COVID-19 and the oil and gas industry are at odds. Air pollution created by oil and gas activities make people more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19. Simultaneously, the economic impact of the pandemic is posing major challenges to oil and gas companies that were already struggling to meet their bottom line. In responding to these challenges, will our elected leaders agree on a stimulus package that prioritizes people over profits?
Air pollution from oil and gas development can come from compressor stations, condensate tanks, construction activity, dehydrators, engines, fugitive emissions, pits, vehicles, and venting and flaring. The impact is so severe that for every three job years created by fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one year of life is lost due to increased exposure to pollution.
Yes, air quality has improved in certain areas of China and elsewhere due to decreased traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite our eagerness for good news, sightings of dolphins in Italian waterways does not mean that mother earth has forgiven us or “hit the reset button.”
Significant environmental health concerns persist, despite some improvements in air quality. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was caused by another coronavirus, patients from areas with the high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS compared to those who lived in places with little pollution.
On March 8th, Stanford University environmental resource economist Marshall Burke looked at the impacts of air quality improvements under COVID-19, and offered this important caveat:
“It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health. Again I emphasize that the effects calculated above are just the health benefits of the air pollution changes, and do not account for the many other short- or long-term negative consequences of social and economic disruption on health or other outcomes; these harms could exceed any health benefits from reduced air pollution. But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, i.e. the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.”
This is an environmental justice issue. Higher levels of air pollution tend to be in communities with more poverty, people of color, and immigrants. Other health impacts related to oil and gas activities, from cancer to negative birth outcomes, compromise people’s health, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Plus, marginalized communities experience disproportionate barriers to healthcare as well as a heavier economic toll during city-wide lockdowns.
Financial Instability of the Oil & Gas Industry in the Face of COVID-19
The COVID-19 health crisis is setting off major changes in the oil and gas industry. The situation may thwart plans for additional petrochemical expansion and cause investors to turn away from fracking for good.
Persistent Negative Returns
Oil, gas, and petrochemical producers were facing financial uncertainties even before COVID-19 began to spread internationally. Now, the economics have never been worse.
In 2019, shale-focused oil and gas producers ended the year with net losses of $6.7 billion. This capped off the decade of the “shale revolution,” during which oil and gas companies spent $189 billion more on drilling and other capital expenses than they brought in through sales. This negative cash flow is a huge red flag for investors.
“North America’s shale industry has never succeeded in producing positive free cash flows for any full year since the practice of fracking became widespread.” IEEFA
The oil-price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia has been taking a toll on oil and gas prices as well. Saudi Arabia plans to increase oil production by 2 – 3 million barrels per day in April, bringing the global total to 102 million barrels produced per day. But with the global COVID-19 lockdown, transportation has decreased considerably, and the world may only need 90 million barrels per day.
If you’ve taken Econ 101, you know that when production increases as demand decreases, prices plummet. Some analysts estimate that the price of oil will soon fall to as low as $5 per barrel, (compared to the OPEC+ intended price of $60 per barrel).
Corporate welfare vs. public health and safety
Oil and gas industry lobbyists have asked Congress forfinancial support in response to COVID-19. Two stimulus bills in both the House and Senate are currently competing for aid.
Speaker McConnell’s bill seeks to provide corporate welfare with a $415 billion fund. This would largely benefit industries like oil and gas, airlines, and cruise ships. Friends of the Earth gauged the potential bailout to the fracking industry at $26.287 billion. In another approach, the GOP Senate is seeking to raise oil prices by directly purchasing for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the nation’s emergency oil supply.
Speaker Pelosi’s proposed stimulus bill includes $250 billion in emergency funding with stricter conditions on corporate use, but doesn’t contain strong enough language to prevent a massive bailout to oil and gas companies.
Hopefully with public pressure, Democrats will take a firmer stance and push for economic stimulus to be directed to healthcare, paid sick leave, stronger unemployment insurance, free COVID-19 testing, and food security.
Grasping at straws
Fracking companies were struggling to stay afloat before COVID-19 even with generous government subsidies. It’s becoming very clear that the fracking boom is finally busting. In an attempt to make use of the oversupply of gas and win back investors, the petrochemical industry is expanding rapidly. There are currently plans for $164 billion of new infrastructure in the United States that would turn fracked natural gas into plastic.
The location of the proposed PTTGC Ethane Cracker in Belmont, Ohio. Go to this map.
There are several fundamental flaws with this plan. One is that the price of plastic is falling. A new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) states that the price of plastic today is 40% lower than industry projections in 2010-2013. This is around the time that plans started for a $5.7 billion petrochemical complex in Belmont County, Ohio. This would be the second major infrastructural addition to the planned petrochemical buildout in the Ohio River Valley, the first being the multi-billion dollar ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
Secondly, there is more national and global competition than anticipated, both in supply and production. Natural gas and petrochemical companies have invested in infrastructure in an attempt to take advantage of cheap natural gas, creating an oversupply of plastic, again decreasing prices and revenue. Plus, governments around the world are banning single-use plastics, and McKinsey & Company estimates that up to 60% of plastic production could be based on reuse and recycling by 2050.
Sharp declines in feedstock prices do not lead to rising demand for petrochemical end products.
Third, oil and gas companies were overly optimistic in their projections of national economic growth. The IMF recently projected that GDP growth will slow down in China and the United States in the coming years. And this was before the historic drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The risks are becoming insurmountable. The price of plastics is sinking and the market is already oversupplied due to industry overbuilding and increased competition,” said Tom Sanzillo, IEEFA’s director of finance and author of the report.
Oil, gas, and petrochemical companies are facing perilous prospects from demand and supply sides. Increasing supply does not match up with decreasing demand, and as a result the price of oil and plastics are dropping quickly. Tens of thousands of oil and gas workers are being fired, and more than 200 oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy in North America in the past five years. Investors are no longer interested in propping up failing companies.
Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants. At this point, the economy is bound to move towards cleaner and more economically sustainable energy solutions.
It’s not always necessary or appropriate to find a “silver lining” in crises, and it’s wrong to celebrate reduced pollution or renewable energy achievements that come as the direct result of illness and death. Everyone’s first priority must be their health and the health of their community. Yet the pandemic has exposed fundamental flaws in our energy system, and given elected leaders a moment to pause and consider how we should move forward.
It is a pivotal moment in terms of global energy production. With determination, the United States can exercise the political willpower to prioritize people over profits– in this case, public health over fossil fuel companies.
Top photo of petrochemical activity in the Houston, Texas area. By Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. Aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/HoustonArea_feature.jpg8331875Shannon Smithhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgShannon Smith2020-03-24 15:48:412020-04-01 09:56:09COVID-19 and the oil & gas industry
Air pollution from Pennsylvania shale gas compressor stations is a significant, worsening public health concern.
By Cynthia Walter, Ph.D.
Dr. Walter is a retired biology professor who has worked on shale gas industry pollution since 2009 through Westmoreland Marcellus Citizens Group, Protect PT and other groups. Contact: email@example.com
Compressor Stations (CS) in the gas industry are sources of serious air pollutants known to harm humans and the environment. CS are permanent facilities required to transport gases from wells to major pipelines and along pipelines. Additional operations and equipment located at CS also emit toxins. In the last 20 years, CS abundance and sizes have dramatically increased in shale gas extraction areas across the US. This report will focus on CS in and near Southwestern Pennsylvania. Numbers of CS there have risen more than tenfold in the last decade in response to well completions and pipelines after the local fracking boom began in 2005. For example, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, had two CS before 2005 and now has 50 CS corresponding with about 341 active shale gas wells. In Pennsylvania, state regulations allow CS to be as close as 750 feet from homes, schools, and businesses. Emission monitoring relevant to public health exposure is limited or absent.
Current Pennsylvania policies allow rapid CS expansion. Also, regulations do not address public health risks due to several major flaws. First, permits allow annual totals of emitted toxins using models that assume constant releases, but substantial emissions from CS occur in peaks that expose citizens to concentrations may impair health, ranging from asthma to cancer. Second, permits do not address the fact that CS simultaneously release many serious air toxins including benzene and formaldehyde, and particulates that carry toxins into lungs. This allowance of multiple toxin release does not reflect the well-established science that public health risks multiply when people are exposed to several toxins at once. Third, permit reviews rarely consider nearby known air pollution sources contributing to aggregate air toxin exposures that occur in bursts and continually. Fourth, permits do not require operators to provide public access to real-time reports of air pollutants released by CS and ambient air quality near CS.
Poor air quality causes harm directly, e.g. respiratory distress, and indirectly, e.g., through increased vulnerability to respiratory viruses. The annual cost of damages from air pollution from CS was estimated at $4 million-$24 million in Pennsylvania based on emissions from CS in 2011. These damages include harm to human and livestock health and losses of crops and timber. After 2011, CS and gas infrastructures continue to expand, with increasing air pollution and damages, especially in shale gas areas. These costs must be compared to the benefits of using alternative energy sources. For example, in a neighboring state, New York, shifting to renewable energy will save tens of billions of dollars annually in air pollution costs, prevent thousands of premature deaths each year, and trigger substantial job creation, based on peer-reviewed research using US government data.
Constant air monitoring must occur at current compressor stations and nearby sites important to the public, such as schools. The peak concentrations and totals for substances relevant to public health must be recorded and made available to the public in real time.
Air pollution from compressor stations must become an important part of measuring and modeling pollution exposures from all components of the shale gas industry.
Permits for new compressor stations must be revised to better protect the public in ways including, but not limited to the following:
Location, e.g., increased general setback limits and expanded limits for sensitive sites such as schools, senior care facilities and hospitals
Emission limits for criteria air pollutants and hazardous air pollutants including Radon, especially limits for peak concentrations and annual totals
Monitoring air quality within the station, at the fence-line and in key sites nearby, such as schools, using information from air movement models to select locations and heights.
Limits for CS size based on aggregate pollution from other local air pollution sources.
Costs of harm from CS and other shale gas activities must be compared to alternatives.
CS emissions contribute major air pollutants to the total pollution from unconventional gas development (UCGD), but their role in regional air quality problems has not always been noted. In 2009, when UCGD operations were only a few years in this region and many CS had not yet been built, CS emissions were estimated to be a small component. Now, in 2020, gas transport requirements have increased, leading to many more and larger CS. The amounts of CS emissions have increased accordingly, based on estimates by Carnegie Mellon University atmospheric researcher, Robinson (Figure 1). Part of the reason that CS are such a major pollution source is that they run constantly, in contrast to machinery for well development and trucking that fluctuate with the market for new wells.
Air pollutants in CS emissions vary substantially in chemistry and concentrations due to differences in equipment (Table 1). Emissions in CS can come from several types of sources described below.
Engines: Compression engines powered with methane release nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAP). Diesel engines release those pollutants as well as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and substantial particulate matter. In addition, diesel storage on site is a hazard. Electric engines produce less pollutants, but they are much less common than fossil fuel engines in southwestern Pennsylvania. CS operators can vary the use of engines at a station, and therefore, emissions vary during partial or full shutdowns and start-up periods.
Blowdowns: Toxic emissions dramatically increase during blowdowns, a procedure that is scheduled or used as needed to release the build-up of gases. Blowdown frequency and emissions vary with the rate of gas transport and the chemistry of transported gases. The full extent of emissions from any CS, therefore, is not known. Blowdowns can release a wide range of substances, and when flaring is used to burn off gases, the combustion creates new substances and additional particulates. Blowdowns are the most likely source of peaks in emissions at continuously operated CS. For example, Brown et al. (2015) used PA DEP measures of a CS in Washington County, Pennsylvania, alongside likely blowdown frequencies and weather models to predict peak emission frequency. They estimated nearby residents would experience over 118 peak emissions per year.
Non-compression Procedures: CS facilities are often the location for equipment that separate gases, remove water and other fluids, and run pipeline testing operations called pigging. These activities can be constant or intermittent and release a wide range of substances which may or may not be included in estimates for a permit. In addition, some of the processing releases gases which are flared at the facility, thus releasing a range of combustion by-products and particulate pollution. For example, the Shamrock CS operated by Dominion Transfer Inc. includes equipment for dehydration, glycol processing and pigging. The Janus facility operated by EQT includes dehydration and flaring. Permitted emissions for those facilities are listed in Table 1.
Storage Tank Emissions: CS often include storage tanks that hold substances known to release fumes. For example, the Shamrock CS was permitted to have an above ground storage tank of 3000 gallons for drip gas and a 1000-gallon tank for used oil, both of which release volatile organic compounds. The EQT Janus CS has two 8,820-gallon tanks. Gas releases from such tanks could be controlled and recorded by the operator or they could be unrecorded leaks.
Fugitive emissions: Gas leaks, called fugitive emissions, occur readily from many components in CS facilities; such problems will increase as equipment ages. A study of CS stations in Texas is an example.
“In the Fort Worth, TX area, researchers evaluated compressor station emissions from eight sites, focusing in part on fugitive emissions. A total of 2,126 fugitive emission points were identified in the four month field study of 8 compressor stations: 192 of the emission points were valves; 644 were connectors (including flanges, threaded unions, tees, plugs, caps and open-ended lines where the plug or cap was missing); and 1,290 were classified as Other Equipment. The Other category consists of all remaining components such as tank thief hatches, pneumatic valve controllers, instrumentation, regulators, gauges, and vents. 1,330 emission points were detected with an IR camera (i.e. high-level emissions) and 796 emission points were detected by Method 21 screening (i.e. low-level emissions). Pneumatic Valve Controllers were the most frequent emission sources encountered at well pads and compressor stations.”
Eastern Research Group (2011).
Table 1. Examples of air pollutants allowed for release by compressor stations. Air pollutants (pounds/year) are estimates provided by the companies for permits in West Virginia and Pennsylvania in recent years. Total compressor engine horsepower (hp) is noted. Sources: Janus and Tonkin CS Permits at WV DEP website. Shamrock CS permit. Buffalo CS, Washington, Co PA – PENNSYLVANIA BULLETIN, VOL. 45, NO. 16 APRIL 18, 2015.
Buffalo ** (PA) 20,000 hp + 5,000 bhp
Volatile Organic Compounds
Hazardous Air Pollutants-Total
Total Particulate Matter
(PM-2.5, PM-10-separate or combined)
Carbon Dioxide Equivalents
Health Effects of Compressor Station Emissions
Several toxic chemicals are released by individual CS in amounts that range from a few thousand pounds to a quarter of a million pounds per year (Tables 1 & 2) as described below.
Nitrous Oxides (NOx) are often the largest total amount of emissions from fossil fuel machinery. In CS, these oxides are formed when a fossil fuel such as methane or diesel is combusted to produce the energy to compress and propel gases. NOx contribute to acid rain. Excess acids in rain lower the pH of waters, in some cases to levels that dissolve toxic metals in drinking water supplies. NOx also trigger the formation of ozone, a substance well known to impair lungs.
Ozone forms when oxygen reacts with nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, and a wide range of volatile organic compounds. Ozone exposure can trigger asthma and heart attacks in sensitive individuals, and for healthy people, ozone causes breathing problems in the short term and eventual scarring of lungs and impaired function.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are gaseous compounds containing carbon, such as benzene and formaldehyde. In air pollution regulation, the EPA lists many compounds as VOC, but excludes carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and butane. Many VOC’s are toxic in themselves (Tables 2, 3 and 4). Also, several VOC’s react to form ozone. https://www.epa.gov/air-emissions-inventories/what-definition-voc
Carbon Monoxide (CO) is another product of fossil fuel combustion and another contributor to ozone formation. CO is directly toxic because it prevents oxygen from binding to the blood.
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) adds to lung irritation. It also contributes to acid rain, lowering the pH of water and increasing the ability of toxic metals to dissolve in water supplies.
Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) include highly toxic substances such as formaldehyde and benzene, which are known carcinogens, as well as the other substances known to be emitted from CS (Tables 3 & 4). The EPA lists 187 substances as HAP, which include many VOC’s as well as some non-organic chemicals such as arsenic and radionuclides including Radon. (https://www.epa.gov/haps/initial-list-hazardous-air-pollutants-modifications)
Particulate Matter (PM) usually refers to particles in small size classes. Most state or federal regulations address measures of particles less than 10 microns (PM-10) and some monitoring systems separate out particles less than 2.5 microns (PM-2.5). Particles in either of those size ranges are not visible, but highly damaging because they travel deep into the lungs where they irritate tissues and impair breathing. Also, these tiny particles carry toxins from air into the blood passing through the lungs. This blood transports substances directly to the brain where toxins can quickly impair the nervous system and subsequently impact other organs. (https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/particulate-matter-pm-basics)
Health impacts from many of the substances released by CS are well-known in medical research. For example, many of the VOC and HAP compounds permitted for release by state agencies are known carcinogens (Table 3). Many of these substances also impact the nervous system as shown in the organic compounds measured in CS in PA and listed in Table 4. Also, a study of 18 CS in New York by Russo and Carpenter (2017) found that all 18 CS released substances with known impacts on the nervous system and total annual emissions were over five million pounds, among the highest of all types of emissions (Table 5). Russo and Carpenter also found high annual emissions of over five million pounds for substances known to be associated with each of the following other health problems: digestive problems, circulatory disorders, and congenital malformations.
Congenital defects were significantly more common for mothers living in a 10-mile radius of denser shale gas development in Colorado compared to reference populations (MacKenzie et al. 2014). Currie et al. (2017) examined over a million birth records in Pennsylvania and found statistically significant increased frequencies of low birth weight and negative health scores for infants born to mothers within 3 km of unconventional gas wells compared to matching populations more distant from shale gas developments. Such developments include a wide range of gas infrastructure including CS and also high truck traffic and fracking. One plausible mechanism for harm to developing babies is exposure to VOCs such as benzene, toluene and xylene associated with CS and well operations. These VOC’s are classified by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry as known to cross the placental barrier and cause harm to the fetus including birth deformities.
In sum, CS are a significant source of air pollutants with direct and indirect impacts on health. One indirect impact especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, is the increased incidence and severity of respiratory viral infections in populations living in areas with poor air quality. Ciencewicki, and Jaspers (2007) write, “a number of studies indicate associations between exposure to air pollutants and increased risk for respiratory virus infections.”
Table. 2. Health effects of air pollutants permitted for release by compressor stations.
Impairs lungs and transfers toxins into body when microscopic particles carry chemicals deep into lungs and release into bloodstream.
Forms ozone that impairs lung function which can trigger asthma and heart attacks and scars lungs in the long term.
Forms acid rain that dissolves toxic metals into water supplies.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Includes a wide variety of gaseous organic compounds, some of which cause cancer. Many VOC react to form ozone that impairs lungs as noted above.
Blocks ability of blood to carry oxygen.
Also forms ozone that impairs lungs as noted above.
Irritates lungs, triggering respiratory and heart distress.
Forms acid rain that dissolves toxic metals into water supplies.
Hazardous Air Pollutants
Category of various toxic compounds many of which impact the nervous system. Includes formaldehyde, benzene and several other carcinogens.
Sum of emissions of all toxins. Exposure to multiple toxins exacerbates harm directly through impairment of lungs and circulatory system and indirectly through injury to detoxification mechanisms, such as liver function.
Carbon Dioxide Equivalents
A measure of the combined effects of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and Methane expressed in a standard unit equivalent to the heat trapping effect of CO2. Greenhouse gases trap heat and worsen climate change and related harm to health when increased air temperatures directly cause stress directly and indirectly accelerate ozone formation.
Table 3. Gas industry list of carcinogenicity rating for Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) released by compressor stations in a factsheet prepared by EQT for Janus compressor, WV. 2015 Source: DEP.
B2-Probable Human Carcinogen
Category A – Known Human Carcinogen
Category D Not Classifiable
Suggested Evidence of Carcinogenic Potential
B2-Probable Human Carcinogen
B1- Probable Human Carcinogen
C- Possible human Carcinogen
Table 4. Center for Disease Control list of health effects for volatile organic carbons measured by PA DEP near compressor station. Source: CDC.
Irritation to eyes and nose; nausea, headache; neuropath; numb extremities, muscle weakness; dermatitis; dizziness
Eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, peripheral nervous system
Central nervous system
Irritation to eyes, skin & respiratory system; headache, dizziness; nausea
Eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system
Drowsiness, narcosis, asphyxia
Central nervous system
Table 5. Amounts of pollutants known to be associated with health impacts in a review of 18 New York compressor stations. Emissions were grouped and tallied based on their impacts on disorders classified by ICD codes as defined by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), a medical classification list by the World Health Organization. Source: Copy of Table 3.17b, Russo and Carpenter 2017.
Congenital malformations and deformations
Eye, ear, face and neck
Chromosomal abnormalities, nec
Regional Air Toxins and Cancer Risk in Southwestern Pennsylvania
Cancer risks from HAPs have been elevated for many years in several areas of Southwestern PA, as noted in a map from 2005 (Figure 2), when most air pollution was from urban traffic and single sources such as coke works and unconventional gas development (UCGD) had just begun in the region. The cancer risk pattern changed by 2014 (Figure 3). The specific numbers of excess cancer risk predicted for each location cannot be compared between the two maps because each map was produced using different sources of information and models. The pattern, however, can be compared and shows that elevated cancer risk is now more widespread across Southwestern PA and no longer primarily in Allegheny County.
