Our thoughts and opinions about gas extraction and related topics

This table shows the number of wells in each formation in Pennsylvania that has both conventional and unconventional wells drilled into it.  Data source:  DEP, downloaded 7/9/2014.

What’s in PA Senate Bill 1378?

State Senator Joseph Scarnati III, from north-central Pennsylvania, has introduced a bill that would redefine the distinction between conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells throughout the state.  In Section 1 of the bill, the sponsors try to establish the purpose of the legislation,  making the case that:

  1. Conventional oil and gas development has a benign impact on the Commonwealth
  2. Many of the wells currently classified as conventional are developed by small businesses
  3. Oil and gas regulations, “must permit the optimal development of oil and gas resources,” as well as protect the citizens and environment.
  4. Previous legislation already does, and should, treat conventional and unconventional wells differently
This diagram shows geologic stata in Pennsylvania.  The Elk Sandstone is between the Huron and Rhinestreet shale deposits from the Upper Devonian period.

This diagram shows geologic stata in Pennsylvania. The Elk Group is between the Huron and Rhinestreet shale deposits from the Upper Devonian period. Click on the image to see the full version. Source: DCNR

Certainly, robust debate surrounds each of these points, but they are introductory in nature, not the meat and potatoes of Senate Bill 1378.  What this bill does is re-categorize some of the state’s unconventional wells to the less restrictive conventional category, including:

  1. All oil wells
  2. All natural gas wells not drilled in shale formations
  3. All shale wells above (shallower than) the base of the Elk Group or equivalent
  4. All shale wells below the Elk Group from a formation that can be economically drilled without the use of hydraulic fracturing or multi-lateral bore holes
  5. All wells drilled into any formation where the purpose is not production, including waste disposal and other injection wells

The current distinction is in fact muddled, with one DEP source indicating that the difference is entirely due to whether or not the formation being drilled into is above or below the Elk Group, and another DEP source indicates that the difference is much more nuanced, and really depends on whether the volumes of hydraulic fracturing fluid required to profitably drill into a given formation are generally high or low.

This table shows the number of wells in each formation in Pennsylvania that has both conventional and unconventional wells drilled into it.  Data source:  DEP, downloaded 7/9/2014.

This table shows the number of distinct wells in each producing formation in Pennsylvania that has both conventional and unconventional wells drilled into it. Data source: DEP, downloaded 7/9/2014.

As one might expect, this ambiguity is represented in the data. The chart at the left shows the number of distinct number of wells by formation, for each producing formation that has both conventional and unconventional wells in the dataset.  Certainly, there could be some data entry errors involved, as the vast majority of Bradford wells are conventional, and almost all of the Marcellus wells are unconventional.  But there seems to be some real confusion with regards to the Oriskany, for example, which is not only deeper than the Elk Group, but the Marcellus formation as well.

While an adjustment to the distinction of conventional and unconventional wells in Pennsylvania is called for, one wonders if the definitions proposed in SB 1378 is the right way to handle it.  If the idea of separating the two is based on the relative impact of the drilling operation, then a much more straightforward metric might be useful, such as providing a cutoff in the amount of hydraulic fracturing fluid used to drill a well.  Further, each of the five parts of the proposed definition serve to make the definition of unconventional wells less inclusive, meaning that additional wells would be subject to the less stringent regulations, and that the state would collect less money from the impact fees that were a part of Act 13 of 2012.

Instead, it is worth checking to see whether the definition of unconventional is inclusive enough.  In May of this year, FracTracker posted a blog about conventional wells that were drilled horizontally in Pennsylvania.


Conventional, non-vertical wells in Pennsylvania. Please click the expanding arrows icon at the top-right corner to access the legend and other map controls. Please zoom in to access data for each location.

These wells require large amounts of hydraulic fracturing fluids, and are already being drilled at depths of only 3,000 feet, and could go as shallow as 1,000 feet.  It’s pretty easy to argue that due to the shallow nature of the wells, and the close proximity to drinking water aquifers, these wells are deserving of even more rigorous scrutiny than those drilled into the Marcellus Shale, which generally ranges from 5,000 to 9,000 feet deep throughout the state.

A summary of the different regulations regarding conventional and unconventional wells can be found from PennFuture.  In general, unconventional wells must be further away from water sources and structures than their conventional counterparts, and the radius of presumptive liability for the contamination of water supplies is 2,500 feet instead of 1,000.

SB 1378 has been re-referred to the Appropriations Committee.

 

Pgh Fundraiser

Putting the “Fun” in Fundraisers

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

Great turnout and whiskey

Enjoying some whiskey in Pittsburgh

It’s almost July, but just a few weeks ago, FracTracker wrapped up the last of three fundraising events. From a site in San Francisco overlooking the Pacific to a budding distillery in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, friends and colleagues came together to show their support for our work and their concern about the effects of unconventional drilling. If you were able to join us for these events – whatever the motivation, we appreciated your collective, deliberate act of kindness. Thank you!

The gatherings were generally small but lots of fun – full of conversation, positive energy, and, yes, good spirits. At the Cleveland Heights event, we even had live music thanks to the jazzy guitar of Alan Brooks and at all three venues a colorful exhibit of thought-provoking, conversation-stoking maps entitled “Cartography on Canvas.” These events were our first foray into fundraisers. From the experience they’ll be improved and made even more memorable, unique, extraordinary. That’s our goal.

We aim to entice more attendees, enhance our revenue, and, most importantly, grow the network of the informed – not just informed about the activities of FracTracker but of all the groups, efforts, and learnings related to the impacts of extreme hydrocarbon extraction. Soon, another round of events – guaranteed to be mood improving, mind expanding affairs – will be rolled out. Prepare to mark your calendars, join the fun, and make your own social statement!

A special thank you goes out to FracTracker staff, interns, and board members who put in extra time and effort to help ensure the success of these initial fundraisers. Thank you, too, to our incredible door prize and auction item contributors:

There are strong public opinions in some cases related to drilling. This map shows municipal movements in New York State against unconventional drilling (as of 06/13/2014)

Public Perception of Sustainability

By Jill Terner, PA Communications Intern, FracTracker Alliance

There are strong public opinions in some cases related to drilling. This map shows municipal movements in New York State against  unconventional drilling (as of 06/13/2014)

There are strong public opinions in some cases related to unconventional drilling. This map shows municipal movements in NY State against the process (06/13/2014)

In the previous two installments of this three part series, I discussed how sustainability provides a common platform for people who support and deny the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and natural gas from the ground. While these opposing sides may frequently use sustainability in their rhetoric, the term has different connotations depending on which side is presented. The dynamic definition of sustainability makes it a boundary object, or a term that many people can use in shared discourse, all while defining it in different nuanced ways1. This way, the definition of sustainability alters between groups of people, and may also change over time.

First, I wrote about how pro-industry groups tend to focus primarily on the economic angle of sustainability rather than a more holistic understanding when arguing that hydraulic fracturing is the best choice for local and national communities.  In my second post, I discussed how pro-environment groups see sustainability as a multifaceted entity, treating social and environmental sustainability with as much importance as economic. Here, I will focus on what can cause differences in public perceptions of hydraulic fracturing, as well as what might be done to mitigate potential confusion caused by competing definitions of sustainability.

A Few Explanations for Differing Opinions

A national survey conducted in 2013 found that by and large, people had no opinion of hydraulic fracturing.  This was probably due to the fact that the majority of respondents indicated that they had heard little to nothing about hydraulic fracturing also known as unconventional drilling. Those who did identify as having an opinion either for or against drilling were split nearly evenly*. While survey participants on both sides recognized that there could be several economic benefits related to industrial presence, they also acknowledged that distribution of these benefits might not be equitable. Additionally, recognition of environmental and social threats is correlated with a negative view of industry. The stronger a respondents’ concern is about damaging environmental and social outcomes resulting from drilling activities, the more likely they were to express negative opinions about the industry2.

What is responsible for this difference of opinion? One possible explanation lies in the level of drilling activity a given community is experiencing. In areas where hydraulic fracturing is more prevalent, residents are more likely to have leased their land to drilling companies, so they are more likely to adjust their attitude to reflect their actions. They have made a significant investment by leasing their land, so they are likely to be optimistic about the payoff3.

Relatedly, the length of time that industry has been active in an area might also affect public perceptions. When industry is relatively new, many residents of nearby communities are optimistic about the economic gains that it may bring. However, alongside this optimism, residents may also express trepidation regarding what the influx of new people and wealth might do to community integrity. Over time, though, residents of areas where industry has maintained a continued presence may have adjusted to the changes brought on by industry, or have had their initial fears mitigated3, 4,5.

Geographically speaking, proximity to a major metropolitan area may also play a role in public perception of unconventional drilling.  In counties where there are more metropolitan areas, there is the potential for an increase in negative social side effects. For example, an increase in violent crimes5, 6, uneven distribution of wealth generated by industry4, and loss of community character4, 6, might be offset by the fact that the influx of new workers makes up a smaller proportion of the county population than in less urbanized counties4.

On a broader geographical scale, state-by-state differences in opinion could be largely due to how prohibitive or permissive laws are regarding drilling. In states such as New York, where legislation demonstrates concern for the environment and safety, residents may be more likely to see sustainability as something more than just economic. On the other hand, in states like Pennsylvania where legislation is relatively permissive, residents may be more likely to see economic sustainability as most important due to the political climate4. This view is also known as the chicken/egg phenomenon: does the public’s opinion sway legislation, or does legislation drive public opinion? Either way, the differences across state lines remains.

What can be done to better inform public opinion?

Above, I mentioned a study where researchers found that the vast majority of survey participants held no opinion regarding unconventional drilling, largely due to lack of knowledge about it2. Therefore making unbiased information readily available and understandable to the public will allow them to make informed opinions on the subject. For example, having access to objective literature regarding unconventional drilling provides the opportunity to increase awareness and inform individuals about the practice of hydraulic fracturing and its potential impacts. In order to have the most impact we must first asses where gaps in public knowledge lie. Engaging in projects such as community based participatory research and then qualitatively assessing the results will reveal common misconceptions or knowledge gaps that need to be addressed through educational programs.

Also, most predictions regarding the unconventional drilling boom are based on a boom-and-bust cycles of past industries4. For example, they look at longitudinal studies where representative groups of residents within communities are followed over time, and they also focus on existing communities affected by industry identifying the social, environmental, and economic outcomes related to industry. This way, any comparisons drawn would be within the same industry, even if they were between two different cities.

Finally, the information gleaned from community based participatory or longitudinal research should be presented by an unbiased party and made easily available. Promoting transparency within biased institutions is equally important. While each entity uses the term “sustainability” to dynamically fit its rhetorical needs, few entities prioritize the same kinds of sustainability. Therefore, it is up to industry, environmental groups, and independent researchers alike to provide a transparent atmosphere of honest information so that individuals can decide which understanding of sustainability they would like to see informing the progress of unconventional drilling in their communities.

About the Author

Jill Terner is an MPH candidate at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and a native Pittsburgher. Interning with FracTracker in fall of 2013 has cemented Jill’s interest in combining Environmental Public Health with her passion for Social Justice.  After completing her MPH in May 2015, Jill hopes to find work helping people better understand, interact with, and mitigate threats to their environment – and how their environment impacts their health.

Footnotes

* 13% did not know how much they had heard about drilling, 39% had heard nothing at all, 16% had heard “a little”, 22% had heard “some”, and 9% had heard “a lot.” Of these respondents, 58% did not know/were undecided about whether they supported drilling, 20% were opposed, and 22% were supportive2.

Sources

  1. Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional ecology, ‘translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s museum of vertebrate zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19, 387-420.
  2. Boudet, H., Carke, C., Bugden, D., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Leiserowitz, A. (2013). “fracking” controversy and communication: Using national survey data to understand public erceptions of hydraulic fracturing. Energy Policy, 65, 57-67.
  3. Kriesky, J., Goldstein, B. D., Zell, K., & Beach, S. (2013). Differing opinions about natural gas drillingin two adjacent counties with different livels of drilling activity. Energy Policy, 50, 228-236.
  4. Wynveen, B. J. (2011). A thematic analysis of local respondents’ perceptions of barnett shale energy development. Journal of Rural Social Sciences, 26(1), 8-31.
  5. Brasier, K. J., Filteau, M. R., McLaughlin, D. K., Jacquet, J., Stedman, R. C., Kelsey, T. W., & Goetz, S. J. (2011). Residents’ perceptions of community and environmental impacts from development of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale: A comparison of Pennsylvania and New York cases. Journal of Rural Social Sciences, 26(1), 32-61.
  6. Korfmacher, K. S., Jones, W. A., Malone, S. L., & Vinci, L. F. (2013). Public Health and High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing. New Solutions, 23(1) 13-31.
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An Open Letter to FracFocus

FracFocus.org is the preferred chemical disclosure registry for the oil and gas (O&G) industry, and use of your website by the industry is mandated by some states and regulatory agencies. As such, we hope you’ll be responsive to this call by FracTracker, other organizations, and concerned citizens across the country to live up to the standards of accessibility and transparency required by similar data registries.

A Focus on Data Transparency

Recent technological advances in high volume hydraulic fracturing operations have changed the landscape of O&G drilling in the United States.  As residents adjust to the presence of large-scale industrial sites appearing in their communities, the public’s thirst for knowledge about what is going on is both understandable and reasonable. The creation of FracFocus was a critical first step down the pathway to government and industry transparency, allowing for some residents to learn about the chemicals being used in their immediate vicinities.  The journey, however, is not yet complete.

Design Limitations on FracFocus

Query by Date

Even with the recently added search features there is no way to query reports by date. Currently a visitor would be unable to search by the date hydraulic fracturing / stimulation was performed, or when the report itself was submitted. Reports can only be viewed one PDF at a time, which would take someone quite a while to view all 68,000+ well sites in your system.

Aggregate Data Downloads

In October 2013, you informed us that “each registered state regulatory agency has access to the xml files for their state but they are not distributable from FracFocus to the public.” We must ask the reasonable question of “why not?” We understand that setting up a downloadable data system is a time-intensive process, as we manage one ourselves, but the benefits of providing such a service more than compensate for the effort expended. It is no longer possible to aggregate data, either automatically or manually, because of bandwidth limitations that keep users from downloading more than an arbitrarily limited number of reports in a single session. Considering public concern over the composition of frac fluid, as well as the volume and geographic extent of complaints of drinking water complaints to be related to O&G extraction, prudence would suggest making the data as accessible as possible. For example, making the aggregated data available to the public as a machine-readable download would greatly reduce the load on your servers, because users would no longer be forced to download the individual PDF reports. Changes in the way the reports are curated would also improve efficiency and reduce your server load; we would be more than happy to discuss these changes with you.

An Issue of Money?

The basic infrastructure to provide this service via FracFocus.org is already in place. An organization like the Groundwater Protection Council with a website serving some of the world’s wealthiest corporations loses credibility when making claims that “we have no way to meet your needs for the data.”  Withholding data from the public only serves to compound the distrust that many people have with regards to the oil and gas extraction industry.  Additionally, agencies that use FracFocus as a means of satisfying open government requirements are currently being short changed by the lack of access to your aggregated datasets; restricting access to data that is in the public interest is fundamentally at odds with data transparency initiatives, including the President’s 2013 Executive Order on Open Data.

One Small Step for a Company…

Within this discussion is a simple realization:  The Ground Water Protection Council, Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, participating companies and states, and the federal government should recognize that data transparency is not merely a lofty ideal, but an actual obligation to our open society.  Once that realization has been made, the path of least resistance becomes clear:  you, FracFocus, should make all of your aggregate data available to the public, beginning with the easiest step: the statewide datasets that are already being provided to government agencies.

FracTracker operates in the public interest. We – and the thousands of individuals and organizations who use our services and yours – request no less from you. Thank you for addressing these critical matters.

Sincerely,
-The FracTracker Alliance-

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Causes of pipeline incidents from 1/1/10 to 3/3/14, with counts.

Pipeline Incidents Updated and Analyzed

Pipeline spill in Mayflower, AR on March 29, 2013. Photo by US EPA via Wikipedia.

The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline expansion project has grabbed a lot of headlines, but it is just one of several proposed major pipeline projects in the United States. As much of the discussion revolves around potential impacts of the pipeline system, a review of known incidents is relevant to the discussion.

A year ago, the FracTracker Alliance calculated that there was an average of 1.6 pipeline incidents per day in the United Sates.  That figure remains accurate, with 2,452 recorded incidents between January 1, 2010 and March 3, 2014, a span of 1,522 days.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) classifies the incidents into three categories:

  • Gas transmission and gathering:  Gathering lines take natural gas from the wells to midstream infrastructure.  Transmission lines transport natural gas from the regions in which it is produced to other locations, often thousands of miles away.  Since 2010, there have been 486 incidents on these types of lines, resulting in 10 fatalities, 71 injuries, and $620 million in property damage.
  • Oil and hazardous liquid:  This includes all materials overseen by PHMSA other than natural gas, predominantly crude and refined petroleum products.  Liquified natural gas is included in this category.  There were 1,511 incidents during the reporting period for these pipelines, causing 6 deaths and 15 injuries, and $1.8 billion in property damage.
  • Gas distribution:  These pipelines are used by utilities to get natural gas to consumers.  In just over 40 months, there were 455 incidents, resulting in 42 people getting killed, 183 reported injuries, and $86 million in property damage.

Curiously, while incidents on distribution lines accounted for 72 percent of fatalities and 67 percent of all injuries, the property damage in these cases were only responsible for just over 3 percent of $2.5 billion in total property damage from pipeline spills since 2010.  A reasonable hypothesis accounting for the deaths and injuries is that distribution lines are much more common in densely populated areas than are the other types of pipelines; an incident that might be fatal in an urban area might go unnoticed for days in more remote locations, for example.  However, as the built environment is also much more densely located in urban areas, it does seem surprising that reported property damage isn’t closer to being in line with physical impacts on humans.

How accurate are the data?

In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, governmental agency data suddenly became much more opaque.  In terms of pipelines, public access to the pipeline data that had been mapped to that point was removed.  It was later restored, with limitations.  As it stands now, most pipeline data in the United States, including the link to the pipeline proposal map above, are intentionally generalized to the point where pipelines might not even be rendered in the appropriate township, let alone street.

There are some exceptions, though.  If you would like to know where pipelines are in US waters in the Gulf of Mexcio, for example, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management makes that data not only accessible to view, but available for download on data.gov, a site dedicated to data transparency.  While the PHMSA will not do the same with terrestrial pipelines, the do release location data along with their incident data.


Pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 3/3/2014. To access details, legend, and other map controls, please click the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner of the map.

This fatal pipeline incident was in Allentown, PA, but was given coordinates in Greenland.

This fatal pipeline incident was in Allentown, PA, but was given coordinates in Greenland.

Unfortunately, we see evidence that the data are not well vetted, at least in terms of location.  One of the most serious incidents in the timeframe, an explosion in Allentown, Pennsylvania that killed five people and injured three more, was given coordinates that render in the middle of Greenland.  Another incident leading to fatalities was given location data that put it in Manatoba, well outside of the reach of the US agency that publishes the data.  Still another incident appears to be in the Pacific Ocean, 1,300 miles west-southwest of Mexico.  There are many more examples as well, but the majority of incidents seem to be reasonably well located.

Fuzzy data: are national security concerns justified?

