Gathering Lines in Bradford County, Pennsylvania
A narrative account of creating fracking pipeline data for northeastern Pennsylvania
Gathering lines are not consistently documented by public agencies. As part of FracTracker’s efforts to supply the public with reliable data on oil and gas gathering pipelines, spring Data & GIS intern Jack traced gathering lines in Bradford County, PA.
For every natural gas well, there is a network of pipelines and compressors that transport the material to refinement and distribution centers. Overall, there are two types of pipelines: gathering lines and transmission lines. Gathering lines transport materials from the wells to the larger transmission lines that pump materials across state lines. While transmission lines—like the Keystone XL pipeline—make national news, people often overlook the details of the underlying gathering lines.
In order to better understand their environmental and social impacts, FracTracker Alliance has a large ongoing project to map these gathering lines. As a part of this project, I analyzed fracking development in northeastern Pennsylvania. This particular area is a stronghold of the fracking industry and features over 8,000 unconventional natural gas wells.
Bradford County, Pennsylvania
Bradford County is one of the region’s hotspots for fracking activity. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP), the first fracking permit dates all the way back to 1995. However. large expansion of this industry did not begin until 2010. From the beginning of 2010 to the end of 2011, the PA DEP issued over 1,500 permits for unconventional natural gas wells. Permitting rates remained high through 2015 before dropping off. In total, the PA DEP has issued over 4,000 fracking permits, and there are currently over 500 active wells in Bradford county.
From our tracing efforts, we recorded roughly 7,000 acres (~11 square miles) of land cleared for gathering lines in Bradford County alone. To put this number into perspective, that is about half the entire acreage of Manhattan. This acreage total is just for the network of pipelines and does not include the area cleared for the wells as well. These gathering lines cut through a variety of landscapes. Some well pads and gathering lines are completely encased in forest, while others zig-zag through residential and agricultural areas.
The footprint of this industry is everywhere in Bradford county. While combing through thousands of acres of satellite imagery, I often wondered why this was needed. There had to be somebody holding this information already. Once I had nearly finished with Bradford County, I learned that FracTracker Alliance had digitized records presented to the public by the county. These were records of both where gathering lines were, and proposals of new pipelines to install.
Part of me was relieved. In my mind, the accounting of ubiquitous infrastructure that can affect communities should be the responsibility of the state or federal government—not a small organization. However, I quickly realized there was an issue.
Figure 1. Comparison of gathering line data in Bradford County. The county record of proposed and existing gathering lines is purple and the area cleared for gathering lines traced from satellite imagery is outlined in black with orange fill.
The map above shows the proposed gathering lines in purple and the gathering lines traced using satellite imagery in black and orange. Overall, the general shape of the county’s record and traced are nearly the same. Viewing at this scale, there appears to only be a small difference in placement between the information presented to the public and what was actually put into the ground.
Figure 2. A comparison of gathering line data in Bradford County at the local level. The county record is purple, while the area cleared for gathering lines traced from satellite imagery is orange with a black outline.
However, when we zoom in, the differences in the data quality become clear. The county record contains only lines and do not plot out the actual area used. As a result, this data functionally has very few uses. For example, the county cannot calculate the amount of forest cleared due to construction or how much pipeline is in areas with high erosion.
The information available to the public is also only the idealized shape and does not represent the actual construction. From tracing the satellite images, you can tell construction workers must make many decisions during the installation process that deviate from a perfect shape. However, a proper record of these decisions—the little kinks and turns of this network—are never asked for. You might also notice that there are whole sections of traced gathering lines completely absent from the county record.
At times, the county record differs from the actual placement by nearly one-thousand feet. This is not a rounding error. That difference is like mistaking your neighbor’s house down the street for your own. It is not an acceptable standard of information. We need greater detail.
The Take Away
There are large discrepancies surrounding the data about gathering lines. Often information about fracking and the energy industry is not readily available to the public for reasons of national security. However, by not having accurate information available at the local level, communities are ill prepared to manage and respond when problems arise. While the natural gas industry is not new, many of the functional elements of fracking are. This includes topic like how to manage fracking waste, what is the proper distance to maintain from extraction activities, and how to plug or deprecate old wells. As this industry continues, local communities have the burden of figuring out these answers while equipped with poor information.
FracTracker Alliance’s ongoing work to map out these gathering lines is a great first step for providing these communities with the information they need. However, due to the limitations of different tracing methods and the sheer size of the fracking industry, it is difficult to produce anything more than a conservative estimate of all this infrastructure. In order for communities to fully assess the environmental effects, there needs to be a fundamental change in the type, quality, and availability of information governments demands from this industry.
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