Cancer risk maps are constructed by the EPA office of National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) using models of reported air toxics and their relationship to cancer as a risk factor, as defined by NATA: “A risk level of “N”-in-1 million implies that up to “N” people out of one million equally exposed people would contract cancer if exposed continuously (24 hours per day) to the specific concentration over 70 years (an assumed lifetime). This would be in addition to cancer cases that would normally occur in one million unexposed people.” (https://www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment/nata-glossary-terms) In the current context, the NATA models are useful to compare the relative differences in air quality from a public health perspective, assuming the data on air pollutants is complete.
Another, very different statistic regarding cancer is the rate of cancer, also called the incidence. This number is based on actual reported cases and applies to cancers that occur due to all causes. The cancer rate, therefore, is a much higher number than a risk factor. For example, according to the US Center for Disease Control, the annual rate of new cases of cancer in PA in 2016, the most recent year reported, was 482.5 per 100,000 people. Compared to other states, PA is among the ten states with the highest cancer incidence. In the US, one in four people die from cancer, placing it second to heart disease as a leading cause of death. (https://gis.cdc.gov/Cancer/USCS/DataViz.html). Compared to other nations, the US has the fifth highest cancer rate, with 352 new cases each year per 100,000 people. (https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/cancer-trends/data-cancer-frequency-country)
Compressor station emissions contribute to air pollutants known to be associated with cancer. For example, in a review of emissions for 18 CS in New York, Russo and Carpenter (2017) found that most or all CS released substances associated with a wide range of cancers (Table 6). Up to 56 such chemicals were emitted in amounts that totaled over 1 million pounds each year.
Maps of cancer risk are likely to be under-reporting risk levels in both the amount rates of risk and also the locations. Cancer risks from serious air pollutants cannot be properly mapped for several reasons. First, reports on concentrations of HAP in emissions are limited. HAP emissions are in accounts required only from large facilities, and thus, smaller operations, such as many CS, are likely be ignored. Second, general air quality monitoring stations are limited in location and do not measure HAP. For example, the PA DEP maintains 47 air quality stations dispersed among over 60 counties (http://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/deputate/airwaste/aq/aqm/pollt.html). Most stations report hourly measures of Ozone and PM-2.5, and only a handful also monitor one or more other substances such as CO, NOx, SO ₂ or H2S. One county in Southwestern PA has additional air quality stations. Allegheny has a county health department that maintains 17 stations to report real-time air quality based on Ozone, SO2 or PM-2.5 (https://alleghenycounty.us/Health-Department/Programs/Air-Quality/Air-Quality.aspx).
In sum, cancer risk estimates from air pollution fall short in the following ways:
Estimates of air quality do not reflect the reality of air pollution from CS as well as many other new sources such as increased truck traffic associated with shale gas development.
Tallies of annual emissions do not represent the actual exposures of individuals to pulses of toxins.
Models of air pollution and cancer are not sufficiently based on real world studies of impacts from multiple toxins in short and long-term exposures.
Figure 2. Cancer risk map in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 2005 from the National Air Toxics Assessment program in the EPA. Total Lifetime Cancer Risk from Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) per million. Colors indicate yellow for 28-78, gold for 79-95, light orange for 99-148, orange for 149-271, bright orange for 272-517, and red for 518-744 excess cancer risk per million. (https://www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment)
Figure 3. Cancer risk map in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 2014 from the National Air Toxics Assessment in the EPA. Facilities are locations where air quality information was available for modeling. Total Risk of cancer as a baseline was assumed to be 1 per 1,000,000. Estimates of risk predict known air pollution sources alone will cause 1-24 excess cancers per million in Light Pink areas, 25-49 excess cancers per million in Gray areas, and 50-74 excess cancers per million in Blue areas. Source: EPA.
Table 6. Amounts of pollutants known to be associated with cancer in a review of 18 New York compressor stations. Emissions were grouped and tallied based on their impacts on disorders classified by ICD codes as defined by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), a medical classification list by the World Health Organization. Source: Copy of Table 3b, Russo and Carpenter 2017.
Lip, oral cavity and pharynx
Respiratory system and intrathoracic organs
Bone and articular cartilage
Connective and soft tissue
Breast and female genital organs
Male genital organs
Eye, brain and central nervous system
Endocrine glands and related structures
Secondary and ill-defined
Malignant neoplasms, stated or presumed to be primary, of lymphoid, haematopoietic and related tissue
Malignant neoplasms of independent (primary) multiple sites
In situ neoplasms
Neoplasms of uncertain or unknown behavior
Measurements of Compressor Station Emissions
Studies of real-world concentrations of air pollutants from CS emissions are lacking, but some reports exist. Of these, a few records are in peer-reviewed studies, and cited in reviews such as Saunders et al. 2018. A few published reports are described below. They all show the high variation over time for CS emissions and the occurrence of peak concentrations.
Macey et al. (2014) observed ambient air near CS contained toxins at concentrations that impair health. They collected grab samples of air from industrial sites including CS in Arkansas and Pennsylvania and analyzed them for toxins using EPA approved methods. Most of the CS studied in Arkansas (Table 6) and Pennsylvania (Table 7) released formaldehyde at amounts associated with a cancer risk from exposure to this substance of 1/10,000 which is equivalent to 100 times higher risk than the widely accepted baseline risk of 1 per million. This means the amounts of formaldehyde found near CS substantially increased the risk of cancer using well-established federal analyses (https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/hac/phamanual/appf.html). Some toxins Macey et al. recorded are less well studied than formaldehyde and benzene. For example, 1,3-butadiene is classified by the EPA as a known human carcinogen, but a calculation of cancer risk for this substance is lacking. Air samples in the Macey study were collected close to the CS (e.g., 30-42m) and at greater distances (e.g., 254-460m). Those distant samples were well beyond the 750-foot set-back rule for Pennsylvania. At all these distances, air movement modeling predicts that toxins released from a source such as a CS are likely to travel downwind within the air mass under most weather conditions, thus exposing residents near and further from CS. Many people, therefore, in homes, schools and businesses that are downwind of CS are likely to experience serious air toxins at concentrations that harm their health.
Air toxins were also measured by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 in a variety of unconventional gas extraction facilities including one CS in Washington County, PA. Brown et al. (2015) reported these data, showing the concentrations that citizens could experience near a compressor station varied greater than tenfold within a day and among consecutive days (Table 8). The length of time for peak concentrations was unknown, but Brown et al. used a model of weather including wind patterns to estimate citizens are likely to experience 118 peak concentrations per year.
Goetz et al. (2015) sampled air in Marcellus shale regions of Pennsylvania for short periods (1-2.5 hrs.) at distances 480-1100 meters from eight CS, four with relatively small capacity (5,000-9,000 hp) and four with moderate capacity (14,000-17,000 hp). They found that each CS had a different pattern of relatively higher concentrations of some pollutants, such as NOX versus other pollutants, e.g., CO. Also, totals of all pollutants did not correlate with compressor engine capacity, probably because the CS they sampled include a mix of engines using fossil fuels and electric power. Goetz et al. concluded with recommendations for more comprehensive and longer-term monitoring to better understand air pollution from CS and all components in shale gas development.
Radionuclides in CS emissions are almost never measured, even though Marcellus shales are well known for containing elevated amounts of radiologic substances such as uranium, radium and radon. The only published report of testing for radionucleotides in CS emissions in PA was a test of a single CS emission for one period of time. In a review of radiation in shale gas industry components, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) measured radon (Rn) in ambient air at one CS by deploying sample bags in four cardinal directions at the fence line at a height of 5 feet for 62 days. They reported Rn concentrations of 0.1-0.8 pCi/L, values they stated were within the range of outdoor air in the US. (https://www.dep.pa.gov/Business/Energy/OilandGasPrograms/OilandGasMgmt/Oil-and-Gas-Related-Topics/Pages/Radiation-Protection.aspx) Given the high variation of amounts of emissions from CS and variable chemistry in sources of gases released from combustion, blowdowns and leaks, frequent testing for radionucleotides should be standard in monitoring CS emissions.
Methane is the substance tracked most often in emissions from CS and other gas industry facilities because of its central role in operations, requirements to avoid explosive concentrations, and readily available measurement technology, in comparison to other substances emitted from CS. Although methane emissions from CS are not always correlated with amounts of other, more toxic emissions, patterns observed in plumes of methane from CS are likely to reflect elevated concentrations of other harmful substances from CS.
Nathan et al (2015) sampled methane emissions from one CS in the Barnett shale region using a sensor carried on a model aircraft. The open-path, laser sensor produced measures with a precision of 0.1 ppmv over short intervals, allowing researchers to see emission variation in time and space as the aircraft changed position. Based on 22 flights within a week period, they observed a substantial range in methane released from 0.3 – 73 g CH4 per second. These values calculate to 0.02 – 6.3 metric tons of methane per day, a range that matches that estimated by Goetz of 0.5 – 9 metric tons per day. In addition, Nathan et al. found high variability in concentrations at different heights, as the emission plumes shifted in response to wind velocity, direction and topography. They recommend caution in interpretations of ground-based emission monitors and called for more monitoring of air movements and emissions at different elevations.
Payne et al. 2017 confirmed these ideas when they mapped plumes of methane in CS in New York and Pennsylvania using a sensor capable of recording methane in parts per million (ppm) every 0.25 – 5 seconds. The sensor was located on a mobile unit that marked GPS location. They found high variability in the shape and extent of plumes. For example, one of most extensive plumes was recorded near Dimock, Pennsylvania in a locale with CS as the only major source of methane. Researchers recorded the highest concentrations of methane in the study, 22 ppm, at 500 m from the CS, with a second peak of 0.6 ppm noted over 1 km from the CS and elevated methane as far as 3 km from the site (Figure 4). Wind direction did not always predict the shape of the plume, but data collection was restricted by the path of the sensor and the transport vehicle (Figure 8). Most importantly, they found that …“during atmospheric temperature inversions, when near-ground mixing of the atmosphere is limited or does not occur, residents and properties located within 1 mile of a compressor station can be exposed to rogue methane from these point sources.” These residents are likely to also experience excess toxins from CS as well, especially under such weather conditions.
