Shhh. Bakken oil spill is on “confidential status”

The spill occurred a mile northwest of Keane Township in McKenzie County. Click to see on Google Maps

The spill occurred a mile northwest of Keene Township in McKenzie County. Click to view Google Maps

Ho hum. Another day, another well blowout. Another 25,000 gallons of crude released in McKenzie County in the Bakken. Sure hope it doesn’t wind up in the Missouri River.

Nobody hurt, and not much cause for worry. The land around the well is just farmland.

Petro-Hunt LLC, the operator responsible for the well, is on site and working to control the damage.

“We’ll be working…to make sure we get it cleaned up,” said Fred Hosey, general counsel for Petro-Hunt.

That’s comforting.

The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources is there too, protecting the interests of North Dakota citizens.

Here’s what they have to say about it: nothing.

According to Allison Ritter, spokesperson for the Department of Mineral Resources, “the oil well is on confidential status.”

An oil rig near Keene, North Dakota. Photo: Jeff Swan, Selah, Washington

An oil rig near Keene, North Dakota. Photo: Jeff Swan, Selah, Washington

What does that mean?

This, folks, is the Halliburton Loophole in action.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974 was established to protect America’s drinking water. It authorizes the EPA to set national health-based standards for drinking water to protect against both naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants. The EPA, states, and water systems then work together to make sure that these standards are met.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from SDWA oversight,  leaving drinking water sources in the 34 oil and gas producing states unprotected from the toxic chemicals used during fracking. Also known as the Halliburton Loophole, this law turns over control of water quality to the oil and gas companies to protect their “trade secrets,” and this is why they do not have to tell us what chemicals they use in the fracking process.

“Confidential status” means the Department of Mineral Resources can’t release information to the public for six months. North Dakota has put this rule in place to entice exploration and “protect oil companies from competitors.

So what else leaked besides 25,000 gallons of oil? What chemicals were being used in the well that blew? What is gurgling around in the farmland near Keene, heading toward the Missouri River?

Shhh. It’s a trade secret.

The oil company is protected, but not the owners of that farmland, and not the people who live downstream from the spill.

This, folks, is why we need local regulation of the drilling process. Strong rules, put in place locally, protect citizens, their land and their water from damage done by oil companies that otherwise have no legal responsibility to say what chemicals they are using.

And this is why landowners in Carbon and Stillwater counties are fighting so hard to establish local zones.

They deserve your support.

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Out of the mouths of babes: a Bozeman six-year-old looks at climate change (with video)

Bozeman’s six-year-old Noah Gue  is the youngest of 15 winners of this year’s White House Junior Film Festival. “Noah’s Project,” his three minute video on climate change, earned him a meeting with President Obama, who singled him out as “the one missing his front teeth.”

Now if we could just get Steve Daines to sit down and watch the video.

The video was selected from more than 1500 entries from K-12 students from across the country. The theme of this year’s contest is making an impact and giving back.

His father Michael, a wildlands firefighter, saw the film festival announced on Twitter, and asked Noah if he’d like to enter. They saw the notice in February, went out for a weekend to shoot at Yellowstone, Paradise Valley and Hyalite Lake, and put the video together in one afternoon, using an Apple iMovie program. They were notified early this month that they had won, and were invited to the White House.

Noah and his father Michael. Photo: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Noah and his father Michael. Photo: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Michael shot most of the video with his GoPro camera, while Noah’s mother Amy, a wedding photographer, contributed still photos of grizzly bears, bison and other wildlife that she shot with Noah’s help.

Noah is the talent, looking into the camera and telling us he’s seen climate change “with my own eyes.”

He tells how rising temperatures are affecting his family and the landscapes near his home. “Glaciers are receding and could soon be gone forever…Some animals may go extinct in the next century….It’s time for the world to see conservation through a kid’s eyes.”

President Obama singles Noah out as the one "missing his front teeth"

President Obama singles out Noah as the one “missing his front teeth” Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP

“He memorized what he was going to say,” Amy says of Noah, who is barely old enough to read. “But when he got in front of the camera, he added in his own comments.”

Global warming is a concept simple enough for a six-year-old to understand. You have to be much older, more jaded, and blinded by money to misunderstand it.

