Countercurrents | June 21, 2021
Media reports from the U.S. tell about environmental incidents and hardship of the common people in the society.
Fracking and Children
A Fort Worth Star-Telegram report (Thousands of Arlington’s schoolchildren are exposed to fracking fumes, report warns, Thu, June 17, 2021) said:
More than half of Arlington’s public school children attend classes within half a mile of a natural gas drilling site, prompting concerns about the effects of fracking on their health, according to a new report published Tuesday.
A year-long investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting — which produces the popular news podcast Reveal — found that more than 30,000 Arlington kids go to school near a drilling site. Up to 7,600 infants and toddlers are dropped off at private daycares within the same half-mile radius of drilling, according to the center’s analysis.
The new data comes as Total, a French energy company which operates under the name TEP Barnett in North Texas, continues to expand natural gas drilling throughout Tarrant County, particularly in Arlington. The growing city of 400,000 is home to 52 drilling sites and hundreds of wellheads, many of which are earning greater scrutiny from activists, local officials and daycare operators worried about the impact of gas drilling fumes on public health.
Tarrant County, home to just over 4,000 wellheads, has the highest rate of birth defects among large counties in Texas, according to the center’s analysis. Drilling is also concentrated in neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color and lower-income, said Ranjana Bhandari, an activist interviewed extensively for the report published in the Texas Observer and Mother Jones.
As executive director of the environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington, Bhandari has led several actions to increase the distance between school-aged children and natural gas drilling, pointing to scientific studies linking close proximity to drill sites with higher rates of childhood asthma, leukemia and birth defects.
Emissions from drill sites can include exhaust from diesel trucks or rigs as well as the chemicals used to frack, a method of drilling that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the ground to extract gas and petroleum.
“The public health research has already been presented to our city council, to people who make these decisions, so in some sense it should not be new,” Bhandari told the Star-Telegram. “I hope this will encourage them to think differently, because this is critical to the wellbeing of Arlington that we do not keep worsening inequality and that we do not keep adding to the health burdens that people already face because of environmental issues.”
In 2016, Johns Hopkins University researchers found that treatments for asthma, including hospitalizations and prescriptions, increased in areas of Pennsylvania where fracking had been introduced. But they backed away from stating what specifically caused those symptoms.
City officials are certainly concerned with the health of children and daycare operators, said Richard Gertson, Arlington’s assistant director of planning and development. But when it comes to what the city can do about drilling regulations, Arlington and other municipalities are limited by a state law known as House Bill 40, he said.
The 2015 law prohibited cities from banning drilling within city limits, as Denton did in 2014, and from implementing any regulations that are not “commercially reasonable.”
“It’s just the regulatory environment that we operate in is such that we can impose and enforce certain types of restrictions up to a point, but it can never rise to the point of a ban on gas well drilling,” Gertson said in an interview. “Regardless of how we feel about the health issue, we cannot do it.”
Kevin Strawser, a senior manager for government relations and public affairs at Total, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He provided a statement to the Center for Investigative Reporting, in part stating that the multinational company works “diligently to ensure the safety and quality of life for our neighbors near our sites.”
“We operate our sites in a safe and environmentally responsible way that is compliant with the requirements of our business,” Strawser said.
Total’s Controversial History in Arlington
Bhandari and fellow environmental activists in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex have also been critical of the city’s relationship with oil and gas industry representatives, including those from Total and the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
Amid vocal protests from residents, City Council members voted in June 2020 to deny a permit allowing Total to construct new gas wells near a residential area and just over 600 feet away from Mother’s Heart Learning Center.
There is no statewide law in Texas governing how far back natural gas drilling should be from buildings or “protected uses” like schools and hospitals. In other states, such as Colorado, state officials are establishing stricter regulations that prohibit new wells from being constructed within 2,000 feet of a home or school.
A few months after the rejection of Total’s application, the company received “administrative approval” for seven new gas wells at its existing Rocking Horse drilling site, near the municipal airport and day care center Childcare Network. The permits were not subject to a council hearing process because Total already received a permit in 2013 to drill in the area and council members had already voted to allow fast-tracked approval of permits, Gertson said at the time.
The incident, which sparked outrage among Liveable Arlington members and other environmental groups, prompted former council member and mayoral candidate Marvin Sutton to introduce an amendment to the city’s gas drilling ordinance. That change, approved in March, aimed to increase the amount of distance between daycare centers and gas drilling by requiring companies to measure 600 feet between a designated playground area and the company’s established “drilling zone.”
But Sutton and Bhandari were frustrated when the city made significant changes to the amendment after consulting with oil and gas industry representatives. Total officials were concerned that two existing sites would not have the ability to apply for permits if setbacks were measured between the daycare property boundary and their drill zones. That’s when playgrounds were added to the ordinance, according to a February staff report.
In emails obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Arlington officials appear concerned that Total and other drillers could pursue legal action to challenge the ordinance if it were passed in its original form.
“I know staff is and will continue to look for possible solutions to avoid a potential legal conflict,” Galen Gatten, the city’s land use attorney, wrote in an email to Total representatives on Feb. 11.
