Maryann Lesert (courtesy photo)
For Michigan author Maryann Lesert, an accurate portrait of the fracking industry only comes from years of visiting well sites, researching scientific literature, attending oil and gas land-leasing auctions and talking to residents who can see 100-foot-tall drill rigs from their backyards.
That’s exactly what Lesert did while developing for her novel-in-progress, “Threshold,” a fictional telling of her biographical journals and experiences teaching college writing courses. Set in Michigan, the end result is a deep distrust of the industrial practice, a perceived threat to Michigan’s connection to nature and water.
“Threshold” — named after the concept knowing “what circumstances or situations will cause each of us to act so we don’t rationalize and deliberate indefinitely,” she says — will be Lesert’s third novel. Her first, “Base Ten,” was published in 2009 and explores the struggle of women who pursue careers in science, but which also pays homage to Michigan’s natural landscape. Lesert’s second, the novel-in-progress “For Lydia,” draws on personal experience seeing a family member struggle with Alzheimer’s.
Lesert, 51, began her professional writing career as a playwright, publishing and producing several plays after her first in 1998. She is an associate professor of English at Grand Rapids Community College. Pursuing the fracking industry is part of Lesert’s lifelong interest in the environment, social justice and the sciences. And seeing, not just reading, is what Lesert says has been a vital component of “Threshold.”
By any measure, 2014 was a significant year in the energy world. the continued rise of fracking, impending EPA carbon regulations, and the ever-glacial pace of global climate negotiations are likely familiar stories to Midwest Energy News readers.
But our focus is more at the state and regional level, and over the past year we’ve helped surface and amplify stories that otherwise might have fallen under the radar.
Here are some of the biggest stories of the past year, based on readership metrics and other factors.
A drilling rig at a Marcellus Shale site in Pennsylvania. Photo by Kathiann M. Kowalski.
The Ohio Senate began hearings this week on a bill that could let oil and gas companies skirt current laws dealing with disclosure of chemical hazards to local communities and water withdrawals from the Lake Erie watershed.
The Ohio House of Representatives passed House Bill 490 in November, and the Ohio Senate could vote on the bill as early as next week. If passed in its current form, the bill could face challenges under federal law.
Community right-to-know issues
HB 490 would make the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) the main storehouse for oil and gas company filings about the hazards of chemicals used in their operations.
Currently, those companies and many other industrial operations are supposed to provide the information to the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC), as well as local emergency planning committees and fire departments. The requirement stems from the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Congress passed that law in 1986 in the aftermath of the Bhopal factory disaster that killed thousands of people in India.
Natural gas operations in Broadview Heights, Ohio, take place next door to homes. (Photo courtesy of Tish O’Dell)
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) is siding with two oil and gas companies in a court case challenging a Cleveland suburb’s ban on oil and gas drilling within city limits.
The November 12 motion is the latest step in a series of cases where different branches and levels of Ohio government have faced off against each other. At issue is the extent to which each can limit how and where drilling and related activities take place.
The municipality involved in the case, Broadview Heights, is among a handful of Ohio cities that oppose additional oil and gas activities within their boundaries. Earlier this month, Athens became the latest Ohio city to ban new drilling within city limits.
ODNR and the gas companies claim local governments have no authority to limit any activities relating to oil and gas. Cities say the statute on which their opponents rely conflicts with the Ohio Constitution.
Voters in Youngstown, Ohio rejected an anti-fracking ballot measure for the fourth time on Tuesday, while similar measures also failed in two other communities.
The proposed community bill of rights in Youngstown, part of an ongoing effort by local activists to limit drilling activity in the state, was supported by only 42 percent of voters — meaning it fell by a wider margin than the most recent attempt in May. Backers at that time pledged to continue trying until the ordinance passed.
Similar measures were also rejected by voters in Kent and Gates Mills. Voters in Gates Mills did, however, vote in favor of authorizing electric and natural gas aggregation, along with several other Ohio communities.
Meanwhile, voters in Athens, Ohio approved a community bill of rights measure by a wide margin, with 78 percent support.
The measures were among eight nationwide dealing with the issue.
Radiation monitors like this one at the McKean landfill in Pennsylvania generally won’t register radiation from alpha particles that can be contained in waste from fracked wells, note critics. Photo by Kathiann M. Kowalski.
