Changes to PA Maps feature image

Recent Changes to Pennsylvania Maps

Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) started to offer additional data resources with the introduction of the Open Data Portal. This development, along with the continued evolution of the ArcGIS Online mapping platform that we utilize has enabled some recent enhancements in our mapping of Pennsylvania oil and gas infrastructure. We’ve made changes to the existing Pennsylvania Shale Viewer for unconventional wells, and created a Conventional and Historical Wells in Pennsylvania map.

Unconventional Wells

Rather than defining the newer, industrial-scaled oil and gas wells by specific geological formations, configuration of the well, or the amount of fluid injected into the ground during the hydraulic fracturing process, Pennsylvania’s primary classification is based on whether or not they are considered to be unconventional.

Unconventional Wells – An unconventional gas well is a bore hole drilled or being drilled for the purpose of or to be used for the production of natural gas from an unconventional formation. An unconventional formation is defined as a geologic shale formation below the base of the Elk Sandstone or its geologic equivalent where natural gas generally cannot be produced except by horizontal or vertical well bores stimulated by hydraulic fracturing.

PA Shale Viewer (Unconventional Drilling)

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The previous structure of the PA Shale Viewer had separate layers for permits, drilled wells, and violations. This version replaces the first two layers with a single layer of unconventional locations, which we have called “Unconventional Wells and Permits” for the sake of clarity. The violations layer appears in the same format as before. When users are zoomed out, they will see generalized layers showing the overall location of O&G infrastructure and violations in the state, which were formed by creating a one mile buffer around these features. As users zoom in, the generalized layers are then replaced with point data showing the specific wells and violations. At this point, users can click on individual points and learn more about the features they see on the map.

PA Shale Viewer Zoomed In

Figure 1. PA Shale Viewer zoomed in to see individual wells by status

O&G locations are displayed by their well status, as of the time that FracTracker processed the data, including: Abandoned, Active, Operator Reported Not Drilled, Plugged OG Well, Proposed but Never Materialized, and Regulatory Inactive Status. Note that just because a well is classified as Active does not mean that it has been drilled, or even necessarily permitted. These milestones, along with whether or not it has been plugged, can be determined by looking for entries in the permit issue date, spud date, and plug date entries in the well’s popup box.

Conventional and Historical Wells

The map below shows known conventional wells in Pennsylvania along with additional well locations that were digitized from historical mining maps.

Conventional Oil and Gas Wells Map

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Although there are over 19,000 unconventional oil and gas locations in Pennsylvania, this figure amounts to just 11% of the total number of wells in the state that the DEP has location data for, the rest being classified as conventional wells. Furthermore, in a state that has been drilling for oil and gas since before the Civil War, there could be up to 750,000 abandoned wells statewide.

The DEP has been able to find the location of over 30,000 of these historical wells by digitizing records from old paper mining maps. This layer has records for 16 different counties, but well over half of these wells are in just three counties – Allegheny, Butler, and Washington. It looks like it would take a lot more work to digitize these historical wells throughout the rest of the state, but even when that happens, we will probably still not know where the majority of the old oil and gas wells in the state are located.


By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

It's not too late to donate to FracTracker and help us continue our mapping work

It’s not too late to donate to FracTracker Alliance

Our planet needs your help and so does FracTracker so we can keep helping the planet. Forgive our circular logic, but you are invaluable in keeping us in motion.

Our first, formal annual fund campaign launched in September 2016 and has received over $15,000 in donations. While that is 30% of our goal, every dollar matters and demonstrates the worth you see in what we do.

We haven’t changed the world in the past 10 months, but we have made a difference. Our maps and insights have powered campaigns on renewable energy and made data on the threats of oil and gas-related air pollution just a click away. From the impacts of pipelines to degradation from sand mines, we keep digitizing and analyzing to show the harms in formats that communicate the dirty truth about fossil fuels.

We don’t ask often, but we do need to ask. As our fiscal year comes to a close, will you donate to FracTracker Alliance? If you’ve never given to us before, we welcome your consideration. If you’re a prior donor, we appreciate your past support and hope you’ll contemplate an equal or greater contribution.

The challenges don’t cease, and neither will we. Our new mobile app ushers in broad opportunities to document the effects of extraction. An unprecedented wave of oil and gas infrastructure demands our attention. More organizations and communities seek to partner and benefit from our data and insights. Some recent testimonials attest to our worth:

Thanks for all that you do, it’s so important and much appreciated.
– Harvey S., Berkeley, CA

Best group of experts to work with… 
– Kim F., New York, NY

The research and tools that FracTracker produces and supports are truly unique.
– Prarthana G., Washington, DC

Your work at the FracTracker Alliance is first-rate… you empowered and inspired those in attendance.
– Doug S., Pittsburgh, PA

If you feel like they do, please consider a gift. Donors of $250 or more receive the oh-so-cool hybrid light – solar lantern, flashlight, and mobile device charger all in one. View the entirety of our donations page for a variety of ways you can provide financial support to FracTracker Alliance.

With your help, we’ll continue to illuminate the truth and elevate the imperative of a sustainable energy future. It’s not too late! Thank you for your interest in our work.

Cheers,
Brook Lenker
Executive Director
FracTracker Alliance

Healthy Homes article in PA

Healthy Homes: Re-Framing Fracking Impacts

An Ohio family took joy in raising their kids and cattle at their farmhouse, built in 1853 with crooked walls and no indoor bathrooms. When they leased land to fracking activity, however, the “beep, beep, beep” of heavy truck traffic kept them up all night, and a cow died after drinking a strange fluid flowing on the land during the cold of winter. They dedicated their retirement savings to moving and building a new home, only to soon after receive a compressor station as their neighbor – close enough to hear the engines at all hours and loud enough to make them dread even walking out to their mailbox.

