California is Frack Free, for the Moment

The Mountaineer State: Where Politics, a Fossil Fuel Legacy, and Fracking Converge

Introduction

The Mountaineer State is one of the most stunningly beautiful states in all the United States, despite its complicated and unique relationship with fossil fuels dating back to the West Virginia Coal Wars of 1912 to 1921. This relationship has compromised the state’s distinctive ecosystems and its social cohesion. Instead of remediating or preventing the impacts of fossil fuels, the state’s elected officials have exploited them for political and monetary gain.  Understanding this history and the potential next steps in the march of the fossil fuel industry will help those who continue to fight for an alternative future for West Virginia.  At the same time, it is critical that we identify legislation that would perpetuate fossil fuel dependence, the individuals who are behind said legislation, and the current extent of the fossil fuel industry, especially considering the developing Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub (ASTH) that is supported by the elected officials in in D.C. and Charleston.

Ohio Power’s Mitchell (Foreground) and Kammer (Background) Coal Power Plants, Marshall County, Combined Capacity 2,345 MegaWatts. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk

Impeding Fossil Fuel Developments Threaten West Virginia Once Again

West Virginia has a rich, complicated, and occasionally violent history with coal mining and now is at the vanguard of the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) revolution. It also happens to sit at the heart of what Appalachian governors, senators, and even land-grant universities are touting is the panacea for all that ails the region: the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub (ASTH), a key part of the Ohio River Valley petrochemical build out. This puts West Virginia in a peculiar position, with one foot longingly in the past with coal mining and one moving forward with investments in fracking and now the ASTH.

On the one hand, there is local optimism about King Coal’s return, stoked by Donald Trump and industry friends like Robert Murray. A closer look reveals they are sending decidedly different messages to Appalachian coal miners and their families, with the former stating repeatedly that he would bring coal back, and the latter agreeing but offering the caveat that “Trump can’t bring jobs back . . . [because] many of those jobs were lost to technology rather than regulation.”

Murray Energy’s Consolidation Coal Mine, Marshall County

This is not to suggest that there are hard feelings between Trump and Murray; a Document Investigations publication reveals an invitation from Murray Energy to host a Trump fundraiser on July 24, 2019 in Wheeling, West Virginia at WesBanco Arena with a cover charge of $150.00 made payable to Trump Victory, Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee’s joint presidential campaign fundraising. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (who is uncoincidentally a leading booster of the ASTH) indicated he would be in attendance. Additionally, Murray in his rescheduling letter to the West Virginia governor indicated, “Present with us will be Governors Mike DeWine of Ohio, Jim Justice of West Virginia, and Matt Bevins of Kentucky; Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Rob Portman of these states; and Congressman Bill Johnson and Dave McKinley and the House Speaker and Senate President form the two states.”

Declining Jobs, Increasing Automation

After at least seventeen years of 5% declines in net coal production, and 3% increases in hiring, the coal mining industry in West Virginia had had enough. Starting in 2012, they turned the tide on labor by leaning into the automation revolution and in the process, mine labor has declined by 8% per year since then. Automation and an increasing reliance on more blunt methods of mining, including strip-mining and/or Mountaintop Removal, have allowed the mining industry to increase productivity per labor hour by 5.8% to 6.3% per year since 2012, according to data compiled by US Department of Labor’s Office of Mine Safety and Health Administration. All of these savings translate into Mergers And Acquisitions as well as hefty profits for the likes of Murray, private equity and large institutional investors that have no interest in the welfare of Appalachia, its people, and the constant undertone of labor vs. capital throughout the region.

Even with all the corporate, state, and federal subsidies we have still had a rash of bankruptcies in the last three months. Most recently, Revelation Energy and its affiliate Blackjewel, experts in “Vulture Capitalism,” filed for Chapter 11 on July 1st of this year causing countless bounced paychecks among their 1,700 employees across Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

So while King Coal continues to paint federal regulations as excessively burdensome and the primary impediment to their expansion, it is clear that the enemy of coal miners is not regulations, but rather automation and the urgent attempt to squeeze every last drop of profitability out of a dying industry.  even as coal production nationally declines by nearly double digits annually, a signal that the end is near, mining companies are able to continue generating reliable profits thanks to automation and artificial intelligence. This might be why private equity climate change denying titans like Stephen Schwarzman are investing so heavily in the likes of MIT’s School of Artificial Intelligence. The growing discrepancy between coal production and coal jobs was pointed out in a recent Columbia University report on the failure of states, counties, and communities to prepare themselves for the day when their status as “company towns”[1] will switch from a point of pride to a curse. The Columbia researchers pointed out that:

“Employment in the coal mining industry declined by over 50 percent in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky between 2011 and 2016. State-level impacts mask even more severe effects at local levels. In Mingo County, West Virginia, coal mining employed over 1,400 people at the end of 2011. By the end of 2016, that number had fallen below 500. Countywide, employment fell from 8,513 to 4,878 over this period  . . . suggesting there could be important labor market spillovers from mining to the broader economy.”

A Bloody History Haunts West Virginia’s Coal Fields

The last time West Virginia experienced “important labor market spillovers” was during the West Virginia Coal Wars of 1912 to 1921. West Virginia University Press, in summarizing the book “Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880-1922” by David Alan Corbin, describes this violent moment in the state’s history:

“Between 1880 and 1922, the coal fields of southern West Virginia witnessed two bloody and protracted strikes, the formation of two competing unions, and the largest armed conflict in American labor history – a week-long battle between 20,000 coal miners and 5,000 state police, deputy sheriffs, and mine guards. These events resulted in an untold number of deaths, indictments of over 550 coal miners for insurrection and treason, and four declarations of martial law. Corbin argues that these violent events were collective and militant acts of aggression interconnected and conditioned by decades of oppression. His study goes a long way toward breaking down the old stereotypes of Appalachian and coal-mining culture”

The Coal Wars culminated in the August 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in United States history which resulted in a deadly standoff between 10,000 armed coal miners and 3,000 strikebreakers called the Logan Defenders. The battle resulted in a casualty range of 20 to 100 as well as the treason conviction of some 22+ United Mine Workers of America members. This crushed the union, and the larger effect was a chill throughout Appalachia for more than a decade.

A similar chill is beginning to percolate as part of the fear around resistance or questioning of the ASTH and its myriad tentacles. This chill is coupled with a growing ambivalence and resignation to the most recent colonization of the Ohio River Valley by yet another iteration of the fossil fuel industrial complex.

How Can Appalachia Escape the Tight Grip of the Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex?

The state’s historical labor strife is worth mentioning to emphasize that Appalachia has been thrown under the “natural resource curse” bus before, and it has not responded kindly (see documentary “Harlan County USA” directed by Barbara Kopple). This might be why industry stakeholders fund the likes of the Koch Brothers-backed American Legislative Executive Council in efforts to pass dubiously titled “critical infrastructure” bills that they’ve written in states including the ASTH states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia. [2]  It also might be why West Virginia Senator Manchin is trying to separate himself from his prior optimism about the supposed $84 billion China would invest in ASTH related projects across the state and his willingness to compromise the safety of his own constituents for the sake of profiteering state-backed firms in China, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand.

It won’t be long before we start to hear echoes of Florence Reece’s 1931 labor resistance anthem “Which Side Are You On?” echoing out from every peak and holler in West Virginia in reference to Manchin and Justice.  Their milquetoast response to questioning around the viability of the ASTH prompted the West Virginia Gazette editorial page to write:

“So far, the entire project, which was hailed as the salvation of West Virginia’s economy at the time, looks like nothing but smoke and confetti. There’s been no movement and the Justice administration rarely mentions it unless asked. The reply has typically been a guarded ‘it’s happening’ and not much else. It’s time for state government to level with the people of West Virginia on what exactly is happening here. Not only did the announcement raise false hopes, but the question of national security is valid and important. We urge the governor or someone in his administration to give an official update on the project.”

