sleepwalking through fracking
July 28, 2014
Between naps at a meeting last week about a Cove Point wetlands permit, Gov. Martin O’Malley apparently woke up long enough to decide that fracking could be done safely in Maryland. Even though his Marcellus Shale advisory commission is still wading through reports that raise plenty of alarms.
The big reveal came at a daylong session of the state Board of Public Works (BPW), of which the governor is one of three members. On the agenda was Dominion’s permit for a temporary pier, which the company needs to haul in equipment for its proposed facility on the Chesapeake Bay that would liquefy fracked gas and send it off to Asia on huge tankers.
Most of the permission slips for this $3.8 billion project come from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but the state has had a couple opportunities to weigh in. Already the Public Service Commission (PSC) gave the go-ahead for Dominion to build the 130-megawatt power plant needed to liquefy the fracked gas. In its April ruling, the PSC listed numerous hazards and said the facility “will not provide net economic benefit to Maryland citizens,” but whatever. The PSC said Dominion would have to pay $8 million a year for five years into a fund for renewable energy, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation and another $8 million over 20 years to help low-income residents pay for their rising — thanks to the exports — heating bills.
Last week, Dominion needed permission from the BPW for a wetlands-disturbing pier. Cove Point residents seized that opportunity to tell O’Malley, who had so far been silent on Dominion’s plans, that this facility has them fearing for their lives. Lusby resident Tracey Eno, however, noticed that O’Malley kept nodding off and at one point walked out. “I’m sorry that the governor stepped out because this is really for him. Should I wait?” she asked. She was told to continue, although she backtracked when he returned.
In the end, Dominion got its permit. But not before O’Malley said he believes that natural gas can be a “bridge” fuel to the future of renewable energy, while “in the meantime” the environment is safeguarded at every stage with the “highest and best standards.”
How has the governor reached a conclusion that any standards — even “highest and best” — will be sufficient before having seen a report from his appointed advisory commission? His 2011 executive order instructed the 15-member panel to determine whether and how fracking could be done without unacceptable risks to health, safety and the environment. In fact, in April 2013, Secretary Robert Summers of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) assured Marylanders that a decision about fracking had not been made. In an open letter posted on the advisory commission’s website, Summers wrote that the department “recently received many emails from people who have been told that the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission assumes hydraulic fracturing is inevitable and is rushing to enact regulations to pave the way for gas development. This is not true. No decision has been made about whether hydraulic fracturing should be allowed in Maryland, and MDE is proceeding methodically and cautiously to develop stringent regulations that will protect Marylanders in the event hydraulic fracturing is allowed.”
Although the advisory commission is nearing the end of its work, numerous state studies remain unfinished, including on health effects, traffic and an assessment of risks. The commission has yet to evaluate the economic study that calculated job growth but failed to quantify a key downside: the effect on tourism and the environment. And the state, in its “interim final best practices report” says it’s only “considering whether it is feasible” to require frackers to estimate and purchase offsets for climate-disrupting methane emissions. (It would calculate those emissions based on methane’s carbon footprint over 100 years — about 30 times as powerful as CO2 — instead of over 20 years — about 85 times as powerful. Even though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “there is no scientific argument” for selecting the 100-year time frame. So, that’s already not the “highest and best” standard.)
Moreover, no study has emerged showing fracking can be done safely. To the contrary, evidence is mounting that fracking poses grave threats to public health and safety, water, air, farm animals and pets, industry workers, soil and agriculture, and climate. The Concerned Health Professionals of New York has compiled the research to date in a 70-page report. “The pace at which new studies and information are emerging has rapidly accelerated in the past year and a half: the first few months of 2014 saw more studies published on the health effects of fracking than all studies published in 2011 and 2012 combined,” the report says.
News reports last week from fracked Pennsylvania and Ohio have not been reassuring. Pennsylvania’s auditor general concluded in a 118-page report that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was “unprepared to meet the challenges of monitoring shale gas development effectively.” Eugene DePasquale, the auditor general, said in a news release: “There are very dedicated hard-working people at DEP but they are being hampered in doing their jobs by lack of resources — including staff and a modern information technology system — and inconsistent or failed implementation of department policies, among other things. … It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose. There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water.”
DePasquale also said DEP had failed to “consistently issue official orders to well operators who had been determined by DEP to have adversely impacted water supplies.”
Based on information from an open records request, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also reported that “oil and gas operations have damaged Pennsylvania water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007.”
And in Ohio, news comes that Halliburton withheld complete information about its secret fracking brew for five days after a fire and explosions in June sent toxic chemicals into a tributary of the Ohio River, threatening the drinking water supply for millions of people and killing 700,000 fish.
Governor O’Malley, however, appears to be looking the other way. Perhaps at campaign checks from America’s Natural Gas Alliance. Without bothering to wait for his commissioners to issue a report, the governor has decided that fracking can be made safe for Marylanders. One might wonder whether his shale advisory commission has been a charade all along.
O’Malley — and the shale commission — could offer far better protection for Marylanders and our environment by heeding the warnings of Cape Breton University President David Wheeler. In Nova Scotia, Wheeler is head of a panel, not unlike Maryland’s advisory commission, that is considering whether to recommend lifting a two-year moratorium on fracking. Over the last couple months, the panel has issued 10 “discussion papers” described as rosy toward industry. And yet Wheeler concluded last week that the moratorium should be extended. “We need more research in a couple of particular areas before anyone could take a view on whether this is a good or a bad idea in any part of the province,” he said. Nor, he said, should seismic testing and exploratory drilling be allowed without community consent. “And we’re saying communities are not in a position to give permission to proceed because there’s not enough knowledge. We’re a long way from that.”