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Open Letter on Sierra Club’s Proposed Natural Gas Policy
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by Beth Little | 2009

Dear Natural Gas Fracturing Task Force:

The WV Chapter has asked me to prepare the following comments on the Sierra Club’s Proposed Policy on Unconventional Natural Gas. 

I am impressed with your understanding of the adverse environmental impacts that can occur, and the thoroughness of your policy recommendations and best management practices. The problem is that such practices do not exist, and there is no probability that they will exist here in West Virginia any time soon. They are not even fully implemented in Colorado, which has recently passed legislation with the most extensive protections in the country; and then only after experiencing serious environmental problems.

Actually, your recommendation that the Club oppose projects where toxic or carcinogenic fluids would be used means the Club would oppose all hydro-fracking projects; and your recommendation that the Club should oppose projects in sensitive areas, such as high quality watersheds, means the Club would oppose all hydro-fracking projects in West Virginia.

If the exemptions for the gas industry from the Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Clean Air and Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts had already been removed;

And if West Virginia had adopted the new regulations you recommend to deal with the impacts of Marcellus shale drilling;

And if the WV DEP had sufficient resources — enough well-trained and educated inspectors — to properly monitor well drilling;

And if the political climate were such that the WV DEP functioned as an enforcement agency instead of an industry enabler;

And if the WV (or any Appalachian) public had enough power that our input would be heard; then this change in policy might make sense.

As it stands, this will just be picked up by the media that the Sierra Club favors Marcellus shale gas drilling, and our chapter’s work to oppose the unregulated onslaught will be compromised.

You only need to look at mountaintop removal to see that it takes years of publicizing the appalling suffering, years of massive organizing and personal sacrifice to effect change against the extractive industry culture that dominates the economy and politics of our region; and, in that case, we aren’t there yet.

From what I have learned while researching the gas industry over the last year and a half, this culture pervades the industry everywhere. Gas drillers are not averse to bending the rules or even committing outright criminal acts to minimize expense or avoid the hassle of complying with regulations, and they will do virtually anything to maximize profits. I have a hard drive filled with articles from all over the country about violations and disasters involving gas drilling. This is not limited to environmental concerns. The state of Louisiana has filed 30 federal lawsuits seeking millions of dollars from oil and gas companies it accuses of grossly underreporting oil and gas production. It claims industry has cheated the state by lying in a tax reporting system that relies upon an honor code (see http://chenangogreens.org/home/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=412&Itemid=60).

Gas companies claim there is no proof that they are polluting groundwater, and they resist all attempts to pass new legislation; they are even protesting a suggested rule requiring synthetic pit liners here in WV. To hear it from them, they follow all the rules and gas drilling is completely safe. They hire very personable and articulate (read smooth) lobbyists and public relations firms and donate liberally to local schools and community projects and, of course, to political campaigns. If you never had any direct experience with gas drilling, you might believe that it is a professional and responsible industry.

In WV there are 50,000 active wells, 20,000 inactive wells, and 900 to 3000 new permits per year (which will increase dramatically from Marcellus shale wells when gas prices go back up). The drilling of new wells requires several visits by an inspector, and each active well should be inspected at least once annually. Yet, WV has a total of only 17 inspectors (3 hired in the last year). I asked someone in the WV Department of Oil & Gas management how many wells an inspector could realistically handle at a time. He said 55 to 60.

When we call the EPA about violations, they just pass the complaint on to the WV DEP. The WV DEP views their role, as stated to me by DEP staff, as assisting industry in filing permits and understanding regulations; and when they are not in compliance, they will work with them to “fix” the problem so business can proceed. Sometimes violations are cited, but if the violation is fixed, e.g. a spill cleaned up, no fine is imposed. The WV DEP often grants exemptions from regulations and then extends those exemptions repeatedly.

You may be aware that we, the Sierra Club, in conjunction with WV environmental organizations, have filed a petition asking the EPA to take over the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program from the WV DEP because they are not doing their job. (see attached file – w.v. npdes petition 2009.pdf).

