Notes from Underground: Out of Our Sight, Out of Their Minds


Notes from UndergroundAppropriate – is it not? – that the word “underground” carries connotations of secrecy, subversion, and conspiracy. In the context of fossil fuel production and transportation, underground is home to a number of activities about which the public has a dire need to be well informed. Instead, we remain largely misinformed, or not informed at all.

The focus of Notes from Underground will be issues surrounding the use of pipelines and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). This first post will provide a foundational overview of the problems associated with fracking and pipeline use, referencing some relevant events of the recent past.

Both fracking and pipeline use take place out of sight of critics, regulators, and local populations. Hidden there under our feet, problems and dangers associated with fracking and pipelines can be difficult to spot, or easy to conceal (up to a point — see here and here, for example).

The potential difficulty of timely detection is only one of the dangers posed by a pipeline leak or a fracking mishap. When there is an observed accident, there may be obvious consequences, such as contamination of water or agricultural lands. There may also be consequences that are not clear or predictable, such as long-term health and environmental impacts. Then there is the difficulty of ascribing liability, as proving knowledge of underground occurrences is naturally challenging. These issues will recur as themes throughout these posts.

Too Many Fracking Risks
Where fracking is concerned, there remains considerable uncertainty regarding exactly what the impacts of the activity may be. An EPA study on the impacts of fracking on drinking water, published earlier this year, did little to reduce the uncertainty of risks posed by fracking, and reporting on the study often distorted the full picture.

While declaring that fracking operations that conform to regulations do not seem to have caused any significant groundwater pollution to date, the report does not negate risks posed by operations that fail to conform to regulations, and does not address other concerns about fracking’s short and long-term effects.

George Neall – a retired mining engineer, licensed professional engineer and CSPW contributor – notes that harm to drinking water is but one of the risks posed by fracking, and believes that the practice invariably results in some environmental harm (Mr. Neall will be consulted regularly for these posts to verify or clarify facts and express his opinions).

Given the range of concerns, some states, such as New York and Maryland, have wisely placed moratoria on fracking. However, several other states are actively preventing municipalities from banning fracking within their borders, namely: Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico , and Ohio. In Texas, for example, the state legislature decided that local municipalities have no right to make local zoning determinations about fracking. The intention, according to Governor Greg Abbott, is to avoid “a patchwork quilt” of conflicting regulations across the nation’s second-largest state. This seems like a hollow argument, given that zoning inherently varies from locale to locale. In Texas, where everything is bigger, apparently one size fits all where the zoning of potentially hazardous activities is concerned.

Some of these potential hazards take the form of increased risk – such as risk of earthquakes, or of accidents that lead to groundwater pollution. As reported in the Los Angeles Times in late April 2015, the US Geological Survey (USGS) released a map of earthquakes “thought to be triggered by human activity in the eastern and central United States” – coinciding with the emerging view of officials “that wastewater disposal following oil and gas extraction is causing more earthquakes.” Oklahoma, one of the states that followed Texas’ dubious lead, has now actually taken measures to limit fracking due to the increase in fracking-related earthquakes. Sure enough, according to the USGS study, “Oklahoma is by far the worst-hit state recently…[t]he state last year had more magnitude 3 (or higher) earthquakes than California, part of a huge increase recorded in recent years.” Other harms are certainties, like the rendering of millions of gallons of potentially potable water undrinkable by toxifying the water and injecting it into the ground.

While the long-term impacts of fracking remain unclear, the rational course is not “wait and see.” In the midst of such uncertainty, with such potential for disaster, a wiser response would be “more data is needed before fracking the fracking frack out of every fracking aquifer on the planet.” Or, to put it less colloquially, “use the precautionary principle” – a notion that will be discussed at length in a future post.

The pro-fracking, pro-pipeline, pro-fossil-fuel arguments all follow the same outline: (1) we need energy; (2) fossil fuels provide energy; (2.5) fossil fuels also create huge profits – whoops! – make that ‘jobs’; (3) we should do everything possible to ensure that fossil fuels are available to provide as much energy as we can, despite the uncertainty, the cost, the dangers, the unavoidable environmental impacts, and the inescapable reality that fossil fuels are exhaustible resources.

When Governor Abbott claims he is trying to improve regulation, what he probably means is that he is trying to minimize it in favor of short-term profits. The goal of legislation like that in Texas and elsewhere is to allow the unbridled exploitation of resources to continue, without consideration of the adverse impact that exploitation is certain to have on the public and the planet.

Too Many Pipeline Failures
With fracking, then, it is a choice of tangible profits over “uncertain” risks (although some of those risks are as “uncertain” as human-caused climate change). Pipelines, on the other hand, present very clear and definite threats. Although, when well managed, they may provide the best method for moving liquids from point A to point B, the quantity and quality of pipelines carrying hazardous materials are causes for concern — particularly as production of pipelines continues unabated.

This May in California, well over one hundred thousand gallons of oil found its way into the ocean due to the rupture of an 11-mile-long corroded pipeline. At the time, the spill was estimated to be up to 101,000 gallons of oil spanning over nine miles along the Santa Barbara County coastline. Since then, according to the Los Angeles Times, Plains All American Pipeline LP — the company responsible for the disaster — disclosed in its quarterly earnings in early August 2015 that the spill “may have been bigger and costlier than originally expected” and that “as many as 143,000 gallons of crude [oil] may have been spilled when the line ruptured.” Plains All American had been fined for violations before, but still failed to avert the disaster. Substantial fines are appropriate for such epic failures, but such punishment neither completely heals the damage caused, nor prevents all future spills. How can it? The pipelines, however carefully monitored, still reside underground, where no amount of monitoring can stop all leaks before they occur.

