a tale of two walls

June 2, 2014

wall and boxes

A mock vapor-cloud wall suggests what’s at stake from Dominion’s plans for Cove Point. //photo from Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community.

Outside was the mock vapor-cloud wall.

Listed on the mock wall were the air pollutants and carcinogens that Dominion’s proposed plant would routinely or accidentally send from its compound into the lungs of playing children and their parents. Forming part of the mock wall were boxes with labels, each written on by opponents of Dominion’s plans: Wall of Shame, Wall of Poisons, Wall of Cancer, Wall of Decreased Property Values, Wall of Corruption.

Inside the Patuxent High School auditorium in Lusby was the seemingly impenetrable wall of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Also possibly mock, as two FERC staff members and a court reporter — instead of the commissioners — sat at a table on the stage Saturday for this single public hearing on the environmental review of Dominion’s planned facility that would liquefy and export fracked gas. FERC concluded in May that the facility would pose no significant risks.

Outside, Dominion erected a tent and catered pulled-pork sandwiches and side dishes for its mostly blue-shirted supporters.

Between the Dominion tent and Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s mock vapor wall, Chesapeake Earth First! and Food Not Bombs set up a card table and handed out brown bag lunches with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an apple and a banana to the mostly red-shirted opponents waiting in line to enter the school.

Initially, opponents of the project and the real vapor wall had wanted to set up the replica in another spot opposite Dominion’s tent. But an officer had rejected the idea.

“This is their event. This is their expansion,” the officer told Lusby resident Tracey Eno. By “their,” he meant Dominion’s.

“Whose event?” Eno said, incredulous. “This is everyone’s event.”

Back inside, the FERC staff seemed earnest enough and extended the hearing an extra 90 minutes, until 7:30 p.m., giving everyone who had signed up a chance to speak. Anyone who could wait that long, anyway. Drew Cobbs’ name was called out in the late afternoon, but the executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council was long gone.

One of the FERC staff, Environmental Project Manager Joanne Wachholder, became tearful while praising the patience of 13-year-old Katie Murphy, who spoke late in the day.

“Please stop this expansion. You might just save some lives,” Katie said.

“I’m so glad you got to talk,” Wachholder said, rising and walking to the edge of the stage to offer a box of doughnuts to the girl.

Mostly, the staff listened intently, took notes and kept track of time, cutting off the very few who went beyond the allotted three minutes.

Those in favor called Dominion a “great corporate citizen” and the project a source of jobs and tax revenues and perhaps a pool for the high school. “This is about jobs, about good family-sustaining jobs,” said Mark Coles of the Building and Trades Council. Tax revenues would pay for teachers and public safety, said Brad Karbowsky, a Huntingtown resident and member of United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters. Kelvin Simmons of the Lusby Business Association said he had confidence that Dominion would protect the Chesapeake Bay. “All construction jobs are temporary,” said Austin Pacheo, whether 2 days, 2 weeks or 2 months. These jobs, he said, would last three years.

Where proponents see jobs, those opposed see poisoned air, the threat of a catastrophic fire, and increased fracking with accompanying pipelines and compressor stations. They pressed FERC to conduct its most thorough environmental review and said the risks to safety, health and the climate of this venture far outweighed jobs, tax revenue and corporate benevolence. Most were from Lusby and Southern Maryland, but some had traveled from Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties, Baltimore and Virginia.

“Come to my house, sit on my front porch swing and look across the street and imagine the future of my home,” said Rachel Heinhorst, whose front door is a hundred yards from Dominion’s front door. Her three children play football, soccer, Frisbee and catch fireflies less than 200 yards from where the boilers and turbines would be.

Coming from the plant, she said, would be nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, carbon dioxide, hazardous air pollutants. “My children will be breathing dangerous levels of these pollutants every day. They will know what is across the street, because we will have to explain emergency preparedness, and they will be scared. My daughter will be scared. She will look at me and want me to assure something that I cannot. I cannot say that I can protect my children from this, but you can.”

just wall

“Dominion and the Calvert County commissioners focus on two things:  jobs and tax revenue,” Tracey Eno said. “That’s all they’ve got. They never talk about the risks.” Such as, Eno said, “Risk of death by asphyxiation in the event of a flammable vapor cloud; 20.4 tons of air pollution emitted every year; 275,000 gallons of water used every day; constant noise for the next 20 years or more; up to 85 more tankers polluting the [Chesapeake] Bay each year; foreign ballast water bringing invasive species to the Chesapeake; more traffic; increased greenhouse gases; terrorist target. Does Homeland Security know about this?”

Don’t sacrifice people for profits, Eno said. “Everyone says ‘money talks’ and ‘this is a done deal.’ It’s ‘David and Goliath.’ … I want you to at least know who your decision will affect and how unfair this is.”


Bill Peil lists the hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals that would come from the plant. //photo by @johnzangas DCMediaGroup

“Who would put 20 tons of toxic and hazardous pollutants on a neighbor’s lawn?” asked Bill Peil of Dunkirk. Hearing no takers, he continued: “That’s what’s going to happen every year” if Dominion’s plans proceed. And that would be in a routine year, never mind an accident. Many of the pollutants are carcinogens, he said. “Unfortunately, the word carcinogen is not mentioned” in FERC’s environmental review.

“This is not about jobs,” said Marcia Greenberg of St. Mary’s City. Although everyone is concerned about jobs, she said, “Dominion has turned this into a discussion about jobs.” She voiced her outrage that the commissioners weren’t present. They have “a huge responsibility” to balance the facts in this divided community, she said.

Several speakers noted that the environmental assessment omitted the population of Lusby: 2,473 live within a mile of the plant, according to Calvert County emergency planners. The evacuation plan is not so much a way out as a way in for emergency crews, Eleanor Callahan of Lusby complained: The plan “maroons residents.”

“No jurisdiction can handle a fire” of the sort that could happen at Cove Point, said Mickey Shymansky, a DC firefighter and Lusby resident. In April, he resigned his post as local assistant fire chief because he thought the department was understaffed and ill-trained to handle an accident at the export plant. “I am so brokenhearted,” he said. His brother was a firefighter at the Pentagon when terrorists attacked on 9/11. “We cannot have that here. Please hear my words. When I’m at work protecting the nation’s capital, who’s going to protect my family?”

For six and a half hours, the FERC staff called on speakers according to names on sign-up sheets at the entrance to the school auditorium. By the end, 105 people had spoken, 38 in favor, 67 opposed and urging the more stringent environment impact statement. Dominion said on its Facebook page that 75 to 80 percent were in favor. Which is wrong even if Dominion counts the 50 comment sheets that one proponent turned in.

Wachholder, from FERC, had sharp remarks for only one speaker: Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Council.

The day before, Tidwell told the FERC staff, the state Public Service Commission had ruled that the proposed project would provide no “net benefit” for Marylanders. For causing higher utility bills, the PSC ordered Dominion to pay $400,000 a year for 20 years to help compensate low-income families. For contributing to climate change, Dominion would have to pay another $40 million over five years into a fund for renewable energy. But the PSC approved the permit for the on-site power plant.

“It’s inconceivable that FERC doesn’t see the hazard” of this plan, Tidwell said. “FERC seems to not want to see how hazardous this is….Why wouldn’t FERC want to quantify the risk?” He criticized FERC’s failure to consider the consequences of fracking: “If fracking weren’t happening, what would Dominion export?” He called FERC’s environmental assessment a failure and said the people in Garrett and Frederick and other counties across the state want a similar public hearing.

“NO. We are not doing that,” Wachholder said sternly.

Tracey Eno says she remains an optimist. That David and Goliath battle? We all know how that turned out, she said. “All we need is one stone.”

— elisabeth hoffman


The hearing is underway.//photo by @johnzangas DCMediaGroup


whose job is it?

November 4, 2013


Certain fossil fuel companies’ view of our communities.
//Map of Marcellus Shale ‘play’ from U.S. Energy Information Administration

Ann Nau, Myersville mother and compressor station opponent, recently pleaded with state officials to deny the air quality permit needed to proceed with the project. “I live here. My daughter lives here,” she said, reaching over to the 11-year-old sitting with her at the fire station hall. She said she wanted to protect her daughter.

“You’re a parent. That’s your job,” said Bill Paul of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the agency charged with reviewing Dominion Transmission’s air quality permit application.

