Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 1

An Exploration of Sand Mining Impacts: Lasalle County, IL by way of Chicago’s South Side
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

When it comes to high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), frac sand mining may be the most neglected aspect of the industry’s footprint. (HVHF demand on a per-well basis is increasing by 8% per year.)

To capture how this industry is changing several sand mining communities, I recently took a road trip to visit, photograph, and listen to the residents of this country’s primary frac sand areas. In total, I visited 7 sand mining communities in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

This multimedia perspective is part of our ongoing effort to map and quantify the effects of silica sand mining on people, agriculture, wildlife, ecosystem services, and watersheds more broadly. Below is my attempt to give the FracTracker community a sense of what residents are hearing, seeing, and saying about the silica sand mining industry writ large.

Chicago’s South Side

Before heading to Illinois’ frac sand epicenter of Lasalle County, I couldn’t help but catch the South Shore Line out of Millennium Station. This station can be seen as you head south to the Hegewisch neighborhood on Chicago’s impoverished South Side, an area of greater Chicago-Gary, Indiana that has largely been forgotten by politicians in both states. Chicago_KCBX_BP

ChicagoLand_Income_Hardship

Figure 1. Average income per capita and Hardship Index (0-100 with 100 being the worst) for Chicago’s neighborhoods with Hegewisch highlighted in the city’s southeast corner.

This situation is a shame because collectively Hegewisch and the city of Whiting, IN are home to one of the largest – and getting larger – collections of oil refineries and oil sands infrastructure in the United States.

For an estimation of how difficult it is to live in various Chicago neighborhoods, see Figure 1, left.

This proliferation has not been without its dangers, including a compressor station explosion at BP PLC’s massive1 Whiting Refinery in August 2014. Unfortunately, that incident was just the latest in a long line of mishaps at this facility. The “operational incident,” as BP called it, rocked already stressed neighborhoods like MarkTown, IN – the aborted company town planned for steel maker Clayton Mark. MarkTown is on the National Register of Historic Places and is an example of a community that is being erased from the face of the earth in the name of Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex expansion. For those interested in architecture preservation, MarkTown’s rapid erasure is being conducted by BP itself and in the process we are losing an example of Conservatively Radical architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s distinct English-style Tudor homes and urban planning. Residents speculate BP “may be buying up the properties because of concerns about liability.” The company counters they are just trying to create additional green space for residents.

KCBX_BP_POV

NAmerican_Ports_Refineries

Figure 2. Average daily oil refinery production per day across North America’s 152 Oil Refineries along with North American ports.

Luckily for everyone, operations following the aforementioned recent explosion were only “minimally impacted as a result of the incident and the refinery continue[d] to produce products for customers.” However, the more chronic concern is the tight supply-demand relationship between BP’s refinery and their Koch KCBX neighbor. Koch has made repeated headlines – and many neighbors turned enemies including the Southeast Environmental Task Force and its fearless leader Peggy Salazar – with its handling of the refinery’s annual production of 600,000 tons of petcoke a development Chicago Magazine called Mountains of Trouble. Petcoke is a byproduct of the refinery’s increased acceptance and processing of tar sands from Alberta Canada. Levels of production are likely to increase given BP’s completion in November 2014 of a “$4-billion revamp…to boost its intake of Canadian crude oil from 85,000 bpd to 350,000 bpd.”

Given how interconnected the hydrocarbon industry is, I thought it would be worth collecting some photos of the aforementioned infrastructure. When I saw that Koch KCBX’s terminal was also storing large amounts of silica sand, however, the connection between my next target(s) in LaSalle County was made even more obvious.

LaSalle vs. Chicagoland: A Tale of Two Worlds

Lasalle County, Illinois is situated approximately 50-60 miles south-southwest of Chicago. When you try to compare demographics and commerce, however, it is worlds away.

Chicagoland encompasses nearly 10,900 square miles – 9.5 times the area of Lasalle County. While Chicago’s population is expanding by 95,681 people per year, LaSalle’s is shrinking by 2,734 per year (Table 1). Chicagoans, though not South Siders, are making more than two times that of LaSalle County residents (with the latter actually falling nearly $4,700 below the state average). Predictably the demographics of Chicago reflect more and more those of the US, while LaSalle is typical of rural America with a population that is 93% white and only 3.3% foreign born. Thirty-five percent of Chicagoans are likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree, while only 16% of LaSalle County residents are likely to do so. Rates of poverty and more specifically child poverty, on the other hand, are significantly higher in Chicago. Finally, LaSalle is one of the country’s preeminent farming counties; it ranks #4 in the state and #126 nationally thanks to the value of agricultural commodities produced amounting to $448.5 million net of farm subsidies. See Table 1.