North Dakota, meanwhile, has over seven-thousand miles of underground pipelines transporting oil, gas, and “saltwater.” “Saltwater” is actually water heavy with salts, petroleum residue, and mysterious fracking chemicals – 1 million gallons of which leaked from a North Dakota pipeline in July 2014).  This was followed up in January of 2015 with another pipeline in the state leaking nearly 3 million gallons of brine – “a salty, toxic byproduct of oil and natural gas production.” Because of security issues and inadequate mapping techniques, the location, age, and quality of the pipelines are difficult to determine. Yet, when the second oil train in 18 months derailed in North Dakota this spring, Governor Jack Dalrymple declared what he believes to be the best response to safety concerns: more pipelines.

The Governor had evidently forgotten about the hundreds of oil, gas, and saltwater pipelines that have burst, leaked, or exploded in and around North Dakota over the past several years. These incidents include over three-hundred unreported spills from 2012 to 2013, several significant leaks of oil and polluted saltwater into streams and farmland in the six months prior to the latest train derailment (see here and here), a decade-old saltwater spill which is still being cleaned up coupled with a pipeline rupture discovered in September 2013 which will take another four years to clean, and a natural-gas pipeline explosion across the border in Canada, which impacted gas availability in several U.S. states during the winter of 2014 (see here and here).

As production of pipelines continues to soar, ignoring all of these incidents and the ongoing risks associated with pipelines to embrace an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality seems unfathomable. Then again, burying hazards underground may be an appropriate policy for those who have their heads in the sand and regularly ignore risk for the sake of profit.

When Governor Dalrymple argues that the choice is between pipelines and trains, he is making a narrow and biased argument – one that ignores the need to phase out our reliance on dirty energy, and that disregards the possibility that renewable energy could solve our energy and profits/jobs problems and avoid the risk-asterisk that will always be attached to fossil fuels.

President Obama – whose energy policies are certainly worthy of scrutiny – has just spent much of his visit to Alaska raising awareness of the risks of climate change posed by fossil-fuel use. Environmentalists are forced to applaud this, even as they protest his perceived selling of the Arctic to the oil industry.

But, as examined in CSPW’s previous post, Governor Bill Walker and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – a state that has first-hand experience with oil spills – complain that the President is not doing enough to fill the Trans-Alaska Pipeline with oil, even as they work to relocate indigenous communities whose lands are being lost to ice melt and erosion. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is case-in-point against the Keystone XL Pipeline in the lower 48 – namely that, once we have a huge pipeline, we do everything we can to keep it filled.

No Long-Term Up-Side
The grim reality about fracking, pipelines, and fossil fuels generally is that, at best, we do not know what all of the negative consequences of their ongoing, large-scale use will be. But we do know some of the worst-case scenarios – because we are already seeing them in places like Oklahoma, North Dakota, and the coast of Alaska. We know that fracking carries tremendous risks, many of which are not yet well understood. We know that pipelines are only viable if they are well maintained and well monitored – and that there are too many currently in use that are neither. We know that a continued increase in global temperature will mean a continued increase in environmental harm resulting from our addiction to and over-reliance on coal, gas, and oil.

Even if the dangers are not instantaneous and universal, even if their nature may be difficult to predict, there will always be significant risks associated with fossil fuels: What chemicals might end up in our water due to ubiquitous fracking and faulty pipelines? How many more earthquakes might occur because we shoot billions of gallons of liquid into the earth? Where will the next oil spill, gas leak, train wreck, coalmine disaster, pipeline failure, oilrig explosion, or other manmade catastrophe occur? How much impact on the atmosphere are our activities really having? How devastating will the consequences of climate change be?

These are all questions that cannot be ignored away. Yet many political “leaders” not only keep backing the fossil fuel horse, they also ignore that the horse is lame, and that the renewable energy horse – to flog the metaphor like a metaphorical Victor Espinoza – would probably have already won the race, if the fossil fuel industry hadn’t converted its oats into biased scientific research and deceptive ad campaigns. Apologies – the racehorse metaphor is dead, and shall not be beaten further.

In places where denial of science is now a policy directive, the public needs to voice its concerns, and the insane “logic” of the fossil fuel industry and its political shills must be exposed. Hopefully change will come before too many have to pay the price for the avarice and shortsightedness of those who, heads lodged firmly underground, think a problem ignored is a problem solved.

Many of the risks surrounding the use of fossil fuel are interrelated, and there are no simple answers but to proceed with caution, rather than with greed-fuelled abandon. The facts and opinions expressed herein are intended to raise questions and awareness about fracking, pipelines, and the myriad related industry practices impacting people and the planet. GAP’s Know Your Rights Campaign provides encouragement for those in and affected by the fossil fuel industry to tell their stories, share their insights and experiences, and act with knowledge of the laws that are designed to protect them. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, the dangers posed by fracking and pipeline use cannot remain buried underground.

CSPW Contributor Adam Arnold worked with GAP’s clinical program while earning his J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, is a member of the Maryland Bar, and has an LL.M. in International Environmental Law and International Organizations from American University’s Washington College of Law.

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