Santa Jr., chief executive of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. Still, the protests are having some impact. The engineering consultants Black and Veatch recently published a report that said the most significant barrier to building new pipeline capacity was “delay from opposition groups.”

Activists regularly protest at the headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, but there have also been sizable protests in places like St. Paul and across the Northeast.

In Portland, Ore., where protesters conducted a “kayaktivist” blockade in July to keep Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs from leaving port, the City Council passed a resolution opposing the expansion of facilities for the storage and transportation of fossil fuels.

Greg Yost, a math teacher in North Carolina who works with the group NC PowerForward, said the activists emboldened one another.

“When we pick up the ball and run with it here in North Carolina, we’re well aware of what’s going on in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island,” he said. “The fight we’re doing here, it bears on what happens elsewhere — we’re all in this together, we feel like.”

The movement extends well beyond the United States. In May, a wave of protests and acts of civil disobedience, under an umbrella campaign called Break Free 2016, is scheduled around the world to urge governments and fossil fuel companies to “keep coal, oil and gas in the ground.”

This approach — think globally, protest locally — is captured in the words of Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and a scholar in residence at Ithaca College who helped organize the demonstration at the storage plant near Seneca Lake: “This driveway is a battleground, and there are driveways like this all over the world.”

The idea driving the protests is that climate change can be blunted only by moving to renewable energy and capping any growth of fossil fuels.

Speaking to the crowd at Seneca Lake, Mr. McKibben, who had come from his home in Vermont, said, “Our job on behalf of the planet is to slow them down.”

He added, “If we can hold them off for two or three years, there’s no way any of this stuff can be built again.”

The demonstration at Seneca Lake earlier this month. Many protesters cheered when sheriff’s vans arrived. Credit Monica Lopossay for The New York Times

But the issues are not so clear cut. The protests aimed at natural gas pipelines, for example, may conflict with policies intended to fight climate change and pollution by reducing reliance on dirtier fossil fuels.

“The irony is this,” said Phil West, a spokesman for Spectra Energy, whose pipeline projects, including those in New York State, have come under attack. “The shift to additional natural gas use is a key contributor to helping the U.S. reduce energy-related emissions and improve air quality.”

Those who oppose natural gas pipelines say the science is on their side.

They note that methane, the chief component of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas in the short term, with more than 80 times the effect of carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

The Obama administration is issuing regulations to reduce leaks, but environmental opposition to fracking, and events like the huge methane plume released at a storage facility in the Porter Ranch neighborhood near Los Angeles, have helped embolden the movement.

Once new natural gas pipelines and plants are in place, opponents argue, they will operate for decades, blocking the shift to solar and wind power.

“It’s not a bridge to renewable energy — it’s a competitor,” said Patrick Robbins, co-director of the Sane Energy Project, which protests pipeline development and is based in New York.

Such logic does not convince Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Saying no to gas doesn’t miraculously lead to the substitution of wind and solar — it may lead to the continued operation of coal-fired plants,” he said, noting that when the price of natural gas is not competitive, owners take the plants, which are relatively cheap to build, out of service.

“There is enormous uncertainty about how quickly you can build out renewable energy systems, about what the cost will be and what the consequences will be for the electricity network,” Mr. Levi said.

Even some who believe that natural gas has a continuing role to play say that not every gas project makes sense.

N. Jonathan Peress, an expert on electricity and natural gas markets at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that while companies push to add capacity, the long-term need might not materialize.

“There is a disconnect between the perception of the need for massive amounts of new pipeline capacity and the reality,” he said.

Market forces, regulatory assumptions and business habits favor the building of new pipelines even though an evolving electrical grid and patterns of power use suggest that the demand for gas will, in many cases, decrease.

Even now, only 6 percent of gas-fired plants run at greater than 80 percent of their capacity, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, and nearly half of such plants run at an average load factor of just 17 percent.

“The electricity grid is evolving in a way that strongly suggests what’s necessary today won’t be necessary in another 20 years, let alone 10 or 15,” Mr. Peress said.

Back at Seneca Lake, the protesters cheered when Schuyler County sheriff’s vans showed up. The group had protested before, and so the arrests had the friendly familiarity of a contra dance. As one deputy, A.W. Yessman, placed zip-tie cuffs on Catherine Rossiter, he asked jovially, “Is this three, or four?”

She beamed. “You remember me!”

Brad Bacon, a spokesman for the owner of the plant at Seneca Lake, Crestwood Equity Partners, acknowledged that it had become more burdensome to get approval to build energy infrastructure in the Northeast even though regulatory experts have tended not to be persuaded by the protesters’ environmental arguments.

The protesters, in turn, disagree with the regulators, and forcefully. As he was being handcuffed, Mr. McKibben called the morning “a good scene.”

