Category Archives: Natural gas

New York Governor Cuomo bans fracking

Repost from The New York Times
[Editor: this week saw dramatic action on the part of two US governors.  See also Washington Gov. Inslee: Make big polluters pay for transportation projects.  – RS]

Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State

By Thomas Kaplandec, Dec. 17, 2014
Members of New Yorkers Against Fracking celebrated the governor’s decision outside his Manhattan office on Wednesday. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration announced on Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State because of concerns over health risks, ending years of debate over a method of extracting natural gas.

Fracking, as it is known, was heavily promoted as a source of economic revival for depressed communities along New York’s border with Pennsylvania, and Mr. Cuomo had once been poised to embrace it.

Instead, the move to ban fracking left him acknowledging that, despite the intense focus he has given to solving deep economic troubles afflicting large areas upstate, the riddle remained largely unsolved. “I’ve never had anyone say to me, ‘I believe fracking is great,’ ” he said. “Not a single person in those communities. What I get is, ‘I have no alternative but fracking.’ ”

In a double blow to areas that had anticipated a resurgence led by fracking, a state panel on Wednesday backed plans for three new Las Vegas-style casinos, but none along the Pennsylvania border in the Southern Tier region. The panel, whose advice Mr. Cuomo said would quite likely be heeded, backed casino proposals in the Catskills, near Albany and between Syracuse and Rochester.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo listened to a presentation on fracking at a cabinet meeting in Albany on Wednesday. Credit Mike Groll/Associated Press

For Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, the decision on fracking — which was immediately hailed by environmental and liberal groups — seemed likely to help repair his ties to his party’s left wing. It came after a surprisingly contentious re-election campaign in which Zephyr Teachout, a primary challenger who opposed fracking, won about a third of the vote.

The question of whether to allow fracking, which involves injecting large amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressures to release oil and natural gas from rock formations, has been one of the most divisive public policy debates in New York in years. Fracking is occurring in many states, and has boomed in places like Pennsylvania and Texas. Environmental advocates, alarmed by the growth of the practice, pointed to New York’s decision as the first ban by a state with significant natural-gas resources.

Mr. Cuomo, who has prided himself on taking swift and decisive action on other contentious issues like gun control, took the opposite approach on fracking. He repeatedly put off making a decision, most recently citing a continuing — and seemingly open-ended — study by state health officials.

On Wednesday, six weeks after Mr. Cuomo won a second term, the long-awaited health study finally materialized, its findings made public during a year-end cabinet meeting convened by the governor in Albany.

In a presentation at the cabinet meeting, the acting state health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, said the examination had found “significant public health risks” associated with fracking.

Holding up copies of scientific studies to animate his arguments, Dr. Zucker listed concerns about water contamination and air pollution, and said there was insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the safety of fracking.

Dr. Zucker said his review boiled down to a simple question: Would he want his family to live in a community where fracking was taking place?

CLICK TO OPEN Document Health Department Report on Fracking in New York State The Cuomo administration decided to ban hydraulic fracturing after concluding that the method posed inestimable public-health risks.

His answer was no.

“We cannot afford to make a mistake,” he said. “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known.”

New York has had a de facto ban on fracking for over six years, predating Mr. Cuomo’s election. In 2012, he flirted with approving a limited program in several Southern Tier counties. But that same year, he bowed to entreaties from environmental advocates, stating instead that his administration would begin a new study on health risks.

Mr. Cuomo had focused much of his attention on trying to improve the economic climate upstate, and fracking appeared to offer a solution to struggling areas atop the Marcellus Shale, a gas-rich rock formation that extends across parts of several states, including New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

But there was also strong opposition from groups worried about the effects of fracking on the state’s water supply, as well as on tourism and the quality of life in small upstate communities.

As he traveled around the state, Mr. Cuomo was hounded by protesters opposed to fracking, who showed up at his events and pressed him to impose a statewide ban. Opponents were also aided by celebrities who drew attention to their cause.

Complicating matters, dozens of communities across New York have passed moratoriums and bans on fracking, and in June, the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled that towns could use zoning ordinances to ban fracking.

The acting state health commissioner, Howard Zucker, speaking at the meeting. Credit Mike Groll/Associated Press

Local bans, on top of restrictions that the state had planned, put 63 percent of the Marcellus Shale off limits to drilling, said Joseph Martens, the state environmental conservation commissioner. “The economic benefits are clearly far lower than originally forecast,” he said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo seemed determined to portray both of the day’s major announcements — and their consequences for upstate New York — as decisions made by experts objectively weighing the facts, not by him.

At the cabinet meeting, he conspicuously stumbled on the name of the panel that made the casino recommendations, as if to signal his lack of involvement in its work. And he kept some distance from the fracking decision, saying he was deferring to his health and environmental conservation commissioners.

“I am not a scientist,” he said. “I’m not an environmental expert. I’m not a health expert. I’m a lawyer. I’m not a doctor. I’m not an environmentalist. I’m not a scientist. So let’s bring the emotion down, and let’s ask the qualified experts what their opinion is.”

Nevertheless, environmental groups cast the governor as a hero. Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said, “This move puts significant pressure on other governors to take similar measures to protect people who live in their states.”

Fracking supporters accused Mr. Cuomo of giving in to environmentalists’ efforts to stoke public fears.

Karen Moreau, the executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, attributed the fracking ban to a decision by the governor “that he wants to align himself with the left.”

“Our citizens in the Southern Tier have had to watch their neighbors and friends across the border in Pennsylvania thriving economically,” she said. “It’s like they were a kid in a candy store window, looking through the window, and not able to touch that opportunity.”

Correction: December 17, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incompletely described hydraulic fracturing. It is a method of extracting natural gas or oil, not just oil, from deep underground. The error was repeated in the summary.

 

First Phase of Global Fracking Expansion: Ensuring Friendly Legislation

Repost from Inter Press Service
[Editor: Significant quote: “’Under pressure from the fossil fuel industry – which has deep pockets and promises employment and investment – several governments have already started to weaken their environmental legislation, alter their tax regimes and put in place industry-friendly mining licensing and production processes, in order to attract foreign investors and expertise….’”  See especially U.S. government promotion below.  – RS]

First Phase of Global Fracking Expansion: Ensuring Friendly Legislation

By Carey L. Biron
Fracking fluid and other drilling wastes are dumped into an unlined pit located right up against the Petroleum Highway in Kern County, California. Credit: Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking
Fracking fluid and other drilling wastes are dumped into an unlined pit located right up against the Petroleum Highway in Kern County, California. Credit: Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking

WASHINGTON, Dec 1 2014 (IPS) – Multinational oil and gas companies are engaged in a quiet but broad attempt to prepare the groundwork for a significant global expansion of shale gas development, according to a study released Monday.

Thus far, the hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) technologies that have upended the global gas market have been used primarily in North America and, to a lesser extent, Europe. With U.S. gas production in particular having expanded exponentially in recent years, however, countries around the world have started exploration to discern whether they, too, could cash in on this new approach.

According to an estimate published last year by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, some 90 percent of the world’s shale gas could be found outside of the United States – an incredibly lucrative potential. “It’s likely there will be a revolution,” Maria van der Hoeven, the executive director at the Paris-based International Energy Agency, has said.

Yet according to the new study, from Friends of the Earth Europe, a watchdog group, only Brazil has strengthened its regulatory regime in anticipation of this expansion. Of the nearly dozen countries the new report looks at, most are doing the opposite.

“Under pressure from the fossil fuel industry – which has deep pockets and promises employment and investment – several governments have already started to weaken their environmental legislation, alter their tax regimes and put in place industry-friendly mining licensing and production processes, in order to attract foreign investors and expertise,” the report states. “This is often at the expense of the public interest.”

In terms of production this remains a nascent industry. Nonetheless, neither governments nor companies appear to have undertaken efforts to guard against the complexities that will arise, including around the potential for social, environmental and even political tensions.

“The industry is trying to change the legislation in those places where they want to operate, to try to repeat as much as possible the favourable policies we’ve seen in U.S. energy policy,” Antoine Simon, a shale gas campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe and lead author on the new report, told IPS.

“The key here is to ensure that the legal frameworks are as friendly for the industry as possible. That’s the first phase of this global strategy, and we’re seeing it in each country we studied.”

No safeguards

Outside of North America and Europe, Argentina has moved forward the quickest on shale gas development, and thus offers a key example on legislative action for which companies may be looking.

For instance, Argentina has put in place a new law guaranteeing a minimum price for fracked gas. Further, this minimum price is some 250 percent higher than the previous valuation – a sweetheart guard against the bottomed-out prices that are currently impacting on gas production in the United States.

Simon says this law has a telling nickname in Argentina – the “Chevron Decree”, a reference to the U.S. oil and gas company. The day after the law was passed, he notes, Argentina’s main state-backed oil and gas producer signed a long-term production deal with Chevron.

Other countries have put in place favourable new tax policies for oil and gas investors. In Morocco, for instance, producers will be exempt from corporate taxes for the first decade of operation, while Russia has created similar policies for oil production over the next 15 years.

Yet the lack of action to simultaneously put in place environmental or social safeguards in most countries runs a variety of risks, Friends of the Earth Europe and others warn. Hydraulic fracturing requires massive amounts of water, for instance – up to 26 million litres per drill site.

The new report finds that a significant proportion of shale gas reserves around the world are located in areas that are already experiencing significant water shortages and even related violence. Likewise, many of these shale basins are beneath major cross-border aquifers.

