Category: Water Issues

Fact-Check: Fracking Water Contamination in Texas

Last year, a number of complaints were filed to the Railroad Commission of Texas District 7B Office concerning the apparent increase in methane in the water wells in Parker County, Texas. The complaints claimed that the contamination was the result of the nearby activities of the Barnett Shale production and fracking.

A blog post this week on Ring of Fire’s website titled “Scientists: Fracking Linked to Groundwater Contamination” states in its opening paragraphs:

Last week a Texas TV station broke the news that new independent scientific analysis refutes the claim by the oil and gas industry that “there’s never been a confirmed case of fracking polluting drinking water.”

WFAA, the ABC affiliate in Dallas, reported that two independent scientists using data from Texas regulators confirmed fracking in Parker County, TX by Range Resources polluted resident Steve Lipsky’s drinking water with dangerous levels of methane from the Barnett Shale.

However, the “data” that Ecowatch and Earthworks is referring to states the complete opposite in the conclusion of the Railroad Commission of Texas Water Well Complaint Investigation Report:

Based on the information described above, Commission staff has determined that the evidence is insufficient to conclude that Barnett Shale production activities have caused or contributed to methane contamination in the aquifer beneath the neighborhood.

Earthworks, Ecowatch and others are really trying to stir up fear of the process of fracking. However, they lack the scientific evidence that they claim to have. It is just sad that they claim one thing, and a fact-check proves another.

Diminishing Returns to Dam Building and Other Supply Solutions

Megadam Projects not Successful” highlights what many in Texas and elsewhere will see as an inconvenient, but critical, truth: there are diminishing returns to structural solutions to water scarcity problems. One reason that it is inconvenient is that there is a lot of money in dam building, and another is that water planners and municipal purveyors are not used to the demand-side approaches to make sure that demand will not exceed supply even in a worst-case-scenario drought.

Sole reliance on supply-side solutions to meet that mandate means the environmentally and fiscally costly construction of some projects that will sit idle most of the time. There are two alternatives that become more and more economically efficient as additional water supply projects come on line:

  • Provision for permanent and temporary market-based re-allocations of existing water rights, which means true private ownership of water consumption rights. Water price differences, or lacking those, water use value differences, will signal which way true markets would move water. It would not be a mass-movement because the prices are changed by the re-allocations, sometimes significantly by small reductions in sellers’ water use. For example, a relatively small re-allocation of irrigation water can slightly increase the value of agricultural water while massively decreasing the cost of municipal water.
  • For water supplies like municipal utilities and irrigation companies, provision of some discounted interruptible service. The option to buy a mix of non-interruptible and discounted interruptible service has been long-time standard fare in industries like natural gas that are much less vulnerable to the double whammy of simultaneous increase in demand and decrease in supply that comes with drought.

But gas providers and users are spending their own money, whereas government-run water purveyors spend someone else’s money. So, as water projects come online it eventually becomes cheaper to provide discounts for service that is interrupted in specified drought conditions than to have a nearly-always idle water project on standby for a rare situation.

Government Programs Hurt the Environment

The NCPA has written numerous times about various government agencies and programs that are supposed to protect or promote environmental quality but which result in environmental harm.  For instance:

Federally subsidized flood insurance;

Federal mismanagement of public lands;

Federal  endangered species policies;

Federal promotion of ethanol, wind and solar power;

Federal agriculture subsidies;

And Federal mismanagement of ocean fisheries.

Now, on a single day, I have been given the gift of multiple news reports each detailing new ways the government is hurting the environment while purporting to save it.

On how government ethanol subsidies and mandates  are destroying the prairies.

On how government subsidized and required solar power is competing with wind power to slay birds – combine the two and we really could have the Silent Spring Racheal Carson wrote about, just not from chemicals as she opined.

But Washington is not the sole source of environmental decline, other researchers and government officials think it’s a good idea to kill animals to study (the world’s oldest animal was killed to determine its age) or to save them (slaughtering thousands of chickens in order to save some few of them from the possibility of dying in the chicken fight ring).

