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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Lagoons filled with toxic water coming to Ohio’s fracklands

Frackwater lagoon
National Energy Technology Laboratory via NRDC
A fracking wastewater impoundment lot.

Where frackers go, lagoons filled with toxic wastewater follow.

Fracking wastewater impoundment lots as big as football fields already dot heavily fracked landscapes in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The lagoons are built to help the industry manage and reuse the vast volumes of wastewater that it produces.

Ohio lawmakers looked admiringly to their neighboring Marcellus Shale states and decided to draw up their own rules for wastewater lagoons. From The Columbus Dispatch:

“We are putting in a process to outline their standards of construction and their length of use,” said Mark Bruce, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.


Wisconsin’s sand-mining boom could fuel fracking abroad

Frac sand
Carol Mitchell
Frac sand piled up behind a Wisconsin farm.

When most people think about Wisconsin, cheese, breweries, and cornfields spring to mind. But the fracking industry is interested in something else the Badger State has to offer: sand.

A sand-mining boom has gotten rolling in Wisconsin over the last three years. The state's quartz-based sand is strong and spherical, nicely suited for injecting underground with water and chemicals to prop open cracks in fractured shale, allowing natural gas and oil to be fracked.

The spoils of Wisconsin's $1 billion frac sand–mining industry are already being hauled by rail to fracking fields as far away as Texas and Pennsylvania. But the sand miners have their sights set higher. At a conference last week, one industry leader said the silica could eventually be shipped to South America and China, helping other countries plunder their own lands for cheap fossil fuels. “Wisconsin is the global epicenter, and we’re just getting started,” said Richard Shearer, president and CEO of Superior Silica Sands. More from The Capital Times:

“I like to say thanks to God and the glaciers” for leaving behind the right kind of sand in Wisconsin, [Republican Gov. Scott] Walker told the receptive audience that included lobbyists, attorneys and rail officials.

Walker’s 2013-15 budget includes two new positions within the Department of Natural Resources to help process applications for sand mining operations, along with investments in freight rail as part of a $6.4 billion package of transportation improvements. ...

Read more: Climate & Energy


While EPA is furloughed, Republicans hold hearing to bash it

Rep. Doug Lamborn
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) is more interested in bashing the EPA than solving the budget impasse.

You would think that the Republicans in Congress would dedicate every waking minute to figuring out how they can end the budget standoff and government shutdown. But, then, you don't think like a Republican in Congress.

Last Thursday, while 94 percent of the EPA was furloughed and the country continued edging ever closer to a debt default, House Republicans dillydallied with an EPA-bashing hearing that repeated worn-out talking points.

The name of the hearing offered clues to its content: EPA vs. American Mining Jobs: The Obama Administration’s Regulatory Assault on the Economy. And the opening statement [PDF] by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, did not deviate from the predictable course:

The Obama Administration's "war on coal" can be felt throughout the country, from Logan County, West Virginia to Farmington, New Mexico. Now it has seemingly expanded to an all out "war on mining jobs" threatening workers from Chicken, Alaska to Superior, Arizona.


For energy efficiency, Americans deserve a big thumbs-up

Many thumbs up
We're getting there.

America's population and economy are both growing, yet its energy appetite is falling. That's because of substantial energy-efficiency gains made in recent decades.

Those gains are helping the country reduce oil imports, save money on power bills, and move toward meeting a goal set by President Obama of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent between 2005 and 2020.

The news is laid out in a Natural Resources Defense Council report cheerily titled America's (Amazingly) Good Energy News [PDF]:

[O]ver the past 40 years Americans have found so many innovative ways to save energy that we have more than doubled the economic productivity of the oil that runs our vehicles and the natural gas and electricity that runs almost everything else. Factories and businesses are producing substantially more products and value with less energy. ...


Americans cited for hiking on federal lands, but drillers can keep on drilling

Grand Canyon
Stuart Seeger
If you are caught sneaking into Grand Canyon National Park, you will be ordered to appear in federal court.

Americans are being cited for entering national parks during the government shutdown and ordered to appear in federal court. But drilling and logging companies are meeting no obstacles when they continue doing business on supposedly shuttered public lands.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, thinks that's pretty unreasonable. Last week he complained about the disparity in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell:

Despite the federal government shutdown making national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and many other important sites unavailable to the public, oil and gas drilling and other extraction activities continue on our federal public lands. The lack of oversight of these potentially hazardous activities greatly concerns me, especially because of the scarcity of manpower to respond to emergencies, pollution issues or other rapid response needs.

I am equally concerned about the many businesses that rely on our public lands. Concessionaires that operate facilities within our public parks and other federal lands have been locked out by the shutdown. So have river and trail guides who rely on public lands and waterways to make a living. Small businesses cannot afford to be cut off from their main -- in some cases sole -- source of income.


