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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.

Small Colorado Town Picks Big-Time Fight Over Fracking

Sixty percent of the people of Longmont voted to ban fracking, and they're being told by industry and state regulators they can't do that.

Jul 22, 2014

When the people of Longmont voted in 2012 to ban fracking in their Colorado community, they knew it would put them in the cross hairs of powerful oil and gas interests.

The City Council had already been sued by the industry's trade group as well as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state's oil and gas regulator, for trying to restrict the controversial drilling technique.

How a Sudden Flood of Oil Money Has Transformed North Dakota

The clout and swagger of the oil companies in politics has unsettled this traditionally amicable and moderate state of just 725,000 people.

By Nicholas Kusnetz

Jul 21, 2014

This report is part of a joint project by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News.

BISMARCK, N.D.— North Dakota's Heritage Center makes for a jarring sight in this Midwestern prairie capital. The newly-expanded museum consists of four interlocking cubes of stone, steel and glass, a gleaming architectural statement poking out of the otherwise drab Capitol grounds. Each cube features a gallery devoted to an era of North Dakota’s history, but the state’s present is everywhere.

The legislature approved the dramatic $52 million expansion in 2009, but required the museum to come up with $12 million of that to supplement state money, and more than half has come from energy companies—including a $1.8 million gift from Continental Resources Inc. that put its name on one of the galleries. The gifts have "given us a chance to do some things that we've never really had a chance to do," said Merl Paaverud, director of the State Historical Society.

Oil development has transformed this state to the point where it's hard to find a place or person that hasn't been touched by the boom. Energy companies have drilled more than 8,000 wells into western North Dakota's rugged prairie since the beginning of 2010, quadrupling the state's oil production. From July 2011 through June 2013, the state collected $4 billion in oil taxes, and is expecting a $1 billion surplus for the current biennium, not including an oil-funded sovereign wealth fund that will approach a balance of $3 billion. North Dakota is in the uncommon position of facing a labor shortage, spurring a state-run campaign to attract workers, paid for in part by Hess Corp.

In addition to the tax revenue they've brought, the oil companies have showered the state with additional money—new millions for universities, museums, hospitals and other charitable causes. They've also given hundreds of thousands to politicians, making the sector the largest single source of those contributions. The oil industry is the top contributor to Gov. Jack Dalrymple, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and gave money in all but 10 of the 75 legislative races held in 2012.

"I don't think most people know how pervasive the influence of the oil industry is in the Capitol," said Jim Fuglie, a former state tourism director and former head of the state Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party. "Nothing this big has happened since homestead days. This is a game changer for North Dakota."

U.S. Ranks Near Bottom on Energy Efficiency; Germany Tops List

Overall dismal report shows the U.S. outperformed only three of the world's largest economies on energy efficiency—Russia, Brazil and Mexico.

Jul 18, 2014

Germany leads the world in harnessing the benefits of energy efficiency, followed by Italy, the European Union, China and France, according to a new ranking of the world's 16 largest economies. The United States was near the bottom, placing 13th.

'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.

For Rural Texans Overwhelmed by the Fracking Boom, Training to Fight Back

Workshops will teach residents of the booming Eagle Ford Shale how to report emissions and suspected water contamination.

Jul 16, 2014

Virginia Palacios wants to empower the people of south Texas. She and her organization, the Austin office of the Environmental Defense Fund, want them to know they can make a difference in the face of the oil and gas boom that’s sweeping the Eagle Ford region.

In partnership with the Rio Grande International Study Center, Palacios has helped develop a series of workshops in five heavily impacted counties in the Eagle Ford, a 400-mile-long swath of oil and gas development that reaches from northeast Texas to the U.S.-Mexico border. The goal is to let residents know what resources are available if they believe they are being sickened by toxic emissions, or their water is becoming tainted or their wells are being drained.

People accustomed to a quiet rural lifestyle have found themselves in the middle of a bewildering hubbub of 18-wheel oil trucks, heavy equipment, day and night drilling, smoky flares and leaking emissions. Since 2008, more than 7,000 wells have been sunk and another 5,500 have been approved, making the Eagle Ford one of America’s most active drilling areas.

Timeline: Koch Brothers' 50 Years in the Tar Sands

The Koch brothers built their first fortune on the particularly dirty form of oil mined in Alberta's tar sands, and they remain deeply invested there.

