UK Shale: Fracker Barons need to cut councils & citizens into the profits…..Tim Yeo & Ben Wallace have said…allegedly…

Tim YeoAt the two-day ‘2nd Annual UK Shale Summit: Making it Happen’ event kicked off in July 2013 at the Lancaster London Hotel. Douglas Bain, director at Dart Energy was the first to speak. He gave a rundown of the company’s licences in the Bowland Shale, which he said was the UK’s most prospective shale play: thick shales, good gas and flow rates demonstrated. He said the Western region is the most active and Dart has one of the largest acreage positions there. The Eastern region does not show as much potential but there are indications of hydrocarbon potential and both dry and liquid rick shale gas may possibly be extracted.

The theme of the morning seemed to be how to get local authorities and communities on board with shale development in the country and Bain too touched upon this. He said that the most common questions that the industry must always be prepared to answer are: Is it safe? Do we need gas? Do we need to get it from ‘here’?

He believes it is very important to win over public acceptance and as stakeholders can turn very quickly if there is even a shred of doubt in their mind, there must be easily accessible, transparent and honest data regarding factors like air quality, noise and traffic management plans – issues that citizens will care about.

He concluded by saying that the UK government has been very supportive, and hoped that this would only get better. He admitted that there are always cynical people in society that will assume the worst, and so the industry will have to work hard to get them on board.

Next up was Tim Yeo, chair of the energy and climate change committee in the UK Parliament. He described the event as ‘timely’ and ‘topical’ (just last month the British Geological Survey (BGS) said that the country’s shale gas resources are estimated to be 1329 trillion cubic feet). His reasons to develop shale gas are to reduce dependency on imports and to keep gas prices down.

However, he said that unlocking shale potential would be a slow and difficult process because of the UK’s strong tradition of protecting its environment. There is a near certainty, he believed, of strong opposition based on environmental concerns even though this may “sometimes border on being completely irrational”.

The way to win over local communities would be to make them direct beneficiaries. While he personally felt that 25% of revenues going to land owners would be a great method and a model used in the US, he said its implementation would not be likely, there are other ways of going about it, such as offering to freeze energy bills. Something dramatic is needed, said Yeo, not just for local councils but individuals too.

He also spoke about the importance of having a low carbon element as part of the UK’s energy mix.


Following him was Ben Wallace MP, who started off by giving a disclaimer that he is open minded about shale and not an enemy, but wanted to warn the industry that the role that will be played by local communities in any shale development plan is very important.

He said that the promise of more jobs, an oft-used rhetoric, will not work in his constituency, where unemployment rates are ‘enviably’ low.

He emphasised that when it comes to planning decisions, it is the local councils and not the central government that is in charge and it is the local councils that need to be won over. In his opinion, councils do not yet know where they stand on the issue, nor do local communities.

Trust, he thinks, is the most importance factor in this. The industry must make sure that government enthusiasm for shale is not seen as simply a way of enriching the Treasury. Moreover, he reiterated what Yeo said about local individuals directly experiencing benefits and feeling some kind of ownership towards the process.

He warned against ‘gimmicks’ that may come off as ‘shoddy bribes’ but something sustainable. He also recommended that companies invest in universities to teach students shale-related skill sets, that could in the future be a useful export when shale gas is developed around Europe.

He said that by demonstrating the real benefits of shale, and by telling people the success stories of places like Texas and North Dakota , where local economies are booming thanks to shale, companies could get communities on board. Moreover, they must strive to understand the complexities of these communities, what their concerns are and what they are thinking. He gave the example of a CEO who managed to turn an entire town hall against him because he had the wrong attitude.

He pointed out that local politics often trumps national issues and said that if the industry keeps these points in mind, and myths are countered and taken on, then “shale gas has a future”.

Fracking site in UK suffered “loss of wellbore integrity” ‘allegedly’……


According to reports and information gained under the UK Freedom of Information Act it appears that one of Cuadrilla’s initial drilling sites in the UK suffered a previously unreported structural failure.

The damage has been described by engineers as a possible “loss of wellbore integrity”, this can result in a leaking of fluid or gases from shale extraction and cause possible environmental or public health hazards.

The allegations originate from emails between Cuadrilla and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which suggest that the site at Preese Hall, Lancashire, suffered structural damage.

