Archive | August, 2011

Its not just the debt ceiling in D.C. – the U.S. House wants to dismantle the EPA

4 Aug

With so much dust kicked up over the debt-ceiling debate its been easy for partisan interests to obscure the mischief that the Republican controlled Committee on Appropriations has been up to. Their passage of H.R.2584, The Interior and Environmental Appropriations Bill, means that the U.S. House of Representatives will now be given the opportunity to strip from law and regulation any number of environmental protections as well as the people’s right to bring action against federal agencies. Among other things, it clearly shows that the majority party is intent on dismantling the EPA.

Following is a summary of some of the riders to the bill that the ranking minority member, Representative Jim Moran, called “a wish list for special interests”. You can see more at the minority party’s committee website. My take on many of the riders is in italics.

Blocks Permit Requirements for Pesticide Discharge in Waterways [Title V]: Amends the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and the Clean Water Act to eliminate requirements for chemical companies and agriculture to obtain permits for pesticides entering waterways. In 2009 a federal court ruled that pesticide users must get an EPA permit in order to discharge pesticides directly into waterways. Many wonder that if a coal-fired power plant is required to get a permit for its discharges why shouldn’t a chemical company also be required. My guess is that if this passes, power companies will wonder much the same thing…..

Blocks EPA Regulation of Hard Rock Mining Operations [Section 455]: Prohibits funding for the EPA to develop additional financial assurance requirements for hard rock mining operations. Why shouldn’t a hard rock mine operator be required to provide adequate financial assurances? These are big and messy operations that require a lot of capital to develop/operate and cleanup. Just imagine how much more profitable they could be if they didn’t have to do the latter…that must be what the committee had to imagine, too.

Blocks Clean Air Act Regulations of Cement Industry [Section 448]: Prohibits funding for the EPA to implement Clean Air Act regulations on the manufacture of Portland cement. Many studies suggest that the cement industry contributes as much as 5-8% to global CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, the carbon load in the atmosphere has increased by about 36% in the last 250-300 years. From a climate change perspective it would seem logical to regulate one of the larger contributors to CO2 output. But the house committee can’t be bothered with logic.

Removes Protection of Grand Canyon from Uranium Mining Claims [Section 445]: Prohibits the Secretary of the Interior from implementing a land withdrawal to protect the Grand Canyon from new uranium mining claims. In June, Interior Secretary Salazar infuriated mining interests and Representative Cynthia Lummis by announcing a six month moratorium on new claims within a 1 million acre buffer around the Grand Canyon (something he was instructed to do by the 2008 version of the U.S. Congress). Its hard to imagine why a representative from Wyoming – which leads the nation in uranium reserves – would be so concerned with diminishing our state’s competitive advantage. Maybe its because the mining industry is one of her top campaign contributors.

Blocks Coal Ash Regulation [Section 434]: Prohibits EPA from regulating Fossil Fuel Combustion Waste (coal ash) under the Solid Waste Disposal Act. When over 1.7 million tons of coal ash broke free from a containment site in Tennessee and caused what some called the largest environmental disaster of its kind in U.S. history, many believed the disposal and regulation of coal ash would be a no-brainer. Apparently the mining and power industries thought so to and reached out to their friends in the U.S. House of Representatives to stop any attempt at tighter scrutiny

Blocks Modification of Clean Water Act [Sec. 435]: Prohibits EPA from changing or supplementing guidance or rules related to the scope of the Clean Water Act. This one is too easy – its all about hydraulic fracturing and industry’s efforts to avoid its responsibilities to our nation’s groundwater resources.

Blocks Update to Mountaintop Removal Mining Rule [Section 432]: Prohibits the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) from updating the Stream Buffer Rule. This is for the benefit of companies engaged in Mountaintop Removal Mining. Why should we care about moutaintop removal? Maybe a picture says it best (photo courtesy of and The Atlanta Progressive News)

Blocks Mountaintop Removal Mining Policy at Multiple Agencies [Sec. 433]: Prohibits EPA, the Corps of Engineers, and OSM from implementing or enforcing any policy or procedure contained in two specified documents on Mountaintop Removal Mining. See above

Blocks Judicial Review of De-listing Wolves in Wyoming/Great Lakes [Section 119]: Protects from judicial review any decision of the Secretary of the Interior to de-list wolves in Wyoming or the Great Lakes region. I hope my libertarian friends are alert to this one, although for different reasons. While this rider is specifically about the wolf, it clearly sets a precedent that could ultimately mean that no citizen is able to bring suit against the government for any reason.