Exposure to peak concentrations of air pollutants have dramatic effects on health for several reasons. First, lungs carry toxins into the blood within seconds, and the blood quickly transfers compounds to the brain and other vital organs. Many of the substances released by compressor stations impact the central nervous system as seen in Table 3, and these toxins are released simultaneously. Citizens, therefore inhaling a plume of emissions will have impacts from the total of these compounds. The health impacts for these combined toxins are unknown, and especially of concern during pregnancy and child development. Exposure studies in animals and humans test individual substances and the Center for Disease Control and NIOSH use these to develop exposure guidelines for a healthy adult in a work-place. In contrast, residents near compressor stations will include citizens of all ages with various health conditions. For example, the American Lung Association determined that over 50% of the 360,000 residents of Westmoreland County are at greater risk for health impairment due to air pollution because they have one or more of these conditions: asthma, diabetes, heart disease, respiratory illness, advanced age (https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/key-findings/people-at-risk.html).
In sum, the research on CS emissions of methane, air pollutants such as NOx, and hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene, all indicate exposures to CS emissions pose a threat to public health, but the emissions have not yet been fully quantified and modeled. Documenting CS contributions to harmful ambient air quality is feasible, however. The published studies from as far back as 2011 indicate that instrumentation to record substances and weather are readily available. Activities within a station such as compressor function, blowdowns, venting and flaring are all recorded by operators, but such reports are not released to researchers or the public. The science of models that predict public health risks in response to air pollution exposure are highly developed. In sum, operators of CS have the technology to measure emissions and ambient air quality and scientists have the models, but lack of industry data prevents the public from knowing impacts from CS.
Table 6. Air toxins found in grab samples near Arkansas compressor stations including concentrations, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), Minimum Risk Level (MRL) exceedance, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) cancer risk. Source: Copy of Table 4 from Macey et al. 2014.
EPA IRIS cancer risk exceeded
355 m from compressor
42 m from compressor
30 m from compressor
355 m from compressor
42 m from compressor
237 m from compressor
42 m from compressor
254 m from compressor
C = chronic; I = intermediate.
Table 7. Air toxins found in grab samples near Pennsylvania compressor stations including concentrations, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), Minimum Risk Level (MRL) exceedance, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) cancer risk. Source: Copy of Table 5 from Macey et al. 2014
EPA IRIS cancer risk exceeded
420 m from compressor
370 m from compressor
270 m from PIG launcha
790 m from compressor
C, I, A
420 m from compressor
C, I, A
230 m from compressor
460 m from compressor
C = chronic; A = acute; I = intermediate.
aLaunching station for pipeline cleaning or inspection tool.
Table 8. Variation in air pollutants measured in ug/cubic meter by PA DEP during two sampling times per day for three consecutive days near a compressor station in Southwest PA. Source: Copied from Table 1. Brown et al. 2015 based on data from Southwestern Pennsylvania Short Term Marcellus Ambient Air Sampling Report, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Nov. 2010.
Figure 4. Methane emission plumes from compressor stations near Dimock, Pennsylvania (left) and Springvale, Pennsylvania (right). Source: Copied from Payne et al. 2017.
Compressor Station Locations
Prior to 2008, compressor stations were infrequent with one or a few per county broadly distributed across PA as part of gas transport from locations outside of PA (Figure 5). These pipelines were mainly an issue for public health in the case of explosions. Major transmission pipelines use pressures up to 1500 psi. Leaks, therefore, release large amounts of gas much of which is not noticed because it lacks the mercaptan odorant added to household methane. For example, the 30-inch Spectra gas pipeline that exploded in 2016 in Westmoreland County caused a hole 12 feet deep and1500 square feet in area and burned 40 acres. The PA DEP claimed to have measured air quality, but they did not arrive until long after the plume from the fire traveled downwind. This pipeline was transporting gas from one of the largest gas storage facilities in the country, the Sunoco Gas Depot in Delmont, Pennsylvania to New Jersey as part of over 9,000 miles of pipelines in the Texas Eastern system from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast. That section of pipeline was built in 1981 and had recently been increased in pressure, probably using older or newer compressors in nearby locations. Faulty joints between pipeline sections were blamed for the catastrophic release of gas. (Phillips, S. 2016. State Impact, NPR). Immediately after the explosion, while gas continued to pour out of the pipeline, emergency workers needed at least one hour to locate shut-off locations. In general, pipeline shut-offs are sited at compressors stations or at intervals along a pipeline.
CS abundance in counties with shale gas extraction increased over tenfold in the decade after 2005 when the gas industry obtained exemptions to the Clean Water Act and began unconventional gas extraction in Pennsylvania (Figure 6). Permit applications for new wells, pipelines and CS continue throughout southwest Pennsylvania. In PA, the Oil and Gas law states the following: “ In order to allow for the reasonable development of oil and gas resources, a local ordinance … Shall authorize natural gas compressor stations as a permitted use in agricultural and industrial zoning districts and as a conditional use in all other zoning districts, if the natural gas compressor building meets the following standards:….(i) is located 750 feet or more from the nearest existing building or 200 feet from the nearest lot line, whichever is greater, unless waived by the owner of the building or adjoining lot;” (Pennsylvania Statutes Title 58 Pa.C.S.A. Oil and Gas §3304). CS and many aspects of the shale gas industry are controlled by this state law.
Each stage of gas extraction involves emissions that can be close or far from the well pad. Most emissions involve diesel engines. Diesel engines are well-known to produce substantial amounts of VOC’s, NOx and particulate pollution (PM-2.5, PM-10). Well pad construction requires intense activity by diesel trucks and earth moving equipment. Well drilling uses diesel engines. From 3 – 5 million gallons of water are used for each fracking event and up to 300 truck visits are needed to transport water for the many wells that are not close to water supplies from piped sources. Trucks are used to transport the 1 – 2 million gallons of produced water that emerges from the well for disposal in injection wells likely to be distant from most wells. Additional waste is carried long distances as well, including drill cuttings and sludge. For example, shale gas industry waste was handled for years in Max Environmental, one of the largest industrial waste sites in the eastern US located in Yukon, Westmoreland County since the 1960’s. Within one mile of Yukon is Reserved Environmental, a waste facility with operations focused since 2008 on processing sludge from fracking into solid cakes to be trucked to other landfills. In sum, all stages of shale gas industry contribute to many poorly documented sources of air pollution likely to be near CS.
The density of CS in some areas such as southwest Pennsylvania impacts the local and regional air quality. For example, Westmoreland County has 50 CS and 341 shale gas wells (https://www.fractracker.org) and some neighboring counties have even more shale gas emission sources. People in Westmoreland County receive pollutants from shale gas activities in their immediate vicinity and additional air pollutants from CS and other industries in neighboring counties. Wind patterns shown in Figure 7 indicate Westmoreland County is frequently downwind from Washington County, a county with a very high density of shale gas operations, and Eastern Allegheny County where large industries such as coke works release substantial amounts of air pollutants.
Figure 5. Compressor Stations prior to 2008 and in around 2013. Source: Copied from article by James Hilton in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Figure 6. Compressor Stations in Pennsylvania mapped in 2019. Source: FracTracker Alliance. 2000.
Figure 7. Wind patterns at small airports around Pennsylvania 1991-2005 showing predominant direction of wind and velocity in knots (Orange 0 – 4, Yellow 4 – 7, Turquoise 7 – 11, Medium Blue 11 – 17, Dark Blue 17 – 21). Source: The Pennsylvania State Climatologist.
Costs of Compressor Stations and Air Pollution
As permanent, constant sources of air and noise pollution and safety risks, CS add significant costs to communities. Poor air quality alone is well-established as an economic drain for a region due to many factors including increased health care, lower property values, a declining tax base, and difficulty in attracting new businesses or housing development. Litovitz et al. (2013) estimated that, compared to other activities of shale gas extraction, CS made up the majority of the annual emissions of important air toxins in 2011, and therefore a majority of the damages from air pollution, totaling 4 – 24 million dollars of the 7 – 32 million dollars of the aggregate air pollution damages from gas operations (Table 9).
Litovitz and others recognize that the costs of damages from the gas industry air pollution in 2011 may appear smaller than the state-wide impacts from other industries, such as coal burning power plants and coke production, but that appearance deserves a second look. First, shale gas extraction activities are concentrated in a few regions of Pennsylvania, and local air quality is most relevant to public health and local economics such as property values. Second, emissions from gas extraction in 2011 was only in its early stages in Pennsylvania and shale gas operations will expand greatly unless regulations change, while coal-fired power plants are declining due to the advanced age of most facilities. For example, in Westmoreland County, PA alone there are over 50 CS in 2020, the number currently in the entire state of New York, where unconventional gas development was suspended due, in large part, to concerns for public health. Costs from one aspect of an energy sector can be viewed in the context of economic and other benefits of alternative energy efforts. For example, Jacobson et al. (2013) estimated that shifting to clean, renewable energy in NY state would prevent 4000 premature deaths each year and save $33 billion/year through air pollution reductions that impact health care, crop production and other costs. Jacobson et al. used government data in their models regarding health benefits and also identified substantial job growth during and after the transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. Pennsylvania has the potential to attain similar benefits in air quality, public health, savings and job growth gained from a shift to clean, renewable energy in place of fossil fuels.
Table 9. a) Emissions from shale gas industry in 2011 throughout Pennsylvania in metric tons per year. b) Costs of damages due to air pollution from shale gas extraction in 2011 throughout Pennsylvania. Copied from Tables 5 and 6 in Litovitz et al. 2013.
(2) Well drilling and hydraulic fracturing
(4) Compressor stations
17 000–28 000
ᵃ These totals are reported to two significant figures, as are all intermediate emissions values in this document. The activity emissions may not exactly sum to the totals.
Total regional damage for 2011 ($2011)
Average per well or per MMCF damage ($2011)
$320 000–$810 000
$180–$460 per well
(2) Well drilling, fracturing
$2 200 000–$4 700 0
$1 200-$2 700 per well
$290 000–$2 700 0
$0.27-$2.60 per MMCF
(4) Compressor stations
$4 400 000–$24 000 000
$4.20-$23.00 per MMCF
$7 200 000–$32 000 000
Major Studies Cited in Text:
Brown, David, Celia Lewis, Beth I. Weinberger and Heather Bonaparte. 2014. Understanding air exposure from natural gas drilling put air standards to the test. Reviews in Environmental Health. https://doi.org/10.1515/reveh-2014-0002
Brown, David, Celia Lewis and Beth I. Weinberger. 2015. Human exposure to unconventional natural gas development; a public health demonstration of high exposure to chemical mixtures in ambient air. Journal of Environmental Science and Health (Part A) 50: 460-472.
Goetz, J.D. E. Floerchinger, E., C. Fortner, J. Wormhoudt, P. Massoli, W. Berk Knighton, S.C. Herndon, C.E. Kolb, E. Knipping, S. L. Shaw, and P. F. DeCarlo. 2015. Atmospheric Emission Characterization of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Development Sites. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49, 7012−7020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.5b00452
Jacobson, MZ, RW Howarth, MA Delucchi, ST Scobie, JH Barth, M Dvorak, M Klevze, H. Hatkhuda, B. Mirand, NA Chowdhury, R Jones, L Plano, AR Ingraffea. 2013. Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight. Energy Policy 57: 585-601.