Folks, I could make this stuff up, but I don’t have too.  And this is the same government we’re supposed to trust when it says there are no death panels in the health care law?

EPA Takes its Lumps in Court Again

Once again, separate federal courts have ruled against the EPA in two cases with important economic implications.

In March, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the court ruled in favor of the Iowa League of Cities, which argued that the agency was pushing a new interpretation of its wastewater treatment rules in letters sent to some cities in Iowa in order to prohibit selected internal techniques for treating wastewater during high-flow storm events.  The EPA this week officially decided not to challenge the ruling.

Waste treatment plants use secondary treatment of sewage which relies on biological organisms to remove microbial pathogens and other pollutants, but those organisms are sensitive to flows and can be washed away during storms.  In this case, some plant operators in Iowa had begun to route some flows around secondary treatment and blend them back into the treated flows, while keeping the final, blended discharge within the end-of-pipe pollution limits.

The EPA objected and sent a letters to these operators stating that blending was not allowed.  Thus, the lawsuit.  The ruling has potentially wide-reaching implications both for the extent of EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act and for how agencies can communicate with regulated entities.

Basically, the ruling says what goes on within the plant is not within the EPA’s purview as long as the effluents leaving the plant meet pollution limits.  The NCPA has long argued that the EPA shouldn’t focus on process or paperwork but rather on results in terms of pollution reduction. This court seems to get it.  As importantly, it the ruling makes clear that if the EPA wants to regulate an activity, it must go through the rule making process, not simply give opinions – until the rules change, the EPA can’t contradict its own rules.

Whether this ruling will be applied by the EPA outside of the 8th Circuit Court’s jurisdiction and whether it applies to other entities (beside municipal waste water treatment facilities) also regulated under the clean water act remains to be seen, but the ruling has potentially far reaching consequences.

In a second case, the rogue EPA’s attempts to act outside of their authority was also struck down.  For years the EPA has been trying to figure out a way to limit farm runoff.  There’s just one problem, while Congress has delegated to the EPA the power to regulate large water polluters, it has never granted the EPA’s wish to regulate farmers or individual homeowners – factories and power plants, not farms.

Alt filed the lawsuit in June 2012 after EPA issued a compliance order for stormwater runoff that it determined to be coming from her CAFO in West Virginia. EPA said dust and manure from the operation’s eight poultry confinement houses had settled on the farmyard and had been exposed to precipitation, leading to runoff into local waterways.

The agency told Alt she must obtain a Clean Water Act permit for the discharges or face penalties of up to $37,500 a day.

Alt argued she maintained best-management practices and took steps to reduce the amount of manure and litter that would be exposed to rain and snow. She argued the operation didn’t require a Clean Water Act permit for the runoff because the law explicitly exempts agricultural stormwater discharge from regulation.

But EPA said the stormwater exemption did not apply to Alt’s operation, arguing that the exemption, applied only to areas where manure, litter or process wastewater has specifically been applied in accordance with nutrient management practices, not to areas where they may have inadvertently accumulated during livestock operations.

Judge John Bailey in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia found that discharges from Lois Alt’s farm in Old Fields, W.Va., were covered by a Clean Water Act exemption for agricultural stormwater.

In Baily’s ruling he wrote, “Common sense and plain English lead to the inescapable conclusion that Ms. Alt’s poultry operation is ‘agricultural’ in nature and that the precipitation-caused runoff from her farmyard is ‘stormwater.'” Baily further noted that courts have long upheld a broader definition of agricultural stormwater discharge than contained in EPA’s 2003 CAFO rule and in its arguments in the Alt case. EPA’s argument that the exemption applies only to land application areas is contrary to previous court rulings, he said.  The only requirement is that the exempt discharge must be agriculture related.”

The case, Alt v. EPA, had been closely watched by both agricultural interests who feared that a favorable ruling for EPA would open concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, to permitting requirements for stormwater discharges. The West Virginia Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau Federation joined the lawsuit on behalf of Alt. In response to the ruling the Farm Bureau President said, “The outcome of this case will benefit thousands of livestock and poultry farmers who run their operations responsibly and who should not have to get a federal permit for ordinary rainwater from their farmyards.”