Jul 15, 2014

The Koch brothers built their first fortune on the particularly dirty form of oil mined in Alberta's tar sands, where they have been major players for 50 years, and remain deeply invested.

The key moment came in 1969, when Charles Koch secured full ownership of a heavy oil refinery in Minnesota. Almost forty years later he called the acquisition "one of the most significant events in the evolution of our company."

Below is an interactive timeline that tells the story of the Kochs' 50 years in the tar sands. It updates an in-depth story InsideClimate News published in 2012.

The Koch Brothers v. Tom Steyer: Whose Carbon Footprint Is Bigger?

The Koch brothers built their first fortune on the particularly dirty form of oil mined in Alberta's tar sands, and they remain deeply invested there.

By David Sassoon and Zahra Hirji

Jul 15, 2014

The libertarian conservative Koch brothers and the progressive liberal Tom Steyer are in a billionaire's showdown in the current election cycle, spending heavily in Congressional races across the country on their favorite candidates.

In an odd twist, the counterpunching last week was over culpability for carbon pollution.

The Koch brothers got to watch Steyer take an uppercut from an unexpected source—the New York Times. The paper took aim at Steyer—climate champion and Keystone XL pipeline foe—for having profited handsomely in the not-too-distant past from financing coal plants.

It was a bitter irony for Steyer's climate activist supporters that he emerged from the ring bruised as a carbon polluter. They blamed the Times for delivering the Kochs' sucker punch.

Tom Steyer/Credit: Fortune Brainstorm Green 2013Tom Steyer/Credit: Fortune Brainstorm Green 2013A blog called Powerline with ties to Charles and David, the activists said, was the source of the Times story, and they faulted the paper for doing a hit piece on a man who has repented his history with coal and has since made tackling climate change his life's goal.

Steyer's turnaround took moral courage, they argued, and asked: What about the Koch brothers? What is their history with global warming emissions?

America's Oil Consumption Is Rising, Not Falling, Outpacing China's

For the first time in 14 years, the nation's increase in crude oil consumption in 2013 was higher than China's, new figures show.

Jul 14, 2014

U.S. oil demand reversed course in dramatic fashion in 2013, as the nation's growth in crude consumption outpaced perennial leader China for the first time since 1999, according to oil company BP's annual compendium of world energy statistics.

The U.S. increase follows two years of declines, and dampens hopes that the world's largest oil guzzler was permanently reining in its appetite for crude. The nation's oil use rose by 400,000 barrels per day to a daily draw of 18.9 million barrels; China's oil consumption grew by 390,000 barrels a day, to 10.8 million barrels a day, according to the BP figures released last month.

"Are these data points a harbinger of things to come or just an aberration?" asked Christof Rühl, group chief economist at BP. "Too early to tell is the appropriate response."

Brazilian State Blazes Path To Sustainability in Amazonia

After sparking a movement against slash-and-burn agriculture and a murder, the State of Acre is selling a new vision of sustainability in the Amazon.

Jul 14, 2014

Jeff Tollefson has been reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate. This is his final blog post. Read the full travelogue here

The queen of the forest stands strong. Blood was shed, but there she is, buttressed by tall and narrow root walls that extend outward in six directions, mirroring her canopy some 100 feet above. In between is a sun-speckled chamber of moist air abuzz with the sound of crickets and other forest denizens. 

"They killed a lot of people," says Antonio "Duda" Teixeira Mendes, generating a hollow boom as he thumps his fist on one of the samaúma tree's roots. "But for me, it was worth the fight."

"They" are the ranchers who began moving into the state of Acre ("pronounced AH-kray") in the 1970s, bringing a slash-and-burn agriculture to a remote region of the western Amazon that had previously sustained itself, if barely and often unjustly, on the harvesting of rubber and other forest resources. In the 1980s, the old rubber tapper families, many with roots in a bygone rubber era that dates back to the turn of the 20th century, began to stand up for their rights and resist the ranchers who sought to clear them, and the trees, away.

One of the people who was killed in the ensuing struggle was Duda's cousin Chico Mendes. Before his death in 1988, by gunshot outside his home in the town of Xapuri, Chico Mendes had garnered international recognition—and an invitation to testify before the U.S. Congress—for his leadership in the fight to preserve this particular patch of forest. Local rancher Darly Alves da Silva and his son Darci Alves were sentenced to prison for the murder.