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Fossil Fuels EPA nails Chesapeake Energy for clean water violations

Published on December 27th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


US EPA Nails Fracker With Record Fine

December 27th, 2013 by  

The woes just keep piling up for Chesapeake Energy. The company is front and center in the nation’s natural gas fracking boom and it just got hit with one of the largest ever civil penalties for violating Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The penalty was levied against its subsidiary, Chesapeake Appalachia LLC.

Wait, what? We thought the fracking industry was notoriously exempt from the Clean Water Act, thanks to a loophole engineered back in 2005 by former Vice President (and former Halliburton oil company executive) Dick Cheney.

So, how’d they do that?

EPA nails Chesapeake Energy for clean water violations

Nail by Gabriel Pollard.

Fracking And The Clean Water Act

Fracking is an unconventional gas and oil drilling method that involves pumping vast quantities of a chemical brine deep underground, to shake deposits loose from shale formations.

Though natural gas is billed as a clean alternative to coal and oil, fracking has been linked to a raft of local pollution issues, and emissions of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) from drilling sites may be wiping out any advantage that natural gas has as a fuel.

The Clean Water loophole makes it almost impossible to gather direct evidence that traces fracking to a growing list of water contamination episodes, though the link between fracking waste disposal and earthquakes is becoming beyond dispute.

Under the Obama Administration, the EPA has been doggedly pursuing other avenues to bring fracking companies to account for environmental damage, and one of them is the Clean Water Act’s Section 404.

In announcing the action against Chesapeake last week, EPA described the alleged violations like this:

The federal government and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) allege that the company impounded streams and discharged sand, dirt, rocks and other fill material into streams and wetlands without a federal permit in order to construct well pads, impoundments, road crossings and other facilities related to natural gas extraction.

See what they just did? Section 404 does not apply directly to fracking brine, which is exempt from federal disclosure regulations under the Clean Water Act. It covers general construction activity common across a wide range of industries.

Evidently Chesapeake Energy saw the writing on the wall. Some of the violations were discovered by its own internal audit and the company has been working with EPA since 2010 to comply with remediation orders.

The settlement includes an estimated payment of $6.5 million to restore 27 sites in West Virginia, 16 of which involved fracking operations. It also includes a civil penalty of $3.2 million, which EPA describes as “one of the largest ever levied by the federal government for violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA), under the Section 404 program.”

Fracking In The Headlines Again

For those of you keeping score at home, the EPA announcement follows a string of bad press for the fracking industry and Chesapeake.

Just this past August, Bloomberg News reported that oil and gas land deals have fallen off the cliff, indicating that the natural gas boom is turning into one whopper of a bust (it could turn around if the Obama Administration opens up the export market, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms).

As for Chesapeake Energy, this year the company settled with a group of homeowners in Greenbrier, Arkansas for damages from earthquakes, which were linked to fracking waste disposal by the US Geological Survey.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been pursuing the Ponzi-like financial angle of the fracking boom, and in June 2012 he won a “landmark agreement” with Chesapeake Appalachia to renegotiate more than 4,400 leases in New York State.

Also last year, Bloomberg reported that Chesapeake Energy paid a tax rate of less than one percent on profits of $5.5 billion,  legendary investor T. Boone Pickens dumped his Chesapeake stock, and an in-depth report in Rolling Stone compared Chesapeake’s land “flipping” practices to the ongoing mortgage crisis.

This is just a random sample so feel free to add your Chesapeake story to the comment thread.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Alex Sagady

    This article conveys the erroneous impression that somehow Josh Fox wasn’t lying when he said that the oil and gas industry and hydraulic fracturing were exempt from the Clean Water Act.

    The truth is that hydraulic fracturing and the oil and gas industry are not exempt from the Clean Water Act. The truth is that this enforcement action and another in PA earlier by EPA against a unit of ExxonMobil for discharges of process wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations was busted under the Clean Water Act…..and this is all proof positive that Josh Fox lies for dramatic purposes in Gasland while claiming to be scientific and reality based.

    Gasland and Josh Fox antics are drama and performance art, not valid expressions and descriptions of physical reality and properly determined causal relationships using valid and accepted environmental and engineering sciences. Gasland’s claims about hydraulic fracturing and breast cancer are patently manipulative and fear-mongering with zero basis in in accepted health sciences.

    Josh Fox and Gasland commit serial acts of scientific misconduct for dramatic purposes and then turn it all into a mass program of public deception and mass dissemination of erroneous information about everything he talks about. What Gasland is…..is emotional manipulation and an attempt at mass public conditioning and inculcation of erroneous impressions of the environmental hazards and process safety of oil and gas operations. Gasland is designed to install public perceptions of hydraulic fracturing operations that have nothing to do with consensus scientific opinion addressing all of the environmental and engineering sciences related to surface water quality, groundwater quality and air pollution control. Gasland is obsessive insistence on making claims about methane emissions from well completions that have all been universally rejected by EPA, DOE and air pollution control professionals.