The video:

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BLM introduces new fracking rules: a welcome step forward, but not enough to protect the Beartooth Front

New fracking rules
On Friday the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a new set of long-anticipated rules regarding fracking. These rules will require oil and gas operators to (see pages 7-8 at above link):

  • Design and implement a casing and cementing program that follows best practices and meets performance standards to protect and isolate usable water, defined generally as those waters containing less than 10,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids (TDS);
  • Monitor cementing operations during well construction;
  • Take remedial action if there are indications of inadequate cementing, and demonstrate to the BLM that the remedial action was successful;
  • Perform a successful mechanical integrity test (MIT) prior to the hydraulic fracturing operation;
  • Monitor annulus pressure during a hydraulic fracturing operation;
  • Manage recovered fluids in rigid enclosed, covered or netted and screened above-ground storage tanks, with very limited exceptions that must be approved on a case-by-case basis;
  • Disclose the chemicals used to the BLM and the public, with limited exceptions for material demonstrated through affidavit to be trade secrets;
  • Provide documentation of all of the above actions to the BLM

The BLM initially proposed these rules in 2012 and opened them to public comment. As you would expect, there has been extensive comment from both the oil and gas industry and the public. The rules will take effect this summer, 90 days after they are published in the Federal Register.

Filling water truck

Worker fills water truck to perform dust abatement near a fracking operation. Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A welcome step forward
The rules are a positive step forward in the effort to make fracking responsible for protecting the public, and we have argued for most of these reforms on this site.

The requirement to monitor, report and fix problems with well casings recognizes a major issue with fracking — cement casings leak and can contaminate soil and water. The requirement to hold produced water in tanks instead of ponds is also welcome.

The improvement of reporting requirements is also positive. Oil and gas companies will be required to disclose the chemical composition of their fracking fluids within 30 days of finishing a drilling operation. The “trade secret” provision, a key element of the Halliburton Loophole, is tightened but not closed. Companies can still claim trade secrets, but must submit an affidavit to prove this.

The BLM noted that it is negotiating a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the organization that manages FracFocus. Under the MOU, FracFocus will notify the BLM each time chemical disclosures are uploaded on the site. The rules require companies with operations on federal land to follow state and federal disclosure requirements; however, if the state regulation is stricter, the state can request a variance that requires operators to comply with the stricter state rule. Companies will also have to submit additional information to the BLM concerning wellbore geology, fault and fracture locations, water depths, the volume of fluids used, and the direction and length of fractures.

AP Photo

AP Photo

But not enough to protect the Beartooth Front
While the new rules are a positive step, they are not enough to protect us along the Beartooth Front for several reasons:

  • The rules apply only to drilling on federal land, not on private property, so they would not apply to any drilling in the Silvertip area in Carbon County or along the Fishtail-Dean-Nye corridor in Stillwater County.
  • There is no guarantee the rules will ever be put into place. The Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance have complained about the BLM’s estimate of a cost of $11,700 per well to comply with these regulations (between 0.13% and 0.21% of average drilling cost per well), and have already filed suit to challenge the regulations.
  • The BLM has not proven to provide effective enforcement of the rules it already has on the books. We have documented what a poor job the agency does of inspecting injection wells, and, without proper oversight, operators will not comply.
  • The rules do not address many issues raised by local landowners as necessary to protect their properties: regular water, air and soil testing; setbacks of  wells from residences; and the maintenance of local infrastructure are key areas not addressed by these rules.

We should applaud and welcome the many positive steps we have seen recently: the new BLM rules, laws limiting fracking in many states and localities, and substantial advances in the scientific documentation of the risks of fracking.

The evidence is clear. Congress is not going to pass legislation that regulates the oil and gas industry, and federal agencies such as the EPA and BLM have been completely unable to resist the power of the industry to curtail their efforts. And the Montana legislature has demonstrated over and over that it is not willing to do anything to regulate or monitor oil and gas activity in the state.

It is up to local communities to protect their water, their health, and their way of life.

That is why landowners in Carbon and Stillwater counties are working so hard to implement citizen-initiated zones. These are efforts we should support as responsible approaches to oil and gas drilling. They can take effect now, while we wait for years and years for Washington and Helena to take action.

 

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Energy Corporation of America dismissed from Carbon County lawsuit. Will landowners be next?

