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WV Field Visits 2013

FrackFinders Wanted

Unconventional drilling waste impoundment

A partner in data-crunching, SkyTruth, is seeking volunteers to find waste impoundments from unconventional oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

SkyTruth is our “eye in the sky” when it comes to tracking everything from the plume of the BP Oil Spill to flaring in the Bakken. They use remote sensing and mapping technologies to better understand the extent and impacts from a wide spectrum of industrial activities.

With the rapid increase in unconventional drilling in PA since 2005, this endeavor is incredibly important; waste impoundments may release chemicals into the air that are dangerous to health. To assess the true impacts, however, we need to know how close people are living to these potential air pollution sources.

As anyone who has seen a drilling site knows, hydraulic fracturing (e.g. fracking) requires a lot of water and often produces a lot of waste. This means that to map where all of the waste impoundments are located in PA will require many volunteers. The beauty of crowdsourcing is that a group can contribute a significantly larger number of observations much more quickly than could ever be possible with a few non-profit staffers.

“What can I do?” SkyTruth needs your well-trained eyes for their new project called FrackFinder PA: Project Moor Frog. In the comfort of your home, they’ll ask you to identify ponds that are large enough to be a part of oil and gas extraction activities from satellite photos taken above the sites.  Learn more  | Get involved  |  Data results

The Muskingum Watershed and Utica Shale Water Demands

Ohio Utica Well Water Usage

Figure 1. Ohio Utica well water usage across 306 wells (Gallons Per Well)

How much freshwater has the unconventional drilling industry used to-date?

By Ted Auch, OH Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Given that Ohio’s largest conservancy district, the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy (MWCD), is considering the sale of large stocks of freshwater and deep mineral rights to the Utica Shale drilling industry, we thought it would be helpful to take a “back of the envelope” first look at how much freshwater the gas industry has already used within the basin and how much it might use given current permitting trends.

Background

But first a little background… The MWCD is an 18 county political body that encompasses the Muskingum River basin in its entirety – roughly 19% of the state’s landmass (Figure 1). The Muskingum River Watershed (MRW), Ohio’s “largest wholly contained watershed,” contains nearly 19% of OH’s wetlands and 28% of the state’s lakes and reservoirs (Table 1).

Table 1. The number, minimum/maximum size, total area, and mean (±) size of wetlands, lakes, and reservoirs in the Muskingum River Watershed (MRW)

#

Min

Max

Sum

Mean

±

Wetlands (acres)

MRW

25,529

0.014

507

98,924

3.87

12.01

Ohio River

134,736

6.9*10-5

1,500

507,312

3.77

13.94

MRW as % of Ohio

18.9

202.9

33.8

19.5

102.7

86.2

Lakes & Reservoirs (miles2)

MRW

25

0.35

5.5

44.6

1.78

1.5

Ohio River

91

0.15

5,014

5,545

61

523

MRW as % of Ohio

27.5

233.3

0.1

0.8

2.9

0.3

The sustainability of the watershed’s freshwater stocks and flows is of concern to many, given climate trends and the fact that the MWCD, according to their website, is “…awaiting results from a U.S. Geological Survey analysis of water availability at several other reservoirs before deciding whether to approve a growing number of requests for water by other drilling companies.”

Water Use Trend

Our methodology examined rainfall, evapotranspiration, and usage of water by forests, crops, and humans. “When we account for all of these usages, as well as unquantified usages like watershed discharge and soil holding capacity, the remainder is what I will call available water.”

According to our analysis of 306 drilling, drilled, or producing OH Utica gas wells, the hydraulic fracturing process requires on average 4.6-4.8 million gallons of water per well(2). This is equal to 2.8-2.9 billion gallons of water to-date for the watershed’s 613 wells or 4.5-4.7 billion gallons across the state’s currently permitted 985 wells (Figure 1).

After looking at water use from this industry, the following water usage scenarios emerge:

  1. For just Muskingum Watershed gas wells – water use is equivalent to 2.47% of the watershed’s “available water” assuming a low discharge scenario, 2.50% for a medium discharge scenario, and 2.56% for a high discharge scenario.
  2. For all Utica gas wells in Ohio – water use is equivalent to 3.97% of the watershed’s “available water” assuming a low discharge scenario, 4.02% for a medium discharge scenario, and 4.11% for a high discharge scenario.
Put another way, these volumes equate to 4.44 and 7.14% of Muskingum Watershed residences’ total annual water usage.

A year from now – assuming two Utica permitting trajectories(3) – our calculations resulted in the following estimates:

(Note: The below projections assume the entirety of Ohio Utica wells permitted to date or 985 permits and an increase in Utica Well water usage of 220,329 gallons per quarter(4).)

  1. 25 permits per month for the next 12 months – equivalent to 5.40, 5.47, or 5.59% of the watershed’s “available water” by November 2014 when added to the currently utilized water detailed in part 1 above. This will be equivalent to 9.70% of human water usage in Ohio.
  2. 51 permits per month for the next 12 months – equivalent to 6.90, 7.00, or 7.14% of the watershed’s “available water”. This will equal 12.40% of human annual water usage in the watershed.

Ohio vs. Other States

Total horizontal drilling water usage across 59 Counties in 6 US states.

Figure 2. Total horizontal drilling water usage across 59 Counties in 6 US states (1*105 m3)

To put OH into perspective, we decided to compare the above water usage across 19 OH counties to identical data for 40 counties in 5 other states. In doing so we found that each county’s horizontal well stock has used an average of 2.82*105 m3 of water to date or 3,912 swimming pools and 119 golf course acres worth of irrigation, with the latter equivalent to 1.53 US golf courses. Six of OH’s counties come in over this average and the remaining thirteen below. Meanwhile, 10 of neighboring West Virginia’s 19 counties exceeded 2.79*105 m3 of water. OH and WV horizontal well water usage averaged across counties exceeds the Six State*Fifty-Nine County continuum average by 0.13 and 1.48*105 m3 of water, while the remaining four states fall short of the average by 2.02*105 m3 (Figure 2).

Total water usage across the 59 counties turns out to be a robust predictor of how the industry’s water needs relate to general public water usage accounting for 78.4% of the latter (Figure 3). However, this relationship isn’t as straightforward as one might expect – requiring a statistical technique called log transformation which is generally applied by statisticians to data that is “highly skewed…This can be valuable both for making patterns in the data more interpretable and for helping to meet the assumptions of inferential statistics.” Due to the “skewness” of this data set, the average and median industry water usage as a percent of the general public is 1.40% and 11.83%, respectively.

Horizontal drilling water Vs General Public's Water Requirements across 59 Counties in 6 US states.

Figure 3. Total horizontal drilling water usage across 59 Counties in 6 US states relative to the general public’s water requirements (1*105 m3)

OH Inter-County Utica Water Usage By The Numbers

Hydraulic Fracturing Industry Yearly Water Usage

  • Per well – 5.29 million gallons (Note: This is increasing by 149-220K gallons per quarter)
  • Total water usage is increasing by 36.993 million gallons per quarter, which means that within 5-6 years the industry will be using more than 1.1 billion gallons of freshwater per year
  • Per Square Mile – 10,355 gallons
  • Per Capita – 138 gallons Per Well Per Person; 2,612 gallons Per Person
  • Per Household – 358 gallons Per Well Per Household; 6,674 gallons Per Household
  • Per Well Foot – 821 gallons
  • Water Costs Per Well – $21,494 (Per capita resident water costs are $107.86 per year)
  • Water Usage as a % of Total Well development and production costs – 4.41%
  • The Ratio of Water as a % of Total Materials Used Per Well To Water Cost Per well – 27.25

Resident-to-Industry Ratios

  • a. Per Capita Resident Water Usage Per Year as % of Per Well Usage – 0.87%
  • b. Per Capita Water Cost Per Year as % of Utica Well Water Cost – 10.05%
  • Ratio of (b) to (a) – 11.86

References

[1] “The Muskingum River Watershed is comprised of three major subwatersheds – the Tuscarawas River Watershed in the northeastern, the Walhonding River Watershed in the northwest and the Lower Muskingum Watershed in the south. The Tuscarawas and Walhonding rivers flow in a southern direction where they intersect at Coshocton, forming the Muskingum River.” Learn more

[2] The median per well volumes required in Oklahoma range from 3.0 million gallons for the state in totol to 4.2 million gallons for the state’s Woodford Shale horizontal wells according to a study by Kyle Murray at the University of Oklahoma.

[3] The two trajectories assume 25 and 51 permitted wells per month based on the entirety of Ohio’s Utica permitting period back to September, 2010 and the current 2013 year-to-date average, respectively.

[4] This number increases to 339,812 gallons per quarter if we remove Q3-2013 where our data is admittedly incomplete relative to the previous eight quarters. We did not include Q3-2010 or Q1 and Q2-20111 in our extrapolation because we only have data for 1, 2, and 2 wells, respectively.