These rulings reinforce the fact that the EPA, no less than any other part of the government, is constrained the rule of law, no regulatory or executive whim.  Though I would argue that government agencies have too much power as it is, it should be clear that they don’t have power not granted to them by Congress, and in these cases, so the courts have ruled.

Dept. of Energy’s Claim About Climate and Hydro Doesn’t Hold Water

The U.S. Department of Energy yesterday released a report on “Impacts to the Energy Sector from Climatic Conditions.” It notes “climate change is happening — and the effects are already being felt across the country.” The report examines how “decreasing water availability” and other impacts are harming energy production.

This claim caught my attention:

Columbia River, Washington
Summer 2010

Below normal precipitation and streamflows in the Columbia River basin resulted in insufficient hydropower generation to fulfill load obligations for the Bonneville Power Administration. As a result, BPA experienced a net loss of $233 million, or 10%, from the prior year.

The reality is exactly the opposite. During the past few years, Pacific Northwest dams have actually had to deal with excess water flow and hydro power.

In the fall of 2010, Oregon Public Broadcasting highlighted the problem. Their story noted “When a string of storms hit the Northwest this spring, there was so much water in the rivers — and so much wind along the gorge — more power was being produced than the BPA could sell.”

The same thing happened in 2011. Federal Regulators found that BPA had so much water that it had inappropriately violated wind-power contracts, refusing to take energy because of the hydro surplus. The Seattle Times reported, “For Bonneville, the toughest challenges have come in the spring and early summer when snow melts increase river flows and blustery winds boost wind production. Also, to protect migrating salmon, more water is run through the turbines rather than over the dams.”

Part of the problem, ironically, is that there is currently an overcapacity of wind power and utilities are required to purchase wind energy to meet state-mandated requirements. When a surplus occurs, BPA is forced to choose between paying companies to use energy (reducing the oversupply) or violating wind-power contracts to prevent excess energy from going on the grid they control.

Another reason there is an oversupply of hydro power, as the Seattle Times notes, is that excess streamflow must be run through turbines, generating excess electricity, because spilling water harms fish. Environmental requirements to protect fish end up creating excess energy that contribute to the oversupply.

The DOE is also engaging in cherry picking by choosing 2010 and ignoring other years.

Below are the streamflow forecasts for the years 2008-2011. Note that 2010, the year DOE highlighted, was the worst year. As you can see, 2011 streamflows were significantly above normal.

The Department of Energy is very inconsistent in the years it chose for the graphic. In Kansas it chose July of 2012, but in Nebraska it chose 2006, in North Carolina it chose 2007, for Texas it is 2011 and in Florida it is 2004. Instead of looking at trends, DOE chose the particular year that suited their narrative, ignoring all other data.

In the Pacific Northwest, it not only ignored the trend, it ignored the reality on the ground that in 2010 hydro power was available in excess rather than scarce.

This is only the latest example of agencies ignoring the science and data to push a political agenda. Bad science, however, leads to bad policy and there is increasing skepticism about climate policy as the false narrative used by politicians and political agencies is visibly at odds with reality.

2011 Streamflow Forecast 2010 Streamflow Forecast 2009 Streamflow Forecast 2008 Streamflow Forecast

Does Moneyball work for the EPA?: New EPA Particulant Regs Puffery?