Energy Corporation of America (ECA) has been dismissed from the lawsuit filed by Silvertip landowners against the Carbon County Commissioners. The dismissal came at the request of ECA, which indicated that it had no interest that it wished to defend in the case.

The lawsuit challenges the January decision of the County Commissioners to deny the Silvertip Zone. The suit was filed on February 13.

Silvertip lawsuitAccording to the suit, ECA was named as a defendant even though the plaintiffs sought no damages against them. They were named because they might “claim an interest which would be affected by the declaration.” ECA conducted exploratory oil and gas drilling in the Silvertip area, and the company’s representatives participated in public meetings concerning establishment of the Silvertip Zoning District and, through its attorney Mike Dockery, ECA submitted extensive comments to the Commissioners opposing the establishment of the Zone.

Public meeting at Belfry School, September 2014

Public meeting at Belfry School, September 2014

However, ECA informed the Commissioners in December that the company had decided not to pursue further development in the Belfry area, and, according to the stipulation, “ECA does not claim an interest that it wishes to defend in the claims currently raised.”

As a result, ECA was dismissed from the case.

Will protesting landowners follow the same path?
You have to wonder whether the protesting landowners, who were also named in the lawsuit, might take the same path as ECA did. According to the lawsuit, “no relief is sought” against these individual landowners, “but they are considered necessary parties because of their interest in the outcome of this appeal.”

In other words, they were named as defendants not because anybody wants any money from them, but because they protested and the law requires that they have the opportunity to explain themselves if they choose to do so.

However, if they choose not to testify, they could conceivably opt out of the case in the same way ECA did.

What the Silvertip landowners ultimately decide to do is s between them and their attorney, but they have a path to get out of the suit if they want to.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Guest editorial: Senate Bill 374 ensures oil companies pay their fair share

The following editorial appeared in Butte’s Montana Standard on March 11. SB374 will be debated before the Senate Taxation Committee on Wednesday, March 18. If you support this bill, follow directions for contacting your representatives at the end of this post immediately to make your voice heard.

To read previous posts on the Montana Oil and Gas Tax Holiday, click here. To read posts on Montana infrastructure requirments related to oil and gas drilling, click here.

Senate Bill 374 ensures oil companies pay their fair share
by State Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena

Christine Kaufmann. Photo: ckaufmann.com. Click to enlarge.

Christine Kaufmann. Photo: ckaufmann.com. Click to enlarge.

In Montana, we believe in fairness and a level playing field. But right now, oil and gas companies extracting Montana resources are not paying their fair share. From 2008 to 2014, these companies received a tax break of more than $126 million, costing local communities and the state critical revenue to meet infrastructure, social service, and public safety needs.

In 1999, the legislature created a huge tax break for oil and gas companies. It lowers the taxation of oil and gas production to almost nothing during the most profitable period of extraction – the first 12 to 18 months. At the time, proponents of the tax break claimed that it would encourage development. Studies show, however, that oil companies do not base their decisions on state taxes. Quite simply, these out-of-state corporations operate where there is oil, period. We know now that this tax policy has cost Montana hundreds of millions in lost revenue, but the costs have been especially high to the communities who feel the strain on their public services and infrastructure.

Let’s compare. In North Dakota, during times when oil prices are high, a typical Bakken well producer is taxed at an average rate of 10.6%. However Montana taxes these companies at less than one percent during the first 12 to 18 months, regardless of how high oil prices are and how much profit a producer makes.

The money Montana hands over to oil and gas companies as a tax break should instead be invested in our communities, on maintaining critical public services like education, water systems, housing, and roads. Increasing population in oil- and gas-impacted counties has overwhelmed local police, firefighters, domestic violence shelters, and child abuse officials.

What could this revenue have provided? The tax breaks to oil companies in 2014 alone could have instead funded any one of the following:

  • Over a third of the projected costs for maintaining roads in Eastern Montana as a result of increased traffic from heavy equipment in the area;
  • The critical services provided to victims of domestic violence and their families through the 22 shelters in Montana for six years;
  • The state’s costs in addressing disaster and emergency services for 20 years;
  • The state’s budget for veteran services and their families for 15 years; or
  • Three-fourths of the annual state budget for the Montana Highway Patrol.