The news has caused environmental and safety concerns regarding fracking, although there is no indication that any gases escaped from the well into the air or surrounding rocks.


Cuadrilla has made no admission of such damage but Anthony Ingraffea, Professor of Engineering at Cornell University, said “it is quite apparent… that there was indeed a loss of wellbore integrity followed by attempts to remediate.”

But clarified that the blanket term covers a multitude of incidents of varying severity and as such “there are so many factors to consider” when reviewing the impact of a loss of well integrity.

The well itself was abandoned by Cuadrilla in December 2013, a HSE spokesperson asserted that “the issue has been resolved during the abandonment process” and that there had been “no leak of fluids” but that the site would be continued to be monitored for any potential concerns.

Caroline Lucas an MP for the Green Party said, “these new revelations cast serious doubt upon their [the government’s] assurances.

Ministers claim that the serious leaks of gas and fracking fluid that have blighted the industry in the USA couldn’t happen here because of strong regulation. But now it seems that, before fracking has even started in a meaningful way… independent experts are saying that well integrity has been breached… the only safe and responsible thing to do with shale gas is to leave it in the ground.”

However, a spokesperson for Cuadrilla stated that “the well integrity at Preese Hall is secure and always has been…

Shale Energy Insider 2014


Fracking & Litigation – money talks, bullshit walks?


June 6 (Bloomberg) — Chris and Stephanie Hallowich were sure drilling for natural gas near their Pennsylvania home was to blame for the headaches, burning eyes and sore throats they suffered after the work began.

The companies insisted hydraulic fracturing — the technique they used to free underground gas — wasn’t the cause. Nevertheless, in 2011, a year after the family sued, Range Resources Corp. and two other companies agreed to a $750,000 settlement. In order to collect, the Hallowiches promised not to tell anyone, according to court filings.

The Hallowiches aren’t alone. In cases from Wyoming to Arkansas, Pennsylvania to Texas, drillers have agreed to cash settlements or property buyouts with people who say hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, ruined their water, according to a review by Bloomberg News of hundreds of regulatory and legal filings. In most cases homeowners must agree to keep quiet.

 The strategy keeps data from regulators, policymakers, the news media and health researchers, and makes it difficult to challenge the industry’s claim that fracking has never tainted anyone’s water.

“At this point they feel they can get out of this litigation relatively cheaply,” Marc Bern, an attorney with Napoli Bern Ripka Sholnik LLP in New York who has negotiated about 30 settlements on behalf of homeowners, said in an interview. “Virtually on all of our settlements where they paid money they have requested and demanded that there be confidentiality.”


Energy Transformation

Because the agreements are almost always shrouded by non-disclosure pacts — a judge ordered the Hallowich case unsealed after media requests — no one can say for sure how many there are. Some stem from lawsuits, while others result from complaints against the drillers or with regulators that never end up in court.

“We are transforming our energy infrastructure in this country from burning coal for electricity to potentially burning a lot of natural gas,” Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an interview. Non-disclosure agreements “have interfered with the ability of scientists and public health experts to understand what is at stake here.”

Gas Alliance

“The practice is common in every type of litigation in every industry,” Dan Whitten, spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a Washington-based industry group, said in an e-mail. “It is often the case that it is less burdensome to settle — even on claims that have no merit — than to go into a protracted court battle.”

One driller, Southwestern Energy Co. of Houston, said it agreed to settle a class-action complaint of water contamination in Arkansas last year only if the agreement remained open so there would be no suspicion.

“If we had a confidentiality agreement, everybody would have thought ‘oh gosh, what did Southwestern do here. They got away with something and just paid these guys a pittance,’” said Mark Boling, Southwestern’s general counsel. The $600,000 the company paid three families was a fraction of what the legal fees would have been to see the case through, he said.


Legal Threat

Another driller, Encana Corp. of Calgary, took a different approach, threatening legal action to keep details of a case out of view of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Laura Amos believed gas drilling near her home in Silt, Colorado, about 160 miles (257 kilometers) west of Denver, was to blame for a tumor she developed. Encana, which owns the well, disagreed that fracking made her sick. Yet the company bought her 30-acre property in 2006 for $310,000, according to public records.

