Regulating Hydrofracking

  • Natural gas well drilling site. (Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)

A new drilling technique called
hydrofracking has opened up previously
inaccessible natural gas fields all
over the country and created a boom
in natural gas production. But it’s
also generated a lot of controversy,
since hydrofracking is exempt from
almost all federal regulations.
Samara Freemark reports
that legislation currently moving through
Congress would change that:

Transcript

A new drilling technique called
hydrofracking has opened up previously
inaccessible natural gas fields all
over the country and created a boom
in natural gas production. But it’s
also generated a lot of controversy,
since hydrofracking is exempt from
almost all federal regulations.
Samara Freemark reports
that legislation currently moving through
Congress would change that:

Hydrofracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals a mile into the ground to break up rock and extract gas. But since 2005 the technique has been exempt from federal environmental legislation like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Now some members of Congress have introduced a bill to restore federal oversight over fracking. Kate Sinding is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supports the bill.

“So what has been proposed is known as the FRAC act. And what that would do is restore regulatory authority over hydrolic fracturing which means we would have some federal standards about how to regulate this activity. And it would require the public disclosure of the fracturing fluids that are used in fracturing fluids.”

That’s an important point for fracking opponents, who say those chemicals have contaminated wells and groundwater across the nation.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

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Ethanol Part 1: Running the Well Dry?

  • Ethanol is starting to bring prosperity to some rural communities. But there are also concerns about whether adding this new industry to other industries - and cities - that draw on groundwater supplies will cause local shortages of water. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

It’s no surprise that the Corn Belt is the heart of the ethanol boom.
Two main ingredients you need to make ethanol are corn and water.
There’s no shortage of corn of course, and in most places it’s assumed
there’s also plenty of water. But as Rebecca Williams reports, even
people in water-rich states are getting concerned about ethanol’s
thirst for groundwater:

Transcript

It’s no surprise that the Corn Belt is the heart of the ethanol boom.
Two main ingredients you need to make ethanol are corn and water.
There’s no shortage of corn of course, and in most places it’s assumed
there’s also plenty of water. But as Rebecca Williams reports, even
people in water-rich states are getting concerned about ethanol’s
thirst for groundwater:


Bob Libra can tell a lot about water by looking at rocks. We’re in his
rock library – it even has a Dewey decimal system. Libra’s holding up
one of the 35,000 chunks of rock in here.


(Sound of scraping on limestone core)


“This for example is a core from a well. You can look at this and say well this is
what the plumbing system’s like down there.”


Libra’s a state geologist with the Iowa Department of Natural
Resources. Part of his job is to figure out how healthy his state’s
water supplies are. Any time a test well is drilled for a new ethanol
plant, rock samples get sent here.


Outside the rock library, there are three red pipes sticking up out of
the ground. These are observation wells that tap into sources of
groundwater far underground, called deep aquifers:


“A lot of people refer to it as Paleo-water or fossil water. It’s been
down there tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of
years.”


Libra says the water in those deep aquifers is pumped out for
everything from drinking water to ethanol plants. But as it’s pumped
out, it’s not replaced right away. It could take hundreds or thousands
of years to replenish the aquifers.


Geologists use the observation wells and rock samples to figure out how
much water is in those aquifers. But here at the rock library, those
samples are piling up into small mountains in the storage room. Bob
Libra says his state is way behind. Iowa hasn’t updated its groundwater
maps for 20 years:


“I think Iowa’s in the same kind of situation that a lot of states that
tend not to think of themselves as ‘water poor’ are finding themselves.
We haven’t paid attention to it for 20 years and suddenly BANG we’re
using an awful lot. And we have people every day going I’m interested
in putting a plant here – how much water can I get over here? And it’s
happening very rapidly.”


Each state has its own way of managing its groundwater. In Iowa, you
have to have a permit if you’re withdrawing more than 25,000 gallons of
water per day from a well or stream. Libra says the ethanol boom has
overwhelmed the state office where permits are handed out for the
asking:


“I’m at this location, I’m drilling into this aquifer, I’m going
to extract this amount of water. Here’s my $25 for a 10-year permit.”