The revenue Montana lost between 2008 and 2014 could have supported seven years of Early Edge, an investment to ensure Montana’s children enter kindergarten ready to learn.

Aren’t those more important than a tax break for big out-of-state corporations?

We can fix this. I am proposing Senate Bill 374 to ensure oil companies pay their fair share. The bill will place a “trigger” on the tax holiday. When oil prices are high, the state and communities are ensured a revenue stream. North Dakota, experiencing a similar oil boom, has had a similar tax structure in place for several years.

My bill will also ensure that the majority of this revenue goes to where it is needed most – the communities in Eastern Montana. A fund will be set up to address the ongoing infrastructure, safety, and social service needs of the communities hit the hardest by the production.

The oil and gas tax holiday is costing Montana millions in revenue for public services and infrastructure. It’s time to fix it and put those dollars to better use.

What you can do:

First of all, this bill is likely to be heard in the Taxation Committee on Wednesday, March 18. It is important that you act NOW to be heard.

Leave a phone message for the committee members. 
Call the Capitol at (406) 444-4800 during business hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Leave a message for the members of the Senate Taxation Committee asking them to vote YES on SB 374.

Taxation Members, 2015

Democratic members (5) Republican members (7)
Dick Barrett, Minority Vice Chair Bruce Tutvedt, Chair
Jill Cohenour Fred Thomas, Vice Chair
Christine Kaufmann Mark Blasdel
Sue Malek Taylor Brown
JP Pomnichowski Brian Hoven
Janna Taylor
Duane Ankney

You also can email the Committee. Use this online form. About halfway down it will ask you to choose which committee.

NOTE: You should be aware that the Taxation Committee voted entirely along party lines in the 2013 legislature to table a similar bill. Senators Tutvedt, Homas and Taylor were all on that 2013 committee, and all voted to kill the bill. Focus your efforts on the Republicans — two of them will have to vote yes to get this bill out of Committee.

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Support SB374, which would provide infrastructure support for Montana communities impacted by oil and gas drilling

Montana’s oil and gas tax holiday, instituted by the legislature in the 1999, provides a huge and unnecessary tax break to oil and gas companies. They pay a tax of only 0.5 percent of the production value for the first 12 months of production on all wells and 18 months on oil and gas from horizontally drilled wells. After the grace period ends, the rate goes up to 9 percent.

We have often looked at the damaging impact of the oil and gas tax holiday on infrastructure, with a particular focus on Sidney, a bedroom community for the Bakken, which is struggling with a need to improve roads, water treatment facilites, schools, and jails while oil companies profit.

Central Avenue in Sidney is inundated with truck traffic.
Central Avenue in Sidney is inundated with truck traffic.

For legislators looking to even out the boom and bust impact of the oil and gas industry, it makes some sense to argue that a holiday is justified when oil prices bust, as they have recently. But when oil is booming along at $100 a barrel, it’s ridiculous to deny the state revenues necessary for infrastructure rebuilding while the oil companies are making huge profits.

SB 374, introduced into the Senate Taxation Committee in this session, by Senator  Christine Kauffman of Helena, would impose a “trigger” on the current tax holiday that would require oil and gas companies to pay the full 9% tax when the price of gas rises above $52.59 a barrel. This is a fair trigger — it protects company profits when prices are low, and requires them to pay when prices and profits are high.

The bill would also increase funding for cities and towns impacted by oil development by requiring that half resulting revenue would go to oil and gas producing counties, with the other half of revenue going to the state general fund.

The bill could be heard in Committee as early as Wednesday, so your action is needed to help get this bill out of Committee on onto the Senate floor.

UPDATE 3/17/2015. Op-ed by Senator Kauffman on SB374.

Courtesy of Northern Plains Resource Council, here’s what you can do to help:

Leave a phone message for the committee members. 
Call the Capitol at (406) 444-4800 during business hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Leave a message for the members of the Senate Taxation Committee asking them to vote YES on SB 374.

Taxation Members, 2015

Democratic members (5) Republican members (7)
Dick Barrett, Minority Vice Chair Bruce Tutvedt, Chair
Jill Cohenour Fred Thomas, Vice Chair
Christine Kaufmann Mark Blasdel
Sue Malek Taylor Brown
JP Pomnichowski Brian Hoven
Janna Taylor
Duane Ankney

You also can email the Committee. Use this online form. About halfway down it will ask you to choose which committee.