During the upswing of a boom-and-bust cycle of the gas industry in Greene County, the influx of outside workers and the high demand on rental housing resulted in one particular family being unable to secure an apartment. Without adequate housing, their children were temporarily taken from their custody.

In Huntingdon, a young woman resisted a pipeline being forced through her property by stationing herself in a tree, while workers with chainsaws felled those around her. Eminent domain enabled the gas company to claim this privately-owned land under a weak guise of “public good.”

These unsettling but true stories hint at the countless ways fracking plays out in individual households. A healthy home environment – with clean air, potable drinking water, and safety from outside elements – is essential to human life and functioning. Yet, the industrial processes involved in unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD), often summed up with the term “fracking,” may interfere with or even take away the ability to maintain a healthy home.

This article aims to put these household impacts, and the right to a healthy home, at the center of the fracking debate.

Framing the issue

definition-of-a-frame

The way we understand just about anything depends on our frame of reference. A frame, like the frame around a picture, brings its contents into focus. At the same time, it excludes the information outside its borders. A frame declares that what’s inside is what matters. When it comes to the human effects of fracking, various conflicting frames exist, each dictating their own picture of what fracking actually does and means.

health-frame

The frame we use to look at the fracking debate is so important, because it dictates how we talk about and think about the problem. Likewise, if we can identify the frame others are using when they talk about fracking, we can see more clearly what they have prioritized and what they are leaving out of the conversation.

Two researchers who conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups in five Pennsylvania counties in 2014 and 2015 argue for the need for a new frame.1 Some of the common ways of talking about fracking not only favor shale gas development for reasons like those included in the frame on the left above, they also work against those trying to make a stand against the negative effects fracking. These researchers suggest that, rather than arguing within the existing, dominant frames, activists should consider proactively “reframing the debate around other core values.” The right to a healthy home is a widely-shared value. I propose we adopt a frame that puts that right at the center of the picture.

What is a “healthy home”?

The term healthy home isn’t new. The federal agencies Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both use this phrase in defining the importance of a home environment free from hazards and contaminants, like lead and radon. Simply put, a healthy home is one that supports health.

Why Now?

We sit poised at a unique moment to take on the task of reframing fracking. While new drilling in some places appears to be on the decline, countless large-scale petrochemical projects, like a growing crop of plastic-producing ethane crackers in the northeast US, are ramping up. These facilities will demand massive supplies of natural gas and byproducts, perpetuating and likely increasing drilling.

The renewed demand on wells and their associated infrastructure increase the burden on those households in its wake, living amid stimulated wells, near odorous compressor stations, next to pipelines with pig launchers spewing emissions.

Continued demand on natural gas – for energy or cheap plastics – also requires less-discussed but equally-invasive infrastructure, such as the massive underground gas storage underlying communities in growing numbers in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Such infrastructure exposes residents to the possibility of leaks, like the one that forced the evacuation of thousands of families in Porter Ranch, California. It burdens other communities with the disposal of toxic waste fluids, including underground injection and the associated earthquakes, like the hundreds pockmarking Ohio and now encroaching on Pennsylvania. Keeping the fracking going means communities, like some dairy farming regions in Wisconsin, continue to see the environmental and quality-of-life impacts of frac sand mining.

Engagement is urgent and timely,2 and the entire country has a role to play. This moment in our energy history is a chance for all of us – those affected by, in favor of, concerned about, eager to welcome, or otherwise learning about UOGD – to get clear on our frame of understanding fracking.

pipeline-route-runs-behind-home-and-swingset

A pipeline right-of-way, about 200 yards behind this house and children’s swingset, shows how close fracking infrastructure comes to homes. Photo credit: Leann Leiter

Why a “Healthy Homes” Frame?

Proponents of frames that endorse fracking often live at a considerable distance from the processes involved,3 buffering them and their families from its impacts. According to researchers4 who listened to the testimonies of residents at a community hearing, the distance they lived from the industrial activities shows up in how they talk about fracking. Those in favor tend to use a depersonalized, “birds-eye view” in describing the impacts. People for whom the negative impacts are or will be a part of their lives rely on more descriptive, specific, and place-based language.

Similarly, a frame that focuses on household impacts emphasizes the on-the-ground, lived experience of living near fracking infrastructure. This frame approaches the debate on fracking by continually asking, what is this like for the people who live with the process? What are the impacts to their home environment? Such a frame does not ignore large-scale issues of jobs and energy supply, but grounds these bigger questions with the real and urgent consequences to the people who are suffering.

oval-healthy-homes-frame

Household impacts

Despite rulings that define UOGD as an industrial process, drilling companies locate all manner of infrastructure – wells, pipelines, compressor stations, among others – in areas formerly residential or agricultural. Rules dictating distances from UOGD facilities to structures like houses vary by municipality and state. Yet, these new and often imposing facilities repeatedly occupy the immediate view of homes, or are within close proximity that defy medical and safety warnings.


Video: Glaring light of burning flares and noises both droning and sudden, along with major truck traffic and other changes to the immediate landscape around the household, produce high levels of stress, leading to its own health problems, creating an environment where water may become unsafe to drink and breathing the air becomes a hazard.

The Oil & Gas Threat Map (by Earthworks and FracTracker) shows the populations within a half-mile “threat radius” of infrastructure that includes fracking – close enough for residents to be exposed to contaminated air emissions, and possibly smell disturbing odors, hear loud sounds and feel vibrations, and see bright lights and the fire of emergency flares. As confirmed by the EPA, in some cases, UOGD results in contamination of drinking water, as well.