Amos’ complaint and the existence, though not details, of a settlement and non-disclosure pact were disclosed in filings with the oil and gas commission. In December, the agency subpoenaed Amos to testify about a rule it was considering to require water tests. Matt Sura, an environmental attorney in Boulder, Colorado, who represented conservation groups that were seeking Amos’ testimony, said an Encana attorney told him the company would sue Amos if she talked. She didn’t want to face a lawsuit from Encana and Sura said he asked the commission to withdraw the subpoena.

‘Relevant Testimony’

“She had really relevant testimony,” Sura said in an interview. “Because they’ve bought everyone’s silence, they often state that they haven’t damaged anyone.”

In filings with the commission, Amos said gas drilling on a neighbor’s property in 2001 caused her water well to blow out “like a geyser at Yellowstone.” Two years later she said she developed health problems that her doctors could not explain and she believes were related to the drilling.

The commission had concluded that Encana was responsible for methane in Amos’s well, though it said it found no evidence of fracking fluids in her water. Encana disputed the finding yet agreed to a $99,400 fine and to monitor the well until methane levels dropped.

“Encana settled the Amos case as it had been an issue a predecessor company had been working with since 2001 and rather than continue with a lengthy and costly process, Encana decided to settle,” said Jay Averill, a spokesman for Encana, in an e-mail. He didn’t respond to a question about why the company sought to keep Amos from testifying to the commission.

Amos declined to comment on any aspect of the case when contacted by telephone.


Horizontal Drilling

“Why are they settling all these cases?” Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney with the environment group Earthjustice, said in an interview. “There’s obviously information that they don’t want to get out there.”

Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said corporations often insist on confidentiality.

“Companies don’t want other potential plaintiffs to know how much money the companies were willing to pay for a settlement,” he said in an e-mail.

Advances in fracking and horizontal drilling have lowered energy prices, created thousands of jobs and helped reduce emissions blamed for global warming. President Barack Obama has highlighted the benefits of natural gas, including jobs created in the industry, in major speeches.

The technology, in which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are forced underground to free trapped gas, has brought drilling operations to within hundreds of feet of schools, homes and farms. With that has come complaints of drinking water contamination — which the industry has forcefully denied.


No Contamination

“There has never been a case of groundwater contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing,” Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, said in an April 23 interview with Bloomberg Radio.

Such claims rest in part on viewing fracking in isolation from the drilling that precedes it and the disposal of wastewater that follows. Defined narrowly, fracking is the step in the middle in which water and chemicals are forced underground to break up rock and free gas and oil.

Regulators in Pennsylvania, however, have linked gas and oil drilling with about 120 cases of water contamination from 2009 to 2012, according to documents obtained through a state right-to-know request. The documents don’t say if it was the fracking stage that was to blame, as opposed to faulty drilling or waste disposal.

Public Concern

“At the end of the day the public is less concerned with the niceties of whether it’s coming from the fracturing of the shale or whether it is coming from the failure of the well casing because as far as they’re concerned, it’s all hydraulic fracturing,” Mark Brownstein, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund in New York, said in an interview.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a long-term study of the potential impact of fracking on water.

Settlement terms in the Hallowich case were unsealed over the objections of the driller, Range Resources, by Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca who said companies failed to show they’d suffer harm to trade secrets or reputations if the records were open.

Hallowich Case

MarkWest Energy Partners LP and Williams Cos.’s Williams Gas unit joined in the June 2011 agreement, which included the transfer of the Hallowich home in Hickory, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Pittsburgh. The family received $594,820, including $10,000 for each of their two children. The rest of the $750,000 went to attorneys’ fees, according to court documents.

Unlike most settlements, the deal required court approval because minor children were parties to the case. That put the settlement in court, where newspapers and public interest groups challenged an order sealing the case.

“We support the judge’s decision to release the file, which now clearly shows that the state’s extensive investigations clearly proved that there were no environmental or health impacts,” Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, said in an e-mail. The problems the Hallowiches experienced were from the nuisance of drilling and related activities nearby, he said.


‘Can’t Talk’

As part of the settlement, the Hallowiches signed an affidavit stating there is no medical evidence that their symptoms are related to gas drilling. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection had said it “cannot conclude” that drilling contaminated the water, a finding the family disputed in its lawsuit. They alleged the agency refused to adequately investigate and outsourced some of the testing to Range Resources itself.

The Hallowiches declined, through their attorney, to discuss the case.

“My clients signed a confidentiality agreement,” Peter Villari, their lawyer, said in an interview. “They can’t talk to you.”

In the end, settlements undermine the industry’s credibility, Robert Kennedy Jr., president of the environment group Waterkeeper Alliance, said.

“The industry is asking us to trust it on the one hand, at the same time it’s gagging people who get sick so that they’re not allowed to talk,” Kennedy said in an interview. “Local doctors, the medical community and citizens who are in these areas need to know.”

Excerpt from


Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq


Plans to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves were discussed by government ministers and the world’s largest oil companies the year before Britain took a leading role in invading Iraq, government documents show.

The papers raise new questions over Britain’s involvement in the war, which had divided Tony Blair’s cabinet and was voted through only after his claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The minutes of a series of meetings between ministers and senior oil executives are at odds with the public denials of self-interest from oil companies and Western governments at the time.

The documents were not offered as evidence in the ongoing Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war. In March 2003, just before Britain went to war, Shell denounced reports that it had held talks with Downing Street about Iraqi oil as “highly inaccurate”. BP denied that it had any “strategic interest” in Iraq, while Tony Blair described “the oil conspiracy theory” as “the most absurd”.

But documents from October and November the previous year paint a very different picture.


Five months before the March 2003 invasion, Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq’s enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair’s military commitment to US plans for regime change.

The papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP’s behalf because the oil giant feared it was being “locked out” of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.

Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read: “Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis.”

The minister then promised to “report back to the companies before Christmas” on her lobbying efforts.

The Foreign Office invited BP in on 6 November 2002 to talk about opportunities in Iraq “post regime change”. Its minutes state: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity.”

After another meeting, this one in October 2002, the Foreign Office’s Middle East director at the time, Edward Chaplin, noted: “Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in [Iraq] for the sake of their long-term future… We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq.”

Whereas BP was insisting in public that it had “no strategic interest” in Iraq, in private it told the Foreign Office that Iraq was “more important than anything we’ve seen for a long time”.


BP was concerned that if Washington allowed TotalFinaElf’s existing contact with Saddam Hussein to stand after the invasion it would make the French conglomerate the world’s leading oil company. BP told the Government it was willing to take “big risks” to get a share of the Iraqi reserves, the second largest in the world.

Over 1,000 documents were obtained under Freedom of Information over five years by the oil campaigner Greg Muttitt. They reveal that at least five meetings were held between civil servants, ministers and BP and Shell in late 2002.

The 20-year contracts signed in the wake of the invasion were the largest in the history of the oil industry. They covered half of Iraq’s reserves – 60 billion barrels of oil, bought up by companies such as BP and CNPC (China National Petroleum Company), whose joint consortium alone stands to make £403m ($658m) profit per year from the Rumaila field in southern Iraq.

Last week, Iraq raised its oil output to the highest level for almost decade, 2.7 million barrels a day – seen as especially important at the moment given the regional volatility and loss of Libyan output. Many opponents of the war suspected that one of Washington’s main ambitions in invading Iraq was to secure a cheap and plentiful source of oil.


Mr Muttitt, whose book Fuel on the Fire is published,said: “Before the war, the Government went to great lengths to insist it had no interest in Iraq’s oil. These documents provide the evidence that give the lie to those claims.

“We see that oil was in fact one of the Government’s most important strategic considerations, and it secretly colluded with oil companies to give them access to that huge prize.”

Lady Symons, 59, later took up an advisory post with a UK merchant bank that cashed in on post-war Iraq reconstruction contracts. Recently she severed links as an unpaid adviser to Libya’s National Economic Development Board. Last night, BP and Shell declined to comment.


Not about oil? what they said before the invasion

* Foreign Office memorandum, 13 November 2002, following meeting with BP: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity to compete. The long-term potential is enormous…”

* Tony Blair, 6 February 2003: “Let me just deal with the oil thing because… the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it. The fact is that, if the oil that Iraq has were our concern, I mean we could probably cut a deal with Saddam tomorrow in relation to the oil. It’s not the oil that is the issue, it is the weapons…”

* BP, 12 March 2003: “We have no strategic interest in Iraq. If whoever comes to power wants Western involvement post the war, if there is a war, all we have ever said is that it should be on a level playing field. We are certainly not pushing for involvement.”