The actions against fossil fuels, he said, will continue. “There’s 15 places like this around the world today,” he said. “There will be 15 more tomorrow, and the day after that.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 20, 2016, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Protesters Across U.S. Turn Up Heat on Fossil Fuel. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

    NY Times: Study Shows Fracking Chemicals in Pennsylvania Drinking Water

    Repost from the New York Times
    [Editor:  The reporter admirably gives industry spokespersons plenty of space to refute the claims of this study.  But don’t quit reading there.  Farther down in the article is scientific rebuttal and further explanation: “Dr. Brantley described the geology in northern Pennsylvania as being similar to a layer cake with numerous layers that extend down thousands of feet to the Marcellus Shale. The vertical fractures are like knife cuts through the layers. They can extend deep underground, and can act like superhighways for escaped gas and liquids from drill wells to travel along, for distances greater than a mile away, she said.”  – RS]

    Fracking Chemicals Detected in Pennsylvania Drinking Water

    By Nicholas St. Fleur, May 4, 2015
    A natural gas well in Bradford County, Pa., where a study found that three households had traces of 2-Butoxyethanol or 2BE, a compound found in Marcellus Shale drilling fluids. Credit Reuters

    An analysis of drinking water sampled from three homes in Bradford County, Pa., revealed traces of a compound commonly found in Marcellus Shale drilling fluids, according to a study published on Monday.

    The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, addresses a longstanding question about potential risks to underground drinking water from the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The authors suggested a chain of events by which the drilling chemical ended up in a homeowner’s water supply.

    “This is the first case published with a complete story showing organic compounds attributed to shale gas development found in a homeowner’s well,” said Susan Brantley, one of the study’s authors and a geoscientist from Pennsylvania State University.

    The industry has long maintained that because fracking occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers, the drilling chemicals that are injected to break up rocks and release the gas trapped there pose no risk. In this study, the researchers note that the contamination may have stemmed from a lack of integrity in the drill wells and not from the actual fracking process far below. The industry criticized the new study, saying that it provided no proof that the chemical came from a nearby well.

    In 2012, a team of environmental scientists collected drinking water samples from the households’ outdoor spigots. An analysis showed that the water in one household contained 2-Butoxyethanol or 2BE, a common drilling chemical. The chemical, which is also commonly used in paint and cosmetics, is known to have caused tumors in rodents, though scientists have not determined if those carcinogenic properties translate to humans. The authors said the amount found, which was measured in parts per trillion, was within safety regulations and did not pose a health risk.

    Dr. Brantley said her team believed that the well contaminants came from either a documented surface tank leak in 2009 or, more likely, as a result of poor drilling well integrity.

    The nearby gas wells, which were established in 2009, were constructed with a protective intermediate casing of steel and cement from the surface down to almost 1,000 feet. But the wells below that depth lacked the protective casing, and were potentially at greater risk of leaking their contents into the surrounding rock layers, according to Dr. Brantley.

    In April 2011 the three homeowners in Bradford County sued the drilling company, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, over reports of finding natural gas and sediment in their drinking well water. In May of that year, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cited the oil and gas company for violating the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act and Clean Streams Law by letting natural gas enter the drinking wells, though the company admitted no fault. In 2012, the homeowners settled the lawsuit and the company bought the three households.

    As a result of that suit, the state environmental protection agency recommended that the drilling company require that their wells extend what are known as intermediate casings beyond 1,000 feet.

    Dr. Brantley described the geology in northern Pennsylvania as being similar to a layer cake with numerous layers that extend down thousands of feet to the Marcellus Shale. The vertical fractures are like knife cuts through the layers. They can extend deep underground, and can act like superhighways for escaped gas and liquids from drill wells to travel along, for distances greater than a mile away, she said.

    Katie Brown, an energy consultant with Energy in Depth, an advocacy group for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said the authors had no evidence that the small traces they found of 2BE, which is also used in many household items, came from a drilling site.

    “The entire case is based around the detection of an exceedingly small amount of a compound that’s commonly used in hundreds of household products,” Ms. Brown wrote in an email. “The researchers suggest the compound is also found in a specific drilling fluid, but then tell us they have no evidence that this fluid was used at the well site.”

    Garth T. Llewellyn, a hydrogeologist with Appalachia Hydrogeologic and Environmental Consulting and the lead author of the report, said that when his team sampled water wells that were farther away from the drilling sites, they did not find any of the compounds found in the three households. “When you include all of the lines of evidence, it concludes that that’s the most probable source,” he said.

    Victor Heilweil, a hydrogeologist from the University of Utah who was not involved with the study but reviewed its details, said it was noteworthy for showing “the detailed geologic fabric explaining how these contaminants can move relatively long distances from the depth to the drinking well.”

    An environmental scientist from Stanford University, Rob Jackson, who also reviewed the paper, said it “clearly shows an impact of oil and gas drilling on water quality.” But he emphasized that this instance was an exception.

    The dates of the incident were not surprising to Scott Anderson, a senior policy analyst with the environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, who said that well integrity was generally poor around 2008 and 2009. He said that using casings of steel and cement at depths below 1,000 feet was a good idea in this region. But he also noted that the industry has strengthened its practices since then, including increased use of intermediate casings.

    “Industry knows how to construct wells properly, but the fact is that they don’t always do so,” Mr. Anderson said. “My hope would be that papers like this will encourage industry and its regulators to do a better job of doing what they already know they are supposed to do.”