Unconventional Gas Production Cut in Half in PA

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) has released their semi-annual unconventional production and waste reports. This data is self-reported from well operators to PADEP. While in the past, this report was limited to Marcellus Shale wells only, now it includes wells in other formations, such as the Utica, which require similar treatment to extract hydrocarbons.

Despite the expanded definition, the gas production for this period is half that of the previous six months, and barely more than one fifth of condensate production:

Here’s a look at just the gas production over the last three cycles:

In the map below, you can see production values for each well that reported for the cycle. Please click the compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus, then click the “i” tool and any map icon to learn about specific wells.

Updated West Virginia Permits Data

UPDATE: The DataTool is no longer active. Explore WV maps here instead.

Permits data for Marcellus Shale wells in West Virginia has recently been updated on FracTracker’s DataTool

[map archived]

Astute viewers will note that there is a well drawn in the Athens, OH area, a good 20 miles from the West Virginia border as the crow flies. As it turns out, this is not the most egregious error; if you zoom out, you will see purple dots in Indiana and North Carolina as well, neither of which are are even contiguous with West Virginia. There were also about five wells that I deleted the location data for, because I could tell at a glance that they would have drawn well south of the Tropic of Cancer.

These data errors are a shame, because they compromise the experience of an otherwise slick data delivery system, where viewers can pick permits from a given formation, see them draw on a map, and then download the data. The data are fairly bare-bones in nature, consisting of just six columns, but this is not something that I have a quarrel with, as it includes the information that most people want to know, including where the well is, who is responsible for it, when the permit was issued, and the unique well number. And we already know, based on download parameters, what the target formation of the well is.

While only a handful of wells are affected by faulty location data, 330 out of 2,688 wells in the dataset lack permit issue dates, or just over 12 percent of the wells. This is significant enough to make the result of any trend analysis questionable. Nonetheless, let’s proceed to have a look, keeping relevant caveats in mind:

Marcellus Shale permits issued per month in West Virginia

While the number of permits per month is fairly erratic in West Virginia, it is clear that the last full month–July 2012–saw the largest number of permit issued in the Marcellus ever, and that June 2012 is tied for second. West Virginia clearly is not seeing the same contraction of unconventional gas activity that Pennsylvania is.

Like its neighbors, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Chesapeake has the largest number of permits for unconventional gas permits. Unlike Ohio, where the operator’s share was over 70 percent of the total of the Utica, here the plurality is just 17 percent of Marcellus Wells.

Ohio Utica Development Dominated by One Operator, Chesapeake

While unconventional activity in Pennsylvania is waning, at least in the short term, activity in Ohio’s Utica Shale appears to be experiencing a period of robust growth.

While the number of permits in July is down from the month before, the overall trend in Ohio seems to correspond with the notion that drillers are turning to wet gas in these times of low prices for methane.

But when you want to talk about Ohio’s Utica, you are essentially talking about one company: Chesapeake Exploration, LLC. While Chesapeake also has the the most unconventional wells in Pennsylvania, there are many other drillers with substantial totals, such as Talisman and Range Resources. On the western side of the border, the industry is much less diversified:

Not only does Chesapeake hold 71 percent of the permits, but their total of 227 permits issued is over 15 times more than their nearest competitor in Ohio’s Utica, HG Energy.

Unconventional Permits Declining Sharply in PA

Following shale gas trends in the media can be a confusing task. One article, entitled Shale gas boom lifts W.Va. construction industry, discusses the positive impact that the gas industry has had on the construction industry in recent years. But it also includes the following quote:

“In 2011, there was so much demand and so much work and we participated in that. Now that demand has been somewhat faded and we need to move on,” said John Strickland, president of Maynard C. Smith Construction of Charleston. “Last year it just seemed like there was a lot of work to bid … the double edge sword was the work dried up.”

That makes it seem like the headline is more appropriate for 2011 than 2012.