Libra says nobody’s really checking to see if all these water
withdrawals will work for the next few decades.


How much water ethanol plants consume depends on who you talk to. But
on average, it takes between three and four gallons of water to make
one gallon of ethanol. Bob Libra says here in Iowa, adding new ethanol
plants is like adding a bunch of new towns out in the cornfields:


“A lot of ethanol plants they’re building now are on the order of 100
million gallon per year capacity so they’d be using about 400 million
gallons of water a year which is roughly as much as a town of 10,000
people.”


In some drier states, new ethanol plants are running into opposition.
Mark Muller is with the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy. He
says groundwater is local. So, what works in one place might be a
crisis in another:


“We’ve already seen it in Southwest Minnesota where a plant was denied because
of a lack of water resources. There’s a couple big fights going on in
Kansas right now over water availability. I think this is going to
probably one of the big drivers that’s going to make the industry look
further East rather than in the Midwest/Great Plains.”


The ethanol industry argues that it has already cut back on water use.
Lucy Norton is the managing director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels
Association. She says it’s in the industry’s best interest to be
careful with water:


“We’re not going to see a plant built somewhere where it’s an iffy
situation as to whether 10 years from now we’re going to have enough
water. You don’t put $200 million investment into a location that’s
not going to be able to sustain itself 10 years from now.”


But even if the water supplies could last 50 years, once the water is
gone from the aquifers, it’s gone for a long time.


There are a lot of
test wells going in these days, with 123 plants in operation and more
than 80 under construction around the country.


The growing political pressure for more and more ethanol is making
state officials eager to figure out exactly what’s underground, instead
of just assuming there’s enough water.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Protecting Crumbling Shorelines

  • This is a private beach Charles Shabica developed for a homeowner on Chicago's North Shore. The grasses in the background are native to the area and help stabilize the beach and bluff. They also help trap and filter runoff. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you reports from the series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ Our
guide in the series is Lester Graham. He says the next report looks at protecting property
and protecting nature:


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:


Great Lakes shorelines naturally change over time. Beaches erode. Dunes shift.
Sometimes, even the rockiest bluffs collapse.


That’s OK for nature, but maybe not for a house sitting on top of it. So it’s no wonder
that landowners try to stabilize their shorelines. To do that, they sometimes build walls
of steel or concrete to block incoming waves. It’s a tricky process. If the walls are too
short, they won’t stop erosion. But if they’re too long, they trap sand that moves
naturally along the lakeshore.


When nearby beaches can’t get sand, they degrade into muddy or rocky messes.


Charles Shabica is a coastal engineer. He’s been working at the problem for decades
now.


“My dream is to see the shores of the Great Lakes ultimately stabilized, but in a good
way and not a bad way where you’re causing problems.”


Shabica takes me to a small private beach north of Chicago. He engineered it to keep the
shoreline intact. The keys to that are two piles of rock that jut out into the lake.


The piles are just the right size – big enough to protect the shore, but small enough to let
some sand pass by. There’re other elements to the design as well.


Tall, blue-green grasses line the beach’s perimeter.


“Not only do waves tend to move sand around, but wind is also really an important agent,
too. So the beach grass and dune grass tends to stabilize the sand. And what will happen
is, you can see these things are seeding now, wind will blow the seeds and pretty soon
you get that stuff growing all over the place.”


A lot of homeowners and city planners applaud Shabica’s work. But not everyone does.


Some environmental groups say, once a landowner builds a wall or rock formation,
others have to follow suit, just to preserve their own sandy shoreline.


The environmental groups’ alternative? Keep development farther away from shorelines
and allow more natural erosion.


But that hands-off approach is not likely to happen. The majority of Great Lakes
shoreline is privately owned. And in many states, landowners often prevail in court when
they try to protect their investments.


Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute says the question isn’t whether to
build near the shore, but how to do it.


He says, in the past, landowners tried to get off cheap. They didn’t pay for quality
construction or get expert advice on local geological systems.


