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With special gear and righteous anger, activists document emissions in the Permian oil fields [The Dallas Morning News]

Dec. 14–MIDLAND — Environmental activist Sharon Wilson knows what she’s likely to get from her regular trips to the Permian Basin: a headache and sore throat from the fumes and a dark mood from the bleak industrial landscape. Still, she returns, armed with more than $100,000 worth of camera equipment and righteous anger over what few people see in the heart of the U.S. oil industry.

Wilson, a senior organizer for the environmental group Earthworks and a longtime critic of fracking, is working to prove that those invisible emissions are worse than originally thought. The impact of those gases ranges from exacerbating global climate change to polluting the air.

“Right now, the Permian Basin is the most important place on earth to show what’s happening, and what we have to stop,” Wilson said, referring to oil and gas drilling.

Month after month, Wilson, 66, records infrared video of oil and gas facilities that she says are spewing methane and other hydrocarbons into the air. Some of the emissions are permitted by state law, some are forgiven as accidents and some are noted as violations.

It’s a job, Wilson says, that regulators have all but abdicated. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has just four air monitors in the Permian Basin, which includes all or parts of 61 counties. Most emissions data is industry-reported.

Alan Septoff, an Earthworks spokesman, described the Texas approach as “drill and then regulate when possible.”

“There’s no one out there trying to quantify this,” he said.

State environmental officials say they are effective at monitoring emissions from Texas’ vast oil and gas industry.

“TCEQ utilizes a broad range of resources to enable and require the regulated universe to comply with environmental rules,” agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said in an email.

She said the TCEQ “utilizes innovative technology,” including cameras like Wilson’s, and also hires private contractors for aerial surveys that help with investigations.

And while Morrow said the agency does accept “citizen-collected evidence,” regulators can’t vouch for the quality of the data.

Oil and gas companies say they have made progress in reducing pollution. Mostly, industry executives acknowledge climate change as a man-made threat that needs to be addressed.

That hasn’t convinced Wilson and Earthworks, who say the talk isn’t backed up by action. They say they hope to persuade the public and decision-makers that the nation has stumbled in its efforts to control greenhouse gases.

With each well site, gas-processing plant and compressor station, they want to build their case for stronger regulations against an industry intertwined with Texas’ government, history and economy.

“I would argue we are at the point where rational people are increasingly considering climate change as an existential issue,” Septoff said. “Not just environmentalists.”

On the hunt

Every month or so, Wilson travels to West Texas and sometimes New Mexico with an optical gas imaging camera and tablet computer loaded with a database of oil and gas facilities.

As she drives along Interstate 20 in West Texas, burned rubber and other industrial smells occasionally seep into her black rental SUV. She drives the gas-guzzler to better to blend in and also to navigate the rugged back roads where many oil wells and major facilities are.

Wilson returns to the same sites again and again, monitoring successes and failures at controlling accidental emissions. The facilities have permits allowing them to emit a limited amount of pollution in certain instances. It’s not a blank check.

Earthworks’ high-dollar FLIR GF320 camera captures black-and-white video that looks much like a negative image created with a simple smartphone app. The dramatic moments happen when the camera captures gas that can’t be seen by the naked eye.

The charcoal-colored, smoke-like clouds flow from unlit natural gas flares or improperly secured storage tank “thief hatches” that are used for extracting samples. Industry representatives have argued that some emissions captured in the videos could be steam.

After two years of trips to the Permian Basin, Wilson employs a strategy that includes returning to past violators, finding the newest facilities and responding to resident complaints.

Often, the trail is obvious — the rotten-egg stench of hydrogen sulfide and ill-defined chemical smells pop up across the region.

During one trip last year, Wilson put on a respirator to shield herself from the intense fumes. The mask, however, doesn’t protect against hydrogen sulfide, which, in sufficient quantities, can kill.

She said she left quickly after her hydrogen sulfide meter sounded an alarm. There are some places, Wilson said, where she won’t return.

When she pulls over, she notes the time, geographic coordinates, name and type of facility, air temperature and wind speed. Then she starts recording.

It takes a moment for the eyes to adjust to the scene through the viewfinder and see the emissions billowing or drifting. Sometimes, there is nothing to see.

Wilson carefully notes each detail as a detective would at a crime scene. What she captures often goes onto YouTube. The videos are also posted on an Earthworks interactive map and frequently forwarded to state regulators.

Septoff said sharing the videos with the public is sometimes the most effective strategy for change. He described it as “regulation by social media.”

Workers occasionally glance at Wilson and slow as they pass in their company trucks. But mostly, they pay little attention.

The beginning

Wilson started her activism while living in Wise County, the heart of the first wave of fracking. New technology, proven in North Texas’ Barnett Shale natural gas field, unleashed the current fracking revolution and allowed it to spread worldwide. The resurgence of the Permian Basin is built upon fracking.

But Wilson actually started her blog, TXsharon’s Bluedaze, as a general-purpose forum to share her thoughts on everything from oddball gifts to the Iraq war.

In the mid-1990s, she owned 42 acres and was fulfilling her dream of living in the country. She was even a mineral rights owner.

Eventually, fracking and its effects began to consume more of her time.

Wilson said her well water turned briefly to black and green goo, although she had no proof it was related to fracking. She also worried that the drilling rigs and the waste pit built near creeks were disturbing the rural atmosphere.

As a new activist, Wilson was caught up in one of the early Barnett Shale publicity battles involving the natural gas producer Range Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency and a Parker County homeowner who believed fracking had polluted his water.

