Two Former Gas Industry Insiders Warn Fracking Leads to More Global Warming

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Experts–former gas industry insiders–are speaking up about the impact of horizontal hydraulic fracturing and the devastating effect it has on global warming. We reprint the the following interview with former Mobil Vice President Louis Allstadt by journalist Ellen Cantarow, with permission by Truthout.org. And we link to today’s opinion-editorial by Dr. Anthony R. Ingraffea in the New York Times, Gangplank to a Warm Future.

Former Mobil VP Warns of Fracking and Climate Change

 

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, 19 July 2013 00:00By Ellen CantarowTruthout

Few people can explain gas and oil drilling with as much authority as Louis W. Allstadt. As an executive vice president of Mobil oil, he ran the company’s exploration and production operations in the western hemisphere before he retired in 2000. In 31 years with the company he also was in charge of its marketing and refining in Japan, and managed its worldwide supply, trading and transportation operations. Just before retiring, he oversaw Mobil’s side of its merger with Exxon, creating the world’s largest corporation.

The first in a modest Long Island German-American family to graduate from college (the US Merchant Marine Academy), Allstadt got a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University then was hired by Mobil. Before his retirement he wasn’t aware of a new, sophisticated form of rock fracture, high-volume hydraulic fracturing, developed only in the late 1990s. “It just wasn’t on our radar at that time,” he said. “We were heavily focused on developing conventional oil and gas offshore in deep water.”

Quaint, arty Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, is perched on the shores of Lake Otsego, which supplies drinking water to the village and glimmering, placid expanses for kayakers and boaters. Allstadt launched his leisure years in this idyllic spot, intending to leave the industry behind. He founded an art gallery with his wife, Melinda Hardin, made pottery, kayaked, taught other people to kayak, and played tennis. But then friends started asking him questions about fracking – it had been proposed near the lake. What he saw as he began investigating the technology and regulations proposed by New York’s state Department of Environmental Conservation (1,500 pages titled “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, a.k.a. ‘the SGEIS ‘ “) alarmed him. In these pages last year he called high-volume fracking “conventional drilling on steroids.” “Just horrible,” is how he described the 2011 SGEIS in our conversation in June 2013.

Allstadt has become an indispensable guide for one of the country’s most powerful environmental movements, New York’s grass-roots anti-fracking resistance. Recently he was elected a Cooperstown Trustee. He is modest and low-key, his authority hallmarked by personal understatement. He said this interview was a first for him: earlier talks and interviews have focused on what he calls “tweaking the technology and [promoting] tighter regulations.” Never before has he focused squarely on the industry’s impact on the planet’s atmosphere.

A note about interview chronology: Allstadt’s observations about the Obama climate-change address were added in phone conversations in July 2013. The rest of the interview took place in person in mid-June 2013. A brilliant June sun illuminated the greenery of gardens below the back porch of the Cooperstown house where we spoke. In the driveway, a kayak rested atop a car.

We began by discussing fracking as part of what oil-scholar Michael Klare calls “the race for what’s left. “

Louis Allstadt: The fracking that’s going on right now is the real wake-up call on just what extreme lengths are required to pull oil or gas out of the ground now that most of the conventional reservoirs have been exploited – at least those that are easy to access.

Ellen Cantarow: So could you describe the dangers of this industry?

LA: First of all you have to look at what is conventional oil and gas. That was pretty much anything that was produced until around 2000. It’s basically a process of drilling down through a cap rock, an impervious rock that has trapped oil and gas beneath it – sometimes only gas. If it’s oil, there’s always gas with it. And once you’re into that reservoir – which is really not a void, it’s porous rock – the natural pressure of the gas will push up the gas and oil. Typically you’ll have a well that will keep going 20, 30 years before you have to do something to boost the production through a secondary recovery mechanism. That conventional process is basically what was used from the earliest wells in Pennsylvania through most of the offshore production that exists now, that started in the shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico and gradually moved down into deeper and deeper water.

