Fracking has become a prominent issue in this year's Pennsylvania gubernatorial election, energizing ads, debates and campaign appearances.
The argument isn't about whether to frack the state's abundant natural gas reserves or even how to do it safely—but how to make money doing it.
At the heart of the debate is whether to tax energy companies for extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation rich in fossil fuels that runs underneath the western half of the state. Incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett argues that a drilling tax would drive energy companies to abandon Pennsylvania's natural gas fields. Businessman Tom Wolf, Corbett's Democratic challenger, says a 5 percent "severance tax" on the value of natural gas produced within its borders would provide desperately needed revenue—up to $1 billion annually—for the state's budget, and more specifically, its education fund.
Political opinion polls show the Democratic candidate winning the Nov. 4 election by approximately 20 points. If Wolf wins, it will mark the first time that an incumbent Pennsylvania governor has lost a re-election bid since the state began allowing second gubernatorial terms in the 1960s.
This story was updated on Oct. 30 at 2:15 AM EST to include comment from the environmental group Earthworks.
In a reflection of growing national concern about the disposal of oil and gas waste, a Pennsylvania congressman launched an investigation Wednesday into the way his state regulates the discarding of the unwanted, often toxic material.
Rep. Matthew Cartwright, a first-term Democrat from eastern Pennsylvania, wants to know more about how the contaminated leftovers from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are regulated.
In an email exchange with InsideClimate News, Cartwright said "preliminary reports indicate there are big gaps in protections and oversight that the federal government might have to fill."
Fracking, the process of blasting a cocktail of water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open shale bedrock to extract fossil fuel reserves, has transformed Pennsylvania into the third-largest state producer of natural gas behind Texas and Louisiana. In those two states and others, questions are increasingly being raised about waste disposal's threat to human health.
For the past 18 months, InsideClimate News and The Center for Public Integrity have been reporting on air pollution from oil and gas production in Texas, including at waste disposal facilities.
Climate change denial will switch from being a litmus test for major Republican politicians to a liability in the near future.
At least that's the hypothesis that Todd Stern, the United States envoy on climate change, shared with a packed auditorium at Yale Law School in New Haven on Tuesday.
"We have all seen in recent years the abruptness with which hot-button issues can suddenly become the stuff of consensus," Stern told students, faculty and members of the public. "I doubt, even a year from now, whether major political candidates will consider it viable to deny the existence of climate change."
Stern's visit to Yale comes three weeks before a midterm election that has serious implications for U.S. involvement in climate treaty talks taking place in Lima this year and Paris in 2015.
Republicans and Democrats are fighting fiercely for control of the Senate. If the Senate falls into the hands of a Republican majority—as many analysts predict—the body charged with ratifying treaties would be led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who seeks to block EPA climate change regulations.
When Mary Rahall discovered that oil and gas waste was being stored in open-air ponds less than a mile from a daycare center outside Fayetteville, W. Va., she started digging for information about the facility's air emissions and protections for a nearby stream.
She wasn't satisfied with the answers she got from state regulators and politicians, so the mother of two set out to find a scientist who could help. Eventually her questions found their way to William Orem, a chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Reston, Va., and he began collecting air and water data at the site last fall.
Orem's small study could have implications far beyond Fayetteville, because it's among the first scientific efforts directed at how air emissions from oil and gas waste could be affecting human health. He suspects waste disposal might turn out to be "the weakest link of all" in the oil and gas extraction and production cycle.
Backed by results of a recent air-quality study, mounting pressure from local officials, news reports and the simmering discontent of residents, Texas regulators have decided to install an air monitor in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will install the air monitor in Karnes County, the epicenter of one of the fastest-growing drilling regions in the nation. More than 10,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk in the region since 2008, and residents have complained of breathing difficulties and other health problems.
In February, an investigation by InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity and the Weather Channel revealed that the TCEQ knows almost nothing about air quality in the area. The series, "Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil & Bad Air on the Texas Prairie," found that from September 1, 2009, through August 31, 2013, there was a 100-percent increase statewide in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production and that companies were rarely fined, even when inspections revealed they were operating equipment improperly.
Big Oil + Bad Air is an 18-month investigation by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity.
The latest installment tackles a little-covered issue: air emissions from the waste that America's drilling boom has created.
In the small town of Nordheim, Texas, residents are trying to stop a commercial oil and gas waste facility proposed for a large plot of land less than a mile away. They worry that the Texas wind will carry toxic air emissions into the town and across the campus of the local school.
The residents' effort is hampered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision in 1988 to classify most oil and gas waste as "non hazardous," even though it contains chemicals, including benzene, that are known to cause health problems. The industry lobbied hard for the non-hazardous classification, arguing that the cost of treating the waste as hazardous would be exorbitant.
Here's a look at how the exemption came about, and a recent effort to repeal it.
NORDHEIM, Texas—School Superintendent Kevin Wilson tugged at his oversized belt buckle and gestured toward a field less than a mile from Nordheim School, where 180 children attend kindergarten through 12th grade.
A commercial waste facility that will receive millions of barrels of toxic sludge from oil and gas production for disposal in enormous open-air pits is taking shape there, and Wilson worries that the ever-present Texas wind will carry traces of dangerous chemicals, including benzene, to the school.
"Many of these students live outside of where they could be exposed," said Wilson, a contemplative man with a soft Texas accent. "But we are busing them to the school, putting them in the direct path of something that could be harmful to them. It makes you think: Are we doing what's best for the students?"
Along with Nordheim's mayor and other angry residents, Wilson is trying to stop the 204-acre facility, but he faces an uphill battle. In Texas, as in most states, air emissions from oil and gas waste are among the least regulated, least monitored and least understood components in the extraction and production cycle. Although the wastewater and sludge can contain the same chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and other processes—chemicals known to affect human health—little has been done to measure waste emissions or determine their possible impact on nearby residents.
As oil and gas drilling spreads across the United States, scant attention has been paid to air emissions from the waste the boom has created. InsideClimate News and The Center for Public Integrity examine these emissions in the latest installment in their 18-month investigation, Big Oil and Bad Air on the Texas Prairie.
Dan Becker directs the Safe Climate Campaign, which advocates strong measures to fight global warming. James Gerstenzang, the campaign's editorial director, formerly covered the environment and the White House for the Los Angeles Times.
The Dumpster may be nearly full.
A World Meteorological Organization report has led scientists to fear that the Earth is losing its capacity to absorb heat-trapping gases, the Washington Post reported.
With greenhouse gas emissions rising, we don't know whether we can hold warming to two degrees Celsius, the goal of UN negotiations. But we can't if the United States ignores its critical leadership role.
For more than two decades, environmentalists fought for tough auto pollution standards. We won rules that will halve emissions and gasoline use—President Obama’s signature effort to fight climate change. They will deliver a new-car fleet that averages 54.5 mpg in 2025 and cut carbon dioxide pollution by six billion tons.
As the world faces an accelerating climate challenge, the mileage-and-emissions fight presents a hopeful lesson: The United States can cut fossil fuel emissions.
The fight that produced the biggest single step any nation has taken against global warming can guide us as we embark on the next critical measures: cutting power plant emissions and oil use.