Blue Marble - May 2014

Cops and Firefighters Could Soon Be Charged for Disclosing Fracking Chemicals in North Carolina

| Mon Jun. 2, 2014 11:50 AM EDT

North Carolina lawmakers have softened a controversial bill that would have made it a felony to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. Under the version of the law that passed the state legislature on Thursday, the offense has been knocked down to a misdemeanor. But legal experts say the language may still allow companies to press criminal charges against individuals who disclose what they learn about fracking chemicals—including doctors or fire chiefs.

Known as the "Energy Modernization Act," the legislation is partly meant to establish protocols for firefighters and health care providers to access information about chemicals during emergencies. However, it also gives oil and gas companies the right to require emergency responders to sign confidentiality agreements. The previous version of the bill, which was introduced on May 15 by three Republican state senators—​including a member of North Carolian GOP leadership—called for fines and prison time as punishment for disclosing proprietary chemical formulas.

Following widespread public outcry, lawmakers have reduced the penalty to community service. But they failed to clarify confusing language from an earlier draft that might subject fire chiefs and health care providers to criminal charges. This provision could prevent emergency responders from speaking about their experiences with chemical accidents to colleagueseven when the information is relevant to emergency planning or patient care.

How much the public is entitled to know about chemicals injected into the ground during the fracking process to break up natural gas-rich shale formations is one of the hottest issues surrounding fracking. Most energy companies maintain that the information should be proprietary. Public health advocates counter that they can't monitor the environmental and health impacts without knowing what chemicals are involved.

Many North Carolina officials have come down hard on the side of industry. As Mother Jones has reported, the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission, which is writing fracking regulations to complement the Energy Modernization Act, put off approving a near-final chemical disclosure rule because Haliburtona major player in the fracking industry​complained that the proposal was too strict.

The current version of the act sailed through the North Carolina legislature with no debate. Following the bill's passage last Thursday, Gov. Pat McCrory told reporters that he "absolutely" supports the legislation. This week, he's expected to sign the measure into law.

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WATCH: This Thunderstorm Time Lapse Is Absolutely Nuts

| Mon May 19, 2014 10:29 AM EDT

Look! In the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...OH JESUS LORD GOD, NO, THE GATES OF ANOTHER DIMENSION ARE OPENING!

The Washington Post explains:

Fledgling low pressure forming downwind of the Rockies spun up a towering thunderstorm so imposing that the footage almost seems fake – as if from a sci-fi movie or another planet.

Pray! Confess thy sins, for the dark days are upon us!

Spectacular cannot even describe the time lapse video from this spinning supercell storm that blossomed in eastern Wyoming Sunday evening, near Newcastle.  The action really gets going about 55 seconds in.

It looks like Storm from the "X-Men" franchise and Thor from the "Thor" franchise teamed up and took the show on the road!

Anyway, have a nice day.

North Carolina GOP Pushes Unprecedented Bill to Jail Anyone Who Discloses Fracking Chemicals

| Mon May 19, 2014 9:15 AM EDT

As hydraulic fracturing ramps up around the country, so do concerns about its health impacts. These concerns have led 20 states to require the disclosure of industrial chemicals used in the fracking process.

North Carolina isn't on that list of states yet—and it may be hurtling in the opposite direction.

On Thursday, three Republican state senators introduced a bill that would slap a felony charge on individuals who disclosed confidential information about fracking chemicals. The bill, whose sponsors include a member of Republican party leadership, establishes procedures for fire chiefs and health care providers to obtain chemical information during emergencies. But as the trade publication Energywire noted Friday, individuals who leak information outside of emergency settings could be penalized with fines and several months in prison.

"The felony provision is far stricter than most states' provisions in terms of the penalty for violating trade secrets," says Hannah Wiseman, a Florida State University assistant law professor who studies fracking regulations.

The bill also allows companies that own the chemical information to require emergency responders to sign a confidentiality agreement. And it's not clear what the penalty would be for a health care worker or fire chief who spoke about their experiences with chemical accidents to colleagues.

"I think the only penalties to fire chiefs and doctors, if they talked about it at their annual conference, would be the penalties contained in the confidentiality agreement," says Wiseman. "But [the bill] is so poorly worded, I cannot confirm that if an emergency responder or fire chief discloses that confidential information, they too would not be subject to a felony." In some sections, she says, "That appears to be the case."

The disclosure of the chemicals used to break up shale formations and release natural gas is one of the most heated issues surrounding fracking. Many energy companies argue that the information should be proprietary, while public health advocates counter that they can't monitor for environmental and health impacts without it. Under public pressure, a few companies have begun to report chemicals voluntarily.

North Carolina has banned fracking until the state can approve regulations. The bill introduced Thursday, titled the Energy Modernization Act, is meant to complement the rules currently being written by the North Carolina Mining & Energy Commission.

Wiseman adds that, other than the felony provision, the bill proposes disclosure laws similar to those in many other states: "It allows for trade secrets to remain trade secrets, it provides only limited exceptions for reasons of emergency and health problems, and provides penalties for failure to honor the trade secret."

Draft regulations from the North Carolina commission have been praised as some of the strongest fracking rules in the country. But observers already worry that the final regulations will be significantly weaker. In early May, the commission put off approving a near-final chemical disclosure rule because Haliburton, which has huge stakes in the fracking industry, complained the proposal was too strict, the News & Observer reported.

For portions of the Republican-controlled North Carolina government to kowtow to the energy industry is not surprising. In February, the Associated Press reported that under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, North Carolina's top environmental regulators previously thwarted three separate Clean Water Act lawsuits aimed at forcing Duke Energy, the largest electricity utility in the country, to clean up its toxic coal ash pits in the state. Had those lawsuits been allowed to progress, they may have prevented the February rupture of a coal ash storage pond, which poured some 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

"Environmental groups say they favor some of the provisions [in the Energy Modernization Act]," Energywire reported Friday. "It would put the state geologist in charge of maintaining the chemical information and would allow the state's emergency management office to use it for planning. It also would allow the state to turn over the information immediately to medical providers and fire chiefs."

However, environmentalists point out that the bill would also prevent local governments from passing any rules on fracking and limit water testing that precedes a new drilling operation.

VIDEO: Is the BP Oil Spill Cleanup Still Making People Sick?

| Fri May 16, 2014 2:20 PM EDT

After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, when an oil rig explosion sent five million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the company behind the spill, BP, went swiftly into damage-control mode. One of its first steps was to buy up a third of the world's supply of chemical dispersants, including one called Corexit that was designed to concentrate oil into droplets that sink into the water column, where in theory they can be degraded by bacteria and stay off beaches.

After the spill, roughly two million gallons of Corexit were dumped into the Gulf. There's just one problem: Despite BP's protestations to the contrary, Corexit is believed to be highly toxic—not just to marine life but also to the workers who were spraying it and locals living nearby—according to a new segment on Vice that will air tonight on HBO at 11 pm ET. (For its part, BP has said that its use of dispersants was approved by the federal government and that it isn't aware of any data that the disperants pose a health threat.)

The show follows cleanup workers, local doctors, and shrimpers, and suggests that four years after the spill, Corexit contamination could be nearly as big a problem as the oil itself. You can watch a short clip from tonight's show above.

That Amazing 'Solar Roadways' Project Has a Working Prototype

| Fri May 16, 2014 1:48 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the CityLab website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Four years ago, Scott and Julie Brusaw announced their provocative concept of "Solar Roadways,"a system of modular solar panels that could be paved directly onto roads, parking lots, driveways, bike paths, "literally any surface under the sun." Since then, the Brusaws have received two rounds of funding from the Federal Highway Administration as well as a private grant to develop their project.

They now have a working prototype featuring hexagonal panels that cover a 12-by-36-foot parking lot. In addition to the potential to power nearby homes, businesses, and electric vehicles, the panels also have heating elements for convenient snow and ice removal, as well as LEDs that can make road signage. According to the Brusaws' calculations, Solar Roadways, if installed nationwide, could generate over three times the electricity currently used in the United States.

solar roadways
Concept rendering by Sam Cornett
solar roadways
Concept rendering by Sam Cornett and Craig Fine

Before you ask—the panels have indeed been tested for traction, load testing, and impact resistance. It's supposed to withstand a 250,000-pound load, typical of the heaviest trucks. For starters, here's footage of a tractor driving over the prototype.

