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New Method for Locating Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells is Tested in New York State

Guest blog by Natalia N. Romanzo, graduate student, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY

 

Innovations in geospatial remote sensing technology developed by a research team at Binghamton University’s Geophysics and Remote Sensing Laboratory allow for improved detection of unplugged oil and gas wells. Implementing this technology would allow responsible agencies to more efficiently locate, and then plug, the 30,000+ undocumented oil and gas wells in New York State. Plugging these wells would help residents to assess risks of any wells on or near their property, improve air quality, and keep New York State on track to reaching its greenhouse gas emissions targets.

 

Dangers of Unplugged Orphan Oil and Gas Wells

In 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that nationwide, there were 3.11 million abandoned oil and gas wells. Sixty-nine percent — or 2.15 million — of these wells are not even plugged. Many were drilled prior to the existence of state regulatory programs, subsequently abandoned by their original owners or operators over a century ago, and then left unplugged or poorly plugged. State and federal regulators are in the process of plugging these wells, but the process is slow; many are still unplugged today.

Unplugged or incorrectly plugged wells can leak methane into drinking water and the atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, methane in the atmosphere is more than 80 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, and, as such, becomes a driving mechanism of global warming. Methane has come under scrutiny by climate scientists and other concerned with the relationship between unconventional gas drilling (“fracking”) and the climate crisis.

Anthropogenic methane is the cause of a quarter of today’s global warming, and the oil and gas industry is a leading source of these emissions. Every year, oil and gas companies release an estimated 75 million metric tons of methane globally, an amount of gas sufficient to provide electricity for all of Africa twice over. Unplugged wells are often high emitters contributing to this energy waste. A study of almost 140 wells in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Ohio found that more than 40% of unplugged wells leak methane, compared to less than 1% of plugged wells.

Unplugged, incorrectly plugged, as well as active wells can all leak methane. Methane-leaking wells are especially problematic when their locations are undocumented or unknown. Until they are located, undocumented wells that remain unplugged can continue to emit methane into the atmosphere and into drinking water. For example, in Pennsylvania, methane was detected in water samples at average concentrations six times higher in homes less than one kilometer from oil and gas wells. The potential negative impact of unplugged orphan oil and gas wells makes this a pressing environmental concern.

Of the more than 3 million problematic oil and gas wells nationwide, over 35,000 unplugged oil and gas wells may exist in New York State alone. Unplugged or improperly plugged wells that leak methane can pose direct threats to New York State residents, especially for people living nearby to these wells. Many New York State residents are unaware that they have an unplugged well on their property, and could be at risk of potential exposure to uncontrolled releases of gas or fluids from unplugged orphan wells. In one case in Rushville, New York, two dozen unplugged wells emitted methane at explosive levels. An unplugged well in Rome, New York discharged brine to the land surface for decade at a rate of 5 gallons per minute, killing an acre of wetland vegetation. If these wells had been located and assessed, property owners would be better informed and safer.

In addition to directly harming New York State residents and contributing to climate change, unplugged orphan wells also impact New York State’s ability to reach its 2030 emissions targets. New York State recently set ambitious statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets through the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act to lower emissions by 85% by 2050. However, New York State has only reduced emissions 8% from 1990-2015 levels. If New York State is to reach its emissions targets, it must continue and improve its efforts to locate, assess, and ultimately plug all its orphan oil and gas wells.

Inaccurate Records and Inefficient Detection Methods

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is responsible for task of mitigating and preventing damage caused by oil and gas wells. Unfortunately, flaws in record keeping have made it difficult to locate undocumented wells. The DEC began record keeping of oil and gas wells in 1983 and took on regulatory authority over wells drilled in the state after 1983. There are strict rules and regulations for plugging wells drilled after 1983, and wells drilled prior to 1983 must comply with applicable regulations. Nevertheless, many older wells are still unaccounted for. In their external review in 1994, staff estimated that 61,000 wells had been developed prior to 1983. However, the agency only has records on about 30,000 of them. Because accurate records do not exist for old wells, it is difficult to monitor, and even locate, them.

Click here for a full-screen view of FracTracker Alliance’s map of all known wells in New York State (data current as of October 2018, to be updated soon).

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Despite inaccurate records, the DEC does try to locate, assess, and plug old wells using maps created by drilling companies in the late 1800s. A section of one such map can be seen in Figure 1. This map shows proposed oil and gas drilling sites in Cattaraugus County, New York in the late 1800s. It has been georeferenced using ArcGIS  mapping software to assign present day coordinates to hand drawn features.

Figure 1. Georeferenced Lease Map, Cattaraugus County, New York

Unfortunately, these maps are not entirely reliable. Some wells may be incorrectly documented on a map as drilled when, in fact, they were merely proposed but never drilled; some wells may have been drilled but never marked on a map. Other wells may have been both marked on a map and drilled, but due to inaccurate survey technologies of the past, the location on the ground is incorrect. As a result, DEC staff are left searching on foot for wells that may or may not be there. Working with limited equipment, in dense brush, and over uneven terrain make the task of finding the abandoned wells even more problematic.

These traditional methods of detection, which include referencing lease maps and searching for wells in the field, are not only time consuming, but are also costly. Using traditional methods of well detection, between 1988 and 2009, the United States Bureau of Land Management spent $3.8 million and only successfully reclaimed 295 well sites. It is clear that on both the federal and state levels, traditional well detecting methods are expensive, cumbersome, and inefficient.

Drones Pave the Way for Oil and Gas Well Detection

Recent improvements in geospatial remote sensing technology have opened opportunities for more efficient well detection. Previously, the battery life of drones and the weight of magnetometers prevented the two technologies from being used together to locate oil and gas wells. Furthermore, because drones must be flown high enough to clear vegetative canopies, methane sensors attached to drones are too far away from the source to accurately detect the location of the well. Due to these technological barriers, the DEC and other environmental departments and agencies have had to rely on inefficient, traditional methods of well detection described above.

At Binghamton University’s Geophysics and Remote Sensing Laboratory, a research team headed by Professors Timothy de Smet and Alex Nikulin, along with graduate student Natalia Romanzo, and undergraduate students Samantha Wong, Judy Li, and Ethan Penner, is taking on the task of developing a more efficient method to locate oil and gas wells. The Binghamton University research team deployed drones equipped with magnetometers to demonstrate that a high-resolution, low-altitude magnetic survey can successfully locate unmarked well sites.

Oil and gas wells have a characteristic magnetic signal that is generated by vertical metal piping fixed in the ground, making them identifiable in a magnetic survey.

Figure 2a. Oil and Gas Well Detected at 40m AGL showing LiDAR Total Horizontal Derivative of the site.

The magnetic signal generated by a well is shown in red in Figure 2b. At 40 meters above ground level (AGL), tree canopies are cleared, while the magnetic anomaly of the well is distinguishable. This drone-based magnetometer method has shown promising results.

Figure 2b. Magnetic Anomaly of an Oil and Gas Well Detected at 40m AGL, showing total magnetic intensity of the site.

To further test remote sensing techniques, the Binghamton University research team worked with Charles Dietrich and Nathan Graber from the NYS DEC to compare the efficiency of different survey methods. Currently, researchers are conducting fieldwork to compare the efficiency of traditional methods of well detection, well detection via a magnetic ground survey, and well detection via a drone-based magnetic survey. This research is showing that using drones equipped with magnetometers is a more efficient way to survey a wide area where wells may be present.

Remote sensing techniques can allow the DEC to more efficiently locate, and then plug, the 30,000+ undocumented oil and gas wells in New York State. Using this new method of well detection, the DEC will be able to inform residents who have unplugged wells on their property, assess the risks of the wells, and plug harmful wells. Residents with wells on or near their property will benefit directly. In addition, and more broadly, New Yorkers will enjoy improved air quality while New York State will be more on track to reaching its emissions targets.

FracTracker thanks Natalia Romanzo for her guest blog contribution. We feel that this technology holds promise for communities impacted by drilling across the nation.

For answers to specific questions about the project, you can email Natalia directly at nromanz1@binghamton.edu.

 

The Mountaineer State: Where Politics, a Fossil Fuel Legacy, and Fracking Converge

Introduction

The Mountaineer State is one of the most stunningly beautiful states in all the United States, despite its complicated and unique relationship with fossil fuels dating back to the West Virginia Coal Wars of 1912 to 1921. This relationship has compromised the state’s distinctive ecosystems and its social cohesion. Instead of remediating or preventing the impacts of fossil fuels, the state’s elected officials have exploited them for political and monetary gain.  Understanding this history and the potential next steps in the march of the fossil fuel industry will help those who continue to fight for an alternative future for West Virginia.  At the same time, it is critical that we identify legislation that would perpetuate fossil fuel dependence, the individuals who are behind said legislation, and the current extent of the fossil fuel industry, especially considering the developing Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub (ASTH) that is supported by the elected officials in in D.C. and Charleston.

Ohio Power’s Mitchell (Foreground) and Kammer (Background) Coal Power Plants, Marshall County, Combined Capacity 2,345 MegaWatts. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk

Impeding Fossil Fuel Developments Threaten West Virginia Once Again

West Virginia has a rich, complicated, and occasionally violent history with coal mining and now is at the vanguard of the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) revolution. It also happens to sit at the heart of what Appalachian governors, senators, and even land-grant universities are touting is the panacea for all that ails the region: the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub (ASTH), a key part of the Ohio River Valley petrochemical build out. This puts West Virginia in a peculiar position, with one foot longingly in the past with coal mining and one moving forward with investments in fracking and now the ASTH.

On the one hand, there is local optimism about King Coal’s return, stoked by Donald Trump and industry friends like Robert Murray. A closer look reveals they are sending decidedly different messages to Appalachian coal miners and their families, with the former stating repeatedly that he would bring coal back, and the latter agreeing but offering the caveat that “Trump can’t bring jobs back . . . [because] many of those jobs were lost to technology rather than regulation.”

Murray Energy’s Consolidation Coal Mine, Marshall County

This is not to suggest that there are hard feelings between Trump and Murray; a Document Investigations publication reveals an invitation from Murray Energy to host a Trump fundraiser on July 24, 2019 in Wheeling, West Virginia at WesBanco Arena with a cover charge of $150.00 made payable to Trump Victory, Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee’s joint presidential campaign fundraising. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (who is uncoincidentally a leading booster of the ASTH) indicated he would be in attendance. Additionally, Murray in his rescheduling letter to the West Virginia governor indicated, “Present with us will be Governors Mike DeWine of Ohio, Jim Justice of West Virginia, and Matt Bevins of Kentucky; Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Rob Portman of these states; and Congressman Bill Johnson and Dave McKinley and the House Speaker and Senate President form the two states.”

