A high-stakes battle over the nation's ozone pollution rule reached a new milestone last week when the Environmental Protection Agency submitted its latest proposed rule to the White House for review.
For years, EPA science advisers have been urging the administration to tighten the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to 60-70 ppb to protect public health. But they were repeatedly rebuffed: first in 2008, when the George W. Bush administration adopted the 75 ppb standard, and again in 2011, when President Obama abruptly halted a push from his own EPA to strengthen the rule.
Obama's move provoked fury from environmental and public health advocates who said he had caved to industry ahead of the 2012 elections. "This was the worst thing a Democratic president had ever done on our issues," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, at the time.
Now the administration is faced with the same decision: Earlier this year EPA scientists again recommended tightening the standard to 60–70 ppb, and on Oct. 8, EPA officials delivered the proposed rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The agency is under a court order to reveal the proposed standard to the public by Dec. 1 and finalize it next year.
While the climate community was fixed on global climate negotiations unfolding at the UN last week, one news organization was focused on educating people about the local damage that's already resulted from the world's inaction.
On Sept. 22, the online newsroom The Daily Climate launched a Kickstarter to raise $25,628 for "Climate at Your Doorstep." The project aims to build an online community of scientists, journalists and members of the public to discuss how climate impacts are already affecting people around the country and the world.
Organized around the hashtag #climatedoorstep, people will post questions, photos and observations on social media. The hash-tagged content will feed into a Daily Climate web page, and a panel of eight appointed scientific experts will respond to comments and questions.
The panelists include academic scientists, such as Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University and Marshall Shepherd at the University of Georgia, and TV meteorologist Jim Gandy.
A Canadian pipeline company's plan to bring more tar sands oil into the United States without waiting for a federal permit is drawing resistance from environmentalists who say it's skirting the law.
Last week, 18 green groups sent a letter to the U.S. State Department asking the agency to "take immediate action to halt this illegal increase in tar sands crude oil imports until it completes its ongoing environmental review." Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) expressed similar concerns in a separate letter to the agency.
The issue highlights uncertainties in the way international pipelines are regulated, and the growing opposition to tar sands oil, which releases 17 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude and is harder to clean up when it spills into water.
A decade into America's oil and gas boom, and scientists still know very little about how hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and shale development affect wildlife, according to a recent scientific study.
The knowledge gap is particularly glaring when it comes to the ecosystem impacts of fracking fluid and wastewater spills.
Scientists cannot yet begin to draw simple conclusions about drilling's effects on animals, plants and habitats because "basic data is missing" on issues such as fracking fluid chemistry, and because of limited access to well sites, said Sara Souther, the study's lead author.
"We're creating this ecological experiment from shale development—but we're not taking the data."
Souther was a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's botany department when she published the study with seven other conservation biologists in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. They were sponsored by the David H. Smith Fellowship program, which supports future leaders in conservation biology. Souther will join West Virginia Wesleyan College as a professor in September.
When residents of America's fracking communities want to know if a particular oil or gas well in their neighborhood has a good environmental track record, they usually face the cumbersome task of searching through state records, which can take hours.
Now, a new website called WellWiki is trying to eliminate that frustration by making user-friendly data just a click away. Created by Joel Gehman, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta's business school, WellWiki currently lists data on more than 250,000 oil and gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 1859.
But Pennsylvania is just the beginning. Gehman plans to expand the site, which was launched in March, to cover all North American wells drilled since 1859—about four million. He expects to add data about West Virignia, Ohio and New York by September.
The goal is for WellWiki to grow into "the Wikipedia of everything oil and gas-related," Gehman said.
This report is part of a joint project by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity.
Like people in other regions transformed by the shale energy boom, residents of Washington County, Pennsylvania have complained of headaches, nosebleeds and skin rashes. But because there are no comprehensive studies about the health impacts of natural gas drilling, it's hard to determine if their problems are linked to the gas wells and other production facilities that have sprung up around them.
A group of scientists from Pennsylvania and neighboring states have stepped in to fill this gap by forming a nonprofit—apparently the first of its kind in the United States—that provides free health consultations to local families near drilling sites. Instead of waiting years or even decades for long-term studies to emerge, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP) is using the best available science to help people deal with their ailments.
"As far as unconventional natural gas drilling goes, we are the public health service of the United States right now," said Michael Kelly, the media liaison for the EHP.
David Brown, a toxicologist and the group's co-founder, said government agencies haven't done enough to study, analyze and mitigate the risks people face from drilling.
In early July, a million gallons of salty drilling waste spilled from a pipeline onto a steep hillside in western North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation. The waste—a byproduct of oil and gas production—has now reached a tributary of Lake Sakakawea, which provides drinking water to the reservation.
The oil industry called the accident a "saltwater" spill. But the liquid that entered the lake bears little resemblance to what's found in the ocean.
The industry's wastewater is five to eight times saltier than seawater, said Bill Kappel, a hydrogeologist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey. It's salty enough to sting the human tongue, and contains heavy metals in concentrations that might not meet drinking water standards. The briny mix can also include radioactive material. Heavy metals and radioactive materials are toxic at certain concentrations.
"You don't want to be drinking this stuff," Kappel said.
As the shale gas boom was making its way into Ohio in 2012, University of Cincinnati scientist Amy Townsend-Small began testing private water wells in Carroll County, the epicenter of the Utica Shale. Her project, which includes samples of more than 100 wells, is one of the few sustained efforts in the nation to evaluate drinking water quality before, during and after gas drilling.
Although it will likely be another year before Townsend-Small releases the results, her work offers a template for other communities worried about how drilling, fracking and producing unconventional natural gas might contaminate groundwater supplies.
Most residents test their water only after they suspect it has been polluted; few have the resources or foresight to conduct baseline testing prior to the drilling.
Along with 17 other journalists, I spent much of last week at the Shale Country Institute hosted by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, which takes reporters into the field so they can better understand the subjects they're covering.
Fifteen years ago this month, gasoline from a burst pipeline spilled into a Bellingham, Wash. creek and exploded, killing three boys: ten-year-olds Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King, and 18-year-old Liam Wood. The tragedy opened the nation's eyes to dangers lurking in the labyrinth of pipelines underground and spurred Bellingham residents to launch SAFE Bellingham, a group that would later morph into America's first pipeline safety watchdog.
Front and center in the leadership of SAFE Bellingham was Carl Weimer. By 2003, when the Justice Department reached a settlement with Olympic Pipeline, Weimer had become so informed and passionate about pipeline safety that he was picked to lead the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nationally focused organization established with a $4 million endowment from the settlement.
At the time, the Trust's role in challenging the powerful oil and gas industry was described as "Bambi taking on Godzilla."
More than a decade later, the tiny Bellingham-based group still faces an uphill fight. But its influence is outsized and unmatched—especially as pipeline concerns move into the mainstream, partly due to the raging debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Weimer is now the go-to person to represent the public during Congressional hearings, industry conferences and meetings with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
In an extensive interview, Weimer spoke with InsideClimate News about the 15-year anniversary of the Bellingham tragedy and his group's challenges and successes. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.