In the interim, West Virginia’s elected officials continue to prop up coal as the Mountaineer State’s salvation. But the gig will be up eventually. It appears that there are two ways to exit this zero-sum relationship with the fossil fuel industry according to the neoliberal economic model we espouse here in the United States: 1) A Glide Path strategy that will allow West Virginia to methodically transition to a more diversified economy, or 2) an extremely painful Jump Condition type transition over a much shorter period of time that will likely last no more than a couple of years and leave West Virginians very angry and looking for someone to blame.

Those of us that accept climate change as fact, advocate for the Green New Deals of the world, and work towards a renewable energy future can easily dismiss either pathway’s impacts on Appalachia with the mantra, “Hey, they [Appalachia] made their bed now they have to lie in it!” However, this would be counter to the social contract narrative we have created for this country and would be incredibly hypocritical given that the primary steroid that fueled American Exceptionalism/Capitalism was cheap and abundant domestic fossil fuels. As Kim Kelly of Teen Vogue so perfectly put it in laying out her very personal connections to the struggle between the need to pay bills and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel reliant jobs: “Make no mistake: The coal miner and pipeline worker know about the environmental costs of their labor, but when faced with the choice of feeding their kids or putting down their tools in the name of saving the planet, the pressures of capitalism tend to win; their choice is made for them.”

Cravat Coal Mine Slurry Pond, Marshall County, West Virginia

Americans rationalize our dependence on fossil fuels on one hand, while simultaneously hectoring those who work tirelessly to get the stuff out of the ground and invest in the companies that employ them by way of 401Ks or other investment vehicles. This hypocrisy is not lost on Appalachia nor should it be. Climate advocates should work with states like West Virginia to transition to a more just future that does not include a doubling down on fossil fuels by way of the ASTH and fracking. If not, the social and political divisions in this country will pale in comparison to what will likely result from a piecemeal and confrontational transition away from the fossil fuel industrial complex that we’ve been told we can’t live without.

Furthermore, we can’t address these issues without acknowledging the selective interventionist policy our government has deployed in the name of “nation building” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Folks like John Perkins, Naomi Klein, and Joseph Stiglitz have demonstrated that our interventionist policy is just a poor cover for the true modus operandi which would be resource control from Saudi Arabia to the most recent example being the effort by the Trump administration to foment opposition to Venezuelan leader Nicholas Maduro. If the latter example isn’t primarily about oil than why do the bi-partisan sanctions include exceptions to allow Chevron, Halliburton, and Schlumberger to continue to operate in Venezuela?

A Path Forward

The Green New Deal is a first step in establishing a path forward for the decarbonization of the US economy and it correctly includes calls for a transition that “would ensure protections for coal miners and other impacted fossil fuel workers.” While mostly nebulous and aspirational at this point, the Green New Deal offers much needed hope and guidance towards a future where economic growth is decoupled from CO2 emissions. Yet, it will have to address the underlying issues associated with economic inequality and the fact that states like West Virginia will have to be involved in the decision-making process rather than having the Green New Deal foisted on them. Otherwise, the Mountaineer State’s politicians in D.C. and Charleston will continue to get away with toying with their constituents’ hopes and dreams with proclamations that the ASTH and rumored infrastructure proposals will provide salvation. In reality, the ASTH is just another corporatist stunt to optimize shareholder return on the backs of Appalachians.  This tension was summarized beautifully and succinctly by United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith who told Reuters, “We’ve heard words like ‘just transition’ before, but what does that really mean? Our members are worried about putting food on the table.”

As Joel Magnuson wrote in his revolutionary text “Mindful Economics”:

“ . . . the need to maximize profits for a relatively small section of the U.S. population has shaped the development of America’s most powerful institutions . . . the need for higher profits and endless growth has intensified environmental destruction, resource depletion, instability, social and political inequality, and even global warming. These problems have become systemic and solutions therefore require long-term systemic change . . . [and the development of] alternative institutions. As these alternatives evolve and grow, they will place the U.S. economy on a path to a new system. Systemic change will come about gradually by the will of people who purposefully steer the development of the economic institutions in their communities in a positive and healthy direction. To this end Mindful Economics lays a foundation for building new alternatives that are democratic, locally-based and ecologically sustainable. Such alternatives are not only viable, they can be found all across the United States. Through a network of alternative institutions, people can begin to build alternatives to capitalism and provide hope for future generations.”

Ecotrust’s Conservation Economy website offers a road map for how Appalachia can move towards an alternative future that “integrates Social, Natural, and Economic Capital” (see the pattern map below).  Appalachia has been stripped of much of its economic capital but it still has a bountiful supply of social and natural capital!

Conservation Economy's Pattern Map

Conservation Economy’s Pattern Map

The Map

We constructed a map that illustrates West Virginia’s past, present, and future dependence on fossil fuels. The map shows 16,864 oil, gas, and coal parcels as well as those that are rumored to be of interest to the fossil fuel industrial complex in the near future. The parcels average 164 acres in size and amount to 2,770,310 acres or 4,329 square miles. These parcels amount to 17.9% of West Virginia but are largely concentrated in the counties of Boone, Kanawha, Logan, Wyoming, McDowell, Mingo, and Fayette.

Also included in this map are:

  1.  annual production data for 880 mines between 2001 and 2017 and
  2.  annual oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquid (NGL) production for 3,689 unconventional wells between 2002 and 2018.

A sizeable portion of the parcel query we conducted, especially the rumored ones, occurred as a result of insight from Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) community organizer Alex Cole and his extensive network of contacts along the Ohio River Valley.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison

[1] If you aren’t familiar with this term I would refer you to Columbia University’s data for Boone County, West Virginia: “The numbers suggest that about a third of Boone County’s revenues directly depended on coal in the form of property taxes on coal mines and severance taxes. In 2015, 21 percent of Boone County’s labor force and 17 percent of its total personal income were tied to coal. Coal property (including both the mineral deposit and industrial equipment) amounted to 57 percent of Boone County’s total property valuation. Property taxes on all property generated about half of Boone County’s general fund budget, which means that property taxes just on coal brought in around 30 percent of the county’s general fund. Property taxes on coal also funded about $14.2 million of the $60.3 million school budget (24 percent). In total, coal-related property taxes generated approximately $21 million for Boone County’s schools, the county government, and specific services.”

[2] ALEC finalized their “Model Policy” in December, 2017, and gave it the ultimate Orwellian title of “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” Many elected officials throughout the fossil fuel network’s Heartland have introduced this legislation nearly verbatim, including Ohio State Senator Frank Hoagland’s S.B. 33, which represents much of Ohio’s Ohio River Valley, where the ASTH would have its most pronounced impacts.

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Wildness Lost – Pine Creek

Permitting New Oil and Gas Wells Under the Newsom Administration

California regulators halt well permitting after Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker reveal a surge in well permits under California Governor Newsom

October 24th, 2019 update: 

There have been several exciting updates since FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog released a report on fracking and regulatory corruption under Governor Newsom’s administration, detailed in the article below.

On July 11th, 2019, immediately following the report’s release, Governor Newsom fired Ken Harris, head of California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).

Newsom’s chief of staff Ann O’Leary stated:
“The Governor has long held concerns about fracking and its impacts on Californians and our environment, and knows that ultimately California and our global partners will need to transition away from oil and gas extraction. In the weeks ahead, our office will work with you to find new leadership of (the division) that share this point of view and can run the division accordingly.”
FracTracker Alliance supports the governor’s decision and hopes that new leadership acts in the best interests of Californians while moving the state towards 100% renewable energy.

Two months later in September, it was announced that no new fracking permits had been approved in California since the report was issued. We’re thrilled to see this immediate cessation. Yet, while new fracking activity has halted, other forms of oil and gas development continue to threaten Californian’s health and natural resources.

