fractured garrett county

August 31, 2012

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Map showing extent of Marcellus Shale in Maryland.
//map by inafutureage.wordpress.com

A few years ago, “you could count on two hands the people in our county who knew much about [fracking], even though thousands of acres had been leased for drilling,” says Garrett County farmer and winery co-owner Paul Roberts. 

No longer. 

Since then, Roberts has helped organize a dozen or so public meetings about the problems associated with drilling. And in the meantime, those early leases that paid farmers about $10 an acre have been sold and resold by energy companies, eventually for $10,000 or more an acre. “Think of the millions in profits made at my neighbors’ expense in Maryland,” said Roberts, who is also the citizen representative on the 14-member state Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission. “I know an attorney who rode an airplane, headed for Dallas on a Friday afternoon from Pittsburgh, where the gas men drink scotch and laughed about all the poor people, retirees, Amish people, and country bumpkins they ripped off that week,” Roberts said in an email. 

“Several people have been made millionaires already on money made in Maryland — but none of them are Marylanders,” he said. 

Residents remain deeply divided about whether fracking should be allowed in Garrett, one of two counties in Maryland that lie atop the Marcellus Shale. But they have much more knowledge now. Perhaps half are alarmed at what they see from news reports and scientific studies about the environmental and health dangers associated with fracking; they also fear it would hurt tourism. On the other side are those who have a more benign opinion of extractive industries and maintain that the royalties landowners receive and the drillers’ spending  at motels, stores and restaurants could boost the county’s economy. 

The split was evident at back-to-back meetings at Garrett College last week. Roberts, who decided that the industry-arranged visit by commission members to a fracking site and similar fare were “inexcusable” and insufficient, organized a presentation during which residents heard firsthand accounts from neighboring states of sickened children, dead farm animals and poisoned water caused by fracking. “We’ve heard more than one presentation by industry representatives, and devoted an entire monthly meeting to visiting staged conditions at Chevron fracking sites,” Roberts said. “Yet, there are two states full of people right next door with important experiences to relate, and our commission has not heard a peep from them.” Roberts invited a Pennsylvania attorney whose clients were harmed by fracking and a West Virginia rancher who lives near drilling sites and who showed slides of a dead cow and industrial operations next to homes on hillsides. They traveled at their own expense. 

Directly after this presentation, and during the only nighttime commission session thus far,   farmers and other business owners, parents and a small-town mayor, health professionals and a real estate agent spoke with passion during the three minutes allotted to each about their fears or their hopes from shale drilling in the county. At the meeting, the 10th since being appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley to determine under what conditions fracking might be allowed in Maryland, close to 50 people testified in the nearly full auditorium that can hold 300 people. About 30 people called for no fracking or at least a moratorium; about a dozen, including one who represented perhaps 15 Farm Bureau members who raised their hands in the room, thought fracking could be “done right” and urged the commission to expedite permits.

 Sometimes the divide seemed to be between those born in the county and those considered outsiders, but not always. Or between farmers and non-farmers, but again not always. Undeniable was the split between those who trust the industry to get it right and those who don’t. 

“Good fences make good neighbors,” said Liz McDowell of New Germany, and so far “all we’ve needed is a little blue paint.” She called fracking a “game changer” and asked, “Where can we buy fencing that can keep the quantity and quality of the water safe?” Or keep out air, noise and light pollution, she added. “Any fracking in my neighborhood will impact my property rights.”    

Some of those wary of fracking asked for a legislative moratorium because they feared no legislation relating to best practices or even funding for the commission could ever be passed. More than 20 bills to set safety standards and fees for gas leases were introduced during the last General Assembly session, but only one passed – a law that says that if drinking water sources are contaminated within 2,500 feet of a well, the driller is presumed responsible. 

The gas industry is very powerful and “doesn’t have our best interests at heart,” Matia Vanderbilt told the commission. It “kills bills. … Any bills we put forward to protect people, they kill.” 

“Drilling is going to come,” predicted Eric Robison, but he urged a legislative moratorium. “We’ve seen the consequences of going quick,” he said. “We need the best information to go forward, so we need the money” and time for a study. Instead, he said, the state Department of the Environment “is shaking the couches for change.”

Others were concerned about roads, the integrity of concrete casings that separate the hazardous drilling fluids from the aquifers, and about contaminating water for future generations.

Leo Martin, the mayor of Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County, said his town voted to ban drilling. Even the traditional 1950s drilling created a mess, he said, because companies left equipment, trash, mud and ponds. To the commissioners, he said: “Your job is to recommend pollution or no pollution. Your job is to recommend trashing the county or not trashing the county. We hope you recommend not trashing.” 

“We are all concerned with the truth,” said Stephan Moylan, “but industry influences the truth” by funding scientific studies and lobbying in Annapolis. Industry claims that only a small amount of chemicals are in the fluid. “I don’t know how much poison my small children need to drink to get sick,” he said. “Probably a small amount.” He said he bought a “little piece of paradise” in Garrett County. “People won’t want to move to a place where kids can’t drink the water. … Go slow. Get the truth.” 

Patrick Riley pointed out that he is a Republican and opposes “overregulation.” Nevertheless, he remains concerned that residents won’t be able to “stand up to corporations with unlimited pockets.” He said he can call the sheriff about noise from a loud party, but “if I call the sheriff about loud noise at a compressor station, the sheriff won’t come.” 

Nadine Grabania, who owns Deep Creek Cellars Winery in Friendsville with her husband, Paul Roberts, urged the commission to study “the economic problems this will cause,” not just the economic promises. She wants to know  the effect on property values and the existing tax base and whether enough emergency response personnel would live nearby to handle an accident with hazardous materials. What criteria will be considered when determining if fracking is safe, she asked. 

For the environmental community, including the Climate Change Initiative of Howard County,  that has called for a fracking moratorium or ban, the number of speakers urging caution was encouraging. A poll commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) in March showed that 71 percent of Marylanders surveyed (65% of Western Marylanders) wanted to study fracking before allowing it (and 81% wanted industry to pay for such a study), but this was the first time so many had stepped up to a microphone to tell the commission that fracking could be the undoing of their county known mostly for its hiking trails and forests, boating, fishing and swimming,  as well as farming. Garrett is second only to Ocean City as a tourist destination in the state. And Garrett residents who oppose fracking said speaking publicly is not easy. One resident emailed afterward: “I was pleasantly surprised at all the people who turned out and a little surprised that many others who are equally concerned didn’t speak. I hope they will make their opinions known at some time.” 

Among those in favor of drilling without further delay were representatives of the Garrett Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Cumberland Committee and some farmers, including William Bishoff, representing the county Farm Bureau and more than a dozen people who raised hands in the auditorium. Bishoff said the companies would be heavily bonded and the water guaranteed. “MDE did a good job with the coal industry,” he said, and he expects the same with the drilling industry. “Let’s see what they can do before we tell them they can’t.”

Bill Aiken said he would rather have drilling than new houses, which bring floodlights, four-wheelers and “septic tanks that are more threat to my water” than drilling. He said fracking offers an opportunity for jobs, a broader tax base, low-cost energy, help for struggling farmers, and it can be done “with a minimum of damage.”   

Nicole Christian, president of the Garrett Chamber of Commerce said, “Shale gas and tourism can coexist.” But Barbara Pritts, a real estate agent who said she will be 80 in December and had lived in Garrett her entire life, insisted “fracking and tourism will not mix.” Olen Beitzel, who said he had lived for 72 years in Garrett, said he had “confidence in the regulators.” He noted that Deep Creek Lake was also controversial and could never have been built today. “I support it if it’s done right,” he said. 

At the presentation prior to the commissioners’ meeting, Tom Bond, a rancher with 500 acres near Jane Lew, W.Va., and John M. Smith, an attorney in Canonsburg, Pa., who represents several families who are suing energy companies, spoke to about 100 people in a nearby Garrett College classroom. 

Smith said his clients signed leases for drilling on their property but have had to move.

The four neighbors in four homes have benzene, toluene, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals in their urine. The children fare even worse. He said he saw children clutching their stomachs; some “have had their stomachs ripped away.” Children are particularly vulnerable because they are shorter, and vapors hover closer to the ground, he said. Their arsenic levels “are through the roof.” 

Gases vented during flaring are also heavier than the air and sink, “gassing the population.” His clients, he said, have lost their sense of smell because of the hydrogen sulfide emitted during flaring. 