Researchers at The Environmental Health Project (EHP) offer individual health assessments to residents living in the shadow of fracking operations. In a physician’s thorough review of over 61 assessments, they identified the following symptoms to be temporally related to gas activity:

Table 1. Symptoms temporally related to UOGD

SYMPTOM CATEGORY n Symptom %
UPPER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS 39 64% Nose or throat irritation 25 41%
 Sinus pain or infections 17 28%
Nose bleeds 8 13%
CONSTITUTIONAL SYMPTOMS 33 54% Sleep disruption 26 43%
Fatigue 13 21%
 Weak or Drowsy 9 15%
NEUROLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 32 52% Headache 25 41%
Dizziness 11 18%
Numbness 9 15%
Memory loss 8 13%
PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 32 52% Stress or anxiety 23 38%
Irritable or moody 12 20%
Worry 6 10%
LOWER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS 30 49% Cough 21 34%
Shortness of breath 19 31%
Weezing 14 23%
GASTRO-INTESTINAL SYMPTOMS 27 44% Nausea 13 21%
Abdominal pain 12 20%
EYE SYMPTOMS 23 38% Itchy eyes 11 18%
Painful or dry 10 16%
DERMATOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 19 31% Rash 10 16%
Itching 7 11%
Lesions or blisters 6 10%
CARDIAC SYMPTOMS 17 28% Palpitations 9 15%
Chest pain 6 10%
Other cardiac symptoms 6 10%
HEARING CHANGES OR TINNITUS 10 16% Hearing loss 3 5%
Tinnitus (ringing in the ear) 10 16%
 MUSCULOSKELETAL 10 16% Painful joints 9 15%
Aches 7 11%
ENDOCRINE 7 11% Hair loss 7 11%
n =  Number of patients reporting symptom, out of 61 patients assessed
% = Percentage of patients reporting symptom, out of 61 patients assessed
Table adapted from EHP – Click to download Excel spreadsheet

Mental and emotional stress can exacerbate and create physical health symptoms. For households close to fracking, the fear of a disaster, like a well pad fire, or concern for the long term health effects of exposures through air and water can create serious stress. These developments change communities, sometimes in divisive, negative ways, potentially adding to the stress.

Fracking, a disruptive, landscape-altering process can also produce what’s called solastalgia, whereby negatively-perceived changes to the land alter a person’s sense of belonging. In the case of fracking in residential areas, people may lose not only their relationship to the land, but their homes as they once knew them.5 Solastalgia, considered by some researchers to be a new psycho-social condition, is “the lived experience of the physical desolation of home.”6

When Home is Unsafe, Where to Get Help

EHP Trifold Cover

Click to expand and explore the tri-fold. Click here to access and print this free resource, and many others by EHP.

EHP offers a new resource for protecting your health at a household level, called: “Protecting Your Health from Unconventional Oil and Gas Development.” We created this free informational resource in collaboration with residents and health care providers in four different shale gas counties.

The final product is the direct result of input and knowledge from 15 focus groups and project meetings in these affected communities with over 100 participants, including residents and healthcare providers. EHP has packed this resource with practical steps for households amid shale gas development to limit their exposure to air and water contamination that may be associated with fracking.

For follow-up questions, or for free personalized health services for those experiencing fracking-related exposures, you can contact EHP directly at 724-260-5504 or by email at info@environmentalhealthproject.org.

Re-Centering Home in the Fracking Debate

Putting affected households at the center of the fracking debate better reflects the experiences of people on the front lines. This powerful frame could help counter the power of those who speak positively about fracking, but lack direct experience of the process.

For those at the frontlines of fracking, the intent is that these resources and tools will help you protect your health and your homes.

For those not yet directly affected by fracking, you can lend a hand. Show support for health protective measures by signing up at EHP for updates on events, education, and opportunities to make your voice heard. And, whenever and wherever you can weigh in on the debate, put a frame around fracking that puts impacted households at the center.

References

  1. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
  2. Short, D., Elliot, J., Norder, K., Lloyd-Davies, E., & Morley, J. (2015). Extreme energy, ‘fracking’ and human rights: a new field for human rights impact assessments?, The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:6, 697-736, DOI:10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219
  3. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
  4. Mando, J. (2016). Constructing the vicarious experience of proximity in a Marcellus Shale public hearing. Environmental Communication, 10(3), 352-364.
  5. Resick, L. K. (2016). Gender, protest, and the health impacts of unconventional natural gas development. In Y. Beebeejaum (Ed.), The participatory city (pp. 167-175). Berlin: Jovis Verlag GmgH.
  6. Albrecht et al (2007). Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change, Australasian Psychiatry . Vol 15 Supplement.

By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow for the SW-PA Environmental Health Project and FracTracker Alliance

Feature photograph: A compressor station sits above a beautiful farm in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Leann Leiter

Water supplies article

Risks to Water Supplies in PA’s Susquehanna Basin

In this series of articles on the Susquehanna River Basin, FracTracker has explored the relationship between oil and gas extraction and the overall health of the watershed relative to oil and gas extraction impacts. We began with a basic overview of likely relationships, followed by an analysis of oil and gas violations relative to resources available for monitoring water quality changes. In the most recent article we assessed the corresponding effects of extraction on deforestation and habitat loss. With the rapid expansion of oil and gas drilling over the past decade, many have also formed legitimate concerns about threats to public and private water supplies. In the final article of the series we look closely at this issue, at the complexities of assessing risks to water supplies, while also highlighting recent research shedding new light on the nature of these risks.