    When environmental organizations use Gasland for ‘educational’ or ‘campaign’ purposes and show Gasland products to the public, such organizations are in full embrace of Gasland’s scientific misconduct and doing so is unethical conduct for groups like Sierra Club. Such embrace of the Gasland/Josh Fox conflation/fabrication bubble is organizationally self-destructive behavior because embracing the scientific misconduct of Gasland is an act of science denial and is engagement in an anti-science campaign. John Muir was a scientist as a naturalist and the Sierra Club has no business trafficking in an anti-science campaign as doing so jeopardizes public support based on scientific support of greenhouse gas emission control and efforts to mitigate negative climate changes.

  • Elliander Eldridge

    I hope the export market on natural gas is permanently closed. We have enough natural gas reserves to last more than a hundred years which keeps prices low, but foreign markets pay more so it would only result in higher domestic prices for heating homes while creating an incentive for expanded operations with greater damage to hones and tge environment. No one would win.

    Also, I wish they would make a standard federal law limitinghow they can sieze mineral rights from unwilling property owners. I have seen it as high as 45% and as low as 1%. All they have to do is buy enoufh homes, strip the mineral rights, flip it with their own bundled mortgage and they can control the entire water table. How is that right?

  • Steeple
    • A Real Libertarian


      How many times are you going to look for plums before you think “Yeah, just thistles here”, Simple Steeple?

      • Steeple

        Al’s your guy, not mine.

        • A Real Libertarian

          You’re aware that climate change deniers are going to be remembered in the history books just like the German American Bund, right?

          • Steeple
          • A Real Libertarian

            Patrick Michaels?

            You’re citing a known fraud as your source?

            His blatant libel of James Hansen disqualifies him from any credibility.

            And then there’s his numerical illiteracy.

            And his fossil fuel industry ties.

            You really want to cite that?

          • Bob_Wallace

            You failed.

            I showed you previously that Atlantic storms, including hurricanes, are increasing.

            Want to tell us whether you forgot or “forgot”?

          • Steeple
          • A Real Libertarian

            So when Bob says “Atlantic storms, including hurricanes, are increasing” you interpret that as “The number of hurricanes hitting Florida is increasing”?

            Christ, and you wonder why scientists ignore you.

          • Steeple

            See below. Let me know if you need any more facts, since you seem to prefer rant to research.

          • A Real Libertarian

            No, I prefer pointing out how stupid you are, to swallowing your lies.

          • Steeple

            Posting NOAA data is a lie how?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Don’t be such a dumb fuck, Steeple.

            Florida is only one part of the US coast.

            Hurricanes are an Atlantic Ocean phenomenon.

          • Steeple

            Doing your work for you again, Bob. And this doesn’t even include 2013. Since 2005, we have been at/below average.

            Quit using a data set that stopped 10 yrs ago.

            You’re welcome.


          • Bob_Wallace

            You linked the page where I got my data.

            The data set runs through 2012.

            “Thus, the following records for the period of reliable data hold for the entire Atlantic basin (from 1966-2012) and for the USA coastline (1900-2012):”

            The current year is 2013, not 2023.

            What’s the matter with you? Have you not become a facts denier?

          • Steeple

            Your last graph truncated in the early 2000s.

            So you can see that the last 8 years have shown avg to below avg hurricane activity.

            What was your point again?

          • A Real Libertarian

            No, based on the X-Axis it ends about now.

            You really shouldn’t assume the reality based community is as pathologically dishonest as you.

          • Steeple

            Sorry that repeating back Big Al’s inflammatory and incorrect prior assertions upsets you. You may have to turn off the Inconvenient Truth loop. Can you believe he won a Nobel Peace Prize?

          • A Real Libertarian

            Look, the fact your ideology is contradicted by reality means you should abandon your ideology.

            Until you can do that, science will always reject you.

          • Steeple
          • Bob_Wallace

            Yes, there was less melting in 2013. However the amount was pretty much on the best fit line.

            2012 was an extreme melt year.

            Right how 2013 extent is pretty much tied with previous years at this time.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Steeple, you’re getting really close to earning your troll merit badge and a free trip to the door….

          • Bob_Wallace

            No, read the values on the horizontal axis.

            30 year tics. Last data point is 2012.

            Can’t add 2013 yet as 2013 has not ended. 2013 numbers will be lower than 2012 but higher than 2009.

  • ltsnyder

    The fine is no better than a slap on the wrist. Yes “flipping”was more profitable than exploiting, Especially when you can take your “best” result,and advertise it as the average (thanks to another Cheney loophole). One big mess.

  • Matt

    The sooner this bubble burst the better

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