Our Common Good


“Promised Land” is part buddy comedy. The chemistry between Damon and McDormand as gas company executives who travel to a rural Pennsylvania town in a beat-up truck to hoodwink the locals into allowing their big corporation to drill for natural gas on their properties is spot-on and filled with zingy one-liners and playful pranks.

The movie is also a well-scripted romantic comedy, with a love triangle between Krasinski’s environmental activist, Damon (the two men co-wrote the screenplay) and a local schoolteacher, played by an adorable Rosemarie Dewitt.

Although “Promised Land” attempts to do the whole Erin Brockovich–style little guy versus big corporation thing, the audience will not necessarily walk out of the theater and pick up a Frack No More placard.

But that might be OK. “Maybe expecting people to go out and protest fracking is too much,” Thompson explained to me, saying that we just shouldn’t set the bar so high. “But if it becomes a big hit and lots of people go to see it, if they walk out of that movie knowing what fracking is, that’s a pretty big step. That’s all you can really expect a fracking movie to do.”

Earlier this year, Michelle Bamberger, an Ithaca, N.Y., veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published the first and only peer-reviewed report to suggest a link between fracking and illness in food animals.

The authors compiled 24 case studies of farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced neurological, reproductive and acute gastrointestinal problems after being exposed — either accidentally or incidentally — to fracking chemicals in the water or air. The article, published in “New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health,” describes how scores of animals died over the course of several years. Fracking industry proponents challenged the study, since the authors neither identified the farmers nor ran controlled experiments to determine how specific fracking compounds might affect livestock.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering examining a potential link between hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and drinking water contamination.

The lawmakers sent a letter to Sebelius Friday stating that such a study could stymie job growth if not properly executed. They expressed concern in the letter that naturally occurring substances in groundwater could be improperly labeled as contaminants.

“Despite the significant growth of natural gas development, we are greatly concerned that the scientific objectivity of the Department of Health and Human Services is being subverted and countless jobs could be in jeopardy,” the lawmakers said.

Signatories included House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (Mich.); Rep. Ed Whitfield (Ky.), the committee’s Energy and Power subcommittee chairman; Rep. Joe Pitts (Pa.), the committee’s Health subcommittee chairman; Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.), the committee’s Environment and the Economy subcommittee chairman; and past committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton (Texas).

Guess we shouldn’t study cancers because curing them could hurt cancer treatment jobs.

No need to study how people have gotten sick from contaminated foods because that might cost someone a job.

What else should we stop studying because discovering a health risk could cost jobs?

The University at Buffalo issued a statement on Monday afternoon announcing the closure of the Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI) due to the controversy surrounding a academic study on the environment effects of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’. The statement, made by UB President Satish K. Tripathi, acknowledged that the “historical financial interests” of the authors of “Environmental Impacts during Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts, and Remedies” drove suspicions that the report’s conclusions were biased. Tripathi also said that a review of the Institute by himself and UB’s deans indicated that it failed to include faculty presence in fields associated with energy production from shale for the institute to meet its stated mission” and that “research of such considerable societal importance and impact cannot be effectively conducted with a cloud of uncertainty over its work.”


CHIPPEWA COUNTY, Wis. — Where County Highway A crests a knoll, Ken Schmitt pulls up to the edge of a farm and idles the car. Above a cornfield yellowed and brittle from a killing frost is a 100-foot hill with a wide section cut away, revealing bands of stone, clay and sand neat as a layer cake.

In time, 800 acres of farmlandwill be mined to feed an energy boom sweeping the United States.

No one is drilling for oil or gas amid the gently rolling farmland and wooded ridges of western Wisconsin. But the same battles over jobs, public health and the environment that have erupted in Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado as part of the latest energy wave now echo through the small towns of the upper Midwest.

Here the particular types of sand vital to the controversial production technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, lie just beneath the surface. Ground zero for industrial sand mining is western Wisconsin, in counties like Trempealeau, Buffalo and Chippewa. At least 60 industrial sand mines are functioning or in the permit process in the area, up from five in 2010.

The rapid expansion of sand mining through the quiet of western Wisconsin has raised fears among some residents and hope in others, often pitting neighbors against one another, just as fracking has done elsewhere.

To get to the sand, companies must blast and strip-mine fields and ridges. Their trucks ply the two-lane country roads nonstop to haul the sand to processing plants and railheads, where it is shipped to far-flung oil and gas fields. Residents worry that when strong winds lift the fine, washed sand from outdoor piles, the dust could lead to respiratory problems.

“People here say this is an issue of property rights, that they can do what they want with their land,” said Schmitt, a cattle farmer and anti-mining activist from the town of Howard. “But individual rights end when you start affecting others’ health and welfare.”