Video of the homeowner’s fiery water, which Wilson posted on YouTube, was a dramatic symbol of homeowners’ fears. Her emails were subpoenaed during the subsequent litigation.

That Range Resources fight led to a lawsuit that was eventually settled without any blame being assigned to the company. The EPA backed off its initial claim that Range Resources was responsible for the water contamination.

In some cases — but not all — natural gas can seep into well water through existing cracks underground.

Wilson compares the transformation of her rural life in Wise County to the experiences in the Permian Basin.

“I know what it’s like to have the night sky taken away from you,” she said. “I know what it’s like to have your water turn black.”

On her blog, Wilson described her old home as “living on the edge of a volcano.”

Now she lives in Dallas, beyond the reach of the Barnett Shale. But she travels regularly to a place she described as “magnitudes worse.”

Camera training

Wilson’s work is not without pushback.

Critics have called the efforts unscientific and a waste of regulators’ time. Oil and gas backers have questioned whether she is interpreting the FLIR camera’s video correctly.

“FLIR imaging is a valuable tool used in the initial detection of emissions; however, the technology cannot detect the type or volume of emissions nor compliance with regulations,” Castlen Kennedy, an Apache Corp. spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “It is a blunt instrument and is often used improperly, leading to false conclusions.”

Kennedy, who is also certified to use the FLIR camera, said her Houston-based company takes compliance issues seriously, using infrared cameras and regular on-site inspections.

Wilson points out that she took classes and was certified at the Infrared Training Center alongside oil, gas and petrochemical industry inspectors. She said anyone professionally trained with the camera can easily tell the difference between hydrocarbon emissions and steam, which she said dissipates quickly.

But Earthworks does acknowledge its limitations. The FLIR camera allows the activists to see when a facility is emitting gases. But the often dramatic videos can’t measure the amounts or types of emissions.

Activists could make detailed measurements by flying a drone with testing equipment over the facilities. But state law prohibits that.

Septoff said the growing database of videos shows that something is going wrong in the Permian Basin.

Industry associations said the reverse is true.

The American Petroleum Institute reports that U.S. methane emissions dropped nearly 16 percent between 1990 and 2016. Meanwhile, dry natural gas production is up by more than half during that same period.

And the Environmental Protection Agency announced in October that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped 2.7 percent between 2016 and 2017.

All that’s happening as the petroleum industry ramps up production and has hit record levels.

“During the prolific production growth we’ve experienced, there may at times be infrastructure and equipment shortages that can impact operators,” Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, said in an email. “Our member companies in production are consistently working with pipeline partners and equipment providers to resolve any issues, and as more infrastructure is developed and additional replacement equipment is available, these occurrences will diminish.”

Methane leaks

The latest research on methane is backing up Earthworks’ worries. About one-third of the nation’s methane releases come during natural gas and crude oil production and delivery.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1.4 percent of the methane produced by industry leaks into the atmosphere. But a Colorado State University study that analyzed aerial sampling by a large team of researchers concluded that the leak rate was 60 percent higher.

The debate about how to handle climate change has ramped up in recent months thanks to a pair of reports, both bearing dire warnings.

In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report saying that global warming was accelerating faster than expected and that its effects could be severe by 2040. And the U.S. government’s latest report, released last month, lists how climate change is already affecting this country. The heating is straining infrastructure and worsening disasters such as droughts, wildfires and hurricanes.

Septoff said he realizes his efforts are an uphill battle. President Trump has said that climate change either doesn’t exist or isn’t serious, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary.

But Septoff said he hopes the data that Wilson and other Earthworks employees are collecting will eventually get a hearing in Washington, D.C.

“We need a government that is telling the people that we need to shift away from fossil fuels,” he said.

Wilson takes the opposite view, arguing that the public must be persuaded first.

“You can’t get that government until you get the people to push for that government,” she said.

Pressing on

Wilson’s job in the Permian Basin isn’t an easy one. Some oil and gas facilities have no signs identifying them, making complaints to state regulators more difficult.

In other cases, the signs are far away or difficult to see. And some sites are so far from public roads that Wilson can’t get close enough to monitor them.

Even with those roadblocks, there seemed to be an almost unlimited number of sites to visit.

One day in early November, Wilson and Septoff pulled off to the side of a West Texas farm-to-market road after spotting a a natural gas flare with black smoke streaming from the flame.

That’s a sign something is wrong and evidence that a flare is polluting. It’s also a violation of Texas law, which says a flare can’t smoke for more than 5 minutes in a two-hour period.

In this case, it was an easy violation to spot and report. Septoff used his phone to record video of the smoking flare, while Wilson called the TCEQ to report the violation.

This is a slam-dunk violation, although it’s not one guaranteed to lead to a hefty fine. State regulators offer a lighter touch. They say their goal is to work with producers to fix problems rather than to punish them.

Wilson said she’ll often file 15 or 20 complaints during her weeklong trips to the Permian Basin. In many cases, she never finds out whether any action was taken.

But she isn’t deterred.

“I don’t want my children to suffer the way they are going to suffer if we don’t stop this,” Wilson said. “I will keep fighting to make a difference as long as I can keep doing it. … My mother said I was hard-headed. I think tenacious sounds better.”


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At more than $2 billion, tax exemption up for vote could be largest in Louisiana history [The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.]

Dec. 14–A state board is set to vote Friday on a tax exemption that could eventually top $2 billion, representing potentially the largest single tax exemption awarded in Louisiana.

Under the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, known as ITEP, Driftwood LNG LLC, a subsidiary of the natural gas company Tellurian Inc., is seeking a tax break for its $15.9 billion liquefied natural gas export facility planned for Calcasieu Parish. The exemption is worth an estimated $283.7 million in the first year alone, according to a Louisiana Economic Development estimate.