Macey, G.P., Breech, R., Chernaik, M. (2014) Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production: a community-based exploratory study. Environ Health 13, 82 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-069X-13-82
McKenzie, LM, G Ruisin, RZ Witter, DA Savitz, LS Newman, JL Adgate. 2014. Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado. Environmental Health Perspectives Vol 22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1306722.
Payne, RA, P Wicker, ZL Hildenbrand, DD Carlton, and KA Schug. 2017. Characterization of methane plumes downwind of natural gas compressor stations in Pennsylvania and New York. Science of The Total Environment 580:1214-1221
Russo, PN and DO Carpenter 2017. Health Effects Associated with Stack Chemical Emissions from NYS Natural Gas Compressor Stations: 2008-2014 Institute for Health and the Environment, A Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Environmental Health, University at Albany, 5 University Place, Rensselaer New York. Https://www.albany.edu/about/assets/Complete_report.pdf
Saunders, P.J., D. McCoy. R. Goldstein. A. T. Saunders and A. Munroe. 2018. A review of the public health impacts of unconventional natural gas development Environ Geochem Health 40:1–57. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-016-9898-x
Compressor Stations in Westmoreland Co. PA in Dec 2019, based on information from FracTracker Alliance, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Air Quality Report, and the Department of Homeland Security.
CNX GAS CO/HICKMAN COMP STA
PEOPLES TWP/RUBRIGHT COMP STA
CNX GAS CO/BELL POINT COMP STA
RW GATHERING LLC/ECKER BERGMAN RD COMP STA
RE GAS DEV/ORGOVAN COMP STA
RW GATHERING LLC/SALEM COMP STA
RW GATHERING LLC/ECKER BERGMAN RD COMP STA
EQT GATHERING LLC/DERRY COMP STA
Layman Compressor, Range Resources Appalachia, LLC
Key Rock Energy/LLC
Kriebel Minerals Inc./Sony Compressor Station (Inactive)
Lynn Compressor, Kriebel Minerals Inc.
Range Resources Appalachia/ Layman Compressor Station
Keyrock Energy LLC/ Hribal Compresor Station, East Huntingdon, Pa. (active)
KeyRock Energy LLC/ Hribal Compressor Station (Active)
Range Resources Appalachia/Schwartz Comp. Station
TEXAS KEYSTONE/FAIRFIELD TWP COMP STA
EQUITRANS LP/W FAIRFIELD COMP STA
DIVERSIFIED OIL & GAS LLC/MURPHY COMP SITE
TEXAS KEYSTONE INC/ MURPHY COMP STA
Silvis Compressor Station, Exco Resources Pa. Inc
Dominion Trans Inc., Lincoln Heights
CNX Gas Co. LLC
CNX Gas Co. LLC/ Jackson Compressor Station, Status: Active
PEOPLES NATURAL GAS CO/ARNOLD COMP STA
Lower Burrell City
TEXAS KEYSTONE INC/LOYALHANNA
HUNTLEY & HUNTLEY INC/BOARST COMP STA
MTN GATHERING LLC/10078 MAINLINE COMP STA
Dominion Trans Inc/Jeannette
DOMINION ENERGY TRANS INC/ROCK SPRINGS COMP STA
EQT GATHERING/SLEEPY HOLLOW COMP STA
EQT GATHERING/SLEEPY HOLLOW COMP STA
COLUMBIA GAS TRANS CORP/DELMONT COMP STA
LAUREL MTN MIDSTREAM OPR LLC/SALEM COMP STA
CNX Gas Co./ Jacobs Creek Compressor Station,
South Huntingdon Twp
Rex Energy I LLC/Launtz
Keyrock Energy LLC/ Unity Compressor Station
Nelson/RE Gas Dev LLC
People’s Natural Gas/ Latrobe Compressor Station
CNX Gas Co. LLC, Troy Compressor Station
Dominion Peoples (Inactive)
HUNTLEY & HUNTLEY INC/WASHINGTON STATION
PEOPLES NATURAL GAS/MERWIN COMP STA
HUNTLEY & HUNTLEY INC/TARPAY STA
Mamont (CNX GAS CO/MAMONT COMP STA)
CONE MIDSTREAM PARTNERS LP/MAMONT COMP STA
Feature image of a compressor station within Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance, June 2016.
A recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University estimated that for every three job years created by fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one year of life is lost for a resident due to increased pollution exposure. As fracking continues to expand around the perimeter of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania — one of the top ten most polluted regions in the U.S. — we’re called to question how this industry is impacting the area’s already poor air quality. To answer this question, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), and FracTracker Alliance conducted a study on air quality around sites impacted by fracking development.
Over the course of this past year, we set up air monitors in seven communities in or near Allegheny County with current or proposed oil and gas infrastructure, with the goal of gathering baseline data and identifying possible public health concerns.
The sites in question are mapped and described below. Click on the arrow to scroll through maps of the different sites.
North Braddock: Merrion Oil and Gas has proposed a fracking well on the property of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, near where North Braddock, East Pittsburgh, and North Versailles meet.
Plum Borough: Penneco has proposed to build a wastewater disposal well in Plum Borough. We placed three monitors at homes in areas where the air is likely to be impacted by construction and truck traffic should the wastewater disposal well be installed.
Economy Borough (Beaver County): We monitored around PennEnergy Resource’s B50 well pad, which recently began construction. Of particular concern to residents is the increase in truck traffic along a narrow road in a residential neighborhood that will be used to access the well pad.
Frazer Township: Monitoring took place around the Gulick, Schiller, and Bakerstown well pads.During their monitoring period, there was reported fracking activity on one well, and drilling activity on another.
Elizabeth Township: Monitoring occurred around three EQT and Olympus Energy fracked well pads listed as active; fracking reportedly occurred on one well pad during the monitoring period.
Indiana Township: Monitoring followed the construction of the Miller Jr. fracked well pad.
Stowe Township: Monitoring occurred in Stowe Township, where McKees Rocks Industrial Enterprise (MRIE) is located, and in adjacent McKees Rocks. This facility processes and transports frac sand, which operators use to frack a well by injecting it at extremely high pressures underground.
PM2.5 is a pollutant small enough to enter our lungs and bloodstream and therefore poses a great risk to human health.
The process of constructing, drilling and fracking a well releases a variety of pollutants, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nitrous oxides (NOx).
Allegheny County has some of the worst air quality in the nation. In recent years, the air quality in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, which had been improving since 2005, began to worsen. This is due in part to fracking activities.
There are 163 fracked wells that have been drilled in Allegheny County, all of which pose a threat to human health.
This initial air quality study by Southwest Environmental Health Project and FracTracker found that areas with proposed fracking sites are particularly vulnerable because they already have poor air quality.
Further investigations will need to monitor air quality throughout different stages of development and during different seasons in order to provide meaningful comparisons of changes in air quality that could be correlated with oil and gas development.
Allegheny’s air – from bad to worse
In recent years, the air quality in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, which had been improving since 2005, began to worsen. According to the 2019 State of the Air report, levels of ozone and particle pollution increased over 2015-2017 (Figure 1).
This fact echoes a nationwide trend. Another study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that after several years of improvement, air pollution in the United States worsened in 2017 and 2018. The study cited several possible explanations, including increased natural gas production, more wildfires, and a rollback on Clean Air Act regulations by the EPA.
While Allegheny County’s air pollution is largely attributable to steel, coal, and chemical plants, in the last decade, the oil and gas industry has brought many new sources of pollution to the area.
As of December, 2019, operators have drilled 163 fracking wells in the county (Table 1) and constructed nine compressor stations. Additional pollution caused by the oil and gas industry is attributable to the thousands of truck trips required to frack a well.
Table 1. Fracked wells in Allegheny County by municipality
The fracking process releases emissions that can affect human health at every stage of its lifespan. Research has linked fracking to immediate health symptoms, such as burning eyes, sore throat, and headaches. Ongoing research has identified the potential for long term health impacts, such as cardiovascular disease and adverse birth outcomes.
Air pollution from the oil and gas industry does not impact everyone equally. An individual’s response to exposure varies depending on factors such as age and health conditions.
There is also a great deal of variation amongst wells and compressor stations when it comes to emissions. As such, the best way to understand someone’s exposure is to monitor the places they frequent, such as the home, school, or workplace.
Types of Pollutants
The process of drilling and fracking a well releases a variety of pollutants, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nitrous oxides (NOx). Table 2, below, shows reported emissions from gas wells in Allegheny County for 2017.
Table 2. Reported emissions from Allegheny County gas wells in 2017, from the PA DEP
Emission Amount (Tons)
Xylenes (Isomers And Mixture)
Our study looked at particulate matter (PM) – a mix of solid particles and liquids found in the air, like dust, soot, and smoke. Specifically, the study focused on PM2.5, which are particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter (Figure 2). PM forms during construction activities, combustion processes such as those in diesel engines, and from industrial sites and facilities.
Fracking and its associated processes release hazardous chemicals into the air, which then attach to PM2.5. Additionally, combustion engines of trucks and machinery used to construct well sites and drill wells release diesel emissions, including PM2.5. Compressor stations and flaring are additional sources.
PM2.5 is small enough to enter our lungs and bloodstream and therefore poses a great risk to human health. Their health impacts include reduced lung function and cardiovascular disease, as well as short term effects such as sinus irritation.
Figure 2. Particulate matter diagram, from the US EPA
The monitors were placed at varying distances and directions from the facility in question, not exceeding 1.5 miles from the facility in question. We used Speck monitors indoors and Purple Air monitors outdoors; both types measured the concentration of particulate matter over roughly one month.
The EPA’s guideline for exposure to PM2.5 is 35 μg/m3 averaged over 24 hours. However, averaging exposure over 24 hours can obscure peaks- relatively short time spans of elevated PM2.5 concentrations. While it is normal for peaks to occur occasionally, high, long, or frequent peaks in pollution can affect people’s health, particularly with acute impacts such as asthma attacks.
The graphs below show our results. On each graph, you’ll see three to five lines, one for each outdoor monitor. Lines that follow similar trends show data that is likely an accurate representation of air quality in the community. Lines that stray from the pack may represent a unique situation that only that house is experiencing.