Huge North Dakota oil spill went unreported by furloughed feds

Wheat field in North Dakota
This is what a wheat field looks like when it isn't covered with thousands of barrels of leaked oil.

A farmer discovered a huge oil spill -- several times bigger than the recent Mayflower, Ark., spill -- nearly two weeks ago in North Dakota. But because of federal government furloughs, we're only just learning about it.

More than 20,000 barrels of fracked oil seeped from a ruptured pipeline over 7 acres of remote North Dakota wheat fields, oozing 10 feet into the clay soil and killing crops. Farmer Steven Jensen found the mess on his land on Sept. 29.

The National Response Center, which reports oil and chemical spills, posted an alert about the spill on its website this week. Reuters reports that the agency normally posts such reports within a day, but that its work has been stymied by the government shutdown.

But there's really nothing to worry about, says Tesoro Logistics, the company responsible for the spill:


Big builders hoarding fracking rights beneath new homes

Subdivision in Anywhere, Anystate
What lies beneath? Whatever it is, it ain't yours.

Some American developers have begun quietly holding on to the rights to frack and mine beneath the cookie-cutter houses they sell -- and many homebuyers don't realize it.

From a big investigative report by Reuters:

[T]ens of thousands of families ... have in recent years moved into new homes where their developers or homebuilders, with little or no prior disclosure, kept all the underlying mineral rights for themselves, a Reuters review of county property records in 25 states shows. ...

This is happening in regions far beyond the traditional American oil patch, which has a long history of selling subsurface rights.

"All the smart developers are doing it," says Lance Astrella, a Denver lawyer who represents mineral-rights owners, including homebuilders, in deals with energy companies.


One giant coal plant reopening in Minnesota, another shuttering in Massachusetts

Brayton Point
H.C. Williams
This coal power plant, Brayton Point, is shutting down in 2017.

For this coal-news update, we'll get the depressing outlier out of the way first: One of the Midwest’s largest coal-burning plants is about to be fired back up following a two-year hiatus.

A filthy 900-megawatt generator in Minnesota was severely damaged in late 2011. But following $200 million in repairs, Xcel Energy says it should be up and running again within a week. From E&E Publishing:

Once at full power, Sherburne’s Unit 3, combined with two 750-megawatt coal burners, known as Units 1 and 2, should be able to produce 2,400 megawatts of electricity, according to Xcel.

The refired Unit 3 generator will also help burnish Sherco’s reputation as Minnesota’s largest point-source emitter of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas that scientists have linked to global climate change.

But the development is an unusual one in a world where coal is being slowly but surely kicked to the curb. This week, the private equity firm that just bought the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass., one of the biggest polluters in the region, announced it would shut down the facility in 2017. From the Providence Journal:

The New Jersey-based energy firm cited a host of issues in announcing its decision to close the plant, including low electricity prices because of the surplus of natural gas and the cost of meeting stricter environmental rules. The move comes just five weeks after it closed on the purchase of the facility from the Virginia-based energy conglomerate Dominion Resources.


Oil industry sues EPA over biofuel mandate

Gas pumps
Old gas pumps, new fuel mandates.

Oil companies are fighting efforts to boost the percentage of biofuels in gasoline. And they're not the only ones -- some green groups are opposed to the biofuels boost too.

The American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit this week that seeks to overturn the EPA's renewable-fuel mandate, which requires that gas contain a minimum percentage of biofuel. There's particular controversy over requirements for use of cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from crop waste but is not currently being produced in large supply.  From The Hill:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Renewable Fuel Standard in August, long after the agency’s statutory deadline in November of last year. The industry has repeatedly called the standards unworkable. ...

The standards require refiners to use millions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol this year, but the API argues that only 142,000 gallons have been made available to refiners thus far for blending.


Old Russian nukes provide 10 percent of U.S. electricity

Thanks for all the cheap power.

Peace-loving opponents of nuclear energy might find themselves a little conflicted over this one.

U.S. nuclear plants have been using uranium from decommissioned Russian warheads to provide an astonishing 10 percent of America's electricity over the past 15 years. From Agence France-Presse:

Rose Gottemoeller, US under secretary of state for arms control, told a UN committee [that a 1993 arms-reduction] accord was a disarmament success.

Arms control experts call it the "megatons-to-megawatts" deal and hail the accord as a little known but important example of the United States and Russia pressing disarmament. ...

Signed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the deal was concluded as the two countries sought ways to get rid of warheads under their 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

But Russia has concluded that it's been getting a raw deal, so it's ending the arrangment: