Can fracking pollute drinking water?
The Environmental Protection Agency embarked in 2010 on what was intended to be a definitive study to find out. The answer could prove critical to future U.S. regulation of the multibillion-dollar fossil fuel sector and to ensuring water safety for millions of Americans.
But after five years of fighting with the oil and gas industry, the agency may still be unable to provide a clear answer when a draft of the study is published this spring, based on internal EPA documents and interviews with people who have knowledge of the study.
"We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago," said Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA's 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study. "This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result."
More than a half-dozen former high-ranking EPA, administration and congressional staff members echoed Thyne's opinion, as did scientists and environmentalists. Nearly all the former government employees asked not to be identified because of ongoing dealings with government and industry. Two hundred pages of EPA emails and other documents about the study point to the same conclusions. The documents were acquired by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act and shared with InsideClimate News.
The EPA's failure to answer the study's central question partly reflects the agency's weakness relative to the politically potent fossil fuel industry. The industry balked at the scope of the study and sowed doubts about the EPA's ability to deliver definitive findings. In addition, concerns about the safety of drinking water conflicted with the Obama administration's need to spur the economy out of recession while expanding domestic energy production.
For the study's findings to be definitive, the EPA needed prospective, or baseline, studies. Scientists consider prospective water studies essential because they provide chemical snapshots of water immediately before and after fracking and then for a year or two afterward. This would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers, and the findings could highlight industry practices that protect water. In other studies that found toxic chemicals or hydrocarbons in water wells, the industry argued that the substances were present before oil and gas development began.
So far, 2015 has not been good to the oil industry. In just the last two weeks, the bad news included two fiery oil railcar accidents, a refinery explosion, a scandal involving an industry-funded climate skeptic, a high-profile setback for an oil-by-rail project, a big retrenchment in Canada’s oil sands, and the president's veto of the Keystone XL oil import pipeline.
And that’s not all. Those events have come on top of industry-wide ripple effects from the recent plunge in crude prices. In the last two months, a string of oil companies announced disappointing earnings, workforce layoffs and sharp spending cuts. On Feb. 1, union leaders began strikes at many U.S. refineries after contract talks stalled.
"It's a mess...it's like a perfect storm," said Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. He expects even worse earnings and layoff news ahead if oil prices stay in its current range of around $50 per barrel. On Jan. 28, the price of U.S. benchmark crude closed at a low of $45.23 a barrel, down more than 43 percent since the end of October.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been accused of everything from running this country to waging an economy-destroying war on coal. But it turns out the GOP's prime target isn't that big after all.
The agency's budget represents an almost invisible slice of the federal pie—less than a quarter of a percent of Obama's proposed $4 trillion budget for the 2016 fiscal year. If approved, the EPA's budget next year would be 16.5 percent smaller than it was in 2010.
Since the Obama administration announced its plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions and combat climate change last year, many states have been on the offensive. Some have sued the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that the agency has overstepped its authority. Republican leaders in Congress have vowed to dismantle carbon emission regulations. And state legislatures have set up numerous blockades to delay the Clean Power Plan.
Given the current political climate, it seems inevitable that at least a handful of states will continue to fight the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. Here's a rundown of what might happen if states refuse to cooperate––and why it might be in their best interest to comply with the EPA’s rules.
In a week when the Willie Soon scandal broke and revealed the fossil fuel industry's footprint on contrarian climate research, embattled denialists went back on the offensive.
Critics are again trying to discredit the leading international scientific body on climate change after the organization's leader resigned over allegations he sexually harassed female coworkers at his research institute in India.
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stepped down Tuesday, eight months before his planned departure. In his resignation letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Pachauri wrote that “the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma."
Critics of the IPCC seized on his comment to paint the scientific body as biased. The panel is "led by an environmentalist on a mission...for whom protecting the planet is a religious calling,” wrote Donna Laframboise, a vocal climate denier, on her website, NoFrakkingConsensus. Marc Morano of Climate Depot asserted that the allegations of sexual harassment are the latest sign the IPCC was being led by a "political and ethical cancer."
President Obama on Tuesday briskly vetoed legislation to approve construction of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. The bill, which had easily passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate last month, was rejected within hours of its official delivery to the Oval Office.
The White House said Obama rejected the bill because it would have short-circuited his administration's prolonged review of the pipeline, a project that over the years has become a litmus test of his commitment to fighting climate change.
"Too much ice is really bad for polar bears," climate skeptic Willie Soon said in a 2008 speech titled, "Endangering the Polar Bear: How Environmentalists Kill."
Soon later cited the talk as a "deliverable" in return for a research grant from Southern Company Services, one of the largest U.S. coal companies. Under the same grant the contrarian scientist also published two papers questioning whether climate change was dangerous for polar bears and whether the Arctic was warming, without disclosing the fossil fuel companies that funded his work.
The polar bear theories advanced by Soon in these and other works have been discredited by scientists worldwide. Even so, the ideas have sowed confusion about the fate of an iconic species that biologists expect to experience widespread devastation as climate change worsens.
"It plants doubt in the minds of people because of the complex nature of the science," said Juscelino Colares, a professor of law and associate director of the Frederick K. Cox International Law Center at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. "That's all the industry needs is doubt to delay action."
Soon works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. The center houses the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which employs Soon. The polar bear papers were among 11 he published in research journals that failed to disclose Southern Co.'s funding, according to documents made public Saturday. All the papers question the extent, severity, cause or existence of man-made climate change.
The information comes from a trove of public emails and documents obtained by Greenpeace through Freedom of Information Act requests. They were released by the Climate Investigations Center, a watchdog group that tracks the activities of companies and organizations that fight climate action.
Munroe Falls became the nation's latest community to lose a protracted legal battle over local control of oil-and-gas drilling, as the result of a recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling.
But there's a silver lining: Buried in the 31-page court decision is guidance for Munroe Falls and other Ohio towns trying to flex some muscle over the industry in the future.
On Tuesday, Feb. 17, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Munroe Falls lacks the authority to regulate permitting, location and spacing of oil-and-gas wells and related development.
Siding with Beck Energy Corporation, a company that has pursued drilling in this northeastern Ohio town of around 5,000 people, the court decision says that "sole and exclusive authority" falls to the state.
At first glance, the decision appears a major win for the oil-and-gas industry, which has challenged several towns over local control of fracking, from New Mexico to New York.
Industry trade groups such as the Ohio Oil and Gas Association and American Petroleum Institute have hailed the decision in recent days.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith Lanzinger sharply disagreed with the ruling. She wrote in her dissent: "There is no need for the state to act as the thousand-pound gorilla, gobbling up exclusive authority over the oil and gas industry, leaving not even a banana peel of home rule for municipalities." Home rule is a town’s ability to self-govern, within limits set by the state.
The Smithsonian has opened an investigation into the ethical conduct of Willie Soon, one of its part time scientists and a climate-change skeptic who is facing scrutiny for failing to properly disclose his work was funded by fossil fuel interests.
The Smithsonian probe follows disclosures this weekend—through the release of public documents—that Soon failed to divulge industry funding for 11 studies that were published in nine scientific journals.
"The Smithsonian is greatly concerned about the allegations surrounding Dr. Willie Soon's failure to disclose funding sources for his climate change research," according to a statement released by Smithsonian.
A watchdog group alerted nine scientific journals Monday that studies they published most likely breached conflict-of-interest protocols. The studies in question were co-authored by a prominent climate-change skeptic whose work was funded by fossil fuel interests.