“If you don’t pay a lot of attention to these systems, it’s gonna cost you a lot of money.
And if you build inappropriate structures or inappropriate recreational facilities, you’re
going to either be paying a lot of money to sustain them or you’re gonna lose them.”


A lot of coastal geologists agree that, for much of the Great Lakes coast, private
shoreline protection efforts – even the bad ones – are here to stay.


In urban or suburban areas, housing developments near the shore often include a buffer or
wall.


Michael Chrzastowski is with Illinois’ Geological Survey. He says, in these cases, the
shore can look natural…


“But it’s going to be a managed, engineered facility, because wherever you are on the
shore, you’re influenced by some other construction or historical development along the
shore that’s altered the processes where you are.”


That’s definitely the case along highly-developed, urban coastlines, such as Illinois’.
Other parts of the region are catching up, though.


“What’s going to happen is, other places along the great lakes as they become more
developed and they become more urbanized, they’re going to use Illinois as a model.”


That could bring more projects like Charles Shabica’s little beach. Shabica says that’s
not necessarily a bad thing.


It’s just a way to come to terms with our presence along the lakes.


“Human beings are here to stay. It’s our responsibility I think to make our environment
better for us, but not at the expense of the biological community, and your neighbors.”


That sounds reasonable enough. But it will ultimately mean the vast, natural coastlines of
the Great Lakes will be engineered, one beach at a time.


For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Spring Storms Trigger Sewage Dumping

  • An overflow point in a combined sewer line. The overflow is designed to relieve pressure on an overburdened sewer system. (Photo courtesy of the USEPA)

The wet weather of the last few weeks has caused some communities to dump sewage into the Great Lakes. That’s triggering health concerns for this summer. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

The wet weather of the last few weeks has caused some communities to
dump sewage into the Great Lakes. That’s triggering health concerns
for this summer. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach
reports:


Frequent heavy downpours have overwhelmed some lakeside sewer
systems. Some cities have dumped partly treated or untreated sewage
into the Great Lakes, instead of causing sewer backups in local basements.


Jeffery Foran is an aquatic toxicologist and president of the Midwest Center for
Environmental Science and Public Policy. He says the sewage contains pathogens –
bacteria and microorganisms – that can cause disease in humans. He’s worried about the
material spreading along the lakeshore.


“Probably accumulating at the beaches, in the sand, and in the cladophora, this algae that
washes up in the lake and rocks, and other structures that occur along the shoreline.”


The sewerage district in Foran’s home city of Milwaukee has already dumped about two
billion gallons of sewage into Lake Michigan this spring. He says the large volume of
water in the lake will dilute some of the sewage. But Foran is still expecting some beach
closings this summer.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

Related Links

Turtle Numbers Down; Trapping Banned

  • Joanna Schmidt, a student at Minnesota State University-Moorhead, is part of a long-term turtle research project. She's trying to find out why turtle populations are declining in the Midwest. For her research, she catches turtles and gives them an identifying mark, then weighs and measures them before putting them back in the water. (Photo by Dan Gunderson.)

Many Great Lakes states are taking steps to protect turtles. There’s a big demand for turtles in Asia and Europe. But too much trapping can damage wild turtle populations. As a result, states are placing bans or restrictions on turtle trapping. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Gunderson reports:

Transcript

Many Great Lakes states are taking steps to protect turtles. There’s a big demand for turtles in
Asia and Europe. But too much trapping can damage wild turtle populations. As a result, states
are placing bans or restrictions on turtle trapping. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Dan Gunderson reports:


(sound of paddling)


Joanna Schmidt pushes a canoe into a small slough in northern Minnesota. She paddles toward a
floating rectangle of plastic pipe. The simple device is a turtle trap. It’s about four feet long with
net in the bottom and a board attached to the side.


“We put a plank on the side and they crawl up to sun themselves and they
just fall in. It’s pretty simple. No mechanics to it. They do all the work for us.”


