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Monday, June 24, 2013

Fracking Is Already Straining U.S. Water Supplies


Some of America's most intensive oil and gas development is occurring in drought-prone regions where water is scarce.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

As the level of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells in the United States has intensified in recent years, much of the mounting public concern has centered on fears that underground water supplies could be contaminated with the toxic chemicals used in the well-stimulation technique that cracks rock formations and releases trapped oil and gas. But in some parts of the country, worries are also growing about fracking’s effect on water supply, as the water-intensive process stirs competition for the resources already stretched thin by drought or other factors.

Every fracking job requires 2 million to 4 million gallons of water, according to the Groundwater Protection Council. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has estimated that the 35,000 oil and gas wells used for fracking consume between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water each year. That’s about equal, EPA says, to the water use in 40 to 80 cities with populations of 50,000 people, or one to two cities with a population of 2.5 million each.

Some of the most intensive oil and gas development in the nation is occurring in regions where water is already at a premium. A paper published last month by Ceres, a nonprofit that works on sustainability issues, looked at 25,000 shale oil and shale gas wells in operation and monitored by an industry-tied reporting website called FracFocus.

Ceres found that 47 percent of these wells were in areas “with high or extremely high water stress” because of large withdrawals for use by industry, agriculture, and municipalities. In Colorado, for example, 92 percent of the wells were in extremely high water-stress areas, and in Texas more than half were in high or extremely high water-stress areas.

“Given projected sharp increases in production in the coming years and the potentially intense nature of local water demands, competition and conflicts over water should be a growing concern for companies, policymakers and investors,” the Ceres report concluded. It goes on to say that:
Prolonged drought conditions in many parts of Texas and Colorado last summer created increased competition and conflict between farmers, communities and energy developers, which is only likely to continue. … Even in wetter regions of the northeast United States, dozens of water permits granted to operators had to be withdrawn last summer due to low levels in environmentally vulnerable headwater streams.
Another recent study by the University of Texas looked at past and projected water use for fracking in the Barnett, Eagle Ford, and Haynesville shale plays in Texas, and found that fracking in 2011 was using more than twice as much water in the state as it was three years earlier. In Dimmit County, home to the Eagle Ford shale development in South Texas, fracking accounted for nearly a quarter of overall water consumption in 2011 and is expected to grow to a third in a few years, according to the study.

Moreover, an April report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils found that fracking is using 7 billion gallons of water a year in four western states: Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota. “Fracking’s growing demand for water can threaten availability of water for agriculture and western rural communities,” said Bob Leresche, a Wyoming resident and board member of the group.
The national oil and gas trade association, American Petroleum Institute, correctly notes that the “industry’s water use is small when compared to other industrial and recreational activities.” But even though hydraulic fracturing usually accounts for just 1 percent or 2 percent of states’ overall water use, the Ceres study notes that “it can be much higher at the local level, increasing competition for scarce supplies.”

New ways to frack

Not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry, along with companies drawn by the opportunity to profit from a better way to frack, are all seeking ways to reduce and even eliminate fracking’s thirst.

A new company in Texas, Alpha Reclaim Technology, sees using treated wastewater from municipal sewage-treatment plants as part of the answer. Founded in 2011, the company has signed up cities to provide about 21 million gallons of treated wastewater a day and is negotiating with oil and gas exploration and production companies to make the switch in the Eagle Ford shale play.

With regard to water use and fracking, Jeremy Osborne, the company’s vice president and general counsel, says, “We are really in a collision course here in Texas”—a course he says is accelerated by drought and population growth.
But Jillian Ryan, Alpha Reclaim Technology’s vice president for government affairs, said changing longstanding practices in the oil and gas industry can be a challenge. While the industry talks a good game about conserving water, Ryan says, “We can have a hard time getting oil and gas companies to live up to what they are talking about. Nobody wants to change. It’s easier to drill a water well where they are drilling [for oil and gas].”

Another player in this oil and gas niche is GASFRAC Energy Services, a Canadian company that says it has successfully fracked about 2,000 wells using liquid propane gas in place of water. Most of these wells are in Canada, but about 100 of them are in Texas.