Pennsylvania’s Hydrological System

The Susquehanna River is home to more than 3.3 million people who depend on the river and its tributaries for drinking water. The basin also feeds thousands of businesses that require water for their operations, such as manufacturing facilities, farms, golf courses, and more. In some instances, water supplies are fed by groundwater wells, which are in turn fed by underground aquifers of different depths. In other cases, water supplies are drawn from intake points in nearby lakes, rivers, and streams.

Map of PA's groundwater aquifer system.

Figure 1: Map of PA’s groundwater aquifer system.

While many believe underground and surface water systems are somehow discrete, this is far from the case. Groundwater is a major contributor to rivers, lakes, and wetlands – as they are all connected through the hydrological cycle. Some precipitation runs directly into streams. But much of it filters through soil and rock into shallow and deep aquifers. Aquifers then carry water over the course of months, years, and even centuries, into larger water bodies. The most common discharge points are from springs and from low-lying wetlands. The figures above (figure 1) and below (figure 2) illustrate Pennsylvania’s four major aquifer types, compiled by Penn State Extension.

Figure 3: Types of groundwater aquifers in PA.

Figure 2: Types of groundwater aquifers in PA.

Assessing Groundwater Supply Risks

Managing the overall health of the hydrological cycle is of critical importance to the 3.3 million people who live in the Susquehanna River Basin. However, oil and gas extraction poses significant risks to the state’s water sources. As we have detailed in prior articles in this series, accidents and spills can cause chemicals and hydraulic fracturing fluids to run off into nearby watersheds. Growing evidence also suggests that groundwater can be contaminated by migrating hydraulic fracturing fluids.

Figure 4: Number of household and public water supply groundwater wells by state (DCNR).

Figure 3: Number of household and public water supply groundwater wells by state (DCNR).

In one study, conducted by Columbia University in 2016, researchers found elevated levels of dissolved calcium, chlorine, sulfates and iron in lowland drinking wells within one kilometer of a drilling site compared to baseline averages. In lowland wells more than a kilometer away, they found elevated levels of methane, sodium, and manganese. Elevated levels dropped off in wells on higher ground, which suggests the hydraulic fracturing process affects shallow and deep groundwater sources along different timelines.

According to the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation for total number of groundwater wells, second for number of private drinking wells, and third for number of public water supplies dependent on groundwater wells (figure 4). However, determining how many groundwater wells may be at risk to oil and gas extraction is complicated for a variety of reasons. First, DCNR acknowledges that only about half (480,000) of the 1 million groundwater wells in the state are documented. Registration of groundwater wells only began in 1955, and detailed information including latitude and longitudinal coordinates only came into being in the 1980s. These records are now maintained in the PA Groundwater Inventory System (PAGWIS). It is worth noting that the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) does not regulate private drinking water wells. They are only required to respond to pollution complaints.

Correlating O&G Wells to Complaints Data

Despite these data gaps, we can still learn a lot from the wells that are documented in PAGWIS. For instance, we compared the location of groundwater wells to oil and gas related complaints and found some interesting correlations. The below map can be used to explore these relationships.

Map of at-risk groundwater wells, public water supplies, and citizen complaints


View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

The first stage our analysis involved narrowing the PGWIS registered groundwater wells in the Susquehanna Basin to those that are actively used for drinking water, agriculture, and irrigation (66,306 total). We then limited to those within 1 kilometer of an oil and gas well, essentially mirroring the distances used by the Columbia University study. We found 2,551 groundwater wells within this “risk zone” of 1 kilometer.

For our second stage, we utilized research conducted by Public Herald, an investigative reporting team that spent three years reviewing oil and gas related complaints submitted to the DEP from 2004-2016. They found 9,442 total complaints, of which 43% were water related (surface and groundwater), and that the frequency of complaints track with the rise and fall of unconventional oil and gas development (figure 5).

Figure 5: Relationship of complaints to O&G development (Public Herald).

Figure 4: Relationship of complaints to O&G development (Public Herald).

From the Public Herald dataset, we found 1,573 total complaints were in the Susquehanna River Basin, of which 65% were water related complaints — a much higher percentage than the larger dataset’s average. We then compare the location of these complaints to our “risk zone” groundwater wells and found a statistically significant correlation between the number of groundwater wells within 1km of oil and gas activity and higher numbers of complaints by residents. What do these findings tell us?

In short, where we see more groundwater wells in proximity to an oil and gas well, we also see more water related complaints to the DEP.

The below graph illustrates this relationship (figure 6).

Figure 6: Relationship of complaints to at-risk groundwater wells.

Figure 5: Relationship of complaints to at-risk groundwater wells.

Groundwater to Surface Water Risks

DCNR estimates that Pennsylvania’s streams and wetlands get about 2/3 of their flow from groundwater sources. Meanwhile, there are 786 public water suppliers in the Susquehanna River Basin that are fed by different arrangements of groundwater and surface water sources. These suppliers are included in the interactive map for reference.

Assessing risks to public water supply systems is equally complicated to that of groundwater wells. The DEP regulates public water suppliers under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but the general public is not permitted to know the location of actual water sources or intake points due to security risks. This restriction poses a problem for nongovernmental organizations when doing analyses that would benefit from knowing the locations of these source points. Nevertheless, like our breakdown of risk zone groundwater wells, we can still learn a great deal from what we do know of public water supplies.

Figure 6: Wellsboro, PA, public water supply along with O&G wells and water-related citizen complaints in the supply watershed.

Figure 6: Wellsboro, PA, public water supply with O&G wells and citizen complaints in the supply’s watershed.

For instance, the town of Wellsboro, in Tioga County, is home to an estimated 3,300 people. The Wellsboro Municipal Authority supplies water to Wellsboro residents as well as to 1,000 people in surrounding Charleston and Delmar Townships. According to DEP records, groundwater and surface water sources for this system come from Hamilton Lake and tributaries of the Charleston Creek Watershed, much of which is designated as high-quality coldwater fisheries. Nevertheless, there are seven unconventional oil and gas wells in this watershed, one of which is only 400ft from Charleston Creek, just upstream from Hamilton Lake.

The area is also one of the brightest hot-spots for complaints to the DEP in the Public Herald dataset, with 40 water related complaints in Charleston and Delmar townships.

These relationships should be of particular concern to residents who believe their water is protected from extraction industry activities. In addition, while recent research suggests homes values can be negatively affected in neighborhoods dependent on private well water near drilling activity, correlations between potential groundwater and surface water pollution suggest that any changes in home value are more a matter of perceived rather than actual risk—homes on public water supplies should also be considered at risk in communities experiencing extraction.

Conclusion

Returning to the hydrological cycle, we can assume that pollutants from oil and gas extraction, like precipitation, will eventually find their way into larger water bodies, either directly through runoff into watershed tributaries or through groundwater migrations. While this article has primarily focused on the Pennsylvania headwaters of the Susquehanna, home to 570,000 residents, and risks to their water sources, groundwater complaints are not the exclusive problem of residents who are dependent on private drinking water wells. “We all live downstream” as the saying goes, and those who rely on the watershed for their drinking water and other water resource needs throughout the watershed should be concerned by the correlations illustrated in our analysis.


By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community based Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance

Feature image: Hydrologic cycle graphic by Watershed-Watch.org

US Farms and Agricultural Production near Drilling

Health vs. Power – Risking America’s Food for Energy

Over 50% of land in the United States is dedicated to agriculture. Oil and gas development, particularly hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” is taking place near many of these farms.

Farms feed us, and unfortunately they are not protected from the impacts of fracking. Even if drilling can be done responsibly, accidents happen. In Colorado, for example, two spills occur on average per day, 15% of which result in water contamination. [1] Risking our food supply is not only a risk to our health – it’s a risk to national security.

Food Independence

Rocky Mountain Apple Orchard by Celia Roberts

Rocky Mountain apple orchard. Photo by Celia Roberts

Domestic oil and gas production has been promoted by the industry as a means to provide the U.S. with energy independence. The argument goes something like this: “We need to be a net exporter of energy so as to reduce our reliance on foreign countries for these resources, especially countries in the Middle East.” This ignores the point that for energy security we might want to keep rather than export fossil fuels.

However, energy independence and food independence are inextricably linked.

Considering that the basic human needs are clean water, food, shelter, and safety — along with energy — we need to think about self-reliance; we can’t be dependent on foreign countries for our food. The U.S. is currently a net exporter of agricultural products, and California produces 50% of the food consumed in the U.S. But what would happen if our foodsheds became contaminated?

Drilling Proximity – Why the concern?

Front Range, Colorado Working Landscape At Risk of Unconventional Oil & Gas Drilling by Rita Clagget

Front Range, Colorado working landscape at risk of unconventional oil & gas drilling. Photo by Rita Clagget

Over 58% of US agricultural market value and 74% of US farms – both conventional and organic – operate within shale basins, active shale plays, and the primary frac sand geologies.

Why is this so important? Why be concerned? Here are just a few reasons:

  1. People can be exposed to the compounds involved with oil and gas extraction through spills, emissions, and other processes. The top five health impacts associated with these chemicals are: respiratory, nervous system, birth defects, and reproductive problems, blood disorders, and cancer.[2]
  2. Rural gas gathering pipelines are unregulated; operators have no obligation to publicly report about incremental failures along the pipeline that may contaminate soil and water as long as they don’t require evacuations.[3]
  3. Oil and gas operators are exempt from certain provisions of several environmental laws designed to protect public health and safety, including the Safe Water Drinking Act, The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. These exemptions, in a way, permit oil and gas operators to contaminate water supplies with chemicals from their operations, in particular hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced wastewater.[4]
  4. The gold standard of clean, chemical-free food is the USDA National Organic Program Standards, as governed by the Organic Foods Production Act. Unfortunately, organic certification does not require testing for oil and gas chemicals in water being used in organic production. The organic standard is satisfied as long as state, water, and food safety agencies deem the water safe. To our knowledge these agencies do not test for oil and gas chemicals.[5]
  5. Based on available data spills occur regularly. Recent research has identified that the mixture of chemicals from fracking fluid and produced wastewater interact in a way that can lead to soil accumulation of these chemicals. Potentially, then, the chemicals may be absorbed by plants.[6] Fifteen chemicals often used in fracking have been identified as toxic, persistent and fast-traveling.[7] Some farms – such as those in Southern California – are being irrigated with produced water from oil and gas operations. Additionally, every single farm in the San Jaoquin Valley is within eight miles of oil and gas operations.[8]
  6. There is significant Competition for water between natural gas production and agriculture. This includes growing commodity crops for energy, such as ethanol. Natural gas operations result in removing water quantity available for agriculture, and changing the water quality, which affects the agricultural product. In drought stricken areas, water scarcity is already an issue. In addition, extreme heat as a result of climate change is putting more stress on farmers operating in already depleted watersheds. Layered on all of this is the growing realization that precipitation regimes are gradually – and in many places dramatically – transitioning from many smaller and more predictable events to fewer, more intense, and less predictable rain and snow events which is are harder for the landscape to capture, process, and store for agricultural and/or other uses.
  7. Operating costs: Farmers are already operating under razor- thin margins, with the cost of inputs continually increasing and the resilience of the soils and watersheds they rely upon coming into question with unconventional oil and gas’ expansion across the Midwest and Great Plains.

Public Lands

Over 45% of lands in the Western United States are owned by the federal government. Opening up public lands—by the Bureau of Land Management, United State Forest Service in particular—is controversial on multiple levels. As it relates to food security and independence, the issue often missed is that many headwaters to prime farmland reside on federal lands, along with the majority of cattle grazing.

There isn’t enough private land in the West for oil and gas operators to reach their production goals. They have to drill on public lands in order to scale up production and develop an export market for domestic natural gas. This means that public lands, taxpayer funded public lands, could potentially be used to irreparably harm prime agricultural and grazing lands (foodsheds). More alarming, is that the Trump Administration is focused on unfettered development, extraction and distribution of natural gas resources, including opening up public lands to oil and gas leasing and gutting regulations that protect us from pollution and public health risks.

The map we have developed shows that many of the largest farms in the West are surrounded by public lands. Sixty-percent of Colorado farms are surrounded by public lands, which are within shale basins or active shale plays.  Four of the top natural gas producing counties in Colorado are also four of the top agricultural producing counties: Weld, Mesa, Montezuma, and LaPlata counties. The third, fifth, sixth, eighth and tenth agricultural producing counties in the State are surrounded by public lands within shale basins, respectively,: Larimer, Delta, El Paso, Montrose and Douglas counties. The 6,325 farms in these counties represent 17% of all Colorado farms, and 29% (nearly half) of Colorado at-risk farms for being surrounded by public lands and within shale basins.

Colorado: Public lands surround majority of farms.

Colorado: Public lands surround majority of farms.

Colorado: zoom into 3 of top agricultural producing and natural gas producing counties in Colorado, illustrating how they are surrounded by public lands.

Colorado: Map zoomed into 3 of top agricultural producing and natural gas producing counties in Colorado, illustrating how they are surrounded by public lands.

food-table

These farms, headwaters, and public lands need to be protected if we are to maintain food independence and security. Producing potentially contaminated food is neither food independence, nor food security.

Policy Implications

Why should policy makers and health insurers care? Chronic and terminal illnesses are on the rise. Healthcare costs have nowhere to go but up as long as the environment we live in, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe continue to be polluted at such a large scale. Attempts to reduce healthcare costs by insuring all Americans will have no impact if they are all sick. The insurance model only works when there are more healthy people in the pool than unhealthy people.

Mapping Conventional & Organic U.S. Farms

Below is an interactive map showing agricultural production in the U.S. You can use the map to zoom in at the county level to understand better the type of agricultural production taking place, as well as the value of the agricultural products at the county level.

U.S. Conventional and Organic Farms and Their Productivity Near Shale Plays and Basins


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This map excludes Alaska for a variety of reasons[9]. We include over 180 unique data points for each county across five categories: 1) Crops and Plants, 2) Economics, 3) Farms, 4) Livestock and Animals, and 5) Operators. We then break these major categories into 20 subcategories.

Table 1. Subcategories Utilized in the “US Shale Plays and Basins Along with Agricultural Productivity By County” map above

Categories Subcategories
Crops and Plants Field Crops Harvested
Fruits, Tree Nuts, Berries, Nursery and Greenhouse
Hay and Forage Crops Harvested
Seed Crops Harvested
Vegetables and Melons Harvested
Economics Buildings, Machinery and Equipment on Operation
Farm Production Expenses
Farm-Related Income and Direct Sales
Farms by Value of Sales
Market Value of Agricultural Products Sold
Farms Agricultural Chemicals Used
Farms
Farms by Size
Farms by Type of Organization
Land in Farms and Land Use
Livestock and Animals Livestock, Poultry, and Other Animals
Operators Characteristics of Farm Operators
Hired Farm Labor
Primary Occupation of Operator
Tenure of Farm Operators and Farm Operations

Analysis Results

In total, there are 589,922 and 1,369,961 farms in US Shale Plays and Basins, respectively, averaging between 589 and 646 acres in size and spread across 2,146 counties (Figure 1). These farm counties produce roughly $87.31- 218.32 billion in agricultural products each year with the highest value per-acre being the Monterey and Monterey-Temblor Formations of Southern California, the Niobrara Formation in North Central Colorado, Eastern Barnett in North Central Texas, the Antrim in Michigan, and the Northern Appalachian Shale Basins of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio (Figures 2a/2b). Roughly 52% of all agricultural revenue generated in US Shale Play counties comes from livestock, poultry, and derivative products vs. a national average of 44% (Figure 3).

Put another way, the value of US Shale Basin agricultural infrastructure would rank as the 9th largest economy worldwide, between Italy and Brazil.

Family-owned farms are at the greatest risk. While corporations tend to own larger acreage farms, only 8.2% of US farms are owned by corporations. This figure is nearly halved in US Shale Plays, with 4.5% of farms owned by corporations, or 95% owned by families or individuals.


Figures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 above show the number of farms near drilling, as well as variations in the value of agricultural products produced in those regions.

Risk vs. Benefits in CO

Oil and gas activity is regulated on a somewhat patchwork basis, but generally it is overseen at the state level subject to federal laws. New York and Maryland are the only two states that ban fracking, while communities around the country have invoked zoning laws to ban fracking or impose moratoriums on a smaller scale. However, in Colorado, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over oil and gas regulation in the State. There, fracking bans imposed by local communities, with a large number of farms, have been found to be unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Weld County is Colorado’s leading producer of cattle, grain, and sugar beets. Weld is the richest agricultural county in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, the fourth richest overall nationally, and the largest natural gas producer in CO. Compare this to the North Fork Valley on the Western Slope of CO, which is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the state, one of two viticultural (wine making) areas in the state, and has a reputation for being a farm-to-table hub. Delta County, in which the North Fork Valley is located, is known for its sustainable agriculture initiatives. Uniquely, Delta County is one of the few agricultural areas in the country so far untouched by the fracking boom – but that could all change. The Bureau of Land Management is considering opening 95% of BLM lands and minerals within and surrounding Delta County to oil and gas leasing.

Protecting Food Supplies

Oil and gas extraction is taking place on both private and public lands across the country. Prime and unique agricultural lands need to be protected from these industrial activities if we are to maintain food independence and ensure a healthy food supply. As demonstrated by the map above, agricultural communities in active shale plays may already in trouble. To prevent further damages on day-to-day food staples, it is imperative to increase awareness about this consequential issue.

How can people trust that the food they eat is safe to consume? Families trust farmers, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that the food supply chain is regulated and maintained. If most of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water/soil is not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, that supply chain is at risk. The secure production of our food – via clean air, water, and soil – is tantamount to lasting food independence.

Farming Testimonials

I am the leader of Slow Food Western Slope, which functions as a chapter of Slow Food USA. We envision a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet: good, clean and fair food for all. Our chapter promotes and supports over 70 farmers, orchardists, ranchers, agricultural businesses and winemakers of the North Fork Valley – all of which depend on good and clean water, air and soil. With its industrial footprint and potential damage to landscape, air, water, soil and human health, extraction industries have no place in the future of the North Fork Valley. We can build a new economy around clean food, outdoor recreation, healthy lifestyle and small nonthreatening businesses.

Jim BrettSlow Food Western Slope

Agricultural land is much more valuable in the long-run than the short-term gains promised from oil and gas extraction… As farmers we are attuned to crop, soil, and water conditions especially as a result of weather. If it’s too hot, too dry, too wet, too cold then there is no food. Natural gas extraction is an undeniable factor in changing climate and is incompatible with the practice of sustainable agriculture.

Mark WaltermireOwner of Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss, CO

References and More Information

FracTracker Alliance raised awareness of this issue in 2015 when it mapped the proximity of organic farms to oil and gas wells. In that mapping analysis, it was discovered that 11% of organic farms are within ½ mile of oil and gas development. Did you know that less than 1% of agricultural lands in the United States are used to grow crops without chemicals, and that 42% of those organic farms produce food for human consumption?

Organic Farms Near Drilling Activity in the U.S.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This research prompted the question of what about the other 99% of agricultural lands used to grow crops and raise livestock utilizing chemicals and other conventional methods in the United States. The majority of dairy, grains, beef, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and animal feed for livestock are produced on conventional farms. Where are they located, and do we know how they are being impacted by oil and gas development?

The majority of the US population lives in urban centers and is disconnected from the American farm, including how and where food is produced. People trust their farmer, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that they trust their supply chain, and to the extent that the farmers trust their water supply and soils. If the majority of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water and soil are not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, this research questions how people can trust that their food is safe to consume. If we are to maintain our food independence and health, not only do consumers need to understand that the food supply is at risk in order to exercise their rights to protect it at the local, state, and federal levels, but policymakers need to be informed with this data to make better decisions around oil and gas development regulations and development proposals that impact our foodsheds.

References/Footnotes:

  1. 2015 Colorado Oil and Gas Toxic Release Tracker, Center for Western Priorities
  2. COMPENDIUM OF SCIENTIFIC, MEDICAL, AND MEDIA FINDINGS DEMONSTRATING RISKS AND HARMS OF FRACKING (UNCONVENTIONAL GAS AND OIL EXTRACTION), Fourth Edition, Physicians for Social Responsibility, November 17, 2016; Colborn T, Kwiatkowski C, Schultz K, Bachran M., Natural gas operations from a public health perspective, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 2011 17(5):1039-1056; Fracking Fumes: Air Pollution from Hydraulic Fracturing Threatens Public Health and Communities, NRDC Issue Brief, December 2014
  3. 49 CFR §192
  4. Brady, William J., Hydraulic Fracturing Regulation in the United States: The Laissez-Faire Approach of the Federal Government and Varying State Regulations, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 14 2012
  5. National Organic Program Standards, 7 CFR Part 205. Organic Foods Production Act, 7 U.S.C. Ch. 94
  6. Molly C. McLaughlin, Thomas Borch,, and Jens Blotevogel, Spills of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals on Agricultural Topsoil: Biodegradation, Sorption, and Co-contaminant Interactions, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2016, 50, 6071−6078
  7. AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network, November 2016.
  8. Matthew Heberger and Kristina Donnelly, OIL, FOOD, AND WATER: Challenges and Opportunities for California Agriculture, Pacific Institute, December 2015.
  9. Issues with Alaskan agricultural data include incomplete reporting and large degrees of uncertainty in the data relative to the Lower 48.

By Natasha Léger, Interim Executive Director, Citizens for a Healthy Community and Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Director, FracTracker Alliance

Forest fragmentation in PA

Forest Fragmentation and O&G Development in PA’s Susquehanna Basin

In this forest fragmentation analysis, FracTracker looked at existing vegetation height in the northern portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin. The vegetation height data is available from LANDFIRE, a resource used by multiple federal agencies to assess wildfire potential by categorizing the vegetation growth in 30 by 30 meter pixels into different categories. In the portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Basin where we looked, there were 29 total categories based on vegetation height. For ease of analysis, we have consolidated those into eight categories, including roads, developed land, forest, herbs, shrubs, crops, mines and quarries, and open water.

Methods

We compared the ratio of the total number of each pixel type to the type that was found at vertical and horizontal wells in the region. In this experiment, we hypothesized that we would see evidence of deforestation in the areas where oil and gas development is present. Per our correspondence with LANDFIRE staff, the vegetation height data represents a timeframe of about 2014, so in this analysis, we focused on active wells that were drilled prior to that date. We found that the pixels on which the horizontal wells were located had a significantly different profile type than the overall pixel distribution, whereas conventional wells had a more modest departure from the general characteristics of the region.

Figure 1 - Vegetation profile of the northern portion of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River Basin. The area is highly impacted by O&G development, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.

Figure 1 – Vegetation profile of the northern portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin. The area is highly impacted by O&G development, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.

In Figure 1, we see that the land cover profile where vertical wells (n=6,198) are present is largely similar to the overall distribution of pixels for the entire study area (n=40,897,818). While these wells are more than six times more likely to be on areas classified as mines, quarries, or barren, it is surprising that the impact is not even more pronounced. In terms of forested land, there is essentially no change from the background, with both at about 73%. However, the profile for horizontal wells (n=3,787) is only 51% forested, as well as being four times more likely than the background to be categorized as herbs, which are defined in this dataset as having a vegetation height of around one meter.

Why Aren’t the Impacts Even More Pronounced?

While the impacts are significant, particularly for horizontal wells, it is a bit surprising that evidence of deforestation isn’t even more striking. We know, for example, that unconventional wells are usually drilled in multi-well pads that frequently exceed five acres of cleared land, so why aren’t these always classified as mines, quarries, and barren land, for example? There are several factors that can help to explain this discrepancy.

First, it must be noted that at 900 square meters, each pixel represents almost a quarter of acre, so the extent of these pixels will not always match with the area of disturbance. And in many cases, the infrastructure for older vertical wells is completely covered by the forest canopy, so that neither well pad nor access road is visible from satellite imagery.


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

The map above shows horizontal and vertical wells in a portion of Centre County, Pennsylvania, an area within our study region. Note that many of the vertical wells, represented by purple dots, appear to be in areas that are heavily forested, whereas all of the horizontal wells (yellow dots) are on a defined well pad in the lower right part of the frame. Panning around to other portions of Centre County, we find that vertical wells are often in a visible clearing, but are frequently near the edge, so that the chances of the 30 by 30 meter pixel that they fall into is much more likely to be whatever it would have been if the well pad were not there.

We must also consider that this dataset has some limitations. First of all, it was built to be a tool for wildfire management, not as a means to measure deforestation. Secondly, there are often impacts that are captured by the tool that were not exactly on the well site. For this reason, it would make sense to evaluate the area around the well pad in future versions of the analysis.

Figure 2 - A close up of a group of wells in the study area. Note that the disturbed land (light grey) does not always correspond exactly with the well locations.

Figure 2 – A close up of a group of wells in the study area. Note that the disturbed land (light grey) does not always correspond exactly with the well locations.

In Figure 2, we see a number of light grey areas –representing quarries, strip mines, and gravel pits –with an O&G well just off to the side. Such wells did not get classified as being on deforested land in this analysis.

And finally, after clarifying the LANDFIRE metadata with US Forest Service personnel involved in the project, we learned that while the map does represent vegetation cover circa 2014, it is actually build on satellite data collected in 2001, which has subsequently been updated with a detailed algorithm. However, the project is just beginning a reboot of the project, using imagery from 2015 and 2016. This should lead to much more accurate analyses in the future.

Why Forest Fragmentation Matters

The clearing of forests for well pads, pipelines, access roads, and other O&G infrastructure that has happened to date in the Susquehanna Basin is only a small fraction of the planned development. The industry operates at full capacity, there could be tens of thousands of new unconventional wells drilled on thousands of well pads in the region through 2030, according to estimates by the Nature Conservancy. They have also calculated an average of 1.65 miles of gathering lines from the well pad to existing midstream infrastructure. With a typical right-of-way being 100 feet wide, these gathering lines would require clearing 20 acres. It isn’t unusual for the total disturbance for a single well pad and the associated access road to exceed ten acres, making the total disturbance about 30 acres per well pad. Based on the vegetation distribution of the region, we can expect that 22 of these acres, on average, are currently forested land. Taking all of these factors into consideration, a total disturbance of 100,000 to 200,000 acres in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin due to oil and gas extraction, processing, and transmission may well be a conservative estimate, depending on energy choices we make in the coming years.

This forest fragmentation has a number of deleterious effects on the environment. First, many invasive plant species, such as bush honeysuckle and Japanese knotweed, tend to thrive in recently disturbed open areas, where competing native plants have been removed. The practice also threatens numerous animal species that thrive far from the forest’s edge, including a variety of native song birds. The disturbed lands create significant runoff into nearby rivers and streams, which can have an impact on aquatic life. And the cumulative release of carbon into the atmosphere is staggering – consider that the average acre of forest in the United States contains 158,000 pounds of organic carbon per acre. As the area is 73% forested, the total cumulative impact could result in taking 5.8 to 11.6 million tons of organic carbon out of forested storage. Much of this carbon will find its way into the atmosphere, along with the hydrocarbons that are purposefully being extracted from drilling operations.