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Lisa Song's articles

Leaked Transcript Gives Oil Lobbyist Taste of His Own Medicine

Richard Berman promised Western Energy Alliance members 'total anonymity' in an 'offensive' campaign to discredit environmental groups.

Nov 4, 2014

The public got a rare glimpse into the covert and hardball strategies used by some oil and gas companies when a lobbyist's candid remarks were leaked to the New York Times and Bloomberg News last week. The leak made the lobbyist the victim of his own tactics.

The man was Richard Berman, president of the consulting firm Berman and Company, who pitched a roomful of energy executives in June to invest $2 to $3 million in an "offensive" campaign in Colorado called Big Green Radicals that seeks to discredit anti-fracking advocates.

"There is no sympathy for the oil and gas industry" and people don't like the word "fracking," Berman told his audience at the annual meeting of the Western Energy Alliance. So industry must go on the "offense" against environmental groups, destroy their credibility by airing the personal histories of "every single activist," diminish their moral authority and use humor to "minimize or marginalize" them.

The initial targets of the campaign were the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Food and Water Watch.

Berman said the influx of money would be a "game-changer" and promised "total anonymity" to anyone who contributed. Donations would be processed through nonprofit organizations that aren't required to disclose donors.

Public Trust in Pennsylvania Regulators Erodes Further Over Flawed Fracking Study

Raw data showing high concentrations of certain polllutants at gas operations and health risks of 25 chemicals were left out of the state's studies.

Oct 23, 2014

Pennsylvania regulators used flawed methodology to conclude that air pollution from natural gas development doesn't cause health problems. The revelation has further eroded trust in an embattled state agency.

The news was first reported Monday by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The paper cited court documents that show how air quality studies conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 and 2011 failed to analyze the health risks of 25 chemicals. The studies also didn't report some instances where high pollutant levels were detected.

The evidence came from statements of two DEP scientists who were deposed in a lawsuit.

Their depositions call into question the report's conclusion that the air sampling found no health risks from shale development.

The DEP "did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities," the study's executive summary said.

Will Obama Heed the Science? A Primer on the Coming Ozone Rule

Overwhelming evidence says high ozone levels cause health problems, including aggravated asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks and premature death.

Oct 15, 2014

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.

Scientists to Explain 'Climate at Your Doorstep' at New Online Hub

The effort is one of many recent climate communication projects to try to deepen public understanding of the climate crisis amid political inaction.

Sep 30, 2014

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.

State Department Draws Fire for Allowing Tar Sands Pipeline Detour

If any other federal agency did this, "there would be no question it would be illegal," one expert said.

Sep 17, 2014

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. 

10 Years Into the Fracking Boom, Wildlife Effects Still Unknown

New paper finds that the crucial studies on the biological effects of shale production have not yet been done. 'The basic data is missing.'

Aug 12, 2014

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.

A Public Wiki Shines Light on North America's 4 Million Oil & Gas Wells

'We're not doing anything the regulators can't do themselves if they were so inclined,' says the founder of WellWiki.

Jul 30, 2014

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.

Families Sick From Fracking Exposure Turn to Concerned Scientists

Instead of waiting years for studies, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project is using best available science to help people with ailments.

Jul 22, 2014

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.

'Saltwater' From North Dakota Fracking Spill Is Not What's Found in the Ocean

The salty drilling waste is said to contain heavy metals in concentrations that might not meet drinking water standards, as well as radioactive material.

Jul 16, 2014

 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.

In Rare Effort, Ohio Scientist to Test Water Before Fracking Soars

Baseline tests offer a template for other fracking communities worried about how drilling might contaminate groundwater supplies.

Jul 8, 2014

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.