Back in 2003, Michael Lewis wrote “Money Ball,” a book about how an Oakland, CA baseball team under head coach Billy Beane used player statistics to hire team members that gave them the greatest chance of a championship season at the lowest cost.
So by 2009 it was pretty clear what was coming when President Obama’s chief regulator, Cass Sunstein, began talking about how federal regulators should act less than green eye-shade bean counters and more like Billy Beane. Sunstein was going to base regulatory philosophy on statistics and cost/benefit analysis. On its face, that doesn’t sound like a bad thing.
But pointing out the difficultities of this approach is Susan Dudley, head of regulatory studies at George Washington University and Sunstein’s predecessor under President Bush. In her view, the new ‘statistics’ can be fudged to justify almost any kind of regulation. She uses recent EPA regs as an example
Dudley says that the bulk of “benefits” from Obama’s regulatory effort comes from new EPA limits on air particulates of 2.5 micrometers or less. Ask any electric power company executive and they will confirm that this has been the biggest expense for power producers in the last decade as they install expensive smoke stack scrubbers in their coal-burning plants.
Together, these regulations account for about 50% of the monetized cost of all new government regulations, according to Dudley. And they account for even more of the purported “benefits.”
The joke is in the calculation of the ‘benefits.’
According to Dudley the bulk of the benefit comes from extending the life expectacy of a certain group of citizens by 6 months.
Who are these lucky few? Says Dudley,’the beneficiaries of these life saving regulations is around 80-years-old.” Obviously, extending the life of 80-year-olds is a good thing to do. But there are also a lot of doubts about how much effect small particulants have on anybody’s health. Additionally, people in their 80s tend to have one or more other health conditions that may account for changes in mortality.
EPA adds to the accounting a claim that reducing air particulates also cuts back on fish exposure to heavy metals like Mercury that are contained in microscopic particulants. Whether or not these savings have been double-counted against other EPA interventions aimed at reducing Mercury, Dudley does not say.

Dudley, Susan, “Perpetuating Puffery: An Analysis of the Composition of OMB’s Reported Benefits of Regulation,” Business Economics, July 2012, Vol. 47 No. 3, pp 165-176
Lewis, M.M., 2004. Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game, WW Norton. Available at:,+you+had%22+&ots=pcH3mzoxGM&sig=LtRBCL53W3-oazf2PxvVAnU8enY [Accessed September 26, 2012].

Westin Makes the Free-Market Green Choice

If you have stayed at a hotel recently, you have seen a card in the bathroom exhorting you to help the planet by reusing your towels, thus reducing the amount of water, energy and detergent used by the hotel. Such appeals are typically based on guilt – you reuse the towels and the hotel receives the financial benefit.

The success of such efforts, however, is tenuous because it is entirely contingent on the convenience and good will of the guests.

Westin Hotels, however, have harnessed the free market to find a better way.

When I checked into my hotel in Charlotte last week, I noticed a door hanger lying on the bed which read:

“Make a green choice. Enjoy a $5 voucher at participating food and beverage outlets or 500 SPG Starpoints awarded at checkout for each night you decline housekeeping.”

Instead of guilt, Westin recognizes that sharing with their customers the benefit of conserving resources is likely to make the program more successful. And they are seeing results.

Chris Para from the Westin Charlotte said the program has grown in each of the three years they have offered it. He estimates that 16 percent of guests take advantage of the program. This is a remarkable result considering what it might take otherwise to cut water use for laundry by about one-fifth.

The program was actually conceived at the Westin and Sheraton in Seattle where the “green” ethic is ubiquitous. But it goes beyond simply cultivating a green image. Westin enjoys financial benefits in two ways. First, it saves money by reducing the laundry and housekeeping costs. Second, it is an initiative Westin can use to attract corporate customers from organizations requiring their employees to stay at “green” hotels.

The group most likely to be incentivized by the program and use it are business travelers, and Westin’s Starwood points are a particularly attractive reward.

Interestingly, Para seemed sheepish when I asked if the hotel benefited financially from the program. By providing benefits to the hotel and customer, however, the program is more likely to stand the test of time. Too many green programs are based on people being willing to endure inconvenience or cost and are jettisoned when times get tough. With the hotel benefiting, they are more likely to continue and even expand the program.

Instead of apologizing for the benefits they receive, Westin should be proud. Those financial rewards may encourage other hotels to follow suit, further reducing overall resource use.

By harnessing the incentives of the free market, Westin, its customers and the environment all benefit.

How The Lorax Learned to Love Foresters

Tomorrow, the motion picture version of Dr. Seuss’s book “The Lorax” will hit the big screen and the reviews indicate it sticks to the original 1971 storyline. In “The Lorax,” a businessman, the “Once-ler,” moves into town, cuts down all the trees and destroys the forest, air and water in the process. A furry creature, the Lorax, appears and proclaims, “I speak for the trees” and scolds the Once-ler for being “crazed with greed.”

