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Issue No. 41 - October 1, 2014

1. Growing support for climate change action

Late September saw a number of events and developments, timed to coincide with the UN Climate Summit 2014 on September 23, which indicate that the tide may be turning in terms of support for immediate and effective action on climate change.

First, there was the People's Climate March, which took place in New York City on September 21, accompanied by 2808 solidarity events in 166 countries, including a Climate Picnic in Dublin and a Climate March in London.

On September 22,the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune withdrew their funds from fossil fuels investments, lending their support to the global fossil fuel divestment campaign, in which public and private institutions and individuals have pledged to withdraw a total of $50 billion from fossil fuel investments over the next five years.

The same day, the World Bank announced wide-ranging support, from governments and businesses, for carbon pricing:

"Seventy-three countries and 22 states, provinces and cities – together responsible for 54 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 52 percent of GDP – joined over 1,000 businesses and investors in signaling their support for carbon pricing through a series of initiatives being announced at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Leadership Summit on Tuesday.

The list includes countries like China and South Africa that are planning carbon pricing, as well as Russia and countries at high risk from climate change, like the Marshall Islands. It includes business ranging across industry, energy and transportation, and institutional investors with more than $24 trillion in assets."

Ireland is among the signatories to the statement of support for carbon pricing measures, and is one of the 40 countries that have implemented or are planning a form of carbon pricing, such as an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax. Just in time for the UN Climate Summit, the Irish government announced on September 18 that a Climate Bill, first proposed seven years ago at government level, would be on the "A" list of priority legislation for this autumn.

Also on September 22, Google announced that it was severing its ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing lobbying network that has been responsible for defeating climate change legislation and wind and solar power initiatives in a number of US states. Microsoft left ALEC in April.

Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, explaining the move on National Public Radio (NPR), said:

“The facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring, and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.”

2. Pennsylvania: 243 official cases of well contamination due to fracking

Pennsylvania Drilling-related water impacts

On August 28, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the first time released online the details of 243 cases of private drinking water well contamination found by state regulators to have been caused by oil and gas prospecting companies. These records had been the object of numerous lawsuits and open-records requests by the Associated Press and other news outlets.

As this AP article on the data reports: 

"The 243 cases, from 2008 to 2014, include some where a single drilling operation impacted multiple water wells. The problems listed in the documents include methane gas contamination, spills of wastewater and other pollutants, and wells that went dry or were otherwise undrinkable. Some of the problems were temporary, but the names of landowners were redacted, so it wasn’t clear if the problems were resolved to their satisfaction. Other complaints are still being investigated."

According to the New York Times, a report by the Pennsylvania State Auditor found this July that environmental officials had failed to adequately regulate the state's gas industry:

"Pennsylvania’s auditor general, Eugene DePasquale, said Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has been unable to keep up with the workload placed on it by a proliferation of shale gas wells in the last five years, and has failed to respond adequately to many public complaints about water and air contamination resulting from gas development."

A press release about the report on the Auditor General's website summarised the recommendations in the report as follows:

"Among the recommendations, auditors encouraged DEP to:
    • always issue an administrative order to a well operator who DEP has determined adversely impacted a water supply—even if DEP used the cooperative approach in bringing the operator into compliance or if the operator and the complainant have reached a private agreement; 
    • develop better controls over how complaints are received, tracked, investigated, and resolved; 
    • invest resources into replacing, or significantly upgrading, its complaint management system;
    • find the financial resources to hire additional inspectors to meet the demands placed upon the agency; 
    • implement an inspection policy that outlines explicitly the requirements for timely and frequent inspections;
    • create a true manifest system to track shale gas waste and be more aggressive in ensuring that the waste data it collects is verified and reliable; 
    • reconfigure the agency website and provide complete and pertinent information in a clear and easily understandable manner; 
    • invest in information technology resources and develop an IT structure that will ensure its oil and gas program has a strong foundation for the ongoing demands placed upon it; and
    • develop an all-electronic inspection process so that inspection information is accurate and timely to DEP—and more importantly—public stakeholders."

3. New studies highlight fracking health risks to residents and workers

Downwinders at Risk

Researchers from Yale University and the University of Washington have published a new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives which found that residents living within one kilometre of a natural gas well reported more skin and respiratory problems than those living more than two kilometres from a well.

The researchers conducted a health symptom survey of 492 people in 180 randomly selected households with ground-fed wells in an area of active natural gas drilling. The proximity of gas wells to each household was then compared to the prevalence and frequency of reported health problems.

The number of reported health symptoms per person was more than twice as high among residents living within one kilometre of a gas well (mean 3.27 symptoms) compared to those living two kilometres or more from the nearest well (mean 1.60 symptoms). Correlation was established between reported skin and upper respiratory problems and gas well proximity. Of people living within one kilometre of a gas well, 39% reported upper respiratory symptoms. At a distance of between one and two kilometres, 31% reported such symptoms, compared to 18% of people at a distance greater than two kilometres. No equivalent correlation was found for other reported groups of respiratory, neurological, cardiovascular, or gastrointestinal conditions. 

The researchers point out that the results "should be viewed as hypothesis generating" and that further study is warranted.

Another study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene on August 31, 2014, reveals that gas workers could be exposed to dangerous levels of benzene, putting them at a higher risk of leukemia

The study was conducted by the US National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), who worked with industry to measure the exposure to chemicals of workers monitoring flowback fluid at six well sites in Colorado and Wyoming. In several cases, urine samples from workers revealed benzene exposure above safe levels.