[5] Mekonnen, M M, & Hoekstra, A Y. (2010). The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products Value of Water (Vol. 47). New York, NY: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – Institute for Water Education (UNESCO-IHE).

[6] Sanford, W E, & Selnick, D L. (2013). Estimation of evapotranspiration across the conterminous United States using a regression with climate and land-cover data. Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 49(1), 217-230.

Well and pipeline data in British Columbia

British Columbia Map Now Available

Increasingly, FracTracker has been receiving requests to map oil and gas data from a variety of locations.  Now for the first time since the roll-out of the ArcGIS Online-based FracMapper platform last year, we have content dedicated to understanding oil and gas data outside of the United States.  Specifically, this map is focused on the extractive – and midstream – activities in British Columbia, Canada.


British Columbia Shale Viewer. Please click the expanding arrows icon in the upper right corner of the map to access the full page map, complete with legend and descriptions.

British Columbia’s Oil and Gas Commission has records for over 29,000 wells, of which over 11,000 are indicated as being directional.  These are the wells included on this map.  While directional drilling is a broader category than horizontal drilling, which is more commonly associated with hydraulic fracturing, it was the most readily available means of finding wells likely to be unconventional in nature.  And indeed, a substantial majority of the directional wells drilled in the province correspond to the unconventional plays in the northeastern portion of British Columbia.

While the available well data was lacking some of the detail that FracTracker prefers, this is made up for by a data type that is difficult to encounter in the United States:  pipeline rights-of-way.  Note that not all of the wells on the map are connected by pipelines.  One explanation is that the pipeline data are from October 30, 2006 onward, while over 3,600 of the directional wells were drilled before that time.

Well and pipeline data in British Columbia
This image shows a closeup of the British Columbia Shale Viewer, highlighting pipeline data

Other notable data types for British Columbia include oil and gas facilities, and a layer showing the extent of individual well sites.  For more information, see the Details section of the map.

Frac Sand Industry

Frac Sands Mines and Related Facilities

By Ted Auch, OH Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance; Daniel Berghoff, The Ohio State University

Northern American Frac Sands Pattern, Process, Quality, Quantity, and US Frac Sands

Part I, Frac Sands Locations and Silica Geology Map Description


Click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map for a fullscreen view and to access the legend.

This is a map of silica sands/frac sands mines, drying facilities, and value added facilities in North America. The map includes addresses and facility polygons. We present production for only 24 of these facilities all of which are in Wisconsin. The remaining Wisconsin and other state facilities do not have production or acreage data associated with them pursuant to a lack of disclosure requirements at the state level and USGS’s confidentiality agreement with all firms. The sandstone/silica geology polygons presented herein – in certain instances – include a breakdown of each polygon’s land cover distribution across agriculture, urban/suburban, temperate deciduous forest, and conifer forests. At the present time we only have this type of delineation for the primary frac sands producing US state, Wisconsin, along with Ohio, with Minnesota soon to arrive. The identification of each polygon’s land cover gives a sense for the types of ecosystem services present and/or threatened from a macro perspective. During our tour of select West Central Wisconsin frac sand mines it became apparent that the mining industry was essentially picking off forested “bluffs” or drumlins because these are generally the areas where frac sand deposits are deepest and closest to the surface. In return landowners are returned these parcels with less dramatic slopes making them more amenable to grazing or crop production. Consequently understanding the current land cover of each sandstone polygon will give us a sense for how much forest, grasslands, or wetlands acreage could potentially be converted to traditional agricultural usage.

Part I of this series can be found here.

Data Sources

Industry data was provided by or sourced from the following organizations, individuals, or websites:

Methodology

Land Cover Data Methodology:

State Level Primary and Secondary Silica Sand Geology – polygons extracted from USGS Mineral Resources > Online Spatial Data > Geology. Primary and secondary polygons are dissolved by Unit Age.Land cover in km2 and as a % of the entire polygon are presented using the following:

  1. “Select By Attributes” tool in ArcMAP
  2. _geol_poly_dd
  3. “ROCKTYPE1″ = Primary; “ROCKTYPE1″ = Secondary
  4. Using the following protocol we have begun to code each Silica Sand Geology polygon for land cover in terms of km^2 and % of polygons. The protocol fractionates polygons into forest, crop, pasture, urban, and wetlands:Used zonal statistics, which is in the spatial analyst toolbox in ArcGIS.

Here’s the basic procedure:

  1. Download national land cover dataset which can be found at: http://www.mrlc.gov/nlcd2006.php
  2. Before recoding the raster, it may be easier to manage after clipping it to a smaller extent such as the state you are interested in. Simply use Arc’s Clip tool to do this. I also found that QGIS has a fast, easy, clipping tool called Clipper. Once the raster is a bit more manageable, use the legend for the dataset that is on the above webpage to recode the raster into a set of rasters for each land cover type you’re interested in. Use Arc’s Reclassify to set all the values you want to 1 and all other values to 0. This process can also be done in QGIS which I found to be easier and faster. For QGIS, use Raster Calculator and create an expression that connects all the rasters of interest with “OR.” The syntax should be something along the lines of: ([name of raster @ band1] = first forest value) OR ([name of raster @ band1] = second forest value) and so on for all your values.
  3. Use the zonal statistics tool in Arc (Zonal Statistics as Table) to get the sum (it is important that is the sum) of the new binary raster for each polygon for each shapefile you’re using. The tool used should export a table of values.
  4. Add the table that the zonal statistics tool outputs and then join it to the shapefile you used to generate it.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the other raster layers you generated with reclassify.
  6. Export the shapefile with the joined data.
  7. Put the shapefile back in Arc and open the attribute table.
  8. Add a new column.
  9. Use field calculator to calculate this column as 900 times the sum you got from your first zonal statistics run (because the data are in 30mX30m resolution, this will give you a good approximation of the square meters of land cover affected).
  10. Repeat steps 8 and 9 for your other zonal statistics results.
  11. Repeat step 2 for other raster classes you are interested in (developed, cultivated, wetland, etc.).
  12. Repeat steps 3-10 for the other shapefiles you are using.
Texas Drought and Water Availability

Texas Drought Conditions and Water Availability

By Thomas DiPaolo, GIS Intern, FracTracker Alliance -

For the last three years, Texas has been experiencing a drought so severe that it has gained media attention around the world; the recurring theme from each media report is that the water use of the oil and natural gas industry is sucking up so much water from the ground that towns like Barnhart are seeing their taps run dry.


To view the fullscreen version of this map, including details about each layer, click on the arrows in the upper right corner of the map.

Surface Water

Water data for Texas, owned and operated by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), defines “reservoir storage” as the total volume of water contained within a reservoir, while “conservation storage” is specifically the volume of water that can be accessed and moved out of the reservoir. For example, the Twin Buttes Reservoir currently has 2,095 acre-feet of water in its reservoir storage, but because it cannot be removed from the reservoir, in terms of conservation storage it is considered “empty.” Twin Buttes is not the only reservoir in this position; Electra Lake, Meredith Lake, and White River Lake are also empty, and Electra Lake has no water at all in its reservoir storage. The average conservation storage of reservoirs statewide is 168,704.64 acre-feet. Ninety-two reservoirs (including the aforementioned) have less than that amount, while six reservoirs have conservation storages in excess of 1 million acre-feet. For reference, a TWDB report from last year found that in 2011 statewide fracking operations used a combined total of 81,500 acre-feet of water, over 26.5 billion gallons. That is almost enough to consume the conservation storage of the ten smallest reservoirs in the state.

The other measure for comparing water quantity is “fullness percentage,” a ratio between a reservoir’s current conservation storage and the maximum volume of water it can hold without flooding, or maximum conservation storage. Any reservoir with no conservation storage, therefore, has a fullness of 0%, while overflowing reservoirs are only 100% full. This means that, in contrast to the four reservoirs with 0% fullness, four other reservoirs have complete fullness. Monticello Reservoir, Mountain Creek Lake, and Squaw Creek Reservoir are all in excess of their conservation storages, but Houston Lake is flooding by the greatest amount, with reservoir storage of 139,409 acre-feet and conservation storage of 128,054 acre-feet. The average reservoir is  56.01% full as of this writing, but 44 of 115 reservoirs have a lower proportion of fullness. The problem here isn’t that every reservoir is under threat: it’s that those reservoirs which are threatened are running on empty.

Water Restrictions

Fig1The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, publishes a list of drought-affected public water systems and their restrictions, classifying them by “stage” and “priority” (Figure 1). Stage refers to the expected duration of the existing water supply, while priority reflects the degree to which residents’ water usage is being restricted. This means water systems with no immediate threat of their supplies expiring may be applying extreme restrictions to sustain that supply. Water systems in the highest stage of “Emergency” have at most 45 days before their water supplies are exhausted; a priority of “Severe” means the water system has forbidden all outdoor water usage and may limit individual residents’ usage if they believe it’s necessary. At the time of this writing, 442 water systems have instituted voluntary restrictions on water usage, but 44 systems have a Severe priority, and five of those are in a stage of Emergency.

Of those systems, only the White River Municipal Water District appears in the map above within the data layer of public water systems offered by the TCEQ, and it lies within 20 miles of eight different fracking wells1. According to FracFocus.org, these eight wells consumed a combined volume of almost 600,000 gallons of water, or 1.8 acre-feet, when they were first fractured. While that amount may sound low, FracFocus shows 1,557 fracking wells within the state of Texas, and White River is located about 100 miles from the major oil fields of west Texas, where individual wells commonly consumed millions of gallons of water. For eight wells combined, 600,000 gallons is at the bottom of the scale.

FracFocus also notes that these figures do not take into account the amount of fresh water used in drilling. As freshwater becomes scarcer, hydraulic fracturing operations are turning to brackish water, which contains salt or other minerals, and water recycled from previous gas wells: the TWDB estimated that 17,000 of the 81,500 acre-feet of water used in 2011 was either brackish or recycled, and water recycling specifically is on the rise ever since the Texas legislature removed the need to seek permits before recycling water on leased land. FTS International reports that some of its Texas wells have completely switched over to recycled water.

It remains to be seen how soon efforts like this will bring relief to towns like Barnhart.


Footnotes

1. The eight wells in question are Bryant B-1045, etal #4576; Bryant B-1045, etal #4578; Flores, etal #182; Rankin #etal 161; Rankin, etal #172; Wheeler-1046, #4666; Wheeler-1046, #4678; and Williams, etal #4570. Reports on all of them can be found on FracFocus by searching for Crosby County, Texas.

Media 2

The awkward “k” in “fracking”

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Manager of Science and Communications, FracTracker Alliance

FracTracker Alliance Logo

We are often asked why there is no “k” after “frac” in our name, FracTracker. This makes for lively conversations at parties, I assure you. Quite frankly, the etymology of the term “fracking” would make for its own interesting study, especially if you include fans of Battlestar Galactica in your research.

Truth-be-told, our name stemmed from an intense academic vs communications debate. FracTracker originally started as a project within the University of Pittsburgh. As many people in the field of know, academics are not known for brevity in the naming of projects or publications. We wanted a name that embodied both the research and community aspects of our work but was short enough to say all in one breadth. Calling such a new initiative “The Mapping of Unconventional Oil and Gas Extraction Data at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities,” while accurate, just doesn’t flow off the tongue nicely.

At the time “fracking” was a term used in some circles to refer to the entire process of extracting natural gas and oil using non-traditional methods – even though it technically only refers to the hydraulic fracturing of a well to stimulate hydrocarbon retrieval. A project partner of ours suggested the name “FrackTracker,” since we planned to track all activity related to unconventional oil and gas drilling. According to people who work in industry, however, including a “k” in the word fracking just doesn’t make sense… And rightly so; there is no “k” in the phrase hydraulic fracturing, so why should there be one in fracking? Even though fracking is now a term commonly used to discuss the industry as a whole, we still decided to omit the awkward “k” just in case.

#didntneedtoknow but #thanks


FracTracker became an independent non-profit in 2012 called FracTracker Alliance. Learn more about us >

WV Field Visits 2013

Intentional Omissions? Waterless Fracturing

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Manager of Science and Communications

We got called on it; we have no articles about waterless fracturing on FracTracker.org – yet.

Fracturing deep geologic formations to access oil and gas without the use of water offers some financial benefits; it minimizes the water-in and waste-out costs, even though the upfront costs are higher for the driller. Environmentally, this is a plus since the sites would theoretically use much less water than they currently do (~5 million gallons per well depending on who you ask). The omission of an article on FracTracker about waterless fracturing, while not intentional, does reflect the nature of our work. As data enthusiasts, we try to focus on information that can be obtained from available data. We’ve looked into but found there to be limited data regarding the actual use and productivity of waterless fracturing. As such, we have not written anything specifically about the technique to-date.

Having said that, if you, the public, know where we could access data of this nature, please let us know. We would be more than happy to analyze and discuss waterless fracturing on our site in the future.

Hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas can use millions of gallons of water per well. Waterless frac technology could change that.

You can learn more about waterless frac technology in an article on RigZone.com.

Frac sand mining 4. Wisconsin 2013. Photo by Brook Lenker

Sifting Through Sand Mining

By Brook Lenker and Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance

Thirty miles northwest of Eau Claire, Wisconsin the land rolls gently. Wooded hills back orderly farms straight from the world of Norman Rockwell but painted red and gold by October’s cool brush.  It seems like agrarian perfection, but the harmony is interrupted by the pits and mounds of a newcomer to America’s Dairyland – sand extraction to support hydraulic fracturing for the oil and natural gas industry.

“Mine, Baby, Mine” reads a bumper sticker on a pickup outside the Baron drying plant of Superior Silica Sands – a frac sand company headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas but with significant activities located in Wisconsin. Ted Auch, Ohio Program Coordinator for FracTracker, and I are on a daylong sand mining tour organized by the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (WCWRPC). This, the second Superior drying plant we visited, processes up to 2.4 million tons of sand per year (enough sand to complete 800 typical horizontal gas or oil wells). This is among the largest facilities of its kind in the world.

What is frac sand?

Frac sands (99% silicon dioxide – SiO2) are meant to “prop” open the rock after fracturing is complete, termed “proppants.” Aside from water, these sands represent the second largest constituent pumped into a typical well to hydraulically fracture the shale.  Usage of frac sand as a proppant is increasing due to the rising costs associated with synthetic substitutes like ceramic and related resin-coated materials. Ideally, such sand must be uniformly fine and spherical, crush-resistant, acid soluble, mature, and clay/silt-free. The northern Great Lakes Basin represents the primary stock for high quality frac sand in the world – causing many industry analysts to label the region Sand Arabia.

And where does it come from?

Most of Superior’s total production (4.2 million tons per year) comes from mines in New Auburn and Clinton, Wisconsin – in the middle of the St. Peter (Ottawa) Sandstone. This formation underlies parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri. Known for its uniform and rounded grains – the region has recently surpassed the Hickory (Brady) formation in Texas, which contains sands that are far more angular, blocky and coarse.

To get an idea of the landscape where these sand mining operations are occurring in Wisconsin, see Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Land cover types (%) and the location of the mines we visited during our recent frac sands tour of West Central Wisconsin (Note: 1.0 = 100%)

“Thank God for Superior Silica Sands,” said Jim Walker, Director of Operations. He wasn’t directly touting his employer’s virtues, but rather sharing a quote from a landowner pleased with the income derived from leasing their farm for the sand beneath. According to Walker, Superior has over 100,000 acres of mining leases in Wisconsin – enough to support their company’s anticipated needs for the next 30 years. Based on frac sand mine permitting data provided to us by the planning commission, this 100,000 acreage translates to 939,700,000 tons of frac sand (enough for 313,233 horizontal wells). Overall, Wisconsin’s frac sand mines are currently producing 185-211 million tons of frac sand from 128 facilities.

Superior is one of more than six sand companies working in the area. One state resident recently emailed me complaining that “we are being inundated with industrial sand mining.” Her perspective is one of concern, but we are told of farmers who are eager to lease their land for potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual payments. Superior prides itself on hiring from the community. The jobs pay well, nearly twice the regional average, according to the planning commission. Healthcare benefits and a 401k are included. At quick glance, it is an economic boom to a rural region, but will it last? Superior has a 10-year contract to supply sand to Schlumberger, a giant in hydraulic fracturing services. Sand prices – affected by competition and overproduction – are dropping, however.

Sand Mining Risks

Environmental impacts may be the biggest cause for worry. Some mining operations can cover more than 450 acres and often involve the destruction of forests. This may happen piecemeal, perhaps 20 acres at a time, but forest habitat and the associated functions (e.g. carbon storage and accrual) are nevertheless diminished. The land is remediated1, but the landowner makes the decisions as to how this occurs. They might choose to plant prairie grasses or trees, but a common preference is more cropland – the latter option enabled by a post-mining reduction in topography. Adaptable wildlife like deer may take the changes in stride, but forest-dependent species and vulnerable plant communities will likely suffer. Water quality and quantity issues have also been highlighted by Wisconsin Watch, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Minnesota Public Radio.

Public health impacts are perhaps less clear. Superior officials explain that only the finest sand sizes are a legitimate inhalation hazard, and those are atypical to the frac sand industry. A 2012 OSHA hazard alert, however, listed respirable crystalline silica as a significant workplace hazard on unconventional oil and gas well pads, just behind the risk for physical injuries and hydrogen sulfide exposure. At least at Superior, they rigorously monitor the air quality onsite and outside their boundaries. Employees are even monitored for what they breathe. Superior shows data underscoring its outstanding safety and regulatory compliance record. I observe no noticeable blowing of sand or dust on site. While I am on the ground touring, however, Ted enjoys a bird’s eye view courtesy of LightHawk. From the plane, he witnesses aerial movement of material off of other sand mines.

Emissions from increased truck traffic may also present an air quality concern. Dump trucks ply the back roads like worker ants delivering load after heavy load from the mines to the drying plants. The general increase in activity in these forgotten areas may be a lifesaver for some, and a worry for others. Trains with scores of covered, sand-packed cars rumble down the tracks bound for distant shale basins. Texas awaits the trains departing Superior’s Baron plant. Meanwhile, communities express concern about increasing speeds and the safety of crossings.

A Complicated Perspective

For me, the day’s enlightening dialogue and experiences underscore the rough, expanding tendrils of unconventional oil and gas development. They reach far and have complex, often abrasive effects. Here, in the land of Leopold, the father of the Land Ethic, I can’t help but wonder: What would Aldo say about the transformation of his beloved countryside?

View all photos from tour >


Footnotes

For additional resources and articles on sand mining issues, visit the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota and Wisconsin Watch.

[1] Reclamation success, permitting, bond release, inspection and enforcement, and land restrictions were put into law by the Carter administration and introduced by Arizona Republican Morris Udall as defined by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which also created the Office of Surface Mining.

WetzelCo_truck

Violations per Well Among PA Operators

People often want to know which operators perform the best (or worst) among their peers in terms of adhering to the laws set forth in a given state. In principle, the easiest metric for determining this is to look at the ratio of violations issued per well, or VpW.

However, in order to make that analysis, we would obviously need to have violations data. Unfortunately, out of the twenty states that we have shale viewers for on FracMapper, we only have violations data for Arkansas, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, with the latter being far and away more robust and complete when compared to the other two. We have been told that the data is also available for North Dakota as well, if we are willing to pay for it, so we might be able to perform a VpW analysis for the Peace Garden State in the near future.

Then, of course, there is the realization that, “What is a violation?” is actually somewhat of a philosophical question in Pennsylvania.  In the past, I’ve determined that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) uses the number of unique violation ID numbers issued to calculate their totals. However, historically, the department would often lump several issues that showed up on the Compliance Report together under the same violation ID.  Others have taken to looking at Notices of Violations (NOV’s), which are more limited in number.  Still others exclude any violations marked as being administrative in nature, an idea that makes sense superficially, but a closer look at the data shows that the label is extremely misleading.  For example, “Pits and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances” is an administrative violation, as is, “Improper casing to protect fresh groundwater”.

In addition to all of that, the cast of operators is constantly shifting as new operators come on board, old ones get bought out by rivals, joint ventures are formed between them, and the like.  Sometimes a parent company will shift the active operator status to one of its subsidiaries, so wells that were originally Consol will then be listed under CNX, for example.

In terms of violations per well, there is a further complication, in that all of the drilled wells data reflect the current custodians of the wells, whereas the violations data reflect those that received the violations.  The result is that there are records issued for Turm Oil (really!) for wells where Chesapeake is now listed as the operator.  In some respects, this makes sense:  why should Chesapeake carry the burden of the legacy mistakes of Turm in their compliance record?

But it does make analysis somewhat tricky.  My approach has been to combine operators that are obviously the same parent company, and to do the analysis in several different ways, and over different time frames.  Who’s ready for some numbers?

Violations per Well (VpW) for operators of unconventional wells in Pennsylvania with 50 or more wells.  Those operators with scores higher than the average of their peers are highlighted in pink.

Violations per Well (VpW) for operators of unconventional wells in Pennsylvania with 50 or more wells. Those operators with scores higher than the average of their peers are highlighted in pink.

Here, violations per well are based on the number of violation ID’s issued, where as NOVpW is based on the number of Notices of Violations.  The date range for this table is from January 1, 2000 through October 21, 2013, and please note that the totals represent those that are included on the chart, not statewide totals.  A lot of violations are lost of the shuffle when we look at only the largest current operators, but it also helps eliminate some of the noise that can be generated with small sample sizes, as well as with the inconsistencies described above.  Here’s a look at data from this year:

Violations per Well (VpW) for operators with unconventional wells in Pennsylvania in 2013, through October 21.  Those operators with scores higher than the average of their peers are highlighted in pink.

Violations per Well (VpW) for operators with unconventional wells in Pennsylvania in 2013, through October 21. Those operators with scores higher than on violation per well or NOV per well are highlighted in pink.

Notice that the highest violations per well and notices of violations per well scores are much higher than the data aggregated since 2000, whereas the statewide averages of the two scores are actually much lower.  The former is almost certainly attributable to having a smaller sample size, but there is something else at play with the latter:

Violations per well of Pennsylvania's unconventional wells.  2013 data through 10/21/2013.

Violations per well of Pennsylvania’s unconventional wells. 2013 data through 10/21/2013.

The number of violations per well drilled has been steadily decreasing since 2009, and it is now down to an average of less than one violation issued per every two wells.  There is nothing in the data that indicates why this is the case, however.

Note:  This post was edited on 12/18/2013.  The table showing operators violations per well and NOV’s per well in 2013 originally stated that that values higher than the average of their peers are highlighted in pink.  In fact, only those with values of 1.00 or higher are highlighted in that fashion.

Loyalsock Flyover 2013

Loyalsock from the Sky

By Pete Stern, Aerial Photographer

When I met with John Dawes and Brook Lenker to discuss the possibilities of applying my aerial photography to environmental issues in Pennsylvania, I knew that my aerial photography career, which is really more a hobby, a passion and an avocation, was about to change. For years I’ve been taking aerial photographs, mainly focusing on the Pennsylvania Coal Region – purely as art – showing my work in galleries and universities, and self-publishing books. I refrained from expressing an opinion about PA coal mining, leaving it to the viewer to inform the images with their own knowledge of the environmental effects of mining.

As a guest speaker at the 2013 EPCAMR Conference at State College, I learned a great deal about the problem of mine water treatment, and soon had the opportunity to photograph a mine water treatment facility in the Panther Valley for Schuylkill County Headwaters. A friend had asked me for years why I don’t photograph the fracking activities in Pennsylvania, and my answer was that the fracking operations don’t lend themselves to the kind of artistic interpretation from the air as does the Coal Region. But when John mentioned photographing the Loyalsock State Forest fracking activity, I saw that I could use my aerial photography for a higher purpose.

I quickly began studying maps of the Clarence Moore Lands, in which Loyalsock is situated. I looked at images of Rock Run and many other places in the Forest, and then visited and hiked in the Forest. I saw that this was a place of great natural beauty and an ecological treasure. I learned that this precious forest is being threatened by fracking activity that is growing at an astounding rate throughout the forest. I knew I wanted to help document this environmental assault with my photography, and the question became how to most effectively and safely do this.

I have almost always taken my aerial photographs from my own small airplane, which is essentially an advanced ultralight. Flying and photographing at the same time has been the nexus of my art. Loyalsock is a large, rugged and remote area, however, with few airports or emergency landing fields nearby. After much consideration, I decided to hire a pilot to fly me to Loyalsock so that I could concentrate solely on taking photographs. I found a retired Air Force Colonel in Selinsgrove, now a flight instructor, who was eager to assist me in this project. He had been a B52 pilot in Vietnam and had participated in Operation Linebacker 2. It seemed to me that, perhaps, this mission was similar to what he may have done in his combat years, but now, for the good of saving the environment, rather than dropping bombs on it.

With the FracTracker Loyalsock map (below) and some coordinates in hand, we departed Selinsgrove in a Cessna 172 on October 9th. Starting with Bodine Mountain Northwest of Trout Run, we could see fracking operations covering nearly every hilltop. I opened the window of the 172 and started photographing, and as we flew Northeast over Loyalsock, we could see fracking operations everywhere. It was difficult to make out the exact boundaries of the Loyalsock State Forest from the air, and it appeared that the heart of the Forest is, for now, being spared from direct drilling. But I knew that it was just a matter of time before the Forest itself became the victim of unchecked exploitation, threatening the pristine native trout streams, polluting the air, and potentially driving endangered bird species from the area.


Drilled unconventional wells in Pennsylvania and control of mineral rights on state forest land. To access full controls, such as legends, layer controls, and layer descriptions, please click the expanding arrows in the top-right corner of the map.

Flying over the forest, I was very glad that I opted to hire a pilot for this work. It was tricky flying low over ridges and valleys trying to photograph every site. The gusty winds were knocking around the 172, which is much heavier than my aircraft. It was a very productive and successful flight, but also disheartening. Flying allows us views of the Earth that are unavailable from the ground. It has always seemed to me that, especially in Pennsylvania, if there is an unspoiled place of natural value, someone will find a way to destroy it. Loyalsock is a natural treasure which must be protected, but from the growing abundance of fracking operations that can be witnessed from the air, it appears that saving this Forest is an enormous challenge. Thanks to resources like groups like the Save the Loyalsock Coalition, at least the best effort is being made.


Pete Stern is an aerial photographer and artist. His work is featured on his website: www.psartwork.net.