A Risk Too Far

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Jan 262015

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Risk Too Far

Assessing risk is a complicated thing.  The technical definition of risk — that it is equal to the statistical probability of exposure multiplied by the statistical probability of harm — seems simple enough.  But in practice, calculating those probabilities is far from straightforward.  And when you throw in questions like, “Are the people exposed to the risk the same ones as the ones who are benefiting from it?” and “What if the people involved in the risk assessment are very likely to be lying to you?”, it becomes damn near impossible to determine.

Such is the situation we find ourselves in, here in upstate New York.  The current controversy that is polarizing the region surrounds the benefits and risks of hydrofracking and storage of natural gas and liquified petroleum gas (LPG) in salt caverns underneath Seneca and Cayuga Lake.  You see signs in front of houses saying “Ban Fracking!” and “Friends of New York State Natural Gas” in almost equal numbers.
So let’s roll out some facts, here, and see what you think.
Hydrofracking well in the Barnett Shale, near Alvarado, Texas [image courtesy of photographer David R. Tribble and the Wikimedia Commons]
Hydrofracking involves the use of sand, salt, and surfactant-laden water to blow open shale formations to release trapped natural gas.  The gas is pumped back up, along with a toxic slurry of “fracking fluid” that then has to be disposed of.  The gas itself is transported down a spider’s web of pipelines, some of which pump the pressurized gas down into the abandoned salt mines that honeycomb our area.
In upstate New York, the permission to build the infrastructure for this massive project was granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year, in a move that brushed aside objections from geologists and ecologists, and which appears to many of us to be a rubber-stamp approval of corporate interests over safety and clean drinking water.  Now, Crestwood Midstream, a Texas-based energy company, wants to expand the current salt-cavern storage to include LPG.
So let’s see what we can do to consider the risks involved in this project.
The first piece, the risk of exposure, involves looking at the history of fracking and gas storage, to see if comparable facilities have experienced problems.  So here are a few accidents that have occurred in such sites:
What I haven’t told you, however, is the time scale involved with these events.
All of them occurred within the past twelve months.
Kind of puts a new spin on the gas industry’s claim that fracking is safe for humans and for the environment, doesn’t it?
What seals the deal is the question of what happens after these accidents occur.  The answer is: not much.  The question is, honestly, not so much “what is done?” but “what could be done?”  And the answer is still: not much.  Such accidents are nearly impossible to remediate completely, and leave behind fouled ecosystems and contaminated drinking water that won’t be useable for generations.
So as you can see from the above list, accidents really are more of a matter of “when,” not “if.”  This leaves it to the local residents to consider what the response would be if the unthinkable happens.  The result would be the salinization of a huge amount of water in the south end of Seneca Lake, which would likely be permanent as far as human lifetimes are concerned, given Seneca Lake’s depth and slow rate of flushing.  Aquifers would become too saline to use for drinking water or agriculture, which would destroy not only local farms but the multi-million-dollar winery industry that has become a mainstay of the economy.
And whose responsibility would it be if a problem did occur?  The answer is, “Not Crestwood’s.”  They are not insured against accidents of this scale.  To quote directly from their own 10K report:

These risks could result in substantial losses due to breaches of contractual commitments, personal injury and/or loss of life, damage to and destruction of
property and equipment and pollution or other environmental damage. These risks may also result in curtailment or suspension of our operations. A natural
disaster or other hazard affecting the areas in which we operate could have a material adverse effect on our operations. We are not fully insured against all risks inherent in our business. In addition, we are not insured against all environmental accidents that might occur, some of which may result in toxic tort claims.

If there was a salt cavern collapse similar to one that happened in the 1960s, the result would be nothing short of a catastrophe for the local residents, because there would be no compensation forthcoming in the way of insurance money.  The only recourse would be a “toxic tort claim” against Crestwood, which would result in costly litigation that would be far too expensive for an average resident to pursue.
And Crestwood is planning on taking the same cavern that experienced a 400,000 ton roof collapse fifty years ago, and filling it with pressurized natural gas.
So if the whole thing blows up in our faces, literally and figuratively, Crestwood can cut their losses and go home to Texas.  We don’t have that option.
This hasn’t stopped the pro-gas voices from characterizing the risk as minimal, and the people who are speaking out against Crestwood as crazy tree-huggers who have “drunk the Kool-Aid” and who are the victims of “imaginary delusions.”  These last phrases are direct quotes from one David Crea, an engineer for U.S. Salt, a company that is now owned by Crestwood.  Responsible, intelligent people, say Crea, couldn’t possibly be against gas storage in salt caverns; and he points out that a lot of the people who have been protesting the Crestwood Expansion are from the eastern half of Schuyler County, not the western half, where the facility is located.
Because, apparently, you have to live right on top of a disaster before you’re allowed to have an opinion about it.  This kind of illogic would claim that the objections of a woman in Oregon to the siting of a pesticide factory 400 yards away from an elementary school in Middleport, New York are irrelevant because “she doesn’t live there.”  (I didn’t make that up; read about the situation here, which resulted in dozens of children suffering from permanent lung damage.)
So sorry, Mr. Crea; it’s not the concerned locals who have “drunk the Kool-Aid.”  There’s not that much Kool-Aid in the world.  It’s the citizens you and your ilk have hoodwinked, and who now sit on top of a site that has a ridiculously high likelihood of catastrophic failure.  And if you multiply all of those risk factors together, you come up with a figure so large that you would have to be on Crestwood’s payroll to consider it acceptable.