La Salle County, IL Silica Sand Mines & St. Peter Sandstone Geology

Figure 3. La Salle County, IL Silica Sand Mines & St. Peter Sandstone Geology

Chicago_Vs_LaSalleCounty_Comparison

Table 1. Chicagoland and LaSalle County, Illinois summary demographics, economic prosperity, and agricultural productivity.

Photos from the Tour

The above contrast was made crystal clear as I traveled down Interstate 80 westbound towards exit 90 and LaSalle’s County seat Ottawa (pop. 18,562). Upon arriving in Ottawa I drove west on Madison Street to the first target of our expedition: U.S. Silica Company’s mine and processing facility at the corner of Madison Boyce Memorial Drive. Upon arriving, however, it became clear that I would not find a suitable location to photograph the company’s mine; the perimeter had been fenced off and mounded up to the tune of 10-15 feet. So I got back in our rental car and drove to the mine’s southern perimeter adjacent to the Bear Den Bar and Grill and the Vine St.-Fern St.-15th Ave. neighborhood where there was clear line of site. It was here that I got some of the best photos of the mine’s scale and scope with respect to land-use, reclamation, and hydrology.

US_Silica_OttawaCo

Below is a sample of some of those images as well as several I took further down Route 34 between U.S. Silica’s active mine and a “reclaimed” Ottawa Silica Co. mine on the banks of the Illinois River.

After snapping several hundred shots of these two mines I headed to the I & M Canal State Trail between Utica and Ottawa emanating out of Buffalo Rock State Park and hiked east towards the Northern edge of U.S. Silica’s mine alongside a CSX railroad and recently constructed spur feeding into the mine’s loading terminal. The hope was that I would get a closer look at the mine but it turned out the angle was different but not better.

From the back of U.S. Silica’s Ottawa mine I traveled approximately 7 miles west to Unimin’s North Utica mine and a short dirt road off of 2803rd Road on the northern edge of the mine.

Unimin_NorthUtica

It was here that I photographed the mine’s reclamation plots, active mine pits, and developing water transport mechanisms. However, more importantly it was from here that I noticed off in the distance a bright red silica sand grain-size separator.

Curiously I did not – but do now – have this nascent and relatively small mine posted on our Frac Sands Mines and Related Facilities map at the time. Upon arriving at this site I found that the mine was owned and operated by a company called Northern White Sand a small mom & pop operation out of Utica, IL.

Unimin_NorthUtica_NorthernWhiteSand

The photos I took of this mine were primarily from atop a vegetated berm to the southwest of the mine’s primary footprint. This vantage point allowed us to get some great shots of the types of infrastructure/equipment typical of this sized mine including the aforementioned modular grain-size separator, conveyor belts, retention ponds, and the pyramid-like piles of powdery white silica sand so desired by the HVHF industry.

Our final stop on the LaSalle County silica sand mine tour landed us in Troy Grove 13 miles north of North Utica by way of Interstate 39. It was here that I visited several vantage points around Technisand’s MBI Manley Bros. silica mine. The expanse included the site’s mixture of old and new processing infrastructure, what appeared to be an alluvial fan derived from sand waste and associated wetland, and the mine’s far reaches alongside a Chicago and North Western Transportation Company (CNW) railroad.

Resident Testimonials

So now that I have outlined my tour of La Salle County I thought it would be helpful to share some of the stories residents told me during my travels and later by way of email.

Anna Mattes – La Salle County, IL

I live in LaSalle County, Illinois where I have prime farmland and Starved Rock State Park… the crown jewel of Illinois. I already have a fine farming industry and plenty of tourism as Starved Rock is visited by two million people annually. LaSalle County already has forty two quarries, gravel pits and sand mines. If I allow anymore the county will look as though it has been bombed. Empty sand pits will never produce food ever again. No amount of reclamation will restore this land to be productive…Each mine uses one million gallons of water daily. The LaSalle County Board has enlisted the USGS to do a hydrology study to determine how much water I have in our aquifer for municipalities and farming. Presently I have a moratorium in place on sand mines thru July 2016 and I hope forever. As a woman, wife and mother I am charged with the continuity of life. It is my job, profession, to raise healthy children, make a healthy breakfast and pack a nutritious lunch for my husband so he can do his job, and it generally falls to women to care for the elderly in families. With out clean air, pure water, healthy food what is the quality of life? Fracking is a dangerous business and I need to take better care of Planet Earth. Please do your part, I’m a Master Gardener and I’m doing my part.

