Pennsylvania gov’t admits fracking contamination

Nice to finally have some confirmation that it wasn’t all imagined (as some have insisted to me and others many times):

For the first time, Pennsylvania has made public 243 cases of contamination of private drinking wells from oil and gas drilling operations.

As the AP reports, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection posted details about the contamination cases online on Thursday. The cases occurred in 22 counties, with Susquehanna, Tioga, Lycoming, and Bradford counties having the most incidences of contamination.

In some cases, one drilling operation contaminated the water of multiple wells, with water issues resulting from methane gas contamination, wastewater spills, and wells that simply went dry or undrinkable. The move to release the contamination information comes after years of the AP and other news outlets filing lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests from the DEP on water issues related to oil and gas drilling and fracking.

One wonders if there will be any consequences, though, given that the industry has spent massively on the campaigns of favorable state reps and state senators in Pennsylvania to open the way to fracking operations all over the state.

The industry lobby’s response to the disclosure, as reported by the AP/Wall Street Journal, was to fault Pennsylvania rocks for being difficult to work with and to blame the state government for lax regulation on drilling well construction and design (a statement which takes a lot of chutzpah).

The Philadelphia Coup of 1776

US-flag-13-stars-Betsy_RossThe common narrative in the United States surrounding the Declaration of Independence is that everyone was so appalled by the British crackdown in Massachusetts and the lives lost at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 that all the leaders (and the majority of the populations) of the other colonies were swept up in a united front demanding the rejection of British rule (over a year later).

In reality, it was far more complicated than that. Many of the people were largely apathetic toward the whole matter one way or the other. But among those who were politically engaged, there was nowhere close to unity on the issue between the thirteen colonies (and that doesn’t even get into all the other British colonies in North America that flat-out refused to entertain the idea of joining even a conference to discuss recent events).

The lack of support for independence was so strong in coastal Georgia, for example, that the state’s leaders tried to un-sign from the Declaration of Independence and re-join the British Empire during the war. By war’s end, even after the Battle of Yorktown, the Province of Georgia was fully re-occupied by the British until it was handed over by the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that formally accepted U.S. independence. New York City, similarly, was fairly solidly in support of continued British rule (to protect its trade interests and keep the other colonies from controlling its internal affairs) and also remained in British control until handed over by the treaty.

In certain colonies, such as Massachusetts, the local assemblies were suspended by the British or replaced by puppet governments, and they lacked local support — often to the point of having none of the laws followed by anyone. So in those cases, it’s fair to consider the self-proclaimed “Patriot” assemblies to be the more legitimate governments of those colonies for the purposes of declaring independence. But in other colonies, such as New York, the patriot faction was so deep in the minority that even the real local governments representing popular opinion were never going to go along with plans for independence. This being inconvenient, New York patriots simply formed their own assembly when the real assembly refused to send delegates to the Continental Congress.

That’s a bit iffy, to say the least, but it’s nowhere near as questionable as the decision by the Second Continental Congress to take matters into their own hands to impose the same on the Province of Pennsylvania. The elected local government there was insufficiently supportive of the position of a majority of the rest of the provincial delegations meeting at the Continental Congress, so those other states simply voted to “totally suppress” the government of Pennsylvania, to allow themselves to move ahead with plans for an official Declaration of Independence. Read more

State of the Governors’ Races in 2014 (with charts & maps!)

There are a huge number of races for governor up for election this year (which is true of any midterm year since most states adopted four-year terms aligned with the non-presidential cycle). 36 states — almost three-quarters of the states — will be electing or re-electing governors in November of this year, as you can see on the map below:

U.S. state governorships by party (red=R, blue=D). Asterisks mark 2014 races (not capitals!)

U.S. state governorships by party (red=R, blue=D). Asterisks mark 2014 races (not capitals!)

That’s a lot to take in. All of New England, most of the Mountain West and the Plains States, and so on. 36 states are on the board, and Republicans won a lot of them in the 2010 wave, which puts them in a good position overall, given the power of incumbency. But how do we analyze the state of the races more logically and clearly?

