Dirk DeTurck had a years-old rash that wouldn't go away, his wife's hair came out in chunks and any time they lingered outside their house for more than an hour, splitting headaches set in.
They were certain the cause was simply breathing the air in Greenbrier, Arkansas, the rural community to which they'd retired a decade ago. They blamed the gas wells all around them. But state officials didn't investigate.
So DeTurck leapt at the chance to help with research that posed a pressing question: What's in the air near oil and gas production sites?
The answer—in many of the areas monitored for the peer-reviewed study, published today in the journal Environmental Health—is "potentially dangerous compounds and chemical mixtures" that can make people feel ill and raise their risk of cancer.
"The implications for health effects are just enormous," said David O. Carpenter, the paper's senior author and director of the University at Albany's Institute for Health and the Environment.
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.
The journal Editor & Publisher announced Wednesday that InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel won a 2014 EPPY Award in the category of Best Investigative/Enterprise Feature on a Website for "Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil + Bad Air on the Texas Prairie."
"Big Oil + Bad Air," by reporters Lisa Song and David Hasemyer of ICN and Jim Morris of CPI, is an eight-month investigation that reveals the dangers of releasing toxic chemicals into the air from oil and gas drilling. It exposes how little the Texas government knows about such pollution in its own state, and shows that the Texas legislature is intent on keeping it that way.
The Weather Channel produced an original video documentary to accompany the series.
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.
Will crude oil prices go low enough and for long enough to become the final nails in the coffin of the Keystone XL pipeline?
Soaring production in the United States, slack international demand and increased fuel efficiency have produced a glut in the past few weeks that has left the benchmark WTI grade bouncing around $80 a barrel. Futures markets are pointing even lower and some analysts, most recently Goldman Sachs, are predicting a price of $75 or even less in the months ahead.
This slackening of Canadian production would seem to lessen the urgency of opening up the Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL tar sands line, which has been delayed for years.
But it is also true that in a world of cheaper oil, the industry would need the Keystone XL more than ever. Without it (or some other pipeline to export markets) the Canadians' only shipping alternative to move its landlocked product would be costlier rail transport.
Just ten months ago, the State Department, brushing off the possibility of cheaper oil, found that the Keystone XL would have little impact on Canada's tar sands oil production—and by implication, little effect on greenhouse gas emissions. As long as oil prices stayed high enough, the reasoning went, the industry could afford to ship its output by rail to the Gulf Coast markets that the Keystone XL is intended to serve.
But the market analysis in that final environmental impact statement acknowledged that if oil prices went below $75 for a long time, the Keystone XL would indeed become a crucial factor for expanding the tar sands enterprise. And in that case, however unlikely, the report said the pipeline would enable a significant increase in emissions of greenhouse gases.
In other words, low oil prices mean the Keystone XL fails the Obama administration's carefully hedged litmus test, set by the president himself when he said in June 2013 the pipeline's impact on climate change would be the deciding factor in whether to approve the project.
The recent dive in oil prices is undermining oil company earnings, projects and stock prices—at least for now—giving new ammunition to climate action groups pushing pensions, universities and others to purge their fossil fuel holdings.
By themselves, the lower oil prices aren't likely to convince institutions to divest from fossil fuels, especially since price swings are common in oil markets. But the unexpected dip could help the cause by casting doubt on the investment case for keeping them, according to Jamie Henn, communications director at 350.org, a leader in the growing divestment campaign.
"The primary reason to divest remains the moral and political one—that if it's wrong to wreck the planet, then it's wrong to profit from that wreckage," said Henn. "But the recent news about oil prices is a reminder that it's a market that fluctuates wildly...and [oil company stocks] are not the secure investment that people often see them as."
The price of U.S. benchmark crude has been trading near $80 a barrel of late, a substantial slide from this year's high of more than $108 a barrel in June. Oversupply and slower demand growth could force the cost of crude down $10 more before it stabilizes or reverses course, according to Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. Recently, Goldman Sachs lowered its 2015 oil price estimate to $75, down from $90.
During his 18 years in office, Texas state representative Lon Burnam has been the odd man out in a legislature that overwhelmingly believes in business, development and the unbridled support of oil and gas.
During the last session of the House, he introduced more than a dozen pieces of legislation that would have required the industry to become a more responsible steward of the environment and the state to be more of an industry watchdog.
His record: Zero wins and 12 losses.
In an interview with InsideClimate News last summer, when asked why he doesn't just move away, Burnam said he stays because Texas needs to hear from a Texan what the future holds for the environment if change isn't made.
NPR has cut back on the number of staffers focused solely on the environment and climate change.
Earlier this year, the news outlet had three full-time reporters and one editor dedicated to covering the issue within NPR's science desk. One remains—and he is covering it only part-time. A few reporters on other desks occasionally cover the topic as well.
The move to shift reporters off the environment beat was driven by an interest to cover other fields more in depth, said Anne Gudenkauf, senior supervising editor of NPR's science desk.
"The decisions you take today will determine whether Europe remains a world leader," Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, declared before the European Council as it decided how ambitious the continent should be in tackling the climate crisis.
With just over a year left for governments to reach a meaningful climate treaty, leadership is indeed up for grabs.
And Europe right now may have a greater right to the mantle of climate leadership than any other claimant.
Early on Friday, its heads of state, meeting in Brussels, unanimously endorsed a deal that includes a binding cut of at least 40 percent in greenhouse gas reductions by 2030, compared to 1990, along with somewhat less dramatic and non-binding goals for increasing energy efficiency and renewables.
But in light of the intricacies of Europe's convoluted governance that make any such agreement hard to strike, the broader import of this step was that it offers a glimmer of hope that a global carbon deal might not be such a farfetched idea.
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.