Declining Jobs, Increasing Automation

After at least seventeen years of 5% declines in net coal production, and 3% increases in hiring, the coal mining industry in West Virginia had had enough. Starting in 2012, they turned the tide on labor by leaning into the automation revolution and in the process, mine labor has declined by 8% per year since then. Automation and an increasing reliance on more blunt methods of mining, including strip-mining and/or Mountaintop Removal, have allowed the mining industry to increase productivity per labor hour by 5.8% to 6.3% per year since 2012, according to data compiled by US Department of Labor’s Office of Mine Safety and Health Administration. All of these savings translate into Mergers And Acquisitions as well as hefty profits for the likes of Murray, private equity and large institutional investors that have no interest in the welfare of Appalachia, its people, and the constant undertone of labor vs. capital throughout the region.

Even with all the corporate, state, and federal subsidies we have still had a rash of bankruptcies in the last three months. Most recently, Revelation Energy and its affiliate Blackjewel, experts in “Vulture Capitalism,” filed for Chapter 11 on July 1st of this year causing countless bounced paychecks among their 1,700 employees across Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

So while King Coal continues to paint federal regulations as excessively burdensome and the primary impediment to their expansion, it is clear that the enemy of coal miners is not regulations, but rather automation and the urgent attempt to squeeze every last drop of profitability out of a dying industry.  even as coal production nationally declines by nearly double digits annually, a signal that the end is near, mining companies are able to continue generating reliable profits thanks to automation and artificial intelligence. This might be why private equity climate change denying titans like Stephen Schwarzman are investing so heavily in the likes of MIT’s School of Artificial Intelligence. The growing discrepancy between coal production and coal jobs was pointed out in a recent Columbia University report on the failure of states, counties, and communities to prepare themselves for the day when their status as “company towns”[1] will switch from a point of pride to a curse. The Columbia researchers pointed out that:

“Employment in the coal mining industry declined by over 50 percent in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky between 2011 and 2016. State-level impacts mask even more severe effects at local levels. In Mingo County, West Virginia, coal mining employed over 1,400 people at the end of 2011. By the end of 2016, that number had fallen below 500. Countywide, employment fell from 8,513 to 4,878 over this period  . . . suggesting there could be important labor market spillovers from mining to the broader economy.”

A Bloody History Haunts West Virginia’s Coal Fields

The last time West Virginia experienced “important labor market spillovers” was during the West Virginia Coal Wars of 1912 to 1921. West Virginia University Press, in summarizing the book “Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880-1922” by David Alan Corbin, describes this violent moment in the state’s history:

“Between 1880 and 1922, the coal fields of southern West Virginia witnessed two bloody and protracted strikes, the formation of two competing unions, and the largest armed conflict in American labor history – a week-long battle between 20,000 coal miners and 5,000 state police, deputy sheriffs, and mine guards. These events resulted in an untold number of deaths, indictments of over 550 coal miners for insurrection and treason, and four declarations of martial law. Corbin argues that these violent events were collective and militant acts of aggression interconnected and conditioned by decades of oppression. His study goes a long way toward breaking down the old stereotypes of Appalachian and coal-mining culture”

The Coal Wars culminated in the August 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in United States history which resulted in a deadly standoff between 10,000 armed coal miners and 3,000 strikebreakers called the Logan Defenders. The battle resulted in a casualty range of 20 to 100 as well as the treason conviction of some 22+ United Mine Workers of America members. This crushed the union, and the larger effect was a chill throughout Appalachia for more than a decade.

A similar chill is beginning to percolate as part of the fear around resistance or questioning of the ASTH and its myriad tentacles. This chill is coupled with a growing ambivalence and resignation to the most recent colonization of the Ohio River Valley by yet another iteration of the fossil fuel industrial complex.

How Can Appalachia Escape the Tight Grip of the Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex?

The state’s historical labor strife is worth mentioning to emphasize that Appalachia has been thrown under the “natural resource curse” bus before, and it has not responded kindly (see documentary “Harlan County USA” directed by Barbara Kopple). This might be why industry stakeholders fund the likes of the Koch Brothers-backed American Legislative Executive Council in efforts to pass dubiously titled “critical infrastructure” bills that they’ve written in states including the ASTH states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia. [2]  It also might be why West Virginia Senator Manchin is trying to separate himself from his prior optimism about the supposed $84 billion China would invest in ASTH related projects across the state and his willingness to compromise the safety of his own constituents for the sake of profiteering state-backed firms in China, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand.

It won’t be long before we start to hear echoes of Florence Reece’s 1931 labor resistance anthem “Which Side Are You On?” echoing out from every peak and holler in West Virginia in reference to Manchin and Justice.  Their milquetoast response to questioning around the viability of the ASTH prompted the West Virginia Gazette editorial page to write:

“So far, the entire project, which was hailed as the salvation of West Virginia’s economy at the time, looks like nothing but smoke and confetti. There’s been no movement and the Justice administration rarely mentions it unless asked. The reply has typically been a guarded ‘it’s happening’ and not much else. It’s time for state government to level with the people of West Virginia on what exactly is happening here. Not only did the announcement raise false hopes, but the question of national security is valid and important. We urge the governor or someone in his administration to give an official update on the project.”

In the interim, West Virginia’s elected officials continue to prop up coal as the Mountaineer State’s salvation. But the gig will be up eventually. It appears that there are two ways to exit this zero-sum relationship with the fossil fuel industry according to the neoliberal economic model we espouse here in the United States: 1) A Glide Path strategy that will allow West Virginia to methodically transition to a more diversified economy, or 2) an extremely painful Jump Condition type transition over a much shorter period of time that will likely last no more than a couple of years and leave West Virginians very angry and looking for someone to blame.

Those of us that accept climate change as fact, advocate for the Green New Deals of the world, and work towards a renewable energy future can easily dismiss either pathway’s impacts on Appalachia with the mantra, “Hey, they [Appalachia] made their bed now they have to lie in it!” However, this would be counter to the social contract narrative we have created for this country and would be incredibly hypocritical given that the primary steroid that fueled American Exceptionalism/Capitalism was cheap and abundant domestic fossil fuels. As Kim Kelly of Teen Vogue so perfectly put it in laying out her very personal connections to the struggle between the need to pay bills and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel reliant jobs: “Make no mistake: The coal miner and pipeline worker know about the environmental costs of their labor, but when faced with the choice of feeding their kids or putting down their tools in the name of saving the planet, the pressures of capitalism tend to win; their choice is made for them.”

Cravat Coal Mine Slurry Pond, Marshall County, West Virginia

Americans rationalize our dependence on fossil fuels on one hand, while simultaneously hectoring those who work tirelessly to get the stuff out of the ground and invest in the companies that employ them by way of 401Ks or other investment vehicles. This hypocrisy is not lost on Appalachia nor should it be. Climate advocates should work with states like West Virginia to transition to a more just future that does not include a doubling down on fossil fuels by way of the ASTH and fracking. If not, the social and political divisions in this country will pale in comparison to what will likely result from a piecemeal and confrontational transition away from the fossil fuel industrial complex that we’ve been told we can’t live without.

Furthermore, we can’t address these issues without acknowledging the selective interventionist policy our government has deployed in the name of “nation building” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Folks like John Perkins, Naomi Klein, and Joseph Stiglitz have demonstrated that our interventionist policy is just a poor cover for the true modus operandi which would be resource control from Saudi Arabia to the most recent example being the effort by the Trump administration to foment opposition to Venezuelan leader Nicholas Maduro. If the latter example isn’t primarily about oil than why do the bi-partisan sanctions include exceptions to allow Chevron, Halliburton, and Schlumberger to continue to operate in Venezuela?

A Path Forward

The Green New Deal is a first step in establishing a path forward for the decarbonization of the US economy and it correctly includes calls for a transition that “would ensure protections for coal miners and other impacted fossil fuel workers.” While mostly nebulous and aspirational at this point, the Green New Deal offers much needed hope and guidance towards a future where economic growth is decoupled from CO2 emissions. Yet, it will have to address the underlying issues associated with economic inequality and the fact that states like West Virginia will have to be involved in the decision-making process rather than having the Green New Deal foisted on them. Otherwise, the Mountaineer State’s politicians in D.C. and Charleston will continue to get away with toying with their constituents’ hopes and dreams with proclamations that the ASTH and rumored infrastructure proposals will provide salvation. In reality, the ASTH is just another corporatist stunt to optimize shareholder return on the backs of Appalachians.  This tension was summarized beautifully and succinctly by United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith who told Reuters, “We’ve heard words like ‘just transition’ before, but what does that really mean? Our members are worried about putting food on the table.”

As Joel Magnuson wrote in his revolutionary text “Mindful Economics”:

“ . . . the need to maximize profits for a relatively small section of the U.S. population has shaped the development of America’s most powerful institutions . . . the need for higher profits and endless growth has intensified environmental destruction, resource depletion, instability, social and political inequality, and even global warming. These problems have become systemic and solutions therefore require long-term systemic change . . . [and the development of] alternative institutions. As these alternatives evolve and grow, they will place the U.S. economy on a path to a new system. Systemic change will come about gradually by the will of people who purposefully steer the development of the economic institutions in their communities in a positive and healthy direction. To this end Mindful Economics lays a foundation for building new alternatives that are democratic, locally-based and ecologically sustainable. Such alternatives are not only viable, they can be found all across the United States. Through a network of alternative institutions, people can begin to build alternatives to capitalism and provide hope for future generations.”

Ecotrust’s Conservation Economy website offers a road map for how Appalachia can move towards an alternative future that “integrates Social, Natural, and Economic Capital” (see the pattern map below).  Appalachia has been stripped of much of its economic capital but it still has a bountiful supply of social and natural capital!

Conservation Economy's Pattern Map

Conservation Economy’s Pattern Map

The Map

We constructed a map that illustrates West Virginia’s past, present, and future dependence on fossil fuels. The map shows 16,864 oil, gas, and coal parcels as well as those that are rumored to be of interest to the fossil fuel industrial complex in the near future. The parcels average 164 acres in size and amount to 2,770,310 acres or 4,329 square miles. These parcels amount to 17.9% of West Virginia but are largely concentrated in the counties of Boone, Kanawha, Logan, Wyoming, McDowell, Mingo, and Fayette.

Also included in this map are:

  1.  annual production data for 880 mines between 2001 and 2017 and
  2.  annual oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquid (NGL) production for 3,689 unconventional wells between 2002 and 2018.

