FracTracker Blog and Data Tool for Use in Shale Gas and Oil Plays throughout the Country

Piloting FracTracker in the Marcellus Shale Region


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

By Conrad (Dan) Volz, DrPH, MPH – Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH); Director, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities; Director, Environmental Health Risk Assessment Certificate Program, GSPH

This document explains the web-platform for tracking shale gas environmental and environmental health, social and behavioral health, emergency preparedness, community, general, and public health, and associated land use impacts. Over time, we envision it to be able to track economic, demographic, and other important variables that any organization or individual is interested in exploring. This is being written in part because we at CHEC have been actually overwhelmed in the past few weeks by requests from other shale gas plays to use the platform.

So to start, FracTracker is funded by the Heinz Endowments, managed by the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC) [a center within the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public Health], and hosted by the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds. The platform architecture was built by Rhiza Laboratories [a division of Maya designs].

If you notice at the top of this blog that it says it is dedicated to tracking Marcellus Shale gas extraction impacts—please do not be put-off if you are interested in other shale gas plays or even in other oil and gas extraction and hybrid activities. This site can help you — and also you can help it!

FracTracker’s Data Tool is being piloted in the Marcellus Shale, but any citizen, organization, activist, even government organizations and industries themselves can use this tool to help visualize oil and gas extraction impacts in any region of the country or even throughout the world. It is mainly being developed though to help in tracking impacts of unconventional gas and oil and other byproduct extraction by stimulation technology commonly referred to as hydrofracturing within the United States. Although a better term might be ‘high pressure chemical fluid fracturing’; industry words don’t characterize well many of the processes, as we often hear about flowback and produced water, which are best labeled contaminated fluids. Flowback water bears as much resemblance to water as waste effluent from steel or chemical plants do.

So our focus right now is to pilot this web-platform in the Marcellus Shale and general Appalachian Devonian shale formations that are primarily in Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia but also cover portions of Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and even across Lake Erie. The site was launched in the last week of June 2010 at a meeting in Bedford, PA that included data providers and users from community groups, environmental organizations, regulatory agencies, academia, and foundations-primarily from the state of Pennsylvania. Following this ‘kickoff’ meeting, others have been held in Pittsburgh, PA (SW PA – epicenter of gas extraction), Danville, PA (NE PA – an epicenter of gas extraction activity), and Ithaca NY. The purpose of these meetings has been to inform groups and institutions about this tool and get buy-in for data gathering and sharing and most importantly forming a network of groups interested in visualizing impacts of gas extraction operations and predicting environmental and social impacts, and health effects under multiple scenarios of the development of the industry. Certainly we know from past shale gas and oil plays that this is unlike industrial process such as coal burning for power production in that the oil and gas industry develops over a wide geographical area with many sources for both air and water pollution. Many gas extraction processes are small enough to not need permitting under existing regulations, but taken as a whole will contribute widely to air pollution effects such as ozone formation and surface water quality deficits from disposal of contaminated fluids into sewage treatment plants.

Our funding for this project is thus limited right now to Marcellus Shale, but it has always been envisioned that the platform would be used across the country. The design of this tool is therefore an ongoing project. Although CHEC does not have funds to actively manage data from other shale plays currently, we certainly encourage groups-individuals-regulatory agencies-environmental organizations to use the tool in areas of the country that you are interested in and to populate the data tool with databases that would be useful in showing locations of wells, population density, income, natural resources, landforms, endangered species, air and water quality, health outcomes, watersheds and rivers etc. All data must be geolocated (with a latitude and longitude), as that is what allows visualization of the dataset on the Google earth maps.

The tool is really pretty easy to use once data is stored on it (getting data on it is not so simple at the present time, as there are only a few types of file formats it accepts, and knowledge of how to transform some databases is necessary; we are working on that also). It is quite easy to overlay databases on each other to visualize and tell stories about extraction activities and for academics it is an interesting hypothesis generating device. Two stories highlighted on the blog that were easily produced were:

  1. Overlay of sewage treatment plants (STP) accepting contaminated fluids in PA with watersheds and rivers; and
  2. Marcellus Shale gas extraction permits in PA with existing ozone monitors operated by regulatory authorities
The overlay of STP accepting contaminated fluids from drillers and watershed and rivers was important to be able to see the proliferation of disposal into the Monongahela River and calculate the total poundage of dissolved solids, strontium, barium and chlorides going into that watershed; as a result we are launching a study of the major cations and anions and organic compounds that are being put directly into this critical drinking water source. Overlaying Marcellus Shale drilling permits and drilled wells onto a map showing the location of ozone monitors helped us visualize the many areas in PA where there are no ozone monitors but will or are undergoing extraction activity-given the present monitoring scheme—ground level ozone formation due to organic vapor release from fracing ponds-evaporation centers-condensers-cryo plants and compressors cannot be determined; so as a result we are launching an ultraviolet spectroscopy study (UV-DOAS) of volatile organic compounds being released in a heavily developed area south of Pittsburgh.
I also encourage environmental organizations, community groups, and regulatory authorities to contact CHEC if you would like to use FracTracker or if you would like to discuss ways in which we can all work together. We can certainly help users of the web-platform work through technical issues associated with its use – but again and most importantly, since we are public health scientists, getting data on health effects even perceived health effects, is a way to document effects from this industry for use in more detailed epidemiological studies. Having reports from other shale gas plays is important to do good population-based science. We feel that the networking aspect of this across the country is maybe its most important outcome. We are interested in talking with organizations that want to pursue funding to work on this in other areas. To these end please contact Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH -CHEC Communications Specialist (contact information below) to discuss using FracTracker’s blog and data tool. If you would like to talk about networking opportunities ask for me when you call 412-624-9379.

Gesundheit – Dan Volz

FracTracker General Contact Information:
Samantha L. Malone, MPH, CPH
Communications Specialist, CHEC
Phone: (412) 624-9379