In addition to graphing the results, EHP used the following parameters to analyze the data:
Frequency of peaks
Duration of peaks
Time between peak exposures
Baseline (level of particles generally found outside when peaks are not occurring)
Total sum (or quantity) of peak exposure
These five parameters were compared to EHP’s data gathered from roughly 400 sites in Ohio, West Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania. This database compiles air quality data from locations that have no infrastructure present as well as nearby sites such as well pads, compressor stations, frac-sand terminals, processing facilities, etc.
In the table below, numbers in green indicate values that are better than EHP’s averages, while red values show values that are worse than the average of EHP’s dataset. Black numbers show values that are average.
Table 3. EHP/FracTracker sites of air quality investigation in Allegheny County
*The proposed well is near the intersection of East Pittsburgh, North Braddock, and North Versailles
**Monitors were also placed in neighboring McKees Rocks
~In homes where baseline levels of PM2.5 are low, such as in Frazer and Economy, peaks are more easily registered in our analysis, but they typically have a smaller magnitude compared to homes that have high baselines.
Communities with proposed sites
In North Braddock and Plum Borough, the outdoor air monitors collected data around sites of future and/or proposed activity. This baseline monitoring helps us understand what the air is like before oil and gas activity and is essential for understanding the future impact of oil and gas development in a community.
In these neighborhoods, we found worse than average values for total accumulation of PM2.5. This may be due to other patterns of PM2.5 movement in the area related to weather and surrounding sources of pollution. North Braddock is an urban environment, and therefore has pollution from traffic and buildings. Another source is the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, one of the county’s top polluters. While Plum Borough is more rural, it also contains an active fracking well pad and is near a coal-fired power plant and a gas power plant.
If constructed, the proposed fracking well and the proposed wastewater disposal well will add additional pollution from construction, truck traffic, and in North Braddock’s case, emissions from the well itself. This may pose a significant health risk, especially in vulnerable populations like children and those with preexisting health conditions.
Communities with constructed well pads
Emissions vary across the timeline of drilling and fracking a well. Figure 2 below shows reported emissions of PM2.5 and VOCs from different components of a fracking operation. PM2.5 emissions are highest during drilling (when the well bore is formed) and completion (when the well is fracked by injecting high volumes of water, sand, and chemicals at tremendous pressure). For a step by step outline of the fracking process, check out FracTracker’s fracking operation virtual tour.
Figure 2. 2017 emissions from Allegheny County gas wells at different stages in the fracking process, reported to the PA DEP
Our monitoring in Economy Borough, where construction on PennEnergy Resources’ B50 well pad had just begun, showed air quality that is better than EHP’s averages. However, if the wells on the well pad are drilled and fracked, EHP hopes to provide monitors again to track changes in air quality. In addition to emissions from the fracking well, which is close to the Chestnut Ridge housing development, residents are concerned about truck traffic along Amsler Ridge Road.
In Indiana, while residents reported truck traffic to the site, the wells were not fracked during the monitoring period. The measurements were average or slightly above the average EHP typically sees near homes. Looking at these results, peak duration was flagged, and the total sum of particulate matter was slightly elevated compared to our average suggesting that the long durations may ignite a health response in sensitive individuals. Other sources that could be contributing to pollution include the PA Turnpike and the Redland Brick manufacturer.
In Frazer, there was reported fracking activity on one well and drilling activity on another; these time periods were only slightly elevated on the hourly average charts. Monitors were left at two households in Frazer because there was an indication that fracking would start soon.
In Elizabeth Township, air quality measurements were generally better compared to the rest of EHP’s data, but there were clear peaks that all monitors registered which generated a similar, if not potentially higher, amounts of accumulated PM2.5.
Frac sand facility
Finally, monitors around MRIE, the frac sand processing facility in Stowe Township, showed air quality that may pose a health risk. The peaks in these neighborhoods generated a higher amount of accumulated PM2.5 and lasted longer compared to the rest of our data. In addition to pollution from MRIE and its associated trucks and trains, the neighborhood has many sources of pollution, including highways and industrial facilities on Neville Island.
This study is limited in that PM2.5 was the only pollutant that the Purple Air and Speck monitors captured. To understand the complete burden of air pollution residents are exposed to, other pollutants such as VOCs, must be monitored.
Additionally, monitoring occurred over a short time period. Further investigations will need to monitor air quality throughout different stages of development and during different seasons in order to provide meaningful comparisons of changes in air quality that could be correlated with oil and gas development. EHP will continue to monitor around certain active sites to watch for changes in the data.
If you’re concerned about health or environmental impacts from a well in your neighborhood, make sure to document the issue by taking notes, photos, and videos, and file a complaint with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. To report an environmental health concern, reach out to the Department of Health by phone at 1-877 PA Health (1-877-724-32584) or email (RA-DHENVHEALTH@pa.gov). If you’re an employer or worker and have health or safety concerns, reach out to your area’s OSHA office or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
While cleaning up the air in your community is difficult, there are steps you can take to protect the air in your home. With the average American spending 90% of their time indoors, the air inside can greatly impact your health. For this project, we also set up air monitors in residents’ homes so participants could better understand these risks. Visit EHP’s resources under the section “What You Can Do” to learn more about protecting your indoor air quality. To learn more about how fracking is impacting residents in southwest Pennsylvania, explore the Environmental Health Channel.
Finally, help us crowdsource new data on the impacts and status of oil and gas development in your community by reporting what you see, hear, smell, and question on the FracTracker mobile app (also available from your computer!). Those living near oil and gas infrastructure are the best source of knowledge when it comes to understanding the impacts of this industry. With your help, we want to make sure all of these impacts are being documented to inform decision makers and residents about the risks of fracking.
Many thanks to the Southwest Environmental Health Project for including us as collaborators on this study.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/drilling-rig.jpg16673750Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgErica Jackson2019-12-18 10:56:062020-03-13 13:43:56Allegheny County Air Quality Monitoring Project
“The Iroquois…called Pine Creek ‘Tiadaghton’ meaning either ‘The River of Pines’ or ‘The Lost or Bewildered River’.”[i] The river’s iconic watershed in North Central Pennsylvania spans 979 square miles, spanning parts of Clinton, Lycoming, Potter, and Tioga counties, and an infamous 47-mile gorge through which the Pine Creek flows. At 87 miles in length, it is the largest tributary to the West Branch Susquehanna River.[ii]
In 1964, Congress included Pine Creek as one of 27 rivers under study for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System.[iii] Four years later, the US Department of the Interior designated twelve miles of the canyon a National Natural Landmark. In 1992, Pine Creek was recognized as a Pennsylvania Scenic River.[iv] These accolades underscore its vibrant beauty, ecological value, and cultural significance.
A rugged landscape carved into the Allegheny Plateau, the watershed contains extensive public lands and the highest concentrations of exceptional value (EV) and high quality (HQ) streams anywhere in Pennsylvania. It is a prized recreational attraction in the region known as the Pennsylvania Wilds, a destination for nature-based tourism. The area has endured episodes of resource extraction – logging, coal mining, and shallow gas development – but nothing quite the same as the assault from hundreds of new unconventional gas wells and the sprawling pads, pipelines, impoundments, compressor stations, and access roads accompanying such development.
Modern extraction is heavy industry – loud, dusty, and dirty. It is incongruent with the thick forests, sensitive habitats, hushed solitude, and star-drenched skies one expects to experience in many wilderness pursuits. Threats to air, water, and wildlife are manifest. Landscape fragmentation and forest loss are collateral damage. Ecological impacts, while sometimes immediate, are often insidious as they slowly degrade environmental health over time. The Oil and Gas Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) acknowledged in a 2012 presentation: “…that Marcellus Shale will be a long-term influence on the character of Pennsylvania landscapes.”[v] To what extent remains to be determined.
Writer and conservationist Samuel P. Hayes noted “The Pennsylvania Administrative Code of 1929 identified watershed protection as the primary purpose of the state forests.”[vi] Enduring more than 10 years of fracking history, and with more planned, the Pine Creek watershed is an experiment for this tenent and overdue for the geospatial examination that follows.
According to the NOAA, a watershed is a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays, and the ocean.
A LEGACY OF EXTRACTION
Humans have left their mark on Pine Creek for thousands of years, but the effects of timber and fossil fuel extraction in the last 220 years are most notable. Historical accounts and agency records provide substantial documentation of these impacts.
In 1799, Pine Creek’s first sawmill was set up near the confluence with Little Pine Creek. By 1810, eleven saw mills were in operation. In the next 30 years, that number rose to 145. Pine Creek earned the moniker of “Lumber Capital of the World,” but by the end of the Civil War, the great pine forests along Pine Creek were depleted due to clearcutting. By the end of the Civil War, the great pine forests along Pine Creek were depleted. Underappreciated for lumber, eastern hemlocks remained, but were eventually felled as well, their bark prized for tanning leather. The advent of logging railroads accelerated the forest’s demise. By the first years of the 20th century, the trees were all but gone, “…branches and stumps littered the mountainsides and sparks from locomotives created fires of holocaustal proportions.”[vii]
Sadly, much of the wildlife was gone too. Bounties, market hunting, and habitat loss had taken a toll. The area’s last timber wolf was killed in 1875. The beaver, otter, fisher, martin, lynx, and wolverine were exterminated by the early 1900s. The remaining solitary panthers lasted until the 1930s, then “faded into oblivion.”[viii]
While not often thought of as a part of Pennsylvania’s coal country, the Pine Creek Watershed has seen its share of coal mining and related activity. Coal was first discovered along the Babb Creek portion of the watershed in 1782, and mining operations began in earnest in the 1860s. By 1990, the area was so impacted by mine drainage and other pollution that there were no fish found in Babb Creek. Efforts to rehabilitate the stream have made some progress, raising the pH of the stream and restoring fish populations, to the point where Babb Creek was officially removed from the list of impaired streams in 2016.
Within the watershed’s abandoned mine areas, 68 specific sites totaling nearly 500 acres are flagged as “containing public health, safety, and public welfare problems created by past coal mining.” This represents more than 11% of the total mined area. Only five of these 68 sites – all strip mines – have completed the reclamation process.
Table 1. Problematic coal mine areas in the Pine Creek Watershed
Dry Strip Mine
Flooded Strip Mine
Known Subsidence Prone Area
Coal Processing Settling Basin
OIL & GAS
The oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania started with the Drake Well near Titusville in 1859, before the onset of the Civil War. In the years since, perhaps as many as 760,000 such wells have been drilled statewide.[ix] While the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the current state agency with regulatory oversight of the industry, it estimates that there could be as many as 560,000 wells drilled that they have no record of in their database. Given the lack of data for these early wells, it is not possible to know exactly how many wells have been drilled in the Pine Creek Watershed.[x]
Over a century ago, pollution was seen as the price to be paid for a job in timbering or mining. Some politicians seem to want a return to those bad old days by gutting some of our reasonable regulations that protect our air and water. Here, as in the rest of the Marcellus gas play, our politicians are not protecting our air and water as mandated in Article 1, Section 27 of our State Constitution.
-Dick Martin Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Forest Coalition and board member of Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation, PEDF
A Wealth of Public Lands & Recreational Opportunity
The Pine Creek Watershed is in the heart of the Pennsylvania Wilds, a 12-county region in North Central Pennsylvania focused on nature-based tourism. “Adventure to one of the largest expanses of green between New York City and Chicago,” touts the initiative’s website.[xi] The area includes over two million acres of public land, and is marketed for its notorious starry skies, quaint towns, large elk herd, and other attractions, like Pine Creek.
The watershed and its trails and public lands contribute substantially to the PA Wilds estate and offerings, including:
1,666 stream miles (187.6 miles Exceptional Value and 1,011.5 miles High Quality)
Eight state parks, spanning 4,713 acres (7.36 sq. miles)
Four state forests, covering 264,771 acres (414 sq. miles)
Eight natural areas
Three wild areas
Seven state game lands, totaling 51,474 acres (80.42 sq. miles)
And 31 trails, traversing 789 miles
These largely remote and rugged spaces are relished for their idyllic and pristine qualities. Modern extraction brings discordant traffic, noise, lights, and releases of pollutants into the air and water. Stream waters – ideal for trout, anglers, and paddlers – are siphoned for the fracturing process. Trails are interrupted by pipelines and access roads. The erosion of outdoor experiences is piecemeal and pervasive.
A recent study lends credence to the concern that shale gas development is incongruent with the region’s ecotourism and recreational goals. “The Impacts of Shale Natural Gas Energy Development on Outdoor Recreation: A Statewide Assessment of Pennsylvanians” found that “only a small population of Pennsylvania outdoor recreationists were impacted by [shale natural gas energy development (SGD)] related activities. In the regions of Pennsylvania where SGD was most prominent (e.g., North Central and Southwest), outdoor recreation impacts were considerably higher.”[xii]
Weak rules favor the gas companies and allow them to waste resources, pollute our air, and destroy our climate. Continued exploitation of our public lands diminishes the value of this common good.
Natural resource extraction in the Pine Creek Watershed did not stop with timber, coal, and traditional oil and gas. The drilling landscape in Pennsylvania changed dramatically around 2005, as operators began to develop the Marcellus Shale, a carbon-rich black shale that had eluded the industry for decades, because the rock formation was reluctant to release the large quantities of gas trapped within it. Based on successes in other shale formations, the Marcellus began to be drilled with a combination of horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing – now using millions of gallons of fluids, instead of tens of thousands – and built upon multi-acre well pads. Operators were successful in releasing the gas, and this type of well, known as “unconventional” drilling, took off in vast swaths of Pennsylvania. Similar techniques were extended to other formations, notably the Utica shale formation.
The map below shows the cumulative footprint of extractive practices in Pine Creek, with the exclusion of timber.
In 2018, unconventional wells in the Pine Creek Watershed produced 203 billion cubic feet of gas, which is more than the entire state of West Virginia consumed in 2017, not including electricity generation. To get all of that gas to market requires an extensive network of pipelines, and multi-acre compressor stations are required to push the gas through those pipes.
Pipeline data for the region, largely based on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) public pipeline viewer map, includes over 85 miles of pipelines in the watershed. However, this data does not include any of the gathering lines that crisscross the watershed, connecting the drilling sites to the midstream network.
Among other concerns, gas pipelines need to be placed in areas where they will not be impacted by tree roots, and so operators clear a 50-foot wide right-of-way, at minimum. This width results in the clearing of more than 6 acres per linear mile of pipe, which would be a total of 515 acres for the known pipeline routes in the region. However, the 50-foot width is a minimum, and some rights-of-way exceeding 300 feet were observed in the watershed, which would require the clearing of more than 36 acres per linear mile. These land clearing impacts are in addition to those required for well pads, access roads, and other infrastructure.
Many of the compressor stations in the Pine Creek Watershed are considered major pollution sources, and therefore require a Title V permit from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means that they either produce at least 10 tons per year of any single hazardous air pollutant, or at least 25 tons of any combination of pollutants on the list.
Missing pipeline data is evidenced by FracTracker’s records of many compressor stations that are not along documented pipeline routes. Of the 26 compressors in the watershed that we have records for, only six are within 250 meters of known pipeline routes. Similarly, only 29 of the 594 drilled unconventional wells in the watershed are within the quarter-kilometer radius of known pipeline routes. One way or another, all compressors and well sites have to be connected to pipelines.
Table 2. Oil & Gas Well Status in the Pine Creek Watershed
Oil & Gas Well Status
# of Wells
Operator reported not drilled
Proposed but never materialized
The PA DEP has records for 1,374 oil and gas wells within the watershed, although not all of these were actually drilled. Of these wells, 404 wells have an official status of “operator reported not drilled,” while an additional 111 have a similar status of “proposed but never materialized.” Of the remaining 859 wells, 554 are currently considered active (including 25 conventional and 529 unconventional wells). An active status is given once the well is proposed — even before it is officially permitted by DEP, let alone drilled. The status remains until some other status applies.
Seventy-four wells are considered to be “regulatory inactive” (four conventional, 71 unconventional), meaning that the well has not been in production for at least a year, and must meet several other requirements. The remainder of the wells in the watershed have reached the end of their functional life, of which 168 have been plugged (119 conventional, 49 unconventional). This is done by filling the well bore with concrete, and is considered permanent, although the plugs have been known to fail from time to time. Fifty-seven additional conventional wells are considered abandoned, meaning that they are at the end of their useful life but have not been appropriately plugged, neither by the operator nor DEP. Five additional conventional wells are considered to be orphaned, which is a similar status to abandoned, but these wells are no longer linked to an operator active in the state. Given the lack of recordkeeping in the early part of the industry’s history in PA, the number of plugged, abandoned, and orphaned wells in the Pine Creek Watershed is likely significantly underrepresented.
Conventional drilling activity has essentially ceased in the watershed. A single well categorized as conventional, the Bliss 3H well, has been drilled in 2019. In fact, this well is almost certainly miscategorized. Not only does its well name follow conventions for horizontal unconventional wells, but the DEP’s formation report indicates that it is in fact drilled into the Marcellus Shale. Prior to Bliss 3H, the two most recent conventional wells were drilled in 2011.
Unconventional drilling is a different story altogether. In terms of the number of wells drilled, the peak within the Pine Creek Watershed was in 2011, with 186 wells drilled. That represented 9.5% of the statewide total that year, and Pine Creek is just one of 35 comparably sized watersheds targeted for unconventional development in Pennsylvania.
More recently, there were 16 wells drilled in the watershed in 2018, and 17 wells through the halfway point of 2019, indicating that the extraction efforts are once again on the upswing.
Table 3. Number of unconventional wells drilled in Pennsylvania and the Pine Creek Watershed
PINE CREEK WATERSHED
On May 9, 2019, nearly two dozen people descended upon the Pine Creek Watershed for the purpose of chronicling the impacts that the oil and gas industry is currently wreaking on the landscape. The documentation began early in the morning at the William T. Piper Memorial Airport in the town of Lock Haven, located in Clinton County. FracTracker Alliance organized the blitz with numerous partner organizations, including EarthWorks, Sierra Club, Save Our Streams PA, Responsible Drilling Alliance, Pennsylvania Forest Coalition, Environeers, Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group, and Lebanon Pipeline Awareness.
The massive watershed was broken up into 10 impact zones, which were mostly determined by concentrations of known sites such as well pads, compressor stations, retention ponds, and pipeline corridors.
Some people brought cameras and specialized equipment to Pine Ceek, such methane sensors and global positioning system devices. Participants were encouraged to try out the FracTracker Mobile App, which was designed to allow users to communicate and share the location of oil and gas concerns. Earthworks brought a FLIR infrared camera, which can capture volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that are typically invisible to the human eye, but that still pose significant risks to health and the environment. Others participants brought specialized knowledge of oil and gas operations from a variety of perspectives, from those who had previously interacted with the industry professionally, to those who have been forced to live in close proximity of these massive structures for more than a decade.
While we knew that it would not be possible to photograph every impact in the watershed, the results of this group effort were tremendous, including hundreds of photos, dozens of app submissions, and numerous infrared videos. All of these have been curated in the map above. In our exuberance, we documented a number of facilities that wound up not being in the Pine Creek Watershed – still impactful but beyond the scope of this project. In some cases, multiple photos were taken of the same location, and we selected the most representative one or two for each site. Altogether, the map above shows 22 aerial images, 84 app submissions, 46 additional photos, and nine infrared FLIR videos.
FracTracker also collaborated with a pilot from LightHawk, a nonprofit group that connects conservation-minded pilots with groups that can benefit from the rare opportunity to view infrastructure and impacts from the air. Together, LightHawk and FracTracker’s Ted Auch flew in a mostly clockwise loop around the watershed, producing the aerial photography highlighted in this article, and in the map below.
The benefits of being able to see these impacts from the air is incalculable. Not only does it give viewers a sense of the full scope of the impact, but in some cases, it provides access to sites and activities that would otherwise be entirely occluded to the public, such as sites with active drilling or hydraulic fracturing operations, or when the access roads are behind barriers that are posted as no trespassing zones.
It can be difficult to maintain a sense of the massive scale of these operations when looking at aerial images. One thing that can help to maintain this perspective is by focusing on easily identifiable objects, such as nearby trees or large trucks, but it is even more useful to cross-reference these aerial images with those taken at ground level.
Water – A Precious Resource
Drilling unconventional wells requires the use of millions of gallons of water per well, sometimes as high as 100 million gallons. Unconventional drilling operations in Pennsylvania are required to self-report water, sand, and chemical quantities used in the hydraulic fracturing stage of well production to a registry known as FracFocus. Because of this, we have a pretty good idea of water used for this stage of the operation.
This does not account for all of the industry’s water consumption. The amount of water required to maintain and operate pipelines, compressor stations and other processing facilities, and to suppress dust on well pads, access roads, and pipeline rights-of-way is unknown, but likely significant. Much of the water used for oil and gas operations in this watershed is withdrawn from rivers and streams and the groundwater beneath the watershed.
Table 3. Water consumption by well in the Pine Creek Watershed
EQUIVALENT PERSONS (ANNUAL USAGE)
Average Single Well
Maximum Single Well
All Wells (2013-2017)
There are 60 water-related facilities for oil and gas operations active within the watershed in 2019, including two ground water withdrawal locations, 20 surface water withdrawal locations, and 38 interconnections, mostly retention ponds. This dataset does not include limits on the 22 withdrawal locations, however, one of the surface withdrawal sites was observed with signage permitting the removal of 936,000 gallons per day. If this amount is typical, then the combined facilities in the watershed would have a daily capacity of about 20.6 million gallons, which is about 27 times the daily residential consumption within the watershed.