* Lord Browne, the then-BP chief executive, 12 March 2003: “It is not in my or BP’s opinion, a war about oil. Iraq is an important producer, but it must decide what to do with its patrimony and oil.”

* Shell, 12 March 2003, said reports that it had discussed oil opportunities with Downing Street were ‘highly inaccurate’, adding: “We have neither sought nor attended meetings with officials in the UK Government on the subject of Iraq. The subject has only come up during conversations during normal meetings we attend from time to time with officials… We have never asked for ‘contracts’.”


Oil companies are drilling on public land for the price of a cup of coffee……


One of the U.S. government’s largest sources of non-tax revenue comes from the land it leases to oil, gas and coal companies. Last fiscal year, the federal government generated more than $13 billion from drilling and mining activities on its land – but it should have made hundreds of millions of dollars more. Antiquated pricing rules have given these energy companies access to federal lands at prices that ignore decades of inflation, as well as many environmental and health costs of fossil fuel production.

Even as the average annual price for oil produced in the United States tripled in a decade, the minimum price the federal government charged for leases remained stagnant. In fact, for decades, the minimum bid to lease public land for fossil fuel production has been just $2 an acre. Annual rental fees, which companies pay to hold and explore federal lands before production, are just as low.

And the royalty rate for oil and gas produced onshore has remained at just 12.5 percent since 1920. Those bargain prices give private companies a windfall while depriving American taxpayers of a fair return from energy production. Instead, the public has been left to pay for many of the social and environmental costs of fossil fuel operations, from road damage to respiratory problems.


This longstanding issue has become more pronounced as hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” has caused domestic energy production to soar, increasing its potential to become an even larger source of revenue for federal and state governments. 

Although fossil fuel production on federal lands has declined in recent years, oil, gas and coal from public lands – including offshore leases – still account for 25 percent of total U.S. fossil fuel production. Coal production on federal lands, alone, accounts for 40 percent of the U.S. total.

While the $2 minimum bid for federally auctioned oil and gas leases is only the starting price, about 40 percent of existing leases were sold at that level. Further, annual rental fees for onshore oil and gas leases – $1.50 per acre during the first five years and $2 per acre each year thereafter – allow drilling companies to hold and explore mineral leases for the price of a cup of coffee.

These low rental rates also fail to account for many of the external costs associated with exploratory drilling and mining, including local air pollution, damage to ecosystems, and truck traffic. In some cases, former hiking and scenic areas are converted into production sites and access roads.  Since these effects must be disclosed in environmental impact statements before lease sales, the federal government can estimate the cost of the damage and raise rental rates to cover them.


Equally pressing, the U.S. government charges a lower royalty rate for onshore oil and gas leases – 12.5 percent – than many U.S. states and foreign countries. California, New Mexico and North Dakota charge between 16.67 and 18.75 percent. Texas rates are as high as 25 percent. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management even increased offshore royalty rates in 2007, from 12.5 percent to 18.75 percent.

But the department’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees onshore federal lands, has never increased the royalty rate. Further, the financial costs of local air pollution, damaged roads and wildlife habitat disruption were not factored into the royalty rate set in 1920. In addition, methane emissions from oil and gas production contribute to climate change and waste natural gas that can provide more revenue to the public.

As a starting point, the federal government should update the minimum bid to account for inflation; that alone would raise it to $24. Second, renting public land to some of the wealthiest corporations in the world for as little as $1.50 per year is irrational; that rate also should increase annually with inflation and account for foreseeable environmental costs.



And as we learn more about the cost of pollution that contributes to public health problems and climate change, the Interior Department should annually evaluate royalty rates for both onshore and offshore energy production to ensure a fair return to the public. The “social cost of carbon” – an official estimate of the monetary damage associated with carbon dioxide emission – is one tool the Department of Interior could use to put a value on some of these environmental impacts.

Continued advances in technology that make it cheaper for companies to produce oil and gas, and increases in market rates for fossil fuels, also would justify increasing royalty rates. These policies would be in line with the Interior Department’s mandate to both preserve natural lands and resources and to support energy production.

Many presidential candidates have announced that, if elected, they would lift the nation’s 40-year-old ban on exporting crude oil to foreign countries, a move that likely would boost U.S. oil production and corporate profits. Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and Scott Walker all have criticized the federal ban, which dates back to the 1973 oil crisis. 



Excerpt from a Washington Post article

UK energy security at risk as gas imports surge


Britain must find new sources of energy fast as the quantity of imported natural gas is expected to increase at a much faster rate than the government had previously expected, the chief executive of Centrica has warned.

“In primary energy, the UK’s production of gas is falling rapidly,” Sam Laidlaw has told an international energy conference in Houston. “North Sea oil and gas output has fallen by 38pc over the last three years. By 2020 we will be reliant on imports to meet 70pc of the country’s gas needs. So when it comes to security of supply, there is a pressing need for solutions.”

Energy Minister Michael Fallon had previously said in November than Britain would import three-quarters of its natural gas by 2030, up from about 50pc at present. Late last year, Centrica signed a new deal with Qatar to import liquefied natural gas by tanker. The Gulf state already accounts for 15pc of UK supplies.

Rising energy bills and a growing dependence on imported gas have increased pressure to step up development of shale resources in the UK through fracking. The vulnerability of UK energy supplies has also been exposed by the unfolding dispute between Russian and Europe over Ukraine in Crimea. Russia is Europe’s largest supplier of gas and a significant exporter to the UK.

Half of Britain could be opened up for fracking to tap 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas that is estimated to be locked under ground in the North of England alone to ease the growing dependence on imports.


The Wisdom of Solomon – plotting the coordinates of the dead

article-0-1B02879E000005DC-897_970x1267It was never Donna Young’s plan to raise a racket about fracking. She grew up around coal mines and bears no brief against the grunts who work the rigs and the men who own them. “I’ve got one son commuting to North Dakota” to work a rig and “another who’s done every job there is, from tearing down the rigs, putting them on flatbeds and driving ’em clear back from Kansas,” she says. “I believe we can live with drilling — as long as the politicians make sure it’s done responsibly.”

But then, nothing in Young’s life has gone to plan — not that she minds the left turns. The impulse to become a midwife at 39, then move back to Utah nine years later so she could help her ailing father run his ranch — it’s all been improvised and guided by feel. She was born in Moab to a Mormon family, raised around horses and miners and men on old tractors who came home reeking of cow shit. Her father was a range rider for the Bureau of Land Management who bred and trained racehorses on the side.

When he retired to Idaho, Young joined her folks there and opened a health-food store. A mother of two, she earned a degree in naturopathy, then found her true vocation, birthing babies. “I’d been working with lots of people, some cancer patients and chronically sick people, and here were these clients who had a clean slate — or would have, if their moms had ate healthy. I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I’m put here to do. Bring ’em into the world with no drugs or toxins, then teach the moms to raise them that way.’ ”


After 20 years and hundreds of births, Young has every reason to be proud. But in the fall of 2013, her client Caren Moon was pregnant with her third child and not doing well in the first trimester. She was cramping a lot and feeling weak; Young ordered bed rest and a natural progesterone cream to help with the bouts of mild bleeding. Moon was up on her feet again shortly, chasing after her toddlers, both birthed by Young. Then, the week before Thanksgiving, an early snowstorm led in a cold-air inversion. Moon felt ill again, took to bed, and lost the pregnancy while her house was filled with holiday guests. “It was right in that period of heavy ozone,” Moon says. “I thought we’d taken all the precautions.”

The Moons live on Bonanza Highway, a major conduit between Vernal and the oil fields due south. All day and into the night, massive trucks barreled by, farting CO and diesel soot that hung over the yard like clouds of no-see-ums. Five minutes east, her friend Melissa Morgan was also struggling to keep her baby. “I got pregnant about the same time Caren did, and was sick with all the stuff that she had — bleeding, cramping, feeling bad when I went out,” says Morgan. “There was a horrible, thick haze hanging around here for weeks. You could see it when you drove up the mountain and looked back at just this blanket of gray . . . yuck.”