Message to the UK: The Fracking Bridge is Already Burning

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Jan 242015

Despite all of the David Cameron government’s fanfare about “going all out for shale,” widespread resistance has already put the UK’s pro-fracking forces on the defensive. (Photo: by Frack Free Denton)

On a week-long trip to the UK last fall, I was struck by how quickly the push to open up the country to fracking has been escalating. Thankfully, activists are mounting a vigorous and creative response, and are more than up to the task of galvanizing the public to put a stop to this mad dash to extract.

That is not to say it will be easy. In rushing to exploit the UK’s shale gas reserves, the industry has spent millions on public relations and brazenly overridden the democratic will of British citizens by overturning laws that had prevented drilling under homes. The coalition government, meanwhile, has done the sector’s bidding at every turn.

We’ve seen all of this before. Indeed what is happening in the UK is modeled so closely on the U.S. experience that an October 2014 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal spoke of “Plotting an American-Style Fracking Revolution in Britain.”

So it’s worth playing close attention to how that earlier plot played out, both in the United States and in my own country, Canada. The U.S. is not only where the gas companies honed various technologies used in fracking, but also where they honed their branding—like their pitch, originating in the early 1980s, that natural gas was a “bridge” to a clean energy future.

As opposition has grown, they have cleverly funded studies stamped by big green organizations that understate fracking’s huge greenhouse gas impact; touted over-optimistic production forecasts; and in true shock doctrine style, tried to take advantage of geo-political crisis, like the gas cut-offs in Ukraine, to push through massive export plans that in any other circumstance could never gain legislative or public approval.

And when all else fails, government and industry have turned to criminalizing peaceful activism. They’ve dispatched heavily armed police against Indigenous communities blockading shale gas exploration in New Brunswick, Canada; gagged families impacted by drilling from criticizing the industry for an entire lifetime; and tried to charge as “terrorists” protesters in Oklahoma who unfurled a banner and dropped glitter at an oil and gas company’s office.

Yet even with such tactics, communities across North America are in full revolt. Last month came the huge news that New York State would ban fracking, following a steady stream of bans and moratoria passed in local communities, as well as years of sustained pressure from the activists and scientists—like biologist and author Sandra Steingraber, co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking—who have tirelessly documented and spread the word about the health and climate impacts. (The New York uprising continues in the Finger Lakes region of the state, where one Texas-based company hopes to create a massive “gas storage and transportation hub,” and where 200 blockaders have been arrested resisting its plans to fill abandoned salt caverns along Seneca Lake with enormous amounts of fracked gas.) A ban has also been passed in Vermont and there are moratoria in parts of California, as well as in the Canadian provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.

And a month before the New York victory, the Texas town of Denton—the birthplace of the fracking boom and perhaps the most drilled area in the country—voted decisively to ban hydraulic fracturing. The victory was achieved in a Republican town, in the face of an industry that poured hundreds of thousands into the battle—which was, in the words of a resident, “more like David and Godzilla than David and Goliath.”

The story of Denton has much to teach the growing anti-fracking movement in Britain. What it demonstrates is that, left to their own devices, the fossil fuel companies will come after your homes, your churches, your schools, your parks, your university campuses, and your sports stadiums—all of which have had wells drilled on or near them in Denton.

But despite all of the David Cameron government’s fanfare about “going all out for shale,” widespread resistance has already put the UK’s pro-fracking forces on the defensive. A recent Guardian analysis found that only 11 new exploration wells are planned for 2015, with the industry bemoaning the “glacially slow” pace of the shale expansion—to say nothing of possible impacts from the global oil price shock now threatening extreme fossil fuels around the world. Just yesterday, ahead of a key Parliament vote on fracking legislation, green groups sent Cameron a petition with 267,000 signatures rejecting the dash for gas.

It may seem that frackers in the UK and elsewhere will stop at nothing to have their way. But thanks to the rising global climate movement, this so-called bridge is already burning. And it’s long past time to choose a different path.