FracTracker Alliance’s review of public records found that DOGGR issued approximately 1,200 permits for steam injection and other “enhanced recovery” techniques through September 2nd, a 60% increase from the 749 permits issued in the same period last year. Sources within DOGGR revealed that at least 40 illegal oil spills from wells were ongoing in Kern and Santa Barbara Counties.

A final development came on October 12th, when Governor Newsom signed a bill to prevent oil and gas development on state lands. As state lands often neighbor federal lands, this bill will play a role in protecting federal land from pipelines, wells, and other polluting infrastructure. Newsom also changed the name of DOGGR to the “Geologic Energy Management Division,” and modified its mission to include protecting public health and environmental quality.

We remain hopeful that Newsom will take a bold stance in leading California away from fossil fuels.

Original July 11th, 2019 FracTracker article:

FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog have uncovered new data showing an increase in oil and gas permitting by California regulators in 2019 compared to 2018, calling into question Governor Gavin Newsom’s climate commitment. Even more concerning, this investigation found that state regulators are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate.

FracTracker Alliance’s new report with Consumer Watchdog compares oil and gas permitting policies of the current Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration with that of former Governor Jerry Brown’s administration.

The former lieutenant governor to Brown, Governor Newsom has set out to make a name for himself. As part of stepping out of Brown’s shadow, Newsom has expressed support for a Just Transition away from fossil fuels. Governor Newsom’s 2020 budget plan includes environmental justice measures and an unprecedented investment to plan for this transition that includes investments in job training.

Yet five months into Governor Newsom’s first term, regulators are on track to allow companies to drill and “frack” more new oil and gas wells than Brown allowed in 2018. The question now is: will Governor Newsom actually take the next step that Brown could not, and prioritize the reduction of oil extraction in California?

In addition, the Consumer Watchdog report reveals that eight California regulators with the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate. FracTracker and Consumer Watchdog are calling for the the removal of DOGGR officials with conflicts of interest, and an immediate freeze on new well approval. Read the letter to Governor Newsom here.

Governor Brown’s Legacy

Around the world, Brown is recognized as a climate warrior. His support of solar energy technology and criticisms of the nuclear and fossil fuel industry was ultimately unique in the late 1970’s.

In 1980, during his second term as Governor and short presidential campaign, he decried that fellow democrat and incumbent President Jimmy Carter had made a “Faustian bargain” with the oil industry. Since then, he has continued to push for state controls on greenhouse gas emissions. To end his political career, Brown hosted an epic climate summit in San Francisco, California, which brought together climate leaders, politicians, and scientists from around the world.

While Brown championed the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, his policies in California were contradictory. While front-line communities called for setbacks from schools, playgrounds, hospitals and other sensitive receptors, Brown ignored these requests. Instead he sought to spur oil production in the state. Brown even used state funds to explore his private properties for oil and mineral resources that could be exploited for personal profit.

Brown’s terms in the Governor’s office show trends of increasing oil and gas production. The chart in Figure 1 shows that during his first term (1979-1983), California oil extraction grew towards a peak in production. Then in 2011 at the start of Brown’s second term (2011-2019), crude oil production again inflected and continued to increase through 2015, ending a 25-year period of relatively consistent reduction.

We are therefore interested in looking at existing data to understand if moving forward, Governor Newsom will continue Brown’s legacy of support for California oil production. We start by looking at the first half of 2019, the beginning of Governor Newsom’s term, to see if his administration will also allow the oil and gas industry to increase extraction in California.

Figure 1. Chart of California’s historic oil production, from the EIA

Analysis

The FracTracker Alliance has collaborated with the non-profit Consumer Watchdog to review records of oil and gas well permits issued in 2018 and thus far into 2019.

Records of approved permits were obtained from the CA Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). Weekly summaries of approved permits for the 52 weeks of 2018 and the first 22 weeks of 2019 (January 1st-June 3rd) were compiled, cleaned, and analyzed. Notices of well stimulations were also included in this analysis. The data is mapped here in the Consumer Watchdog report, as well as in more detail below in the map in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Map of California’s Permits, 2018 and 2019


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Findings

At FracTracker, we are known for more than simply mapping, so we have, of course, extracted all the information that we can from this data. The dataset of DOGGR permits included details on the type of permit as well as when, where, and who the permits were granted. With this information we were able to answer several questions.

Of particular note and worthy of prefacing the data analysis was the observation of the very low numbers of permits granted in the LA Basin and Southern California, as compared to the Central Valley and Central Coast of California.

First, what are the types of permits issued?

Regulators require operators to apply for permits for a number of activities at well sites. This dataset includes permits to drill wells, including re-drilling existing wells, permits to rework existing wells, and permits to “sidetrack”. Well stimulations using techniques such as hydraulic fracturing and acid fracturing also require permits, as outline in CA State Bill 4.

How many permits have regulators issued?

In 2018, DOGGR approved 4,368 permits, including 2,124 permits to drill wells. In 2019, DOGGR approved 2,366 permits from January 1 – June 3, including 1,212 permits to drill wells. At that rate, DOGGR will approve 5,607 total permits by the end of 2019, including 2,872 wells.

That is an increase of 28.3% for total permits and an increase of 35.3% for drilling oil and gas wells.

DOGGR also issued 222 permits for well stimulations in 2018. So far in 2019, DOGGR has issued 191 permits for well stimulations, an increase of 103.2%.

Who is applying for permits?

As shown in Table 1 below, the operators Chevron U.S.A. Inc., Aera Energy LLC ( a joint conglomerate of Shell Oil Company and ExxonMobil), and Berry Petroleum Company, LLC dominate the drilling permit counts for both 2018 and 2019.

Aera has obtained the most drilling permits thus far into 2019, while Chevron obtained the most permits in 2018, almost 100 more than Aera. In 2019, Chevron was issued almost 3 times the amount of rework permits as Aera, and both have outpaced Berry Petroleum.

Table 1. Permit Counts by Operator

Where are the permits being issued?

Data presented in Table 2 indicate which fields are being targeted for drilling and rework permits. While the 2019 data represents less than half the year, the number of drilling permits is almost equal to the total drilling permit count for 2018.

Majority players in the Midway-Sunset field are Berry Petroleum and Chevron. South Belridge is dominated by Aera Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Cymric field is mostly Chevron and Aera Energy; McKittrick is mostly Area Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Kern River field, which has by far the most reworks (most likely due to its massive size and age) is entirely Chevron.

Table 2. Permit Counts by Field

Conclusions

Be sure to also read the Consumer Watchdog report on FracTracker’s permit data!

The details of this analysis show that DOGGR has allowed for a modest increase in permits for oil and gas wells in 2019. The increase in well stimulations in 2019 is estimated to be larger, at 103.2%.

There was the consideration that this could be a seasonal phenomenon since we extrapolated from data encompassing just less than the first half of the year. But upon reviewing data for several other years, that does not seem to be the case. The general trend was instead increasing numbers of permits as each year progresses, with smaller permit counts through the first half of the year.

Oil prices do not provide much explanation either. The chart in Figure 3 shows that crude prices were higher in 2018 than they have been for the vast majority of 2019. The increase in permits could be the result of oil and gas operators like Chevron and Aera anticipating a stricter regulatory climate under Governor Newsom. Operators may be securing  as many permits as possible, while DOGGR is still liberally issuing them. This could be a consequence of the Governor’s recognition of the need for California to begin a managed decline of fossil fuel production and end oil drilling in California.

Could this be an early industry death rattle?

Figure 3. Crude prices in 2018 and 2019

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Urban Drilling in Los Angeles

Impact of a 2,500′ Oil and Gas Well Setback in California

Why does California need setbacks?

A new bill proposed by California State Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi (D), AB345, seeks to establish a minimum setback distance of 2,500′ between oil and gas wells and sensitive sites including occupied dwellings, schools, healthcare facilities, and playgrounds. A setback distance for oil and gas development is necessary from a public health standpoint, as the literature unequivocally shows that oil and gas wells and the associated infrastructure pose a significant risk to the communities that live near them.

