What the Frack?! Under a new provision buried in federal environmental law, doctors are now forbidden from sharing information with patients exposed to the effects of “fracking.”
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing (and featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary film GasLand), is the process by which a high-pressure mixture of sand, water and chemicals is blasted into rock to tap into veins of natural gas. Halliburton and many other companies that use fracking for extraction have come under fire since a 2010 congressional investigation revealed that they used 32 million gallons of diesel products (including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, all toxic chemicals) in the fluids they pump into the ground. Low levels of exposure to these chemicals can cause headaches, dizziness, and fatigue, while higher doses can cause certain cancers.
The state of Pennsylvania is increasingly in the limelight of these recent debates over fracking. A discovery in the Marcellus Shale region of the state has led to advancements in the fracking process. Pennsylvania law currently allows doctors to access information about chemicals used in gas extraction, including fracking. However, this new provision will disallow doctors from sharing that information with their patients.
Critics of the law (i.e. anyone who does not profit from hydraulic fracturing) argue that it will prevent doctors from raising concerns over the impact of oil and gas extraction on the general public. According to Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach, the provision was not in the initial versions of the law that were debated in the House or Senate, but was added between the two chambers, and many lawmakers did not even notice this “broad, very troubling provision.” He also made the point that, “People are claiming that animals are dying and people are getting sick in clusters around [natural gas drilling wells], but we can’t really study it because we can’t see what’s actually in the product.”
A closer look at the history surrounding natural gas legislation at the federal level, however, makes this new provision no surprise at all. The oil and natural gas industries are not only exempt from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory (the program that ensures information is provided about what chemicals companies are releasing), but also from EPA regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Perhaps the most important point on this new law has been raised by Walter Tsou, president of the Philadelphia chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility: “What is the big secret here that they’re unwilling to tell people, unless they know that, if people found out what’s really in these chemicals, they would be outraged?” Which also begs the question, why does such a high-risk industry have federal exemptions when no other industry does? Somehow, we suspect it all boils down to money… –Raffi Simel
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Chevron is facing some serious headwinds in South America. This past Wednesday, a Brazilian federal prosecutor declared the U.S. oil giant failed to properly manage the aftermath of a November drilling accident and subsequent spill, which could lead to the company being barred from operating in the country.
“Chevron may never be allowed to freely operate in Brazil again,” federal prosecutor Eduardo Santos de Oliveira told reporters in the wake of the spill that allowed about 3,000 barrels of crude oil to spew into a seabed.
This most recent blemish to the brand comes on the heels of another calamity. On March 16, the Brazilian navy spotted a thin strip of oil in an offshore field called Frade, off the coast of Brazil. Seventeen top executives from Chevron and Transocean, a Swiss-based offshore drilling company, may face a criminal indictment for the alleged oil leak. Chevron has a controlling interest in Frade, as it owns 52 percent of the field and operates its production, while Transocean’s drills are used for extraction.
A federal judge in Rio de Janiero granted a request from prosecutors and it is now up to the judge involved to determine whether to accept the charges and proceed with the case. The charges are expected to be filed in the next few days. The 17 executives, led by George Buck, head of Chevron’s Brazil unit, have already been prohibited from leaving the country and were forced to turn over their passports to police.
The high-profile spill last November resulted in an $11 billion civil lawsuit, Brazil’s largest environmental decision to-date.
Production in the Frade field has been halted as Chevron tries to contain the oil, and its image, in the area. The halting is a major cause for concern for Chevron, as Frade has the capacity to produce 80,000 barrels a day, more than three percent of Brazil’s total output.
There is skepticism regarding Chevron’s involvement in the leak. According to Cleveland Jones, a geologist at UFRJ, the state university of Rio, “Until there is some further proof, there is a good chance that this leak is a natural occurrence” and “Leaks of this size are common, and are how people realized there was oil in the area in the first place.”
