Fracktivists Rally, Interrupt Inauguration

Anti-fracking activists took to the streets of Harrisburg yesterday calling for Governor Tom Wolf to ban fracking on the day of his inauguration.  Led by Gasland director Josh Fox, Pennsylvanians Against Fracking, a coalition of 90 organizations held a press conference just down the street from the Capitol.  Speakers denounced the idea that shale gas drilling is safe and called for protections against water and air pollution.  Sam Bernhardt of Food and Water Watch accused Wolf of “being overcome by the fracking industry.  He promised that fracktivists will be “a constant presence as Gov. Wolf tours Pennsylvania in 2015.

Josh Fox:

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Indeed they didn’t wait as they marched to the east side of the Capitol where the new Governor was being sworn into office.  There they interrupted the festivities with catcalls, whistles and chants.  It was entirely inappropriate and likely cost them much potential support for their aims.  Many of those attending the event are in positions which could influence fracking legislation, policies and even potential bans such as the State of New York just instituted.

Gov. Wolf addressed the protesters in his remarks calling on them to help him develop renewable energy sources and keep energy development clean and safe.  In this he is a striking breath of fresh air after his predecessor who was bought and paid for by the fracking industry and allowed the Commonwealth’s landscape to be raped and pillaged.

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The Fracking Boom is a Fracking Bubble

by Walter Brasch

Gas prices have plunged to the low $2 range-except in Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, the prices at the pump are in the mid-$2 range.

That’s because Gov. Tom Corbett and the legislature imposed a 28-cent per gallon surcharge tax. Until 2019, Pennsylvanians will be paying an additional $2.3 billion a year in taxes and fees-$11.5 billion total-to improve the state’s infrastructure. In addition to the increased tax on gas at the pumps, Pennsylvania motorists will also be spending more for license registrations, renewals, and title certificates.

For far too many years, the state’s politicians of both major parties, preaching fiscal austerity-and hoping to be re-elected by taxpayers upset with government spending-neglected the roads, bridges, and other critical problems.

What the state government doesn’t readily acknowledge is that much of the damage to roads and bridges has come from increased truck traffic from the fracking industry.  

The state roads, especially the section of I-80 that bisects the northern and southern halves of the state, were already in disrepair, as any long-haul trucker can attest. The addition of 40-ton fracking trucks on two-lane roads, highways and the Interstates, has added to the problem.

“The damage caused by this additional truck traffic rapidly deteriorates from minor surface damage to completely undermining the roadway base [and] caused deterioration of several of our weaker bridge structures,” Scott Christie, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, told a legislative committee in 2010. Since then, the damage has increased in proportion to the number of wells drilled into the state.  There are about 7,100 active gas wells in the state, with the cost of road repair estimated at about $13,000 to $25,000 per well.  The fracking truck traffic to each well is the equivalent of about 3.5 million cars on the road, says Christie.

Although corporations drilling into Pennsylvania have agreed to fund repairs of roads they travel that have less than two inches depth of asphalt on them, the fees don’t cover the full cost of repair.  Had the state imposed an extraction tax on each well, instead of a much-lower impact tax, there would have been enough money to fund road and bridge repair without additional taxes for motorists. Every state with shale oil but Pennsylvania has an extraction tax.

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, who supports fracking, says he wants the state to begin to impose those extraction taxes. The politicians, who benefitted from campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, claim the industry-and all its jobs-will leave the state if the taxes are too high.

There are several realities the oil/gas industry knows, but the politicians, chambers of commerce, and those who believe everything politicians and corporations tell them don’t know or won’t publicly admit knowing.

First-As long as it’s economical to mine the gas, the industry won’t leave the state, even if they have to pay a 5 percent extraction tax, which is at the low end of taxes charged by other states.

Second-Tthe expected $1 billion in extraction tax per year, even if the legislature approves, should not be expected. The industry has already found most of the “sweet spots,” and production will likely fall off in 2015, leading to less income to the state and to leaseholders.

Third-Like a five-year-old in a candy shop, the industry salivated at the newly-found technology and gas availability and overdrilled the past four years, leading to a glut and falling prices. End of the year prices are about $3.17 per million cubic feet, down almost 30 percent from November.

Fourth-Falling prices have led to drilling not being as profitable as it could be.

Fifth-The OPEC countries have not lowered their own production of oil, and the reason for the lower  gas prices at the pumps is not because of the shale gas boom, but because of the plunging price of oil per barrel, which has declined by about 40 percent since Summer. Once oil prices fell beneath about $70-73 per barrel, American shale frackers found themselves unable to compete economically.

Sixth-To compensate for lower prices in the United States, the megacorporate drilling corporations have begun to find alternative ways to make money. One way is to build a massive maze of pipelines, and send natural gas to refineries in Philadelphia and the Gulf Coast, changing the gas into the extremely volatile liquefied natural gas (LNG), putting it onto ships, and exporting it to countries that are willing to pay more than three times what Americans are paying for natural gas. However, there is an unexpected twist. The OPEC low-cost oil has led to a severe drop in Russia’s economy and value of the ruble. Gazprom, the Russian-owned world’s largest gas supplier, is now forced to drop its own prices to be competitive, and has been developing plans to provide gas to Europe and Asia, especially China where American gas is headed, at a price that makes it uneconomical to do long-term contracts.

Seventh-The banks and investment lenders are getting testy. Because of overdrilling, combined with inflated estimates of how much gas really is in the Marcellus Shale, corporations have found themselves in trouble. Many corporations have begun cutting their drilling operations; others have already left the state, burdened by debt to the lending institutions; some corporations have sold parts of their operations or declared bankruptcy.

Eighth-The jobs promised by the politicians, the various chambers of commerce, and the industry never met the expectations. Gov. Tom Corbett claimed 240,000 additional jobs. The reality is the increase in jobs is about one-tenth of that; more important, most of the full-time jobs on the rigs and well pads are taken by workers  from Texas and Oklahoma who have extensive experience in drilling; most of the other jobs are temporary, and layoffs have already begun.