In their current Indiegogo campaign, the Brusaws are trying to raise $1 million to help move Solar Roadways into production and start installing additional projects. With the campaign only 8 percent funded so far, their plan faces a long road ahead.

Here's the full demo.

This Year's Wildfires Could Incinerate the Nation's Fire Budget

| Thu May 1, 2014 4:27 PM EDT
California has already logged 1,000 wildfires this year.

The upcoming wildfire season could cost $400 million more to fight than the Forest Service and Interior Department have in their available budgets, according to a report those agencies released today.

The forecast estimates that the Forest Service and Interior will need to spend a combined total of about $1.8 billion fighting wildfires this year (though the actual amount could be significantly higher or lower), while only $1.4 billion is available for that activity. The difference will have to be drawn out of the budget reserved for other activities, including fire-related work like clearing brush and controlled burns. In other words, the cost of fighting fires will take resources away from the very programs designed to keep fires in check.

The projected expenditures are the highest in several years, according to a statement from the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service. After record-breaking drought in the West over the last year, this year's fire season is expected to be especially frightful—by mid-April, California had already tallied nearly 1,000 fires for 2014 (without even counting fires occurring on federal land).

"With climate change contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons, the dangers and costs of fighting those fires increase substantially," Interior Dept. Assistant Secretary Rhea Suh said in the statement.

If you live in a wildfire-prone area, don't panic—federal firefighters will still be hard at work across the country this summer. But this is a familiar song and dance for the Forest Service: The agency has had to borrow against itself for firefighting costs in 7 of the last 12 years. (Last year was especially bad, as the sequester slashed the fire prevention budget.) The problem stems from the fact that firefighting costs have to be drawn out of the agency's fixed operating budget, rather than a special emergency fund like the kind used by FEMA to pay for recovery from other natural disasters. When costs exceed that budget, preventative programs—which likely do more to limit the devastation than firefighting itself—suffer.

"This is obviously not a sustainable approach to managing any budget," especially with the high firefighting costs of recent years, said Nature Conservancy policy analyst Cecilia Clavet.

Budget legislation recently introduced in Congress and backed by the White House aims to remedy the recurring problem by creating an emergency fund for federal firefighting agencies to tap when their costs go beyond the fixed budget. But that bill is still in its early stages, and in any case it would only take effect starting in fiscal year 2015, which begins in October—after the fire season has largely passed.

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Virginia Oil Tanker Derailment: "The River Was On Fire"

| Thu May 1, 2014 3:56 PM EDT

On Wednesday afternoon, a CSX train carrying crude oil jumped its tracks in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, sending three tankers careening into the James River with a fiery load; it was the second derailment for the company this year. While no one was injured, the fire burned for hours, and more than 300 people were evacuated from the nearby area. "The river was on fire," deputy city manager Bonnie Svrek told The Washington Post.

It's still unclear how much of the missing 50,000 gallons of crude was burned and how much spilled into the river. The video footage above—shot from a drone—shows just how close the derailment was to both the town and the river.

Meanwhile, this next Instagram video shows the intensity of the fire:

This derailment is the latest in a series of fiery accidents involving oil tankers. According to the Association of American Railroads, the amount of crude oil traveling by rail skyrocketed from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 in 2013. Our analysis published in February showed that in the United States, seven of the 10 worst railroad oil spills of the past decade happened in the last three years, totaling nearly $2 million in damages. (This number doesn't include the catastrophic accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July, which decimated the town and killed 47 people.)

US regulators have promised safer, more robust tanker cars in new regulations due out soon. Spurred by Lac-Megantic disaster, the Canadian Government last week issued tough new laws for the transportation of oil by rail, promising to retire older cars and replace them within three years, and making sure railways have emergency plans for responding to explosions.

Yet—despite evidence that shows the older tank cars are more susceptible to rupture after a derailment—the United States lags behind Canada: Its proposed new rules have yet to be passed. As recently as mid-April, policy makers met in Washington to discuss the problem, showing videos of older cars rupturing during a puncture tests and spraying their contents, according to reportsRobert Fronczak of the Association of American Railroads told the meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board that eliminating them by attrition alone could take 40 to 50 years.