Morgan spent weeks on bed rest while women from her church cooked and looked after her kids. The baby, her fifth, somehow made it to term, but weighed nearly a third less than her previous four and was in and out of doctors’ offices until she was eight months old. “It’s a miracle she’s here at all,” says Morgan. “When I saw the placenta, it was small and deformed, like it had used up all its tissue to protect her.”


heard some version of that tale all over town. Avery Lawton, a radiant redhead, was pregnant that winter with her second child, but the fetus wasn’t growing. It was so frail at 30 weeks that an obstetrician told her it could die during labor, and she should deliver at the hospital and not at home. Defying him, she went for a second, and third, opinion; her daughter, almost two now, was born with a rare and profound vision disorder, for which she wears Coke-bottle goggles.

In all the years Young has delivered babies, she says this was her first with a birth defect — and four more followed in 15 months. A girl with a shredded epiglottis, choking her when she tried to feed; a boy born tongue-tied and with a clubfoot; a girl born tongue-tied and lip-tied as well, preventing her from latching onto her mother’s breast. All required surgeries days after birth. Still others were born tiny or with mangled placentas — but at least they were alive and intact.


In May 2013, Young delivered a girl who was pink and fully formed; the child never took her first breath. She came out of her mother and collapsed in her arms; Young performed CPR, then raced her to the Ashley Regional Medical Center while the mother remained at home. She called 911 on the way, and a uniformed officer escorted her into the emergency room. Efforts to revive the child proved useless, however, and Young, who was heartsick and staggered by the loss, decided to join the mother at home. But a staffer, Young claims, wouldn’t let her leave the building. She says he put Young and her daughter Holt, a 15-year-old who often accompanies her during the births, in a room. (“We did not prevent Ms. Young from leaving our hospital,” a spokeswoman for ARMC said via e-mail. “Police onsite who were gathering information may have, but no one from our hospital was involved in that.”) After an hour, Young says, she was let go at the insistence of the dead infant’s father. She got home at 5 a.m. and wept and paced her bedroom well past sunup.

At 10 a.m. that day, a detective drove out and interrogated Young. She explained how a typical home birth happens and took him through the evening step by step. At the end, he concluded she’d done nothing wrong and declared the matter closed from his end. Devastated, she joined the bereaved parents at the graveside that week. There, at Rock Point Cemetery in Vernal, an acquaintance pulled her aside and whispered, “This isn’t the only baby to die this year.” She led Young to a pair of fresh-dug graves; two newborns had been laid to rest there since the first of the year. Young went home and combed through online obits: four other babies from Vernal or close by had died already that year. It was a shockingly big number for a small town.


Then she plotted the coordinates of the dead, and another bolt went through her. Three of the babies, including the one she’d just lost, were from moms who lived or worked near the intersection of 500 West and 500 South, a four-way stop sign that bottlenecks traffic and forces big-rig drivers to brake-start-brake, which drapes the block in shrouds of hydrocarbons. “Looking back, there were red flags,” says Young. “Every time I’d visit for a checkup, I’d come back with a splitting headache and my eyes and nose running.”

Five more babies would die that year, bringing the body count to at least 10 in Vernal; three more were lost in towns nearby. Young searched back to the start of the decade. In 2010, there were two, about average for a small town, then one in 2011 and four in 2012, including one whose mom worked at the senior facility on that smog-bound corner. And then the big jump in 2013, on the heels of a historic run in production that began a decade earlier.

The Uintah Basin alone was home to more than 11,000 wells – that’s an enormous concentration of soot and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) drifting into Vernal, then sitting there; in that inversion-filled winter, the VOC count was equivalent to 100 million cars’ exhaust. Reached for comment about the region’s pollution, Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, a trade association for the drillers, said,

“We acknowledged that the emissions were our responsibility, [and] have worked with the state to reduce them.” Asked about a link between those toxins and infant deaths, Sgamma said that “the epidemiologist showed there was not enough data to find the cause, and to make the jump you’re making is not supported.”


By June 2013, Young had seen enough. Accompanied by Bo Hunter, her 23-year-old son, she paid a call on Joe Shaffer, the TriCounty health director. She didn’t know these mothers or their medical histories — so had no idea what was killing their babies — and acknowledges that the cause may never be determined. But she was acutely fearful for her other clients’ babies and wanted Shaffer’s advice on keeping them safe. She and Hunter say she’d barely broached the subject of infant losses when Shaffer admitted he too had concerns about the air quality in Vernal and the effect it might have on area families, including his own. (Shaffer, who retired in the summer of 2014 and hasn’t spoken publicly since he left, was reached by phone at his home but declined to comment.)