If Chevron is seeming like the most guilty of the perpetrators in the latest trend of oil spills, it is important to note that last November’s spill of 3,000 barrels was less than 0.1 percent of BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Rather than point fingers though, let’s hope it doesn’t take too many more accidents for the majority of the world, and not just Brazil, to realize the inevitability of the damage that careless oil extraction brings. -Raffi Simel
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Back in February, the bully of American agriculture, Monsanto, breathed a sigh of relief when a federal class-action lawsuit against the agricultural and chemical company was dismissed. The Missouri-based gene giant flexed its muscles even more on March 15 when the U.S. Government approved a large-scale experiment with genetically modified crops that Monsanto insists will thrive in the most arid of conditions.
On the surface, the move sounds like a godsend for Middle America crops. But once all the cornhusks are counted, not a single organic farmer would be shocked if Monsanto’s profits end up being the thing that grows must abundantly. Rather than continue pouting about the agribusiness’ questionable ways, the group striving to slow the company down, Occupy Monsanto, donned biohazard suits on March 16 and told Congress again about the brand’s harmful actions.
Monsanto’s volatile relationship with organic farmers was first introduced to the masses with the 2008 documentary Food Inc. Monsanto brings patent-enforcement lawsuits against organic farmers at an average rate of 13 lawsuits per year. The farmers who don’t use Monsanto products are charged with infringing on Monsanto’s seed patent. Often, pollen from a genetically modified seed originating at a Monsanto farm can crossbreed with the organic seeds of neighboring farms. When this happens, and the company finds traces of their patented seed and sues for patent infringement.
Hundreds of farmers and advocates, led by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, ascended on Lower Manhattan to put a serious dent in Monsanto’s patent policy with a lawsuit of their own. They were hoping that the New York Federal District Court that oversaw the class-action suit against the company would sympathize with the organic farmers and prevent Monsanto from enforcing their patent.
The ruling judge, Naomi Reice Buchwald, was not so sympathetic. She said that the plaintiffs had “overstated the magnitude of [Monsanto’s] patent enforcement” and that Monsanto’s average of annual lawsuits “is hardly significant when compared to the number of farms in the United States, approximately two million.”
The greater significance of the lawsuit is that it points to troubles in organic agriculture. The dismissed Monsanto suit highlights the increasing burden and barrier to success of organic farms and produce. With most organic farms already containing anywhere from one-half to two percent genetically modified seed, it’s not hard to imagine American farms where nothing is left completely organic anymore, especially with companies like Monsanto spreading their seed over the organic agricultural community.
But if OSGATA and others just look to South America for inspiration, they’d realize all hope wasn’t lost against the menacing Monsanto. Thanks to the unrelenting pressure of a farming community of about 6,000, Peru officially banned genetically modified ingredients anywhere in its borders for the next decade. A few more punches like that to Monsanto’s gut should at least make the behemoth stagger a bit. -Raffi Simel
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United Nations members met in Nagoya, Japan in 2010 and agreed to set aside 10 percent of the world’s oceans as reserves by 2020 as part of a target called the “Convention on Biological Diversity.” A year and a half later, that target is no closer to reality than it was then. Some estimates say that less than half of 1% of our oceans are fully protected as no-take zones (areas in which destructive activities are prohibited). According to fishery scientists, ocean reserves provide hope for restoring areas that have been stressed by extractive and destructive activities.
Ocean reserves operate much like national parks. However, nearly 15 times as much land area is protected than ocean areas. One particularly at-risk region is the Antarctic Ocean. Home to about 10% of the world’s oceanic life (including 10,000 species such as penguins, seals, and whales), the Antarctic stands to lose a lot if the United Nations doesn’t stay true to its commitment.
Luckily, the UN’s lack of progress is being met by a coalition of environmental groups calling itself the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, which includes prominent members such as Greenpeace, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and our friends at the World Wildlife Fund.
Last week, the Alliance proposed a network of reserves spanning 1.39 million square miles, comprised of 19 reserve zones around Antarctica. This would be the world’s largest collection of marine reserves to date. Currently, the largest single reserve in the world is the Chagos Islands area in the Indian Ocean, which is 210,000 square miles.
Hopefully this giant push for desperately-needed ocean reserves by the world’s leaders in environmental activism will not only catch the attention of the United Nations, but propel it into action. –Raffi Simel
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