FracTracker Alliance conducted a spatial analysis to understand the impact a 2,500’ well setback would have on oil and gas expansion in California. In a previous report, The Sky’s Limit California (Oil Change Internal, 2018), Fractracker data showed that 8,493 active or newly permitted oil and gas wells were located within a 2,500’ buffer of sensitive sites. At the time it was estimated that 850,000 Californians lived within the setback distance of at least one of these oil and gas wells.

This does not bode well for Californians, as a recently published FracTracker literature review found that health impacts resulting from living near oil and gas development include cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms. Studies also showed that health impacts increased with the density of oil and gas development, suggesting that health impacts are dose dependent. Living closer to more oil and gas sites means you are exposed to more health-threatening contamination.

An established setback is therefore necessary to alleviate some of these health burdens carried by the most vulnerable Environmental Justice (EJ) communities. Health assessments by the Los Angeles County Department of Health and studies on ambient air quality near oil fields by Occidental College Researchers support the assumption that 2,500′ is the necessary distance to help alleviate the harsh conditions of degraded air quality. Living at a distance beyond 2,500′ from an oil and gas site does not mean you are not impacted by air and water contamination. Rather the concentrations of contaminants will be less harmful. In fact studies showed that health impacts increased with proximity to oil and gas, with associated impacts potentially experienced by communities living at distances up to 9.3 miles (Currie et al. 2017) and 10 miles (Whitworth et al. 2017).

Assembly Bill 345

This analysis assesses the potential impact of State Assembly member Al Muratsuchi’s Assembly Bill 345 on California’s oil and gas extraction and production. Specifically, AB345 establishes a minimum 2,500’ setback requirement for future oil and gas development. It does not however directly address existing oil and gas permits.

The bill includes the following stipulations and definitions:

  • All new oil and gas development, that is not on federal land, are required to be located at least 2,500′ from residences, schools, childcare facilities, playgrounds, hospitals, or health clinics.
  • In this case the redrilling of a previously plugged and abandoned oil or gas well or other rework operation is to be considered new oil and gas development.
  • “Oil and gas development” means exploration for and drilling production and processing of oil, gas or other gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons; the flowlines; and the treatment of waste associated with that exploration, drilling, production, and processing.
  • “Oil and gas development” also includes hydraulic fracturing and other stimulation activities.
  • “Rework operations” means operations performed in the well bore of an oil or gas well after the well is completed and equipped for production, done for the purpose of securing, restoring, or improving hydrocarbon production in the subsurface interval that is the open to production in the well bore.
  • The bill does not include routine repairs or well maintenance work.

Map

Figure 1. Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites. The map below shows the oil and gas wells and permits that fall within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites.  Summaries of these well counts and discussions of these well types are included below as well.

Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

Environmental Justice

The California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) has just released their 2018 Environmental Justice Agency Assessment, which used FracTracker’s data and mapping to assess environmental equity in the state regulation of oil permitting and drilling. The report issued the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) a failing grade of ‘F’. According to the report, “DOGGR is aware that the proposed locations of many drilling activities are in or near EJ communities, but approves permits irrespective of known health and safety risks associated with neighborhood drilling.”

FracTracker’s analysis of low income communities in Kern County shows the following:

  • There are 16,690 active oil and gas production wells located in census blocks with median household incomes of less than 80% of Kern’s area median income (AMI).
  • Therefore about 25% (16,690 out of 67,327 total) of Kern’s oil and gas wells are located within low-income communities.
  • Of these 16,690 wells, 5,364 of them are located within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites such as schools and hospitals (32%) vs 13.1% for the rest of the state.

For more information on the breakdown of Kern County wells, see our informational table, here.

DOGGR wells

Using freshly published Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) data (6/3/19), we find that there are 9,835 active wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, representing 13.1% of the total 74,775 active wells in the state.

There are 6,558 idle wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, of nearly 30,000 total idle wells in the state. Putting these idle wells back online would be blocked if the wells require reworks to restart or ramp up production. For the most part operators do not intend for most idle wells to come back online. Rather operators are just avoiding the costs of plugging and properly abandoning the wells. To learn more about this issue, see our recent coverage of idle wells here.

Of the 3,783 permitted wells not yet in production, or “new wells,” 298 (7.8%) are located within the 2,500’ buffer zone.

Getting a count of plugged wells within the setback distance is more difficult because there is not a complete dataset, but there are over 30,000 wells in areas with active production that would be blocked from being redrilled. In total there are 122,209 plugged wells listed in the DOGGR database.

Permits

We also looked at permit applications that were approved in 2018, including permits for drilling new wells, well reworks, deepening wells and well sidetracks. This may be the most insightful of all the analyses.

Within the 2018 permit data, we find that 4,369 permits were approved. Of those 518 permits (about 12%) were granted within the proposed 2,500’ setback. Of the permits 25% were for new drilling, 73% were for reworks, and 2% were for deepening existing wells. By county, 42% were in Kern, 24% were in Los Angeles, 14% in Ventura, 6% in Santa Barbara, 3% in Fresno, and 2% or less in Glenn, Monterey, Sutter, San Joaquin, Colusa, Solano, Orange and Tehama, in descending order.

SCAQMD Notices

In LA, Rule 1148.2 requires operators to notify the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) of activities at well sites, including stimulations and reworks. These data points are reiterative of the “permits” discussed above, but the dataset is specific to the SCAQMD and includes additional activities. Of the 1,361 reports made to the air district since the beginning of 2018 through April 1, 2019; 634 (47%) were for wells that would be impacted by the setback distance; 412 incidences were for something other than “well maintenance” of which 348 were for gravel packing, 4 for matrix acidizing, and 65 were for well drilling. We are not sure where gravel packing falls, in reference to AB345.

A major consideration is that this rule may force many active wells into an idle status. If the onus of plugging wells falls on the state, these additional idle wells could be a major liability for the public. Fortunately AB1328 recently defined new idle well rules. The rules entice operators to plug and abandon idle wells. If rule 1328 is effective at reducing the stock of idle wells, these two bills could complement each other. (For more information on idle wells, read FracTracker’s recent analysis, here: https://www.fractracker.org/2019/04/idle-wells-are-a-major-risk/)

State Bill 4 Well Stimulation Reporting

We also analyzed data reported to DOGGR under the well stimulation requirements of CA State Bill 4 (SB4), the 2013 bill that set a framework for regulating hydraulic fracturing in California. Part of the bill required an independent scientific study to be conducted on oil and gas well stimulation, including acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing. Since 2016 operators have been required to secure special permits to stimulate wells, which includes hydraulic fracturing and several other techniques. To learn more about this state regulation read FracTracker’s coverage of SB4. From January 1, 2016 to April 1, 2019, there have been 576 well stimulation treatment permits granted under the SB4 regulations. Only 1 hydraulic fracturing event, permitted in Goleta, would have been impacted by a 2,500’ setback in 2018.

Support for AB345

After being approved by the CA Assembly Natural Resources Committee in a 7-6 vote, the bill did not make it up for a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee during the 2019 legislative session.  The bill was described by the committee as “promising policies that need more time for discussion.” AB345 is now a two-year bill in the state Senate and will be reconsidered by the committee in January of 2020. The Chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, Lorena Gonzalez, indicated her general support for the policy and committed to working with the author to find a way to move the bill forward at the end of the session.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance 

Feature image by David McNew, Getty Images

The Falcon Public Monitoring Project

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

In March of 2019, two and a half years after Shell Pipeline Co. announced plans for the Falcon Ethane Pipeline System, the imported pipes arrived at the Port of Philadelphia. As tree clearing and construction begins, we share frustration with residents that the project is underway while many of our concerns remain unaddressed.

Between 2010 and 2018, over 280 pipeline incidents were reported in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania (the three states the Falcon crosses). Of those incidents, 70 were fires and/or explosions. As regulatory agencies and operators fail to protect the public, communities are taking the reins.

Residents of southwest PA gather along the Falcon route

Environmental organizations are training the public to spot construction violations and appealing inadequate pipeline permits. Impacted residents are running for office, testifying in court, and even spending time in prison to protect their communities.

These grassroots efforts are contributing to a shift in public perception about the safety and need of pipelines. In some cases, including with the Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline and the Constitution Pipeline, organizing efforts are helping stop projects before they begin.

We invite all residents along the Falcon route to get involved in ongoing efforts to monitor construction. Below, you’ll find a guide to reporting violations as well as high-risk areas along the Falcon route that require close monitoring.

Be a citizen watchdog

Taking photos of pipeline development and recording your observations is a great way to monitor impacts. One tool to use while monitoring is the FracTracker mobile app (search “FracTracker” in the App Store or Google Play to download for free). The app allows the public to submit geolocated photos and descriptions of development, such as pipelines and wells, and concerns, such as spills and noise pollution. These reports help FracTracker crowdsource data and alert us to concerns that need follow up action. The app also contains a map of wells, pipelines, and compressor stations, including the Falcon pipeline route for reference in the field.

Click on the images below to view app reports of Falcon construction.

Documenting violations

During the construction phase, incidents often occur when companies cause erosion of the ground and release sediment, equipment, or discharge into waterways. Mountain Watershed Association and Clean Air Council have provided the following information on the process of looking for and documenting violations.

Step 1) Document baseline conditions. Documenting the pre-construction status of an area is crucial for understanding how it’s been impacted down the road. Document baseline conditions by taking photos, videos, and notes at different sites, and include the location and date on these materials (the Fractracker app does this for you automatically). Observing sites at different times and in different weather (such as during or after a storm) will give you the best data.

Step 2) Know what to look for. Below are images and descriptions of common construction violations.

Filtration Failure

Drilling fluid spill

For more violations, checkout Pipeline CSI’s list of Top Ten Observable Non-Compliance Issues.

3) File a Report. File an official complaint to your state environmental regulatory agency.

Your concerns can be sent to regulatory agencies using the following contact information:

4) Contact support organizations. There are several organizations ready to take action once violations have been confirmed. For confirmed violations in Beaver County, PA, contact Alex Bomstein, at the Clean Air Council (215-567-4004 x118) and for confirmed violations in Allegheny or Washington Counties, PA, contact Melissa Marshall at the Mountain Watershed Association (724-455-4200 x7#). For violations in Ohio or West Virginia, reach out to FracTracker (412-802-0273).

Reports made on the FracTracker App are shared with any app user and the FracTracker team, who look through the reports and contact users for any required follow up. App reports can also be submitted to regulatory agencies electronically. Simply visit the web version of the app, click on your report, and copy the URL (web address) of your report. Then “paste” it into the body of an email or online complaint form. The receiver will see the exact location, date, and any notes or photos you included in the report.

Where should you be monitoring?

Monitoring efforts must be limited to publicly accessible land. In general, areas that are most at-risk for environmental impact include stream and wetland crossings, steep slopes (particularly those near water crossings), flood-prone zones, and areas where storm water runoff will reach waterways. View a map of the Falcon’s water crossings here, and continue reading for more vulnerable locations to monitor.

The information below identifies high-risk areas along the pipeline route where monitoring efforts are extra necessary due to their impacts on drinking water, wetlands, undermined areas, and vulnerable species.

Drinking Water

We found 240 private water wells within 1/4 mile of the Falcon.

While all of these wells should be assessed for their level of risk with pipeline construction, the subset of wells nearest to horizontal directional drilling (HDD) sites deserve particular attention. HDD is a way of constructing a pipeline that doesn’t involve digging a trench. Instead, a directional drilling machine is used to drill horizontally underground and the pipe is pulled through.

While an HDD is designed to avoid surface impacts, if rushed or poorly executed, it can damage surface water, groundwater, and private property. The Mariner East 2 pipeline construction left several families without water after construction crews punctured an aquifer at an HDD site.

Shell’s data highlights 24 wells that are within 1,000 feet of a proposed HDD site.

We’ve isolated the groundwater wells and HDDs in a standalone map for closer inspection below. The 24 most at-risk wells are circled in blue.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

Testing your groundwater quality before construction begins is crucial for determining impacts later on. Two upcoming workshops in Washington County, PA and another in Beaver County, PA will discuss how to protect your water and property.

The Falcon’s HDD locations offer disturbing similarities to what caused the Mariner East pipeline spills. Many of Sunoco’s failures were due to inadequately conducted (or absent) geophysical surveys that failed to identify shallow groundwater tables, which then led to drilling mud entering streams and groundwater.

Figure 1 below shows Greene Township, Beaver County, just south of Hookstown, where the “water table depth” is shown. The groundwater at this HDD site averages 20ft on its western side and only 8ft deep on the eastern side.

Figure 1. Water table depth in Greene Township

Water Reservoirs

The Falcon also crosses the headwaters of two drinking water reservoirs: the Tappan Reservoir in Harrison County, OH (Figure 2) and the Ambridge Reservoir in Beaver County, PA (Figure 3).  The Falcon will also cross the raw water line leading out of the Ambridge Reservoir.

The Ambridge Reservoir supplies water to five townships in Beaver County (Ambridge, Baden, Economy, Harmony, and New Sewickley) and four townships in Allegheny County (Leet, Leetsdale, Bell Acres & Edgeworth). The Tappan Reservoir is the primary drinking water source for residents in Scio.

Figure 2. Tappan Reservoir and the Falcon route in Harrison County, Ohio

Figure 3. Ambridge Reservoir and the Falcon route in Beaver County, Pennsylvania

Wetlands

Wetlands that drain into Raccoon Creek in Beaver County, PA will be particularly vulnerable in 2 locations. The first is in Potter Township, off of Raccoon Creek Rd just south of Frankfort Rd, where the Falcon will run along a wooded ridge populated by half a dozen perennial and intermittent streams that lead directly to a wetland, seen in Figure 4. Complicating erosion control further, Shell’s survey data shows that this ridge is susceptible to landslides. This area is also characterized by the USGS as having a “high hazard” area for soil erosion.

Figure 4. Wetlands and streams in Potter Township, PA

The other wetland area of concern along Raccoon Creek is found in Independence Township at the Beaver County Conservation District (Figure 5). Here, the Falcon will go under the Creek using HDD (highlighted in bright green). Nevertheless, the workspace needed to execute the crossing is within the designated wetland itself. An additional 15 acres of wetland lie only 300ft east of the crossing but are not accounted for in Shell’s data. This unidentified wetland is called Independence Marsh, considered the crown jewel of the Independence Conservancy’s watershed stewardship program.

Figure 5. Wetlands and Raccoon Creek in Independence Township, PA

Subsurface concerns

Shell’s analysis shows that 16.8 miles of the Falcon pipeline travel through land that historically has or currently contains coal mines. Our analysis using the same dataset suggests the figure is closer to 20 miles. Construction through undermined areas poses a risk for ground and surface water contamination and subsidence. 

Of these 20 miles of undermined pipeline, 5.6 miles run through active coal mines and are located in Cadiz Township, OH (Harrison Mining Co. Nelms Mine, seen in Figure 6); Ross Township, OH (Rosebud Mining Co. Deep Mine 10); and in Greene Township, PA (Rosebud Mining Co. Beaver Valley Mine). 

Figure 6. Coal mines and are located in Cadiz Township, OH

For a complete map of mined areas, click here.

More than 25 of the Falcon’s 97 pipeline miles will be laid within karst landscapes, including 9 HDD sites. Karst is characterized by soluble rocks such as limestone prone to sinkholes and underground caves. A cluster of these are located in Allegheny and Washington counties, PA, with extensive historical surface mining operations.