Thomas Skomski – Wedron, IL

I am a resident of Wedron who has been severely impacted by Wedron Silica; and I want to report that there are many more problems associated with the influx of sand mines in LaSalle Co. than named in your recent article. In order to be fair to other residents who will be negatively affected by proximity to any sand mine I believe it is important to inform them and all concerned on the unmentioned problems associated with living near a sand mine. For example: the mountains of sand that are produced migrate everywhere the wind takes the particles. As I all know the winds are frequently fierce in this part of the country. One neighbor describes how in the morning when he sets his coffee cup down on his front porch and goes into his house to get the newspaper that he returns to find a layer of white sand covering his coffee. Another neighbor vacuums the sand off her living room rugs weekly while her husband regularly has to clean out sand-filled gutters. I do know that enabling pollutants on private property is technically criminal trespass. At the last EPA hearing in Wedron a retired mine employee admitted that Wedron Silica uses 100 million gallons of water per hour in sand processing. Some of this water is recycled. Since I have not confirmed those statistics, I prefer sticking to the fact that the mine has reversed the flow of the ground water. Who knows what the unseen consequences of that reversal might be? The toxic plume that Wedron Silica is in part responsible for creating migrates wherever the ground water moves. As a result of the threat of my well being poisoned my land, 23 acres has been devalued by the county to $1.00. All my five buildings are worth 40% of what they were before nine wells were poisoned in Wedron. Those wells were so toxic with benzene that water came out of the faucet orange and you could not breath it let alone use it to wash anything. Wedron Silica has begun buying homes in Wedron which will allow them to pursue their wealth with no concerns- BUT what about the water which I all know is in limited supply and susceptible to being polluted? So in summary, please include the human costs involved in a mine opening near you. My wife and I moved to the country to enjoy the solitude and quiet of living on a farm in our retirement years. The quality of our lives has been diminished, in addition the noise is disturbing; trains come in at all hours incessantly blowing their horns and the semi traffic is constant. Finally, I have heard a lot of what I consider negative criticism about the EPA. Having experienced this monumental problem directly it is perfectly clear to me that without the resources of a pro-environment organization I would be hard pressed to stand up to a corporation with multi billions in assets.

Ashley Williams – LaSalle County, IL

The nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has quickly transformed into a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, IL. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate, endangering the health and safety of the people and local environment. Our precious life vessels: our air, water, and soil are under siege by a nexus of power that seeks to intimidate us into quiet submission, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit by and let that happen.

Footnote

  1. This facility alone processes nearly 2% of all oil in North America on a daily basis. This facility is the seventh-largest refinery in the United States and the largest outside of the Gulf Coast.
Coal fired power plants in North America

NYS targets an end to coal power

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator

It’s been just over a year since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made public his administration’s decision to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the state. A formal ban was established in June 2015. While Cuomo’s politics and record may be controversial on some fronts, he has most certainly shown important leadership in some facets of energy policy. Significantly, activists and environmental advocacy groups have been especially strong during the Cuomo administration, pressing the governor daily to take seriously the responsibility and planning that New York State must demonstrate in light of the realities of climate change.

On Wednesday, January 13, 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his annual State of the State address. Among the high points of the talk was a commitment to a full phase-out of coal-burning power plants by 2020. Coal, once more affordable alternative to other fossil fuels, is no longer an attractive option from both an economic and environmental standpoint. Despite advances in scrubber technology, coal burning still emits more particulate waste into the atmosphere than other fuels, and leaves behind copious quantities of fly ash containing radioactivity and heavy metals. Historically, fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and flue gas desulfurization materials have been disposed of in landfills. While current disposal methods using landfill liner technologies do attempt to safeguard against groundwater contamination, during earlier decades, these waste products from burning coal were buried in unlined pits, some of which are now actively leaching into waterways and groundwater.

Existing coal burning power plants being shut down, but what’s next?

In New York State, many old, polluting coal plants are now only partially in service or completely shuttered. They did at one time, however, have the capacity to supply over 2100 MW of power to the state. While it’s generally accepted from an economic and environmental standpoint that New York should be transitioning away from coal, the next steps are more fraught with controversy. Several communities, such as those around the likely-to-be-closed Dunkirk (Chautauqua County, 520 MW),  as well as Huntley (Niagara County, 380 MW), and Cayuga (Tompkins County, 315 MW) power plants feel that a repowering of these plant with natural gas provides an important economic stabilizer for the surrounding communities. Another smaller coal-burning plant, Greenidge Generation (Seneca County, 107 MW) has been shuttered for several years. A recent local economic development initiative to re-start that plant with a conversion to natural gas met with considerable resistance from environmental groups. This development also resulted in a notification from the US Environmental Protection Agency indicating that proper procedure for restarting the plant had not been followed, setting back the timetable on the project indefinitely.