A sizeable portion of the parcel query we conducted, especially the rumored ones, occurred as a result of insight from Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) community organizer Alex Cole and his extensive network of contacts along the Ohio River Valley.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

[1] If you aren’t familiar with this term I would refer you to Columbia University’s data for Boone County, West Virginia: “The numbers suggest that about a third of Boone County’s revenues directly depended on coal in the form of property taxes on coal mines and severance taxes. In 2015, 21 percent of Boone County’s labor force and 17 percent of its total personal income were tied to coal. Coal property (including both the mineral deposit and industrial equipment) amounted to 57 percent of Boone County’s total property valuation. Property taxes on all property generated about half of Boone County’s general fund budget, which means that property taxes just on coal brought in around 30 percent of the county’s general fund. Property taxes on coal also funded about $14.2 million of the $60.3 million school budget (24 percent). In total, coal-related property taxes generated approximately $21 million for Boone County’s schools, the county government, and specific services.”

[2] ALEC finalized their “Model Policy” in December, 2017, and gave it the ultimate Orwellian title of “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” Many elected officials throughout the fossil fuel network’s Heartland have introduced this legislation nearly verbatim, including Ohio State Senator Frank Hoagland’s S.B. 33, which represents much of Ohio’s Ohio River Valley, where the ASTH would have its most pronounced impacts.

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison

Abandoned Wells in Pennsylvania: We’re Not Doing Enough

By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern 

Fracking in Pennsylvania: The History

When driving through Pennsylvania, you can see what an impact oil and gas has had on the state. Towns like Oil City and Petrolia speak to the oil and gas industry’s long standing history here. In more recent history, Pennsylvania has been a prime fracking location because of the presence of the Marcellus shale formation that covers over half of the state. With more unconventional oil and gas exploration came impacts to communities, who were denied their right to “clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment” as defined by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Hydraulically fractured wells are often no longer profitable after just one stimulation, after which they are abandoned. Improperly abandoned wells wreak havoc on our communities and our environment. The number of improperly abandoned wells has been increasing over time as companies go bankrupt transfer wells to other companies. These wells can easily go undetected because they are often buried underground, leaving no traces at the surface level.

These unplugged abandoned wells are underneath our homes, our schools, and in our own backyards, negatively impacting our health and the environment.

FracTracker’s West Coast Coordinator Kyle Ferrar shows how abandoned wells are hiding all around us in his investigation of downtown Los Angeles. He used an infrared camera to visualize the plumes of methane and other volatile organic compounds spewing out of abandoned wells in the middle of streets.

 

Dangers of unplugged abandoned wells

The plugging process consists of filling the well with cement, ensuring that nothing leaks from the well into the surrounding ecosystem. Without that measure in place, the chemical-water solution used to frack the underlying shale, as well as any oil or natural gas still left in the well, can very easily seep into nearby aquifers or into close by waterways. Wells that are not plugged or are not plugged properly leak into nearby aquifers, releasing methane and other volatile organic compounds are continually released from the well into the atmosphere as well. This leakage into the atmosphere and ground water can have disastrous effects on our ecosystem and health.

Abandoned wells are also a dangerous threat because many of their locations are unknown. These wells can ruin the structural integrity of buildings and homes that are unknowingly built on top of them. The methane leaking out of the well is colorless and odorless, meaning that it can easily build-up in homes or elsewhere and cause explosions.

 Bankruptcy and Bonds

When an oil and gas company drills a well, they are responsible for making sure that it is plugged properly at the end of the well’s life. This is the case even if the company goes bankrupt. To do this, Pennsylvania government requires that the company put up a bond that is set aside to plug the well properly. This ensures that if the company does go bankrupt, the necessary funds are already set aside to plug the well. Normally, this bond takes the shape of a blanket bond amount of $25,000 which is intended to cover the total expenses that would be incurred in plugging all of the wells a company has in the state. Depending on the number of wells a company possesses, this could mean very little actually being set aside for each individual well.

A shallow well can cost between $8,000 to $10,000 plus, and up to $50,000 or more depending on how difficult it is to plug. In the case of Pennsylvania’s top oil and gas holder Diversified Gas & Oil PLC and its recently acquired. Company Alliance Petroleum Corp, this bond sets aside just $2 per well. With most other companies holding no more than 5,700 wells, this sets aside $4.40 per well. Where the bond amounts fall short in accounting for the cost to plug the hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells across the state, the rest of the cost falls at the feet of taxpayers.

The New Contract

The state government has started to recognize the severity of the situation as they are confronted with a mountain of costs in plugging these wells. To start to mitigate this, the government has recently settled with Diversified Gas & Oil. The company has been ordered to properly plug 1,058 abandoned wells. To do this they have signed on to a $7 million bond with $20,000 to $30,000 bonds for each additional abandoned or non-producing well that is acquired.

Although it is a great start to ensure that these two major companies have the proper bonding amount moving forward, this does not apply to all companies, whose likelihood of going bankrupt puts a lot of financial pressure on Pennsylvanian citizens. Also, these 1,058 wells are only the tip of the iceberg, with the DEP estimating that there are between 100,000 and 560,000 total abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, many of which still have unknown locations.

In the 2017 Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Report, it is stated that: “Currently, more abandoned wells are being added to the state’s inventory than are being addressed through permanent plugging through state-issued contracts. Since 2015, DEP has been able to fund the plugging of oil and gas wells only in emergency situations and/or when residents must be temporarily evacuated from their homes due to imminent threats that legacy wells pose when well integrity is compromised.” They continue on by stating that, considering the historic operating costs and acknowledging the sheer number of wells, properly addressing es the abandoned wells will cost between $150 million and $3.7 billion. The $150 million is an estimation based on the scenario that no more historic legacy wells are discovered, and the $3.7 billion is based on if 200,000 more are found, a more likely scenario.

The funding to cover the costs of plugging these abandoned wells comes from surcharges of $150 and $200 established by the 1984 Oil and Gas Act for each oil well permit and gas well permit. The DEP has received fewer permits in recent years meaning that there are very little funds to resolve this issue. This means that eventually this public health and environmental burden will have to fall at the feet of the taxpayers.

This makes the state’s step in the right direction look more like a tip toe. With no real, substantial plans to locate and address the large amount of wells across the state, the government is putting their people at risk because these abandoned wells are not harmless.

Washington County Case study

 Washington County can be used as a window into the abandoned well crisis in Pennsylvania. This county sits in the middle of the Marcellus Shale formation, making it a key site for unconventional oil and gas development. According to the DEP, there are 215 abandoned, orphaned wells in Washington county, but realistically we know that there are likely many  more than that.

The Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA) has derived a dataset from historical sources to determine the possible locations of other abandoned wells. These historical documents include the WPA, Ksheet, and Hsheet collections. This data set highlights over 6,000 locations where an abandoned oil and gas well could be located.

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This is a testament to how many of these wells exist without our knowledge. If this difference in DEP records and possible wells is this great in Washington County, then we face the enormous potential problem of tens of thousands of additional abandoned wells that need to be resolved. The effects of these wells are real and they must be identified quickly.

These are some of the physical effects of abandoned wells:

 

Fig 1. A Collapsed Well Opening – A Physical Hazard (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

Fig. 2. Well Spouting Acid Water. Well later plugged by DEP (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

Fig. 3. Oil Seepage (photo credit:(photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

 

Fig. 4. Abandoned Well and Storage Tank (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

Pennsylvania is facing a mountain of an issue with decades of work ahead. The state must act quickly to ensure the health and protection of our people and our environment, which entails taking active steps to secure an adequate budget to resolve this issue. To start, the state should identify where all of the wells are, set up a financial plan that puts the cost of the plugging process for these wells back onto the oil and gas companies, and begin to take active measures to plug the wells quickly and efficiently.

The Underlying Politics and Unconventional Well Fundamentals of an Appalachian Storage Hub

FracTracker is closely mapping and following the petrochemical build-out in Appalachia, as the oil and gas industry invests in petrochemical manufacturing. Much of the national attention on the build-out revolves around the Appalachian Storage Hub (ASH), a venture spearheaded by Appalachian Development Group.

The ASH involves a network of infrastructure to store and transport natural gas liquids and finds support across the political spectrum. Elected officials are collaborating with the private sector and foreign investors to further development of the ASH, citing benefits such as national security, increased revenue, job creation, and energy independence.

Left out of the discussion are the increased environmental and public health burdens the ASH would place on the region, and the fact that natural gas liquids are the feedstock of products such as plastic and resins, not energy.

The “Shale Revolution”

the allegheny plateau

The Allegheny Plateau. Wikipedia

The “Shale Revolution” brought on by high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in this region encompasses thousands of wells drilled into the Marcellus and Utica-Point Pleasant shale plays across much of the Allegheny Plateau. This area spans from north of Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, just outside the Catskills Mountains to the East in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and down to the West Virginia counties of Logan, Boone, and Lincoln.  The westernmost extent of the fracking experiment in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays is in Noble and Guernsey Counties in Ohio.

Along the way, producing wells have exhibited steeper and steeper declines during the first five years of production, leading the industry to develop what they refer to as “super laterals.” These laterals (the horizontal portion of a well) exceed 3 miles in length and require in excess of 15 million gallons of freshwater and 15,000 tons of silica sand (aka, “proppant”)[1].

The resource-intense super laterals are one way the industry is dealing with growing pressure from investors, lenders, the media, state governments, and the public to reduce supply costs and turn a profit, while also maintaining production. (Note: unfortunately these sources of pressures are listed from most to least concerning to industry itself!)

Another way the fracking industry is hoping to make a profit is by investing in the region’s natural gas liquids (NGLs), such as ethane, propane, and butane, to support the petrochemical industry.

The Appalachian Storage Hub

Continued oil and gas development are part of a nascent effort to establish a mega-infrastructure petrochemical complex,  the Appalachian Storage Hub (ASH). For those that aren’t familiar with the ASH it could be framed as the fracking industry’s last best attempt to lock in their necessity across Appalachia and nationwide. The ASH was defined in the West Virginia Executive as a way to revitalize the Mountain State and would consist of the following:

“a proposed underground storage facility that would be used to store and transport natural gas liquids (NGLs) extracted from the Marcellus, Utica and Rogersville shales across Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Construction of this hub would not only lead to revenue and job creation in the natural gas industry but would also further enable manufacturing companies to come to the Mountain State, as the petrochemicals produced by shale are necessary materials in most manufacturing supply chains…[with] the raw materials available in the region’s Marcellus Shale alone…estimated to be worth more than $2 trillion, and an estimated 20 percent of this shale is composed largely of ethane, propane and butane NGLs that can be utilized by the petrochemical industry in the manufacturing of consumer goods.”

This is yet another example of fracking rhetoric that appeals to American’s sense of patriotism and need for cheaper consumer goods (in this case, plastics), given that they are seeing little to no growth in wages.

While a specific location for underground storage has not been announced, the infrastructure associated with the ASH (such as pipelines, compressor stations, and processing stations) would stretch from outside Pittsburgh down to Catlettsburg, Kentucky, with the latter currently the home of a sizeable Marathon Oil refinery. The ASH “would act like an interstate highway, with on-ramps and off-ramps feeding manufacturing hubs along its length and drawing from the available ethane storage fields. The piping would sit above-ground and follow the Ohio and Kanawha river valley.”

The politics of the ASH – from Columbus and Charleston to Washington DC

Elected officials across the quad-state region are supporting this effort invoking, not surprisingly, its importance for national security and energy independence.

State-level support

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D) went so far as to introduce “Senate Bill 1064 – Appalachian Energy for National Security Act.”  This bill would require Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and his staff to “to conduct a study on the national security implications of building ethane and other natural-gas-liquids-related petrochemical infrastructure in the United States, and for other purposes.”

Interestingly, the West Virginia Senator told the West Virginia Roundtable Inc’s membership meeting that the study would not examine the “national security implications” but rather the “additional security benefits” of an Appalachian Storage Hub and cited the following to pave the way for the national security study he is proposing: “the shale resource endowment of the Appalachian Basin is so bountiful that, if the Appalachian Basin were an independent country, the Appalachian Basin would be the third largest producer of natural gas in the world.”

Senator Manchin is not the only politician of either party to unabashedly holler from the Appalachian Mountaintops the benefits of the ASH. Former Ohio Governor, and 2016 POTUS primary participant, John Kasich (R) has been a fervent supporter of such a regional planning scheme. He is particularly outspoken in favor of the joint proposal by Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical and Daelim to build an ethane cracker in Dilles Bottom, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Moundsville, West Virginia. The ethane cracker would convert the region’s fracked ethane into ethylene to make polyethylene plastic. This proposed project could be connected to the underground storage component of the ASH.

The Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has consistently advocated for the project, going so far as to sign “an unprecedented agreement at the Tri-State Shale Summit, promising collaboration between the states in securing crackers for the region and, by extension, support of the storage hub.”

Dilles Bottom, OH ethane cracker site. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.

Not to be outdone in the ASH cheerleading department, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (R), who can’t seem to find any common ground with Democrats in general nor Senator Manchin specifically, is collaborating with quad-state governors on the benefits of the ASH. All the while, these players ignore or dismiss the environmental, social, and economic costs of such an “all in” bet on petrochemicals and plastics.

Even the region’s land-grant universities have gotten in on the act, with West Virginia University’s Appalachian Oil and Natural Gas Research Consortium and Energy Institute leading the way. WVU’s Energy Institute Director Brian Anderson pointed out that, “Appalachia is poised for a renaissance of the petrochemical industry due to the availability of natural gas liquids. A critical path for this rebirth is through the development of infrastructure to support the industry. The Appalachian Storage Hub study is a first step for realizing that necessary infrastructure.”

National-level support

The Trump administration, with the assistance of Senator Manchin’s “Senate Bill 1337 – Capitalizing on American Storage Potential Act”, has managed to stretch the definition of the Department of Energy’s Title XVII loan guarantee to earmark $1.9 billion for the Appalachian Development Group, LLC (ADG) to develop the ASH, even though any project that receives such a loan must:

  1. utilize a new or significantly improved technology;
  2. avoid, reduce or sequester greenhouse gases;
  3. be located in the United States; and,
  4. have a reasonable prospect of repayment.

This type of Public-Private Investment Program  is central planning at its finest, in spite of the likelihood that the prospects of the ASH meeting the second and fourth conditions above are dubious at best (even if the project utilizes carbon capture and storage technologies).

Public-Private Investment Programs have a dubious past. In her book “Water Wars,” Vandana Shiva discusses the role of these programs globally and the involvement of institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund:

“public-private partnerships”…implies public participation, democracy, and accountability.  But it disguises the fact that the public-private partnership arrangements usually entail public funds being available for the privatization of public goods…[and] have mushroomed under the guise of attracting private capital and curbing public-sector employment.”

In response to the Department of Energy’s Title XVII largesse, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Ilhan Omar introduced Amendment 105 in Rule II on HR 2740. According to Food and Water Watch, this amendment would restrict “the types of projects the Department of Energy could financially back. It would block the funding for ALL projects that wouldn’t mitigate climate change.”

On Wednesday, June 19th Congress voted 233-200 along party lines to pass the amendment, preventing funds from the Energy Policy Act of 2005  to be provided to any “project that does not avoid, reduce, or sequester air pollutants or anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases”.

International interest

The only condition of Department of Energy’s Title XVII loan program ASH is guaranteed to meet is the third (be located in the United States), but as we’ve already mentioned, the level of foreign money involved complicates the domestic facade.

Foreign involvement in the ASH lends credence to Senator Manchin’s and others’ concerns about where profits from the ASH will go, and who will be reaping the benefits of cheap natural gas. The fact that the ASH is being heavily backed by foreign money is the reason Senator Manchin raised an issue with the outsized role of state actors like Saudi Arabia and China as well as likely state-backed private investments like PTT Global Chemical’s. The Senator even cited how a potential $83.7 billion investment in West Virginia from China’s state-owned energy company, China Energy, would compromise “domestic manufacturing and national security opportunities.”

“Critical” infrastructure

With all of the discussion and legislation focused on energy and national security, many don’t realize the output of the ASH would be the production of petroleum-based products: mainly plastic, but also fertilizers, paints, resins, and other chemical products.

Not coincidentally, Republican Ohio State Representatives George Lang and Don Jones just introduced House Bill 242, and attempt to support the plastic industry by “prohibit[ing] the imposition of a tax or fee on [auxiliary or plastic] containers, and to apply existing anti-littering law to those containers.”

There will most certainly be a battle in the courts between the state and urban counties like Cuyahoga County, Ohio, who’s council just voted to ban plastic bags countywide on May 28.

Bills like this and the not unrelated “critical infrastructure” bills being shopped around by the American Legislative Exchange Council will amplify the rural vs urban and local vs state oversight divisions running rampant throughout the United States.  The reason for this is that yet another natural resource boom/bust will be foisted on Central Appalachia to fuel urban growth and, in this instance, the growth and prosperity of foreign states like China.

Instead of working night and day to advocate for Appalachia and Americans more broadly, we have legislation in statehouses around the country that would make it harder to demonstrate or voice concerns about proposals associated with the ASH and similar regional planning projects stretching down into the Gulf of Mexico.

Producing wells mapped

Impacts from the ASH and associated ethane cracker proposals will include but are not limited to: an increase in the permitting of natural gas wells, an increase in associated gas gathering pipelines across the Allegheny Plateau, and an exponential increase in the production of plastics, all of which are harmful to the region’s environment and the planet.

The production of the region’s fracked wells will determine the long-term viability of the ASH. From our reading of things, the permitting trend we see in Ohio will have to hit another exponential inflection point to “feed the beast” as it were. Figure 1 shows an overall decline in the number of wells drilled monthly in Ohio.

Figure 2, below it, shows the relationship between the number of wells that are permitted verse those that are actually drilled.

Figures 1. Monthly (in blue) and cumulative (in orange) unconventional oil and gas wells drilled in Ohio, January, 2013 to November, 2018

 

 Figure 2. Permitted Vs Drilled Wells in Ohio, January, 2013 to November, 2018

That supply-demand on steroids interaction will likely result in an increased reliance on “super laterals” by the high-volume hydraulic fracturing industry. These laterals require 5-8 times more water, chemicals, and proppant than unconventional laterals did between 2010 and 2012.

Given this, we felt it critical to map not just the environmental impacts of this model of fracking but also the nuts and bolts of production over time. The map below shows the supply-demand links between the fracking industry and the ASH, not as discrete pieces or groupings of infrastructure, but rather a continuum of up and downstream patterns.

The current iteration of the map shows production values for oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids, how production for any given well changes over time, and production declines in newer wells relative to those that were fracked at the outset of the region’s “Shale Revolution.” Working with volunteer Gary Allison, we have compiled and mapped monthly (Pennsylvania and West Virginia) and quarterly (Ohio)[2] natural gas, condensate, and natural gas liquids from 2002 to 2018.

This map includes 15,682 producing wells in Pennsylvania, 3,689 in West Virginia, and 2,064 in Ohio. We’ve also included and will be updating petrochemical projects associated with the ASH, either existing or proposed, across the quad-states including the proposed ethane cracker in Dilles Bottom, Ohio and the ethane cracker under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, along with two rumored projects in West Virginia.


View Map Full Screen

Conclusion

We will continue to update this map on a quarterly basis, will be adding Kentucky data in the coming months, and will be sure to update rumored/proposed petrochemical infrastructure as they cross our radar. However, we can’t be everywhere at once so if anyone reading this hears of legitimate rumors or conversations taking place at the county or township level that cite tapping into the ASH’s infrastructural network, please be sure to contact us directly at info@fractracker.org.

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison

Feature Photo: Ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County, PA. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.

[1] For a detailed analysis of the HVHF’s increasing resource demand and how lateral length has increased in the last decade the reader is referred to our analysis titled “A Disturbing Tale of Diminishing Returns in Ohio” Figures 12 and 13.

[2] Note: For those Bluegrass State residents or interested parties, Kentucky data is on its way!

Permitting New Oil and Gas Wells Under the Newsom Administration

California regulators approve surge in well permits

FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog have uncovered new data showing an increase in oil and gas permitting by California regulators in 2019 compared to 2018, calling into question Governor Newsom’s climate commitment. Even more concerning, this investigation found that state regulators are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate.

FracTracker Alliance’s new report with Consumer Watchdog compares oil and gas permitting policies of the current Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration with that of former Governor Jerry Brown’s administration.

The former lieutenant governor to Brown, Governor Newsom has set out to make a name for himself. As part of stepping out of Brown’s shadow, Newsom has expressed support for a Just Transition away from fossil fuels. Governor Newsom’s 2020 budget plan includes environmental justice measures and an unprecedented investment to plan for this transition that includes investments in job training.

Yet five months into Governor Newsom’s first term, regulators are on track to allow companies to drill and “frack” more new oil and gas wells than Brown allowed in 2018. The question now is: will Governor Newsom actually take the next step that Brown could not, and prioritize the reduction of oil extraction in California?

In addition, the Consumer Watchdog report reveals that eight California regulators with the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate. FracTracker and Consumer Watchdog are calling for the the removal of DOGGR officials with conflicts of interest, and an immediate freeze on new well approval. Read the letter to Governor Newsom here.

Governor Brown’s Legacy

Around the world, Brown is recognized as a climate warrior. His support of solar energy technology and criticisms of the nuclear and fossil fuel industry was ultimately unique in the late 1970’s.

In 1980, during his second term as Governor and short presidential campaign, he decried that fellow democrat and incumbent President Jimmy Carter had made a “Faustian bargain” with the oil industry. Since then, he has continued to push for state controls on greenhouse gas emissions. To end his political career, Brown hosted an epic climate summit in San Francisco, California, which brought together climate leaders, politicians, and scientists from around the world.

While Brown championed the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, his policies in California were contradictory. While front-line communities called for setbacks from schools, playgrounds, hospitals and other sensitive receptors, Brown ignored these requests. Instead he sought to spur oil production in the state. Brown even used state funds to explore his private properties for oil and mineral resources that could be exploited for personal profit.

Brown’s terms in the Governor’s office show trends of increasing oil and gas production. The chart in Figure 1 shows that during his first term (1979-1983), California oil extraction grew towards a peak in production. Then in 2011 at the start of Brown’s second term (2011-2019), crude oil production again inflected and continued to increase through 2015, ending a 25-year period of relatively consistent reduction.

We are therefore interested in looking at existing data to understand if moving forward, Governor Newsom will continue Brown’s legacy of support for California oil production. We start by looking at the first half of 2019, the beginning of Governor Newsom’s term, to see if his administration will also allow the oil and gas industry to increase extraction in California.

Figure 1. Chart of California’s historic oil production, from the EIA

Analysis

The FracTracker Alliance has collaborated with the non-profit Consumer Watchdog to review records of oil and gas well permits issued in 2018 and thus far into 2019.

Records of approved permits were obtained from the CA Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). Weekly summaries of approved permits for the 52 weeks of 2018 and the first 22 weeks of 2019 (January 1st-June 3rd) were compiled, cleaned, and analyzed. Notices of well stimulations were also included in this analysis. The data is mapped here in the Consumer Watchdog report, as well as in more detail below in the map in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Map of California’s Permits, 2018 and 2019


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Findings

At FracTracker, we are known for more than simply mapping, so we have, of course, extracted all the information that we can from this data. The dataset of DOGGR permits included details on the type of permit as well as when, where, and who the permits were granted. With this information we were able to answer several questions.

Of particular note and worthy of prefacing the data analysis was the observation of the very low numbers of permits granted in the LA Basin and Southern California, as compared to the Central Valley and Central Coast of California.

First, what are the types of permits issued?

Regulators require operators to apply for permits for a number of activities at well sites. This dataset includes permits to drill wells, including re-drilling existing wells, permits to rework existing wells, and permits to “sidetrack”. Well stimulations using techniques such as hydraulic fracturing and acid fracturing also require permits, as outline in CA State Bill 4.

How many permits have regulators issued?

In 2018, DOGGR approved 4,368 permits, including 2,124 permits to drill wells. In 2019, DOGGR approved 2,366 permits from January 1 – June 3, including 1,212 permits to drill wells. At that rate, DOGGR will approve 5,607 total permits by the end of 2019, including 2,872 wells.

That is an increase of 28.3% for total permits and an increase of 35.3% for drilling oil and gas wells.

DOGGR also issued 222 permits for well stimulations in 2018. So far in 2019, DOGGR has issued 191 permits for well stimulations, an increase of 103.2%.

Who is applying for permits?

As shown in Table 1 below, the operators Chevron U.S.A. Inc., Aera Energy LLC ( a joint conglomerate of Shell Oil Company and ExxonMobil), and Berry Petroleum Company, LLC dominate the drilling permit counts for both 2018 and 2019.

Aera has obtained the most drilling permits thus far into 2019, while Chevron obtained the most permits in 2018, almost 100 more than Aera. In 2019, Chevron was issued almost 3 times the amount of rework permits as Aera, and both have outpaced Berry Petroleum.

Table 1. Permit Counts by Operator

Where are the permits being issued?

Data presented in Table 2 indicate which fields are being targeted for drilling and rework permits. While the 2019 data represents less than half the year, the number of drilling permits is almost equal to the total drilling permit count for 2018.

Majority players in the Midway-Sunset field are Berry Petroleum and Chevron. South Belridge is dominated by Aera Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Cymric field is mostly Chevron and Aera Energy; McKittrick is mostly Area Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Kern River field, which has by far the most reworks (most likely due to its massive size and age) is entirely Chevron.

Table 2. Permit Counts by Field

Conclusions

Be sure to also read the Consumer Watchdog report on FracTracker’s permit data!

The details of this analysis show that DOGGR has allowed for a modest increase in permits for oil and gas wells in 2019. The increase in well stimulations in 2019 is estimated to be larger, at 103.2%.

There was the consideration that this could be a seasonal phenomenon since we extrapolated from data encompassing just less than the first half of the year. But upon reviewing data for several other years, that does not seem to be the case. The general trend was instead increasing numbers of permits as each year progresses, with smaller permit counts through the first half of the year.

Oil prices do not provide much explanation either. The chart in Figure 3 shows that crude prices were higher in 2018 than they have been for the vast majority of 2019. The increase in permits could be the result of oil and gas operators like Chevron and Aera anticipating a stricter regulatory climate under Governor Newsom. Operators may be securing  as many permits as possible, while DOGGR is still liberally issuing them. This could be a consequence of the Governor’s recognition of the need for California to begin a managed decline of fossil fuel production and end oil drilling in California.

Could this be an early industry death rattle?

Figure 3. Crude prices in 2018 and 2019

July 12, 2019 Update

Governor Gavin Newsom has reacted swiftly to the report by Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker regarding findings of conflicts of interest within DOGGR and the quickening rate of well permitting, by firing California’s top oil and gas regulator Ken Harris.

Newsom’s chief of staff Ann O’Leary also requested other changes to California’s Department of Conservation. O’Leary stated:
“The Governor has long held concerns about fracking and its impacts on Californians and our environment, and knows that ultimately California and our global partners will need to transition away from oil and gas extraction. In the weeks ahead, our office will work with you to find new leadership of (the division) that share this point of view and can run the division accordingly.”
FracTracker supports the governor’s decision and hopes that new leadership acts in the best interests of Californians while moving the state towards 100% renewable energy.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Mapping the Petrochemical Build-Out Along the Ohio River

New maps show the build-out of oil and gas infrastructure that converts the upper Ohio River Valley’s fracked gas into petrochemical products

In 2004, Range Resources purchased land in Washington County, Pennsylvania and “fracked” the first well in the Marcellus Shale, opening the flood gates to a wave of natural gas development.

Since then, oil and gas companies have fracked thousands of wells in the upper Ohio River Valley, from the river’s headwaters in Pennsylvania, through Ohio and West Virginia, and into Kentucky.

Industry sold natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy, but 15 years since the first fracked Marcellus well, it’s clear that natural gas is more of a barrier than a bridge. In fact, oil and gas companies are not bridging towards clean energy at all, but rather investing in the petrochemical industry- which converts fracked gas into plastic.

This article dives into the expanding oil, gas, and petrochemical industry in the Ohio River Valley, with six maps and over 16,000 data points detailing the build-out of polluting infrastructure required to make plastic and other petrochemical products from fossil fuels.

Fracking for plastic

The petrochemical industry is expanding rapidly, with $164 billion planned for new infrastructure in the United States alone. Much of the build-out involves expanding the nation’s current petrochemical hub in the Gulf Coast, yet industry is also eager to build a second petrochemical hub in the Ohio River Valley.

The shale rock below the Ohio River Valley releases more than methane gas used for energy. Fracked wells also extract natural gas liquids (NGLs) which the petrochemical industry manufactures into products such as plastic and resins. Investing in the petrochemical industry is one way to capitalize on gases that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere via venting and flaring. As companies continue to spend billions more on drilling than they’re bringing in, many are looking towards NGLs as their saving grace.

These maps look at a two-county radius along the upper Ohio River where industry is most heavily concentrated.

Step 1. Extraction

The petrochemical lifecycle begins at the well, and there are a lot of wells in the Ohio River Valley. The majority of the natural gas produced here is extracted from the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays, which also contain “wet gas,” or NGLs, such as ethane, propane, and butane.

Rig in Greene County, PA. Photo by Ted Auch.

12,507

active, unconventional wells in the upper Ohio River Valley

Of particular interest to the petrochemical industry is the ethane in the region, which can be “cracked” into ethylene at high temperatures and converted into polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. The Department of Energy predicts that production of ethylene from ethane in the Appalachian Basin will reach 640,000 barrels a day by 2025 – that’s 20 times the amount produced in 2013.

In our first map, we attempted to show only active and unconventional (fracked) wells, a difficult task as states do not have a uniform definition for “unconventional” or “active.” As such, we used different criteria for each state, detailed below.

This map shows 12,660 wells, including:

  • 12,507 shale oil and gas wells:
    • 5,033 wells designated as “active” and “unconventional” in Pennsylvania
    • 2,971 wells designated as “drilled,” “permitted,” or “producing,” and are drilled in the Utica-Point Pleasant and Marcellus Shale in Ohio
    • 4,269 wells designated as “active” or “drilled” in the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia
    • 234 wells designated as “horizontal” and are not listed as abandoned or plugged in Kentucky
  • 153 Class II injection wells, which are used for the disposal of fracking wastewater
    • 2 in Pennsylvania
    • 101 in Ohio
    • 42 in West Virginia
    • 8 in Kentucky

The map also shows the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays, and a line demarcating the portions of these plays that contain higher quantities of wet gas. These wet gas regions are of particular interest to the petrochemical industry. Finally, the Devonian-Ohio Shale play is visible as you zoom in.

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Step 2. Transportation

Burned hillside near Ivy Lane after the Revolution Pipeline Exploded

Site of the Revolution Pipeline explosion. Photo: Darrell Sapp, Post Gazette.

A vast network of pipelines transports the oil and gas from these wells to processing stations, refineries, power plants, businesses, and homes. Some are interstate pipelines passing through the region on their way to domestic and international markets.

A number of controversial pipeline projects cross the Ohio River Valley. Construction of the Mariner East II Pipeline is under criminal investigation, the Revolution Pipeline exploded six days after it came on line, protesters are blocking the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is in the Supreme Court over permits to cross the Appalachian Trail.

Accurate pipeline data is not typically provided to the public, ostensibly for national security reasons.  The result of this lack of transparency is that residents along the route are often unaware of the infrastructure, or whether or not they might live in harm’s way. While pipeline data has improved in recent years, much of the pipeline data that exists remains inaccurate. In general, if a route is composed of very straight segments throughout the rolling hills of the Upper Ohio River Valley, it is likely to be highly generalized.

The pipeline map below includes:

  • natural gas interstate and intrastate pipelines
  • 8 natural gas liquid pipelines
  • 7 petroleum product pipelines
  • 3 crude oil pipelines
  • 18 pipeline projects that are planned or under construction for the region, including 15 natural gas pipelines and 3 natural gas liquids pipelines. To view a spreadsheet of these pipelines, click here.

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Step 3. Oil and Gas Transport and Processing

Pipelines transport oil and the natural gas stream to an array of facilities. Compressor stations and pumping stations aid the movement of the products through pipelines, while processing stations separate out the natural gas stream into its different components, including NGLs, methane, and various impurities.

At this step, a portion of the extracted fossil fuels are converted into sources of energy: power plants can use the methane from the natural gas stream to produce electricity and heat, and oil refineries transform crude oil into products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, or jet fuel.

A separate portion of the fuels will continue down the petrochemical path to be converted into products such as plastics and resins. Additionally, a significant portion of extracted natural gas leaks unintentionally as “fugitive emissions” (an estimated 2-3%) or is intentionally vented into the atmosphere when production exceeds demand.

This map shows 756 facilities, including:

  • 29 petroleum and natural gas power plants
    • 3 electric utilities
    • 24 independent power producers
    • 1 industrial combined heat and power (CHP) plant
    • 1 industrial power producer (non CHP)
  • 10 pumping stations, which assist in the transmission of petroleum products in pipelines
  • 645 compressor stations to push natural gas through pipelines
  • 21 gas processing plants which separate out NGLs, methane, and various impurities from the natural gas stream
  • 46 petroleum terminals, which are storage facilities for crude and refined petroleum products, often adjacent to intermodal transit networks
  • 3 oil refineries, which convert crude oil into a variety of petroleum-based products, ranging from gasoline to fertilizer to plastics
  • 2 petroleum ports, which are maritime ports that process more than 200 short tons (400,000 pounds) of petroleum products per year

*A small portion of these facilities are proposed or in construction, but not yet built. Click on the facilities for more information. 

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Step 4. Storage

After natural gas is extracted from underground, transported via pipeline, and separated into dry gas (methane) and wet gas (NGLs), its components are often pumped back underground for storage. With the expansion of the petrochemical industry, companies are eager to find opportunities for NGL storage.

Underground storage offers a steady supply for petrochemical manufacturers and allows industry to adapt to fluctuations in demand. A study out of West Virginia University identified three different types of NGL storage opportunities along the Ohio and Kanawha River valleys:

  1. Mined-rock cavern: Companies can mine caverns in formations of limestone, dolomite, or sandstone. This study focused on caverns in formations of Greenbrier Limestone.
  2. Salt cavern: Developing caverns in salt formations involves injecting water underground to create a void, and then pumping NGLs into the cavern.
  3. Gas field: NGLs can also be stored in natural gas fields or depleted gas fields in underground sandstone reservoirs.

Above-ground tanks offer a fourth storage option.

Natural gas and NGL storage contains many risks. These substances are highly flammable, and accidents or leaks can be fatal. A historically industrialized region, the Ohio River Valley is full of coal mines, pipelines, and wells (including abandoned wells with unknown locations). All of this infrastructure creates passages for NGLs to leak and can cause the land above them to collapse. As many of these storage options are beneath the Ohio River, a drinking water supply for over 5 million people, any leak could have catastrophic consequences.

Furthermore, there are natural characteristics that make the geology unsuitable for underground storage, such as karst geological formations, prone to sinkholes and caves.

Notable Storage Projects

Appalachia Development Group LLC is heading the development of the Appalachia Storage & Trading Hub initiative, “a regional network of transportation, storage and trading of Natural Gas Liquids and chemical intermediates.” The company has not announced the specific location for the project’s storage component. Funding for this project is the subject of national debate; the company applied for a loan guarantee through a federal clean energy program, in a move that may be blocked by Congress.

Energy Storage Ventures LLC plans to construct the Mountaineer NGL Storage facility near Clarington, Ohio along the Ohio River. This facility involves salt cavern storage for propane, ethane, and butane. To supply the facility, the company plans to build three pipelines beneath the Ohio River: two pipelines (one for ethane and one for propane and butane) would deliver NGLs to the site from Blue Racer Natrium processing plant. A third pipeline would take salt brine water from the caverns to the Marshall County chlorine plant (currently owned by Westlake Chemical Corp).

The storage map below shows potential NGL storage sites to feed petrochemical infrastructure as well as natural gas storage for energy production:

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Step 5. Petrochemical Manufacturing

While conventional oil and gas extraction has occurred in the region for decades, and fracking for 15 years, the recent petrochemical build-out adds an additional environmental and health burdens to the Ohio River Valley. Our final map represents the facilities located “downstream” in the petrochemical process which convert fossil fuels into petrochemical products.

An image of plastic pellets

Polyethylene pellets, also called nurdles, manufactured by ethane crackers. Image source.

Ethane Crackers

Much of the petrochemical build-out revolves around ethane crackers, which convert ethane from fracked wells into small, polyethylene plastic pellets. They rely on a regional network of fracking, pipelines, compressor stations, processing stations, and storage to operate.

In 2017, Royal Dutch Shell began construction on the first ethane cracker to be built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. Located in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, this plant is expected to produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year. In the process, it will release an annual 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).

A second ethane cracker has been permitted in Belmont County, Ohio. Several organizations, including the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, FreshWater Accountability Project, and Earthworks have filed an appeal against Ohio EPA’s issuance of the air permit for the PTTGC Ethane Cracker.

Shell Ethane Cracker

The Shell Ethane Cracker, under construction in Beaver County, is expected to produce 1.6 million tons of plastic per year. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.

Methanol plants also convert part of the natural gas stream (methane) into feedstock for a petrochemical product (methanol). Methanol is commonly used to make formaldehyde, a component of adhesives, coatings, building materials, and many other products. In addition to methanol plants and ethane crackers, the map below also shows the facilities that make products from feedstocks, such as fertilizer (made from combining natural gas with nitrogen to form ammonia, the basis of nitrogen fertilizer), paints, and of course, plastic.

These facilities were determined by searching the EPA’s database of industrial sites using the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).

In total, we mapped 61 such facilities:

  • 2 methanol plants (both in construction)
  • 3 ethane crackers (one in construction, one under appeal, and one uncertain project)
  • 12 petrochemical manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 32511)
  • 31 plastic manufacturing facilities
    • 2 plastic bag and pouch manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 326111)
    • 2 plastic packaging materials and unlaminated film and sheet manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 32611)
    • 2 plastic packaging film and sheet (including laminated) manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 326112)
    • 1 unlaminated plastic film and sheet (except packaging) manufacturing facility (NAICS code 326113)
    • 1 unlaminated plastics profile shape manufacturing facility (NAICS code 326121)
    • 2 laminated plastics plate, sheet (except packaging), and shape manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 32613)
    • 21 facilities listed as “all other plastics product manufacturing” (NAICS code 326199)
  • 11 paint and coating manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 325510)
  • 2 nitrogenous fertilizer manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 325311)

View Map Full Screen | How FracTracker Maps Work

Visualizing the Build-Out

How are these facilities all connected? Our final map combines the data above to show the connections between the fossil fuel infrastructure. To avoid data overload, not all of the map’s features appear automatically on the map. To add features, view the map full screen and click the “Layers” tab in the top right tool bar.

View Map Full Screen | How FracTracker Maps Work

A better future for the Valley

The expansion of oil and gas infrastructure, in addition to the downstream facilities listed above, has rapidly increased in the last few years. According to the Environmental Integrity Project, regulatory agencies in these four states have authorized an additional 15,516,958 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents to be emitted from oil and gas infrastructure since 2012. That’s in addition to emissions from older oil and gas infrastructure, wells, and the region’s many coal, steel, and other industrial sites.

View the Environmental Integrity Project’s national map of emission increases here, which also includes permit documents for these new and expanding facilities.

The petrochemical build-out will lock in greenhouse gas emissions and plastic production for decades to come, ignoring increasingly dire warnings about plastic pollution and climate change. A recent report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance found that the greenhouse gas emissions across the plastic lifecycle were equivalent to emissions from 189 coal power plants in 2019 – a number that’s predicted to rise in coming years.

What does the petrochemical build out look like in the Ohio River Valley?

 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The oil and gas industry’s plan to increase plastic manufacturing capacity is a desperate attempt to stay relevant as fracking companies “hemorrhage cash” and renewable energy operating costs beat out those of fossil fuels. Investing instead in clean energy, a less mechanized and more labor intensive industry, will offer more jobs and economic opportunities that will remain relevant as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.

In fact, the United States already has more jobs in clean energy, energy efficiency, and alternative vehicles than jobs in fossil fuels. It’s time to bring these opportunities to the Ohio River Valley and bust the myth that Appalachian communities must sacrifice their health and natural resources for economic growth.

People gather at the headwaters of the Ohio River to advocate for the sustainable development of the region. Add your voice to the movement advocating for People Over Petro by signing up for the coalition’s email updates today!

Download the maps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This data in this article are not exhaustive. FracTracker will be updating these maps as data becomes available.

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance

Urban Drilling in Los Angeles

Impact of a 2,500′ Oil and Gas Well Setback in California

Why does California need setbacks?

A new bill proposed by California State Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi (D), AB345, seeks to establish a minimum setback distance of 2,500′ between oil and gas wells and sensitive sites including occupied dwellings, schools, healthcare facilities, and playgrounds. A setback distance for oil and gas development is necessary from a public health standpoint, as the literature unequivocally shows that oil and gas wells and the associated infrastructure pose a significant risk to the communities that live near them.

FracTracker Alliance conducted a spatial analysis to understand the impact a 2,500’ well setback would have on oil and gas expansion in California. In a previous report, The Sky’s Limit California (Oil Change Internal, 2018), Fractracker data showed that 8,493 active or newly permitted oil and gas wells were located within a 2,500’ buffer of sensitive sites. At the time it was estimated that 850,000 Californians lived within the setback distance of at least one of these oil and gas wells.

This does not bode well for Californians, as a recently published FracTracker literature review found that health impacts resulting from living near oil and gas development include cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms. Studies also showed that health impacts increased with the density of oil and gas development, suggesting that health impacts are dose dependent. Living closer to more oil and gas sites means you are exposed to more health-threatening contamination.

An established setback is therefore necessary to alleviate some of these health burdens carried by the most vulnerable Environmental Justice (EJ) communities. Health assessments by the Los Angeles County Department of Health and studies on ambient air quality near oil fields by Occidental College Researchers support the assumption that 2,500′ is the necessary distance to help alleviate the harsh conditions of degraded air quality. Living at a distance beyond 2,500′ from an oil and gas site does not mean you are not impacted by air and water contamination. Rather the concentrations of contaminants will be less harmful. In fact studies showed that health impacts increased with proximity to oil and gas, with associated impacts potentially experienced by communities living at distances up to 9.3 miles (Currie et al. 2017) and 10 miles (Whitworth et al. 2017).

Assembly Bill 345

This analysis assesses the potential impact of State Assembly member Al Muratsuchi’s Assembly Bill 345 on California’s oil and gas extraction and production. Specifically, AB345 establishes a minimum 2,500’ setback requirement for future oil and gas development. It does not however directly address existing oil and gas permits.

The bill includes the following stipulations and definitions:

  • All new oil and gas development, that is not on federal land, are required to be located at least 2,500′ from residences, schools, childcare facilities, playgrounds, hospitals, or health clinics.
  • In this case the redrilling of a previously plugged and abandoned oil or gas well or other rework operation is to be considered new oil and gas development.
  • “Oil and gas development” means exploration for and drilling production and processing of oil, gas or other gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons; the flowlines; and the treatment of waste associated with that exploration, drilling, production, and processing.
  • “Oil and gas development” also includes hydraulic fracturing and other stimulation activities.
  • “Rework operations” means operations performed in the well bore of an oil or gas well after the well is completed and equipped for production, done for the purpose of securing, restoring, or improving hydrocarbon production in the subsurface interval that is the open to production in the well bore.
  • The bill does not include routine repairs or well maintenance work.

Map

Figure 1. Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites. The map below shows the oil and gas wells and permits that fall within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites.  Summaries of these well counts and discussions of these well types are included below as well.

Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

Environmental Justice

The California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) has just released their 2018 Environmental Justice Agency Assessment, which used FracTracker’s data and mapping to assess environmental equity in the state regulation of oil permitting and drilling. The report issued the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) a failing grade of ‘F’. According to the report, “DOGGR is aware that the proposed locations of many drilling activities are in or near EJ communities, but approves permits irrespective of known health and safety risks associated with neighborhood drilling.”

FracTracker’s analysis of low income communities in Kern County shows the following:

  • There are 16,690 active oil and gas production wells located in census blocks with median household incomes of less than 80% of Kern’s area median income (AMI).
  • Therefore about 25% (16,690 out of 67,327 total) of Kern’s oil and gas wells are located within low-income communities.
  • Of these 16,690 wells, 5,364 of them are located within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites such as schools and hospitals (32%) vs 13.1% for the rest of the state.

For more information on the breakdown of Kern County wells, see our informational table, here.

DOGGR wells

Using freshly published Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) data (6/3/19), we find that there are 9,835 active wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, representing 13.1% of the total 74,775 active wells in the state.

There are 6,558 idle wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, of nearly 30,000 total idle wells in the state. Putting these idle wells back online would be blocked if the wells require reworks to restart or ramp up production. For the most part operators do not intend for most idle wells to come back online. Rather operators are just avoiding the costs of plugging and properly abandoning the wells. To learn more about this issue, see our recent coverage of idle wells here.

Of the 3,783 permitted wells not yet in production, or “new wells,” 298 (7.8%) are located within the 2,500’ buffer zone.

Getting a count of plugged wells within the setback distance is more difficult because there is not a complete dataset, but there are over 30,000 wells in areas with active production that would be blocked from being redrilled. In total there are 122,209 plugged wells listed in the DOGGR database.

Permits

We also looked at permit applications that were approved in 2018, including permits for drilling new wells, well reworks, deepening wells and well sidetracks. This may be the most insightful of all the analyses.

Within the 2018 permit data, we find that 4,369 permits were approved. Of those 518 permits (about 12%) were granted within the proposed 2,500’ setback. Of the permits 25% were for new drilling, 73% were for reworks, and 2% were for deepening existing wells. By county, 42% were in Kern, 24% were in Los Angeles, 14% in Ventura, 6% in Santa Barbara, 3% in Fresno, and 2% or less in Glenn, Monterey, Sutter, San Joaquin, Colusa, Solano, Orange and Tehama, in descending order.

SCAQMD Notices

In LA, Rule 1148.2 requires operators to notify the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) of activities at well sites, including stimulations and reworks. These data points are reiterative of the “permits” discussed above, but the dataset is specific to the SCAQMD and includes additional activities. Of the 1,361 reports made to the air district since the beginning of 2018 through April 1, 2019; 634 (47%) were for wells that would be impacted by the setback distance; 412 incidences were for something other than “well maintenance” of which 348 were for gravel packing, 4 for matrix acidizing, and 65 were for well drilling. We are not sure where gravel packing falls, in reference to AB345.

A major consideration is that this rule may force many active wells into an idle status. If the onus of plugging wells falls on the state, these additional idle wells could be a major liability for the public. Fortunately AB1328 recently defined new idle well rules. The rules entice operators to plug and abandon idle wells. If rule 1328 is effective at reducing the stock of idle wells, these two bills could complement each other. (For more information on idle wells, read FracTracker’s recent analysis, here: https://www.fractracker.org/2019/04/idle-wells-are-a-major-risk/)

State Bill 4 Well Stimulation Reporting

We also analyzed data reported to DOGGR under the well stimulation requirements of CA State Bill 4 (SB4), the 2013 bill that set a framework for regulating hydraulic fracturing in California. Part of the bill required an independent scientific study to be conducted on oil and gas well stimulation, including acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing. Since 2016 operators have been required to secure special permits to stimulate wells, which includes hydraulic fracturing and several other techniques. To learn more about this state regulation read FracTracker’s coverage of SB4. From January 1, 2016 to April 1, 2019, there have been 576 well stimulation treatment permits granted under the SB4 regulations. Only 1 hydraulic fracturing event, permitted in Goleta, would have been impacted by a 2,500’ setback in 2018.

Support for AB345

After being approved by the CA Assembly Natural Resources Committee in a 7-6 vote, the bill did not make it up for a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee during the 2019 legislative session.  The bill was described by the committee as “promising policies that need more time for discussion.” AB345 is now a two-year bill in the state Senate and will be reconsidered by the committee in January of 2020. The Chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, Lorena Gonzalez, indicated her general support for the policy and committed to working with the author to find a way to move the bill forward at the end of the session.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance 

Feature image by David McNew, Getty Images

Pennsylvanians Demand a Response to Rare Cancer Cases, Other Health Impacts

New research on fracking health impacts, combined with unusually high rates of pediatric cancer, sound alarm bells in Pennsylvania

FracTracker isn’t the only one digging deeper into the health impacts of fracking in the past few months. Last week, the Better Path Coalition organized a meeting at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to share new research with government officials, the press, and the public. These groundbreaking reports highlight the increasing body of evidence showing fracking’s adverse health and climate impacts.

Following the presentations on emerging research, Ned Ketyer, M.D., F.A.A.P, discussed the highly concerning proliferation of rare pediatric cancer cases in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Dr. Ketyer drew data from a report released last month by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which uncovered an unusually high number of childhood cancer diagnoses in southwestern Pennsylvania over the last decade. In just four counties (Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland), there were 27 people diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, between 2008 and 2018. Six of the 27 people diagnosed were from the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County, where there are currently 10 students district-wide with other types of cancers.

The expected number of Ewing sarcoma diagnoses over this time period and for the population count of southwestern Pennsylvania would be 0.75 cases per year, or roughly eight cases over the course of a decade. The higher number of rare childhood cancers was the subject of a recent community meeting held by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), where residents called on the state to further investigate the issue and take immediate action to eliminate any potential environmental causes. For more of EHP’s resources on this topic, click here.

Cancer in the Marcellus

The Pennsylvania Department of Health investigated three of these cases in Washington County and found that they did not meet the criteria definition of a cancer cluster. Still, the unusually high number of rare cancers over a small geography is cause for alarm and reason to suspect an environmental cause.

This four-county area has a legacy of environmental health hazards associated with coal mining activities and is home to a 40-year old uranium disposal site that sits in close proximity to the Canon-McMillan High School. But with the increase in cancer diagnoses over the past decade, many are looking towards fracking in the Marcellus Shale, the more recent environmental hazard to develop in the region, as a contributing cause.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is a hot spot for fracking activity. In these four counties, there are 3,169 active, producing unconventional gas wells. There are also the infrastructure and activity associated with unconventional development: compressor stations, processing stations (including Pennsylvania’s largest cryogenic plant), disposal sites for radioactive waste, and heavy truck traffic.

The environmental and health risks of these facilities were the focus of the presentations and discussions with Pennsylvania leaders last week.

A map of unconventional gas production in southwest Pennsylvania. Click on the image to open the map.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Call for action

At the culmination of the Harrisburg meeting, participants delivered a letter to Governor Wolf’s office, calling for an investigation into the causes of these childhood cancer cases. Signed by over 900 environmental organizations and individuals, the letter also asks for a suspension of new shale gas permitting until the Department of Health can determine that there is no link between drilling and the cancer outcomes.

Governor Wolf’s response to Karen Feridun, the organizer of this campaign, was a disappointing dismissal of this public health crisis. Stating that the environmental regulations his office has implemented “protect Pennsylvanians from negative environmental and health impacts,” Governor Wolf went on to say that his office “will continue to monitor and study cancer incidents in this area, especially as more data becomes available,” but did not agree to suspend new permitting.

Wolf’s decision to continue with status quo permitting while waiting for more data to become available is unacceptable, and will lead to more Pennsylvanians suffering from the industry’s health impacts.

The Governor’s response is even more disheartening as it follows his recent support for a full ban on fracking activity in the Delaware River Basin (including eastern Pennsylvania). The Governor’s support for the ban is an acknowledgement of the industry’s risks, and leaves us frustrated that the southwestern part of the state is not receiving equal protection.

When is enough evidence enough?

The continued permitting of unconventional wells disregards the scientific evidence of drilling’s harms discussed in Harrisburg.

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D, of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, discussed the results of the sixth edition of “The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking.” The Compendium outlines the health risks of fracking infrastructure from almost 1,500 peer-reviewed studies and governmental reports. Notably, the report outlines the inherent dangers of fracking and finds that regulations are incapable of protecting public health from the industry.

Erica Jackson discussed FracTracker Alliance’s recently published Categorical Review of Health Reports. This literature review analyzed 142 publications and reports on the health impacts of fracking, and found that 89% contained evidence of an adverse health outcome or health risk associated with proximity to unconventional oil and gas development.

Brian Schwartz, M.D., M.S., the Director of Geisinger Health Institute at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, presented epidemiological studies linking unconventional development to increased radon concentrations on homes and health impacts including adverse birth outcomes, mental health disorders, and asthma exacerbations.

Lorne Stockman, Senior Research Analyst with Oil Change International, discussed  “Burning the Gas ‘Bridge Fuel’ Myth,” a new report that further solidifies the irrationality of continued oil and gas development based on its climate impacts. The report shows that greenhouse gas emissions from fracking exceed climate goals, and how perpetuating the myth of natural gas as a “bridge” to renewables locks in emissions for decades.

A welcome ray of hope, this report also proves that renewables are an economically viable replacement to coal and gas, costing less than fossil fuels to build and operate in most markets. Furthermore, renewables combined with increasingly competitive battery storage ensures grid reliability.

“Burden of proof always belongs to the industry”

Among the inundation of data, statistics, and studies, Dr. Steingraber offered a sobering reminder of the purpose behind the meeting:

“Public health is about real people. When we collect data on public health problems, behind every data point, behind every black dot floating on a white mathematical space on a graph captured in a study, there are human lives behind those data points. And when those points each represent the life of a child or a teenager, what the dots represent is terror, unimaginable suffering, followed by death, or terror, unimaginable suffering, followed by a life of trauma, pathology reports, bone scans, medical bills, side effects, and uncertainty that all together are known as cancer survival.”

An adolescent cancer survivor herself, Dr. Steingraber clearly articulated the ethical responsibility our elected officials have to hold industry accountable for its impacts:

“Burden of proof always belongs to the industry, and benefit of the doubt always belongs to the child. It’s wrong to treat children like lab rats and experiment on them until the body count becomes so high that it reaches all the levels of statistical significance that tells you that we have a real problem here.”

The evidence is in – we know enough to justify an end to fracking based on its health and climate impacts. It’s time for Pennsylvania’s industry and leaders to stop experimenting with residents’ health and take immediate action to prevent more suffering.

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance

Production and Location Trends in PA: A Moving Target

The FracTracker Alliance tends to look mostly at the impacts of drilling, from violations affecting surface and ground water to forest fragmentation to neighbors breathing diesel exhaust near disposal wells.  We also try to give residents tools to help predict where future activity will occur, but as this article details, such predictive tools can do little more than trail moving targets. To that end, we have taken a look into areas where gas production is high for unconventional wells in the state, which are likely sites of future development.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Production Report is self-reported by the various operators active in the state. Unconventional wells generate a large quantity of natural gas, measured in thousands of cubic feet (Mcf), as well as limited amounts of oil and condensate, both of which are measured in 42 gallon barrels. In this analysis, we are only considering the gas production.


Click here for full screen map. 

In the map above, you can click on any well to learn more about the production values, along with a variety of other information including the well’s formation and age.  The age was calculated by counting days from the spud date to the end of the report cycle, March 31, 2019.

 

Top Average Gas Production by County – April 2018 to March 2019

CountyProducing Wells Avg. Production (Mcf) Production Rank Avg. Age of Producing WellsAge Rank
Wyoming 2511,269,15615 Yr / 10 Mo / 4 Days12
Sullivan1281,087,86825 Yr / 2 Mo/ 24 Days8
Allegheny1171,075,01834 yr/ 2 Mo / 7 Days2
Susquehanna1,4291,066,73445 Yr / 6 Mo / 22 Days10
Greene1,131796,75555 yr / 10 Mo / 28 Days13
Figure 1 – This table shows the top five counties in Pennsylvania for per-well unconventional gas production. The final column shows the county ranking for the average age of wells, from youngest to oldest

We can also see this data summarized by county, where average production and age values are available on a county by county basis (see Figure 1). Hydrocarbon wells are known to decrease production steeply over time, a phenomenon known as the decline curve, so it is not surprising to see a relatively young inventory of wells represented in the list of top five counties with per-well gas production. Age is not the only factor in production values, however, as certain geographies simply contain more accessible gas resources than others.

 

Figure 2 – 12 month gas production and age of well. Production is usually much higher during the earliest phases of the well’s production life.  This does not include wells that have been plugged or taken out of production.  Click on image for full-sized view.

In Figure 2, we look at the production of all unconventional wells in the state, expecting to see the highest production in younger wells. This mostly appears to be the case, but as mentioned above, there are also hot and cold spots with respect to production. A notable variable in this consideration is producing formation.

Since 93% (8,730 out of 9,404) of unconventional wells reporting gas production are in the Marcellus Shale Formation, the traditional hot spots in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state heavily skew the overall totals in terms of both production and number of wells.  Other formations of note include the Onodaga Limestone (137 wells, 1.5% of total), Burket Member (117 wells, 1.2%), Genesee Formation (104 wells, 1.1%), and the Utica Shale (99 wells, 1.1%) (Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Unconventional gas production over 12 months, showing formation. Click on image for full-sized view.

Drillers have been exploring some of these formations for decades. In fact, the oldest producing well that is currently classified as unconventional was 13,435 days old as of March 31, which works out to 36 years, 9 months, and 12 days.

However, this is fairly rare – only 384 (4%) of the 9,404 producing wells were more than 10 years old. 5,981 wells (64%) are between 5 and 10 years old, with the remaining 3,039 wells (32%) younger than 5 years old.

This does not take into account wells of any age that have been plugged or otherwise taken out of production.

Age of Pennsylvania’s active wells

< 5 years old
5-10 years old
> 10 years old

 

Utica Shale

The Utica Shale is worth a special mention here for a couple of reasons.  First, we must acknowledge its prominence in neighboring Ohio, which has 2,160 permitted Utica wells to go with just 40 permitted Marcellus wells, the prevalence of the two plays seems to invert just as one passes over the state line. And yet, the most productive Utica wells are near the border with New York, not Ohio.

In fact, each of the top 11 producing Utica wells during the 12 month period were located in Tioga County.  It’s worth noting that these are all between one and two years old, which would have given the wells time to be drilled, fracked, and brought into production, while still being in the prime of their production life. Compared to the Marcellus, sample size quickly becomes an issue when analyzing the Utica in Pennsylvania (Figure 4).

Figure 4 – Producing Utica wells in Pennsylvania. Note that the cluster of heavily producing wells in Tioga and Potter Counties near the New York border are mostly young wells where higher production would be expected.  Click on image for full sized view.

Second, portions of the Utica are known for their wet gas content, meaning that the gas has significant quantities of natural gas liquids (NGLs) including ethane, propane, and butane, which are gaseous at ambient temperatures but typically condensed into liquid form by oil and gas companies.  These are used for specialized fuels and petrochemical feedstocks, and are therefore more valuable than the methane in natural gas.

The production report does not capture the amount of NGLs in the gas, but a map from the Energy Information Administration shows the entire play, noting that the composition is dryer on the eastern portions of the play. In fact, a wet gas composition along the Ohio border might help to explain continued interest in what are otherwise well below average gas production results for Pennsylvania.

A Moving Target

It is difficult to predict where the industry will focus its attention in the coming months and years, but taking a look at production and formation data can give us a few clues.  Obviously, operators who found a particularly productive pocket of hydrocarbons are likely to keep drilling more holes in the ground in those areas until production is no longer profitable. Therefore, impacts to water, air, and nearby residents can be expected to continue in heavily drilled areas largely because the production level makes it attractive for drillers.

On the other hand, we should not assume that areas that are currently not productive are off the table for future consideration, either. Different formations are productive in different geographies, so a sweet spot for the Marcellus might be a dud in the Utica, or vice versa.

Finally, when comparing production, we must always take the age of the well into consideration, as all oil and gas wells can be expected to start off with a short period of very high production, followed by years of ever-diminishing returns throughout the expected 10 to 11 year lifecycle of the well. Because of this, what seems like a hotspot now may look below average in a similar analysis in three to four years, particularly in formations with relatively light drilling activity. This means that the top list of production by well could change over time, so be sure to check back in with FracTracker to see how events unfold.

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

 

Who Pays? Health and Economic Impacts of Fracking in Pennsylvania

Since the advent of unconventional shale gas drilling, some effects have been immediate, some have emerged over time, and some are just becoming apparent. Two reports recently published by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network advance our understanding of the breadth of the impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania. The first report, written by FracTracker, reviews research on the ways fracking impacts the health of Pennsylvanians. The second report by ECONorthwest calculates the economic costs of the industry.

“Fracking is heavily impacting Pennsylvania in multiple ways but the burden is not being fairly and openly calculated. These reports reveal the health effects and economic costs of fracking and the astounding burdens people and communities are carrying,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

Learn what the latest science and analysis tells us about the costs of fracking, who is paying now, and what the future price is forecasted to be.

Access the full reports here:

 

Health Impact Report

“Categorical Review of Health Reports on Unconventional Oil and Gas Development; Impacts in Pennsylvania,”  FracTracker Alliance, 2019 Issue Paper

Economic Impact Report

“The Economic Costs of Fracking in Pennsylvania,” ECONorthwest, 2019 Issue Paper

 

From the Experts

“The FracTracker Alliance conducted a review of the literature studying the impact of unconventional oil and gas on health. Findings of this review show a dramatic increase in the breadth and volume of literature published since 2016, with 89% of the literature reporting that drilling proximity has human health effects. Pennsylvanian communities were the most studied sample populations with 49% of reviewed journal articles focused on Marcellus Shale development. These studies showed health impacts including cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms were correlated with living near unconventional oil and gas development for Pennsylvania and other frontline communities.”

Kyle Ferrar, FracTracker Alliance Western Program Coordinator

 

Rig and house. Westwood Lake Park. Photo by J Williams, 2013.

“Fracking wells have an extensive presence across Pennsylvania’s landscape – 20 percent of residents live within 2 miles of a well. This is close enough to cause adverse health outcomes. Collectively we found annual costs of current fracking activity over $1 billion, with cumulative costs given continued fracking activity over the next 20 years of over $50 billion in net present value for the effects that we can monetize. The regional economic benefits also seem to be less than stated, as the long-term benefits for local economies are quite low, and can disrupt more sustainable and beneficial economic trajectories that might not be available after a community has embraced fracking.”

Mark Buckley, Senior Economist at the natural resource practice at
ECONorthwest

 

These reports on the health effects and economic impacts of unconventional oil and natural gas development yield disheartening results. There are risks of extremely serious health issues for families in impacted areas, and the long term economic returns for communities are negative.

Arming ourselves with knowledge is an important first step towards the renewable energy transformation that is so clearly needed. The stakes are too high to allow the oil and natural gas industries to dictate the physical, social, and economic health of Pennsylvanians.