Now what’s happened is that the prospect of finding more of those conventional reservoirs, particularly on land and in the places that have been heavily explored like the US and Europe and the Middle East just is very, very small. And the companies have pretty much acknowledged that. All of them talk about the need to go to either non-conventional shale or tight sand drilling or to go into deeper and deeper waters or to go into really hostile Arctic regions and possibly Antarctic regions.

Methane release: fracking the planet’s future

So when you talked about “the race for what’s left,” that’s what’s going on. Both the horizontal drilling and fracturing have been around for a long time. The industry will tell you this over and over again – they’ve been around for 60 years, things like that. That is correct. What’s different is the volume of fracking fluids and the volume of flow-back that occurs in these wells. It is 50 to 100 times more than what was used in the conventional wells.

The other [difference] is that the rock above the target zone is not necessarily impervious the way it was in the conventional wells. And to me that last point is at least as big as the volume. The industry will tell you that the mile or two between the zone that’s being fracked is not going to let anything come up.

But there are already cases where the methane gas has made it up into the aquifers and atmosphere. Sometimes through old well bores, sometimes through natural fissures in the rock. What we don’t know is just how much gas is going to come up over time. It’s a point most people haven’t gotten. It’s not just what’s happening today. We’re opening up channels for the gas to creep up to the surface and into the atmosphere. And methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas in the short term – less than 100 years – than carbon dioxide.

Methane-migration evidence and the DEC

EC: Was there any major turning point that started you thinking about methane migration?

LA: There were many. An example is that one of the appendices of the draft SGEIS [New York Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines for the gas industry] that was issued in July 2011, had a section describing an EPA study of the only cases where similar fractures had been unearthed. These were in a coal-mining area. The EPA investigation indicated that the fractures had progressed in unexpected patterns and at greater lengths than expected. In September, when the draft SGEIS was eventually put out for comment, that section had been expunged.

EC: That’s shocking! I know a lot has been discovered about the collusion  between New York’s DEC and the industry. Is this one big example?

LA: Yes, it is. To ignore the only direct evidence of fractures, or to remove it from public information, indicates that the industry was trying to hide something. The other point is that in terms of a turning point (in my thinking), here is evidence that the fractures go further and in patterns that were not expected. It showed that fractures could allow methane to reach drinking water aquifers or the atmosphere.

In Charge at Mobil

EC: Let’s back up for a moment to your career at Mobil. Were you thinking about climate change then?

LA: Just starting to in the 1990s. When I first heard about it I thought climate change was overblown. I don’t think anybody in the industry was focused on it at that point

EC: And did you have any idea you would be talking to a reporter about it?

LA: No, not at all.

EC: Maybe you could talk a little about what you did at Mobil. You were in charge …

LA: I was in charge of the US and Latin America.

EC: In charge of exploration?

LA: Mostly production. There wasn’t a whole lot of exploration going on in this area.

EC: What does being in charge of production mean?

LA: Production is everything other than finding something in the first place. There was some exploration going on, more in the Eastern hemisphere than the West at that particular point in time. But if you have already discovered a field, production means drilling more wells to further delineate it and to get more production out of it or going back in and doing secondary recovery operations or buying fields from somebody else and combining them with yours, things like that.

EC: How long did you do that?

LA: I got into this toward the end of my career. I started in logistics and then moved into marketing and refining. I was in Japan and Singapore for a total of 12 years, ended up running Mobil’s operations in Japan, which was their biggest [marketing and refining] operation outside the US. And then I came back to headquarters in the US to head up the logistics area – all of the shipping, about 40 tankers moving oil around the world, buying types of crude oil that we needed, selling types that we didn’t need, making sure that all of our refineries around the world got the right supplies at the right time and then also trading oil with other companies. And after that, Mobil did a major reorganization and put me over in an exploration-producing job. When the merger with Exxon came along, I was in charge of implementing the merger from the Mobil side. I had worked in three major areas of the company and I was going to retire after the merger. I had a counterpart on the Exxon side who had also done the same thing.

A quiet retirement gets fracked

I retired with no intention of doing anything in the oil or gas industries. [But] about the time we bought this house and started restoration, people that knew I had been in the oil business started saying, what do you think about fracking? I had not been following it at all, and said, ‘What do you mean?’ ” They said, ‘They’re talking about maybe drilling gas wells 100 or 150 feet from the lake.” I said, “That’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense, I’ll see what I can find out.”

That’s where it started. I started looking into it, realized what the new process was, and looked at the New York State regulations, and at that point they were just starting to draft the first version of the SGEIS, and they were just horrible. They didn’t make sense even for conventional drilling, most of them, they were so weak.

Initially I put together a little presentation. People started asking me if I would talk about it. It just happens that there are a few people within a couple miles of here that know something about it. We had different approaches, different styles, but we would share information. The focus at that time was the SGEIS, which was supposed to guide the establishment of high-volume hydrofracking. I ended up giving presentations to many towns around upstate New York. Sometimes this was on my own or in a small group. Sometimes it was as part of panel discussions with people from both sides of the fracking debate.

Standing Room Only

A Canadian drilling company started drilling nearby, and that got people’s attention. … And then they started doing some seismic testing in the town of Middlefield. When the seismic took place, [it] spurred a grass-roots anti-fracking group to form  almost overnight. It was mostly women. They started going to the town board. I own property in the town, so I went over, talked some. Another nearby town, Otsego, asked me to be on their gas advisory committee. So I did that. Once a month we’d get together. There were some pro-drillers on it, some anti. When it came to the town meetings the town halls hardly ever had anybody come unless they needed a stop sign or some issue like that. And all of a sudden there was standing room only. And it just kind of kept building.

Those two Town Boards pretty quickly realized that they had to do something and started thinking about how they could zone it out [using zoning regulations to ban the industry from town limits, a strategy  that has since been remarkably successful.] That was in the early days of talking about the possibility that you could indeed zone against drilling.

In the early days I was not sure that a ban was the right thing to do. I was thinking that there probably could be a technical solution, and if you had regulations [written] properly, you might be able to do it. The industry had solved some huge technical problems over the years. Like, how do you drill 250 miles offshore in iceberg alley off Newfoundland?

More Fracking Consequences

The industry actually has a lot of very smart people working for it. As long as the box that they’re working in is manageable, they can do a very good job. I think that what you’ve got in fracking is ‘How do we work in a box this big,’ narrowly defining the problem, [he holds his hands a foot apart in front of him] when you’re really working in a huge box [he stretches his arms out wide] The real box is as big as the globe and the atmosphere. And they’re not seeing the consequences of moving outside the small box that they’re working in.

EC: So to go back to your earlier comments, what are the future consequences?

LA: 20, 30, 100 years down the road we don’t know how much methane is going to be making its way up. And if you do hundreds of thousands of wells, there’s a good chance you’re going to have a lot of methane coming up, exacerbating global warming. … That is what Tony Ingraffea is talking about as part of the problem. [Anthony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum professor of engineering at Cornell University, in 2011 co-authored a landmark study on the greenhouse-gas footprint of high-volume fracking.]

What you [also] don’t know [is that] when you plug that well, how much is going to find its way to the surface without going up the well bore. And there are lots of good indications that plugging the well doesn’t really work long-term. There’s still some pressure down there even though it’s not enough pressure to be commercially produced. And sooner or later the steel casing there is going to rust out, and the cement sooner or later is going to crumble. We may have better cements now, we may have slightly better techniques of packing the cement and mud into the well bore to close it up, but even if nothing comes up through the fissures in the rock layers above, where it was fracked, those well bores will deteriorate over time. And there is at least one study showing that 100 percent of plugs installed in abandoned wells fail within 100 years and many of them much sooner.

The way forward

EC: So what’s the solution?

LA: I think we have wasted a lot of time that should have gone into seriously looking into and developing alternative energies. And we need to stop wasting that time and get going on it. But the difficult part is that the industry talks about, well, this is a bridge fuel [that] will carry us until alternatives [are developed] but nobody is building them. It’s not a bridge unless you build the foundations for a bridge on the other side, and nobody’s building it.

EC: Have corporations like Mobil considered developing alternative energies?

LA: Yes. Back after the first [1973] and second [1980] oil crises, when we had the spikes in prices and the lines and rationing, there was a lot of talk and substantial investments in alternative energies. Mobil invested in solar, and so did Exxon, and kept it going for quite a number of years. They abandoned it as just not coming up to the technical promises [because] solar cells weren’t converting enough sun to electricity to be economically viable. There was also at that time a fair amount of work done on shale oil in the Western states, and that was not fracking for shale. It was mining the shale and trying to extract oil from it. It just never came through. More recently there’ve been attempts at biofuels and some attempts to use algae.

Obama and the future

EC: What are your thoughts about President Obama’s national address on climate change?

LA: Well, when he talked about the XL pipeline he said he wanted to be sure it didn’t increase carbon emissions. When he talks about natural gas, he kind of broad-brushes it and implies it’s better than coal.

The whole speech is feeding into [Exxon-Mobil CEO] Rex Tillerson’s comments  at a recent Exxon-Mobil shareholders’ meeting where he said there’s nothing we can do to switch to alternative fuels [and still] allow economies to continue the way they are. Society has to solve the problems by dealing with global warming – building levees around the cities, things like that. Obama is feeding into that, saying we have to strengthen the infrastructure. Basically what the industry is doing is unloading all the costs of what it’s been doing onto the public. Just go out and build miles and miles of levees around New York City and build drainage systems and things like that. Obama is saying the same thing. We’ll go on producing natural gas and keep the cost low by having the taxpayers pick up the cost of dealing with the consequences of global warming. Obama proposed some very positive steps toward developing alternative energies but he is not addressing the impact that methane has on global warming.

Fractivists and the future

EC: You’ve been on both sides now – promoting fossil fuel development for your whole life until your retirement and now trying to fight fracking. Do you think the anti-fracking movement and other environmental movements are the main hope now?

LA: I think the main question is how fast can these movements educate enough people about the dangers of fracking and its impact on global warming. It will take masses of people demanding action from politicians to offset the huge amount of money that the industry is using to influence lawmakers, a world-scale version of those standing-room-only town meetings. Something has to wake up the general public. It will either be education from the environmental movements or some kind of climate disaster that no one can ignore.

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.

 

Toxic Oil and Gas Wastes Dumped in Platte River Estuary: BTEX chemicals found, three tanker trucks dumped

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Fewins Road still showing the darkened contaminated areas from the dumping of toxic "brine" a month ago, at the time Bryan Black took this photo on July 4, 2013. Photo courtesy of Bryan Black.

 

This time it was in Benzie County, another scenic northern Michigan county where organic farms, fruit orchards, lakes, rivers, estuaries, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are located.

The Platte River Estuary in Benzie County, not too far from the dumping site of toxic wastes on roads within the watershed from the gas fields of Michigan.

"Yours to Protect": The Platte River Watershed north to Douglas Drive, where the dumping of toxic wastes occurred in scenic Benzie County, Michigan. Photo by Bryan Black.

On June 4, 2013, Benzie County residents Karla and Bryan Black contacted Ban Michigan Fracking to report that Bryan witnessed an oil services company truck (Team Services) spreading liquid wastes from a truck on a county road within the Platte River estuary. He witnessed the dumping of “three huge tanker-size loads” and the smell, they said, was horrible. Bryan once worked in the oil industry and knew the smell of petrochemicals well.

That evening the Blacks returned to the spot on Douglas Drive where the dumping occurred. It was raining and puddles on the road were covered with a “bubbly, opaque scum.” Their nostrils burned for an hour after visiting the site. The next day, they were still hacking.

Ban Michigan Fracking urged them to write a report to the Benzie County Road Commission describing what they witnessed and demand answers and testing. They did:

June 5, 2013
I’m quite concerned about a situation my husband witnessed yesterday, June 4, at approx. 3:00 p.m.  I am requesting you investigate this matter, and respond back to us in writing with your findings. While working on our property that borders the Platte River Watershed, he noticed an oil tanker proceeding north on Lake Ann Road.  The tanker geared down, slowed, and turned east onto Douglas Drive, at the top of the hill above the watershed area.  Upon investigation, he discovered that they were spraying a substance on the road that had a very obnoxious odor and an oily sheen.  Husband talked to a resident of Douglas Drive in the area of the spray, who seemed oblivious to what the oil tanker was doing.  He had no knowledge of what was being sprayed, nor given any precautions for his family or pets. The tanker then proceeded south, turned west on Fewins Road, and dumped fluid there, as well.  Three tank loads were dispersed on these roads. My husband and I further explored the situation later last night, in the rain.  Besides the strong, noxious petrochemical odor which hung in the air, I noticed that the puddles of rainwater that had collected alongside the road were covered with a bubbly, opaque scum.  My nostrils burned for an hour last night after our trip down both roads, and this morning both husband and I were hacking — not sure if it is related or not, but it makes me wonder. We are concerned, particularly given the revelation of the 40,000 gallon flow-back spill in Kalkaska and Cheboygan Counties in 2012.  I am attaching a copy of the lab analysis of radioactivity in frack flowback from the Excelsior 1-13 conducted last fall, which shows over 2000 pCi/L (picoCuries per liter) each for radium 226 and 228.  The EPA limit for drinking water is 5 pCi/L.  We are concerned not only about the potential environmental impact from what was spread on our roads, and the impact it may have on wildlife,  but the safety of our neighbors’ and our own drinking water. Again, I am requesting you investigate this matter, and provide us with a chemical breakdown of what was in the fluid, where it came from, the reason for the odor, the odor’s expected persistence, the substance’s likely effect on the estuary, river, and lakes that draw from it, as well as the name of the supervisor in charge at the company. I await your response.

Thank you,
Karla A. Black

 

 

The test results: High levels of BTEX–Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene and Xylenes 

The County Road Commission got some samples to two labs. One sample was taken from Hulbert and Fogg Roads, the other from Douglas and Fewins Roads. Weeks went by. On July 2, the Blacks picked up several documents of the test results (dated June 14 and 18) from  the Benzie County Road Commission “including data showing lab values showing what appear to be high levels of petrochemicals sprayed on our roads last month, under the guise of ‘brining.’ …  The mix includes Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylenes, ” said Karla. There was no indication that the material was tested for radioactivity.

The Fewin/Douglas sample had:

  • 28,000 micrograms/Liter of Benzene
  • 1,000,000 micrograms/Liter of Toluene
  • 130,000 micrograms/Liter of Ethylbenzene
  • 750,000 micrograms/Liter of Xylene

The limit, according to  Rule 705 of Michigan’s oil and gas law, is 1,000 micrograms/Liter of any of these, or else the “brine” should not be allowed on the roads. Trace Analytical Labs, who conducted the BTEX tests, stated in a letter that the test sample for the Douglas Road area “does not meet the MDEQ criteria for Brine to be used on roads.”  The benzene level reported was 28 times higher than the limit. Benzene is a known carcinogen. The toluene result is 1000 times higher. Commonly used as an industrial solvent, toluene is used as a fuel, it is intoxicating when inhaled, and a high dose can kill. The health effects of the hundreds of chemicals used in natural gas operations are numerous and they are not pretty. (See The Endocrine Disruptor Exchange website.)

Was this really “brine” or something much more toxic, like, drilling fluids?

What Bryan Black suspects is that this material, since it was so thick, couldn’t have been “brine” waste but possibly could have been drilling fluids.

Dr. Christopher Grobbel, with Grobbel Environmental, says that so-called “brine,” the definition of which is anything not potable, “often contains toxic petroleum constituents but are often assessed only through the sampling of indicator parameters benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene isomers (BTEXs)”, using the US EPA Method 8020. Grobbel notes that it has been long standing Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Oil Gas & Minerals(OOGM) Division policy that “clean” brine can be used for dust control on Michigan gravel roads. “This is and has been problematic for the following reasons,” Grobbel said. One is that  “poor or no records are publicly available as to where, how much and how often such road application of brine occurs.”  “Brine” is also “toxic to plant life and aquatic organisms, and runoff into streams and wetlands at road crossing is likely,” and he adds, “sampling is often not done prior to application and/or not reported to MDEQ prior to brine application on Michigan roads.”

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality: A captured regulatory agency at its finest

Was this another approval of toxic dumping by DEQ? The big questions are why did the MDEQ not test this waste material, did they approve it, and what they are going to do about it now?  Were it not for the lucky coincidence of Bryan Black witnessing the spreading of this toxic waste, and for the Blacks’ prompt actions through the Benzie County Road Commission, Benzie County residents would not have known the details or perpetrator of this intentional dumping.  Perhaps going through the road commission, the Blacks received a more prompt response and test results, but the road commission staff relayed the message from DEQ that this is ‘simply a result of human error,’ and just a fluke. Karla Black reports, “We informed Mr. Schaub that this isn’t the first time that Team Services has done this, and pointed to Kalkaska and Cheboygan counties.” And how many times is this happening without anyone witnessing it?

DEQ’s Ray Vugrinovich is in charge of approving “brines” for use on the roads. He pre-approved the dumping of 40,000 gallons of toxic frack flowback on roads in Cheboygan and Kalkaska County in 2012, with no consequences to DEQ, Team Services or Encana, the owner of the well in that case.

When the Blacks contacted the Road Commission, samples were provided on June 5 according to the Great Lakes Quality Laboratory, Inc, of Lake Ann, which says it is “MI Dept of Env. Quality Lab No. 0091.” The lab tested for calcium, chloride, conductivity and pH. The customer listed was the Benzie County Road Commission, and the sample was called a “customer provided sample.” The Trace lab, which did the BTEX testing, didn’t receive the samples until June 14 and did the testing on June 18. In a hand-written note by Brad Schaub, he indicates that the results were faxed to Vugrinovich on June 27 as requested by Team Services, and that Vugrinovich called the Commission and “explained that the MDEQ will handle the sampling and testing regarding sample 60549 and Fewins Road and Douglas Rd.” Wait a minute: we thought the Road Commission was the client.
The Blacks had to get the documents and test results through a Freedom of Information Act request through the road commission.

BMF called Vugrinovich on July 9 and asked him which well the toxic wastes dumped on Benzie County Roads are from. He replied “I have NO idea!” He then blamed the Road Commission for not informing him of the well name. When pressed about DEQ’s obligation to find out the answers, he responded that he has passed the “investigation” on up the line to Rick Henderson and in turn, to field geologist Mel Kiogima.

So we called Kiogima on July 10. Our call was the first that he heard of it. He’d get back to us.

Yes, that’s right. Three tanker trucks containing high levels of BTEX were dumped in the Platte River Estuary watershed on roads, burning the nostrils of the person who witnessed it, and it took four weeks before the DEQ investigator was told about it–by Ban Michigan Fracking. Test results were in their hands since June 27.

Next we called Rick Henderson. On July 11, Henderson called back saying, he refuses to tell us the name of the well, and he refuses to say if DEQ approved the material as “brine” on the roads. They were doing an “investigation.”

Whenever they get around to it. If it weren’t for BMF making a phone call inquiring, would Kiogima ever know that he was supposed to head up an “investigation?”

Seems to us a major cleanup and heavy fines are in order. With a regulatory agency as captured and doing the bidding of the oil and gas industry as Michigan’s DEQ, we find it difficult to believe anything will be done to right this wrong.

Michigan’s toxic nightmare due to fracking for natural gas has only just begun

All these wastes produced in Michigan’s gas wells must go somewhere. Millions of gallons of fresh groundwater are used for Michigan’s horizontal frack wells–higher volumes than any other state. Unfortunately, Michigan’s toxic nightmare from horizontal fracking for natural gas has only just begun. The Benzie County Platte River Estuary dumping of wastes containing high levels of BTEX is a forewarning of more to come, a peek at the colossal amount of waste that is being produced and hauled around the state and “disposed of” as a regular part of doing the business of fracking.