The story is a product of its times, when people like Paul Ehrlich were claiming that the planet’s time was short and that pollution and resource scarcity would soon overwhelm mankind. Time has not been kind to Ehrlich, demonstrating that his predictions and those of other early-1970s environmentalists, were not based in sound economics or science.

Forty years later, The Lorax also shows its age. Since it was published, a different story has been written in forests across the globe. Rather than being at odds, the Once-ler and the Lorax have found a common interest in making sure forests grow and expand – and many of the world’s forests have benefited. Three things stand out.

  • Last year was the International Year of the Forest, and the United Nations offered some good news. For the last two decades, total land area covered by forest in the Northern Hemisphere – where forestry is particularly active – has increased.
  • Wood is increasingly recognized as one of the most environmentally friendly building materials. At the University of Washington, researchers compared the environmental impact of building with either wood, concrete or steel. The hands-down winner for lower energy use, less waste and less water use was wood. While concrete and steel can only be mined once, trees are constantly replacing themselves.
  • In “The Lorax,” the Once-ler’s business collapses when all the trees are gone. Foresters understand this. Destroying a forest by cutting down every last tree makes no sense, so there are more trees in American forests today than there were just a few decades ago. Replanting isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for business.

Forty years after he sprung from the imagination of Dr. Seuss, the Lorax would be happy to see that, far from disappearing, many forests today are thriving. They are there because the real story of the forests has not been about an unending battle between the fictional Lorax and the hard-hearted Once-ler, but of a friendship that understands that both benefit from healthy forests future generations can enjoy.



Obama’s Ocean Policy Initiative: Washington’s Latest Power Grab

A little-noticed Obama Executive Order will open the door to federal zoning throughout the United States. A regulatory structure is being put in place that will allow unelected and unaccountable Washington bureaucrats to dictate local land and water use decisions.

Green Jobs: Hope or Hype Redux

On the campaign trail in 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama announced a plan to create five million new “green collar” jobs. Since becoming president, he has repeatedly touted his support for green jobs; for instance, in his 2010 State of the Union address and Earth Day remarks on April 22, 2010. In addition, recent stimulus legislation and appropriations bills have contained provisions to subsidize or promote green job creation.

Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that government support of green industries will cost more jobs than they create. 

Spain. President Obama has identified Spain as a model for a new economy driven by green jobs. But a 2009 study from Madrid’s King Juan Carlos University showed that for every green job the Spanish government created, 2.2 jobs were lost as energy-intensive industries either closed down or moved to other countries with lower energy costs:

  • The government’s green job push created approximately 50,000 jobs, but resulted in a loss of more than 110,000 jobs in other industries.
  • Only 1 in 10 of the new green jobs was permanent.
  • Each green job created since 2000 has required about $774,000 in government subsidies. [See the figure.]

Denmark. On Earth Day in 2009, President Obama cited Denmark as another country that has benefited from subsidized green job creation. Like Spain, Denmark’s green industry – primarily wind-powered electricity generation – was heavily subsidized and likely would not have existed without government support. According to “Wind Energy: The Case of Denmark,” a 2009 report by the Center for Political Studies, a Danish think tank:

  • The Danish government spent $90,000 to $140,000 to create each wind job.
  • About 28,400 people were employed in the Danish wind industry, but only about 1 in 10 were new jobs – the remaining 90 percent were simply positions shifted from one industry to another.
  • From 1999 to 2006, the average government-subsidized clean energy technology worker added $10,000 less to the Danish economy than did the average employee in other industrial and manufacturing sectors. 
  • As a result, Danish gross domestic product was about $270 million less than it would have been if the wind industry work force were employed in other sectors.

Thus, a 2006 report from the Danish Economic Council concludes, “The wind power expansion in the 1990s is an example of a policy that was unprofitable from society’s point of view, even taking the economic advantages that the wind business enjoyed into consideration.”

Read the full NCPA Brief Analysis, “Green Jobs: Hope or Hype Redux.”