Calcasieu Parish Assessor Wendy Aguillard estimates the property tax exemption will be worth more than $2 billion over 10 years, assuming the exemption is renewed after five years.

The LouisianaBoard of Commerce and Industry will vote on the first five-year tax exemption Friday. Also on the agenda are several controversial ITEP applications from ExxonMobil for Baton Rouge-area projects.

Driftwood’s request was already approved by local taxing authorities in Calcasieu Parish, after little discussion or debate, the Lake Charles American Press reported. If approved, the exemption will be up for renewal after five years. Gov. John Bel Edwards must sign off on exemptions through the program.

The $283.7 million first-year exemption would be the largest on record, according to LED figures, with the next-largest being an exemption for Cameron LNG, at $207 million in the first year. That project is a nearby LNG export facility currently under development by Sempra Energy.

Tellurian’s facility is expected to create 300 permanent jobs and 6,400 construction jobs, according to LED Secretary Don Pierson. The $15.9 billion project is set to be among the largest, and possibly the largest, capital investment in the state’s history. The firm said it will make a final investment decision in the first half of 2019.

Together Louisiana, the advocacy group that has scrutinized the tax exemption program, estimates the exemption will be worth $2.4 billion over 10 years, after taking depreciation into account. The company’s application to LED listed a $2.09 billion amount using a different, eight-year calculation. But LED confirmed the company qualifies for an exception to the rules that will allow it to get renewed for another five years at 100 percent.

“An exemption request in Calcasieu Parish appears to represent what would be the single largest public subsidy by local government in American history,” Together Louisiana wrote in an email to supporters.

The project “already committed to the Calcasieu location and which is not looking at any alternative locations,” the group wrote.

Tellurian spokeswoman Joi Lecznar said the company experiences “fierce competition” in the LNG market, and said businesses in the field “must be low cost.”

“This abatement is crucial to the development of our $15 billion Driftwood project and to the development of our other assets across Louisiana, including upstream natural gas production in the Haynesville, and proposed pipelines, representing a total of nearly $30 billion investment,” Lecznar said.

Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, a controversial tax break for manufacturers, has gone through multiple changes in recent years, starting with an executive order by Edwards in 2016 reining in the program. Under the newest set of rules instituted earlier this year, companies can get an 80 percent exemption for 10 years. Under the 2017 rules, companies could get a 100 percent exemption for five years, and an 80 percent exemption for three additional years. Local officials now have a say in the program, which exempts local property taxes.

An exception in the rules allows projects to receive a 100 percent exemption for 10 years — what the program formerly offered before Edwards’ reform — if the advance notification was filed between June 24, 2016, and Oct. 21, 2016. The Driftwood application qualifies for that exception, LED spokesman Ron Thibodeaux said. It will have to seek local approval for the renewal as well.

Pierson, in a lengthy emailed statement, described ITEP as a necessary tool for recruiting and retaining industry in Louisiana. Tellurian also has expressed intentions to develop a natural gas pipeline to deliver supplies from Louisiana and Texas to the Driftwood facility near Lake Charles, he said. Those plans “differentiate” the firm from other LNG projects, which source gas from outside suppliers.

Southwest Louisiana, particularly in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, has been the site of an industrial boom in recent years. Several developers have floated plans for massive LNG export facilities to be built there in an effort to meet peak global natural gas demand in the mid-2020s.

Pierson said the project will also create sales tax revenue during a multi-year construction phase.

“If approved by the Board of Commerce and Industry and if Driftwood makes a final investment decision to locate in Calcasieu Parish, the exact abatement that will be ultimately recognized by the company will depend on a number of factors, including the specific and exact millage rates in Calcasieu Parish, the value of the asset as determined by the Calcasieu Parish Assessor, depreciation of the asset that is calculated by the assessor, and whether the ITEP contract is renewed by local governing bodies and the Board of Commerce and Industry,” Pierson said.


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EDITORIAL: Technology will produce a solution to wastewater problem [The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City]

Dec. 14–CARBON capture technology, like hydraulic fracturing, has been in use for decades. Carbon dioxide is “captured” from power plants, for example, and put to some use that makes it more environmentally friendly.

The principal use of carbon capture technology is enhanced oil recovery. Since the 1970s, carbon capture has helped revive old oil fields in the Texas Permian Basin. The future of carbon capture technology is bright, but another environmental problem involving oil and gas exploration continues to seek practical, economic solutions. The issue is what to do with the wastewater that results from fracking.

Oklahoma is at center stage in the drama because of the enormous quantities of wastewater and the effect of disposal wells on seismology. If more of the wastewater could be put to use instead of pumped into a disposal well, environmentalists should be satisfied and citizens would be less vulnerable to earthquakes.

In the real world of fossil fuel dependence (a world we’ll inhabit for many years to come), the challenge isn’t to do away with petroleum and coal but to find ways to make them safer to produce and consume. This is where wastewater disposal technology enters the story.

In New Mexico, the fifth-driest state in the union, a move is afoot to require that oil production-related wastewater be reused for agriculture or even drinking water. The idea is to reduce water consumption while putting waste to a better use.

Less dry than New Mexico, Oklahoma faces continued scrutiny over disposal wells. This is indeed a problem in search of solutions. We believe technology will find them if bureaucracy and environmental blockades don’t interfere.

Already in New Mexico, environmental groups are expressing doubt about reusing oil-related wastewater. Even if none of it enters the drinking water supply, the chemicals used in exploration and production are of concern.

A recent report from said every barrel of oil produced by fracking in New Mexico yields five barrels of “produced water.” As in Oklahoma, much of this is used to bring up more oil. That which isn’t reused is injected into disposal wells. In some states where the shale boom is underway, wastewater is trucked to other states for injection.

To grasp the scale of this issue, consider that Oklahoma produced 2.3 billion barrels of wastewater in 2012, the latest year for which we could find data. Of that amount, 1.09 billion barrels were reused for oil and gas exploration. The remainder was presumably pumped underground.

Also in 2012, Texas produced 7.8 billion barrels of oil-related wastewater. Less than half was reused in petroleum production.

Technology has advanced the use of treated municipal sewage for reuse. Surely it can address the wastewater problem. Some tradeoffs and compromises will be needed. Government policy should not make wastewater disposal so expensive for producers that they can’t stay in business.


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Up in the air: Frederick residents worry about effects of future Rockwool plant [The Frederick News-Post, Md.]

Dec. 14–Frederick County residents will soon be reminded that air doesn’t recognize state borders.

Less than a 15-mile drive from Brunswick in Ranson, West Virginia, a 460,000-square-foot mineral wool insulation manufacturing plant has been proposed and is under preliminary construction. In the past year, debate on the project has transformed from local objections to the location of the plant near schools, to one on possible air pollution crossing state lines.

“If you’re downstream or downwind, none of those ill effects respect state boundaries,” said Ron Kaltenbaugh, a Frederick County resident and environmental advocate.

Kaltenbaugh has been fighting the construction of the Rockwool insulation plant in Ranson since before he knew there was a plant.

Initially, he became involved in opposition to the construction of a natural gas pipeline through Washington County, under the Potomac River and into West Virginia. At the time, he was told the gas was destined for residential homes, but it seemed — even then — cost prohibitive to build the pipeline only to service houses. His hunch was correct with information on a future planned extension of the pipeline to the Rockwool site later coming to light.

When he heard what the pipeline was really destined to do, Kaltenbaugh said he paused. He considered whether he should spend the time looking into the project, since West Virginia “has a history of rubber stamping,” he said.

At a public hearing in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in October, however, it was clear people were mad, he said.

Though technically in the city of Ranson, the Rockwool plant will sit on a property in the far northern corner of the municipality. The property is so far north that it is closer to Kearneysville than most of Ranson, and Shepherdstown is a short drive up W.Va.-480.

At the meeting in Shepherdstown, the audience was standing room only and there was a list of speakers 30 minutes deep before Kaltenbaugh could get to the microphone. As each speaker took a their turn, the same theme came up repeatedly: People were tired of being dumped on in West Virginia.

“It was very clear, the town was against it,” Kaltenbaugh said.

Mineral wool

Rockwool is a multi-national producer of mineral wool insulation that operates 45 manufacturing plants in 39 countries.

When constructed, the Ranson site will be the brand’s second manufacturing plant in the U.S. The company estimates it will begin its first quarter in Ranson in 2020.

“This new production site places us close to major population centers in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and mid-western United States. We’re growing along with the market, and we look forward to serving our customers’ need from this new facility,” said Trent Ogilvie, president of the Rockwool subsidiary Roxul, in prepared remarks released earlier this year.

To build the plant, the company first needed to show it would not cause any significant deterioration to the air quality of the area or surpass other federal standards.

In December 2017, the company submitted its initial Air Quality Assessment of the predicted emissions from the plant, which the company concluded would have significant emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide — both of which are precursors of ground-level ozone, also known as smog — as well as particulate matter. However, further modeling found that only the 1-hour standard for sulfur dioxide would be out of compliance with state and federal rules.

Roxul stated in the assessment that the plant’s actual sulfur dioxide output would be only a fraction of the modeled emissions.

“We use highly efficient de-sulphurization technology to control these emissions. The modelling shows that even in the case of an additional 30 percent [sulfur dioxide] emissions over an hour, the impacts are within the relevant federal standards,” Michael Zarin, vice president of communications for Rockwool, said by email on Thursday.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the sulfur dioxide calculation “somewhat unorthodox” in its comments in April. Specifically, the agency noted, Rockwool wanted to calculate a 30-day rolling average — allowing the plant to emit 30 percent more sulfur dioxide than is allowed at certain times — for emissions from its melting furnace.

The agency later acknowledged that the rolling average limits were similar to those at Roxul’s other mineral wool plant in Byhalia, Mississippi. And the West Virginia Division of Air Quality agreed the rolling average was “reasonable and has similar precedent in other recent permitting actions.”

The EPA could not respond to questions on the sulfur dioxide emission in time for publication.

On April 30, the EPA, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Roxul agreed the Rockwool plant in Ranson would not violate National Ambient Air Quality Standards and was issued a permit to construct.

When asked if West Virginia was required to asses air pollution movement across state lines, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Jake Glance said, “Rockwool does not cause or contribute to any violations of the [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] in any state included within the modeling domain.”

Bad neighbors

Maryland has fought interstate transport of air pollution before.

Notably, the state sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September 2017 when it failed to respond to a petition filed under the Clean Air Act that requested five upwind states be required to run existing pollution control equipment at power plants that were harming Maryland’s air and contributing to the production of smog.

While the petition was denied, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) are challenging the decision in federal court.

“We don’t agree with EPA and will continue to insist on Clean Air Act protections for Marylanders,” Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said by email in November. “We submitted a comprehensive, science-based petition that made the case for requiring certain power plants in upwind states to reduce their pollution. Now we are turning to the courts to overturn EPA’s flawed decision. Clean air matters to Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay and we’re committed to winning this case.”

Maryland also petitioned the EPA to expand the Ozone Transport Region to add nine more states, including West Virginia, to reduce emissions from out-of-state sources, said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. The EPA denied that petition.

Maryland and other states are challenging the decision in court.

“If the EPA decision is reversed, there could be tougher regulatory requirements for this facility,” Apperson said in an email in November.

Decision time

As the review time on remaining permits winds down, some Frederick County residents near the border of West Virginia have started to think about life after Rockwool.

Paul Walker, who owns 35 acres of mature hardwood forest adjacent to the Appalachian Trail, worries how the future emissions from the plant may affect the wildlife habits and small-room-renting business he offers from his cabin.

“If you look at the map and where Rockwool is in Ranson, I’m less than 25 miles northeast,” Walker said.

His mother acquired the land in the 1950s and he has owned it for the past 25 years — making it his full-time home in 2000. There is a state forest conservation agreement on the property, which guides how the woodlands are maintained.

“I love it because it’s just clean air and [the] forest health is good. It’s good for the environment,” said Walker, who is also a member of the Catoctin Group of the Maryland Sierra Club.

What is unknown is what the plant will eventually carry through the air to his slice of the forest.

“It certainly could effect me, too,” Walker said.

As safeguards, Rockwool will be required to apply for a Title V air operating permit — a federal permit required for all major sources of emissions that could exceed the air pollution limits — within a year of commencing operation, Glance said. The company has also publicly stated that it is working with a third-party company to complete a science-based study to recommend an appropriate air monitoring set up. Rockwool plans to make the data publicly available.

“We are entirely confident in saying there will be no negative health or environmental consequences for Jefferson County, WV or Frederick County, MD,” Zarin said by email on behalf of Rockwool.

Zarin also noted it’s important to distinguish between the volume of emissions that come out of the chimney stacks and the concentration of those emissions at groundlevel.

“The two are related but it’s the latter that determines the health and environmental impacts,” Zarin said. “And on the latter, our emissions will be well below levels even the Sierra Club in its 2015 lawsuit against the EPA accepted as being safe for sensitive populations such as children, the elderly, and asthmatics.”

The impending Rockwool plant has George Rudy, a retired nuclear consultant, shifting his focus to the air.

“As a citizen and a citizen that’s associated with qualified and concerned environmental groups, we absolutely don’t want to undo what we’re trying to correct — which is to get rid of contaminating sources in our community,” Rudy said.

After a protracted fight in Frederick County to stop the construction of an incinerator, he could not sit and watch a manufacturing plant be built and “dump” particulate matter and other pollution on Frederick County.

“We don’t want it, and we’re going to take steps legally to correct it,” Rudy said.

Follow Samantha Hogan on Twitter: @SAHogan.


(c)2018 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)

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Controversial Long Beach wetlands deal approved, more oil drilling expected [The Orange County Register]

Dec. 14–A controversial land swap that could eventually restore a 150-acre Long Beach oil field to its natural state as part of the Los Cerritos Wetlands was approved by the California Coastal Commission on Thursday, a key step for the project to move forward.

Synergy Oil will eventually stop operations and hand over the land northeast of the intersection of 2nd Street and Pacific Coast Highway, as well as ending pumping operations on 33 leased acres of city land south of 2nd Street.

In return, Synergy Oil and Beach Oil Minerals won permission to replace 74 old wells on the two sites with 120 new wells at two nearby plots totaling 12 acres.

Despite the much smaller locations, oil production could increase 80-fold.

Three more state and federal permits are needed for the project to proceed, but Coastal Commission approval — which came in a 6-3 vote — has been considered the highest hurdle.

“It’s an opportunity that occurs once in a lifetime,” said commissioner Roberto Uranga, a Long Beach councilman who also sits on the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, which will be the new owner of the wetlands.

“The opportunity to protect and save wildlife and wildlife habitat far outweighs the oil production.”

Environmentalists, area residents and local tribes have been split over the plan, with some eager to restore the wetlands and others wary of the increased oil production, with its substantially higher level of greenhouse gas emissions and the possibility of spills in an area at risk of seismic activity.

The Newport-Inglewood fault runs through the areas proposed for new wells as well as through the existing oil field.

Three commissioners voting against the deal objected to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly given ever more urgent calls to more aggressively reduce human contributions to climate change.

“We’re in an area where we’re trying to reduce greenhouse gas and this doesn’t do that,” Commissioner Carole Groom said.

Environmentalists vs. environmentalists

Because of development and human activity, California has lost 90 percent of the 4 million acres of wetlands it hosted a century ago, according to the state Water Resources Control Board.

Remaining wetlands are considered a crucial environmental attribute, as they capture and store carbon, provide a buffer against floods and rising sea levels, filter polluted water and provide urban recreation areas as well as critical wildlife habitat.

“The proposed restoration would provide and increase much needed wetlands habitat critical for foraging, nesting and migration rest stops for both our resident and migratory birds, many of which are now in trouble as much habitat has been and continues to be lost due to development and other factors,” wrote Audubon California’s Andrea Jones in a letter of support read at Thursday’s meeting.

Citing the growing loss of wetlands to sea-level rise, a coalition of the 18 state and federal environmental agencies in October approved an ambitious strategy to expand the region’s marshes, salt flats, lagoons and estuaries.

But while environmentalists widely agree on the need to preserve and restore wetlands, they are divided on whether the proposed land swap ultimately benefits nature.

“This is not an oil consolidation project nor a wetlands restoration project,” said Angelica Gonzalez of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. “This is an oil expansion project.”

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Synergy Oil’s 74 aging wells — 21 of which have been abandoned — have a listed capacity of 10,000 barrels a day but only produce about 300, according to the Coastal Commission.

The 120 new replacement units, which would use state-of-the-art slant-well technology to tap into oil deposit well beyond the 12 surface acres where they would be located, could produce 24,000 barrels daily and are expected to run much closer to full capacity.

The new wells would be expected to significantly expand the lifespan of oil production in the area.

They would also produce an additional 70,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the commission. Mitigation would come through the state’s cap-and-trade offset program.

Pumpkin Patch oil rigs

The swap would transfer the 150-acre site from Synergy Oil, which runs current operations there.

The northern half of the site, which does not have oil wells, would see its existing tidal wetlands retained and have other portions returned to their natural state.

Wells on the southern half would be phased out over a 20-year period, as would wells on the 33-acre city land. No future plans are yet in place for the city land.

In return, a partnership dubbed Beach Oil Minerals — which includes Synergy Oil — would receive 5 acres of land at the northeast corner of 2nd Street and Studebaker Road, currently owned by the water authority.

The new wells would be divided between that land and an undeveloped 7-acre site known as the Pumpkin Patch just north of the San Gabriel River at Pacific Coast Highway, already owned by Beach Oil Minerals and used this time of year for selling Christmas trees.

The project would still require approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. The Coastal Commission permit is contingent on Beach Oil Minerals obtaining those approvals.


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Wichita oil man gave $12 million to WSU. Now he’s getting an honorary degree [The Wichita Eagle]

Dec. 13–A Wichita oil producer who gave $12 million to Wichita State University — the largest cash gift in WSU’s history — will receive an honorary doctorate from the university this month.

Wayne Woolsey will receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy during WSU’s fall commencement ceremony Sunday, the university announced. He is the fifth person to receive an honorary degree from WSU in the past 30 years.

An honorary degree, which state universities may award with approval from the Kansas Board of Regents, is given without the fulfillment of the usual requirements.

According to Regents policy, the degrees “may be conferred only upon persons of notable intellectual, scholarly, professional, or creative achievement, or service to humanity.”

An honorary degree “shall not be awarded for philanthropic activity or service to the University or the State of Kansas,” the policy says.

Woolsey, 87, is chairman of Wichita-based Woolsey Companies, an oil and natural gas exploration and production company.

In a letter to the Board of Regents submitted in August, WSU President John Bardo nominated Woolsey for an honorary doctorate.

“Mr. Wayne Woolsey is an entrepreneur the likes of which Kansas needs more,” Bardo said in the letter. “An innovative businessman whose success can inspire today’s students to be tomorrow’s visionaries.”

Woolsey was the first person to apply large-volume hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” to recover deposits of oil and natural gas in south-central Kansas.

In recent years his company explored large shale deposits in the Illinois Basin and was the first to apply for and obtain a fracking permit in that state. Last year his company announced it wouldn’t use the permit, however, citing market conditions and the state’s “burdensome and costly” regulations.

“Though the payoff never emerged, Mr. Woolsey’s leadership and vision in pursuing this resource were seen as testimony to his pioneering spirit,” Bardo told the Regents in his nomination letter.

“As an entrepreneur driven to think big, take risks and advance the knowledge of his field, Mr. Woolsey is worthy of the distinction of an honorary doctorate at Wichita State University,” he said. “His vision and achievements as a Kansas business leader will inspire WSU students in the years to come.”

A native of Texas, Woolsey earned a degree in geology from Texas A&M and came to Wichita in 1968 while working for Texaco. He left Texaco a year later and started his own company in 1970.

In May, WSU announced that Woolsey and his wife, Kay, were giving $10 million to help build a new home for the W. Frank Barton School of Business. The couple donated another $2 million to Wichita State’s department of geology to support its petroleum geology program and field camp experiences for students.

In recognition of the Woolseys’ gift to Wichita State, the university announced that a 136,000-square-foot building on WSU’s Innovation Campus would be named in honor of the couple.

Construction on the $50 million Woolsey Hall, which will house the W. Frank Barton School of Business, is expected to begin next year. The university recently launched an effort to raise student fees to finance part of the new business school and other campus improvements.

Wichita State, which did not award an honorary doctorate from 1989 to 2014, has awarded one each year since.

In 2015, the university honored Donna Sweet, a leading physician in the AIDS and HIV community.

In 2016, WSU awarded an honorary doctorate to Karla Burns, an operatic mezzo-soprano and actress who grew up in Wichita.

Last year the university honored Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College in Boston, a Wichita native who earned his doctorate in English literature from Harvard University.

WSU’s fall commencement ceremony begins at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Charles Koch Arena at the corner of 21st and Hillside.


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Same National Fuel pipeline project, different ruling on eminent domain [The Buffalo News, N.Y.]

Dec. 13–It’s the same pipeline proposed by the same gas company trying to obtain property rights on land it doesn’t own.

But different judges have rendered different opinions on whether National Fuel Gas can use a state eminent domain law to take the property against landowners’ wishes, with compensation, for a project the state has not approved.

The latest decision came last week from state Supreme Court Judge John F. O’Donnell in Erie County.

O’Donnell ruled National Fuel Gas has the right to obtain an easement on Lia Oprea’s 183 acres in Sardinia for a 97-mile Northern Access pipeline between Pennsylvania shale country and Niagara County. The property has been in Oprea’s family for more than a century.

But O’Donnell’s order came less than a month after a higher court, the state Appellate Division, ruled 3-2 in favor of an Allegany County couple who sued to prevent the company from using eminent domain for the pipeline on their land.

So, what gives?

National Fuel calls it just part of an ongoing legal process that’s likely delayed construction of the pipeline to 2022.

“While we are still a couple of years and likely a few legal challenges away from constructing this project, it’s yet another step in the right direction,” National Fuel said Wednesday in a statement to The Buffalo News.

For Oprea, the ruling comes as a blow just weeks after she felt a boost in morale from Joseph and Theresa Schueckler’s win over National Fuel at the appellate court.

“It wasn’t the greatest Christmas gift,” Oprea said of O’Donnell’s order.

The appellate division is a higher court than O’Donnell’s bench, so shouldn’t the appellate ruling prevail?

“You would think so, wouldn’t you?” said Richard Lippes, Oprea’s attorney.

The appellate judges’ rationale will likely form the basis for an appeal, if Oprea decides to pursue one, Lippes said. She has 30 days to do so.

Oprea said she needs to consult with family and organize a fundraising drive to defray legal costs, which could total tens of thousands of dollars.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to raise the money and we are appealing,” Oprea told The Buffalo News on Wednesday.

She remained optimistic of victory in the next round of court battles — at the appellate division where the Schuecklers won.

“The judges there seem to really listen and take everything into consideration,” Oprea said. “It’s exhausting, but that’s kind of what National Fuel counts on.”

National Fuel says it has obtained agreements with more than 500 landowners for rights of way for its planned pipeline.

Fewer than five cases remain unsettled, including the Schueckler and Oprea properties.

The pivotal legal question turns on whether National Fuel has a viable pipeline project.

The lower state courts in Allegany and Erie counties found it to be a viable project, given the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of National Fuel’s plans. The federal agency determined that the state Department of Environmental Conservation failed to issue timely denial of a water quality certificate that the project needs. So the lower court judges ruled the company can exercise eminent domain rights for the pipeline.

The 3-2 majority in the Schueckler case, however, cited the DEC’s denial of the permit, finding the gas company had no project and therefore no right to eminent domain.

National Fuel is appealing the appellate decision. Also, the DEC is appealing FERC’s ruling.

Environmental advocates regard Oprea’s property — at Cattaraugus Creek — to be among the most sensitive along the proposed pipeline route because the Cattaraugus Creek’s watershed is designated as single-source drinking water aquifer for a 325-square-mile area across southern Erie County and the Southern Tier.

It’s why Oprea has garnered support from the nation and environmental groups like Sierra Club in her fight against National Fuel.

Gas company officials said those concerns are overstated because the pipeline’s shallow 3 feet by 6 feet depth wouldn’t be in zones where water supply wells would tap into the watershed’s aquifer.

“The proposed project is no different than the hundreds of other infrastructure projects — bridges, sewer and water lines, and electric lines — and non-infrastructure projects — homes and commercial buildings — that have been safely constructed within the bounds of the aquifer over the past several decades,” National Fuel said in a statement.

Oprea and others plan a public rally Saturday morning at Bidwell Parkway and Elmwood Avenue.

“Every time something like this happens, our group seems to get larger,” Oprea said.


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Lincoln Police Department plans to replace aging fleet garage [Lincoln Journal Star, Neb.]

Dec. 13–For the last 45 years, mechanics working on Lincoln police cruisers have found a way to keep the growing fleet running in an aging downtown garage.

Squad cars and SUVs have been tucked into almost every corner and even occupy the original marble showroom floor of the 1930s International Harvester Truck Sales and Service Station police have made their own at Seventh and J streets.

But paint’s peeling on the trusses. The roof’s leaked for years. There’s termite damage. And the back dock is collapsing.

“We’ve been making do for a long time,” fleet superintendent Pat Wenzl said.

Estimated roof repairs alone have come in at $600,000, but Wenzl and Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister say city money is better spent on a new garage.

This garage not only services police cruisers, but it also maintains all 610 of the city’s light-duty vehicles.

Police cruisers alone log 2.6 million miles annually, and other city agency vehicles put on another 2 million combined.

In total, the garage mechanics there perform 7,500 work orders, often for new tires and brakes, each year.

Wenzl and the department have been planning to replace the 24,000-square-foot building since 2005, and now the estimated $5 million project is in motion.

The police department has already purchased a 13,000-square-foot warehouse at 100 Oak Creek Drive with plans for an 18,000-square-foot addition.

“This is no new taxpayer money,” Bliemeister said. “It is all based on the outstanding leadership and passion that (Wenzl) has.”

The high ceilings at the new warehouse appealed to Wenzl and his staff, who have had to position vehicle hoists just right to give them room to work in the J Street garage, he said.

Renovations and the addition at the new garage are still being designed, and Wenzl hopes to seek bids on the project in January.

He hopes he and his staff of 15 could move into the new building in 2020, he said.

The extra 7,000 square feet of space will accommodate expected growth in the city’s police vehicle fleet in the future, Wenzl and Bliemeister said.

“It’s got to be viable for decades and decades to come,” Wenzl said.

Keeping up with the growing city and its police fleet have been challenges at the current garage.

Parking inside and outside the garage has been an issue since Wenzl started working there in the mid-1990s, though the addition of stations in University Place and the Clinton neighborhood helped.

An additional storage garage on the south side of a maintenance shop built in the 1990s houses tactical vehicles and new squad cars ready to be outfitted for police work.

But that, too, has reached the end of its designated life span.

“At some point in time, you just have to invest in the future,” Wenzl said.


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Hole in valve triggered explosion, fire at Superior, Wis., refinery [Star Tribune (Minneapolis)]

Dec. 13–SUPERIOR, Wis. — A hole in a valve at the Husky Energy refinery in Superior, Wis., caused it to fail last spring, leading to an explosion that injured 36 people and required the evacuation of large sections of the city.

The erosion that created the hole in a slide valve allowed air to mix with hydrocarbons, setting off the blast that sprayed debris across the refinery and punctured an asphalt tank. Some 15,000 gallons of asphalt spilled, ignited and burned for several hours, according to the latest findings of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

The update on the board’s ongoing investigation was shared Wednesday at the outset of a town hall meeting in Superior, where residents have expressed concerns about safety at the oil refinery. The board’s update linked the Superior explosion to one that occurred nearly four years ago in Torrance, Calif. In both cases, the board said, ineffective safeguards allowed an explosive mixture of air and hydrocarbons to form inside a fluid catalytic cracking unit. The unit is a common piece of equipment at oil refineries used to refine crude oil into higher octane fuels.

In both cases, the FCC unit was not in normal operating mode when the explosions occurred. And in both cases, the FCC units were due for routine upgrades and replacement of older equipment.

In the Torrance explosion, debris nearly hit a tank of hydrogen fluoride, a highly toxic chemical that causes severe burns and can kill on contact. The resulting public relations fallout has led to public calls for an end of the use of hydrogen fluoride at the refinery.

During a public comment period at Wednesday’s meeting, Superior residents said they, too, want to see hydrogen fluoride removed from their city’s refinery and replaced with a less toxic chemical process. Many people here didn’t know that the refinery operating at the edge of town had drafted a worst-case scenario as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that said the release of hydrogen fluoride stored at the facility could endanger up to 180,000 people, essentially the entire Twin Ports population. The scenario is considered highly unlikely, but after the April 26 explosion and fire, people were rattled.

Kathryn McKenzie, who spoke at the meeting, said she lives about a mile from the refinery and understands that it provides jobs and a boost to the local economy. It still poses a risk to her and her family, McKenzie said, and its use of hydrogen fluoride makes her feel like she’s “expendable.”

Some people who lived closest to the refinery were told to evacuate due to the presence of hydrogen fluoride, but others should have been told as well, said Pastor Michelle R. Rowell of Concordia Lutheran Church in Superior.

“After that nearest evacuation was done, I think it was irresponsible that the rest of the community was not informed about the presence of that very dangerous chemical,” she said.

Ginger Juel, co-founder of a local group opposed to the refinery’s use of hydrogen fluoride, accused Superior Mayor Jim Paine of minimizing the risks posed by the chemical. The mayor spoke briefly at the town hall’s start, saying he wants to see the Husky refinery stay in Superior but that citizens must be protected.

Susan Hedman, the former Great Lakes region director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who is now the staff attorney for the Madison-based nonprofit Clean Wisconsin, said Superior got lucky last April and that things could have been far worse. Her organization called for an end to the use of hydrogen fluoride.

A petroleum industry lobbyist and a refinery worker said they support Husky and the industry. Atticus Larson, an electrician at Husky and a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 420, said the union doesn’t have an official position on hydrogen fluoride. “I believe Husky will do it right and do it safely,” he said.

Jared Hawes of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Association said about 50 refineries across the country use hydrogen fluoride, and that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for the industry.

It’s not yet clear what the three-member CSB board will decide, but if its recommendations say anything about hydrogen fluoride, it could have implications for other refineries that use the chemical, including the Andeavor refinery in St. Paul Park in the Twin Cities metro area. The board’s report isn’t expected until next year.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, one of several Congress members who called for the CSB town hall meeting, thanked the chemical safety board in a statement Wednesday for its work examining the risks posed by hydrogen fluoride.

CSB board member Rick Engler said in his closing remarks at Wednesday’s meeting that hydrogen fluoride deserves a closer look. It was first introduced in refineries because it was cheaper than alternatives, he said, and it’s proven to have a problematic track record. He pointed to a 2013 survey by the United Steelworkers union that found 131 hydrogen fluoride releases of near misses over a five-year period at refineries in the U.S.


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Parker Drilling filing for bankruptcy [Houston Chronicle]

Dec. 13–Houston-based Parker Drilling said Wednesday it’s filing for bankruptcy and losing its listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

The financially hobbled onshore drilling contractor has struggled mightily since the last oil bust that began in late 2014 and Parker has barely stayed afloat of late.

So Parker Drilling is opting for a prearranged Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing with a reorganization plan supported by some of Parker’s top lenders and shareholders that’s intended to cut its debt load by two-thirds and maintain sufficient operations in the interim.

The goal is for Parker to fix its finances in bankruptcy proceedings and emerge in better fiscal shape. There’s no consideration being given to sell the company for parts or do away with Parker entirely, according to Chairman and Chief Executive Gary Rich.

“Our operational results have continued to improve this year, and we anticipate new opportunities for profitable growth across our drilling and rental tools businesses,” Rich said. “The steps we are announcing today will ensure that we have the appropriate capital structure to take advantage of these opportunities to strategically grow our assets, our global footprint, and our suite of products and services.”

He said the bankruptcy process should be completed by the end of March.

Parker has about 2,000 worldwide workers, although fewer than 200 are defined as corporate employees.

Parker Drilling has fallen outside of NYSE compliance and will instead trade on the OTC Pink market. Parker has for some time failed to comply with the NYSE listed requirement of a market capitalization value of at least $15 million.


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