Coal Burning Power Plants in North America, Zoomed in to NYS

View full screen map | How to work with our maps

Cayuga Power, which has been operating at a deficit for several years as a coal burning plant, is subsidized through a surcharge that is levied on every ratepayer within the system, with each monthly bill. According to The Sierra Club, these subsidies amount to over $4M a month charged to NYSEG ratepayers for the Cayuga plant, alone. Elected officials, as well as citizen groups concerned with the impacts of natural gas on the environment, are pressing for other viable options to repowering the plant from coal to natural gas, currently estimated to cost over $500M for the Cayuga Plant, alone. These options include solar power – or, in the case of the Cayuga power plant, upgrades to a short stretch of transmissions lines for less than $100M, in lieu of repowering. In either case, the upgrade costs would be passed on to the consumer. Transmission line upgrades would actually obviate the need for the power plant itself, conserving the energy that is now lost through inefficiencies in the system. Repowering the plant would also necessitate the construction of a highly controversial 7-mile-long pipeline from the Town of Dryden, which would significantly raise the carbon footprint of Tompkins County through due to predicted fugitive methane emissions. The power utility, itself, New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) has said that they prefer the option of upgrading the lines, rather than converting the plant to run on natural gas. Another study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis also found the Cayuga repowering proposition unviable. Proponents of repowering cite the impacts that shutting down the plant would have on the local Lansing School district, which–unlike any of the surrounding school districts–has benefited for several decades from tax revenues generated by the plant.

Environmental concerns about continuing to invest in fossil fuel technologies like natural gas as an alternative to coal include the entire life cycle of methane extraction, from the air and water quality risks that occur during the process of unconventional drilling (high volume hydraulic fracturing), to environmental and public health impacts of pipelines and compressor stations that convey the gas to the power plants, to the addition of CO2 to the atmosphere as a byproduct of natural gas combustion at these fossil-fuel burning plants.

Of course, energy conservation and making lifestyle changes to how we individually, and collectively, approach energy consumption are at the heart of the changes that need to occur if we are to slow climate change caused by the dramatic upswing of methane and CO2 in the atmosphere during the past 50 years.

New York State’s Renewable Energy Agenda

Cuomo and the State Legislature have shown additional and ongoing interest in moving New York towards a clean energy future. They have been establishing appealing tax incentives for renewable energy, including:

Cuomo’s REV, or Reforming the Energy Vision, attempts to take a comprehensive look at an energy strategy across many sectors of New York. REV targets for 2030 include a goal of 50% of all NYS’s energy being met by renewable sources, a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas levels based on 1990 levels (and an overall emission cut of 80% by 2050), and based on 2012 levels, a 25% reduction on building energy use. The strategy also looks to support the growth of the clean energy sector, energy education to residents and businesses, natural resources protection, and job creation in the energy sector.

New York is taking important steps for a cleaner energy future, but should continue to put more resources towards incentives for renewable resources, as well as outreach and education to municipal, residential, and commercial energy consumers.

We have very little time to waste.

Aliso Canyon natural gas leak - Photo by Environmental Defense Fund

A Climate Disaster – California in state of emergency as a result of massive natural gas leak

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

A natural gas well equipment failure in southern California has resulted in the largest point release of methane to the atmosphere in U.S. history. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a California state of emergency for the incident, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has identified the site as the single largest source point of global warming.1 Since October 23, 2015 the failure has been reported to be releasing 62 million cubic feet of methane per day – 110,000 pounds per hour – for a total of about 80 million metric tons thus far. (A running counter for the natural gas leak can be found here, on Mother Jones).2,3 This quantity amounts to a quarter of California’s total methane emissions, and the impact to the climate is calculated to be the equivalent of the operation of 7 million cars.

SoCalGas (a subsidiary of Sempra Energy) reports that nothing can be done to stop or reduce the leak until February or March of 2016. As a result, the nearby community of Porter Ranch has been largely evacuated (30,000 people) due to health complaints and the rotten egg smell of tertbutyl mercaptan and tetradydrothiophen. Air quality sampling, being assessed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard and Assessment (OEHHA), measured volatile organic compounds, specifically the carcinogen benzene, at concentrations below acute toxicity health standards.4 Exposure to benzene even at low levels presents a risk of cancer and other health hazards. Locals have complained of headaches, sore throats, nosebleeds and nausea. The LA County Department of Public Health has ordered SoCalGas to offer free temporary relocation to any area residents affected. About 1,000 people are suing the company.5 A fly over of the site has been posted to youtube by the Environmental Defense Fund, and can be seen here. The video uses a FLIR camera to take infrared video that shows the leak.

Site Description

CA gas storage and Aliso Canyon natural gas leak

Figure 1. California active natural gas storage fields most active in 2014

The source of the leak is a natural gas storage well operated by SoCalGas in the Aliso Canyon oil field – a drained oil field now used to store natural gas. SoCalGas is the largest natural gas utility in the U.S., distributing natural gas to 20.9 million.4 Aliso Canyon is the largest gas storage field in the state, but there are numerous other gas storage fields in the state that could present similar risks. In Figure 1, to the right, California’s other currently active gas storage fields are shown. Injection volumes of natural gas are summed and averaged over the area of the field, and the Aliso Canyon is shown to have injected over 1,000,000 cubic feet per km2 of natural gas since the beginning of 2014. Other high volume fields include Honor Rancho, McDonald Island Gas, and Wild Goose Gas.

The failed well, known as Standard Sesnon 25, is marked with a red star in the map of gas storage wells shown below (Figure 2). The well was drilled in October of 1953. Reports show that pressures in the well bored reached 2,516 PSI in 2015. If you use the map to navigate around the state of California, it is clear that there are numerous other natural gas storage facilities in California, with wellbore pressures similar to or higher than the reported pressure of Standard Sesnon 25 and other wells in the Aliso Canyon Field. Beyond California, the state of Michigan is reported to have the most natural gas storage by volume, at 1.1 trillion cubic feet.6 The incident that caused the leak was a well casing failure, although the cause of the well casing failure has not yet been identified. There have been numerous editorials written that have painted SoCalGas as a model for contemporary corporate greed and corruption for several reasons, including the removal of safety valves, reports of corrosion, and lack of resources for inspections and repairs.7 Rather than this being a unique case of criminal neglect, casing failures are a statistical likelihood for wells of this age. Well casing failures are a systemic issue of all oil and gas development. Every well casing has a shelf life and will fail eventually.8 Additionally, leaks from gas storage wells have occurred at other SoCalGas natural gas storage facilities in California, such as Montebello and Playa Del Rey.

Figure 2. California’s gas storage wells. The size of orange markers indicates wellhead pressure, as reported in 2015. Blue markers show the volume of gas injected in 2014/2015. The Aliso Canyon leak at ‘Standard Sesnon 25’ natural gas storage well is marked with a red star. Click here to manipulate the map. After expanded, use the “Layers” menu to visualize the data with colored markers rather than size. 

Response

Fixing the problem is therefore much more complicated, overall, in this specific case. Since the well casing has ruptured deep underground, natural gas is leaking in the annular space outside the borehole and spewing from the topsoil surrounding the well head. To stop the leak the production pipe must be plugged below the rupture. All attempts to plug the well from the surface have failed due to the high pressure within the borehole, a 7” inner diameter of the production pipe. Therefore, a relief well is being drilled to intersect the well casing, to inject a mud-chemical cocktail intended to plug the well far below the casing failure. Updates on the response, claims information, and the location of the Community Resource Center can be found here. Additionally, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency, which means federal support and a requirement of the state of California to cover the costs.9

The state response to the natural gas leak has included numerous agencies. According to documents from California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the agencies leading the response are the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), the Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), California Air Resources Board (ARB), California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA), the California Energy Commission (CEC), and the CPUC. DOGGR is conducting an independent investigation of the incident. The investigation will include a third party analysis for root-cause issues. CARB is monitoring total methane emissions while the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment with CalEPA are collecting and reviewing air quality data. Coordinated response information can be found on the CalOES site. SoCalGas has submitted a proposal to regulators to raise customer rates in order to raise $30 million for a more proactive approach to inspections and repairs.10

This event is the largest, but is not the first major methane/natural gas leak to occur at a wellsite. Leaks can result from a number of natural and anthropogenic (man made) causes. Besides the natural degradation of well integrity with age, acute events can also cause casing failures. There are documented cases where seismic activity has caused casing failures.

As a result of an earthquake natural fractures in the region can grow and disrupt well bores. In areas of dense drilling, fracture stimulations that propagate improperly or intersect unknown faults. When two wells become interconnected, known as “downhole communication” or a “frack hit” when it occurs due to hydraulic fracturing, spills and leaks can occur due to over-pressurization. In many states, these risks are mitigated by having setbacks between wells. California, the most seismically active state, has minimal setbacks for drilling or fracking oil and gas wells. In previous research, FracTracker found that over 96% of new hydraulic fractures in 2013 were drilled within 1,200 feet of another well, which would even violate setback rules in Texas!

Climate Impacts

Natural gas is hailed by the fossil fuel industry as the bridge fuel that will allow the world to transition to renewables. The main argument claims natural gas is necessary to replace coal as our main source of generating electricity. Burning both coal and natural gas produce carbon dioxide, but natural gas is more efficient. For the same amount of energy production, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide emissions. The legitimate threat of climate impacts comes from fugitive (leaked) emissions of methane, before the natural gas can be burned. Since methane is a gas, it is much harder to contain than oil or coal. Methane is also more insulating than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (34-86 times more insulating), making it a more potent greenhouse gas. The leaked natural gas from the Aliso Canyon well is currently equivalent to 7,000,000 tons of CO2 (Updated here, on Mother Jones).

Current estimates show methane is responsible for 25% of the world’s anthropogenic warming to date. Proponents of the bridge fuel theorize that if methane leakage can be kept under 4% of total production, natural gas power generation will provide a climate-positive alternative to coal. EPA estimates set the leakage rate at 2.4%, but independent research estimates actual rates up to 7.9%.11 The EDF has been conducting an $18 million project focused on quantifying methane leaks from the natural gas industry. A team of 20 researchers from 13 institutions conducted the 2 year study measuring emissions from the Barnett Shale. Details can be found on the Environmental Defense Fund’s Page.12

Natural Gas Leak References

  1. Goldenberg, S. (2016). A single gas well leak is California’s biggest contributor to climate change. The Guardian. Accessed 1/6/16.
  2. Environmental Defense Fund. (2015). Aerial Footage of Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak. via YouTube. Accessed 1/5/16.
  3. Lurie, J. (2016). Thousands of Californians are Fleeing an Enormous Methane Leak. Here are 8 Things You Need to Know. Mother Jones. Accessed 1/6/16.
  4. CalOES. (2015). Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak. Accessed 1/8/15.
  5. BBC. (2015). California state of emergency over methane leak. Accessed 1/8/15
  6. Ellison, G. (2015). Michigan has most underground natural gas storage in U.S. MLive. Accessed 1/8/15.
  7. Reicher, M. (2015). SocalGas knew of corrosion at Porter Ranch gas facility, doc shows. LA Daily News. Accessed 1/5/16.
  8. Ingraffea et al. (2013). Assessment and risk analysis of casing and cement impairment in oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, 2000-2012. PNAS. Vol.111 no.30.
  9. Cronin, M. (2015). Why Engineers Can’t Stop Los Angeles’ Enormous Methane Leak. Accessed 1/4/16.
  10. CUUC. (2015). Appendix A. Accessed 1/5/15. [please note that some CPUC files are being taken offline for unknown reasons]
  11. Howarth et al. (2011). Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations. Climatic Change. 106:679-690.
  12. Song, L. (2015). Texas Fracking Zone Emits 90% More Methane Than EPA Estimated. InsideClimate News.

Feature Image: Aliso Canyon natural gas leak – Photo by Environmental Defense Fund

Drilling rig in Ohio, December 2015

Ohio Shale Country Listening Project Part 1

Listening Project Partners: CURE, OOC, & FracTracker

The below industry quote divides the world into two camps when it comes to horizontal hydraulic fracturing: those who are for it and those who are against it:

Fracking has emerged as a contentious issue in many communities, and it is important to note that there are only two sides in the debate: those who want our oil and natural resources developed in a safe and responsible way; and those who don’t want our oil and natural gas resources developed at all.
– Energy from Shale (an industry-supported public relations website)

The writer imagines a world in black and white – with a clear demarcation line. In reality, it is not so simple, at least not when talking to the people who actually live in the Ohio towns where fracking is happening. They want the jobs that industry promises, but they worry about the rising costs of housing, food, and fuel that accompany a boomtown economy. They want energy independence, but worry about water contamination. They welcome the opening of new businesses, but lament the constant rumble of semi-trucks down their country roads. They are eager for economic progress, but do not understand why the industry will not hire more locals to do the work.

In short, the situation is complicated and it calls for a comprehensive response from Ohio’s local and state policy makers.

Through hefty campaign contributions and donations to higher learning institutions, the oil and gas industry exerts undue influence on Ohio’s politics and academic institutions. Many media outlets covering the drilling boom also have ties to the industry. Therefore, industry has been able to control the message and the medium. Those who oppose oil and gas in any way are painted as radicals. Indeed, some of Ohio’s most dedicated anti-fracking activists are unwavering in their approach. But most of the people living atop the Utica Shale simply want to live peacefully. Many would be willing to co-exist with the industry if their needs, concerns, and voices were heard.

This project attempts to give these Ohioans a voice and outsiders a more accurate representation about life in the Utica Shale Basin. The report does not engage in the debate about whether or not fracking should occur – but, rather, examines the situation as we currently find it.

Listening Project Summary

The Ohio Shale Country Listening Project is a collaborative effort to solicit, summarize, and share the perspectives and observations of those directly experiencing the shale gas boom in eastern Ohio. The project is led by the Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC)’s Communities United for Responsible Energy (CURE), with support from the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC), FracTracker Alliance, and the Laborers Local 809 of Steubenville. Policy Matters Ohio and Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services offered resources and time in drafting the final policy recommendations.

Over the course of six months, organizers from the Laborers Local 809 and OOC worked with a team of nearly 40 volunteers to survey 773 people living in the heart of Utica Shale country. Respondents are from eastern Ohio, ranging from as far north as Portage County to as far south as Monroe County. A small number of respondents hail from across the border in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, but the overwhelming majority are from Carroll (321), Columbiana (230), Jefferson (70), Harrison (30) and Belmont (28) counties.

Respondents were asked to talk about their family and personal history in the community where they live, their favorite things about their community and what changes they have noticed since the arrival of shale gas drilling using horizontal hydraulic fracturing or fracking. They were also asked to describe their feelings about oil and gas development as either positive or negative and what they believed their community would be like once the boom ends. Finally, respondents were also asked how concerned or excited they are about 11 possible outcomes or consequences of fracking.

Summary of Recommendations

  • Create incentives for companies to hire local workers; and increase transparency about who drilling and subcontracting companies are employing
  • Tax the oil and gas industry fairly with a severance tax rate of at least 5%; use this revenue to support affected communities to mitigate the effects of the boom and bust cycle
  • Increase the citizen participation in county decision-making on how additional sales tax or severance tax revenue is spent and how the county deals with the effects of the drilling boom
  • Increase transparency around production and royalties for landowners and the public
  • Set aside funding at the local level for air and water monitoring programs
  • Mitigate noise and emissions as much as possible with mandatory sound barriers and green completion on all fracking wells
  • Create mechanisms to protect sensitive areas from industry activity
  • Levy municipal impact fees to address issues associated with drilling
  • Better protect landowners during leasing negotiation process and from potential loss of income due to property damage

Conclusion

The more shale gas wells a community has, the less popular the oil and gas industry appears to be. Carroll County is the most heavily drilled county in Ohio, and more than half the respondents said they view the drilling boom negatively. Moreover, many residents say they are not experiencing the economic benefits promised by the oil and gas industry. They see rent, cost of gas, and groceries rising as the drilling and pipeline companies hire workers from out of state and sometimes even out of the country. Residents see more sales tax revenue coming into their counties but also see their roads destroyed by large trucks. They say they are experiencing more traffic delays and accidents than ever before. Ohioans love their community’s pastoral nature but are watching as the landscape and cropland get destroyed. As it is playing out now, the boom in shale gas drilling is not fulfilling the promises made by industry. Locals feel less secure and more financially strapped. Many feel their towns will soon be uninhabitable. It is up to state and local governments to hold industry accountable and make it pay for the impacts it creates.

Infrastructure associated with horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Images from Ted Auch and FracTracker’s Oil & Gas Photos Archive:

Inception & Evolution of the Listening Project

The Ohio Shale Country Listening Project started in February 2014 with a conversation between Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC) staff and a veteran organizer who once worked on mountain top removal in a large region of West Virginia. The OOC organizer lamented the difficulty of organizing across a large geography around a specific issue – in this case, fracking. How do you find out what the people want without dictating to the community? The more experienced organizer immediately responded: What about a listening project? She connected OOC to the Shalefield Organizing Project in Pennsylvania whose organizers helped OOC think through what a listening project might look like in Ohio.

The project took on several iterations. First, OOC planned to focus the listening project solely on Columbiana County, which at the time was the third most fracked county in Ohio. Next, community leaders in Carroll County, the most heavily drilled county in the state, suggested the project also focus there. Eventually, as it became clear that the shale play was moving further south in Ohio, the project expanded into other counties such as Belmont, Harrison, and Jefferson. While attending a public hearing on pipeline construction in Portage County, OOC staff met an organizer from the Laborers Local 809 out of Steubenville. The organizer expressed interest in joining the project. Meanwhile, OOC had been in discussions with the Ohio Environmental Coalition (OEC) about the need to share the stories of people living in the middle of a fracking boom. OEC agreed to join the project. Finally, FracTracker also came into the fold, eager to assist in analyzing and mapping data gathered during the effort.

ListeningProject_Volunteer

A listening project volunteer surveys a shopper at Rogers Open Air Market

OOC staff solicited the help from about 40 volunteers to form the “Listening Project Team” who surveyed their friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. Volunteers met four times over the course of six months to discuss the project and strategize about how to reach more people with the survey. Most of the volunteer team came from Columbiana and Carroll Counties. The Laborers Local 809 also distributed the surveys to their members. Members of the team canvassed neighborhoods, attended local festivals, set up a booth at Rogers Open Air Market (photo left) and distributed an online version of the survey through Facebook and email. OOC staff spoke at college classes at Kent State-Salem and Kent State-East Liverpool, and solicited input from students in attendance.

Listening project respondents by location

The project’s initial goal was to hit a target of 1,000 – 1,500 survey responses. In the end the team fell short of this number, but were able to reach 773 people living in the Utica Shale area. This barrier is mostly due to the rural nature of the communities surveyed, which makes it more difficult to reach a large number of people in a short timeframe. The most responses came from Carroll County – 321 surveys. Columbiana County represented the second largest group of respondents with 230 surveys. Seventy people from Jefferson County, 30 people from Harrison County, 28 from Belmont County filled out the survey. The final 80 responses came from Mahoning, Stark, Summit and Tuscarawas Counties. Finally, nearly fifty responses came from Pennsylvania and West Virginia residents who live along the Ohio border (see Figure right). We promised survey respondents that all names and information would be kept confidential with survey responses presented only in aggregate.

Oil train decoupled, January 2016, Pittsburgh PA

Oil Train Decoupled in Pittsburgh, No Injuries

Dangerously Close Call

Today a train carrying oil products decoupled, or separated, in the City of Pittsburgh. Collaborators at CMU report that this morning an oil train decoupled along the tracks that run past the Bellefield boiler and under Forbes Avenue in Oakland, a very populated section of the city. While no spills, explosions, or injuries were reported, concerns remain.

This train was carrying a significant number of cars either marked with 1075 or 3295 hazard placards – flammable liquids and gases produced during oil and gas drilling. We’ve discussed the risks associated with oil trains on several occasions on FracTracker. We have not previously mentioned the 3295 hazmat placard, however, which is apparently used to identify condensate. More and more train cars hosting 3295 placards have been passing through Pittsburgh in recent months, observers report.

The cars on this train were likely full, based on the train’s direction (bound for refineries on the East Coast). While it is difficult to tell given available data, these kinds of trains generally originate from Western PA, Ohio, as well as the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota.

Fortunately, the coupling broke while the train was headed uphill. For residents living in Junction Hollow, the brakes on the disconnected part of the train worked properly. If the brakes had failed, this portion of the train could have rolled downhill and derailed at the first turn in the hollow. A similar situation – with much more disastrous results – occurred in 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

Train Incident Photos (Submitted by CMU)

This video taken of the train passing once it was reconnected with the engine shows the sheer quantity of hydrocarbons being hauled through the city. (Randy Sargent of CMU’s CREATE Lab, identifies each of the car’s hazard placards as the train passes his office).

FracTracker is Seeking Paid Spring Interns

Update: The online application process has ended. Candidates who submitted applications will hear from us by January 22, 2016.

Are you a current or recent college grad, and do you enjoy working with datasets, visualizations, maps, or even writing about oil and gas issues? If so, please consider applying for one of FracTracker’s paid internships this spring. These internships run from February 15 through August 15, 2016. This year we are seeking paid spring interns for the following offices: Cleveland, OH; Pittsburgh, PA; and Washington, DC. See where we work.

Deadline to apply: January 18, 2016 at 5:00pm eastern.

Why Join Us

Internships at the FracTracker Alliance offer students invaluable resume-building work experience and networking opportunities. Not only will you work closely with members of our team, but you will also have the opportunity to learn about and contribute to many aspects of our oil and gas work. Interns will also have the opportunity to participate in events that increase their professional networks and interact with our partner organizations. Meet our current interns.

Responsibilities

The responsibilities of paid interns revolve around the daily work of the other FracTracker staff as well as time-sensitive projects. Due to FracTracker’s web and mapping focus, the primary skills we seek out of internship applicants are those that would allow them to do GIS mapping, communications projects, or a combination of the two.

Interns will work 15 hours per week for ~26 weeks and will be compensated $11/hour. This position is not eligible for health benefits.

Update: The online application process has ended. Candidates who submitted applications will hear from us by January 22, 2016.