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Open Pits Offer Cheap Disposal for Fracking Sludge, but Health Worries Mount

A1988 federal rule exempts oil waste from a 'hazardous' designation, allowing for lax disposal methods that could expose people to dangerous emissions.

By David Hasemyer and Zahra Hirji

Oct 2, 2014

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.Nordheim School Superintendent Kevin Wilson surveys the site of a proposed oil and gas waste facility. Credit: Eleanor Bell/Center for Public IntegrityNordheim School Superintendent Kevin Wilson surveys the site of a proposed oil and gas waste facility. Credit: Eleanor Bell/Center for Public Integrity

VIDEO - In Fracking's Wake: Vast Open Pits of Chemical Sludge

'A lot of people are worried about the water, and about the smell, and of course what's going up into the air.'

By Eleanor Bell, Center for Public Integrity

Oct 2, 2014

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.

GRAPHIC - Fracking's Waste Pit Emissions: The Big Unknown

Here's what we know about the potential health impacts of airborne chemicals released from fracking's vast waste pits.

By Paul Horn and Zahra Hirji

Oct 2, 2014

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.

Obama Puts Climate Change High on the Agenda With Indian PM Modi

Meeting outcome highlights how tricky it will be to bring India on board to a climate regime that calls for deep cuts in fossil fuel burning.

Oct 2, 2014

Perhaps nowhere in the world is the intersection between economic development and environmental responsibility more apparent than in India.

Like Africa, India needs to provide electricity to its impoverished villages in order to give its people opportunity to prosper. And India is already the third-highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, behind only China and the United States. As its power supply grows, won't its greenhouse gas emissions?

Not necessarily. But it won't be easy to achieve development and decarbonization at the same time, a key to enlisting India in the global fight against the climate crisis.

So as President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for the first time in Washington, climate change was high on the agenda.

The two administrations highlighted several areas of agreement, in seven succinct paragraphs of an end-of-summit communique. Two sentences sufficed to outline the highlights of the meeting:



FEMA Will Require States to Examine Climate Risks in Disaster Planning

Two of the top three states to receive FEMA disaster grants through 2012 are led by governors who aren't convinced that climate change poses a threat.

Oct 1, 2014

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is about to make a significant shift in the way it handles climate change.

FEMA will soon require states to examine the impacts of global warming on their communities as a condition for receiving federal disaster preparedness funding, according to draft guidelines released by the agency earlier this month.

The move bucks the 35-year-old agency's longstanding trend of reacting to disasters fueled by climate change rather than preparing for them in advance, said policy analyst Rob Moore of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The decision could save FEMA a lot of money in the long run. Every dollar spent on disaster mitigation saves four dollars in disaster recovery, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences. FEMA's budget has been stretched thin in recent years because of the increasing number of large-scale natural disasters, such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricanes Katrina and Irene.

"This decision by FEMA is the first time any federal agency has made the consideration of climate impacts a requirement for planning," said Moore, who is director of the NRDC's water and climate team. "Hopefully this is a sign of things to come and that other agencies will soon follow suit."

In FERC's Approval of Gas Exports, Climate Effects Get Glossed Over

Environmental groups vow legal action after regulators approve an LNG export project without doing a rigorous environmental impact statement.

Oct 1, 2014

Environmental and community groups on Tuesday assailed federal approval of the Cove Point liquefied natural gas export project, arguing that regulators glossed over the climate change consequences. They vowed to challenge the decision through a regulatory appeal or in the courts.

"The groups that have been opposing this facility for more than a year have no intention of quitting and conceding this," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of several nonprofit groups fighting the Lusby, Md. LNG project. "There are legal steps before us next."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the Cove Point LNG export project late Monday. It imposed 79 conditions on its construction that regulators said would mitigate potential adverse environmental impacts. Those conditions were based on an environmental assessment of the project, a less-rigorous review than what is called for in an environmental impact statement.

FERC's action allows Dominion Cove Point to liquefy and export as much as 5.75 million metric tons of U.S. gas per year from the terminal. The commission said project owner Dominion Resources Inc. proposes to complete construction in time to begin exports in June 2017. In separate actions, the Department of Energy conditionally approved gas exports from the terminal to any country, providing there are no U.S. trade prohibitions.

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.

3 Lessons to Winning the War on Global Warming

OP-ED: 'We can’t count on a dysfunctional Congress. Regulation is the key. It can supply the needed muscle against coal-loving electric utilities.'

By Dan Becker and James Gerstenzang

Sep 30, 2014

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.

Big Business Climate Change Movement Grows in Size and Heft

The business presence at this year's Climate Week went well beyond the 'green bubble' that has long surrounded such climate advocacy.

Sep 29, 2014

Climate Week presented a two-front push for nations to take action on climate change. The moral case was emphatically made by a record-setting, 400,000-person march through Manhattan. What followed was a similarly unprecedented barrage from investor groups and corporations to convince world leaders that there's also a compelling economic case for taking steps against global warming.

The business presence last week was particularly striking because of its breadth and heft, and because of its extension well beyond the so-called "green bubble" that surrounds companies, investors and advocacy groups who embraced the cause long ago.

Signatories representing $26 trillion in investment funds called on world leaders to enact strong policies, cut fossil fuel subsidies and make polluters pay for the effects of their emissions. There were commitments and pledges from the likes of General Motors, food makers Mars Inc. and Nestle, and consumer products giant Unilever. And a string of corporate CEOs joined early-adopters like Ikea Group in supporting renewable energy and citing proof that companies and countries can tackle climate change and prosper at the same time.

"More and more businesses are coming forward and saying look, we can do this. We can cut energy use, we can become more efficient, and we can provide solutions—and this represents an enormous biz opportunity," said Paul Simpson, chief executive officer of London based CDP, a company that collects corporate climate change data on behalf of shareholders. "That's not a completely new message, but I think there are far more companies on board with saying it, and that's really a fundamental shift."

UN Climate Summit Achieves Successes, But Does It Really Matter?

The judgment on whether the meeting meant anything will have to wait until the world reaches three milestones on the path to a possible global treaty.

Sep 26, 2014

At the end of his summit meeting on the climate crisis, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put out a list of accomplishments festooned with 46 bullet points, some of them marking concrete new pledges, others diaphanous phrases.

Among the most notable were two separate pledges on forests, which if followed through could eliminate deforestation by 2030, and end deforestation at the hands of the palm oil industry even sooner.

Other announcements, such as promises by France and Germany that each would commit $1 billion to a fledgling fund to assist poorer nations, lent support to existing UN arrangements that have been slow to mature.

And there were also agreements that could help hold down emissions with or without a new treaty. These included pledges by dozens of big corporations to price the cost of carbon into their business decisions and force governments to follow suit; the formation of a compact among cities to track and reduce their own emissions; and new steps to make it easier for municipalities to borrow for projects like energy efficiency, a key to reducing their carbon footprints.

But would all of this really enhance the likelihood of a successful treaty negotiation?