Anyone who watches the news on a regular basis knows that there are people out there who mean others harm. However, a closer look at the incident data shows that pipelines are not a common means of accomplishing such an end.

Causes of pipeline incidents from 1/1/10 to 3/3/14, with counts.

Causes of pipeline incidents from 1/1/10 to 3/3/14, with counts.

For each category showing causation, there are numerous subcategories. While we don’t need to look into all of those here, it is worth pointing out that there is a subcategory of, “other outside force damage” that is designated as, “intentional damage.”  Of the 2,452 total incidents, nine incidents fall into this subcategory.  These subcategories are further broken down, and while there is an option to express that the incident is a result of terrorism, none have been designated that way in this dataset .  Five of the nine incidents are listed as acts of vandalism, however. To be thorough, and because it provides a fascinating insight into work in the field, let’s take a look at the narrative description for each incident that are labeled as intentional in origin:

  • Approximately 2 bbls of crude oil were released when an unknown person(s) removed the threaded pressure warning device on the scraper trap’s closure door. As a result of the absence of the 1/2 inch pressure warning device crude oil was able to flow from the open port upon start up of the pipeline and pressurization of the scraper trap. Once this was discovered the 1/2 inch pressure warning device was properly put back into the scaper trap.
  • Aboveground piping intentionally shot by unknown party. Installed stoppall on line at 176+73 (7 146′) upstream of damaged aboveground piping. Cut and capped pipeline.
  • Friday october 18th at approximately 6:00 p.m. we were notified of a gas line break at Kayenta Mobile Home Park. The Navajo Police responded to an emergency call about vandals in one of the parks alley ways kicking at meters. Upon arrival they found the broke meter riser at the mobile home park and expediently used the emergency shutdown system to remedy the situation. This immediately cut service to 118 customers in the park. [Names removed] responded to the call. we arrived on site at approximately 9:30 p.m. We located the damage and fixed the system at approximately 1:30 a.m. i called the Amerigas emergency call center and informed them that we would be restarting the system the following morning and to tell our customers they would need to be home in order to restore service. We then started the procedure of shutting every valve off to all customers before restarting the system. We started the system back up at 9:30a.m. 10/19/2013. Once the system was up to full pressure and all systems were normal we began putting customers back into service. The completion of re-establishing service to all customers on the system was completed on 10/23/2013.
  • A service tech was called at 1:15 am Sunday morning to respond to the Marlboro Fire Department at an apparent explosion and house fire. The tech arrived and called for additional resources. He then began to check for migrating gas in the surrounding buildings along the service to the house and in the street. no gas readings were detected. The distribution and service on call personnel arrived and began calling in additional company resources to assist in the response effort and controlling the incident. A distribution crew was called in to shut off and cut the service. Additional service techs were called in to assist in checking the surrounding buildings and in the streets at catch basins and manholes around the entire block. Gas supply personnel were called in and dispatched to take odorant samples in the houses directly across from 15 Grant Ct. that had active gas service. Gas survey crews were called in to survey Grant St. and the two parallel streets McEnelly St. and Washington Ct. along with the portion of Washington st. in between these streets. The meter and meter bar assembly were taken by the investigators as evidence. The service was pressure tested to the riser which was witnessed by a representative of the DPI. The service was cut off at the main. After the investigators completed gathering evidence at the scene they gave permission to begin cleaning up the site. There was a tenant home at the time of the explosion who was conscious and walking around when the fire department arrived. He was taken to the hospital and reports are that he sustained 2nd and 3rd degree burns on portions of his body.
  • On Friday, September 7, 2012 PSE&G responded to a gas emergency call involving a gas ignition. The initial call came in from the Orange Fire Department at 17:09 as a house fire at 272 Reock Ave Orange; the fire chief stated gas was not involved and the fire was caused by squatters. Subsequent investigation of the incident revealed that the fire was caused when one of the squatters lit a match which ignited leaking gas originating from gas piping removed from the head of an inside meter set. The gas meter inlet valve and associated piping were all removed by an unknown person on an unknown date prior to the fire. An appliance service tech responded and shut the gas off at the curb at 17:40 on September 7 2012. A street crew was dispatched and the gas service to 272 reock ave was cut at the curb at 19:00. Two people (names unknown) squatters were injured one by the fire one was injured jumping out a window to escape the fire. The home in question was vacated by the owner and the injured parties were trespassing on the property at the time of the incident. PSE&G has been unable to confirm any information on the status of their injuries due to patient confidentiality laws.
  • The homeowner tampered with company piping by removing 3/4″ steel end cap with a 3/4″ steel nipple on the tee was removed which caused the gas leak in the basement and resulted in a flash fire. The most likely source of ignition was the water heater. The homeowner died in the incident.
  • A structure fire involved an unoccupied hardware store and a small commercial 12-meter manifold. There were no meters on the manifold and no customers lost service. The heat from the structure fire melted a regulator on the manifold which in turn released gas and contributed to the fire. The cause is officially undetermined; however according to the fire department the cause appears to be arson with the fire starting in the back of the building and not from PG&E facilities. PG&E was notified of this incident by the fire department at 1802 hours. The gas service representative arrived on scene at 1830 hours. The fire department stopped the flow of gas by closing the service valve and the fire was extinguished at approximately 1900 hours. this incident was determined to be reportable due to damages to the building exceeding $50,000. There were no fatalities and no injuries as a result of this incident. Local news media was on-site but no major media was present.
  • A house explosion and fire occurred at approximately 0208 hours on 2/7/10. The fire department called at PG&E at 0213 hours. PG&E personnel arrived at 0245 hours. The fire department had shut off the service valve and removed the meter before PG&E arrived. The house was unoccupied at the time of the explosion. The gas service account was active and the gas service was on (contrary to initial report). The cause of the explosion is undetermined at the time of this report but the fire department has indicated the cause appears to be arson. After the explosion, PG&E performed a leak survey of the service the services on both sides of this address and the gas main in the front of all three of these addresses. No indication of gas was found. PG&E also performed bar hole tests over the service at 3944 17th Avenue and found no indication of gas. The gas service was cut off at the main and will be re-connected when the customer is ready for service.
  • On Monday, January 25, 2010 at approximately 2:30pm a single-family home at 2022 west 63rd Street Cleveland OH (Cuyahoga County) was involved in an explosion/fire. The gas service line was shut-off at approximately 4:30pm. A leak survey of the main lines and service lines on W. 83rd between Madison and Lorain revealed no indications of gas near the structure. A service leak at 2131 West 83rd Street was detected during the leak survey. This service line was replaced upon discovery. On Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 the service line at 2022 W. 83rd was air tested at operating pressure with no pressure loss. An odor test was conducted at 2028 West 83rd Street. The results of this odor test revealed odor levels well within dot compliance levels. Our investigation revealed an odor complaint at this residence on January 18th. Dominion personnel responded to the call and met with the Cleveland Fire Department. Dominion found the meter disconnected and the meter shut-off valve in the half open position. The shut-off valve was closed by the Dominion technician and secured with a locking device. The technician placed a 3/4 inch plug in the open end of the valve. The technician also attempted to close the curb-slop valve but could not. The service line was then bar hole tested utilizing a combustible gas indicator from the street to the structure. As a result, no leakage was discovered. A second attempt to close the curb box valve on January 19th ended when blockage was discovered in the valve box. The valve box was in the process of being scheduled for excevatlon and shut off by a construction crew at the time of the incident. An investigation of the incident site determined the cause to be arson as approximately 6 inches of service line and the meter shut-off valve (with locking device still intact) detached from the service line were recovered inside the structure.

While several of these narratives do make it seem as if the incidents in question were deliberate, these seem to have been caused by people on the ground, not by some GIS-powered remote effort. Seven of the nine incidents were on distribution lines, which tend to occur in populated areas, where contact with gas infrastructure is in fact commonplace, and six out of those seven incidents occurred inside houses or other structures.

On the other hand, there is a real danger in not knowing where pipelines are located. 237 accidents were due to excavation activities, and 86 others were caused by boats, cars, or other vehicles unrelated to excavation activity. Better knowledge of the location of these pipelines could reduce these numbers significantly.

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Three Cities, One Cause

FT-Fundraiser-DecorBy Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

Tracking the impacts of oil and gas development is downright sobering. Sometimes recharge is needed for the work ahead, so as the FracTracker Alliance approaches its two-year organizational anniversary, it is due time to make time for fun and mixing with friends, partners, and supporters. On a parallel course, our strategic plan underscores the importance of diversifying the sources of income that sustain our efforts. These two needs create ideal synergy for our upcoming fundraising events, coming soon to three great American cities.

On May 16, the Beach Chalet in San Francisco refreshes with house beer, bites, and Pacific views. May 22, the Wine Spot in Cleveland indulges attendees with sumptuous wines and cheeses. Wigle Whiskey serves it by sips and slurps, June 10, in Pittsburgh’s first distillery since prohibition. More than tasty libations, these altogether fine evenings offer door prizes, silent auction items, and special exhibits of maps and art to enlighten and intrigue. FracTracker board members and staff will share in the festivities. Add you – and the occasions are sure to be picture perfect. Come out for the cuisine, the camaraderie, but most of all, for the cause!

Tickets and/or RSVP’s are required for all events. Click on your city of interest below to learn more.

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WV Field Visits 2013

H 2 O Where Did It Go?

By Mary Ellen Cassidy, Community Outreach Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

A Water Use Series

Many of us do our best to stay current with the latest research related to water impacts from unconventional drilling activities, especially those related to hydraulic fracturing.  However, after attending presentations and reading recent publications, I realized that I knew too little about questions like:

  • How much water is used by hydraulic fracturing activities, in general?
  • How much of that can eventually be used for drinking water again?
  • How much is removed from the hydrologic cycle permanently?

To help answer these kinds of questions, FracTracker will be running a series of articles that look at the issue of drilling-related water consumption, the potential community impacts, and recommendations to protect community water resources.

Ceres Report

We have posted several articles on water use and scarcity in the past here, here, here and here.  This article in the series will share information primarily from Monika Freyman’s recent Ceres report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers, February 2014.  If you hunger for maps, graphs and stats, you will feast on this report. The study looks at oil and gas wells that were hydraulically fractured between January 2011 and May 2013 based on records from FracFocus.

Class 2 UI Wells

Class 2 UI Wells

Water scarcity from unconventional drilling is a serious concern. According to Ceres analysis, horizontal gas production is far more water intensive than vertical drilling.  Also, the liquids that return to the surface from unconventional drilling are often disposed of through deep well injection, which takes the water out of the water cycle permanently.   By contrast, water uses are also high for other industries, such as agriculture and electrical generation.  However, most of the water used in agriculture and for cooling in power plants eventually returns to the hydrological cycle.  It makes its way back into local rivers and water sources.

In the timeframe of this study, Ceres reports that:

  • 97 billion gallons of water were used, nearly half of it in Texas, followed by Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado and North Dakota, equivalent to the annual water need  of 55 cities with populations of ~ 5000 each.
  • Over 30 counties used at least one billion gallons of water.
  • Nearly half of the wells hydraulically fractured since 2011 were in regions with high or extremely high water stress, and over 55% were in areas experiencing drought.
  • Over 36% of the 39,294 hydraulically fractured wells in the study overlay regions experiencing groundwater depletion.
  • The largest volume of hydraulic fracturing water, 25 billion gallons, was handled by service provider, Halliburton.

Water withdrawals required for hydraulic fracturing activities have several worrisome impacts. For high stress and drought-impacted regions, these withdrawals now compete with demands for drinking water supplies, as well as other industrial and agricultural needs in many communities.  Often this demand falls upon already depleted and fragile aquifers and groundwater.  Groundwater withdrawals can cause land subsidence and also reduce surface water supplies. (USGS considers ground and surface waters essentially a single source due to their interconnections).  In some areas, rain and snowfall can recharge groundwater supplies in decades, but in other areas this could take centuries or longer.  In other areas, aquifers are confined and considered nonrenewable.   (We will look at these and additional impact in more detail in our next installments.)

Challenges of documenting water consumption and scarcity

Tracking water volumes and locations turns out to be a particularly difficult process.  A combination of factors confuse the numbers, like conflicting data sets or no data,  state records with varying criteria, definitions and categorization for waste, unclear or no records for water volumes used in refracturing wells or for well and pipeline maintenance.

Along with these impediments, “chain of custody” also presents its own obstacles for attempts at water bookkeeping. Unconventional drilling operations, from water sourcing to disposal, are often shared by many companies on many levels.  There are the operators making exploration and production decisions who are ultimately liable for environmental impacts of production. There are the service providers, like Halliburton mentioned above, who oversee field operations and supply chains. (Currently, service providers are not required to report to FracFocus.)  Then, these providers subcontract to specialists such as sand mining operations.  For a full cradle-to-grave assessment of water consumption, you would face a tangle of custody try tracking water consumption through that.

To further complicate the tracking of this industry’s water, FracFocus itself has several limitations. It was launched in April 2011 as a voluntary chemical disclosure registry for companies developing unconventional oil and gas wells. Two years later, eleven states direct or allow well operators and service companies to report their chemical use to this online registry. Although it is primarily intended for chemical disclosure, many studies, like several of those cited in this article, use its database to also track water volumes, simply because it is one of the few centralized sources of drilling water information.  A 2013 Harvard Law School study found serious limitations with FracFocus, citing incomplete and inaccurate disclosures, along with a truly cumbersome search format.  The study states, “the registry does not allow searching across forms – readers are limited to opening one PDF at a time. This prevents site managers, states, and the public from catching many mistakes or failures to report. More broadly, the limited search function sharply limits the utility of having a centralized data cache.”

To further complicate water accounting, state regulations on water withdrawal permits vary widely.  The 2011 study by Resources for the Future uses data from the Energy Information Agency to map permit categories.  Out of 30 states surveyed, 25 required some form of permit, but only half of these require permits for all withdrawals. Regulations also differ in states based on whether the withdrawal is from surface or groundwater.  (Groundwater is generally less regulated and thus at increased risk of depletion or contamination.)  Some states like Kentucky exempt the oil and gas industry from requiring withdrawal permits for both surface and groundwater sources.

Can we treat and recycle oil and gas wastewater to provide potable water?

WV Field Visits 2013Will recycling unconventional drilling wastewater be the solution to fresh water withdrawal impacts?  Currently, it is not the goal of the industry to recycle the wastewater to potable standards, but rather to treat it for future hydraulic fracturing purposes.  If the fluid immediately flowing back from the fractured well (flowback) or rising back to the surface over time (produced water) meets a certain quantity and quality criteria, it can be recycled and reused in future operations.  Recycled wastewater can also be used for certain industrial and agricultural purposes if treated properly and authorized by regulators.  However, if the wastewater is too contaminated (with salts, metals, radioactive materials, etc.), the amount of energy required to treat it, even for future fracturing purposes, can be too costly both in finances and in additional resources consumed.

It is difficult to find any peer reviewed case studies on using recycled wastewater for public drinking purposes, but perhaps an effective technology that is not cost prohibitive for impacted communities is in the works. In an article in the Dallas Business Journal, Brent Halldorson, a Roanoke-based Water Management Company COO, was asked if the treated wastewater was safe to drink.  He answered, “We don’t recommend drinking it. Pure distilled water is actually, if you drink it, it’s not good for you because it will actually absorb minerals out of your body.”

Can we use sources other than freshwater?

How about using municipal wastewater for hydraulic fracturing?  The challenge here is that once the wastewater is used for hydraulic fracturing purposes, we’re back to square one. While return estimates vary widely, some of the injected fluids stay within the formation.  The remaining water that returns to the surface then needs expensive treatment and most likely will be disposed in underground injection wells, thus taken out of the water cycle for community needs, whereas municipal wastewater would normally be treated and returned to rivers and streams.

Could brackish groundwater be the answer? The United States Geological Survey defines brackish groundwater as water that “has a greater dissolved-solids content than occurs in freshwater, but not as much as seawater (35,000 milligrams per liter*).” In some areas, this may be highly preferable to fresh water withdrawals.  However, in high stress water regions, these brackish water reserves are now more likely to be used for drinking water after treatment. The National Research Council predicts these brackish sources could supplement or replace uses of freshwater.  Also, remember the interconnectedness of ground to surface water, this is also true in some regions for aquifers. Therefore, pumping a brackish aquifer can put freshwater aquifers at risk in some geologies.

Contaminated coal mine water – maybe that’s the ticket?  Why not treat and use water from coal mines?  A study out of Duke University demonstrated in a lab setting that coal mine water may be useful in removing salts like barium and radioactive radium from wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing. However, there are still a couple of impediments to its use.  Mine water quality and constituents vary and may be too contaminated and acidic, rendering it still too expensive to treat for fracturing needs. Also, liability issues may bring financial risks to anyone handling the mine water.  In Pennsylvania, it’s called the “perpetual treatment liability” and it’s been imposed multiple times by DEP under the Clean Streams Law. Drillers worry that this law sets them up somewhere down the road, so that courts could hold them liable for cleaning up a particular stream contaminated by acid mine water that they did not pollute.

More to come on hydraulic fracturing and water scarcity

Although this article touches upon some of the issues presented by unconventional drilling’s demands on water sources, most water impacts are understood and experienced most intensely on the local and regional level.   The next installments will look at water use and loss in specific states, regions and watersheds and shine a light on areas already experiencing significant water demands from hydraulic fracturing.  In addition, we will look at some of the recommendations and solutions focused on protecting our precious water resources.

shakyground-cover

Class II Oil and Gas Wastewater Injection and Seismic Hazards in CA

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance Shake Ground Cover

In collaboration with the environmental advocacy groups Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, and Clean Water Action, The FracTracker Alliance has completed a proximity analysis of the locations of California’s Class II oil and gas wastewater injection wells to “recently” active fault zones in California. The results of the analysis can be found in the On Shaky Ground report, available for download at www.ShakyGround.org.1

Production of oil and natural gas results in a large and growing waste stream. Using current projections for oil development, the report projects a potential 9 trillion gallons of wastewater over the lifetime of the Monterey shale. In California the majority of wastewater is injected deep underground for disposal in wells deemed Class II wastewater injection.  The connection between seismic activity and underground injections of fluid has been well established, but with the current surge of shale resource development the occurrence of earthquakes in typically seismically inactive regions has increased, including a recent event in Ohio covered by the LA Times.   While both hydraulic fracturing and wastewater injection wells have been linked to the induction of seismic activity, the impacts of underground injection wells used for disposal are better documented and linked to larger magnitude earthquakes.

Therefore, while hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells has also been documented to induce seismic activity, the focus of this report is underground injection of waste fluids.

Active CA Faults

A spatial overview of the wastewater injection activity in California and recently active faults can be viewed in Figure 1, below.


Figure 1. California’s Faults and Wastewater Injection Wells. With this and all maps on this page, click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map to view it fullscreen and to see the legend and more details.

The focus of the On Shaky Ground report outlines the relationship between does a thorough job reviewing the literature that shows how the underground injection of fluids induces seismic activity.  The proximity analysis of wastewater injection wells, conducted by The FracTracker Alliance, provides insight into the spatial distribution of the injection wells.  In addition, the report M7.8 earthquake along the San Andreas fault could cause 1,800 fatalities and nearly $213 billion in economic damages.2  To complement the report and provide further information on the potential impacts of earthquakes in California, FracTracker created the maps in Figure 2 and Figure 3.

Shaking Assessments

Figure 2 presents shaking amplification and shaking hazards assessments. The dataset is generated from seismic evaluations.  When there is an earthquake, the ground will amplify the seismic activity in certain ways.  The amount of amplification is typically dependent on distance to the earthquake event and the material that comprises the Earth’s crust.  Softer materials, such as areas of San Francisco built on landfills, will typically shake more than areas comprised of bedrock at the surface.  The type of shaking, whether it is low frequency or high frequency will also present varying hazards for different types of structures.  Low frequency shaking is more hazardous to larger buildings and infrastructure, whereas high frequency events can be more damaging to smaller structure such as single family houses.  Various assessments have been conducted throughout the state, the majority by the California Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey.


Figure 2. California Earthquake Shaking Amplification and Class II Injection Wells

Landslide Hazards

Below, Figure 3. Southern California Landslide and Hazard Zones expands upon the map included in the On Shaky Ground report; during an earthquake liquefaction of soil and landslides represent some of the greatest hazards.  Liquefaction refers to the solid earth becoming “liquid-like”, whereas water-saturated, unconsolidated sediments are transformed into a substance that acts like a liquid, often in an earthquake. By undermining the foundations of infrastructure and buildings, liquefaction can cause serious damage. The highest hazard areas shown by the liquefaction hazard maps are concentrated in regions of man-made landfill, especially fill that was placed many decades ago in areas that were once submerged bay floor. Such areas along the Bay margins are found in San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda Island, as well as other places around San Francisco Bay. Other potentially hazardous areas include those along some of the larger streams, which produce the loose young soils that are particularly susceptible to liquefaction.  Liquefaction risks have been estimated by USGS and CGS specifically for the East Bay, multiple fault-slip scenarios for Santa Clara and for all the Bay Area in separate assessments.  There are not regional liquefaction risk estimate maps available outside of the bay area, although the CGS has identified regions of liquefaction and landslide hazards zones for the metropolitan areas surrounding the Bay Area and Los Angeles.  These maps outline the areas where liquefaction and landslides have occurred in the past and can be expected given a standard set of conservative assumptions, therefore there exist certain zoning codes and building requirements for infrastructure.


Figure 3. California Liquefaction/Landslide Hazards and Class II Injection Wells

Press Contacts

For more information about this report, please reach out to one of the following media contacts:

Alan Septoff
Earthworks
(202) 887-1872 x105
aseptoff@earthworksaction.org
Patrick Sullivan
Center for Biological Diversity
(415) 632-5316
psullivan@biologicaldiversity.org
Andrew Grinberg
Clean Water Action
(415) 369-9172
agrinberg@cleanwater.org

References

  1. Arbelaez, J., Wolf, S., Grinberg, A. 2014. On Shaky Ground. Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action. Available at ShakyGround.org
  2. Jones, L.M. et al. 2008. The Shakeout Scenario. USGS Open File Report 2008-1150. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

 

CA Local govt actions map thumb

What Does Los Angeles Mean for Local Bans and Moratoria in California?

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

California Regulations. The Venoco oil well in downtown Los Angeles.

As confusing as you may think the regulatory structure is in your state (if you are not fortunate enough to be a Californian), just know that California’s regulatory structure is more complicated.  Nothing in California’s recent history has clarified this point like the current debate over “fracking” regulations (hydraulic fracturing, as well as acidizing and other stimulation techniques).  Since the passage of California State Bill 4 (SB-4), there have been significant concerns for self-rule and self-determination for individual communities.  Further complicating the issue are the fracking activities being conducted from the offshore oil rig platforms located in federal waters.  In addition to federal regulation, the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources is the premier regulatory authority for oil and gas drilling and production in the state.  The State Water Resources Control Board and the Regional Water Quality Control Board hold jurisdiction over the states surface and groundwater resources, while the California Air Districts regulate air quality along with the California Air Resources Board.  It is no surprise that a report published by the Wheeler Institute from the University of California, Berkeley found that this regulatory structure where several state and federal agencies share responsibility is not conducive to ensuring hydraulic fracturing is conducted safely.[1]

A Ban in Los Angeles, CA

The most recent local regulatory activity comes from the Los Angeles City Council.  On Friday February 28, 2014, the City Council voted on and passed a resolution to draft language for a citywide ban of all stimulation techniques.  The resolution calls for city zoning code to be amended in order to prohibit hydraulic fracturing activities in L.A. until the practices are proven to be safe.  A final vote will then be cast to approve the final language.  If it passes, Los Angeles will be the largest city in the United States to ban hydraulic fracturing.   The FracTracker “Local Actions and Regulations Map” has been updated to include the Los Angeles resolution/ordinance, as well as the resolution supporting a statewide ban by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the moratorium in Santa Cruz County, and a resolution by the University of California, Berkeley Student Government. See all California’s local actions and regulations in the figure below. Click on the green checked boxes for a description of each action.


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

State Bill 4 Preemption

Since the passage of California’s new regulatory bill SB-4, there has been a lot of confusion and debate whether the new state regulations preempt local jurisdictions from passing their own laws and regulations, and specifically moratoriums and bans.  The county of Santa Cruz has a moratorium on fracking, but it was passed prior to the enactment of SB-4.  Additionally Santa Cruz County is not a hotbed of drilling activity like Los Angeles or Kern.  The team of lawyers representing the county of Ventura, where wells are actively being stimulated, came to a very different conclusion than the Los Angeles City Council.  After reviewing SB-4, Ventura County came to the conclusion that lower jurisdictions were blocked from enacting local moratoriums.  Draft minutes from the December 17, 2013 meeting quote, “The legal analysis provided by County Counsel indicates that the County is largely preempted from actively regulating well stimulation treatment activities at both new and existing wells.  However, the County is required under CEQA to assess and address the potential environmental impacts from such activities requiring a discretionary County approval of new well sites.”[2]

On the other hand, independent analyses of the language in California SB-4 show that the legal-ese does not contain any provision that supersedes related local regulations.  Rather, the bill preserves the right of local governments to impose additional environmental regulations.[3]  The regulations do not expressively comment on the ability of local regulations to pass a moratorium or permanent ban.  Additionally, DOGGR has supported a court decision that the SB-4 language expressly prohibits the state regulatory agency from enforcing the California Environmental Quality Act (according to the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources).[4]  As for local measures, a recent article by Edgcomb and Wilke (2013) provides multiple examples of precedence in California and other states for local environmental bans and regulations in conjunction with less restrictive state law.[3]  Of course, any attempt to pass a ban on fossil fuel extraction or development activities where resource development is actively occurring will most likely be met with litigation and a lawsuit from industry groups such as the Western States Petroleum Association.  Industry representatives charge that the ordinance is an unconstitutional “taking” of previously leased mineral rights by private property owners.[5,6]  Pay close attention to this fight in Los Angeles, as there will be repercussions relevant to all local governments in the state of California, particularly those considering bans or moratoriums.

 


[1] Kiparsky, Michael and Hein, Jayni Foley. 2013. Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing in California, a Wastewater and Water Quality Perspective. Wheeler Institute for Water Law and Policy. Center for Law Energy and the Environment, University of California Berkeley School of Law.

[2] Ventura County Board of Supervisors. December 17, 2013.  Meeting Minutes and Video.  Accessed March 2, 2014. [http://www.ventura.org/bos-archives/agendas-documents-and-broadcasts]

[2] Edgcomb, John D Esq. and Wilke, Mary E Esq. January 10, 2014. Can Local Governments Ban Fracking After New California Fracking Legislation? Accessed March 3, 2014.  [http://californiafrackinglaw.com/can-local-governments-ban-fracking-after-new-california-fracking-legislation/]

[3] Hein, Jayni Foley. November 18, 2013. State Releases New Fracking Regulations amid SB 4 Criticism, Controversy. Accessed February 27, 2014. [http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2013/11/18/state-releases-new-fracking-regulations-amid-sb-4-criticism-controversy/]

[4] Fine, Howard. February 28, 2014. L.A. Council Orders Fracking Moratorium Ordinance.  Los Angeles Business Journal.  [http://labusinessjournal.com/news/2014/feb/28/l-council-orders-fracking-moratorium-ordinance/]

[5] Collier, Robert. March 3, 2014. L.A. fracking moratorium – the difficult road ahead. Climate Speak. Accessed March 4, 2014. [http://www.climatespeak.com/2014/03/la-fracking-moratorium.html]

[6] Higgins, Bill. Schwartz, Andrew. Kautz, Barbara. 2006.  Regulatory Takings and Land Use Regulation: A Primer for Public Agency Staff.  Institute for Local Government.  Available at [http://www.ca-ilg.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/resources__Takings_1.pdf]

Public Land Survey System.  Image from National Atlas

Western States: Please Abandon the PLSS!

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

Increasingly, the FracTracker Alliance is asked about oil and gas extraction on a national scale. To that end, we are in the process of developing a national dataset of oil and gas wells. Since the data is curated at the state level, it is a challenge to get consistent data formatting from state to state. However, most states at least have the decency to release their location data in decimal degree (DD), that familiar format of latitude and longitude values where users of the data don’t need to calculate the location using three different columns of degrees, minutes, and seconds (DMS).

For example, a DMS point of 45°12’16.4″N, 95°55’12.5″W could be written more tidily in DD as 45.204556, -96.920139. Two numbers, one discrete place on the globe (a random point in rural South Dakota, as it turns out).

Here is how that same location is properly designated using the Public Land Survey System:  “NW 14 T120N R51W Fifth Principal”

Public Land Survey System.  Image from National Atlas

Fig. 1 Public Land Survey System. Source: National Atlas

In English, that is the northwest quarter of Section 14, Township 120 North, Range 51 West Fifth Principal. If we wanted to, the quarter section could itself be split into four quarters, and each of those units could be split again, resulting in, for example the SE quarter of the NE quarter of the NW quarter of section 14, Township 120 North, Range 51 West Fifth Principal (See Fig. 1).

To the uninitiated, the PLSS is a needlessly complex system of describing locations in the American West that was devised by Thomas Jefferson to grid out the wild American frontier.  As such, it is not altogether surprising that it became the legal definition of place in many western states.

What is surprising is that the system is still in use, at least to the exclusion of other systems.  Many states release oil and gas data with multiple geographic systems, including the PLSS, State Plane, UTM, and decimal degrees.  This is an acceptable approach, as it caters to cartographers using technology ranging from the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries.

Accuracy Issues

My issue with the PLSS isn’t just that it is annoying. PLSS data are readily available, after all. Differing formats of the various data attributes can be worked out. However, there is inherently an accuracy issue with a system that uses a predefined area to define a point location. If you wanted to use it to describe an area such as a well pad, it is entirely possible that a typical drilling site might straddle four different sections, let alone quarter-quarter-quarter (QQQ) sections. For that matter, well pads could easily span multiple township and range designations, as well.

PLSS sections in New Mexico

Fig. 2 PLSS sections in New Mexico

Statewide shapefiles that are as detailed as sections are quite large, and are the most detailed data that most data sources offer. This means that the best we can usually do with well data published in PLSS is draw the well at the centroid, or geographical center-point of the section, which in theory is one square mile. Given that the hypotenuse of a square mile block is 1.44 miles, the distance from the centroid to any of the corners is 0.72 miles, or about 3,800 feet, which is the potential error for mapping using PLSS section centroids. While that lack of accuracy is unsatisfying for the FracTracker Alliance, the whole system is a potential nightmare for first responders, in an industry where serious things can go wrong.

In some states, the entire land areas were never even gridded out. New Mexico, for example, has Native American reservations and extensive lands grants that were issued when the region was under Spanish and Mexican control (Fig. 2).

On top of all of that, those square mile sections are not always square. These sections are based on field surveys that were mostly conducted in the 19th century. Walking straight lines in rough terrain isn’t actually all that easy, and in many cases, areas with ferrous deposits in the soil can interfere with the functionality of a magnetic compass.  If we take a closer look at the New Mexico sections map (Fig. 3 below), we can see that error is significant.

Moving Forward

Areas in green show PLSS Sections in North-Central New Mexico.  Areas in white were not gridded out as a part of the survey.

Fig. 3 Areas in green show PLSS Sections in North-Central New Mexico. Areas in white were not gridded out as a part of the survey.

Luckily, we live in an age where technology makes Thomas Jefferson’s valiant attempt at a coordinate system obsolete.  Decimal degree is a format that is well understood by GPS devices, Google Maps, sophisticated GIS software, and for the most part, the general public.  For mapping purposes, decimal degree is so easy to use and so widely established that other systems, especially the PLSS, come across as needlessly opaque.

This situation is not even analogous with the United States’ famous reluctance to embrace the metric system.  It takes some adjustment for people to start thinking in terms of kilograms and meters instead of pounds and feet. PLSS isn’t remotely intuitive as a coordinate system, even among those who use it all the time.  It’s time to abandon this as a way of conveying location.  I’d like to think that Thomas Jefferson, as a forward-thinking individual, would agree.