Don’t wait — this bill will protect Montana communities. Yours could be next.

Posted in Politics and History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Incredible Beartooth Front nature photography

In my search for relevant content I sometimes run into unexpected treasures to share.

A Red Lodge resident posting as rdragon on a site called wunderground.com has posted hundreds of amazing photos that he has taken of the region. Thought I’d share a few here and point you in his direction so you can enjoy some amazing photography, a reminder of the beauty of the Beartooth Front and the importance of preserving it.

You can find rdragon’s photo collection here. Be sure to click on “Next 50 results” at the bottom right to find the pages of photos he has posted. You can click on the photos below to enlarge them.

Palisades formation along the Eastern Beartooth Front south of Belfry
Palisades formation along the Eastern Beartooth Front south of Belfry
Raven harrassing a golden eagle. A subsequent photo shows the two battling over an animal carcass.
Raven harassing a golden eagle in a dispute over an animal carcass
Chrome Mountain summit northwest of Nye
Chrome Mountain summit northwest of Nye
Beartooth Pass
Beartooth Pass
Sandhill cranes
Sandhill cranes
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Sidney, Montana: Riding the boomtown roller coaster (with NPR audio)

Sidney oil derrick

Pump-jack sits on an oil well near downtown Sidney. Photo: David Gilkey, NPR

Sidney, Montana is riding the boomtown roller coaster.

Last year we reported on Sidney’s unmet infrastructure needs as the town was  riding the upwards Bakken boom. Growth had taxed the city’s infrastructure to bursting. A summary from a Montana Public Radio report in late 2013:

  • Traffic up as much as 50 percent in the last five or six years, “pounding local roads into gravel.”
  • New hotels and housing straining the city’s sewer system to its limit.
  • The town brings in about $10 million dollars a year in taxes, but it has $55 million dollars in infrastructure needs.

Help from Helena was not forthcoming. According to then-Mayor Bret Smelser, Governor Bullock had vetoed a bill that would have provided $35 million to eastern Montana to pay for increased infrastructure costs. Bullock said he vetoed it because he had to cut $150 million of “spending or tax cuts to balance the budget.”

At the time, Sidney had raised taxes and fees as much as they could:

  • raised water rates
  • raised sewer rates
  • raised sewer hookup fees
  • initiated impact fees

A new infrastructure strain
The funding crunch began to ease somewhat in 2014, but now, according to a new report on National Public Radio, the oil price bust is providing a new infrastructure hit. According to new Mayor Rick Norby, the town will receive $600,000 less in tax revenue from oil production, plus a hit in hotel and gambling taxes. As the report says, “That’s a big deal when your whole budget is $11 million and your town now has a major highway running through it.”

The money coming from the oil boom pays for fundamental services that are stretched thin. Sidney is looking for $30 million to build a new truck bypass. A new $70 million water treatment plant is also needed.

Mayor Rick Norby (right) and two staff members inspect one of Sidney's wastewater lagoons, which needs to be replaced by modern treatment plant. Photo: David Gilkey, NPR

Mayor Rick Norby (right) and two staff members inspect one of Sidney’s wastewater lagoons, which needs to be replaced by modern treatment plant. Photo: David Gilkey, NPR

According to the report the infrastructure strain is tremendous:

  • Crime is up and Norby doesn’t have the police force to deal with it. The town’s population has grown 20% since 2010, and his police force has grown the same amount. But, as shown in the chart below, arrests for DUI, Assault, narcotics and disorderly conduct have increased as much as 475% in the same period

Sidney crime chart

  • Sidney’s schools, which have funding that is closely tied to oil revenues, had been slowly climbing out of a hole as recent additional funding had provided more teachers and classroom aides. The school district recently started a long-term facilities plan. But that plan depended on high oil prices. As a local administrator says, “One of my biggest fears is that tomorrow, all of a sudden, it’s gone.”

The piece concludes:

From the schools to the police station to city hall, people in Sidney are worried right now about what the drop in oil prices is going to mean for them. Mayor Rick Norby says the only option is to start cutting, unless the state Legislature taps emergency funds to help out boom towns like his.