Frantic now, Young called a local advocacy group, who connected her with Dr. Brian Moench. Moench, an anesthesiologist in Salt Lake City who co-founded Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, is a cross between Bill Nye and Bill McKibben, a science-geek activist and erudite spokesman for a growing clean-air coalition.

With the roughly 350 doctors in Utah he’s recruited to the cause, he and his colleagues gathered dozens of studies about pollution and its long- and short-term damage to the unborn. “What we know now,” he says, “from several blue-ribbon studies, is that the chemicals Mom inhales in industrial zones are passed to her baby through the umbilical cord, exposing them to many complications. We also know these toxins like to live in fat cells — and the brain is the largest fat reservoir in a developing fetus.”

At Moench’s urging, Young ordered her clients to stay in on bad air-quality days, and to equip their homes with high-end filters that trapped both soot and gases. Finally, in May 2014, LeFevre, the state health official, met with the TriCounty Health Department to present his proposed method to study the deaths. It would not, however, look at environmental factors; this was strictly about the statistical significance of the infant deaths.

That might have been the end of it if not for Moench. He looped in a contact at The Salt Lake Tribune, who sent a writer down to cover the announcement. For the next two days, the Tribune ran page-one stories about Young’s efforts to learn the truth about those deaths.


That’s when some people in Vernal started to turn on Donna Young. The phone calls went on for months. Several times a week she’d pick up the phone to snarling curses and personal accusations that she was “trying to bust up the economy.” Staffers at Ashley Regional Medical Center trashed her to clients, she says, and denounced her in online comments as a baby killer. (The ARMC spokeswoman denies this, adding that “if anyone employed by our facility said this, it was not on behalf of our hospital.”)

Ben Cluff, its CEO, threatened Young with legal action for “[communicating] inaccurate information regarding the number of infant deaths at our facility.” When Young took Avery Lawton for an ultrasound there, both women recall that a staffer told Young that everyone was out to destroy her, “and it’s political.”


It’s sad but unsurprising that Young would get pushback from a town that leans on oil as much as Vernal. Since crude was first pumped in this High Plains town shortly after World War II, its fortunes have tracked the price point of gas, riding its fluctuations up and down. Then along came the fracking boom, which extracted fossil fuels at rates undreamt of 10 years back, and Vernal was suddenly awash in real money.

Virtually the whole west side is newly constructed, with big-box chain stores, midrange hotels and three brewpubs serving the roughnecks who rent the prefab townhomes. Oil money helped fund the new City Hall, as well as the 32-acre convention center, one of the largest such spreads in the West. There’s the juice bar hawking T-shirts that say ‘I Heart Drilling,’ the July 4th parade featuring girls on derrick floats and the yearly golf tourney called Petroleum Days.

So it’s moot to expect much Green Party ferment from a place where boys quit high school in boom years to work the rigs at 16. But where are all the worried parents? “A huge number of my kids have breathing problems — it averages six or seven in every class,” says Rodd Repsher, a health teacher at Uintah High who hails from Pennsylvania. “Come January, they’re out sick for a week at a time. I never saw anything like it back home,” says another teacher, who relocated from the Northeast.


I met the two teachers at a town-hall forum led by Moench and three of his colleagues from Salt Lake City. Though they’d papered the town with fliers about the forum — a primer on pollution and ways to protect your family from it — and invited the mayor, Sonya Nelson, and the three Uintah County commissioners, only 40 people showed up at the Vernal Junior High School auditorium. Several were Young’s clients and their husbands and kids. Young was there, too, along with her daughter Holt. As a precaution, she’d brought a bodyguard.

In an easy-to-follow slide show about the air in the Basin and its calamitous level of pollution, Moench and his fellow doctors, two of them obstetricians, spent an hour and a half building a brick-by-brick indictment against the effect of those toxins on fetal neurons. “Think of them as bullets to developing brain cells,” said Moench. “They either kill some of those cells, alter them or switch them off, blocking their connections to other cells.” Citing a wave of new studies that link inhaled contaminants to everything from diabetes and obesity to ADD, he added that babies “are being born now pre-polluted. Lower IQs, less serotonin, less white-brain matter: We’re literally changing who they are as human beings.”

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