An unusual coalition of industry, environmental and philanthropic organizations yesterday announced an initiative to certify shale-gas producers for their environmental practices.
The Center for Sustainable Shale Development has established 15 performance standards for shale-gas extraction in the Appalachian Basin, governing air and water emissions and climate impacts related to hydraulic fracturing.
Starting later this year, energy companies in shale fields including the Marcellus can apply for review by independent, third-party consultants hired by the Center. The certification is a voluntary process, meant to complement rather than replace government regulation and enforcement.
The Center’s board boasts big names including former New Jersey governor and U.S. EPA head Christine Todd Whitman; former Treasury Secretary and ALCOA CEO Paul O’Neill; Carnegie Mellon University president Jared Cohon; top executives of Shell, Chevron, EQT Corporation and CONSOL Energy; Heinz Endowments president Robert Vagt; and Environmental Defense Fund president Paul King.
The press conference touting the Center was moderated by Andrew Place, EQT’s corporate director for energy and environmental policy and the Center’s interim executive director. Other speakers included O’Neill, Vagt and Conrad Schneider, of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (whose executive director, Armond Cohen, also sits on the board).
The event, held in Downtown’s EQT Plaza, was an odd place to do environmental reporting — and not just because you wonder how it’s possible to have “sustainable development” of a nonrenewable resource like shale gas. It was also odd because some of the enviros a reporter would normally hit up for comments about such an initative were sitting up there with reps from Shell, Chevron and EQT.
One of them was Joe Osbourne, legal director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, probably Pittsburgh’s most venerable grassroots environmental group. After four decades, it’s still a vocal advocate for greener standards.
As recently as a couple years ago, GASP favored a moratorium on shale-gas drilling, at least until more is known about its impacts. But Osbourne says that with thousands of wells already drilled, hundreds of compressor stations pumping away, and a pro-drilling governor in Harrisburg, “it became inescapable, the conclusion that this is here regardless of whether you’re pro shale gas or anti shale gas.” Therefore, he says GASP decided, “We should be focusing our effort on reducing the environmental impact."
Osbourne says he joined the Center’s planning team in late 2011, partway into what became a two-year process.
GASP, which back in the 1970s cut its teeth serving on air-quality committees with the likes of U.S. Steel, is no stranger to hashing things out with corporations. I asked Osbourne whether GASP believed certification would be effective.
“We have something of a reputation to maintain,” he said. “GASP wouldn’t stake our credibility on just another industry PR campaign. I do think this has promise.”
Other environmental groups involved include the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (whose president, Paul King, sits on the Center’s board) and Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future.
The initiative was spearheaded by the Heinz Endowments, whose president, Vagt, says the goal is achieving “the safest possible natural-gas drilling outcomes.” He added that the Center’s performance standards are “rigorous,” with measurable outcomes specified, and not merely based on best practices. Schneider, of the Clean Air Task Force, said that the standards represent “the state of the art” in shale extraction.
The standards (most of which won't apply until 2014 or later) would, among other things, prohibit gas producers from any discharge of wastewater into surface waters; require that drillers recycle a minimum of 90 percent of water contaminated in the drilling process; better protect groundwater from wastewater; reduce the toxicity of fracking fluid; and reduce air emissions from wastewater, onsite engines and on-road trucks. They’d also require pre- and post-drilling tests of local water quality. That’s important because neighbors of wells who say their water has been fouled often have a hard time proving it to the authorities.
Place said that all the standards are stricter than current Pennsylvania law, except for limits on emissions from engines of nitrous oxide, which is slightly less strict than a recently revised state reg and will itself be revised.
One problem the Center’s standards don’t address directly is habitat fragmentation in local fields and woodlands caused by access roads and pipelines. I brought this up with Environmental Defense Fund representative Mark Brownstein, of the Center's planning group. He said the Center's standards requiring a reduced footprint for drilling operations would help alleviate fragmentation. He added, “As stated, [these standards are] a good start, but over time more will be done.”
Speakers at the meeting also generally seemed to accept the notion that switching more of our energy generation from coal and oil to natural gas will help alleviate climate change — a debatable proposition.
A more immediate question is how many energy companies will actually request certification. Board member Paul Goodfellow, a Shell vice president, promised that Shell, for one, would have all its gas operations in Pennsylvania certified. Bruce Niemeyer, president of Chevron Appalachia, said many companies are already meeting or exceeding the Center’s standards — including some of the most profitable firms, because more careful environmental practices correlate with high efficiency. (“Doing the right thing does not cost more money,” chimed in O’Neill.)
A reporter asked why other big players — presumably names like Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy — were not involved in the planning. Place said the group was kept small to help it reach consensus. “There was no effort to exclude anyone,” he said. The next step, he said, is recruiting firms for certification.
Why would those companies bother? Schneider, of the Clean Air Task Force, says it will be crucial to reward certified companies in the marketplace. In other words, they’ll seek certification if it’ll sell more gas. But that will depend largely on whether consumers can choose their own gas supplier — which, unlike with electricity, they can’t really do in Pennsylvania. Someone asked we’d ever have “green gas” — letting consumers choose certified over uncertified suppliers. “We would hope so,” said Schneider.
A cynic might ask whether even the possibility that some companies will get certified might tone down public criticism of the industry in general.
But GASP’s Osbourne says that while a shale-gas moratorium would have been ideal, efforts like the Center’s are worth it. “You’re not going to eliminate risk,” he says. “Any energy-generation process has environmental impact ... It’s how do we minimize that?”
Dr. Bernard Goldstein isn’t opposed to drilling for shale gas. But Goldstein, a physician and professor emeritus in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, warns that in Pennsylvania, the law governing disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fails to protect public health. And he says that the drilling industry is “managing” the story of gas extraction to divert our attention from fracking’s real risks.
Goldstein spoke Feb. 28 at a Pitt-sponsored symposium on Act 13, the controversial 2012 state law regulating gas extraction, including disclosure of the chemicals. Critics contend the law is effectively a gag order on physicians: It allows companies to withhold the names of some fracking chemicals as trade secrets; limits when the identities of those chemicals can be disclosed to physicians; and requires doctors who need that information to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from sharing it even with their patients.
Nearly half of the day’s 15 speakers were attorneys for firms that represent the energy industry. They generally spoke in support of Act 13, arguing that fracking is safe and that keeping trade secrets is a necessity for industry. Several presenters showed slides with different versions of a pie chart indicating that fracking fluid is more than 90 percent water, and contains 1 percent or less of added chemicals. Several also claimed that there is no evidence that hydrofracturing has contaminated groundwater.
Goldstein, a former GSPH dean, attacked gas-industry spin that defines hydrofracturing not as the whole drilling process, but narrowly, as the release of fracking fluid into shale formations under high pressure a mile underground. Such a focus fails to account, for instance, for “flowback water,” the toxic liquid that returns to the surface as part of the drilling process. Flowback fluid contains fracking chemicals plus chemicals picked up in the shale formation itself. And these naturally occurring materials are “where the action is in Pennsylvania in terms of public-health risks,” said Goldstein. “This water has lots of bad things in it.”
Act 13 explicitly exempts drillers from disclosing “chemicals that were not intentionally added to” fracking fluid and “chemicals that occur incidentally or are otherwise unintentionally present in trace amounts, may be the incidental result of a chemical reaction or chemical process or may be constituents of naturally occurring materials.”
The “chemical reaction” part matters especially, Goldstein said, because the high temperatures in the shale layer (up to 480 degrees Fahrenheit) are conducive to chemical reactions.
“This was really a tremendous advantage [for drillers] not to have to tell people” about chemicals not intentionally added, he said.
The symposium, “Act 13 in 3-D: Drilling, Doctors, and Disclosure,” was organized by University of Pittsburgh School of Law students through the Pittsburgh Journal of Environmental & Public Health Law.