Even before these issues are addressed by national governments, then, the oil and gas industry could gain influence in setting policy on the notoriously contentious issue of freshwater use.

Alongside concerns about the local impact of shale gas development is a broader lack of clarity today on the extent to which developing countries would be able to benefit from any new gas-related revenues. Thus far, only Brazil has specifically addressed this issue.

“In our research, Brazil was the only exception in terms of passing legislation that ensured they would get some significant revenues,” Simon says. “Really that doesn’t seem to be happening in other countries, where instead we’re seeing a lot of legislation that offers state aid to push investors to come to their countries.”

Beyond a few notable exceptions in Latin America and South Africa, Simon suggests that this issue has not yet seen significant opposition by civil society. Still, advocacy groups do point to a growing trend of global understanding and mobilisation on fracking concerns.

“As more and more studies confirm the risks of air pollution, water contamination, increased earthquake activity and climate change impacts from fracking, the more people oppose this destructive and intensive process,” Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, a U.S. watchdog group, told IPS.

“The movement to ban fracking has resulted in hundreds of local communities taking action to stop fracking, several states and countries instituting moratoriums, and the movement continues to grow.”

In October, Food & Water Watch organized an international day of action to ban hydraulic fracturing. Hauter notes that the event featured “over 300 actions in 34 countries, from Australia to Argentina, even Antarctica, calling for a ban on fracking”.

Food & Water Watch reports that France and Bulgaria have already banned hydraulic fracturing, while local moratoriums have also been passed by hundreds of communities across the Netherlands, Spain and Argentina.

U.S. government promotion

Meanwhile, the drivers behind fracking-related pressures are not simply multinational companies and national governments keen on investment. It was in the United States where hydraulic fracturing was invented and proved its potential, and today the U.S. government is reportedly taking a central role in promoting these techniques worldwide.

In almost all of the countries studied for the new report, researchers found the development of shale gas to be “closely linked” to a U.S. government agency, the U.S. Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program (UGTEP). Housed within the U.S. State Department, since 2010 the UGTEP has engaged in a wide variety of technical assistance around gas development.

“Governments often have limited capability to assess their own country’s unconventional gas resource potential or are unclear about how to develop it in a safe and environmentally sustainable manner,” UGTEP explains on its website. “The ultimate goals of UGTEP are to achieve greater energy security by supporting the development of environmentally and commercially sustainable frameworks.”

While U.S. diplomats are specifically tasked with strengthening U.S. business prospects abroad, critics say UGTEP’s activities constitute the broad promotion of hydraulic fracturing under the guise of U.S. diplomacy.

“UGTEP uses official government channels and US taxpayers’ money to promote high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing worldwide, opening doors for the main global players in the oil and gas industry,” the Friends of the Earth Europe report states.

“Through UGTEP, the US is also actively engaged in re-shaping existing foreign legal regulations to create the desired legal framework for the development of shale oil and gas in the targeted countries.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Fed GAO report critical of Department of Transportation, warns of more accidents

Repost from NBC News

More Fiery Oil Train, Pipeline Accidents Unless Government Acts: Report

September 22, 2014

If the U.S. doesn’t quickly address the safe transportation of oil and gas, Americans could pay the price with more fiery train and pipeline accidents, according to a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office.

“Without timely action to address safety risks posed by increased transport of oil and gas by pipeline and rail, additional accidents that could have been prevented or mitigated may endanger the public and call into question the readiness of transportation networks in the new oil and gas environment,” found the report.

The GAO report focused on the safety of moving crude oil by train and the growing network of “gathering lines,” largely unregulated natural gas pipelines. Both have been subjects of recent investigations by NBC News. The GAO determined that the Department of Transportation had “not kept pace with the changing oil and gas transportation environment.”

Oil and gas production in the U.S. increased more than fivefold between 2007 and 2012, a boom brought on by technological advances in drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Vast volumes of oil and gas production soon outstripped the pipeline infrastructure in place to move them.

Crude producers began to load their oil on trains. More than 400,000 carloads of crude ran over North American rails in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008. But a series of explosive wrecks have raised concern about the safety of oil trains — the worst, a 2013 derailment outside a small Quebec town, killed nearly 50 people.

A 2013 NBC News investigation found regulators had long known that the tank cars used to ship oil were vulnerable to rupture in an accident.

The DOT has since issued proposed rules to improve the train cars that carry oil. In its report, the GAO applauded the move, but emphasized safety improvements must go beyond the cars, including testing the makeup of the oil, which the DOT has said is particularly flammable.

The GAO also warned better oversight was needed over the growing network of “gathering pipelines” that move natural gas from the well. In August, an investigation by NBC News found that 250,000 miles of these lines are in rural areas and subject to little or no federal or state safety oversight, despite sometimes running beside homes.