Some of his clients’ cows, horses and dogs have died or had stillborn offspring. 

His clients tested the water before drilling began, and it was “pristine.” The industry has disputed the tests on the contaminated water, saying, for example, that a client “must have dumped nail polish remover in the drain.” 

“It is life-changing,” Smith said of the drillers’ presence. “It has no hours of operation,” continuing around the clock. 

Frack ponds and surface contamination from spills were the biggest menace, he said. Some municipalities are banning the ponds, although existing ones are typically  grandfathered in. Some of the ponds “let go.” Commissioner Roberts said, “It’s hard to imagine this sort of pond being allowed” in Maryland. 

Bond, the rancher who is also a retired teacher with a doctorate in organic chemistry, has four of the “old-fashioned” gas wells on his property. Around him, though, are hydraulically fracked wells. While some proponents of fracking say the two are the same, “that is not true,” he said. The pressure is “far, far greater” in the fracked wells, and he said he endures significant light and noise pollution. He showed a slide of a hillside farm that hadn’t leased land adjacent to another farm with drilling. “Inevitably, there is tremendous property devaluation,” he said. 

The drillers “have externalized the costs,” he said. “The legitimate costs of doing business are put off on somebody else … on people who get sick, on hunters who can’t hunt, fishermen who can’t fish,” on farmers and on businesses that cater to tourists. 

Following the meetings, Roberts said in an email: “Today in my county, thousands of people are educated about gas leasing and gas-drilling. No matter what happens with drilling, the new leases will not be bought for $7 an acre. … It’s going to be very expensive for the industry to operate in Maryland. Industry supporters say Maryland has a bad climate for business. Really? Every elected representative in Garrett and Allegany County demands that drilling should go forward. Really? Who do they represent?” 

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Food & Water Watch’s logo for its ban fracking campaign.

Concerned about fracking’s contribution to global warming, the Climate Change Initiative of Howard County recently signed on with CCAN to support a moratorium on fracking in Maryland until the industry can prove that drilling can be done safely. Delegate Heather Mizeur has said she intends to introduce that legislation in the next General Assembly session. CCIHC also signed on with Food & Water Watch’s campaign that calls for a ban on fracking.  As Jennifer Krill of Earthworks pointed out in a conference call recently, we in the environmental community should not let the ban-vs.-regulate debate divide us. Fracking is ongoing, she said, and we need to call for strict regulations for those areas while at the same time moving for a ban in areas we want to protect from fracking.    

Fracking poses threats to human and animal health, air, land, forests and water, but also to the climate. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than oil and coal, but it produces more methane, a shorter-lived but more powerful greenhouse gas, during processing and through leaky pipes. The International Energy Agency has concluded that even if the world shifts quickly to natural gas, the planet would still warm a catastrophic 6 degrees F by the end of the century. Sign CCAN’s petition calling for a legislative moratorium here and Food & Water Watch’s call for a ban here.

Turns out, also, that the Marcellus basin in Western Maryland is only the tip of the shale under our state. The US Geological Survey reports additional shale basins on the Eastern Shore and in southern and central Maryland.

—elisabeth hoffman 

 

 

 

 

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red-hot dice

August 6, 2012

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James Hansen says droughts we have been experiencing can be linked to climate change.//photo by Tomas Castelazo/Wikimedia

Nothing like searing heat outside to focus the mind on a changing climate. Or warnings from NASA’s James E. Hansen, whose latest analysis indicates that climate change is already producing extreme weather.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post today, he discusses his and his colleagues’ analysis of the last six decades of global temperatures. Hansen, who first warned in 1988 about global warming brought on by the burning of fossil fuels, writes, “My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.” This latest analysis, to be published tomorrow in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”

Again, as he did in 1988, Hansen uses dice to show our predicament. Fifty years ago, weather was variable but more predictable. Two sides of the die were colored white, or normal; two sides were blue, or cooler than normal; and two sides were red, or warmer than normal. “Rolling the die again and again, or season after season, you would get an equal variation of weather over time.”  Now, the dice are loaded, he said, with four sides colored red, or warmer than usual.

He says the heat waves in 2003 in Europe and 2010 in Russia, and the droughts last year in Texas and Oklahoma, “can each be attributed to climate change.” This hot summer “likely” will be as well. “These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring — they are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills,” he said.