“That’s why we’re screaming,” Mayor Norby says. “We’re drowning, we need help.”

You can listen to the NPR report here.

What it means for the Beartooth Front
This is a cautionary tale for communities along the Beartooth Front. The boom cycle can be ruinous to a town. Sidney is still booming, but the oil price collapse could be a precursor of a complete bust.

The boom was something that happened to Sidney. Growth occurred outside any ability of the town to control it.

Communities concerned about their long-term futures need to plan and take local control of growth.

Montana connection to the NPR report. The report was done by Kirk Siegler, a national reporter for NPR based in Culver City, CA. Siegler is a Montana native who got his start in reporting 2003 covering the Montana Legislature for Montana Public Radio. He grew up in Missoula.

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Energy Corporation of America loses lawsuit; owes over $900,000 for underpaying landowners

eca-logoLast October we reported that Energy Corporation of America (ECA) was being sued in federal court for underpaying royalties to landowners. The suit, Pollock et al. v. Energy Corporation of America, went to trial this week.

An eight-person jury agreed with the property owners following four days of testimony.

“The damage amount is in excess of $900,000,” said William Caroselli, an attorney for the property owners. “With simple interest, it should be well over $1 million.”

Posted in Fracking Information | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Why we can’t prove what we know is true about fracking and water contamination

Why can’t we pin down the relationship between fracking and water quality?

The answer lies in government bureaucracy, industry stonewalling, the unwillingness of our elected representatives to protect us, and the rapid growth of the fracking industry. The bottom line is that government and industry have conspired to keep us from proving what we know is true.

It’s no wonder that local citizens are taking matters into their own hands.

USGS: “not enough data available to assess”
According to a study just released by the US Geological Survey, we just don’t have enough data to understand the potential risks to water quality associated with unconventional oil and gas development in the United States:

“We mined the national water-quality databases from 1970 – 2010 and were able to assess long-term trends in only 16 percent of the watersheds with unconventional oil and gas resources,” said Zack Bowen, USGS scientist and principal author of the article that appears in American Geophysical Union’s Water Resources Research. “There are not enough data available to be able to assess potential effects of oil and gas development over large geographic areas.”

The key, says USGS, is the absence of baseline data in nearly every study. We often know that fracking occurred, and that water is contaminated after it occurs, but we can’t draw a causal link because we didn’t measure the content of the water before the drilling took place.

water-testing-300x200This is a problem that we’ve discussed often. Long-time readers will recognize the legal problems caused for individual landowners when baseline water data isn’t available. Your well water can be pristine, and after the oil operator has been there a month, it can become contaminated. Let’s say you have it sampled, and it contains benzene or other contaminants. But if you go to court to collect damages, you can prove that the water contains benzene, but, without baseline data, what you can’t prove is when and how the benzene contamination occurred.

You’re not going to get a judgment without the baseline data because you can’t legally prove the causal link between drilling and your brown water. Even if it happened a month after the oil company got there, you’ve got no proof as to the state of your water before the drilling started.

The State of Montana has inadequate laws for water testing
The laws of Montana do almost nothing to protect you. Baseline water testing is not required by Montana law, except for injection wells. In addition, there are

  • No location requirements
  • No specified water sources
  • No parameters for water source testing
  • No follow up testing
  • No required disclosure of any water source testing that is done
  • No presumption of liability against operators when contamination is found in a nearby water source
  • No requirement for operators to identify subsurface features that they are aware of
  • No siting restrictions, e.g. distance from occupied residences, if the well is to be hydraulically fractured
  • No requirement to identify the type or source of water used in operations

And there’s no help on the horizon. In the current Montana legislative session, Senate Bill 172, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy of Billings, would have required oil and gas developers to pay for baseline water tests of groundwater before any development activity starts at a site and after a well is plugged. It died in committee, and won’t be considered again until at least 2017.

The EPA has spent five years not finding this out
So why doesn’t the federal government do something about it? They were going to, but…

This spring the EPA will release a draft of its long-awaited study of the relationship between fracking and water quality. It’s not going to give us the information we want.

“We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago,” said Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA’s 2011 Science Advisory Board.  “This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result.”