Ninth-The fracking boom for Pennsylvania is more like the housing bubble.  At first, the availability of mortgages looked like a boom. However, a combination of greedy investors and lending institutions with almost no governmental oversight, combined by a client base of ordinary people who were lured into buying houses with inflated prices they couldn’t afford, led to the Great Recession.  Those who didn’t learn from the housing bubble guaranteed the fracking boom would become a fracking bubble.

Tenth-The continued push for fossil fuel development, and more than $4 billion in governmental subsidies, slows the development of renewable energy, while escalating the problems associated with climate change and brings the world closer to a time when global warming is irreversible.

Finally, but most important-The fracking industry doesn’t acknowledge that this newer process to extract gas, which has been viable less than a decade, is destroying the environment, leading to increased climate change, and putting public health at risk, something that dozens of independent scientific studies are starting to reveal. It was a 154-page analysis of public health implications, conducted by the New York Department of Health, and based upon scientific and medical studies, that led New York this month to ban all drilling-and infuriate many politicians and some landowners who were expecting to make extraordinary wealth by leasing mineral rights beneath their land to the gas companies. Of course, they didn’t look to their neighbor to the south to learn the wealth promised was never as much as the royalties delivered and that many landowners now say they should never have given up their mineral rights and the destruction of the land and farms that came with it.

Until prices stabilize, Americans are paying lower prices for gas at the pump; Pennsylvanians are also paying lower prices, but not as low as the rest of the country.

And the politicians and industry front groups continue to foolishly claim there are no environmental or health effects from horizontal fracking, only blue sky and rainbows of riches.

[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist and the author of 20 books, is a specialist on the effects of fracking. His critically-acclaimed book, Fracking Pennsylvania, is now in its second edition. The book is available from Greeley & Stone Publishers; Amazon; Barnes & Noble; or local independent bookstores.]

   

Arsenic-Laced Coffee Good for You

by Walter Brasch

You’re sitting in your favorite restaurant one balmy September morning.

Your waitress brings a pot of coffee and a standard 5-ounce cup.

“Would you like cream and sugar with it?” she asks.

You drink your coffee black. And hot. You decline her offer.

“Would you like arsenic with it?” she asks.

Arsenic? You’re baffled. And more than a little suspicious.

“It enhances the flavor,” says your waitress.

“I really don’t think I want arsenic,” you say, now wondering why she’s so cheerful.

“It really does enhance the flavor-and there’s absolutely no harm in it,” she says.

“But it’s arsenic!” you reply. “That’s rat poison. It can kill you.”

“Only in large doses,” she says. “I’ll add just 150 drops to your coffee. It tastes good and won’t harm you,” she says, still as cheery as ever.

“But 150 drops is deadly!” you reply, looking around to see if you’re on “Candid Camera.” You’re not, and she’s serious.

“It’s really nothing,” she says, explaining that 150 drops, when mixed with five ounces of coffee is only 0.5 percent of the total. She explains that 99.5 percent of the coffee-about 2,800 drops-is still freshly-brewed coffee.

Ridiculous?

Of course it’s ridiculous.

But the oil and gas industry want you to believe that 99.5 percent of all the fluids they shove into the earth to do horizontal fracturing, also known as fracking, is harmless. Just fresh river water. Move along. Nothing to see here.

As to the other half of one-percent? They tell you it’s just food products. Table salt. Guar gum (used in ice cream and baked goods). Lemon juice. Nothing to worry about, they assure you.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in 2013, identified about 1,000 chemicals that the oil and gas industry uses in fracking operations, most of them carcinogens at the strengths they shove into the earth. Depending upon the geology of the area and other factors, the driller uses a combination of fluids-perhaps a couple of dozen at one well, a different couple of dozen at another well. But, because state legislatures have allowed the companies to invoke “trade secrets” protection, they don’t have to identify which chemicals and in what strengths they use at each well. Even health professionals and those in emergency management aren’t allowed to know the composition of the fluids-unless they sign non-disclosure statements. Patients and the public are still kept from the information.

What is known is that among the most common chemicals in fracking fluids, in addition to arsenic, are benzene, which can lead to leukemia and several cancers, reduce white blood cell production in bones, and cause genetic mutation; formaldehyde, which can cause leukemia and genetic and birth defects; hydrofluoric acid, which can cause genetic mutation and chronic lung disease, cause third degree burns, affect bone structure, the central nervous system, and cause cardiac arrest; nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, which can cause pulmonary edema and heart disease; radon, which has strong links to lung cancer; and toluene, which in higher doses can produce nausea, muscle weakness, and memory and hearing loss.

Each well requires an average of three to eight million gallons of water for the first frack, depending upon the geology of the area. Energy companies drilling in the Pennsylvania part of the Marcellus Shale, the most productive of the nation’s shales, use an average of 4.0-5.6 million gallons of water per frack. That’s only an average. Seneca Resources needed almost 19 million gallons of water to frack a well in northeastern Pennsylvania in 2012; Encana Oil & Gas USA used more than 21 million gallons of water to frack one well in Michigan the following year. A well may be fracked several times (known as “restimulation”), but most fracking after the first one is usually not economical.

After the water, chemicals, and proppants (usually about 10,000 tons of silica sand) are shoved deep into the earth, most have to be brought back up. Flowback water, also known as wastewater, contains not just chemicals and elements that went into the earth, but elements that were undisturbed in the earth until the fracking process had begun. Among the elements that are often present in the flowback water are Uranium-238, Thorium-232, and Radium, which decays into Radon, one of the most radioactive and toxic of all gases.

Wastewater is often stored in plastic-lined pits, some as large as an acre. These pits can leak, spilling the wastewater onto the ground and into streams. The waste water can also evaporate, eventually causing health problems of those living near the pits who can be exposed by inhaling the invisible toxic clouds or from absorbing it through their skin. In the eight years since drilling began in the Marcellus Shale, about 6.5 billion gallons of wastewater have been produced.