Goldstein was one of several Act 13 critics who said the law inhibits doctors whose patients might have been exposed to toxic fracking chemicals. Barry R. Furrow, director of the health-law program at Drexel University’s law school, noted that Act 13 allows for the disclosure of trade-secret chemicals for the treatment only of individual patients, not to protect the patient’s family or community from additional exposure.
Furrow added that under Act 13, doctors might second-guess themselves because of the implied threat of legal action from the holders of trade secrets: “Do you want to go against Halliburton?” he asked, referring to a key supplier of fracking fluids.
“Act 13 needs to be rewritten,” said Furrow.
While the current law doesn’t require industry to justify keeping a particular chemical secret, Goldstein said he thinks industry should have the burden of proof.
“I thought we had gotten somewhere with how we approach these kind of environmental questions,” said Goldstein, whose career includes an stint as an administrative appointee in the U.S. EPA under President Reagan.
The law surrounding shale gas and public health, he says, “has almost been a form of environmental recidivism.”
He added that Act 13 was written and passed with no input from health experts. “It’s really easy to ignore public health, and that’s exactly what’s happening here.”
Volunteers are needed to interact with visitors, help with landscaping and gardening projects and assist staff with customer service. Volunteers are asked to commit to at least one day per month from May to October.
Those interested volunteers may apply by contacting Jennifer Hiebert at 724-329-7826 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Spring volunteer orientation will be held on Sat., April 27.
The Allegheny County Airport Authority, Allegheny County and CONSOL Energy will hold an open house Monday evening for residents to learn "what to expect" when natural gas drilling starts at the Pittsburgh International Airport
The open house will be from 6-8 p.m., Mon., Feb. 18, at Findlay Township Activity Center, 310 Main St., Imperial. The meeting, according to a press release from the Airport Authority, will include information on CONSOL's drilling process, environmental protection measures and the Marcellus shale formation in the area.
Seats are still available on locally chartered buses to what’s billed as the largest climate rally in history.
Thousands from across the country are expected to descend on Washington, D.C., this Sunday, to call on President Obama to back up his strong language from his inaugural address, when he said, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
The Forward on Climate Rally comes at a crucial time: Obama is expected to decide soon whether to permit the Keystone XL pipeline, a conduit for Canada’s dirty tar-sands oil. One climate expert has said the pipeline would mean “game over” for the climate.
On Wednesday, 48 people including veteran civil-rights leader Julian Bond and actress Darryl Hannah were arrested in front of the White House in a peaceful protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. Among them were Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune and Sierra Club President Allison Chin; it was the first civil disobedience in the group’s 120-year history.
Recognizing that Congress is unlikely to curb greenhouse gasses, environmentalists are also calling on Obama to use executive authority (though the EPA and Clean Air Act) to reduce carbon emissions.
Scientists point to rising incidence of droughts, flooding, wildfires and other extreme weather as evidence of the havoc rising concentrations of such emissions already have wrought. And that’s after less than two degrees Fahrenheit of global warming.
“I just think climate change is the No. 1 issue on the planet,” says Allegheny Sierra Club President Barb Grover. “If we don’t do something about this, our planet is going to end up ininhabitable.”
Grover is among more than 100 Pittsburghers already booked to hit D.C. for the rally. It’s her first environmental protest there. At age 72, she says she’s doing it out of concern for the world her children and grandchildren will inhabit.
The Allegheny Sierra Club has two buses booked for D.C. About 15 seats remain. The bus leaves at 7 a.m. Sunday from Edgewood Town Center and returns that night, after the march and rally. Seats are $40 ($25 for students). Register here.
Ed Perry, a State College-based climate-change campaigner for the National Wildlife Federation, tells CP that buses are booked from towns statewide, carrying some 1,000 protestors from Pennsylvania to the rally. The Allegheny Sierra Club’s Peter Wray says other buses locally are leaving from Chatham, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon.
The festival will be held on Sat., April 6, and Sun., April 7, at the Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. Tickets are available through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
Tickets prices increase on Sun., Feb. 17. For a full list of ticket prices, visit here.
Across Pennsylvania starting tomorrow, the days of lugging your television to the curb will be as outdated as the model of your tube television.