In 2010, as the fracking industry was exploding in size, the House Appropriations Committee directed the EPA to conduct a comprehensive study of the relationship between fracking and water quality.

According to Neela Banerjee of Inside Climate News, The EPA jumped at the chance. “There is every opportunity for this study to clarify and give knowledge and insight about the [fracking] operations so that the American people can be confident that their drinking water is pure and uncontaminated,” said Paul Anastas, then-director of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, which ran the study, at a congressional hearing in May 2011.

groundwater-e1376937616578The EPA designed the water study around these elements:

  • Analysis of data from companies about the ingredients in fracking fluids, fracking procedures and the health effects of fracking chemicals.
  • Computer modeling to understand whether fracking could contaminate water.
  • Laboratory studies of how fracking fluids might create new compounds in geological formations.
  • Toxicology assessments of fracking fluids.
  • Case studies, including retrospective research that would examine cases of reported water contamination at fracked sites.
  • Prospective, or baseline, studies in places where fracking had not yet happened.

But this design proved way too ambitious for the timeline, the budget and the ultimate political fallout.

Some members of the Committee’s Science Advisory Board urged the EPA to scale back the study design, given the project’s budget and timetable.

“The single most important thing you could do is prospective studies for a year or two at a few wells,” said Thyne, the board member.

A prospective study is one which seeks to assess the association between a hypothesized risk factor and an outcome by sampling both exposed and unexposed subjects (or intervention and non-intervention groups) and then following them for the period of study. In other words, get baseline data for a small number of wells, some in fracking areas and some not, and then test the water before, during and after drilling.

Prospective studies were included in the EPA project’s final plan in 2010 and were still described as a possibility in a December 2012 progress report to Congress. The problem is that you can’t do a prospective study with cooperation from the oil and gas companies.

As the political climate changed in their favor, the oil companies become less willing to cooperate. Republicans took control of Congress in 2010 and were more sympathetic to oil interests. And in 2012, President Obama was running for election and touting the economic benefits of fracking. Nobody was going to push the oil and gas industry.

They dug in their heels and not a single company agreed to participate in the EPA study.

water testing2After three years of looking for suitable locations for baseline research, the EPA determined it had to move on or risk further delays to the overall study. Originally due in 2012, the final study is now expected in 2016 after the completion of reviews.  A draft version will be made public this spring.

It is no surprise that Congress didn’t push the industry to participate. For the last  35 years they have been gutting landmark environmental legislation by exempting the oil and gas industry from the rules, culminating in the infamous Halliburton Loophole, which enables the industry to avoid having to disclose the chemicals used in fracking.

So, this spring, after five years of bureaucratic bumbling, industry obfuscation and political dancing, we’ll be no further along in understanding the relationship between fracking and water contamination.

“Our expectations are low about getting anything conclusive about whether the risks with fracking are insurmountable or manageable,” said Briana Mordick, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “When the report comes out, each side will be able to say what they want about it. I don’t think it will necessarily change the landscape.”

We know that it happens, and why
We certainly have plenty of information that tells us that contamination happens. In Pennsylvania alone, 243 wells near fracking sites have been contaminated.

And we know how it happens. The diagram below, from Inside Climate News, shows several ways water contamination can occur because of fracking:

  • Hazardous chemicals have been detected underground, and in the water and air around fracking pits
  • Fracking pits collect fracking waste, though the majority of the fracking fluids stay underground
  • Fracturing of the cement casing can allow contaminants to flow into groundwater

HydraulicFracking640px

But we can’t prove the causal relationship because the industry doesn’t want us to, and our elected representatives don’t want to offend the industry, which has been very generous in financing their election campaigns.

This is why we need local control of oil and gas drilling
This is why local communities feel they need to take control of protecting themselves. This is why community leaders in Carbon and Stillwater counties are fighting to establish districts in which they can require oil companies to do baseline water testing and then periodic testing afterward to make sure their water is safe.

This is not radical environmentalism. This is just landowners protecting their water. In rural communities like those along the Beartooth Front, water is life. There are no municipal water systems to fall back on. If an aquifer or well is contaminated, there is no water for feeding livestock or watering crops.

The State of Montana clearly isn’t going to do it, and the federal government isn’t either.

Who can blame landowners for wanting to protect their own water?

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