Many of the pits are now closed systems. But that doesn’t prevent health problems. Trucks pick up the wastewater and transport it to injection wells that can be several hundred miles away. At any point in that journey, there can be leaks, especially if the truck is involved in a highway accident.

Assuming there are no accidents or spills, the trucks will unload flowback water into injection pits, shoving the toxic waste back into the ground, disturbing the earth and leading to what geologists now identify as human-induced earthquakes.

Now, let’s go back to the industry’s claim of innocence-that 99.5 percent of all fluids shoved into the earth are completely harmless. Assuming only five million gallons of pure river water are necessary for one frack at one well, that means at least 25,000 gallons are toxic.

Would you like cream and sugar with that?

[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning social-issues journalist, is the author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster, an overall look at the economics, politics, health, and environmental effects of fracking.]

   

AIDS Advances May be Compromised by Legislative Inaction

by Walter Brasch

Researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia may have found an entry-way to the cure for AIDS.

Once the HIV virus enters the body it can lie dormant for years. It can also evolve into AIDS.  But, until now, it could never be removed.

It’s far too early to claim an AIDS cure-there still has to be several years of clinical trials- but this may be as close to a solution as scientists have come.

There can be a lot of politics in medical science, but the researchers at least have the wisdom to know they must work together and focus upon the people not the politics.

Even if there is a cure for AIDS, even if there are significant advances in the treatment and cure of other communicable diseases, it may not mean much if patients can’t get the medical treatment they need because obstructionists are doing their best to separate the people from the solution.

Two hours west of Philadelphia is Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania state capital. This is where Gov. Tom Corbett and his well-oiled legislature shut down 15 of 60 public health clinics, have plans to shut down nine more to “save” about $3 million a year, and laid off 73 nurses and support staff. In July, the state Supreme Court issued an emergency injunction to prevent the state from shutting down more health clinics, and is reviewing a petition to force the administration to reopen the other clinics. Under the Corbett administration, Pennsylvania ranks 43rd of 50 states in per capita public health spending, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The governor also vetoed a budget item to spend $2 million a year from tax revenue generated by oil and gas companies to do research about the effects of fracking upon the people’s health, to provide health care information, to treat those who may have been affected by air and water pollution from fracking, and to establish a health care registry that would help identify problems. But he was more than willing to give all kinds of tax breaks to oil and gas companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, a foreign corporation, which he handed a $1.7 billion tax credit. If the state taxed gas extraction companies at a rate at least that of other states, there would be at least another $500 million a year that could be used to help protect the people’s health and their environment.

More than 50 times, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has tried to wipe the Affordable Care Act (ACA) off the books. This quixotic mission will continue to fail for two reasons. First, the Supreme Court of the United States, which has a majority of conservatives, ruled the Act is constitutional. Second, all evidence shows the Act has led to better health care and at least 2.3 million Americans covered who couldn’t get insurance prior to the passage of the ACA. More than eight million Americans have already signed up for ACA coverage, and are now receiving better health care at lower insurance rates.

Further, because of the ACA, more than 5.5 million senior citizens and disabled have saved about $4.5 billion on prescription drugs in the past three years, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Fourteen “red” states have chosen not to be a part of the ACA, their legislatures adamantly refusing to agree to anything that President Obama has proposed, even if it means the people suffer. The impartial Rand Corp. estimates these states will spend about $1 billion more taxpayer funds than if they expanded Medicaid under ACA provisions. Because of their refusal to agree to the ACA, almost four million residents of their states will continue to be uninsured, forcing the state and hospitals to pay for emergency medical care for low-income individuals. (In Pennsylvania, with a Republican governor and legislature, if the state agreed to implement the ACA, the savings would be about $600 million the first year.) However, the rabid Right Wing has continued to sling a barrage of lies and half-truths, usually picked up, channeled, and reported by the mass media. The time and money devoted to this political gesturing by Right Wing politicians could better be spent on funding research to find cures for Ebola, multiple sclerosis, numerous forms of cancers, and dozens of other life-threatening diseases.

This is the same Congress that had blocked funding to improve the VA system, while spending $3 million this year alone to investigate what they have created as the Benghazi Scandal. It’s already been investigated and re-investigated. Senior military commanders and impartial diplomats have already told the truth, but the House still wants to throw out its chest and throw a junior-high tantrum. Think of what that $3 million can do to help the nation’s homeless, about one-fourth of them veterans.

Members of Congress believe they have to travel all over the world on what they call “fact-finding tours.” These tours often find facts in tropical island nations.  And now, thanks to a decision by the apparently misnamed House Ethics Committee, members of Congress don’t even have to report if their trips were funded by lobbyists. Think of what several million more dollars can do to help improve the health of the impoverished rather than help members of Congress get sun tans.

It’s just politics. But, how many more will suffer and die from our misguided priorities.

Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, which looks at the health, environmental, economic, and political effects from fracking.]

 

Passing Gas to the Consumer

by Walter Brasch

Gas prices at the pump during the July 4th extended weekend were the highest they have been in six years. This, of course, has little to do with supply-and-demand economics. It has everything to do with supply-and-gouge profits.

Over the past decade, the five largest oil companies have earned more than $1 trillion in profits. Last year, the Big Five-BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell-earned about $93 billion in profits. Their CEOs last year earned an average of about $20 million. Included within the profits is $2.4 billion in taxpayer subsidies because it’s hard to make a living when your hourly wage, assuming you work every hour of every day, is only $2,283.

“We have been subsidizing oil companies for a century. That’s long enough,” President Obama said more than a year ago. The Senate disagreed. Forty-three Republicans and four Democrats blocked the elimination of subsidies. Although the final vote was 51-47 to end the subsidies, a simple majority was not enough because the Republicans threatened a filibuster that would have required 60 votes to pass the bill. A Think Progress financial analysis revealed that the 47 senators who voted to continue subsidies received almost $23.6 million in career contributions from the oil and gas industry. In contrast, the 51 senators who had voted to repeal the subsidies received only about $5.9 million.