Blocks Endangered Species Act Designations [Language on page 8]: Prohibits funding for Endangered Species Act listings or critical habitat designations. This rider means that the Wyoming Governor’s Executive Order on Sage Grouse will be the only thing that stands between resource development and the remaining population of the sage grouse in Wyoming. Goodbye habitat, goodbye bird.

With the summer adjournment of the house, the HR2584 is now waiting to be placed on the calendar. Most pundits predict easy passage of the bill (with the riders intact). That will mean the Senate will have to try to strip the riders and work out a compromise with the House or, failing to accomplish that, ask President Obama for a veto – something that it isn’t apparent the president is willing to do. In the meanwhile (and if you agree that these riders are a bad idea) please – PLEASE! – get in touch with your representative and senator and let them know how you feel. Here is a link that can help you with that –















What happens if we partner on natural gas with China?

3 Aug

The New York Times has recently reported that what it describes as industry insiders and independent operators have, in email exchanges, expressed doubts about the reserves that the natural gas industry as a whole touts as a result of new plays and new technology. The stories have ignited a firestorm of criticism by many of the world’s largest oil and gas companies including Exxon-Mobil.

Just three years ago, the Wyoming legislature’s joint interim Minerals, Business and Economic Development committee heard a presentation from an industry analyst that seemed to represent common wisdom in 2008, namely that the U.S. was running out of proven and economically viable natural gas reserves and that the nation would soon be faced with the prospect of importing the liquified version of natural gas from unfriendly countries like Russia and perhaps even be held hostage to imports from outright hostile countries like Iran. The analyst urged the committee to help domestic operators and in particular those in the state find, develop, and exploit as never before new gas fields or suffer the geopolitical and economic consequences. The next session of the Wyoming legislature found a way to help.

In early 2009, the legislature was asked to author a joint resolution which called on the U.S. Congress to resist any attempt to regulate or restrict the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as a way to enhance outputs from natural gas wells. Legislators heard advocates of the resolution describe hydraulic fracturing as a safe and decades old technique that has been employed tens of thousands of times across the country as a way to stimulate natural gas well production with no known problems. Against that backdrop (and the analyst’s presentation to the interim committee) it came as no surprise that the legislature endorsed the resolution almost unanimously.

Fast forward to 2011 which looks so much different than 2008. The U.S. has been described as being awash in domestic natural gas, largely because of new and/or enhanced discoveries in places like New York, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Wyoming. The geopolitical threat seems to have disappeared (although perhaps it will resurface in a different way – more on that later) but at the same time there is a growing awareness that fracking is not without problems. As it turns out, the fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process are laced with chemicals that in tiny concentrations are known to cause birth defects and cancer. If those chemicals get into groundwater they can cause contamination for generations. And despite assertions by Exxon-Mobil CEO President Rex Tillerson that there has never been a documented case of groundwater contamination resulting from fracking, it turns out that in 1984 a water well in West Virginia was contaminated and the user forced to abandon its use.

Now come the New York Times articles. They make it clear that hydraulic fracturing has been a springboard for natural gas development in tight shale formations which in turn seems to have fostered, in some independent operators, a gold rush mentality for finding new gas plays – and perhaps for selling them to the next speculator and that speculator to the next. There appears to be evidence that while hydraulic fracturing does stimulate a field into dramatic levels of production that those levels can quickly diminish. By examining production reports submitted to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), some industry analysts are now reassessing whether the nation is, indeed, awash in natural gas. Meanwhile, the boom of U.S. natural gas has been heard world wide and one of the nation’s biggest beneficiaries of the boom, Chesapeake Energy, has partnered with China on many of its domestic U.S. developments. China’s investment has gotten to the point where the Wall Street Journal reports that as much 3% of that country’s diesel fuel demand could be displaced with liquified natural gas by 2015.

The result of all of this could be intriguing to say the least. Industry operators, driven to produce according to their representations to investors and the EIA, will employ whatever technique they can muster to deliver the product. It means that hydraulic fracturing will be used routinely and groundwater will certainly be at risk. An even more ominous threat might be if the gas industry – always a rough and tumble bunch – has found itself entwined with its most formidable partner ever….China, one that may not look too kindly on being the unwitting participant in a speculator’s gold-rush fever. If China were the victim of another U.S. investment gone bad – this time energy development played on the world stage – it might make dealing with Russia and even Iran look easy by comparison.