Using bell curve graphs and big dice, Hansen also explains the analysis — and the implications — in an interview yesterday on PBS’ “NewsHour.” “What I didn’t think about at the time in the 1980s was that as we push the climate toward … these higher temperatures, the extremes, the highest temperatures, will be very extreme.” The temperature increase in the last few decades, he said, is enough to “change the frequency of these extreme events by a large amount” and has “now driven our climate outside the range that’s existed the last 10,000 years,” the time when human civilization developed. “It’s the large anomalies that have the practical impact,” such as in droughts, wildfires and heat waves.

According to the Guardian, scientists from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) carried the same message when testifying Wednesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“It is critical to understand that the link between climate change and the kinds of extremes that lead to disaster is clear,” said climate scientist Dr. Christopher Field, a lead author of the IPCC report.

Dr. James McCarthy, professor at Harvard University and author of several IPCC climate studies, also said that as greenhouse gases continue to rise, natural events like El Niño cycles “will wreak even more havoc as they break old records for warm and wet conditions across much of the globe, because they will be occurring upon a higher baseline of warming.” The Washington Post and New York Times didn’t cover the hearing. The Baltimore Sun covered the hearing, with a focus on how Maryland must adapt to climate change.  (Reminder: Comments on the state’s draft Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan are due Aug. 17 email: climate@mde.state.md.us )

According to the Guardian, the hearing devolved into an exchange about whether global warming was a hoax — with Republican Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) on the hoax side, and Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on the other. Sanders responded with a 40-minute speech to the Senate the next day, in which he urged Inhofe to reconsider his position.

“There is much more to be said [about global warming] because here on the floor of the Senate we are saying virtually nothing. …We look pretty dumb to the rest of the world by ignoring what many scientists believe is the major environmental crisis of our time, which, if we don’t get a handle on, will have profound impacts on the well-being of this country and countries throughout this world.”

elisabeth hoffman

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At the Stop the Frack Attack, protesters called for a fossil-free future.
//photo by Ruth Alice White

 “The conversion of a climate skeptic” was the headline for the New York Times op-ed Sunday. Richard Muller, founder with his daughter of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, wrote that his “total turnaround” was the result of “careful and objective analysis” of the data that indicate “that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.”

Also big news, back in October, was his initial pronouncement. Here was a global warming skeptic, funded in part by the climate-change-denying Koch Foundation, who affirmed the findings from NASA and NOAA and most other climate scientists. Not until his latest essay, however, did he go so far as to say that humans and their CO2 emissions were the culprit.

Muller’s latest declaration, though welcome in a scientists-told-you-so sort of way, is in some sense a Trojan horse. In an interview on the Canadian radio program “As It Happens,” his Koch-funded allegiances seem to surface. The convert says the only way to stop the warming is to get off coal and switch to … FRACKING. Oh, wait, he calls it “clean fracking.”

His biggest concern is China. By the end of the year, China’s CO2 emissions will be about twice that of the United States, he said on the program. “The most important thing we can do is switch the world economy as rapidly as possible from coal to natural gas,” because of the lower CO2 emissions. “The best thing we can do is expedite [China’s] shift from dirty coal to clean fracking.”

In an interview with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now!,” he acknowledged that: “[I]n the U.S. a lot of people say fracking is bad. It’s dirty, which is true, and it’s a fossil fuel. Well, China can’t afford, will not be able to afford massive solar or wind for several decades. In the meantime, soon they’ll be producing more carbon dioxide per person than we are. … Anything we do in the U.S., if we ignore China, it is not really addressing the problem.”

All points well-taken. But the fear among environmentalists and people living in the shale regions is that “clean” and “fracking” haven’t and won’t ever end up in the same sentence, much less the same community. At first, natural gas looked like a good bet until renewables could come on line, but then came accidents, stories of sick people, dead animals and bubbling, brown and/or flaming tap water. The fracking industry’s exemptions from federal environmental regulations provide giant wastewater-pit-sized loopholes. State regulators can’t keep pace, and some scientists are concerned about methane, the shorter-lived but more potent greenhouse gas linked to fracking for natural gas. Other problems include fragmentation of land, diesel pollution and inadequate techniques for handling the wastewater, which is full of cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting chemicals from the fracking fluid plus radioactive substances that had been locked deep underground. The climate is warming so much more quickly than anticipated that some studies show that switching to natural gas won’t lower CO2 emissions nearly fast enough to avert the worst consequences of our fossil-fuel habit anyway.