The combination of karst and coal mines along Potato Garden Run, in Figure 7, make this portion of the pipeline route particularly risky. At this HDD site, the Falcon will cross a coal waste site identified in the permits as “Imperial Land Coal Slurry” along with a large wetland.

Figure 7. Coal mines in Imperial, Pennsylvania

Vulnerable species

Southern Redbelly Dace

The Southern Redbelly Dace, a threatened species, is especially vulnerable to physical and chemical (turbidity, temperature) changes to their environment. PA Fish and Boat Commission explicitly notes in their correspondence with Shell that “we are concerned about potential impacts to the fish, eggs and the hatching fry from any in-stream work.” Of note is that these sites of concern are located in designated “High Quality/Cold Water Fishes” streams of the Service Creek watershed (Figure 8). PFBC stated that that no in-stream work in these locations should be done between May 1 and July 31.

Figure 8. “High Quality/Cold Water Fishes” streams identified as habitat for the Southern Redbelly Dace

Northern Harriers & Short-Eared Owls

Portions of the Falcon’s workspace are located near 6 areas with known occurrences of Short-eared Owls (PA endangered species) and Northern Harriers (PA threatened species). Pennsylvania Game Commission requested a study of these areas to identify breeding and nesting locations, which were executed from April-July 2016 within a 1,000-foot buffer of the pipeline’s workspace (limited to land cover areas consisting of meadows and pasture). One Short-eared Owl observation and 67 Northern Harrier observations were recorded during the study. PGC’s determined that, “based on the unusually high number of observations at these locations” work should not be done in these areas during harrier breeding season, April 15 through August 31.

Figure 9. Surveyed areas for Short-eared Owls (PA endangered species) and Northern Harriers (PA threatened species)

Bald Eagles

A known Bald Eagle nest is located in Beaver County. Two potential “alternate nests” are located where the Falcon crosses the Ohio River. National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines bar habitat disturbances that may interfere with the ability of eagles to breed, nest, roost, and forage. The 1 active nest in close proximity to the Falcon, called the Montgomery Dam Nest, is located just west of the pipeline’s terminus at Shell’s ethane cracker facility.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requested that Shell only implement setback buffers for the one active nest at Montgomery Dam (Figure 10). These include no tree clearing within 330 feet, no visible disturbances with 660 feet, and no excessive noise with 1,000 feet of an active nest. Furthermore, Shell must avoid all activities within 660ft of the nest from January 1st to July 31st that may disturb the eagles, including but not limited to “construction, excavation, use of heavy equipment, use of loud equipment or machinery, vegetation clearing, earth disturbance, planting, and landscaping.

Figure 10. Bald Eagle nest in Potter Township, Pennsylvania

Bats

The Falcon is located within the range of federally protected Indiana Bats and Northern Long-eared Bats in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In pre-construction surveys, 17 Northern Long-eared Bats were found at 13 of the survey sites, but no Indiana Bats were captured.

A total of 9 Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees were located, with the nearest roost tree located 318 feet from the pipeline’s workspace. Figure 11 below shows a cluster of roost trees in Raccoon Township, PA. For a map of all the roost trees, click here. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that “Due to the presence of several Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees within the vicinity of the project footprint (although outside of the 150-foot buffer), we recommend the following voluntary conservation measure: No tree removal between June 1 and July 31.”

The Pennsylvania Game Commission noted in early correspondences that Silver-haired Bats may be in the region (a PA species of special concern). PGC did not require a further study for the species, but did request a more restrictive conservation of no tree clearing between April 1 and October 31.

Figure 11. Northern long-eared bat roost trees in Raccoon Township, Pennsylvania

For more information on the wildlife impacts of the Falcon Pipeline, click here.

***

To continue reading about this pipeline, visit the Falcon Public EIA Project. 

By documenting the impacts of the Falcon Pipeline, you’re contributing to a growing body of work that shows the risks of fossil fuel pipelines. Not only does this evidence protect drinking water and vulnerable species, it serves as evidence against an inherently dangerous project that will contribute to climate change and the global plastics crisis.

We hope you’re inspired to take action and add your voice to a growing team in the region committed to safer and healthier environments. Thank YOU for your dedication to the cause!

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance.

Portions of this article were adapted from previous posts in the Falcon Public EIA Project, written by Kirk Jalbert.

Release: The 2019 You Are Here map launches, showing New York’s hurdles to climate leadership

For Immediate Release

Contact: Lee Ziesche, lee@saneenergyproject.org, 954-415-6282

Interactive Map Shows Expansion of Fracked Gas Infrastructure in New York State

And showcases powerful community resistance to it

New York, NY – A little over a year after 55 New Yorkers were arrested outside of Governor Cuomo’s door calling on him to be a true climate leader and halt the expansion of fracked gas infrastructure in New York State, grassroots advocates Sane Energy Project re-launched the You Are Here (YAH) map, an interactive map that shows an expanding system of fracked infrastructure approved by the Governor.

“When Governor Cuomo announced New York’s climate goals in early 2019, it’s clear there is no room for more extractive energy, like fossil fuels.” said Kim Fraczek, Director of Sane Energy Project, “Yet, I look at the You Are Here Map, and I see a web of fracked gas pipelines and power plants trapping communities, poisoning our water, and contributing to climate change.”

Sane Energy originally launched the YAH map in 2014 on the eve of the historic People’s Climate March, and since then, has been working with communities that resist fracked gas infrastructure to update the map and tell their stories.

“If you read the paper, you might think Governor Cuomo is a climate leader, but one look at the YAH Map and you know that isn’t true. Communities across the state are living with the risks of Governor Cuomo’s unprecedented buildout of fracked gas infrastructure,” said Courtney Williams, a mother of two young children living within 400 feet of the AIM fracked gas pipeline. “The Governor has done nothing to address the risks posed by the “Algonquin” Pipeline running under Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. That is the center of a bullseye that puts 20 million people in danger.”

Fracked gas infrastructure poses many of the same health risks as fracking and the YAH map exposes a major hypocrisy when it comes to Governor Cuomo’s environmental credentials. The Governor has promised a Green New Deal for New York, but climate science has found the expansion of fracking and fracked gas infrastructure is increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“The YAH map has been an invaluable organizing tool. The mothers I work with see the map and instantly understand how they are connected across geography and they feel less alone. This solidarity among mothers is how we build our power ,” said Lisa Marshall who began organizing with Mothers Out Front to oppose the expansion of the Dominion fracked gas pipeline in the Southern Tier and a compressor station built near her home in Horseheads, New York. “One look at the map and it’s obvious that Governor Cuomo hasn’t done enough to preserve a livable climate for our children.”

“Community resistance beat fracking and the Constitution Pipeline in our area,” said Kate O’Donnell  of Concerned Citizens of Oneonta and Compressor Free Franklin. “Yet smaller, lesser known infrastructure like bomb trucks and a proposed gas decompressor station and 25 % increase in gas supply still threaten our communities.”

The YAH map was built in partnership with FracTracker, a non-profit that shares maps, images, data, and analysis related to the oil and gas industry hoping that a better informed public will be able to make better informed decisions regarding the world’s energy future.

“It has been a privilege to collaborate with Sane Energy Project to bring our different expertise to visualizing the extent of the destruction from the fossil fuel industry. We look forward to moving these detrimental projects to the WINS layer, as communities organize together to take control of their energy future. Only then, can we see a true expansion of renewable energy and sustainable communities,” said Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator at Fractracker Alliance.

Throughout May and June Sane Energy Project and 350.org will be traveling across the state on the ‘Sit, Stand Sing’ tour to communities featured on the map to hold trainings on nonviolent direct action and building organizing skills that connect together the communities of resistance.