For a couple of decades, the oil industry blamed the Arabs for not pumping enough oil to export to the United States. But when the Arab oil cartel (of which the major U.S. oil companies have limited partnerships) decided to pump more oil, the Americans had to look elsewhere for their excuses. In rapid succession, they blamed Mexico, England, the Bermuda Triangle, polar bears who were lying about climate change so they could get more ice for their diet drinks, and infertile dinosaurs.

This year, the oil companies blamed ISIS, a recently-formed terroristic fringe group composed primarily of Sunni Muslims, who have opposed Shia Muslims for more than 14 centuries. Think of the Protestant-Catholic wars in Ireland. Because ISIS was laying a path of destruction through Iraq, the oil companies found it convenient to declare that oil shipments were threatened, and then raise prices, salivating at their good fortune that terrorists had come to their financial assistance during the Summer holidays.

However, because the oil companies have laid a thick propaganda shield upon the America people to make them believe that fracking the environment and destroying public health, while yielding only temporary job growth, will lead to less dependence upon the Arab nations and lower costs to Americans, the Industry has to come up with some excuses to drill the taxpayers.

Through deft journalistic intrigue and a lifetime of investigative reporting, I was able to obtain insider information from the ultra secret Gas and Oil Unified Greedy Excuse Maker sub-committee (GOUGEM). I have not been able to verify the transcript, but in the developing tradition of 21st century journalism, that doesn’t really matter.

“We have a problem,” declared the GOUGEM Grand Caliph “We have run out of excuses. Last year, we had to find excuses not only for the Summer vacations, but also to justify our surreptitious funding of the Benghazi investigation.”

“There must be a hundred different ways to nail Obama for this year’s increase,” declared the Sunoco representative.

“What if we claim that Obamacare caused gas prices to go up for ambulances,” said a newly-appointed representative from the Hess Corp.

“Tried it last year, but we couldn’t get much traction,” said the Grand Caliph. “Only Fox, Limbaugh, and some guy broadcasting through a tin cup from his room at Bellevue picked it up.”

“Afghanistan!”  shouted the Marathon representative. “We’ve gotten good mileage from blaming the war for the cost of gas.”

“Yeah,” said the Tesoro rep sarcastically, “while we’ve been reaping enough excessive profits to build a water park at every one of our executives’ McMansions. I’m afraid the American people after 13 years have finally caught on to that scam.”

“If not Iraq and Afghanistan,” how about a new war? We invade Switzerland,” the ConocoPhillips rep suggested, “and claim we’re protecting the world from weapons of mass Swiss Army Knives. Every Republican and a few Democrats will back us on that.”

“It only works if there’s oil in Switzerland,” said the Shell rep, “and since we haven’t developed the technology to frack the Matterhorn, we’ll have to find another reason to raise gas prices.”

The BP rep suggested that the oil companies claim gas price increases were necessary because the price of Dawn detergent, used to clean oil-slicked marine mammals, went up.

The Chevron  rep said they could blame the Treasury Department for their underhanded tactics in locating the companies’ tax-free stash in the Caymans.  “How could anyone complain about us needing more income to pay our lawyers?” she declared.

The Valero rep wanted to blame the Veterans Administration. “We say we had to wait so long to get permission to raise gas prices that we had to do it ourselves,” he brightly said, and tagged that suggestion with the explanation that the companies could then claim they were being self-sufficient and not dependent upon the government. “The conservatives will love us,” he righteously declared.

After a few moments of idle chatter, something committees have perfected, the Exxon Mobil rep spoke up. “We don’t need an excuse.”

“You been inhaling too many fumes?” the Shell rep asked.

“Slip on a grease spot in one of your garages?” asked the Murphy Oil rep.

“We’ve always had an excuse,” the Shell rep whined. “Without an excuse, the motorist might not buy our gas.”

“Oh, they’ll buy,” said the Exxon Mobil rep confidently. “We’ve bought out and eliminated most of the alternative fuel sources, public transportation is in the pits, and no one walks. That leaves cars, and they all run on what we decide they run on.”

“So what’s your point?” asked the BP representative.

“It’s as simple as 1-2-3,” the Exxon representative stated. “One. We’re Big Business. Two. We’ve already bought the Republican-controlled Congress. Three. We don’t need to justify anything.”

By unanimous agreement, the gas bag cartel declared there would be a 10-cent a gallon hike by the end of Summer-and no excuse.

[Dr. Brasch’s latest books are the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, a journalistic novel; and Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the health, environmental, economic, and political effects of horizontal fracturing.]

Scientists Predict Increased Rain, Floods for Pennsylvania

by Walter Brasch

Pennsylvanians will experience increased rainfall and floods if data analysis by a Penn State meteorologist and long-term projections by a fisheries biologist, with a specialty in surface water pollution, are accurate.

Paul Knight, senior lecturer in meteorology at Penn State, compiled rainfall data for Pennsylvania from 1895-when recordings were first made-to this year. He says there has been an increase of 10 percent of rainfall during the past century. Until the 1970s, the average rainfall throughout the state was about 42 inches. Beginning in the 1970s, the average began creeping up. “By the 1990s, the increase was noticeable,” he says.  The three wettest years on record since 1895 were 2003, 2004, and 2011. The statewide average was 61.5 inches in 2011, the year of Tropical Storm Lee, which caused 18 deaths and about $1.6 billion in damage in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, and devastating flooding in New York and Pennsylvania, especially along the Susquehanna River basin.

Dr. Harvey Katz, of Montoursville, Pa., extended Knight’s data analysis for five decades. Dr. Katz predicts an average annual rainfall of about 55 inches, about 13 inches more than the period of 1895 to 1975. The increased rainfall isn’t limited to Pennsylvania, but extends throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.