That is one point of Bill McKibben’s recent must-read article in Rolling Stone. Reacting to Muller’s reversal, McKibben, the founder of 350.org, said on “Democracy Now!”: “It’s scientifically not very interesting because most scientists figured it out 20 years ago, and all [Muller] has done is confirm their work. Politically, it’s interesting because we’re reaching the point where even industry-funded deniers can’t with a straight face say that [the Earth] is not warming.”

McKibben’s Rolling Stone article focuses on three numbers: 2 degrees Celsius, the amount of extra warming human civilization can tolerate, maybe; 565 gigatons, the amount of CO2  we can still add to atmosphere and stay below the 2 degrees Celsius; and 2,795 gigatons, the amount of proven coal, oil and gas reserves owned by fossil fuels companies and company-like countries, such as Venezuela and Iraq. The London-based Carbon Tracker Institute’s calculations aren’t perfect, McKibben says, and don’t “fully reflect the recent surge in unconventional energy sources like shale gas” or some coal reserves. But, he says, “the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher. … We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn.”

At this stage of the climate crisis, McKibben says in the” Democracy Now!” interview, “What needs to be adapted are the business plans of the fossil-fuel industry. They need to stop exploring for more hydrocarbons, they need to stop warping our democracy by buying off the House and the Senate, and instead, we need to put a — I mean, the most obvious thing to do, what every economist now for 20 years has been saying … is put a stiff price on carbon to reflect the damage that it does. And that’s one of the things we work on at 350.org.”

In addition to McKibben’s article, here are a few others of note from the last week or so:

  • In an editorial, the New York Times encouraged the U.S. State Department to consider climate change when deciding whether to permit the Keystone XL pipeline:

“But the climate question must be addressed, if only to give a full accounting of the range of consequences of developing the tar sands, an effort in which the United States will be complicit if it allows the pipeline. That includes the effect of destroying 740,000 acres of boreal forest (a vital sink for greenhouse gases); the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted in extracting the oil from the tar sands (a highly energy-intensive process); and the gases emitted by burning the oil.”

  • The Washington Post had an article about a South Dakota rancher who will be forced to cede land to the Keystone XL pipeline:

“He doesn’t want it to [cross his land], and he’s even fought to stop it. It’s not a question of how much TransCanada pays him. He just doesn’t want strangers and heavy equipment tearing a 110-foot-wide gash through his land, cutting down trees and burrowing under the sand hills and pasture.

“He worries that it could take years for the land to recover. And the pipeline, buried four or five feet deep, will be sitting in water, the same water that is part of the vast Ogallala aquifer and which lies so close to the surface that his pasture does not need to be irrigated. He worries that a spill or leak will spread because the soil is so porous. …

“But Harter, like thousands of other landowners, doesn’t have much choice. Two days earlier, Harter had been in court trying to stop TransCanada, which had asked a judge to let it exercise eminent domain and force Harter to give it access to his land.

“Harter lost.”

  • Unnerving dispatches are coming from Greenland, where 97 percent of the surface of the ice sheet turned slushy over four warm days in July. “When we see melt in places that we haven’t seen before, at least in a long period of time, it makes you sit up and ask what’s happening,” NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati said in a BBC report. “It’s a big signal, the meaning of which we’re going to sort out for years to come.”  The last such melt happened in 1889, so scientists can’t determine yet the role of climate change.
  • Bill Nye the Science Guy criticized the media for not asking politicians enough about climate change: “I think if the media asked … both of these people who are running for president of the United States about climate change, they’d have to respond.” Talk of the economy dominates the political discussion, he said, but he hopes that during the debates journalists will ask the candidates about the environment and how it fits into their economic plans. “When the quality of your environment goes down, your quality of life goes down, and especially the economics. When you can’t get water to cool power plants, when you can’t get water to water your crops and feed people, it stresses everybody. It makes the economy not do as well.”

(The Science Guy, by the way, has endorsed Obama for president.)

–elisabeth hoffman