In the chart below, I’ve broken it down in an easy-to-read list form, with the states listed in either the Democratic or Republican column, based on current occupant (there are currently no independents in the state governorships). There are boxes around the retiring or term-limited current governors.

In that graphic, I’ve also put in italics the states that are most likely to be within reach. It’s not exhaustive, of course, just the likeliest. I based that determination — since I confess to being unable to keep up with all 36 races closely — on a) incumbent favorability from a year ago in the last Fivethirtyeight analysis I could find on the governors, and b) whether the voters have a solid preference for one party or the other in the governorship of their state.

In other words:

  • a very popular incumbent is very likely to be re-elected (if running)
  • a reasonably popular incumbent is pretty likely to be re-elected, even in a swing state
  • a very unpopular incumbent is relatively likely to lose if running even in a solid state and could flip the office by negative association even if not running
  • a state with a strong preference for one party in the governorship will likely not flip it to the other party whether or not the incumbent is running, even if quite unpopular
  • but a state with a tendency to swing (or to elect a governor opposite to its overall preference) is somewhat more likely to flip an open seat to the other party

It’s a bit subjective and un-statistical, but it’s a good way to break down the problem when there are 36 races to analyze and too much data to crunch without being Fivethirtyeight or the like.

Using that assessment system, I concluded that there is a relatively narrow set of races that are fairly likely to be competitive come November.

Democrats’ biggest vulnerabilities — in my eyes — are Illinois, Massachusetts, and Arkansas. Let’s take those one at a time.

  • Illinois: Gov. Pat Quinn (D) was an accidental governor elevated during the Blagojevich scandal. He won a very hard-fought race in 2010 to hold onto the office for his own full term. Now he is even more unpopular than he was in 2010, when he survived the Republican wave, and I don’t think the race is going well. That said, there’s very little recent data, and he’s come back from the brink once before.
  • Massachusetts: Democrat Deval Patrick hung on in a 3-way race in 2010 but is retiring. Runner-up Charlie Baker (R) has generally been campaigning strongly in his repeat effort, while Democrats have fragmented between terrible, uninspiring, and unheard-of candidates. On top of this, Massachusetts has had a string of moderate Republicans between Dukakis and Patrick, with voters often seeming to prefer the office to counterbalance the single-party rule of the Democratic legislature. Dems may still hang on — indeed, leading contender Martha Coakley is currently polling well ahead of Charlie Baker (which means very little given her past track record and sketchy Bay State polling histories) — but the seat is very vulnerable.
  • Arkansas: The state has Republican supermajorities in the legislature, has a term-limited Democratic Governor, Mike Beebe, who recently often seemed like the last Democratic oak standing in a Southern desert. The other windswept tree in the state, Sen. Mark Pryor, is in the political fight of his life right now. (I don’t have a good sense of how the Senate race will affect the governor’s race, if at all.) Dems seem to have a recruited a solid candidate to try to save the governorship, but it will be difficult. The RCP average has a close race, but the PPP poll within that average shows an 8 point advantage for the Republican.

Republicans’ biggest vulnerabilities — in my eyes — are Florida, Maine, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And now let’s take those one at a time:

  • Florida: Rick Scott (R) is a terrible and very unpopular governor. Republican-turned-Democratic former Gov. Charlie Crist, his opponent, is far more popular and is polling relatively far ahead. Maybe Scott turns this around, but probably not.
  • Maine: Paul LePage (R) is also a terrible and very unpopular governor, who is also (ideologically) a crazy person. He was only elected in a 3-way race in 2010, where the sane people made the mistake of splitting their votes between the other two candidates. Maine isn’t planning to repeat that mistake this year. Haha, just kidding: It’ll be a 3-way race again and probably a nail-biter to the end, between LePage and Congressman Mike Michaud (D). LePage is doing better (somehow) in polls more recently than he was for most of last year.
  • Michigan: I am of the opinion that Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has been a horrendous governor for Michigan. He was, last year, almost as unpopular as LePage was in Maine. Democrats have coalesced behind a solid recruit, a U.S. Congressman, Mark Schauer. Nevertheless, Snyder seems to be a good campaigner with a lot of powerful friends (i.e. interest groups) and a ruthless agenda that the tea partiers love. He’s doing well in the polling, unfortunately.
  • Pennsylvania: 2010 was a great year for Pennsylvania Republicans. However, Gov. Tom Corbett has been such a bad governor (and was dragged down further by the Penn State scandal) that he will probably be the first governor since the state allowed multiple terms in 1970 to lose re-election to a second term. These “unbroken precedents” in U.S. politics — most of which date back only as far as the 1970s — always tend get broken right after they’re declared ironclad. While researching this post, I saw some posts arguing that he will actually win. (Good fundraiser, incumbency precedent, his past big victories, past popularity before it tanked, etc.) But he’s trailing by high single digits in most polls at minimum and by double digits against several candidates in a lot of polls.

So there are about seven seats to watch right now. It might expand to 10 or drop to 5 as we get closer to November. My guess is that Republicans will lose a few of these seats — which isn’t surprising given how many they are defending — but will retain an overall edge and even pick up at least a couple. That basically means it’s probably going to be roughly a wash overall, without changing much nationally. I think that may be echoed in many of the other contests this year: Republicans will end up in about the same position they were when they started, but still ahead by a bit.

Rising seas threaten coastal drinking water

Here’s a global warming impact you may not have considered: saltwater contamination of drinking water in some coastal areas. It’s especially worth discussing, to me at least, because of my longstanding interest in water policy and because I just completed an environmental geology course, where we discussed the science behind drinking water supplies and coastal processes.

Basically, due to rising sea levels brought on by global warming, millions of Americans (and presumably people around the world) face possible destruction of reliable water supplies in low-lying areas. This can happen due to saltwater intrusion into the groundwater — something that has been occurring on Long Island for some time now as wells deplete the aquifers — or by saltwater further penetrating coastal marshes in estuaries, reaching into the non-tidal freshwater marshes. Also individual incidents such as storm surges, which often contaminate drinking supplies and treatment facilities, are going to be exacerbated by higher sea levels.

I’m particularly concerned because the state where I currently live (Delaware) has a coastline that is mainly an estuary, which was the subject of a new study on the impending problem. The potentially affected freshwater found in the coastal regions along the lower Delaware River and estuary provides drinking water for several million people in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. I caution you that the blog post I’m about to quote has some glaring errors, but I’ve tried to fix/remove them here:

Fresh water that now is flowing to the sea in the Delaware estuary is threatened by future sea-level rise resulting from rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions, a new study finds. As sea levels rise, salt water will move inland up the estuary.
The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary studied impacts [PDF] on drinking water, tidal wetlands and shellfish like the local oysters and freshwater mussels in “Climate Change and the Delaware Estuary” and how people can adapt to help protect the threatened resources.

Drinking water, tidal wetlands and shellfish are key resources for the estuary; and all three are vulnerable to effects of climate change, including warmer temperatures, higher sea levels and saltier water. Oysters alone brought about $19.2 million into the [region] in 2009.
Currently a “narrow fringe of freshwater wetlands” protects the freshwater, but the wetland marsh plants are very susceptible to rising salinity.


Low-lying wetlands of the lower Delaware River and estuary. Key: Red=Tidal wetland, Green=Nontidal wetland. NVCS map via the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

It looks like there’s a pretty noticeable correlation between some of those freshwater wetlands and the population distribution on the New Jersey side…

If they become tidal wetlands instead of freshwater, that’s a big problem.

If you’re at all familiar with the disaster-ridden English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, then you probably know that, “the colonists soon discovered that the swampy and isolated site was plagued by mosquitoes and tidal river water unsuitable for drinking, and offered limited opportunities for hunting and little space for farming.” While the hunting and farming issue is not as much of a problem for the coastal United States these days, rising sea levels could basically expand a lot of estuaries and make much more of the seaboard’s water “unsuitable for drinking.” I know Jamestown had more problems than its drinking water, but everybody needs clean, freshwater to survive, and there are a lot more of us now living in threatened areas than ever before. We don’t want to repeat Jamestown if possible.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.