Both Knight and Dr. Katz say floods will be more frequent. The industrialization and urbanization of America has led to more trees being cut down; the consequences are greater erosion and more open areas to allow rainwater to flow into streams and rivers. Waterway hazards, because of flooding and increased river flow, will cause additional problems. Heavy rains will cause increased pollution, washing off fertilizer on farmlands into the surface water supply, extending into the Chesapeake Bay. Sprays on plants and agricultural crops to reduce attacks by numerous insects, which would normally stay localized, will now be washed into streams and rivers, says Knight.

Pollution will also disrupt the aquatic ecosystem, likely leading to a decrease in the fishing industry because of increased disease and death among fish and other marine mammals, says Dr. Katz.

Another consequence of increased rainfall is a wider spread of pollution from fracking operations, especially in the Marcellus Shale.

Most of the 1,000 chemicals that can be used in drilling operations, in the concentrations used, are toxic carcinogens; because of various geological factors, each company using horizontal fracturing can use a mixture of dozens of those chemicals at any one well site to drill as much as two miles deep into the earth.

Last year, drilling companies created more than 300 billion gallons of flowback from fracking operations in the United States. (Each well requires an average of 3-5 million gallons of water, up to 100,000 gallons of chemicals, and as much as 10 tons of silica sand. Flowback is what is brought up after the initial destruction of the shale.) Most of that flowback, which once was placed in open air pits lined with plastic that can tear and leak, are now primarily placed into 22,000 gallon steel trailers, which can leak. In Pennsylvania, drillers are still allowed to mix up to 10 percent of the volume of large freshwater pits with flowback water.

In March 2013, Carizo Oil and Gas was responsible for an accidental spill of 227,000 gallons of wastewater, leading to the evacuation of four homes in Wyoming County, Pa. Two months later, a malfunction at a well, also in Wyoming County, sent 9,000 gallons of flowback onto the farm and into the basement of a nearby resident.

Rain, snow, and wind in the case of a spill can move that toxic soup into groundwater, streams, and rivers. In addition to any of dozens of toxic salts, metals, and dissolvable organic chemicals, flowback contains radioactive elements brought up from deep in the earth; among them are Uranium-238, Thorium-232, and radium, which decays into radon, one of the most radioactive and toxic gases. Radon is the second highest cause of lung cancer, after cigarettes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A U.S. Geological Survey analysis of well samples collected in Pennsylvania and New York between 2009 and 2011 revealed that 37 of the 52 samples had Radium-226 and Radium-228 levels that were 242 times higher than the standard for drinking water. One sample, from Tioga County, Pa., was 3,609 times the federal standard for safe drinking water, and 300 times the federal industrial standard.

Radium-226, 200 times higher than acceptable background levels, was detected in Blacklick Creek, a 30-mile long tributary of the Conemaugh River near Johnstown, Pa. The radium, which had been embedded deep in the earth but was brought up in flowback waters, was part of a discharge from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, according to research published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Increased rainfall also increases the probability of pollution from spills from the nation’s decaying pipeline systems. About half of all oil and gas pipelines are at least a half-century old. There were more than 6,000 spills from pipelines last year. Among those spills were almost 300,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil from a pipe in Arkansas, and 100,000 gallons of oil and other chemicals in Colorado.

Increased truck and train traffic to move oil and gas from the drilling fields to refineries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts has led to increased accidents. Railroad accidents in the United States last year accounted for about 1.15 million gallons of spilled crude oil, more than all spills in the 40 years since the federal government began collecting data, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Many of the spills were in wetlands or into groundwater and streams.

A primary reason for increased rainfall (as well as increases in hurricanes, tornadoes, ocean water rises, and other long-term weather phenomenon) is because of man-made climate change, the result of increased carbon dioxide from fossil fuel extraction and burning. It’s not a myth. It’s not a far-fetched liberal hoax invented by Al Gore. About 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists agree we are experiencing climate change, and that the world is at a critical change; if the steady and predictable increase in climate change, which affects the protection of the ozone layer, is not reduced within two decades, it will not be reversible. Increased rainfall and pollution will be only a part of the global meltdown.

[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and emeritus professor. He is a syndicated columnist, radio commentator, and the author of 20 books, the latest of which is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the effects of horizontal fracturing. He is a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor and multimedia writer-producer.]

The Fracking Prostitutes of American Colleges

(part 2 of 3)

[Part 1: Lackawanna College, a two-year college in Scranton, Pa., accepted a $2.5 million endowment from Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. to strengthen that college’s programs and ties to the oil and gas industry.]

by Walter Brasch

Two of the reasons Pennsylvania has no severance tax and one of the lowest taxes upon shale gas drilling are because of an overtly corporate-friendly legislature and a research report from Penn State, a private state-related university that receives about $300 million a year in public funds.

Opponents of the tax cited a Penn State study that claimed a 30 percent decline in drilling if the fees were assessed, while also touting the economic benefits of drilling in the Marcellus Shale. What wasn’t widely known is that the lead author of the study, Dr. Timothy Considine, “had a history of producing industry-friendly research on economic and energy issues,” according to reporting by Jim Efsathioi Jr. of Bloomberg News. The Penn State study was sponsored by a $100,000 grant from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an oil and gas lobbying group that represents more than 300 energy companies. Dr. William Easterling, dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, said the study may have “crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy.”

The Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR), a part of Penn State, announced that with funding provided by General Electric and ExxonMobil, it would offer a “Shale Gas Regulators Training Program.” The Center had previously said it wasn’t taking funding from private industry. However, the Center’s objectivity may have already been influenced by two people. Gov. Tom Corbett, who accepted more than $2 million in campaign funds from oil and gas company personnel, sits on the university’s board of trustees; billionaire Terrence (Terry) Pegula, owner of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team, was CEO of East Resources, which he had sold to Royal Dutch Shell for $4.7 billion in July 2010. Pegula and his wife had also contributed about $380,000 to Corbett’s political campaign. On the day Pegula donated $88 million to Penn State to fund a world-class ice hockey arena and support the men’s and women’s intercollegiate ice hockey team, he said, “[T]his contribution could be just the tip of the iceberg, the first of many such gifts, if the development of the Marcellus Shale is allowed to proceed.” At the groundbreaking in April 2012, Pegula announced he increased the donation to $102 million.