Wrong. That’s not her job.

The job description of parent can’t possibly be to cordon off a child from volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, formaldehyde, loud noises, blowdowns, explosions and climate change. That is the job of local, state and federal governments. Ann Nau’s job shouldn’t have to be — but has become — trying to make governments do their job. So far, governments are woefully underperforming.

MDE’s Paul, who took great pains to explain to anxious Myersville residents what is involved in an MDE review, nevertheless suggested strongly that the permit for the compressor station for fracked gas moving through the state would be approved. (Even though Myersville doesn’t even have natural gas piped into the town.) His “best guess,” he said, is “you’re not going to see a significant difference” in air quality from the compressor station. Which is less than comforting in light of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study released over the summer that found that Maryland has the highest rate of deaths from air pollution in the nation, and Frederick, right next to Myersville, is among the worst cities in the state.

benzedrine and webs

A spider on amphetamines built a wacky web like the one we would encounter.//New Scientist magazine

Turns out this compressor station is only one blot on our landscape. Zoom out, and the magnitude of the threat comes into focus. Politicians and industry seem united in heralding this age of gas in the name of “clean” energy, “energy independence” and jobs. But these claims don’t add up, and the byproduct will be poisoned water, dirty air, chewed-up land, risk of explosions, volatile prices and industrial zoning in a backyard near you. Over the horizon and waiting to ensnare us all is a spider’s web of pipelines and compressor stations for fracked gas, with a huge export plant for liquefied natural gas (LNG) at its hub. That maligns spiders, but this particular spider is on amphetamines.

Parents and non-parents alike, we are in the battle of our lives and our energy future. Here’s the industry plan:

Exporting LNG: Dominion Cove Point wants to transform its sleepy import facility in Lusby, Calvert County, into a $3.8 billion monster export plant for LNG that it would ship in large tankers to customers in India and Japan. Dominion wants to be able to export 1 billion cubic feet of LNG daily for 25 years. With global average temperatures warmer than in tens of thousands of years and ice caps already melting, we don’t have that kind of time.

The U.S. Department of Energy has given preliminary approval for the Cove Point plant and three other export facilities; 22 others await approval. But many other reviews are required, including from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and, in Maryland, the Public Service Commission.

At Cove Point, the gas would be turned into a bubbling liquid when supercooled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit. This process requires a lot of energy, which is a tipoff to the first thing wrong with this idea. Dominion will need two natural gas-fueled, 65-watt generators just to transform the gas into a liquid. The gas consumed in this way won’t heat homes or fuel any businesses; it will just transform the gas from one state into another. As many as 220 huge tanker vessels that run on dirty, molasses-like bunker fuel (known for coating and killing seabirds and marine animals in accidents) will lumber into and out of Cove Point, taking the LNG to distant ports where it will have to be turned back into a gas, another energy-intensive process.

LNG, to remain a boiling liquid, periodically vents methane — the heat-trapping, greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas and that is 86 times more powerful than CO2 over 20 years (and 34 times more powerful over 100 years). So climate-disrupting methane leaks are normal, indeed necessary.

In the “unlikely event” that the pressure-relief systems fail, the resulting explosion has a name: BLEVE. FERC has asked Dominion to “provide mitigation to prevent a boiling-liquid-expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) or provide an analysis for distance to a potentially harmful radiant heat level from a fireball.” Because of the existing import facility, Lusby already is divided into evacuation Zones 1 through 4, and its high school is a mass care site.

Gas flaring, another typical procedure, killed 7,500 songbirds one foggy night at a New Brunswick, Canada, LNG facility.

In addition, chemicals would be stored on site, traffic would increase, wetlands would be lost, tankers would be terrorist targets and, perhaps most notably, wells would be fracked all over the Marcellus Shale.

Accelerated fracking: Natural gas is so cheap that drillers are walking away from leases. But if industry can get higher prices by exporting the gas, the pressure to frack will escalate, including in Maryland, where a moratorium is in place and health and economic studies are under way. I remember Iraq War protest signs that said: How did our oil get under their soil? Now, Asia’s gas will be under our soil. And our communities, our water and land are, in company parlance, the “overburden” in the way of this buried resource.