Arlington staff members did not consult daycare operators because “they certainly already had an advocate” in Sutton and other council members, Gertson told the Star-Telegram.
“Since the council was about to look at a new standard that would negatively impact the operations of operators, that is why we consulted the operators,” he added.
Advocates won’t stop until urban drilling is ‘phased out’
To Bhandari, Total’s pursuit of changes to the amendment showed that the company has interest in expanding its number of wellheads in Arlington. While natural gas prices in the U.S. have remained relatively low since the late 2000s, there is growing demand for liquefied natural gas as an international export, according to the center’s report.
The city has to continue to balance the interests of constituents and what’s permitted under state law, Gertson said.
“Sometimes even that best effort is still going to show that gas well sites are located in proximity to the populace,” he said.
That answer is not satisfying to Bhandari or Liveable Arlington members, who continue to monitor drill sites in Arlington and field questions from residents new and old about drilling regulations.
Bhandari was one of several activists to testify at the Environmental Protection Agency’s public listening sessions this week on its efforts to “reduce methane and other harmful pollutants from new and existing sources” in the oil and gas industry, according to the EPA announcement. John MacFarlane, the chairman of the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club, also registered to speak on Tuesday.
“The methane spikes that we have seen in the last few years are very clearly tied to America’s fracking volumes, and they are going to affect the global climate,” Bhandari said. “That climate burden is going to be unequally distributed and our children are definitely going to face that.”
Those issues could be alleviated through better technology efforts that can detect methane leaks from drilling equipment and more thorough reporting and inspection requirements, Bhandari said.
The Railroad Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality do not conduct enough inspections of wells in Tarrant County, according to Bhandari. In fiscal year 2019, the TCEQ conducted 93 inspections and followed up in 2020 with 134, according to data obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Bhandari said she will not stop drawing attention to new gas well permit applications or potential violations of regulations until gas drilling near residential areas and “protected” areas such as schools and medical buildings is phased out.
“I do not want to hear about inspections once every six months, or even once a month,” Bhandari said. “It is immoral to put something this dangerous, this sneaky, this polluting next to our children and say somebody will come around once in a while and see if anything is emitting. How can a decent society do that? It has to be phased out for the future of all children.”
Immigrant labor’s working hour
A USA Today report (California graduate honors immigrant parents with senior photo shoot in strawberry fields, Sat, June 19, 2021) said:
Throughout high school and college, Jennifer Rocha would plant strawberries with her parents from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. Then she would sleep a few hours and get ready for school.
But she never complained or slacked off; she said she knew she was making her immigrant parents proud.
On June 13, Rocha graduated from the University of California, San Diego, and she wanted to honor her parents’ hard work. So she coordinated a photo shoot in the strawberry fields they worked night after night.
“Through drops of sweat, tears, back aches, they were able to get their three daughters through college. They deserve all the recognition in the world and for them to be an inspiration to other immigrant parents in the same circumstance as they are that it is not impossible for their kids to chase their dreams,” Rocha told USA TODAY.
Rain, cold or heat, her parents worked – a quality she adopted as she juggled college courses, studying and work. Rocha admitted some days were more difficult than others, especially when she’d sit in class with an aching back from a long night of work.
In her college career, when she felt like quitting Rocha said she would think back to her work in the fields and what her degree would mean to her family.
“When I would come back to work in the fields it humbled me and was a reminder as to why I need to get that degree,” Rocha said.
Rocha hopes her photos bring awareness to the farmworker community and the impact of their work. She said it’s easy for Americans to pick up vegetables and fruits from the grocery store without appreciation for the workers who made it possible. .
“Farmworkers do not deserve to be paid minimum wage. They worked throughout the whole pandemic risking their health and risking the health of their families not knowing if they would come home with something,” Rocha said.
Rocha’s senior photos quickly gained social media attention, with hundreds praising Rocha’s pride in her heritage and farmworker family. If there was one message people took away from seeing her photos, Rocha hopes it is that anything is possible.
“No matter if your parents work in domestic labor jobs where the pay is minimum wage, with hard work, sacrifice, discipline, and dedication it can be done,” Rocha said.
Rocha plans to go into law enforcement to “care for the community how it deserves to be cared for.”
The Last Coal Power Plant
A Miami Herald report (FPL is done with coal in Florida. But can it get to 100% clean energy by 2035?, Fri, June 18, 2021) said:
Florida Power & Light’s last coal plant in the state collapsed with a flash of explosives and a boom so loud it rippled the polyester roof of the spectators’ tent, where local business owners, government officials and utility employees cheered.
“It’s a really good example of how you take [out] the old and you bring in the new,” CEO Eric Silagy told the crowd, his words nearly drowned out by a safety buzzer heralding the demolition of the stack and coal chute of the Indiantown Cogeneration plant in Martin County.
The “new”, he announced moments before the explosion, will be a 500-acre solar generation plant built near the Indiantown site sometime in the future.
It was a triumphant moment for Florida’s largest utility, which clearly sees itself as headed in the right direction for weaning itself off the fossil fuels that cause climate change, a threat that is projected to eat up thousands of acres of Florida coastline and cost billions to keep at bay by mid-century.
