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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


A fracking horror story: Do you know who owns what’s underneath your land?

For your weekend reading, a horror story from North Carolina, via Reuters:

Three years ago, Vince and Jeanne Rhea found the house of their dreams in Shirley, Arkansas. They couldn’t believe the deal: 40 acres complete with a separate workshop that Jeanne could use as an art studio and two nearby lakes. It was also thousands of dollars cheaper than a property of that quality should have been. They booked a plane ticket from Raleigh, North Carolina that day to fly down and buy it.

When they got to Arkansas, they found out why it was so cheap.

The owner of the house had recently sold the mineral rights under the property to a natural gas company for use in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling technique that is opening new areas across the country for energy exploration. The front page of the local newspaper that day had a story about problems in the water supply and was advising residents not to bathe, Jeanne recalled. “There was no way we were making an offer after that,” she said.

Close call. Except that the Rheas then bought property in Lee County, a rural area of North Carolina -- and found that it too was over a shale formation.

[B]ecause of two arcane laws known as split estates and forced pooling, they may not even have the right to say whether gas companies can drill on their property. ...

“Whether we want to sell or not, the gas companies could take our property from us,” said Vince Rhea.

The courthouse in Lee County, North Carolina
The courthouse in Lee County, N.C.


Have coal companies been ripping Americans off even more than we already knew?

The coal industry, for as much as it whines and frets and fake-cries about how oppressive the government is, gets a pretty sweet deal. We've noted before than companies pay 25 cents a ton for coal from public lands and then can turn around and sell it for $35 a ton. (We've also mentioned that they often sell that coal to China, meaning we're subsidizing the world's largest consumer of coal, but that's a whole other issue.)

This was reported as eight pounds of coal, probably
This was reported as eight pounds of coal, probably.

What makes this so much more galling is that the weepy coal companies might not even be paying for all of the coal they're extracting. From The Hill:

Interior is looking into whether mining firms lowball the value of coal excavated from federal lands to minimize the fees they pay the government. …

Reuters said mining companies are underreporting the price of coal at mine sites — where royalties are assessed — then selling it to marketers that they often times own. Reuters said those intermediaries then ship the coal abroad, where they fetch higher prices.

[Sen. Ron Wyden (R-Ore.)] and Energy Committee ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had asked [Interior Secretary Ken] Salazar to examine those charges in a January letter. They said the government could ill afford to lose out on any revenues, noting coal royalties amounted to $898 million in 2011.


Unable to stop climate change, EPA prepares for it

Jenna Pope

"We live in a world in which the climate is changing."

This statement from the EPA, the first line in its draft "Climate Change Adaptation Plan" [PDF] released today, is basic. But that the EPA is saying it is important.

For two reasons. The first is that the agency is advancing an argument it will need to make more forcefully later this year as it pushes for curbs on greenhouse gas pollution that could stem some of the worst effects of that changing climate. Though the draft report is dated June 2012, it only came out today -- less than a week before a State of the Union address in which Obama is expected to call for climate action. And, second, the EPA needs to get ready for what a warmed world looks like.

Until now, EPA has been able to assume that climate is relatively stable and future climate will mirror past climate. However, with climate changing more rapidly than society has experienced in the past, the past is no longer a good predictor of the future. Climate change is posing new challenges to EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission.

"Until now," huh? If you say so.

Over the course of 55 pages, the agency outlines the ways in which its mission -- protecting America's air and water -- will be threatened by climate change. For those who've been tracking the issue, it's largely what you'd expect. It's important to note: This is not a document meant to suggest how the EPA will prevent climate change. It simply says "here's what will happen as the world warms" and then considers how that will affect its mission.


As emissions drop, Northeast tightens its cap-and-trade system

Congratulations to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, pronounced "Reggie," like Archie Andrews' obnoxious friend) on effectively reducing carbon pollution! Kind of!

RGGI, long-time readers may recall, is a marketplace for carbon emissions in the Northeast. It's cap-and-trade, explained more fully here. A price is determined for a set amount of carbon allowances and fossil-fuel power plants buy those allowances. Because of a big drop in emissions from participating states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont -- the total amount of allowed emissions will be reduced next year.

The Ravenswood plant in Queens
vincent desjardins
The Ravenswood plant in Queens.

From The New York Times:

The regional group proposed a 45 percent reduction next year in the total carbon dioxide emissions allowed. ...

The reduction from 165 million tons is expected to raise the price of compliance, and further reductions of 2.5 percent annually were likely to increase the value of the allowances that utilities must submit for every ton of carbon dioxide, or its equivalent, that they emit.

If the proposal goes into effect, the analysis done by the group, which is a collaboration of nine states to cut carbon emissions, indicates that by 2020, allowances that are now trading at $1.93 could trade as high as $10. That would be roughly at the level where allowances for California’s new economy-wide cap-and-trade system were auctioned last fall.