Despite a PR campaign designed to have us all “think about it,” fracked gas is not the solution to our energy or climate crisis. Shifting our economy to fracked gas benefits the fossil fuel industry while destroying communities and the climate that sustains all life.

To blast the gas from harder-than-marble shale requires explosive pressure and millions of gallons of fresh water laden with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals and silica sand. The gas emerges with the toxic wastewater plus radium, strontium and brine roused from inside the Earth. That radioactive waste, with the “fingerprint” of the Marcellus Shale, is showing up in streams – aka, homes of fish, turtles and other creatures — that provide drinking water for Pittsburgh.

And the fracking wastewater is impossible to clean. And the companies aren’t paying royalties or are subtracting the cost of business from royalties; and dangerous benzene levels are near drilling sites; and fissures filled with methane and the secret toxic chemicals can link with other fissures, eventually reaching aquifers. And leaks of climate-destroying methane at the drilling site continue at undetermined rates. Leakage rates are low (1 percent) in an industry-funded and controlled study but 6.2 to 11.7 percent in a study published in Geophysical Research Letters in August. Unless that leakage rate is under 2 percent, natural gas is worse for the climate than coal. Methane also leaks from pipelines and compressor stations. States so far are overlooking damage from collective pollution. And gathering lines are unregulated, and regulators are a dying breed.

More fracked gas means more of these pipelines, more explosions (such as this one in Oklahoma), more leaking methane, more gathering lines and more compressor stations, which brings us back to Myersville.

Dominion’s shiny maps on display in Myersville included a marker for Cove Point. Would the Myersville compressor station transport fracked gas to the LNG export facility, residents wanted to know? No, the Dominion salesmen said. Well, maybe, they corrected themselves. The gas, they said, is for Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) and Washington Gas Energy Services (WGE) customers. But BGE and WGE can do whatever they want with the gas.

Myersville is only the beginning. It is part of a next generation of fossil fuel extraction. When the easy fossil fuels dwindled, we should have shifted to renewables, but we didn’t. We opted instead for extremes to get another fossil fuels fix—from tar sands to mountaintop removal of coal to drilling under the oceans to fracking to incinerators. At every turn, we have left sacrificed communities, people and other species forced to live with poisoned land, air and water.

We have a chance to stop this machinery, to keep our communities safe and create many new jobs, but we will need all hands on deck. Here’s the plan:

  • Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) has a nine-city Crossroads Tour about Cove Point. The final event is in Columbia on Tuesday, Dec. 3, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., at the East Columbia branch of the library. Sign up here.
  • CCAN also is pressuring Gov. Martin O’Malley to insist on an Environmental Impact Statement, instead of the weaker Environmental Assessment. You can sign a petition here.

In the June 2012 issue of the journal Nature, researchers said the Earth was headed for calamitous changes and mass extinctions. At a recent forum in Howard County, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist talking about the effect on agriculture of climate change said, “I have a lot of colleagues who have been losing sleep for a lot of years.” While scientists are losing sleep, too many of the rest of us have been sleepwalking.

Naomi Klein recently wrote that scientists, recognizing our climate peril, see resistance movements as our only hope. Those movements are all around us, from Destiny Watford’s student-led Free Your Voice campaign to stop an incinerator in Curtis Bay in Maryland, to Marcellus Outreach Butler’s latest Protect Our Children campaign in Pennsylvania, to Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community‘s work on the compressor station, to CitizenShale’s efforts to look with eyes wide open at fracking in western Maryland, to CCAN’s leadership on Cove Point that has industry taking out full-page ads in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. James Marriott, who wrote The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, also senses a change. At a fall event in Baltimore to talk about his book, he said the pipelines laid in the 1960s met with no resistance but opposition is growing to pipelines, fracking, tar sands, LNG terminals. “We must retreat from the destruction of the biosphere,” he said, “retreat from carbon fuels and make a different future.”

We will have to make governments do their job, instead of letting corporations write the regulations and carry on business as usual. Or come up with another plan.

As 1960s activist Mario Salvio said: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” (With thanks to Shireen Parsons, who has been handing out that versatile quote for 50 years. I met her on the Walk for Our Grandchildren and the action against Environmental Resource Management’s undue influence on review of the Keystone XL pipeline.)