And in a recent AP article titled Marcellus Shale becoming top US natural gas field, the authors discuss the explosion of the Marcellus Shale in recent years in comparison to declines in other prominent shale gas plays, such as the Haynesville. They note:

For now, it looks like the Marcellus region will be in the top production spot for several years, analysts say. While drilling has slowed, there were still 288 new well permits issued in May, and over 1,200 for the first five months of the year, according to data from LCI Energy Insight, an El Paso firm that tracks national energy trends.

I found this curious for two reasons. First of all, the PADEP only issues production reports twice a year, and the report for the first half of 2012 has not yet been released, making the timing of claim for the top spot in production somewhat dubious. On the other hand, permit data is issued nightly, and yet, the August 5 article chose to cite permit data from May. Knowing that unconventional activity has declined in recent months, that got me wanting to take a closer look.  Here are the total number of permits issued for unconventional wells in Pennsylvania for the first seven months of 2012 (including permits for new wells as well as re-drills):

There were 229 fewer unconventional permits issued in Pennsylvania during July than there were in January, a difference of almost twice the number of July permits. In May, the month used in the quote above, there were 246 permits issued in Pennsylvania (the other 42 were presumably from West Virginia). Two months later, there were 130 fewer permits issued.

Here is what the data look like county by county. For any of the following maps, you can hide the overlaying menus by clicking on the gray compass rose and the double carat (^) tabs, and find out more information about each county by clicking on the blue “i” tool then the county of interest.

Unconventional permits issued in PA by county: January, 2012

Unconventional permits issued in PA by county: July, 2012
These first two maps are drawn with the same numeric scheme, even though no county reached either of the highest two categories in July.

Difference in unconventional permits issued in PA by county: July 2012 totals minus January 2012 totals
The color scheme here is designed to represent symmetry from zero, however the actual distribution is quite skewed. The biggest loss in permits from January to July was Bradford County with 62, while the biggest gain was 5 permits, seen in both Greene and Somerset Counties.

Request for Papers:  Special Issue of the ASCE Journal of Environmental Engineering

Topic: Environmental Aspects of Shale Gas Development

Submission Deadline:  September 30, 2012

Guest Editors:
Jeanne VanBriesen, Carnegie Mellon University
Michel Boufadel, Temple University

Unconventional gas in tight shales like the Barnett, the Marcellus, and the Eagle Ford formations is changing the view of domestic natural gas supply. Directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing has opened up new resources, but also opens new debates on the impacts of extraction technologies on water and air resources. Environmental engineers are leading technology developments in green completions, as well as investigating the effects of drilling on water and air quality.

ASCE is pleased to announce a special issue of the Journal of Environmental Engineering broadly encompassing the following aspects: Water resources and allocation, migration of fluids (liquids and gases) in aquifers and waterways, produced water treatment, and air quality.

Prospective authors are requested to prepare manuscripts according to the guidelines published at Journal of Environmental Engineering. Submission of a manuscript for the special issue does not guarantee publication. Manuscripts will be subject to the same peer-review process for all manuscripts published in the Journal of Environmental Engineering. Submit articles to editorial manager.

A detailed timeline for publication of the special issue is given below:


Submission deadline: September 30, 2012
First round of reviews: December 30, 2012
Final decision: February 28, 2013
Accepted manuscripts due: March 30, 2013
Publication: Late 2013/Early 2014

Prospective authors for the special issue should address cover letters to Special Issues Editor Dionysios (Dion) D. Dionysiou. If you have questions regarding this special issue, please contact Jeanne VanBriesen or Michel Boufadel.

Oil and Gas Explosions Are Fairly Common

On Monday morning, a man was killed by an explosion at an oil well in Bolivar, Ohio. The man is believed to have been an employee working on the site, but his identity won’t be released until it is confirmed with dental records.

This wasn’t big news in Pittsburgh, even though Bolivar is just a two hour drive from here. But why not? Is it because the incident was across state lines, or because tragedies of this sort are actually fairly routine? The answer, I think, is “both”.

In yesterday’s Pipeline, the Post-Gazette reported on a story of President Obama talking energy policy in Cincinnati. This is hardly comparable, because the words of the President are routinely discussed in national and international media. The same is not true of accidents, even those leading to fatalities, unless the number of victims or the amount of property damage is exceptionally high.

I’m not suggesting that every incident that leads to a fatality is necessarily deserving of nationwide coverage, but in some cases, the model of regional coverage can keep people from realizing that dangerous patterns exist.

As I was trying to research the incident, I kept finding more and more of them, some of which I was already aware of, some of which I was not. Here are a few examples from the past two years:

A gas explosion occurred in Northeast Philly in Jan. 2011. A firefighter moves a hose line at the scene. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer) (Joshua Mellman)

  • San Bruno, CA-September 9, 2010 A 30 inch pipeline exploded, killing eight, destroying 38 properties, and damaging many more. After checking several sources, I could not find a total number of injuries. The blast left a crater 167 feet long by 27 feet wide by 40 feet deep. PG&E blamed the 2010 blast on a strength test conducted on the pipe in 1956.  Reporters covering the story initially thought the fireball might have been due to a plane crash.
  • McKean County, PA-December 12, 2010 and February 28, 2011 In separate incidents, two houses with a few miles of each other exploded without warning. The Pennsylvania DEP suspected the methane migration was due to, abandoned wells in the area, the closest of which was drilled in 1881.
  • Philadelphia, PA-January 18, 2011 A Philadelphia Gas Works employee was killed and five others were injured in this blast. The workers were trying to repair a broken gas main when a furnace glow plug ignited vapors inside a building. (Photo right)
  • Allentown, PA-February 10, 2011 Five were killed and about a dozen more were injured in a giant blast and fire that destroyed eight properties and damaged 47 others. As of this February, investigators were not close to explaining the cause of the explosion.
  • Hanoverton, OH-February 10, 2011 On the same night as the deadly Allentown blast, there was a pipeline explosion in this Ohio town. One building was damaged, but nobody was hurt in the explosion and subsequent fire that could be seen for miles.
  • Avella, PA-March 25, 2011 Three workers were hospitalized when storage tanks exploded and caught fire when a volatile vapor was somehow ignited at this natural gas well site.
  • Glouster, OH-November 16, 2011 This pipeline explosion was so strong it was felt 12 miles away. Three houses and a barn were destroyed in the blast, and one woman was hospitalized, but there was no word of fatalities.
  • Springville, PA No injuries were reported at this compressor station blast in northeastern Pennsylvania, but it blew a hole in the roof of the facility and was felt a half mile away.
  • Norphlet, AR-May 21, 2012 Three workers were killed in this blast near El Dorado, Arkansas, which according to the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), was set off while doing “hot” work such as welding or cutting in an area with hazardous vapors.

    CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said, “This unfortunate tragedy in Arkansas involving the deaths of three workers is the kind of hot work accident that occurs much too frequently. The CSB has investigated too many of these accidents which can be prevented by carefully monitoring for flammable vapor before and during hot work.”

This list is by no means comprehensive. In fact, after the incident in Allentown, Carl Weimer of the organization Pipeline Safety Trust was quoted in the USA Today:

Transporting natural gas by pipeline is the safest way to move that energy. Still, every nine or 10 days on average someone ends up dead or in the hospital from these pipelines. More needs to be done for safety.

And of course, pipelines are only one part of the problem.

FracTracker Seeking OH Program Coordinator

The FracTracker Alliance was recently awarded funding from the George Gund Foundation to support an Ohio office and staff person for our organization. We are very excited about this opportunity to intensify our outreach and analytical work in Ohio and collaborate with other organizations who are grappling with the growing impacts of the shale gas industry in the state.

Below is the job description for this new full-time position with a starting salary range of 40-45k plus health, vision, dental coverage and a matching 401k plan. The position will be based in the Warren/Youngstown area. Applicants should electronically submit a cover letter and resume by August 1, 2012 to Lenker@FracTracker.org.

Ohio Program Coordinator Job Description


To coordinate, manage, and support outreach and analytical activities in Ohio for the FracTracker Alliance. The FracTracker Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the public’s understanding of the impacts of the global shale gas industry by collecting, interpreting, and sharing data and visualizations through our website, FracTracker.org. We partner with citizens, organizations and institutions – allied in a quest for objective, helpful information – to perpetuate awareness and support actions that protect public health, the environment, and socioeconomic well-being.


  • Providing outreach, trainings, and technical assistance to concerned citizens, landowners, activists, elected officials, local governments, and students on the issues associated with shale gas development and the resources available on FracTracker, including the opportunity for data input, visualization, and mapping.
  • Collecting fracking-related datasets and posting them to FracTracker.org for use in mapping, research, and analysis by staff and the public, and maintaining an Ohio-relevant geospatial data library addressing various shale gas issues
  • Collaborating with PA-based FracTracker staff to continuously improve the FracTracker.org online resources for mapping and data-sharing
  • Providing a point of contact between Ohio-based scientists and FracTracker.org by developing relationships with key faculty at colleges and universities in central and eastern Ohio.
  • Promoting FracTracker as a go-to hub for gas-related mapping and information resources for online, print, and other news communication media
  • Networking with conservation, public health, air quality, forestry, fish and wildlife, recreation, water monitoring, faith-based and other groups to lay groundwork for data collection and sharing on the FracTracker site, and assisting in the development of customized gas-drilling-related maps and analyses for these partners.
  • Assisting with grant writing, grants management, and communications with funding partners
  • Maintaining an organized, efficient, and properly-equipped office environment


Public speaking, writing, data management, citizen science and/or data collection, networking (e.g. Familiarity with Ohio organizations and agencies), GIS/map making, office management, interpersonal, teamwork, grant writing, grants management, knowledge of environmental, public health, economic, agricultural, or other issues of relevance to shale gas development


  • Bachelor’s degree in natural or physical sciences, environmental studies, public health, economics, agriculture, or other relevant field. Advanced degree preferred.
  • Five years of work experience exercising the skills listed above

The Marcellus Shale, the Newark Basin, and Household Income

When the US Geologic survey released their assessment of undiscovered oil and gas resources last month, it created some attention in Pennsylvania, as it raised the possibility that oil and gas companies might begin exploring areas in the southeastern portion of the state for the first time ever.  The report estimated $2.5 billion worth of gas in the southern portion of the Newark Basin at current prices.

When the legislature placed a moratorium on drilling in the formation until January 1, 2018 as impacts are studied, many observers saw this as fundamentally inconsistent with the spirit of Act 13, passed by the same legislature earlier in the year. While Act 13 established an impact fee for drilling operations and strengthened some environmental regulations, it was controversial due to all but eliminating local input on when and where gas wells and corresponding infrastructure could be built.

To many, the moratorium in southeastern Pennsylvania seems like a double standard, as many in the Commonwealth have advocated for a moratorium in the Marcellus for precisely the same reason–to assess impacts of drilling and related activity–to no avail. Why then did suburban Philadelphia get treated differently from the rest of the state?

The Marcellus Shale, the Newark Basin, and median household income by county in Pennsylvania. Please click the compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus. Click the blue “i” tool then any map feature for more information.

This map explores the possibility that this could be an environmental justice issue. The Newark Basin, where caution was employed, underlies the three wealthiest counties in Pennsylvania as measured by median household income according to the US Census. Obviously, correlation does not show causality, but the possibility that representatives of wealthier communities are more influential than others is an idea worth exploring.

The moratorium for the Newark Basin was inserted into the state budget at the request of Republican Senator Charles McIlhinney of Bucks County, who voted for Act 13 (known as HB 1950 until its passage). To see how other Pennsylvania senators voted on HB 1950, see the map below.

Pennsylvania senate votes on HB 1950 (subsequently known as Act 13). Click the blue “i” tool then any map feature for more information.

Word bubble using news headlines from Jackson study release

Duke Study Prompts Confusing Headlines

If you are like me and start your morning work routine by scrolling through the daily Marcellus Shale news with a good cup of coffee, then you are probably just as confused as the rest of us about the recent Duke University study results regarding shale gas drilling. Just take a look at the list below and try to interpret strictly from the news headlines what it is Nathaniel Warner, Dr. Robert Jackson, and colleagues actually found:

  • New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution (CNBC.com)
  • Marcellus Shale Study Shows Fluids Likely Seeping Into Pennsylvania Drinking Water (Huffington Post)
  • Rising Shale Water Complicates Fracking Debate (NPR)
  • Marcellus Brine Migration Likely Natural, Not Man-Made (Oil and Gas Online)
  • Duke study finds possible pathways from Marcellus shale to drinking water … (Akron Beacon Journal)
  • Fracking Did Not Sully Aquifers, Limited Study Finds (New York Times -blog)
  • Water contamination from shale fracking may follow natural routes (Examiner.com)
  • Duke study: Fluids likely seeping into PA’s drinking water from Marcellus Shale (News & Observer)
  • Findings are mixed in fracking-water study (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
  • New study: Fluids from Marcellus Shale likely seeping into PA drinking water (Syracuse.com)
  • New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Marcellus Brine Migration Likely Natural, Not Man-Made (Duke University)
Word bubble created using Tagxedo showing news headlines from Jackson study release

No wonder this entire issue is so contentious. Not only is the science still evolving, but then you have to waft through the countless takes on what the research means. Perhaps we should take a cue from our childhood years and get the story “straight from the horse’s mouth.” E.g. try reading the official results (PDF) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Even the abstract below will tell you a lot more about the implications of the results than any truncated news headline could:

The debate surrounding the safety of shale gas development in the Appalachian Basin has generated increased awareness of drinking water quality in rural communities. Concerns include the potential for migration of stray gas, metal-rich formation brines, and hydraulic fracturing and/or flowback fluids to drinking water aquifers. A critical question common to these environmental risks is the hydraulic connectivity between the shale gas formations and the overlying shallow drinking water aquifers. We present geochemical evidence from northeastern Pennsylvania showing that pathways, unrelated to recent drilling activities, exist in some locations between deep underlying formations and shallow drinking water aquifers. Integration of chemical data (Br, Cl, Na, Ba, Sr, and Li) and isotopic ratios (87Sr∕86Sr, 2H∕H, 18O∕16O, and 228Ra∕226Ra) from this and previous studies in 426 shallow groundwater samples and 83 northern Appalachian brine samples suggest that mixing relationships between shallow ground water and a deep formation brine causes groundwater salinization in some locations. The strong geochemical fingerprint in the salinized (Cl > 20 mg∕L) groundwater sampled from the Alluvium, Catskill, and Lock Haven aquifers suggests possible migration of Marcellus brine through naturally occurring pathways. The occurrences of saline water do not correlate with the location of shale-gas wells and are consistent with reported data before rapid shale-gas development in the region; however, the presence of these fluids suggests conductive pathways and specific geostructural and/or hydrodynamic regimes in northeastern Pennsylvania that are at increased risk for contamination of shallow drinking water resources, particularly by fugitive gases, because of natural hydraulic connections to deeper formations.

In all fairness, this study is very technical, so writing a catching but accurate news headline is extremely difficult. It is important to keep in mind, however, that summaries written for the lay public will often contain a piece of the translator’s perspective – like snippets of foreign code embedded in the story.

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, FracTracker; DrPH Student, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health department

Take the FracTracker Violations Quiz!

Violations issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can be found on the Compliance Report. Each violations has many columns of data, including whether it was broadly categorized as either “Administrative” or “Environmental Health and Safety” (EH&S). This is a distinction that has caused no shortage of confusion, to the point where I have argued that the distinction is actually meaningless.

But don’t take my word for it! Take the words of the DEP field agents who entered the various codes and comments. On the link below, I have made a quiz where I give you the code description or comment for ten different violations, and you use that information to decide whether you think they should be categorized as “Administrative” or “Environmental Health and Safety”.  At worst, you have a 50/50 shot at getting each question right, and you only need five out of ten to pass.

Good luck!

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