The Shale Technology and Education Center (ShaleTEC) program at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, a branch of Penn State, was established “to serve as the central resource for workforce development and education needs of the community and the oil and natural gas industry,” according to its website.

With an initial $15,000 grant from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) planned to establish certificate and academic programs for workers either already employed by or intending to enter jobs that provide services to Marcellus Shale companies. In a news release loaded with pro-Corbett and pro-industry appeal, college president Stephen M. Curtis announced in November 2012, “The goal is to support the supply chain now serving energy companies and offer specialized career training that connects residents to the high-pay, high-demand career paths.” John Braxton, assistant professor of biology and an ecologist, said CCP “must not be used as a PR puppet for shale gas fracking companies,” accurately noting that the fracking industry “got a free publicity ride” by the administration’s hasty decisions. Within two weeks of CCP’s announcement, the faculty union (AFT Local 2026), which represents the college’s 1,050 faculty and 200 staff, condemned the decision to establish the Center “without the consideration or approval of the faculty, and with total disregard for established College procedures for instituting new academic curricula.” In a unanimous vote by the Representative Council, the faculty declared, “the natural gas drilling . . . industry and peripheral and related industries present unacceptable dangers and risks to public health, worker safety, the natural environment, and quality of life.” Curtis left CCP in Summer 2013; the proposed program was never developed, and remains unfunded.

In April 2011, Gov. Corbett had suggested that the 14 universities of the State System of Higher Education (SSHE) could allow natural gas drilling on the campuses that sit on top of the Marcellus Shale. The ensuing Act, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, includes clauses to compromise the universities’ academic integrity. In exchange for supporting fracking, the new act allows the university where the gas is extracted to retain one-half of all royalties; 35 percent would go to the other state universities; 15 percent would be used for tuition assistance at the 14 state universities. California and Mansfield universities have already begun to profit from fracking.

In a secret negotiation revealed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Student Association of California University signed over mineral rights on 67 acres. The lease includes a confidentiality clause.

The Marcellus Institute at Mansfield University is “an academic/shale gas partnership,” designed to educate the people about the issues of natural gas production. The university holds summer classes for teachers and week-long camps for high school students to allow them to “Learn about the development of shale gas resources in our region and the career and educational opportunities available to you after high school!”

The university’s associate in applied sciences (A.A.S.) degree in natural gas production and services, begun in Fall semester 2012, was fast-tracked, submitted and approved in less than six months rather than the 12-18 months normally required for approval. The university “will take as many students as we can,” said Lindsey Sikorski, the Institute’s director, although only one new faculty position was approved. The SSHE administration encourages larger class sizes and fewer permanent professors. The program, Sikorski says, “is not one of advocacy for the industry, and all sides will be considered.” The program has not received any grants from the industry; Sikorski said she “doesn’t want there to be any conflicts of interest” that would “compromise the integrity of the program.” However, the reality is that energy companies and their lobbying groups may eventually fill a financial hole created by Corbett cutting higher education funding and the system’s chancellor refusing to protect academic integrity in the state-owned universities. (Neither Chancellor John Cavanaugh nor his successor, Frank Brogan, responded to repeated calls.)

The union that represents the state system’s 6,000 faculty passed a resolution in September 2013 opposing drilling on campuses, stating that the campuses “are not appropriate locations for [fracking] given the environmental and health hazards of the fracking process.”

[Next week: Compromising academic integrity at other American universities.]

[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor emeritus of mass communications. He is author of 20 books, including Fracking Pennsylvania, a critically-acclaimed in-depth investigation of the process and effects of high volume hydraulic horizontal fracturing throughout the country.]

 

The Fracking Prostitutes of American Colleges

(part 1 of 2)

by Walter Brasch

Lackawanna College, a two-year college in Scranton, Pa., has become a prostitute.

The administration doesn’t think of themselves or their college as a prostitute. They believe they are doing a public service. Of course, streetwalkers and call-girls also believe they are doing a public service.

Lackawanna College’s price is $2.5 million.

That’s how much Cabot Oil & Gas paid to the School of Petroleum and Natural Gas, whose own nine building campus is in New Milford in northeastern Pennsylvania.  On the School’s logo are now the words, “Endowed by Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation.”

That would be the same Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation that has racked up more than 500 violations since it first used horizontal fracking to extract gas in the Marcellus Shale almost six years ago.

That would be the same company that was found to be responsible for significant environmental and health damages in Dimock, Pa.

It’s the same company, fronted by four lawyers, that managed to keep a peaceful grandmother anti-fracking activist not only off its property, but away from Susquehanna County’s recycling center, a hospital, grocery stores, restaurants and 40 percent of the county where Cabot has mineral rights leases.

Several major gas and oil companies and suppliers-including Anadarko, BakerHughes, Chesapeake Energy, Halliburton, Noble Energy, Southwestern Energy, Williams Midstream, and others-have also contributed scholarships, equipment, and funding to the School. The School’s mission includes creating “a campus that is focused and dedicated to the oil and gas industry.”

Lackawanna College proudly claims its Cabot-endowed School is “focused on its vision of becoming a nationally-recognized, first in class program in the field of petroleum and natural gas technology.” There is no question the School is fulfilling its promise. A $500,000 outdoor field laboratory simulates a working gas field; all students are required to complete internships.

Richard Marquardt, the School’s executive director, has B.S. degrees in petroleum engineering and business management, as well as a long history of work in the industry. The eight other full-time faculty also have engineering degrees and significant industry experience. Fifteen adjunct faculty also have significant industry experience.

By Fall semester, the School will have about 150 full-time students. Students major in one of four programs-petroleum and natural gas technology, natural gas compression technology, petroleum and natural gas measurement, and petroleum and natural gas business administration.

Admission to the School’s rigorous academic programs “is highly competitive,” with students needing a strong science and math background prior to acceptance, says Marquardt. The students earn an associate in science degree upon completion of the two-year program. “It is focused on a very specific market,” says Marquardt, providing personnel at a level between the vocational training programs and the B.S. engineering programs. The placement rate is over 90 percent, says Marquardt.