While a recent federal study singles out Ohio for limited information requirements in permitting for fracking wastewater disposal, advocates in the state say the issue is much broader.
Ohio requires fewer details about the liquid fracking wastes going into its underground wells than other states do, says the General Accounting Office. Environmental groups say the situation is even worse because the state’s inspection and enforcement practices are lax.
Meanwhile, “solid” waste from shale oil and gas operations raises concerns. Ohio law already exempts tons of deep shale drilling waste from landfill regulations meant to protect the public from elevated levels of heavy metals and radioactivity.
Now the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to allow “beneficial reuse” of those shale drill cuttings, including on roads and in wetland restoration.
A drilling rig in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. (Photo by WCN 24.7 via Creative Commons)
Petroleum backers say a new job survey makes the case for why Illinois should be doing more to expand drilling, particularly fracking, in the state.
The oil and gas industry has created 263,700 jobs in Illinois, according to a study released by the American Petroleum Institute Tuesday that lists direct, indirect and induced jobs created, as well as vendors with contracts with the industry, in each state.
In Illinois, 932 businesses are part of the oil and gas supply chain, the study says, supporting $33.3 billion, or five percent, of the state’s economy.
American Petroleum Institute senior economic adviser Rayola Dougher and Illinois Petroleum Council executive director Jim Watson said the study shows why state regulators should be doing more to facilitate the launch of high volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Groves Woods in Trumbull County, Ohio, — in the northern area of the Utica hotbed of shale drilling — is among dozens of natural area preserves owned by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History because of its ecological habitats. (Photo by Kathiann M. Kowalski)
Conservation experts say fracking and other shale gas activities can add to the dangers faced by Ohio’s rare species.
Yet as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) allows more and more natural gas activities in the state, its natural heritage program remains dramatically scaled back. That limits ODNR’s ability to identify and protect important habitats in sparsely surveyed areas.
Additionally, Ohio law exempts oil and natural gas activities from certain environmental requirements. It also allows massive water withdrawals for fracking and other activities. These and other factors can compound conservation threats.
Last Friday, experts at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s annual conservation symposium spoke about a wide range of threats faced by birds, bats, butterflies, mussels and amphibians — one hundred years after the last known passenger pigeon died in Ohio.
These billboards are at the center of an Ohio lawsuit against a local man who opposes fracking and related activities.
A lawsuit filed by an Ohio company last month seeks to remove two anti-fracking billboards near a wastewater site it operates.
While the case is a test of free speech, critics say it also reflects a broader reluctance for businesses and regulatory agencies in the state to adequately inform citizens about shale gas activities and address their concerns.
Fracking is the use of chemically treated water and sand to crack and prop open rock so oil and gas can flow out. Fracking a horizontal shale well can take millions of gallons of water. In Ohio, most of the wastewater that can’t be reused goes into underground injection wells.
Ohio’s regulatory environment is allowing rapid expansion of the shale gas industry. The state’s natural gas production nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013. And shale wastewater injection for 2013 was up more than 2 million barrels from the previous year.
Critics say the system fast-tracks permits for activities related to shale gas at the expense of public comment and citizen input.
Crews flare gas at a drilling site near Kalkaska, Michigan in July 2013. (AP Photo / Detroit News, Dale Young)
In an effort to address ongoing concerns about hydraulic fracturing development in Michigan, regulators here have proposed a series of changes to the state’s permitting instructions over the natural-gas extraction method.
But those with concerns — largely from the environmental community — over how permits are issued and what information is available to the public say the state is not going far enough and that proposed changes favor industry interests.
The rules would affect high-volume forms of fracking that use more than 100,000 gallons of “primary carrier” fluids.
The groups’ concerns reflect several categories of the process: That chemicals used aren’t required to be disclosed before drilling; that water-quality testing only takes place involving high-volume withdrawals; that the state’s system for reporting water withdrawals is not set up for operations that could require tens of millions of gallons; and that statutory rules for pooling resources below the surface should not apply to natural gas deposits in shale formations.
“From what we’ve read in the proposed rules, they’re not actually doing anything that makes fracking safer, but making some changes to make people feel better about it,” said Rita Chapman, clean water program director for the Michigan Sierra Club. “Some of them go backwards, even.”