My county, Pocahontas, is the birthplace of 8 rivers, including the Greenbrier River, which is the longest free flowing river east of the Mississippi. It is also mostly underlain with karst or limestone caves, which makes the thought of multiple wells drilled through it frightening. In WV, Marcellus wells are not classified as deep wells, so one can be sited on every 40 acres. Even if the well bore is properly cased to protect the groundwater, the drilling itself can disrupt the karst circulation system by draining one level of an aquifer into another level, causing wells to go dry and untold disturbance to the cave ecology. Neither industry representatives nor WV DEP inspectors have acknowledged this as a problem despite questioning at several public meetings.

The land agents were through here starting about a year and a half ago, and in 6 months they had signed leases with a major portion of land owners. Most people had never heard of Marcellus shale or hydrofracking, so they pictured any gas drilling like that of the past. There are a lot of gas wells already in WV, and while there are some horror stories, the impacts were minimal compared to what is happening with shale drilling. So people signed leases for small amounts - $50, $20, even $5 per acre, and went out and bought a new truck or tractor.

Those of us who didn’t lease our gas rights, and even some who did without understanding the scope of the new technology, feel like sitting ducks. The drillers can come in; there are virtually no regulations to protect our water; and the only reason they aren’t here already is that the price is down. They have started drilling in other parts of WV, where there are incidents of polluted wells, spills in creeks, leaking pits and horrendous traffic problems and accidents with caravans of 18 wheelers on our narrow winding mountain roads.

It will take years of grassroots organizing, lobbying the legislature, and getting the media to cover the disasters (which we would much rather prevent than employ after the fact) to improve the regulations, and how much improvement we might obtain is questionable given the political circumstances. By then it will be too late for many people and special places, just as it is too late for the homes, communities and miles of streams that are buried, and being buried, under mountaintop removal waste.

The Club has obviously spent a lot of time and money on developing this policy. The recommendations cover everything we have identified as concerns and how to address them, except karst, which I noted above. The WV Chapter would like to request a comparable commitment to doing something about the actual problems that are already occurring and will surely increase. We need a national expert or experts to testify to the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources and at public hearings on proposed legislation here in WV and elsewhere in Appalachia; we need staff to help with grassroots organizing in WV and to do outreach and networking for all the chapters in the Marcellus region.

In the meantime, we fail to see the advisability of approving unconventional natural gas as a transitional fuel, regardless of the recommendations. It’s kind of like saying to an 8-year-old boy, “You can go outside and have fun, but don’t get your clothes dirty.”

Regarding your request that we should explicitly explain which fossil fuel energy sources should play a larger role during the transition, we view this as a misstated question. The Union of Concerned Scientists Climate 2030: A National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy (2009) includes no larger role for fossil fuel energy during the transition. This is an extremely complicated subject, with “experts” holding diverse views, but the UCS is about the most authoritative perspective available. Our chapter favors biomass fuels from wood waste, switch grass and algae as one alternative in the mix.

Recently I have learned that there are significant methane releases from gas drilling operations. EPA acknowledges that methane is “over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100-year period” and is “a primary constituent of natural gas.” (See http://www.epa.gov/methane/) Indeed, according to the Encyclopedia Online, “the chief source of methane is natural gas, which contains from 50 to 90 percent methane, depending on the source.” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/378264/methane,

Although, it is not now clear how much methane escapes from the Marcellus Shale, with a 20:1 impact vis-a-vis CO2, and constituting 50-90% of the volume of natural gas, the possibility obviously exists of no net savings in greenhouse gases from the use of what is heralded as one of the larger natural gas finds in history.

We acknowledge that economic and political factors make the transition from fossil fuels incalculably difficult. There are many voices predicting that it cannot be done, but the Sierra Club should not capitulate our values for advocating what is possible just because it is unlikely.

Beth Little
WV Chapter

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