Update on the compressor station: Myersville had another escape route blocked recently, when the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland said local zoning laws are preempted by the federal Natural Gas Act. Missing the point, Dan Donovan, Dominion’s project director for media relations, prattled on about ambience, according to a Frederick newspaper: “The design calls for a green roof and tan siding, and cupolas on the roof to make it appear more rural, or countryside, than industrial.” What the building looks like is the least of Myersville’s worries.

elisabeth hoffman

testing the waters

January 11, 2013


Megan Jenny of CCAN offers a taste of well water from near a fracking site
in Butler County, PA. //photo by Ruth Alice White

No legislators tasted the murky brown well water from a fracked community north of Pittsburgh.

In fact, most state senators and delegates averted their eyes. They hurried on to the opening of the General Assembly session nearby, steering clear of the water “taste test” Chesapeake Climate Action Network had set up outside the State House in Annapolis.

Well, let’s hope no one drinks the kool-aid the natural gas industry is serving up about fracking either.

The “taste test” Wednesday was CCAN’s latest in its “No studies, No fracking” campaign, designed to draw attention to the need to study fracking before deciding whether to permit it in Maryland. “We need to chart a pragmatic course in our state,”  Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery)  said at the event. “Second chances are really expensive.”

Mizeur is sponsoring a House bill that would establish a moratorium on fracking unless studies can show it’s safe. CCAN Director Mike Tidwell said state Sens. Robert Zirkin (D-Baltimore Co.) and Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin (D-Montgomery) plan to co-sponsor the companion Senate bill. A determined Tidwell said, “We are not going to let the oil and gas industry run this chamber anymore.” Industry has money; we have the grassroots power, he said.

“If we go ahead with fracking without studies, people are going to ask what we’ve been drinking in Annapolis,” Raskin told some reporters and activists at the event.

CCIHC at taste test event in annapolis IMG_3083

CCIHC members at the water “taste test.”

Nearly 50 environmental, public health, civic,  labor and other groups are backing the legislative moratorium because Gov. Martin O’Malley’s executive order setting up a study commission and moratorium on fracking permits is temporary. Food & Water Watch is pressing for a ban on fracking. The governor’s study has had no funding for the complete health, environmental and economic review Mizeur’s bill would require. Just last week, a medical doctor — Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the state health department’s Environmental Health Bureau — joined the commission because so many health questions had to be considered.

The jug of murky well water at the taste test belonged to Kim McEvoy and her family in the Woodlands community of Connoquenessing Township in Pennsylvania’s Butler County. The McEvoy family had to move because of health problems and were forced to abandon their $80,000 house, which they couldn’t sell because it has no water. Since the move, their health problems, including rashes, hair loss and shortness of breath, have gone away.

Other Woodlands residents have been without usable tap water for about two years. They can’t drink it, cook with it, shower in it. Their water had been fine until fracking began in December 2010. In January 2011, the water started running brown and full of particles. Initially, the drilling company provided a water buffalo. But the state eventually ruled the water “safe to drink,” and the drilling company removed the emergency water supply. These families now rely on volunteers, organized by a church, to bring them gallon jugs of water. For two years, no one but local volunteers has even tried to address their water problems.

Apparently, though, Pennsylvania homeowners have been receiving incomplete water reports that fail to disclose contamination from heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, according the director of laboratories for the state’s Department of the Environment. The director testified in a Washington County lawsuit that her lab was directed to generate reports that withheld information about heavy metals, such as lithium, cobalt, chromium, boron and titanium, and VOCs that are associated with hydraulic fracturing fluids. Reports are here and here.

Water from the Woodlands also went to the Stop the Frack Attack in Washington, DC, carried by bicyclists on the Tour de Frack. For CCAN’s taste test, rider Jason Bell got the water from the Woodlands and Mike and Karen Bagdes-Canning drove the water from Butler over the weekend. Mike and Jason circulated photos from CCAN’s event on the Marcellus Outreach Butler (the MOB) facebook page. “Connoquenessing water fights fracking in Annapolis……Janet Mcintyre, Kim McEvoy, and other residents of the Woodlands, your hard work and courage are paying off,” Mike wrote on the MOB page. (A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about the Woodlands families is here.)