Environmentalists and fracking critics, however, are alarmed at the thought of fracking with propane. Prompted by the possibility that GASFRAC would be employed in New York state and could evade a state moratorium on fracking by using propane instead of water, environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, protested to the commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Similar to water-based fracking, the groups said, fracking with propane also requires “the addition of toxic chemicals.” Because GASFRAC’s method is proprietary, the groups said in their letter that “there is little publicly-available information on the process” and the exact chemicals it uses.

Propane is also very flammable, and in two cases in Alberta in 2011, fires broke out during GASFRAC fracking operations, injuring a total of 15 workers.
Cornell University engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea is among those who are very skeptical of fracking in shale formations with propane and other alternatives to water. Ingraffea has been studying fracturing since doing research for his doctorate in the 1970s. He finds that even modern fracking practices, using millions of gallons of water per well to yield what he says is just 10 percent to 15 percent of oil and gas out, are “very inefficient and inelegant.”

Using propane or a propane-butane combination, Ingraffea says, has a positive side in that it eliminates a key problem with water-based fracking: the disposal of vast quantities of flowback water that returns to the surface after fracking is completed and is often contaminated with things such as salts and radioactivity.

But, he added, no one has yet clearly demonstrated that fracking with propane or some of the other alternatives—such as using a nitrogen or carbon dioxide gel—can compete on economics with water. Propane, he said, “is expensive and nobody really knows how much it takes to develop a typical shale gas well with a lateral that is a mile or two long.”

Oil and gas service companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger have thrown a lot of money and bright minds at seeking efficiencies over many years, said Ingraffea, and if there was a “silver bullet you would think those companies would have hit it very hard.”

As the Ceres report concludes:
Shale energy development highlights the fact that our water resources were already vulnerable before additional demands were introduced. Regulators, water managers and ultimately all significant economic players who rely on abundant supplies of water must double-down their efforts to better manage this limited and most precious resource.
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Why the U.S. Is Becoming Ground Zero For the Dirtiest Energy


The practice that has devastated parts of Canada is already underway in the U.S. and things could get a lot worse.

Editor’s Note: Tara Lohan is traveling across North America documenting communities impacted by energy development for a new AlterNet project, Hitting Home. Follow her trip on Facebook or on Twitter.
A few years ago most Americans had never heard of tar sands. Now, thanks to mounting opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and a recent spill in Arkansas, vocabularies have grown, and so has a movement. Environmentalists have ignited a firestorm of protests over the pipeline, prompting rallies in DC and states across the country, resulting in high-profile arrests and media blitzes.

(click the image below to see the slideshow)

Tar Sands Development in Utah

June 17, 2013  |  



U.S Oil Sands has been given the go-ahead for what will be the first industrial-scale tar sands mine in the U.S. The company's test mine site is in the Tavaputs Plateau not far from Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah. 

COMMENT NOW!See all slideshows
Keystone XL, which would allow more dirty oil from the environmentally ravished boreal forests of northern Alberta to flow through the U.S., has become a rallying call of sorts, a tangible way for environmentalists and other concerned residents to fight the elusive specter of climate change.

With all the focus on blocking the Obama administration’s approval of Keystone XL, the general public has mostly missed a project plugging along at 8,000 feet atop the Tavaputs Plateau in Eastern Utah (part of the ever-larger Colorado Plateau), and not far from beloved Arches and Canyonlands national parks. This fall a Canadian company named U.S Oil Sands (formerly Earth Energy Resources) leapt another legal hurdle on its multi-year journey to becoming the first large-scale tar sands mine in the U.S. Local and regional activists have been fighting the development for years, but it has somehow missed the national conversation, which is odd because the potential for tar sands and oil shale development in Utah could be massive.

“We don’t want the unconventional fuel industry to gain a foothold on the Colorado Plateau,” said Taylor McKinnon of Grand Canyon Trust. “The U.S. unconventional fuel carbon bomb is bigger than Alberta’s."

What’s at Stake

Tar sands (also known as oil sands) are rocks that have bitumen (a form of oil) mixed in with sand, clay and water. Tar sands are usually extracted by strip mining an area to remove the rock, then crushing it and using heat, water and chemicals to separate the oil, which is then diluted with other hydrocarbons in order to make it liquid enough to be transported to a refinery. (Sometimes in situ recovery is possible, where steam and chemicals are pumped into underground wells to enable the bitumen to come to the surface.) The process is energy- and water-intensive and the waste massive and dangerous, at least as it has been done in northern Alberta (see photos here).

Utah is the primary location of tar sands in the U.S., but oil shale abounds in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Oil shale is similar to tar sands, but when heated the rock releases kerogen, an oil-like substance. The presence of oil shale in the West is no secret—Ute Indians referred to it as “rocks that burn.” What is new, however, is the economics of bringing these unconventional fuels to market and the green light from Washington.

The federal government has approved 132,100 acres of land available for tar sands development in Utah and another 687,000 acres in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado for oil shale. (This is a scaled-back number, thanks to pressure from environmental groups, from what was first proposed in the Bush administration’s 2005 Energy Policy Act.)

U.S. Oil Sands (which did not return interview requests) has already dug its shovel into part of 32,000 acres it has leased in the Tavaputs Plateau. The company started a 200-acre test mine and last October it received sign-off from the state to continue its project following approval from the Water Quality Division. The Division’s director, Walt Baker, believed the company didn’t need a groundwater pollution permit. “He concluded that there is no groundwater to pollute in the project site, around 213 acres in the arid high country between Vernal and Moab,” reported Judy Fahys of the Salt Lake Tribune.

But the environmental group Living Rivers disagrees. Ironically, the site of the test mine is referred to on U.S. Oil Sands’ website as PR Spring, the name of a nearby freshwater spring. Additionally, Jeremy Miller reported for High Country News in July 2012 that the company actually plans to use groundwater from the site to supply the necessary water for the process. As his HCNcolleague Stephanie Paige Ogburn wrote in October 2012, “Apparently the groundwater is not too deep to drill into as a water source, but still deep enough to be immune from pollution runoff.”

The company anticipates that it will produce 2,000 barrels of oil a day once it is ramped up to full production. With a seven-year project lifespan, one estimate puts its contribution to the country’s fuel supply at six hours.
And the process won’t be easy. Miller describes what it would look like:
Heavy machinery would scour bitumen from the pit around the clock … The sand and mineral fines remaining after the oil has been removed will be combined, shoved back into the pit and covered with topsoil. But processing expands such wastes by as much as 30 percent. The overflow will be dumped into surrounding ravines—a method starkly reminiscent of Appalachia's mountaintop coal mining. And the project will create miles of light pollution, illuminating one of the country's last great "dark" regions.
The company claims the next part of the process makes its version of tar sands mining environmentally friendly by using a citrus-based solvent (although there is much disagreement about this). As Neal Clark of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said, “We don’t feel it’s an appropriate use of public lands to vet these unproven technologies that have wide-ranging impacts on air and water quality and habitat to companies that haven’t proven the technology whatsoever.”
But the story doesn’t end with the solvents, as Miller continues:

In order to utilize the solvent, the sands must first be sent through a series of on-site crushers. Hot water is added to the resulting slurry, generating a "froth" of oil, solvent and fine sand particles. This mixture is then passed through a series of separation towers, where the crude oil is isolated. It's then trucked to refineries in Salt Lake City for processing. Unlike conventional light crude oil, the heavy crude generated from PR Spring—like Canada's—requires extra, energy-intensive refining steps to remove impurities, such as sulfur and heavy metals, before it can be turned into anything useful.
State and local governments have largely welcomed the project and the county is quite literally paving the way, turning dirt roads into asphalt to speed things along. But opposition of another sort is mounting.

The Fight

“The kids, bless their hearts, don’t want to file lawsuits, they want to stand in front of bulldozers,” said John Weisheit of Living Rivers. “But that’s cool, I support that.”

Weisheit’s organization, along with the environmental law firm Western Resource Advocates, has been leading the charge in litigation to halt tar sands and oil shale development in the region. While they haven’t had a lot of success in court, with the U.S Oil Sands project they have managed to substantially delay development and the company is still searching for investors. Weisheit considers that a win for his side.

In May, Living Rivers, Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Rocky Mountain Wild filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the BLM. The groups contest that the government agency failed to consider the impact to endangered species that would result from making 800,000 acres of land available to tar sands and oil shale development.

“PR Springs, that is real wilderness up there,” said Weisheit. “There are roadless areas nearby, bald eagles forage up there, and some golden eagles. Sometimes I see so many I can’t believe it.”