Joanna Schmidt is a student at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She’s
part of a long-term turtle research project. Researchers want to learn
more about turtle habitat, and why there’s been a recent decline in turtle
populations.


This slough is about a quarter mile across. It lies in a hollow surrounded
by farm fields. Chest high grass and reeds line the water’s edge. Along one end, dead,
sunbleached trees stick out of the water. It’s perfect turtle habitat.


“It’s warm, a lot of food for them, not very many predators, so they like it,
especially having the dead trees with a place to hang out and sun themselves. So this is
very typical.”


Gunderson: “Any estimate of how many turtles might live in a slough this size?”


“Not just yet. That’s what we’re hoping to get to. And that’s what the DNR would
like to know.”


There are several turtles in the trap. Most have been caught before.
They’re identified by small notches in their shells. Schmidt weighs and measures
each turtle before gently setting them back in the water.


Minnesota State University Moorhead Biology professor Donna Stockrahm is
directing this research project. She says it takes years of research to get meaningful data about
turtles. They grow very slowly and they live a long time.


Stockrahm is hoping to learn about rates of turtle mortality, growth rates,
and the optimum habitat for turtles.


She’s seen a puzzling decline in turtle numbers.


“We started this in 2001 and they marked over 250 turtles. Then in 2002
the number just dropped drastically. And there seemed to be fewer turtles
around, even turtles that you see out sunning themselves on rocks and limbs and
dead tree trunks and things like that.”


Stockrahm says she doesn’t have an explanation for the decline. She’s
waiting to see if the trend continues this year.


Turtles are in demand in Europe for pets, and in Asia for
traditional medicines. More than seven million turtles are
exported from the United States each year.


Minnesota Department of Natural Resources researcher Rich Baker says
trapping is one reason turtle populations are down.


“What we’ve learned relatively recently is that especially in northern
latitudes commercial harvest really isn’t sustainable. These populations
of slowly maturing species just can’t sustain harvest of adults from the
population.”


Rich Baker says demand for turtles is driven largely by Asian and European
markets. Baker says many Asian turtle species are endangered because of
overharvest.


Those markets are turning to North America which is a particularly turtle-rich
part of the world and the upper Midwest which is a particularly
turtle-rich part of North America. Many of the states in the upper Midwest
have actually closed commercial turtle harvest completely.”


Most Great Lakes states now ban or restrict turtle trapping. Rich Baker
says Minnesota decided to phase out commercial harvest. He says about a dozen
people make a living trapping turtles. They’ll be allowed to continue.


People who like to eat turtle can still get a license to trap for personal
use. But there will be no new commercial turtle trapping licenses.
Minnesota will allow turtle farms as an alternative to harvesting wild turtles.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Dan Gunderson in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Habitat Harmed by Submerged Log Harvest?

Old growth logs left on the bottom of the Great Lakes continue to attract interest. The dense wood is prized by people who make instruments and fine furniture. A few states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York) have permitted salvage operations. But in Michigan, permits are on hold until officials resolve how removal of the logs affects fish habitat. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Allen has more:

Transcript

Old growth logs left on the bottom of the Great Lakes continue to
attract interest. The dense wood is prized by people who make instruments
and fine furniture. A few states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York) have permitted salvage
operations. But in Michigan, permits are on hold until officials resolve
how removal of the logs affects fish habitat. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Bob Allen has more:


The submerged timber has been abandoned since the heyday of logging in the
late 1800’s, but cold fresh water has preserved the wood. To retrieve it,
salvagers need two permits. One from the state, another from the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers. Michigan has issued 12 permits. But the Army Corps
wants to be sure there’s no adverse impact on fish. Randy Claremont is a fish
biologist with the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians. He’s been
documenting how fish use a proposed salvage pile in Lake Michigan off
the city of Petosky.


“Those logs… you know… at least every time we visited we saw fish
utilizing them because there’s very little habitat structure around so if
you remove those logs, you will definitely affect fish community
negatively.”


The Army Corps wants to be sure salvagers replace lost habitat with
rock or brush piles. Details are being worked out before permits
are issued. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bob Allen.