The first day of Maryland’s 2013 General Assembly session coincided with big protests in Albany, N.Y., urging that state legislature to ban fracking.

A few other coincidences:

The session in Maryland also opened on the same day news circulated from climate scientists that 2012 was the hottest on record for the contiguous United States; 2012 was also the second “most extreme year” on record for the nation, with droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, storms. During the year, 11 disasters each caused more than $1 billion in losses. The discussion continues on how much is natural variation and how much is caused by human activity, “[but] many [scientists] expressed doubt that such a striking new record would have been set without the backdrop of global warming caused by the human release of greenhouse gases. And they warned that 2012 was probably a foretaste of things to come, as continuing warming makes heat extremes more likely,” reported the New York Times. The NOAA report is here; other reports are here and here.

The session opened just days after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported high rates of methane leaks from fracking. If the rate of leakage is greater than 2 percent, natural gas is no better than coal for the warming climate. So, what rate did NOAA find? A eye-popping 9 percent. Over 20 years, that leaking methane will trap about 72 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

The session opened just as Bureau of Meteorology in Australia had to add two colors (deep purple and pink) so it can start showing temperatures above 122 degress F.

Before the presidential election, a Fox news analyst  downplayed polls that looked bad for the station’s favorite, Mitt Romney.  “You can go through all the scientific gobbledygook you like…I don’t believe it.”

We saw how well that turned out for Fox news.

Time to pay attention to all the scientific “gobbledygook.”

–elisabeth hoffman

the bridge to a hotter future

December 10, 2012

Conference speakers and participants want a fracking moratorium in Maryland.
Holding the banner are, from left, Mike Tidwell, Dana Shimrock,
Heather Mizeur, Joe Romm and CCAN organizers Megan Jenny and Kelly Trout.
//photo from Delegate Mizeur’s facebook page.

The fossil fuels economy is a Ponzi scheme, author and blogger Joe Romm said Saturday at Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s statewide Conference on Fracking Risks and Action in Maryland. Instead of the typical Ponzi scheme, in which we stay rich by fooling the next guy, “we are staying rich by taking and destroying resources our kids would depend on. … We are hurting our kids … so this is much worse than other Ponzi schemes.” We are depleting the water, air and land, he said – behavior that has to collapse eventually. And natural gas, once thought to be the bridge fuel to the future, is instead a “bridge to nowhere” and just a part of this Ponzi scheme. “We have to stop building fossil fuels infrastructure this decade,” he said.

Romm was one of four speakers on a morning panel at the all-day conference at the University of Baltimore that examined the risks of hydraulic fracturing and laid out the case for a moratorium on the drilling process in Maryland unless it can be shown to be safe.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of CCAN, said the gas industry always points to winners but overlooks the losers. “How many losers? We don’t know.” That’s why Maryland first needs a thorough study of the economic, environmental and health effects, from tourism to tap water to truck traffic, he said.

Delegate Heather Mizeur, who delivered a keynote address at the conference, emphasized that Maryland is the only state that sits on top of Marcellus Shale but hasn’t rushed into fracking. “We have the opportunity to act first,” she said, instead of having to clean up an environmental mess afterward. “We will not drill first and ask questions later.”

Fracking involves drilling about a mile underground and then turning the drill and heading another mile or so sideways through shale rock. Drillers use explosives to begin shattering the rock, then send a mixture of water, silica sand and a top secret combination of toxic and often carcinogenic chemicals under high pressure to crack open the rock and release bubbles of methane trapped there. The gas and some of the toxic brew comes back up the pipe, along with radium that had been locked safely underground. Sometimes that waste is injected into underground wells, a practice linked to earthquakes. Other times it sits in wastewater pits or is spread on roads. It also has been sent through waste-treatment plants and returned in questionable condition to drinking water sources.

An executive order by Gov. Martin O’Malley stands in the way of drilling in Maryland, for now. He set up a commission to study fracking and recommend regulations, but natural gas industry lobbyists have successfully argued against a fee on land leased for drilling that would have funded a comprehensive study. Mizeur called the executive order a “temporary reprieve.”

A legislative moratorium “will not happen without you,” she told the more than 200 people attending the conference. “I’m asking each of you to make this fight your own.”

“We can keep something bad from ever happening,” she said.

In the afternoon, those at the conference could attend two of three breakout sessions: how to make the fracking moratorium happen; debunking fracking myths; and fracking’s cost to the environment and clean energy alternatives.

(At least half a dozen CCICH members attended the conference, so I hope others will include comments about the sessions they attended or any other parts of the conference. I attended the latter two sessions.)

The morning panel members, as well as those during afternoon sessions, talked about the health, climate, community and legal ramifications of fracking. Others spoke of advances in renewable energy, such as solar and wind. Emma’s Revolution made an unscheduled appearance, singing “Feel the Wind,” a song the two musicians wrote to encourage Maryland legislators to pass offshore wind legislation.

Several speakers talked of the folly of building the infrastructure for a global natural gas economy that, according to the International Energy Agency, will warm the planet a catastrophic 6 degrees C (for those of us in the U.S., that’s about 11 degrees F). Ted Glick, national program coordinator of CCAN, called natural gas a “bridge fuel to worldwide climate catastrophe.” (During a Mitt Romney campaign stop in Virginia shortly after Hurricane Sandy, Glick hoisted a banner that said “End Climate Silence” and yelled, “What about climate? That’s what caused this monster storm,” before being drowned out by audience boos and chants of “USA! USA!” and hauled out of the area.) Glick said that if fracking expands worldwide, the atmosphere would be headed for 650 parts per million of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the end of the century, far above the 350 ppm that made civilization possible. Although the burning of natural gas emits less CO2 than coal or oil, it emits methane during drilling and venting, from compressor stations and along leaking pipelines. Shorter-lived methane is about 20 times more efficient at trapping heat than CO2, but averaged over 20 years, it is 72 times worse for the climate, Glick said.

Suzanne Jacobson, a nurse at Frederick MemorialHospital, and Veronica Coptis, a community organizer for Mountain Watershed Association in southwest Pennsylvania outlined the health problems in communities living with fracking. Doug Shields, the former Pittsburgh councilman, talked about leading that city’s efforts to pass a ban on fracking based on community rights rather than zoning. So far, no company has sued. He said the nation needs political leadership similar to that shown by President Kennedy, who set a timeframe for getting to the moon.

Panel member Dana Shimrock leased 50 acres of her land in Western Maryland, a decision she now regrets. For a year, she resisted industry representatives, but as her neighbors signed leases, she eventually relented, thinking that fracking would be similar to conventional gas drilling. When she asked what was in the fluid used to frack wells, she was told water and sand. No mention was made of the hazardous chemicals. She also was told the drilling footprint would be about an acre. In reality, the footprint of Pennsylvania drill pads is six to 10 acres, she said. She received $5 an acre, but the lease was eventually flipped for $10,000 an acre. The CEO of Chief Oil & Gas is very wealthy, she said, but he made his money from flipping leases, not from extracting natural gas. She has also learned much about those harmed by fracking in Pennsylvania, including an organic farmer whose land is now nearly worthless. “Banks don’t want to have anything to do with land with leases,” she said, or even adjacent properties.

Paul Roberts, a farmer and winery owner in GarrettCounty and founder of Citizen Shale, has not leased his family’s land, but the narrow road that runs in front of his house would be filled with diesel trucks hauling millions of gallons of water and fracking waste. The nearby land would be covered with well pads, each with eight or so wells, along with compressor stations and pipelines. “You’re probably thinking this is a personal thing,” he said, “We’re over it being personal. … If we go down this road and subject another generation to fossil fuels, it’s game over for the planet.”

Invoking Bill Clinton, he said the arithmetic of shale gas doesn’t add up. To produce enough natural gas to fill half the energy needs of the nation by 2035, as the industry plans to do, 35,000 to 40,000 wells would have to be drilled every year. In 2012, however, 18,000 to 20,000 were drilled, far short of the goal. Yet those wells already have brought environmental degradation to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and states in the southwest United States. He said we would have to fell every fifth tree in Pennsylvania to meet the goal. Also, because natural gas is not easily stored, the industry has to increase demand by promoting gas for vehicles, even though this would require an enormous investment in infrastructure, and try to set up ports for export. At the same time, however, the Energy Information Administration has drastically lowered estimates of how much gas is contained in the Marcellus Shale.

Because of low gas prices, many drillers have let leases lapse in Western Maryland. Chevron is the lone company remaining, he said. “We have time to make the right decision,” Roberts said.

Diana Dascalu-Joffe, the senior general counsel of CCAN, discussed the myth that the industry is highly regulated. The so-called Halliburton loophole, for example, exempts the gas industry from oversight provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and others. In addition, Maryland regulations for the oil and gas industry haven’t been amended since 1993, so they don’t even address fracking. Maryland also has trade secret exemptions that would fail to protect workers or communities. Under existing laws, she said, the Maryland Department of the Environment has the “discretion” to allow drilling permits within 1,000 feet of water sources, streams, schools, populations. She said MDE should not have the ability to allow drilling so close to those areas. “An unregulated industry is a dangerous industry,” she said.

Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, seemed sharp but also a bit weary on what he said was his 1,867th talk—a factoid he knows because he’s working on an autobiography. “We talk about saving the planet, but it’s our civilization that’s in danger,” he said. The environmental trends show trouble on many fronts, from aquifer depletion, deforestation, climate change and overpopulation.

Food, he said, is the weak link. The combination of population growth and people “moving up the food chain” to diets high in meat, milk and eggs has put extreme pressure on earth’s resources, particularly water. Many countries are overpumping aquifers, so water will be the main constraint for more food.

Farmers also face climate change. As a former farmer, Brown said, he always faced the variability of weather. Eventually normal would return. “Now there’s no normal to go back to. Farmers don’t know how to plan,” he said. For each 1 degree C rise in average global temperatures, grain yields decline 10 percent. Agriculture evolved during 11,000 years of climate stability, he said. “That climate system is no more.” Soil erosion, a byproduct of overplowing and overgrazing, will be another constraint on food production. Grain prices are already rising, and families in Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and other nations plan for foodless days.

We need to stabilize the climate, but cutting carbon and other greenhouse emissions 80 percent by 2050 is too late, he said. Instead we need a massive mobilization to cut emissions 80 percent by 2020. He sees hope in many places: coal plants are closing, auto sizes peaked in 2007 and cities are instituting bike sharing programs. Wind farms provide 40 to 50 percent of the energy in three German states and 20 percent of the electricity in Iowa and South Dakota. He said wind energy can “scale up” like no other energy form, from 100 megawatts to 10,000 megawatts. “We are now in the early phase of what I call the great transition” from fossil fuels, he said, and he’s confident that wind energy will “become the centerpiece of the new energy economy.”

He said we will need a massive restructuring similar to 1942, when this nation shifted to a wartime footing. “If we could restructure the U.S. industrial economy in 1942 … then certainly we can restructure the energy economy today.”

“Time is our scarcest resource,” he said, because we need to shift to this new energy economy “before climate change spirals out of control.” He urged everyone to have a stake in future civilization. “We can’t sit around and hope someone will save the future for us.”

Read a Washington Post article about the conference here.

–elisabeth hoffman





Keith Harrington of Chesapeake Climate Action Network made this illustration based on thousands of pages in the state’s draft plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Find out more at meetings tonight in Silver Spring and Thursday in College Park.

Hot enough? Dry enough? Consider this the prequel for life on this planet as our SUV-economy, fired by fossil fuels, changes the climate into something much less habitable. The Maryland Department of the Environment has a draft plan, to be finalized by December, that would reduce by 25 percent over the next seven years the greenhouse gas emissions we are pumping into the atmosphere. Is this enough? Will the programs in the plan work? 

Public meetings are scheduled tonight and Thursday where you can learn more and so make more informed comments about the plan to state officials.  At the meetings, representatives from Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Sierra Club will talk about the plan’s good points and shortcomings. The meeting tonight is from 7 to 8:30 at the Silver Spring Public Library, 8901 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. For more information, contact Keith Harrington from CCAN at 204.396.1985. The meeting Thursday is from 6 to 8 p.m. at College Park City Hall, 4500 Knox Road. For more information about that meeting, contact Chris Hill of Sierra Club, chris.hill@sierraclub.org

Email your comments to the state Department of the Environment at climate@mde.state.md.us by Aug. 17.