In their fourth semester, students take a course in “Leadership, Ethics, & Regulations,” which explores “the holistic environment in which the Petroleum and Natural Gas industry operates, including the effect of corporate leadership on the company’s credibility and reputation; real world ethical issues  . . . and the relationship of the industry to federal, state, and local governments, including regulatory agencies.”

The development of the process of high volume hydraulic horizontal fracturing (commonly known as fracking) was the result of brilliant engineering by Mitchell Energy during the 1990s. Less than a decade ago, it became the most prevalent way to extract oil and gas. But, with the new technology has come significant problems.

An associate’s degree doesn’t mean the students, no matter how prepared they are to work in the shale gas industry, will be exposed to the issues, reports, and scientific studies that suggest fracking causes significant environmental and health problems, major concerns of those who oppose the process of horizontal fracking. After all, Cabot wasn’t going to invest in a college program that presented all sides of the issues. Nor is Cabot likely to invest anything more if the college expands its program to require that students also take classes in renewable energy, and the health and environmental effects of fracking.

But, that really doesn’t matter. Cabot paid $2.5 million, and other gas supplier, extraction, and development companies donated scholarships, funds, and equipment to make sure the students receive what may be one of the nation’s best possible educations to be prepared to work in the gas fields. They didn’t put money and resources into a program that would ask some of the most important questions-“What are the major effects to the health and environment from what we are doing?” “What should we be doing to develop new technology that doesn’t threaten the health and safety of the people?” and “Is fossil fuel really the best way to assure the production of energy.

[Next week: Other colleges that may have been compromised by accepting corporate donations.)

[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor emeritus of mass communications. He is author of 20 books, including Fracking Pennsylvania, a critically-acclaimed in-depth investigation of the process and effects of high volume hydraulic horizontal fracturing throughout the country.]

 

An Injunction Against the First Amendment

by Walter Brasch

Vera Scroggins of Susquehanna County, Pa., will be in court, Monday morning.

This time, she will have lawyers and hundreds of thousands of supporters throughout the country. Representing Scroggins to vacate an injunction limiting her travel will be lawyers from the ACLU and Public Citizen, and a private attorney.

The last time Scroggins appeared in the Common Pleas Court in October, she didn’t have lawyers. That’s because Judge Kenneth W. Seamans refused to grant her a continuance.

When she was served papers to appear in court, it was a Friday. On Monday, she faced four lawyers representing Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., one of the nation’s largest drillers. Seamans told the 63-year-old grandmother and retired nurse’s aide that to grant a continuance would inconvenience three of Cabot’s lawyers who came from Pittsburgh, more than 250 miles away. He also told her she might have to pay travel and other costs for the lawyers if she was successful in getting a continuance.

And so, Cabot presented its case against Scroggins.

The lawyers claimed she blocked access roads to Cabot drilling operations. They claimed she continually trespassed on their property. They claimed she was a danger to the workers.

Scroggins agreed that she used public roads to get to Cabot properties. For five years, Scroggins has led tours of private citizens and government officials to show them what fracking is, and to explain what it is doing to the health and environment. But she was always polite, never confrontational. And when she was told to leave, she did, even if it sometimes took as much as an hour because Cabot security often blocked her car.  Cabot personnel on site never asked local police to arrest her for trespassing.

But now, Cabot executives decided to launch a mega-attack, throwing against her the full power of a company that grosses more than $1 billion a year and is the largest driller in the region.

In court, Scroggins tried several times to explain that while near or on Cabot drilling operations, she had documented health and safety violations, many of which led to fines or citations. Every time she tried to present the evidence, one of Cabot’s lawyers objected, and the judge struck Scroggins’ testimony from the record. Cabot acknowledged Scroggins broke no laws but claimed she was a “nuisance.”

Scroggins tried to explain that she put more than 500 short videotapes online or onto YouTube to show what fracking is, and the damage Cabot and other companies are doing. Again, Seamans accepted Cabot’s objection, and struck her testimony.

And that’s why Cabot wanted an injunction against Scroggins, one that would forbid her from ever going anywhere that Cabot has a lease. It had little to do with keeping a peaceful protestor away; it had everything to do with shutting down her ability to tell the truth.

Four days after the hearing, Seamans issued the temporary injunction that Cabot wanted. It forbid Scroggins from going onto any property that Cabot owned, was drilling, or had mineral rights, even if there was no drilling. The injunction didn’t specify where Scroggins couldn’t go. It was a task that required her to go to the courthouse in Montrose, dig through hundreds of documents, and figure it out for herself.

The injunction violates her rights of free speech by severely restricting her ability to document the practices of a company that may be violating both the public trust and the environment. According to the brief filed on her behalf, “The injunction sends a chilling message to those who oppose fracking and wish to make their voices heard or to document practices that they fear will harm them and their neighbors. That message is loud and clear: criticize a gas company, and you’ll pay for it.”

The injunction also violates her Fourteenth Amendment rights of association and the right of travel. Scroggins can’t even go to homes of some of her friends, even if they invite her;  that’s because they had leased subsurface mineral rights to Cabot. However, Cabot never produced a lease, according to what the ACLU will present in court, to show that “it had a right to exclude her from the surface of properties where it has leased only the subsurface mineral rights.”

Because Cabot had leased mineral rights to 40 percent of Susquehanna County, about 300 square miles, almost any place Scroggins wants to be is a place she is not allowed to be. That includes the local hospital, supermarkets, drug stores, several restaurants, the place she goes for rehabilitation therapy, and a recreational lake. It also includes the recycling center-Susquehanna County officials leased 12.5 acres of public land to Cabot.

The injunction establishes a “buffer zone.” Even if Scroggins is on a public street or sidewalk, if it is less than 150 feet from a property that Cabot has a subsurface mineral lease, she is in violation of the court order.