As of Jan. 24, electronic devices will no longer be able to be thrown away with trash, per a state law passed in 2010. Prohibited devices include anything with a "cover" such as computers, televisions, laptops, computer monitors and tablets.
The new recycling rules took effect in the city as of Jan. 1. City officials are encouraging residents to take their electronics to an electronics retailer or Construction Junction. Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven says the city is also "reaching out to local partners who may want to sponsor an electronics drop off locally."
For a complete list of recyclers, visit this section of the state Department of Environmental Protection's website.
Pennsylvania viewers of the new Matt Damon flick on natural gas drilling, Promised Land, may notice a different kind of preview at their theater this weekend that's not touting a new romantic comedy or gun-filled melee. A pro-drilling group has launched an ad campaign to refute the film's portrayal of the industry and the environmental impacts associated with drilling.
Pro-drilling group the Marcellus Shale Coalition announced today it is going to engage with the public to disseminate natural gas facts that are counter to the film's depiction by airing 15-second ads in theaters.
In the brief ad, a voice over states: "Many Pennsylvanians have questions about natural gas production. We understand that, so the Marcellus Shale Coalition created an online platform to ensure these questions are answered with straightforward facts. Please visit learnaboutshale.org to get the facts about natural gas development."
About 40 theaters statewide will run the ad, including some in Pittsburgh, according to the MSC. In a press release, the coalition states it's using theaters and social media to "respond to the work of fiction with real facts and responsible conversation around the issue of natural gas development."
At the top of a document entitled "What They're Saying About Promised Land" — in reference to media reports on the film — reads this:
" FACT: This film is purely a work of fiction and is not reflective of the work our industry undertakes, all done within an aggressive and effective regulatory framework. Our focus remains on creating even more American jobs, safely producing our abundant, clean-burning, domestic natural gas resources, revitalizing rural communities and our nation’s manufacturing base, and most importantly, doing it in a way that is safe. We live and raise our families in these communities, and have an unmatched commitment to protecting our air, water and environment."
Check out the movie this weekend and let us know what you think. Local showtimes can be found here.
As advocates of wind power feared, two key tax credits for the renewable-energy source expired on Dec. 31. However, both survived the Congressional negotiations that resulted in the budget deal President Obama is signing today.
The Production Tax Credit and the Offshore Wind Investment Tax Credit will be in effect for wind projects begun in 2013.
As reported here in November, one industry spokesman blamed uncertainty over these credits for the cancellation of at least three wind projects in Western Pennsylvania — part of a long-term boom-and-bust cycle for new wind power that’s been closely linked to federal tax policy.
Experts says the revival of the two tax credits should now pave the way for renewed construction of wind-power projects.
Wind advocates tout its benefits for the environment compared to conventional energy sources, including reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and other pollutants and reduced water use. (Coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants, for instance, are huge users of water.)
“We applaud our leaders for recognizing these tremendous benefits to our health and environment, and for acting to ensure the continued development of pollution-free wind energy,” said Mary Kate Ranii of the group Penn Environment in a statement today.
Penn Environment also credited President Obama and members of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation for supporting the bill. The latter group includes Sen. Bob Casey and Reps. Jason Altmire, Mark Critz and Mike Doyle.
The class, entitled "A Garden Primer," will cover all the basics — from tools, where and what to plant and how/when to harvest, no matter the size of the space you have within to plant.
All classes will take place at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church and will run from 7:00pm - 9:00pm. There will be three sessions: Jan. 10, 17 and 27; Feb. 12, 19 and 26; and March 11, 18 and 25.
Tuition is $50 for Grow Pittsburgh members; $60 for non-members, and includes a resource manual and snacks.
A limited number of scholarships and childcare are available. Please email email@example.com or call the office at 412-362-4769 for more details.
To register and make your payment online visit Showclix and select from January, February or March session. Payments can also be made by sending a check to: Grow Pittsburgh, 6587 Hamilton Ave. #2W, Pittsburgh, PA 15206.
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