Exxon Mobil Corp. subsidiary XTO Energy is faced with criminal charges for allegedly dumping tens of thousands of gallons of hydraulic fracturing waste at a Marcellus Shale drilling site in 2010, according to a Pennsylvania judge’s ruling last week.
A brief history of Exxon: after the Exxon Valdez incident happened in 1989, Exxon spent over $3.8 billion to clean up the site, compensate the 11,000 residents and pay fines. However, it could well have been $4.5 billion more. The Alaskan court ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive damages in 1994. After 14 years of lawsuits and appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Exxon only owed $507.5 million — about 12 hours of revenue for the giant oil company.
In the Pennsylvania case, following a preliminary hearing, Magisterial District Judge James G. Carn decided that all eight charges against Exxon — including violations of both the state Clean Streams Law and the Solid Waste Management Act — will be “held for court,” meaning there is enough evidence to take the fossil fuel giant to trial over felony offenses.
Pennsylvania’s Attorney General filed criminal charges back in September, claiming Exxon had removed a plug from a wastewater tank, leading to 57,000 gallons of contaminated water spilling into the soil. The Exxon subsidiary had contested the criminal charges, claiming there was “no lasting environmental impact,” and that the charges could “discourage good environmental practices” from guilty companies.
“The action tells oil and gas operators that setting up infrastructure to recycle produced water exposes them to the risk of significant legal and financial penalties should a small release occur,” Exxon said at the time.
Oh no! Poor things are going to be prosecuted for doing something illegal. Should we feel sorry for them?
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is done by injecting high-pressure water and chemicals miles deep into the ground into subsurface rock, thereby “fracturing” the rock and allowing more spaces for oil and gas to come through.
The procedure generally results in a good amount of wastewater, which is what Exxon is charged with illegally dumping. The specific chemical makeup of that wastewater is largely unknown, since public disclosure of what exactly is used in the water is mostly self-regulated by the fracking companies. How convenient!
More About Marcellus Shale
Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale is in a category of its own: a 600-mile underground formation brimming with natural gas. It has even caused the state to be dubbed the “Saudi Arabia” of natural gas. The Marcellus cuts across six adjacent states including Ohio, Virginia and New York, but it is the Keystone State that is throwing itself into harnessing the formation to reap a natural gas fortune.
But what is the cost of this boom to the health of people living there?
According to new research, increased amounts of methane and other stray gases have been found in drinking water near natural gas wells in Pennsylvania’s gas-rich Marcellus shale region. Concentrations of methane, for example, were sometimes found to be six times higher in drinking water located within one kilometer of drilling operations.
Updates on Fracking
The most recent study of health risks related to fracking was released in mid-December by the journal Endocrinology, which found the presence of hormone-disrupting chemicals in surface water and groundwater samples in Garfield County, Colo. — one county at the center of the U.S. fracking boom. The chemicals have been linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer.
Additionally, a July study from the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences of USA found that the closer residents live to wells used in fracking, the more likely drinking water is contaminated, with 115 of 141 wells found to contain methane.
In November, four Colorado towns passed ballot initiatives that either banned or put moratoria on hydraulic fracturing: Broomfield, Fort Collins, Lafayette and Boulder. Broomfield’s vote was so close that its results are pending a ruling from a judge. But the activists behind the fracking bans have formed the Colorado Community Rights Network to work on an amendment to the Colorado state constitution that would appear on the ballot in November, ensuring that local governments in Colorado have the right to ban drilling.
In the City of Loveland, a fracking moratorium was kept off the ballot based on a technicality, but steps are underway to hold a special election on the proposal in 2014.
There was also good news in California. Early in 2013, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) won a legal challenge against proposed fracking operations in California. A federal judge ruled that federal authorities should not have leased 2,700 acres of BLM land in Monterey and Fresno counties to oil and gas drillers without considering the environmental impacts of fracking.
As they face criminal charges for their dangerous fracking operations, will Exxon be forced to cut back?
Photo: Exxon is using the fracking waste containers to hold the tar sands bitumen and water they're collecting. Credit: Tar Sands Blockade