“Resistance to fracking infrastructure always starts with small, volunteer led community groups,” said Lee Ziesche, Sane Energy Community Engagement Coordinator. “When these fracked gas projects come to town they’re up against one of the most powerful industries in the world. The You Are Here Map and ‘Sit, Stand Sing’ tour will connect these fights and help build the power we need to stop the harm and make a just transition to community owned renewable energy.”

An Earth Day Tribute to Bill Hughes

In March 2019, Bill Hughes, environmental defender extraordinaire and former FracTracker colleague, passed away. His legacy lives through the multitude of lives he enriched – from students to activists to everyday people. Bill was an omnipresent force for good and always armed with facts and a pervasive smile. He is dearly missed. The article that follows is derived from an interview with him in 2018. Please keep Bill in your heart this Earth Day.

Raised in an industrial town a few miles east of Pittsburgh, William “Bill” Hughes married his wife, Marianne, in 1969. With dreams of a rural setting to raise a family, they bought 79 acres in West Virginia with an old farm house – the last and only home up a hollow in an almost abandoned valley. To Bill, it was a “little piece of almost heaven.”  Proud parents to a son and daughter, the Hughes enjoyed the peace and quiet of life in Wetzel County until the shale gas invasion.

Truck accidents, blocked roads, travel delays, road damage, infrastructure degradation, and demolished signs and guardrails became the norm. The noticeable impacts eroded the community’s quality of life and Bill was there to witness, document, and report the degradation, a picture at a time.

One of Bill’s many photos of of truck traffic & air impacts from the shale gas industry in West Virginia

Bill served on the county solid waste authority where he pushed-back on accepting the radioactive waste of the fracking industry. The Franciscan magazine St. Anthony Messenger featured Bill in a 2015 story where he spoke about the waste issue. “As far as I know, in the history of humans burying waste produced from human activity, we have never taken known radioactive materials like this and buried large amounts of it in a generic landfill designed for household trash disposal.”  Bill had a knack for appealing to common sense.

In early 2015, he testified at a hearing at the WV Public Service Commission regarding the landfill’s pending permit request for the special cell for drill cuttings. Delays irritated the owners of the landfill and, in February 2016, Bill became a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed against him. A summons was delivered to his home. Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission granted the permit. It was salt in the wounds but Bill reflected on it with his signature matter-of-factness. “One must consider that during the year 2013 alone at least $9 million exchanged hands at the landfill due to drill cuttings. The state received a third of that, the landfill about two-thirds. The county also got its share. My days were numbered.”

After an initial ruling in his favor, followed by appeal by the landfill, the Fourth Circuit issued a final dismissal order in March 2017. The unnerving ordeal was over but in the preceding seven years, about 850,000 tons of drilling waste found a home at the Wetzel County landfill.

Waste hazards and air pollution from drilling were a weight on Bill’s shoulders but he was most concerned about the social impacts of the extraction craze. “For ten years, gas companies have been fracturing the deep shale in Wetzel County but families have also been fractured,” Bill said. “The whole process…has contaminated the long-standing Appalachian culture and eroded our community history. The old normal is forever gone.” Bill called it collateral damage.

But doom and gloom weren’t part of his vocabulary. Bill put the “P” in perseverance. For nearly a decade, he educated thousands of people through a process he perfected – documenting and disseminating photography of the activities and effects of shale gas development. The photos became immediately useful in helping others understand what this industry was doing to America. Visible evidence was needed to counter false industry narratives suggesting hydraulic fracturing was harmonious and benign. Bill cranked out 8,000 photos suggesting otherwise.

Bill Hughes giving tours of gas fields in West Virginia. Photo by Joe Solomon. https://flic.kr/s/aHskkXZj3z

Bill Hughes giving a tour of gas fields in West Virginia. Photo by Joe Solomon.

Just taking pictures was not enough. Context was needed. Bill interpreted each picture – explaining the location, thing or activity, and significance of every image. Did it represent a threat to our water, air, or land? When did it happen? What happened before and after? Did it show a short or long-term problem?  Should state regulatory agencies see it to become better informed? Dissemination followed in many forms: tours of the gas fields; power point presentations to groups in five states; op-ed pieces written for news media; countless responses to questions and inquiries; even blogs and photo essays for various websites. Ceaseless Bill never stopped caring.

The work continues to impress and influence. Multiple examples reside on FracTracker.org – such as his forensic tour of visible air emissions or the instructive virtual oil and gas tour.

Perhaps his latter gestures were his most poignant. Surrounded by the despair of fracking, Bill sowed hope in the form of a 10,000 watt, ground mount, grid-tied, 36-panel home solar system installed in late June 2016. “During the twelve months of 2017, it produced over 12,000 kilowatt hours,” Bill said. It proved that solar can be immediately productive and cost effective. It was a viable alternative, off-the-shelf ready and capable of providing needed energy. The bold move needed a companion – in the form of an electric car. He purchased the only Chevy Bolt to be found in the state of West Virginia.

Maybe Bill Hughes should be an official emblem for Earth Day – a humble, faithful man of modest proportions, spreading the stewardship imperative from a little electric car. Hitch a ride, follow his lead, and, like Bill, always tell it like it is.

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

Frac sand mine in Wisconsin

Living on the Front Lines with Silica Sand Mines

Guest blog by Christine Yellowthunder, an environmental activist, tree farmer, and poet

Most people living in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa have increased their knowledge over the past six years regarding the fracking destruction occurring across the country.  The horror of fracking damages to life and land remain in the minds of most people who live near the massive land destruction from silica sand mining for what the unconventional oil and gas industry lovingly calls “proppant”.

Very often, we in the Midwest wonder if the rest of the country knows that this specialized form of silica sand mining destroys our rolling hills, woodlands, and water sources in order for silica sand to feed the fracking industry’s insatiable proppant demand.

Those of us who live in the direct path of this unhealthy silica sand mining need to make our stories known.

Bridge Creek Town, Wisconsin

The quiet abundance of life on an 80-acre tree farm in Wisconsin, fed by natural springs and wetlands, has nurtured every dream this prairie-raised transplant could conceive in the last 30 years. Six years of vigilance and rational debate has led to loss on every front when addressing the local government’s permitting of silica sand mines and its health and safety impacts on the community.

The largest sand mine in Bridge Creek Town lies one mile north of our tree farm. Two years ago, 40 acres of trees were culled for the installation of high intensity power lines to feed anticipated silica sand mine expansion under the legal provision of “Right-of-Way.” That document was signed by a previous land owner in 1948. No specific amount of land was specified on the original right-of-way, thus allowing significant legal destruction and permanent loss against the farm.

However, from a tree farm owner’s perspective, we have seen the variety and number of wildlife species increase at our farm over the past six years – likely because these species view our farm as an oasis, or what ecologists call a refugium, in an otherwise altered mixed-use landscape. The maximum capacity of the tree farm as a wildlife sanctuary is unknown. The adjacent silica Hi-Crush sand mine depletes the hillsides and woodlots in its path.

Frac Sand Mine, Eau Claire County, WI

Frac sand mine in Eau Claire County, WI

Hi-Crush Partners LP’s frac sand mine

The weekly blasting away of the hillsides sends shock waves – shaking homes and outbuildings weekly, along with our nerves. Visible cracks appear in the walls of buildings, and private wells are monitored for collapse and contamination.  The sand mine only guarantees repair to property lying within a half-mile of the mine. The mine blasts the land near Amish schools and has had a noticeable effect on the psyche of countless farm animals. The invisible silica is breathed by every living thing much to the mine’s denial, with deadly silicosis appearing up to 15 years after initial exposure. Our community is left to wonder who will manifest the health effects first. Blasting unearths arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into private wells and into the remaining soil.

There has been no successful reclamation of the land after it is mined, with most residents wondering what the actual point is of developing a reclamation plan is if timely implementation and stringent reclamation metrics are not enforced.  All useful topsoil has been stripped away and is dead with the land only able to support sedge grasses and very few of them at best. No farming on this mined land can occur even though these mining companies promise farm owners that when they are done mining, soil productivity will meet or exceed pre-mining conditions and much milder slopes than the pre-mining bluffs that contained the silica sand. Needless to say, land values of homes, farms, and property decrease as the mines creeps closer.

Explore photos of Hi-Crush Partner’s frac sand mine:

The people of Bridge Creek

Bridge Creek, as well as many other towns, have been easy picking for the mines. Many towns are unzoned, having little industry, a meager tax base, and a huge land area for a very sparse population.  The unemployment and underemployment rates are quite high. Many residents in Bridge Creek farm, including a very large population of Amish who own a checkerboard of land used for farming and saw mills. Most of these Amish families arrived here from Canada and bought farms when the mid 80’s drought put small farms up for sale. The Amish community seldom votes, and their strong religious beliefs prevent them from taking a stand on any political issues.

Video of contaminated well water an Amish farm in Augusta, WI near frac sand mining

Scroll to the end of the article to explore more impacts to the Amish community

The original residents of this land, the Ho-Chunk people, are few in number and wish to protect their home lands that they had purchased back from the government. 

Furthermore, a significant number of artists live in this community and have chosen to keep their homes and studios in anonymity. Thus, it is very difficult to amass any unity among this diverse population to stand up to the local government. Many long-time residents have the attitude that you can’t stop “progress.” I wonder if they know that this kind of progress kills the future?

Broken promises made by the mining company for jobs and huge payments to the initial land sellers have divided families and the community. Even though the mining boom was sold as a job provider, few locals are employed by the mines. There is little faith that the local government will provide for the safety and well being of its residents.  Presentation of research, facts regarding aquifer endangerment and silica sand health risks, and proposals written in detail outlining potential protective ordinances have cost citizens, including myself, enormous amounts of time and money. The government responses remain the same. The sand mines have been allowed to continue destruction of the natural resources to no one’s benefit except for the enormous profits lining the coffers of the mining corporations.

Resistance sign reading "No Frac Sand Mining" in the August area of Wisconsin

Today, after six years of continuous silica sand mining moving ever closer, I can no longer fight logically and linearly to eliminate the greed, injustice, and usurped power head on. I fight land destruction as a different warrior.

I choose to protect this land and wood by nurturing its existence through planting more native trees, educating others to the wisdom and wonder of nature, by photo journaling the struggle for its survival and documenting this land’s story so that future citizens will know the truth. Moreover, I will continue to spread the message loud and long: stopping the silica sand mining will stop fracking.

These efforts may be the best that I can manage with a grieving heart. A fierce spirit will continue to share this story and those of others living in the Midwest where the silica sand laden hills roll under the top soil of our lives.


Christine Yellowthunder is an environmental activist of Lakota heritage and is also a tree farmer and poet. She lives on her farm with her husband Ralph Yellowthunder, a Ho-Chunk elder and Vietnam combat veteran.

The Amish community in Bridge Creek:

Listen below to in interview of an Amish farmer and clock maker who lives adjacent to the Hi-Crush mine, by Ted Auch, FracTracker’s Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and local resident, Mary Ann O’Donahue:

 

Photos of the property and workshop:


Feature image: Frac sand mining in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from LightHawk.

Photo by Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

Governor Brown’s Climate Summit Heats up Political Climate

Overview

California has become a battleground for real climate action. The state Governor, Jerry Brown prides himself in his own climate leadership, and California has pushed EU nations and countries worldwide to take climate change seriously. As a final tribute to his own tenure as a term-limited governor, Brown has organized and hosted a Global Climate Action Summit, September 12-14th. The summit convenes an international invitation list of “climate leaders” to, in their words:

“Take Ambition to the Next Level.” It will be a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action. It will also be a launchpad for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action from countries—supported by all sectors of society—that can put the globe on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement.

Meanwhile, frontline communities, community organizers, and grassroots organizations contest the perspective that real change has been made. While investors and green capitalists celebrate, frontline communities fight daily for clean air and water. In solidarity with and led by frontline communities, activists have protested the summit, in an attempt to hold policy makers accountable to those most affected by the fossil fuel industry.

Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice

One quarter of a million people worldwide, and well over 30,000 in San Francisco hit the streets during the Rise for Climate last Saturday, September 8th. With over 900 actions taking place simultaneously people worldwide demanded real climate action from their local leaders. FracTracker Alliance staff helped coordinate and participated in events nationwide.

In San Francisco, the march was led by members of the Indigenous community, making up the Indigenous Bloc, on the frontlines of the action. The day officially started with prayers from Indigenous leaders and a moment of silence for Indigenous Peoples that have been most harmed by the effects of climate change. Dozens of various other movements followed the Indigenous Bloc in a parade of support. FracTracker took the opportunity to document this monumental event, and photos from the march are shown below.

March Photos

For California and international “climate leaders” in attendance, Rise kicked off a long week of climate action culminating with the Global Action Climate Summit. The week is full of activities geared towards movement building, including the Solidarity to Solutions Summit (#sol2sol) by It Takes Roots; Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice, hosted by Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network; and mass actions including a march and occupation of the Global Climate Action Summit!

SB100

To mark such a momentous movement, the Brown administration signed a new bill into law, SB100. The new law, authored by Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles), pledges that all of California’s electricity will come from clean power sources by 2045. Brown said, “California is committed to doing whatever is necessary to meet the existential threat of climate change.” This is the most ambitious state climate policy in the U.S. The legislation barely passed the state Legislature after nearly two years of debate, with opponents arguing that it would lead to higher electric bills for all Californians.

Opposition from Eco-Activists

In opposition to the feel-good, pat-yourself-on-the-back feelings from delegates at the summit, frontline communities and activists respond that the SB100 legislation does nothing to stop harms to frontline communities caused by extraction and the supply side of the fossil fuel economy. The Against Climate Capitalism campaign is a coalition of Diablo Rising Tide teamed up with Idle No More SF Bay, the Ruckus Society, It Takes Roots, Indigenous Environmental Network and the Brown’s Last Chance. Members of the coalition have been outspoken proponents organizing in support of real climate leadership. The coalition is pushing for Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature to end the extraction of new fossil fuels in California. The green groups making up these larger coalition networks encompass a broad range research and advocacy groups, from international groups like Greenpeace to local grassroots movements from Los Angeles and California’s Central Valley. FracTracker Alliance is also a campaign member.

The goal of the campaign is to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and supports a just transition from a fossil fuel economy to clean energy sources. A petition to pressure California Governor Jerry Brown to end fossil fuel extraction can be found on their website. The California legislature and the Brown administration has consistently failed to address the impacts of extraction in its own backyard. While frontline communities are suffering, the Brown administration continues to take the easy way out with future legislation such as SB100, which does nothing to address the environmental justice spector of actual oil drilling and production. In response to SB100, the campaign has issued response:

  • Governor Brown has consistently failed to address the supply side of oil and the drilling in California, which is an indispensable step to avoid the worst effects of climate destruction.
  • Some 5.4 million Californians live within a mile of at least one oil or gas well, and this includes hundreds of thousands of children. Many suffer illnesses from toxic exposure and cannot wait for action.
  • Brown’s failure to act on this issue is a massive moral failure from which no bill signing can distract. Despite his signing of an important and historical bill he did nothing to draft or support, Governor Brown can expect to be greeted with energetic and committed protest at the Global Climate Action summit this week.

With these poignant criticisms, it begs the question; how can Governor Jerry Brown continue to ignore the actual cause of climate change? Brown has passed legislation ensuring that everyday Californians will bear the costs for clean energy utilities, but has done nothing to hold accountable the actual culprits responsible for climate change, the oil and gas corporations extracting the 5.7 million barrels of oil per year from California soil.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator

Cover photo: Brown’s Las Change Billboard. Photo by Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle