In a way, Diary of an Eco-Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth by Diane Wilson could be any woman’s story. A newspaper article and a telephone call changed the course of her life.
Diary of an Eco-Outlaw is one of the two books I chose to read this March in honor of Women’s History Month. After reading Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in March 2013, I decided to make it an annual tradition to read at least one book by or about a woman environmentalist every March.
Readers you are about to become Diane Wilson’s time- traveling companion as you go back in time and accompany her to places near and far while carrying on a conversation that lasts for 243 pages.
Diary of an Eco-Outlaw recounts several interwoven stories involving Union Carbide, former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson, Texas jails, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and Formosa Plastics.
The book opens with Wilson describing her upbringing and life in Seadrift, TX, a small town on a bay in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Wilson her transformation from shrimp boat captain to environmental activist began with a newspaper article claiming Calhoun County (where she lives) was number one in the country for toxic waste disposal and contained half the hazardous waste generated in Texas.
After an explosion at a Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) plant in Seadrift, Wilson received a phone call. Two weeks later she flew thousands of miles to witness a tribunal in Bhopal, India the site of a 1984 Union Carbide pesticide plant gas leak that exposed over 500,000 people to deadly methyl isocyanate gas instantly killing over 2,200 people and resulting in over 20,000 deaths since then.
Years later an email and a photograph from Bhopal landed in Wilson’s inbox and without a moment’s hesitation she embarked upon a month-long hunger strike and an act of civil disobedience at the Seadrift Union Carbide plant that landed her in jail.
Wilson’s tale of her efforts to bring Warren Anderson to justice is humorous and inspiring. Her story about protesting at a fundraiser attended by Dick Cheney and ending up in jail shows her ingenuity and fearlessness and gives a harrowing account of what it is really like to be in jail for several months.
Through Diary of an Eco-Outlaw, Wilson relays the stories of a seemingly unending stream of current and former chemical industry workers who make their way to her door armed with piles of documentation and real-life experience dealing with hazardous working conditions, knowledge of illegal company actions, and suffering from a myriad of illnesses and fear.
Diane Wilson is the author of An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas and was featured in the award-winning documentary, Texas Gold. She is a co-founder of the women’s antiwar activist group CODEPINK and founder of the Texas Jail Project an advocacy group for Texas jail inmate rights.
Diane Wilson strikes me as a courageous fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of gal with a seemingly limitless pool of compassion, creative civil disobedience ideas, and willingness to put herself on the front line of the fight for human rights and environmental justice.
One might expect a non-fiction book filled with tales of injustice, environmental degradation, corporate malfeasance, government indifference, and personal sacrifice to deliver a compelling, distressing, and sometimes shocking narrative. Diary of an Eco-Outlaw does that, yet readers will also find themselves smiling and sometimes laughing out loud.
In short, Section 322 exempts fracking fluids and underground storage of natural gas from complying with the underground injection well regulations established by the U.S. EPA to protect our underground drinking water sources, meaning our aquifers.
This post explores events and influences that led to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and attempts to explain what Section 322 means in terms of the safety of our drinking water.
Fracking Fluids Endanger Drinking Water
There are over 1 million oil and gas wells spread across the United States. Thousands of more wells will join them as the oil and gas industry attempts to cash in on the current domestic oil and natural gas boom.
Fracking operators choose from hundreds of different chemicals to blend their proprietary (secret) fracking fluids, which may contain substances that are known carcinogens or that pose other significant dangers to human health. Just like any other structure, wells are subject to leaking or failure, fluid spills occur, and accidents happen. This can lead to contaminating the aquifers that millions of people rely on for their drinking water.
Oil and gas industry representatives claim there are no cases of water contamination caused by fracking, but this is a ridiculous statement. There are too many reports of polluted wells and contaminated public water systems near oil and gas fracking operations for it to be coincidental.
Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974
Let’s review the Safe Drinking Water Act and the section affected by the Energy Policy Act, the Underground Injection Control Program.
During the 1970’s, Americans fed up with pollution demanded the U.S. Congress take action to protect their health and wellbeing. Congress responded by passing several major pieces of environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.
These laws were necessary because businesses and industries of all types had demonstrated that they were either unwilling or incapable of operating in a manner that protected the public’s health and the environment. The federal government stepped in with laws and regulations.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) gives the EPA authority to set effluent and wastewater standards and makes it unlawful to discharge any pollutant into U.S. waterways and water bodies unless a permit is obtained.
Building on the CWA, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) authorizes the EPA to establish and enforce national drinking water standards and to establish and enforce regulations to protect underground drinking water sources.
Underground Injection Control Program
The intent of the Underground Injection Control Program is to prevent underground drinking water sources from being contaminated by fluids injected into underground wells.
The SDWA authorizes the EPA to establish regulations for underground injection wells and gives the states responsibility for issuing or denying injection well permits and enforcing regulations.
Injection wells are used to place fluids underground. These fluids include water, wastewater, non-hazardous liquids, hazardous wastes, brine (salt water), and water mixed with chemicals including those associated with mining, and oil and gas production. Well requirements vary depending on the fluid or fluids being injected.
The Underground Injection Control Program defines an injection well as:
A bored, drilled, or driven shaft, or a dug hole that is deeper than it is wide,
An improved sinkhole, or
A subsurface fluid distribution system.
Next, we will take a look at the task force that eventually led to the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
National Energy Policy Development Group
In January 2001, just days after being sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush appointed his new Vice President Dick Cheney to lead the National Energy Policy Development Group. The president charged the task force with developing a national energy policy.
At the time, California was in the midst of an energy crisis with rolling blackouts affecting hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of businesses across the state. Governor Gray Davis had declared a state of emergency. President Bush referred to the crisis numerous times in his public remarks as he reinforced the need for a national energy policy.
The task force presented its 170-page National Energy Policy Report to the president in May 2001. President Bush forwarded the report to Congress on June 28, 2001 and requested Congress address the items requiring legislative action. Several years later, a national energy policy emerged in the form of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Energy Policy Act of 2005
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 is a far-reaching law intended “To ensure jobs for our future with secure, affordable, and reliable energy.” It addresses a wide range of topics including energy efficiency, renewable energy, coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, vehicle fuels, hydrogen, tax incentives, federal land access, and research studies.
We will concern ourselves with Section 322 Hydraulic Fracturing that endangers our drinking water by amending Paragraph (1) of section 1421(d) of the Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. 300h (d)) .
This is how it appears in the current United State Code (the red text shows the words that were added by the Energy Policy Act).
Title 42 – The Public Health and Welfare
Chapter 6A – Public Health Service
Subchapter XII – Safety of Public Water Systems
Part C – Protection of Underground Sources of Drinking Water
Section 300h – Regulations for State Programs
(d) “Underground injection” defined; underground injection endangerment of drinking water sources
For purposes of this part:
(1) Underground injection.— The term “underground injection”—
(A) means the subsurface emplacement of fluids by well injection; and
(i) the underground injection of natural gas for purposes of storage; and
(ii) the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.
The Halliburton Loophole
From the beginning, there were questions about the suitability of having Dick Cheney head up the National Energy Policy Development Group and possible conflicts of interest due to his relationship with the oil and gas industry.
From 1995 to 2000, just prior to becoming the 46th Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney was the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest service providers to the oil and gas industry and currently ranking 103 on the Fortune 500 list with revenue of over $29.4 billion.
Fast forward to 2005, Cheney’s involvement in creating the national energy policy resulted in Section 322 of the Energy Policy Act being dubbed the ‘Halliburton loophole.’
There is no plausible explanation for exempting fracking fluids from regulation, except that this is what the oil and gas industry wanted. In this instance, apparently the President, Vice President, and Congress forgot whom they are supposed to serve.
Some readers may be able to relate to CEOs, executives, and managers handing down the private sector version of executive orders in the form of company-wide or department-wide edicts, directives, or mandates. In my experience, sometimes we followed directives to the letter, other times half-heartedly, and sometimes not at all.
Does the President garner more cooperation than a corporate CEO does? The answer is probably “It depends,” but the President as the Chief Executive of the United States does have the backing of the U.S. Constitution.
I thought it would be fun and informative to find out what actions federal agencies have taken to comply with the directives of EO 13514. Below is a summary of what I learned during a brief investigation.
Executive Order 13514 – Overview
The U.S. federal government occupies over half a million buildings, operates more than 600,000 vehicles, and purchases over $500 billion in goods and services each year 1, which enables federal agencies to make enormous reductions in carbon emissions, water use, and fossil fuel consumption, while using their considerable buying power to influence greening the government supply chain.
The actions and targets outlined in EO 13514 cover a wide range of measures including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy efficiency, using renewable energy, conserving water, diverting waste from landfills, improving building performance, and buying environmentally preferable goods and services.
Federal departments and agencies affected by EO 13514 include the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the Social Security Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and others.
Note: EO 13514 uses the federal government’s fiscal year (FY) calendar, which begins on October 1 of one year and ends on September 30 of the next.
Individual agency scorecards and strategic sustainability performance plans were relatively easy to locate, but I could not find a dashboard or report summarizing progress made to date on a federal government-wide basis, except for energy-related goals.
Executive Order 13514 – Interagency Collaboration
EO 13514 designated various agencies to work together to develop tools and guidelines to assist all agencies. A few examples are below.
The DOE led the development of a GHG emission accounting tool and procedure for measuring and reporting progress.
The GSA and DOE prepared guidelines to aid agencies in improving fleet energy performance.
The EPA led the effort to create guidelines for working with vendors on greening the supply chain.
Executive Order 13514 – Strategic Sustainability Performance Plans
Each agency created a sustainability plan outlining the actions it is taking and intends to take to achieve its goals and comply with EO 13514. Agencies publish scorecards and updated sustainability plans annually.
Progress on Energy Goals
The federal government is the largest energy consumer in the U.S, therefore, reducing fossil fuel use, increasing energy efficiency, and increasing renewable energy use will not only reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions it will save taxpayers billions of dollars.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Goals
EO 13514 requires each federal agency to establish a GHG emission reduction goal based on 2008 estimated emissions and achieve the goal by 2020.
The GHG emissions reduction goal consists of three categories:
Scope 1 – direct GHG emissions from federally owned or controlled sources, including fuels, burned on site and vehicle emissions.
Scope 2 – indirect GHG emissions from the offsite generation of electricity, heat, or steam purchased by federal agencies.
Scope 3 – indirect GHG emissions related to agency activities including vendor supply chains, delivery services, and employee travel.
Federal agencies established their 2020 targets in early January 2010.
As of September 30, 2013, the federal government had reduced direct GHG emissions by 17.2% seemingly on track to meet the 28% goal by 2020 and had exceeded the 13% goal for indirect GHG emissions with a 19.8% reduction.
Petroleum Product Use Reduction Goal
Agencies operating a fleet of least 20 motor vehicles are required to reduce consumption of petroleum products by 2% annually through 2020. I could not locate a government-wide progress report on petroleum use.
Renewable Energy Goal
President Obama raised the bar on renewable energy on December 5, 2013, by issuing his Memorandum on Federal Leadership on Energy Management, which requires each agency to obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, beginning with 10% in 2015.
Federal agency renewal energy use was at 9.2% of total energy use in September 2013.
My research indicates that at least in the case of EO 13514 federal agencies do take presidential executive orders seriously.
Greening the U.S. federal government is good for the planet, people, and taxpayer wallets.