The area is home to deer, elk, bear, and the threatened Mexican spotted owl, and it straddles two critical watersheds, the Colorado River (which 30 million people depend on) and the Green River. Nearby Desolation Canyon and its rivers give refuge to three endangered fish species and PR Springs sits just northeast of Moab, Utah, a destination town for recreation enthusiasts and nature lovers, surrounded by national and state parks of prized beauty.

Activist groups like Before It Starts are mounting education camps at the site and doing direct action, but they know PR Springs is just the tip of the iceberg. Another tar sands project at Asphalt Ridge has also been green-lighted near the town of Vernal, Utah, just to the north.

But the largest deposit of tar sands is further south in the state, in an area known as the Tar Sands Triangle, wedged between Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Dirty Devil River Watershed. In essence, it’s prime canyon country.

And tar sands development would be dwarfed by the impacts of oil shale development. 

What’s the price of pursuing these unconventional fuels? Well, the BLM said it would "completely displace all other uses of the land."

Kurt Repanshek, writing in 2010 for National Parks Traveler said, according to the BLM’s own Oil Shale and Tar Sands Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, that the agency believed its plan (now slightly scaled back) would mean that the air nearby could be:
… contaminated with carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, while air close to the site could be contaminated with benzene, toluene and formaldehyde. More than 100,000 acres of wilderness-quality land could be industrialized, construction of reservoirs would alter natural streamflow patterns, hydrocarbons and herbicides could cause 'chronic or acute toxicity' in wildlife and habitat for 20 threatened or endangered species could be lost.
And that’s coming from the agency giving the go-ahead.

Grand Canyon Trust's McKinnon said he doesn’t believe it’s possible that the already-stretched Colorado River Basin could support that level of industry without “unacceptable impacts.”

“The notion of mining climate disaster fuels in a region that is ground zero for global warming impacts is itself alarming,” said McKinnon. “It’s bad land use policy, it’s bad water policy and it’s bad public policy.”

Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet, has just launched the new project Hitting Home, chronicling extreme energy extraction. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including most recently, Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hotter Planet Creating 'Extraordinary' Wild Fires says Head of US Forest Service

Climate change is "largest issue we face" Senate panel told

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer 
(Twitpic: PB Post Photo)

Climate change is worsening wildfires, lengthening the wildfire season and increasing their size, the head of the nation's forest service warned Congress on Tuesday.

In testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell said:
Around the world, the last two decades have seen fires that are extraordinary in their size, intensity and impacts. In Australia in 2009, the Black Saturday Bushfires killed 170 people. Domestically, Florida, Georgia, Utah, California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, have all experienced the largest and/or the most destructive fires in their history just in the last six years. On average wildfires burn twice as many acres each year as compared to 40 years ago, and there are on average seven times as many fires over 10,000 acres per year.
In 2012 over 9.3 million acres burned in the United States. The fires of 2012 were massive in size, with 51 fires exceeding 40,000 acres. Of these large fires, 14 exceeded 100,000 acres. The increase in large fires in the west coincides with an increase in temperatures and early snow melt in recent years. This means longer fire seasons. The length of the fire season has increased by over two months since the 1970s.
"The largest issue we now face is how to adapt our management to anticipate climate change impacts and to mitigate their potential effects," Tidwell told the committee.

Illustrating how climate change has quickly impacted on wildfires, Tidwell told the Guardian, "Ten years ago in New Mexico outside Los Alamos we had a fire get started. Over seven days, it burned 40,000 acres. In 2011, we had another fire. Las Conchas. It also burned 40,000 acres. It did it in 12 hours."

Last week, Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said of the White Fire that burned nearly 2,000 acres in southern California, "It's still spring—it's not even summer—and it's burning like it's August or September."

These increasingly severe wildfires have a monetary effect as well.  Fire activities represented 13 percent of the U.S. Forest Service's total agency budget in 1991, but that figure jumped to over 40 percent in 2012.

In the most recent wildfire potential outlook released June 1 by the National Interagency Fire Center, warmer, drier than usual conditions are contributing to above normal potential for wildfires in large swathes of the west. And the most recent drought monitor shows dry conditions plaguing much of the western half of the country.