The injunction, says the ACLU of Pennsylvania, “is far broader than anything allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court or Pennsylvania courts.”    

Not everyone agrees with Scroggins or her efforts to document the effects of horizontal fracking. Many consider her to be a pest, someone trying to stop them from making money. Hundreds in the region have willingly given up their property rights in order to get signing bonuses and royalties from the extraction of natural gas. Their concern, in a county still feeling the effects of the great recession that had begun a decade earlier, is for their immediate financial well-being rather than the health and welfare of their neighbors, or the destruction of the environment.

The anti-fracking movement has grown from hundreds slightly more than a half-decade ago to millions. Where the oil and gas lobby has been able to mount a multi-million dollar media campaign, the people who proudly call themselves “fractivists” have countered by effective use of the social media and low-budget but highly effective rallies. Where the oil and gas lobby has been able to pour millions of dollars into politicians’ campaigns, the fractivists have countered by grass-roots organizing and contacting government officials and politicians, promising them no money but only the truth.

Vera Scroggins never planned to be among the leaders of a social movement, but her persistence in explaining and documenting what is happening to the people and their environment has put her there. Cabot’s “take-no-prisoners” strategy in trying to shut her voice has led to even more people becoming aware of what fracking is-and the length that a mega-corporation will go to keep the facts from the people. No matter what Seamans does to correct his unconstitutional order, Cabot has lost this battle.

[Dr. Brasch’s current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and effects of horizontal fracking, and the collusion between politicians and the oil and gas industry. The 466-page critically-acclaimed and fully-documented book is available from Greeley & Stone, Publishers; Amazon.com; Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores.]      

Disposable Assets in the Fracking Industry

by Walter Brasch

The oil and gas industry, the nation’s chambers of commerce, and politicians who are dependent upon campaign contributions from the industry and the chambers, claim fracking is safe.

First, close your mind to the myriad scientific studies that show the health effects from fracking.

Close your mind to the well-documented evidence of the environmental impact.

Focus just upon the effects upon the workers.

The oil and gas industry has a fatality rate seven times higher than for all other workers, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control. (CDC). According to the CDC, the death rate in the oil and gas industry is 27.1; the U.S. collective death rate is 3.8.

“Job gains in oil and gas construction have come with more fatalities, and that is unacceptable,” said John E. Perez, secretary of labor.

Not included in the data, because it doesn’t include the past three years, when the oil/gas industry significantly increased fracking in the Marcellus and other shales, is a 27-year-old worker who was cremated in a gas well explosion in late February in Greene County, Pa. One other worker was injured. Because of extensive heat and fire, emergency management officials couldn’t get closer than 1,500 feet of the wells. Pennsylvania’s Act 13, largely written by the oil and gas industry, allows only a 300 foot set-back from wells to homes. In Greene County, it took more than a week to cap three wells on the pad where the explosion occurred.

The gas drilling industry, for the most part, is non-union or dependent upon independent contractors who often provide little or no benefits to their workers. The billion dollar corporations like it that way. That means there are no worker safety committees and no workplace regulations monitored by workers. The workers have no bargaining or grievance rights; health and workplace benefits for workers who aren’t executives or professionals are often minimal or non-existent.

It may be months or years before most workers learn the extent of possible injury or diseases caused by industry neglect.

“Almost every one of the injuries and deaths you will happen upon, it will have something to do with cutting a corner, to save time, to save money,” attorney Tim Bailey told EnergyWire.

“Multiple pressures weigh on the people who work in this high-risk, high-reward industry, including the need to produce on schedule and keep the costs down,” reports Gayathri Vaidyanathan of EnergyWire.

Tom Bean, a former gas field worker from Williamsport, Pa., says he doesn’t know what he and his co-workers were exposed to. He does know it affected his health:

 “You’d constantly have cracked hands, red hands, sore throat, sneezing. All kinds of stuff. Headaches. My biggest one was a nauseating dizzy headache . . .  People were sick all the time . . . and then they’d get into trouble for calling off sick. You’re in muck and dirt and mud and oil and grease and diesel and chemicals. And you have no idea [what they are] . . . It can be anything. You have no idea, but they [Management] don’t care . .  . It’s like, ‘Get the job done.’ . .  . You’d be asked to work 15, 18 hour days and you could be so tired that you couldn’t keep your eyes open anymore, but it was ‘Keep working. Keep working. Keep working.'”

Workers are exposed to more than 1,000 chemicals, most of them known carcinogens. They are exposed to radioactive waste, brought up from more than a mile in the earth. They are exposed to the effects from inhaling silica sand; they are exposed to protective casings that fail, and to explosions that are a part of building and maintaining a fossil fuel system that has explosive methane as its primary ingredient.

In July, two storage tanks exploded in New Milton, W.Va., injuring five persons. One of the injured, Charlie Arbogast, a rigger and trucker, suffered third degree burns on his hands and face. “You come to the rigs, you do what you do and you don’t ask questions,” Diana Arbogast, his wife, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“In Pennsylvania, workers have reported contact with chemicals without appropriate protective equipment, inhalation of sand without masks, and repeated emergency visits for heat stroke, heat exhaustion, yet many of the medical encounters go unreported,” says Dr. PounĂ© Saberi, a public health physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The oil/gas industry, the Chambers of Commerce, politicians, and some in the media, even against significant and substantial health and environmental evidence, erroneously claim there are economic benefits to fracking. Disregard the evidence that the 100-year claim for natural gas is exaggerated by 10 times, or that the number of jobs created by the boom in the Marcellus Shale is inflated by another 10 times. Focus on Greene County, Pa.

Included in the “economic boom” is a small pizza shop that was contracted by Chevron to provide large pizzas and sodas to about 100 families living near the gas well explosion that cost one man his life. Apparently, workers, like pizza boxes, are just disposable items.

[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist of more than four decades. His latest of 20 books is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth documented exploration of the economic, health, and environmental effects of fracking, with an underlying theme of the connection between politicians and campaign funds provided by the oil/gas lobby.]