Still, those who lease their land get royalties. Locals work at the mines and drive the trucks. When the companies build plants that wash, sift and dry the sand, they pay tens of thousandsof dollars in property taxes. A trade-off is needed, mining’s supporters say, if Wisconsin wants jobs and the country wants cheap energy.

“I liked the land the way it was before, but the country itself has to be more efficient one way or the other in the future,” said Jeff Sikora, who leased 50 acres of his land to EOG Resources, a Houston-based oil, gas and mining company. “Everyone wants the country to be more self-sufficient, but no one wants the effects of it. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.”

Texans can breathe easier: the radioactive waste Halliburton fracking surveyors lost last month has finally been found.

The United Arab Emirates-based oil services company told reporters this weekend that an oilfield worker found the rod of americium-241/beryllium alongside a highway near Pecos, Texas.

Halliburton reported it missing on September 11, and members of the Texas National Guard were ultimately called up to aid their search. Halliburton said it even deployed vehicles fitted with radiation detection equipment, but found nothing on three sweeps of the area.

Americium-241/beryllium is used for a variety of industrial and medical purposes, and in this case was needed for equipment used to identify potential sites for natural gas drilling. It is a “Category 3” radioactive substance, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Category 3 sources, if not safely managed or securely protected, could cause permanent injury to a person who handled them, or were otherwise in contact with them, for some hours,” the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) explained. “It could possibly — although it is unlikely — be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period of days to weeks.”

Seeking to quell environmental concerns about the chemicals it shoots underground to extract oil and natural gas, Apache Corp. (APA) told shareholders in April that it disclosed information about “all the company’s U.S. hydraulic fracturing jobs” on a website last year.

Actually, Apache’s transparency was shot through with cracks. In Texas and Oklahoma, the company reported chemicals it used on only about half its fracked wells via FracFocus.org, a voluntary website that oil and gas companies helped design amid calls for mandatory disclosure.

Energy companies failed to list more than two out of every five fracked wells in eight U.S. states from April 11, 2011, when FracFocus began operating, through the end of last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The gaps reveal shortcomings in the voluntary approach to transparency on the site, which has received funding from oil and gas trade groups and $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“FracFocus is just a fig leaf for the industry to be able to say they’re doing something in terms of disclosure,” said U.S. Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat. DeGette, along with Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey, introduced legislation in March 2011 that would require companies to disclose fracking chemicals. The bills haven’t advanced in either the House or Senate.

With FracFocus, “companies that want to disclose can do it but the other ones don’t have to,” DeGette said.

85% Fracked

Bloomberg compared oil and gas well records from eight states — Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming — against disclosures that companies made for those states on FracFocus. While the state data didn’t reveal whether wells were fractured, regulators in each state said that at least 85 percent of their wells were fracked. The Congressional Research Service puts the national estimate at more than 90 percent.

In the eight states, companies told regulators that 18,158 wells were readied for production or were newly producing from April 11, 2011 through Dec. 31, 2011. They disclosed 8,555 of them on FracFocus. If 85 percent of the total wells were fracked, that means 45 percent of the fracks weren’t disclosed on the website.

Bloomberg’s analysis, covering states that accounted for 64 percent of U.S. gas production in 2010, shows the difficulty of getting a full picture of the industry’s transparency. Because there’s no official national database of fracked wells, Bloomberg chose states that had reliable records on when gas and oil wells started producing or were completed — that is, made ready to flow — and thus were candidates for posting on FracFocus.

One of the worst droughts in U.S. history is hampering oil production, pitting farmers against oilmen and highlighting just how dependent on water modern U.S. energy development has become.

Over 60% of the nation is in some form of drought. Areas affected include West Texas, North Dakota, Kansas, Colorado and Pennsylvania, all of which are part of the recent boom in North American energy production.

That boom is possible partly by hydraulic fracturing. Known as fracking for short, the controversial practice gets oil and natural gas to flow by cracking shale rock with sand, chemicals, pressure and water.

Lots of water. Each shale well takes between two and 12 million gallons of water to frack. That’s 18 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water per well.

"We’re having difficulty acquiring water," said Chris Faulkner, CEO of Breitling Oil and Gas, an oil company with operations in many of the new shale regions including Bakken in North Dakota and Marcellus in Pennsylvania.

Faulkner said officials in two Pennsylvania counties have stopped issuing permits for oil companies to draw water from rivers, forcing them to go further afield to obtain the crucial resource.

National Casualty (Insurance) Company, part of the Nationwide group of insurance companies, has announced that hydraulic fracturing operations are prohibited in relation to properties it insures.

