Appalachian Basin

Earthworks Throws Blind Punches at DEP in Latest Anti-Fracking Report

Last week Earthworks released its latest report titled, “Blackout in the Gas Patch.” The 70-page report asserts that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the regulatory body in charge of overseeing natural resource development, is struggling to keep pace with the energy revolution. Keep in mind that the Obama Administration recently praised DEP for exactly what Earthworks claims the regulatory body lacks. Here’s a passage from the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER), which was formed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC):

DEP is commended for its hydraulic fracturing program. Standards for well casing and cementing require that the operator conduct those activities to control the well at all times, prevent migration of gas or other fluids into sources of fresh groundwater; and prevent pollution of fresh groundwater. In February of 2011, DEP amended its regulations regarding well design and construction requirements to provide enhanced casing and cementing standards for new well construction. The requirements include standards for casing and cementing to meet anticipated pressures and protect resources and the environment. These standards address internal pressure rating, pressure testing of casing, centralization, and certification of joint welders. The program requires that cement used in the surface casing meet certain compressive strength and free water specifications and isolate the wellbore from fresh groundwater; contain pressures from drilling, completion, and production; protect the casing from the geochemical effects of the subsurface; and prevent gas flow in the annulus.” (emphasis added, pp. 10-11)

Earthworks’ findings in this study shouldn’t come as a shock, as this organization has enthusiastically endorsed numerous anti-fracking campaigns across the country. However, for consistency’s sake, they may want to update their website before the next time they bash of shale development: Earthworks correctly praises horizontal drilling—a crucial component to development in the Marcellus Shale region:

“The benefits of directional drilling are numerous. Using these techniques, companies can drill a number of wells in different directions from one well pad (multilateral wells), which can decrease overall surface disturbance by reducing the number of well pads required to drain an oil or gas field.”

Earthworks’ internal inconsistencies aside, let’s have a look at some of their most egregious claims:

Earthworks: Neither DEP nor any other state agency (such as the Department of Health) has ever conducted long-term, in-depth health risk analyses in Pennsylvania with regard to oil and gas emissions.” (p. 10)

FACT: The notion that DEP (or any regulatory body) hasn’t bothered to conduct public health assessments seems incredible—probably because it’s not accurate at all. Earthworks’ source for this comes from an NPR post from July 2014, wherein a former state health secretary, Dr. Eli Avila, said he believed Pennsylvania failed to address public concerns related to shale development. That’s an interesting sentiment, considering the fact that Avila had a completely different viewpoint while he was in office. In a letter to Public Opinion in April 2012, Avila stated:

“The Department of Health is not aware of any evidence to suggest that hydraulic fracturing practices have a negative impact on our residents’ health.”

One does not need to look hard to see how specious Earthworks’ claim truly is. In April 2014 the DEP released its natural gas emissions inventory, which contained data for 2012. The findings showed significant decreases in air emissions related to shale development in the Marcellus. It’s important to emphasize that the decline in emissions occurred simultaneously with increased production. The DEP also found that the reduction in cumulative air emissions represents “between $14 billion and $37 billion of annual public health benefit.” Additionally, DEP noted that:

“… since 2008, when unconventional drilling across the state began quickly increasing, cumulative air contaminant emissions across the state have continued to decline. In particular, sulfur dioxide emissions from electric generating units (EGU) have been reduced by approximately 73 percent. The emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter have also been reduced by approximately 23 percent and 46 percent, respectively, from this sector.”

Earthworks: Information gaps make it impossible to fully assess the extent of pollution to which residents are exposed.” (p. 10)

FACT: The notion that DEP is covering up an air emissions scandal when top regulators and President Obama are all standing behind the environmental benefits of shale development doesn’t add up. Thanks to shale development, the United States has an abundant supply of affordable clean-burning natural gas; the increased use of this energy source has cut U.S. carbon emissions down to 1994 levels. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has even said:

“Natural gas has been a game changer with our ability to really move forward with pollution reductions that have been very hard to get our arms around for many decades.”

Earthworks’ fault here is taking a perceived lack of information in a limited area in order to say that the entire practice is dangerous and uncontrolled.

Earthworks: “Pennsylvania oil and gas regulations presume that air emissions only have an impact over shorter distances.” (p.14)

FACT: Earthworks has apparently concluded that Pennsylvania setback regulations are insufficient. For starters, Pennsylvania’s setback regulations applicable to unconventional wells are the second most stringent in the nation. This distance was cemented with the signing of Act 13 in 2012 and continues to be adhered to, even as production has skyrocketed. In addition to tough but fair setback standards, DEP is currently undergoing a long-term air quality study in Washington County.

Additionally, DEP conducted air quality monitoring in 2011 surrounding natural gas wells in the Marcellus Shale. The DEP’s report concluded that:

“Results of the limited ambient air sampling initiative conducted in the southwest region did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” (p. iii)

Who to believe—the regulatory body charged with protecting public health for the past two decades, or an activist organization with a known agenda against shale development?

Earthworks builds support for what they deem as ineffective setback regulations by intentionally deceiving the reader:

“A study by the City of Ft. Worth on air quality in gas fields found concentrations of formaldehyde above state regulatory standards 750 feet beyond the site’s fenceline. Air modeling conducted in Pennsylvania showed nitrogen oxide above state regulatory standards up to one mile of the Barto Compressor Station in Lycoming County. Further, a Colorado School of Public Health study of air emissions around gas well operations found that residents living less than a half mile away are at higher risk of respiratory, neurological, and other health impacts and have a higher lifetime risk for cancer, based on exposure to pollutants, than those who live at farther distances.” (p.14)

The first pillar is a report titled, “City of Fort Worth Natural Gas Air Quality Study,” compiled by two enviro-centered organizations: Eastern Research Group, Inc. and Sage Environmental Consulting, L.P. The report, which was prepared for the city of Fort Worth, was released in July 2011. Upon its release, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said, “It’s good to hear that ERG didn’t find an immediate health risk from these gas production sites” (emphasis added). Local media coverage of the study was also positive.

Earthworks’ use of the Heinz-funded and Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council report to suggest that the Barto Compressor Station in Lycoming County is also suspect; the data used were both outdated and inaccurate.

Earthworks also references a study from the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) to support their claim that residents living near wells are at risk for severe health impacts. This particular study from the CSPH, an organization famous within the activist community, has been disavowed by numerous sources. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment was initially aiding CSPH to find funding for their work, but eventually backed out after recognizing the flaws in CSPH’s approach. After the release of the study, Garfield County environmental health manager Jim Rada distanced himself from the findings as much as possible: “We didn’t ask them to do this paper. They were not sanctioned by the county, or paid by the county to do this paper.” Further, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent reported shortly after the release of the study that the CSPH paper “was decommissioned by the Garfield County commissioners in May 2011.”

Earthworks: “In 2008, DEP inspected 7,520 wells, which left approximately 58,000 active wells (89%) uninspected; in 2013, DEP inspected 13,367 wells, a notable increase—but because of the growth in drilling and production, DEP did not inspect more than 66,000 active wells (83%).” (p. 35)

FACT: These numbers are purposefully misleading. The DEP is responsible for inspecting well sites during the development stages: cementing, drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Once the well is producing, DEP does not re-inspect the well, just as a one wouldn’t re-inspect the electrical wiring in a home if nothing was amiss. However, if there is a probability of an issue occurring, or an incident has occurred, DEP oversees the corrective processes and issues repercussions when appropriate.

On top of the stringent regulations that the industry operates under, the Citizens Advisory Council (CAC) serves as an additional overseer of oil and gas activities in the region. CAC’s mission statement calls for the performance of “non-partisan, independent oversight of the operations, management and policy of the Department of Environmental Protection.” Along with the secretary of DEP, CAC is comprised of 18 appointed citizen volunteers who are tasked with studying the work of DEP and making recommendations for improvement; in order to fulfil this duty, the CAC has access to all documents, papers and records.

Earthworks: “A recent study indicates that rates of well structural integrity problems have increased over time.” (p. 37)

FACT: Unfortunately for Earthworks, they leaned on the work of anti-fracking activist and Cornell professor Tony Ingraffea for this claim, specifically his dubious accusations about well integrity. In the Hard Facts section titled, “Contamination Can Take Time,” Earthworks employs Ingraffea’s recent work, “Assessment and risk analysis of casing and cement impairment in oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, 2000–2012.” Earthworks summarizes the study as:

“A recent study based on DEP inspection and drilling reports found that nearly 2% of wells drilled between 2000-2012 had a loss of casing and/or cementing integrity, posing a risk to groundwater and releasing methane emissions.” (p. 37)

In Ingraffea’s report, he links sustained casing pressure (SCP) to the well failing. This is simply not the case. In some cases SCP can lead to a crack in one of the casing barriers; however, operators across the country are required to include multiple layers of steel and cement in their well design. SCP often pertains to pressure buildup within a well that is still sealed off from groundwater, due to the outer layers of the well remaining intact.

In Pennsylvania, operators use no fewer than four casing strings, and a typical shale well will have up to seven separate barriers. If one of these layers is ever comprised, the adjacent six layers would also have to fail for a well to actually leak.

Earthworks: “Both the very real experiences of residents statewide and the findings of this report serve as a cautionary tale of just how difficult it is to oversee a complex industry that poses inherent threats to water and air quality.” (p. 46)

FACT: Developing shale resources is an industrial process, and like building a home or paving a road, an industrial process will inevitably impact the environment. The discussion that groups such as Earthworks refuse to have is one concerning balance and risk mitigation. “How do we meet our energy needs while leaving as soft a footprint on the environment as possible” or “what processes and bodies can we put in place to protect the public if an accident does occur”? These kinds of questions are based in reality and are the practical way to move this discussion forward. They’re also the kinds of discussions that Earthworks has no interest in having.

Unfortunately, Earthworks will likely continue to conduct its own studies as well as rely on like-minded organizations to propagate fears surrounding public safety as fact. In a September 2013 report titled “Reckless Endangerment While Fracking the Eagle Ford,” Earthworks again took stab at the Marcellus Shale:

“Early results from a long-term study in Pennsylvania suggest that air pollution from Marcellus Shale gas operations in the state may be contributing to a host of symptoms including breathing problems, headaches, dizziness and eye irritation.” (p. 6)

The “long-term study” was conducted by none other than the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SPEHP), a nonprofit entity that is closely tied to anti-fracking groups. SPEHP’s funding follows a similar trail of sketchy funding schemes as other activist groups. Some notable donors are the Claneil Foundation, which over the last five years has funded a minimum of $582,000 of opposition to natural gas development as well as activist Tony Ingraffea’s group, Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy.

Not about improving regulations

The Earthworks report is not a helpful part of the discussion regarding regulatory oversight and how best to protect the environment. The organization’s long history of biased and shaky studies certainly did not come to an end with the release of this report. By propping up misleading numbers and relying on data that Earthworks itself or friends of Earthworks have measured and collected, the organization only offers itself another opportunity to propose unfounded regulations on an industry that has an undeniably strong safety record. Both industry and regulators have been able to effectively adapt as far as creating public safeguards in the midst of record production levels, and it appears Earthworks’ tired agenda is what’s failing to keep pace.

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