Exelon issues dumbest threat in the history of dumb threats


Here's the stupidest threat ever. From The Hill:

Exelon Corp. CEO Christopher Crane told the Chicago Tribune in comments published Friday that his company might eventually have to close nuclear facilities “if we continue to build an excessive amount of wind and subsidize wind.” ...

Crane explained the subsidy reduces the rate Exelon receives from nuclear generation by encouraging wind turbines to rotate when power demand is low. That means the utility sometimes pays customers to take its nuclear power in wind-heavy regions.

Ha ha. Oh no! You'll have to close nuclear plants if we keep building wind turbines? Oh man what will we do? Everyone, we clearly need to rethink this wind energy thing if it means fewer nuclear facilities like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Fukushima. [BIG FUCKIN' FROWN EMOTICON]


New York might allow public input on fracking study; Yoko doesn’t wait

In addition to people who've worked in the fracking industry, the state of New York might also let the general public weigh in on whether or not to allow fracking.

From the AP:

A coalition of 65 state lawmakers is asking New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release the Department of Environmental Conservation's review of potential health impacts of shale gas drilling for public comment before deciding whether to allow drilling to begin.

The group headed by Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton sent a letter to Cuomo on Tuesday. They said the Health Department's evaluation of DEC's "health impact analysis" should be transparent, but the public hasn't been given any information about it. It's expected to be complete within a few weeks.

Let the public comment? Bold.

One New Yorker isn't waiting for the governor to solicit input. Her name is Yoko Ono.


Ohio revokes drilling license of company caught dumping fracking fluid in the sewer

The semi-vacant Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, thought that fracking might be the solution to its epidemic of empty buildings. The revenue from drillers could allow the city to continue its policy of razing abandoned buildings, constricting the city and allowing it to better serve residents. But the explosion of fracking in the Utica shale formation on which the city sits may yield another revenue stream: fines for pollution.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company
Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company.

On Jan. 31, Ohio Department of Natural Resources inspectors caught employees of a fracking company in the act of dumping oil and brine into a city sewer. From the Tribune-Chronicle:

"On Jan. 31, 2013, division inspectors, acting on one of the anonymous tips, visited 2761 Salt Springs Road and observed two individuals disposing of substances from a hose connected to a frac tank into a storm sewer,'' Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials spelled out in an order that they delivered Wednesday to D&L Energy. …

The men observed by ODNR inspectors discharging the brine [Ed. - fracking fluid waste] drove away from the site in a truck labeled "Mohawk" before inspectors began taking samples of the liquids they had dumped, reports say.

That sewer flows into the nearby Mahoning River. You can read the official incident report here.


Congress takes a big hit of hemp-farm legalization


Good news for troubled farmers and stoney bros who like hemp beanies: Yesterday, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013 was introduced into the U.S. House by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate later this month.

Let's be honest here: A Democrat from Oregon seems like an obvious pick to back a hemp bill. But Kentucky's Massie is bucking the pervasive American right-wing perception of hemp as a smokable, dangerous narcotic and not a sustainable industrial material.

“Industrial hemp is a sustainable crop and could be a great economic opportunity for Kentucky farmers,” Massie said in a statement. “My wife and I are raising our children on the tobacco and cattle farm where my wife grew up. Tobacco is no longer a viable crop for many of us in Kentucky, and we understand how hard it is for a family farm to turn a profit these days. Industrial hemp will give small farmers another opportunity to succeed.”

Read more: Politics


Outgoing energy secretary denies lurid allegations from prominent news outlet

Earlier today, The Onion newspaper dropped a bombshell:

Sources have reported that following a long night of carousing at a series of D.C. watering holes, Energy Secretary Steven Chu awoke Thursday morning to find himself sleeping next to a giant solar panel he had met the previous evening. “Oh, Christ, what the hell did I do last night?” Chu is said to have muttered to himself while clutching his aching head and grimacing at the partially blanketed 18-square-foot photovoltaic solar module whose manufacturer he was reportedly unable to recall.

The newspaper, which hails itself as "America's Finest News Source," somehow acquired this image of the dalliance.

The Onion


Oil companies aren’t happy that the government is making them fix defective offshore rig parts

Image (1) offshore-oil-drilling-rig.jpg for post 42062

The U.S. government has asked Chevron, Shell, and our old friends at Transocean to halt drilling on wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Why? Because the systems connecting the rigs to the ocean floor contain defective parts.

From Bloomberg:

[The companies] have been directed by U.S. regulators to suspend work aboard rigs that employ General Electric Co. devices connecting drilling tubes to safety gear and the seafloor. The equipment must be retrieved so defective bolts can be replaced, the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said in an alert issued on Jan. 29. ...

The defect was discovered last month after a leak of drilling fluid was linked to bolts that failed because of stress corrosion, according to the Jan. 29 alert. The regulator didn’t identify the owner of the rig or which oil company was leasing it. GE declined to identify the manufacturer of the bolts.

Thanks for your help, GE.