“We’ve advanced our knowledge of what the impacts are, both environmentally and economically, and we have come to the conclusion that we can do this better,” Silagy told the crowd. “This is not easy to do, but it’s doable.”
Cities across Florida have also committed to curbing their emissions drastically by 2035, including Miami and St. Petersburg, while others, including Orlando, plan to take until 2050 to do so.
While there’s plenty those cities can do to lower their footprint (like electrifying the city fleet and encouraging people to use public transit) the bulk of that transformation lies with FPL, which holds a monopoly over most of the state.
But according to FPL’s latest projections, it only expects to produce 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2029.
FPL is in the midst of asking the state for permission to charge ratepayers an additional $2 billion dollars over the next four years to expand its natural gas infrastructure, build more clean energy and increase its profit margins.
If enacted, the plan would hike the bill for a home that uses 1,000 kilowatt-hours a month by about 18% between 2022 and 2025.
No more coal or oil
FPL says it needs that cash infusion to continue on its path to decarbonization, but critics argue the utility isn’t moving fast enough.
So far, FPL has pretty much weaned itself off the two dirtiest fuel sources: coal and oil.
The Indiantown plant stopped producing energy in December, leaving only two more coal plants in FPL’s portfolio, both newly added through a merger with Gulf Power — one in Georgia and one in Mississippi. FPL said it expects to cease its ownership of these plants in 2022 and 2024, respectively.
FPL has also massively reduced its dependence on oil. Twenty years ago, the utility burned 40 million barrels of oil a year, more than any other utility. They have reduced that 99%. The remaining 1%, Silagy said, the utility is required to burn to prove it can use diesel as a backup fuel in case of an emergency.
Both coal and oil because increasingly unpopular — and unprofitable — as energy sources over the last few decades, according to the Energy Information Institute.
Now the bulk of FPL’s energy is produced from burning natural gas, a fossil fuel mainly made of methane, a greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere much more than carbon dioxide. FPL is opening a new natural gas plant in Dania Beach next year that’s expected to run for at least 30 years.
It also has permission from the state to build two more in the coming decade, but FPL Spokesman Bill Orlove said the Dania Beach plant will be the last in FPL’s service area.
If the utility’s request for $2 billion is approved, a big chunk of that cash would go toward expanding the natural-gas burning capacity at several plants, something environmental advocates call bad investments.
Bradley Marshall, a senior attorney for environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, said the natural gas expansions a step backward in the fight against climate change.
“In order to make progress toward a renewable energy future, we do not want to see bills go up for fossil fuel investments we don’t need,” he said.
Can it be done?
FPL has released no plans for reducing its carbon emissions to zero, unlike other peer utilities.
Its only public goal is that it plans to shrink its carbon emissions rate (not its overall emissions) 67% by 2025. That means FPL could make each power plant more efficient but build a lot more of them and still meet its goal, despite raising its total amount of emissions.
The South Alliance for Clean Energy analyzed the clean energy strategies of various utilities in the southeast and found that, at its current pace, FPL would likely reach carbon neutrality by 2071.
Maggie Shober, the director of utility reform at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and her team outlined two strategies for FPL to meet that goal as soon as 2035. Both involve more wind power, something no utility in Florida has invested in due to unfavorable conditions in much of the state, and a lot more solar power.
FPL has already built 41 solar power plants as part of its 30-by-30 plan to build 30 million solar panels by 2030. Almost every plant, including the planned Indiantown one, produces 74.5 MW of energy, which is just under the 75 MW threshold where FPL would have to do an assessment of the power needs of the community and put the project out to bid with third-party contractors.
It is also building the world’s largest solar-powered battery storage facility in Manatee County. Battery storage allows utilities to store the excess solar energy earned during the day to use at night or on cloudy days, and experts consider it a critical technology for shifting away from fossil fuels.
Shober’s strategy would call for at least half of FPL’s energy to come from solar, as opposed to the 16% FPL is planning by 2029, as well as an expansion of rooftop solar on homes and businesses, something FPL has historically opposed.
When it comes to rooftop solar and energy efficiency (both key to meeting carbon neutrality goals), Shober said “the incentives just aren’t there for FPL to invest in these as much.”
Other energy researchers, like Ben Haley with Evolved Energy Research, see existing natural gas plants as part of the solution. They are a cheaper backup than battery storage, he said, and it could potentially be retrofitted to run on zero-carbon fuel in the future.
FPL is betting on the alternate fuel scenario with its new “green hydrogen” pilot project, which would be funded by the rate increase. The proposed plant would use solar to turn water into hydrogen, which can fuel some machines. The Biden administration’s infrastructure plan also calls for several hydrogen pilot projects across the county.
Haley’s firm’s also ran models on how Florida utilities could get to zero carbon by 2035. They also found it was possible, as long as utilities invested heavily in solar and stopped building coal or natural gas plants now.
“Starting now is the only rational strategy with the scale of where we need to go in the next 30 years,” he said. “It may be a real missed opportunity if FPL is behind that curve.”
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