The company has determined that the exposures presented by hydraulic fracturing are too great to ignore. Risks involved with hydraulic fracturing are now prohibited for General Liability, Commercial Auto, Motor Truck Cargo, Auto Physical Damage and Public Auto (insurance) coverage. The company said it would not bind risks with this exposure, and any policies currently written with the exposure would be non-renewed
(following state requirements).

Among the prohibited risks involved in fracking operations listed by the company are contractors involved in fracking operations, landowners whose land has been leased to lessees with fracking operations, frack sand and frack liquid haulers and site prep (dump trucks, bulldozers) or leasing of tanks.


Witness regulatory capture in action. New York sells out the public to natural gas fracking companies by holding secret, backroom talks with industry goons for environmental permits.

Basically, Cuomo allowed gas industry folks access to help write special documents, an EIS, that will allow natural gas fracking in New York State. An EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) is a document that basically shows the environmental impacts from a building things, like new homes, pipelines, dumping pollution into the environment, etc.

The EIS is used to help determine if a project will harm the environment, and if so details a plan that the developer will do to mitigate those effects. The city will then issue a permit to the developer with certain restrictions and requirements. The developer must comply with the written findings of the EIS. EIS is very, very common. It’s (usually) an open, public process. The public can review and comment on pretty much any EIS in their communities (even you!). This public review helps shape the language in the permit.

But, it crosses the line of ethics and legality when industry is given special access to the documents without the public knowing. It’s not entirely illegal, but there are parameters that must be met - changes to text should be made public and put up for comment, for example. This seems not to be the case with Cuomo, who seems to want natural gas fracking allowed in New York State.

Story here and EIS here.

Send corrections here.

As North Carolina lawmakers prepare to pass a bill as soon as this week legalizing fracking for natural gas, they got a visit from a former Texas mayor who shared his cautionary tale about the serious problems the industry brought to his small town.

Calvin Tillman was elected mayor of Dish, Texas — a community of about 200 residents 25 miles north of Fort Worth — in 2007, at a time when fracking was booming in the area. Dish sits atop the Barnett Shale, which is one of the largest natural gas fields in the United States. Ten massive pipelines run through the town, carrying about a billion cubic feet of gas per day.

Tillman spent much of his time in office fighting to regulate the gas companies, which transformed his once-quiet community into a noisy, polluted industrial center. He finally moved away last year after his two young sons began waking in the middle of the night with severe nosebleeds that the family believes were related to toxic air emissions from the drilling operations.

Before Tillman left, he offered to rent his home to a gas company executive so they could see what it was like to live in the industry’s midst.

"None took me up on it," he says.

Tillman, who appeared in the award-winning fracking documentary "Gasland," now works with a nonprofit group he founded called ShaleTest, which does environmental testing for lower-income families and communities affected by natural gas drilling. He visited North Carolina this week to talk about his experiences, meeting with about a dozen state lawmakers.

"I want to let everybody know there’s more to this than they’re being told by the industry," he says.

Ohio is in the final stages of making an Exxon trojan horse on hydrofracking into state law, and it appears that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) connected Exxon’s lawyers with co-sponsors of Ohio Senate Bill 315: at least 33 of the 45 Ohio legislators who co-sponsored SB 315 are ALEC members, and language from portions of the state Senate bill is similar to ALEC’s “Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act.”


Concern over unconventional energy like gas fracking may be the reason by Ohio SB 315 also addresses clean energy standards and drilling regulations. While the new law will allow doctors to obtain disclosure of fracking chemicals, it places a gag order on them…meaning some chemicals aren’t disclosed to the public at all (Cleveland Plain Dealer). Instead, chemicals that subsidiaries of Big Oil use during fracking can remain exempt from public disclosure as “trade secrets,” mirroring language of ALEC’s model law.

What’s most suspicious is that seven of the ten Ohio Senators co-sponsoring SB 315 are ALEC members, as are 26 of the 35 co-sponsoring Representatives.*


This is still disgusting

Pennsylvania law states that companies must disclose the identity and amount of any chemicals used in fracking fluids to any health professional that requests that information in order to diagnosis or treat a patient that may have been exposed to a hazardous chemical. But the provision in the new bill requires those health professionals to sign a confidentiality agreement stating that they will not disclose that information to anyone else—not even the person they’re trying to treat.

"The whole goal of medical community is to protect public health," said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment. He worries that the threat of a lawsuit from a big industry player like Halliburton or ExxonMobil for violating a confidentiality agreement could scare doctors away from research on potential impacts in the state. “If anything, we need more concrete information. This just stifles another way the public could have access to information from experts.”