Predictably, water withdrawals ebb and flow with fluctuations in drilling activity, with peak consumption exceeding 1.2 billion gallons in the three-month period between April and June 2014, and an aggregate total of nearly 20.4 billion gallons between July 2008 and December 2016. It is not known what fraction of these withdrawals occurred in the Pine Creek Watershed.
Between October 22, 2007, and April 24, 2019, the Pennsylvania DEP issued 949 violations to unconventional oil and gas operations within the Pine Creek Watershed.[xiii] It can be difficult to know precisely what happened in the field based on the notations in the corresponding compliance reports. For example, if an operator failed to comply with the terms of their erosion and sediment control permit, it is unclear whether there was a sediment runoff event that impacted surface waters or not. However, as these rules were put into place to protect Pennsylvania’s waterways, there is no question that the potential for negative water impacts exists. Therefore, erosion and sedimentation violations are included in this analysis.
Other violations are quite explicit, however. The operator of the Hoffman 2H well in Liberty Township, Tioga County was cited for failing to prevent “gas, oil, brine, completion and servicing fluids, and any other fluids or materials from below the casing seat from entering fresh groundwater,” and failing to “prevent pollution or diminution of fresh groundwater.” A well on the Tract 007 – Pad G well pad was left unplugged. “Upon abandoning a well, the owner or operator failed to plug the well to stop the vertical flow of fluids or gas within the well bore.”
The violation description falls into more than 100 categories for sites within the watershed. We have simplified those as follows:
Table 4. Oil and gas violations in the Pine Creek Watershed
Casing / Cement Violation
Clean Streams Law Violation
Erosion & Sediment
Failed to Control / Dispose of Fluids
Failure to Comply With Permit
Failure to Plug Well
Failure to Prevent Pollution Event
Failure to Protect Water Supplies
Failure to Report Pollution Event
Failure to Restore Site
Industrial Waste / Pollutional Material Discharge
Rat Hole Not Filled
Residual Waste Mismanagement
Restricted Site Access to Inspector
Site Restoration Violation
Unmarked Plugged Well
Unpermitted Residual Waste Processing
Waste Analysis Not Completed
Water Obstruction & Encroachment
Altogether, 816 out of the 949 violations (86%) issued in the Pine Creek Watershed were likely to have an impact on either surface or ground water in the region. Two sites have more than 50 violations each, including the Phoenix Well Pad, with 116 violations in Duncan Township, Tioga County, and the Bonnell Run Hunting & Fishing Corp Well Pad in Pine Township, Lycoming County, with 94 violations.
When things go wrong with oil and gas operations, it is often residents in the surrounding areas that are exposed to the impacts. There are limited actions that affected neighbors can take, but one thing that they can do is register a complaint with the appropriate regulatory agency, in this case the Pennsylvania DEP.
A thorough file review was conducted by Public Herald for complaints related to oil and gas operations in PA, yielding 9,442 complaints between 2004 and 2016. While this includes all oil and gas related complaints, Public Herald’s analysis show that the frequency is highly correlated with the unconventional drilling boom that occurred within that time frame, with the number of new wells and complaints both peaking in 2011.
Many of these complaints occurred in the Pine Creek Watershed. It is impossible to know the exact number, as the precise location of the events was redacted in the records provided by DEP. Most of the records do include the county and in some cases, the municipality. Altogether, there were complaints in 32 municipalities that are either partially or entirely within the watershed, for a total of 185 total complaints. Of those, 116 of (63%) specifically indicate water impacts, spread out over 25 municipalities throughout the watershed.
Additional complaints with unspecified municipalities were received by DEP in Lycoming County (n=4), Potter County (n=4), and Tioga County (n=3). These counties substantially overlap with the Pine Creek Watershed, but the data is unclear as to whether or not these impacts were noted within the watershed or not.
It is worth remembering that complaints are dependent upon observation from neighbors and other passersby. As Pine Creek is composed of rugged terrain with vast swaths of public land, it is relatively sparsely populated. It is likely that if these drilling sites were placed in more densely populated areas, the number of complaints related to these operations would be even higher.
“It was 2007, and my water well was fine. I mean, I didn’t have any problem with it. I was cooking, drinking, bathing with it and everything else. Well, then after they drilled I thought it was kind of…it didn’t taste like it did before.”[xiv]
– Judy Eckhart
A Waste-Filled Proposition
Since the Pine Creek Watershed has been the site of considerable oil and gas extraction activity, it has also been the site of significant quantities of waste generated by the industry, which is classified as residual waste in Pennsylvania. This category is supposedly for nonhazardous industrial waste, although both liquid and solid waste streams from oil and gas operations pose significant risks to people exposed to them, as well as to the environment. Oil and gas waste is contaminated with a variety of dangerous volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, which are frequently highly radioactive. There are also a large number of chemicals that are injected into the well bore that flow back to the surface, the content of which is often kept secret, even from workers who make use of them onsite.
There were 37 sites in the Pine Creek Watershed that accepted liquid waste between 2011 and 2018. Of these sites, 30 (81%) were well pads, where flowback from drilling may be partially reused. While this reduces the overall volume of waste that ultimately needs to be disposed of, it frequently increases the concentration of hazardous contaminants that are found in the waste stream, which can make its eventual disposal more challenging. Most of the sites that accept waste do reuse that waste. However, the largest quantity of waste are from the remaining seven sites.
Table 5. Disposal of liquid gas waste in the Pine Creek Watershed
Reuse at Well Pads
One single site – the Hydro Recovery LP Antrim Facility in Pine Township, Lycoming County – accounted for the majority of liquid waste disposed in the watershed, with 6,622,255 barrels (278,134,704 gallons.) has This amounts to 98.8% of all liquid waste that was not reused at other well pads.
Wastewater is also spread on roads in some communities, as a way to suppress dust on dirt roads. 3,001 barrels (126,050 gallons) of liquid waste have been used for road spreading efforts in regions intersecting the watershed in Ulysses Township, Potter County, and across private lots and roads throughout Potter and Tioga counties. Note that these figures include waste generated from conventional wells, which have different legal requirements for disposal than waste from unconventional wells, despite a similar chemical profile.
There are three facilities that have accepted solid oil and gas waste in the watershed, including a small one operated by Environmental Products and Services of Vermont (55 tons), Hydro Recovery LP Antrim Facility (10,415 tons), and Phoenix Resources Landfill (900,094 tons). This includes 200,808 tons in 2018, which is close to the previous peak value of 216,873 tons accepted in 2012.
Figure 1. Tons of solid O&G waste accepted at the Phoenix Resources Landfill
Recap: How has a decade of fracking impacted the Pine Creek Watershed?
1,374 recorded oil and gas wells in the watershed
554 are currently considered active
including 25 conventional and 529 unconventional wells
949 violations to unconventional oil and gas operations within the Pine Creek Watershed, 86% of which were likely to have an impact on either surface or ground water
185 complaints in 32 municipalities that are either partially or entirely within the watershed
A minimum of 515 acres cleared for the known gas pipeline routes in the region
26 compressor stations in the watershed
850,648,219 gallons of water used to frack wells in the watershed between 2013-2017
60 water-related facilities for oil and gas operations active within the watershed active in 2019, including two ground water withdrawal locations, 20 surface water withdrawal locations, and 38 interconnections (mostly retention ponds)
37 sites in the Pine Creek Watershed that accepted liquid waste between 2011 and 2018
And When It’s Over?
In the last ice age, glaciers came from the finger lakes area into Pine Creek. This made the soil there very deep and rich– in fact, people come from all over to study that soil. The Pine Creek area could be a mecca for sustainable agriculture. There is great soil, excellent water, and plenty of space for wind and solar. Under the right leadership, this region of Pennsylvania could feed people in a time when climate resilience is so urgently needed.
–Melissa Troutman, Research & Policy Analyst, Earthworks. Director of “Triple Divide.” Journalist, Public Herald
The Pine Creek region retains a primeval grandeur – an alluring wild spirit of great pride and significance to our state. Natural gas development has – and will further – compromise the natural and experiential qualities of this special place. For the benefit of Pennsylvanians today and tomorrow, extraction must be replaced by cleaner forms of energy and conservation values made preeminent.
The Pine Creek Watershed in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin has seen more than its fair share of industrial impacts in the centuries since European contact, from repeated timber clearcutting, to coal extraction, to the development of unconventional oil and gas resources in the 21st century. Despite all of this, Pine Creek remains one of the Commonwealth’s natural gems, a cornerstone of the famed Pennsylvania Wilds.
Many of the impacts to the watershed could be thought of as temporary, in that they would likely stop occurring when the oil and gas developers decide to pack up and leave for good. This includes things like truck traffic, with all of the dust and diesel exhaust that accompanies that, pollution from compressor stations and leaky pipe junctions, and even most surface spills.
And yet in some ways, the ability of the land to sustain this industry becomes substantially impaired, and impacts become much more prolonged. Consider, for example, that prior logging efforts have permanently changed both the flora and fauna of the region. Similarly, while there is no more active coal mining in Pine Creek, almost 500 acres of sites deemed to be problematic remain, and some streams impacted by contaminated runoff and mine drainage have yet to return to their former pristine state, even decades later.
Unconventional drilling in the watershed will have similarly permanent impacts. While there is a legal threshold for site restoration, these multi-acre drill sites will not resemble the heavily forested landscape that once stood there when they reach the end of their useful life. Access roads and gathering lines that crisscross the landscape must be maintained until all well pads in the area are out of service, and then the aging infrastructure will remain in situ. Contaminated groundwater supplies are likely to take centuries to recover, if it is even possible at all.
Thousands of feet of rock once separated the unconventional formations from the surface. That distance was a barrier not just to the gas, but also to salty brines, toxic heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials that are present at those depths. To date, 593 holes have been drilled in the Pine Creek Watershed, creating 593 pathways for all of these materials to move to the surface. The only things keeping them in place are concrete and steel, both of which will inevitably fail over the course of time, particularly in the highly saline environment of an old gas well.
Even if the industry were to leave today and properly plug all of the wells in the Pine Creek Watershed, impacts from the drilling are likely to remain for many years to come.
[xiii]Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Oil and Gas Compliance Report Viewer. 2019. http://www.depreportingservices.state.pa.us/ReportServer/Pages/ReportViewer.aspx?/Oil_Gas/OG_Compliance
All aerial photography by TedAuch with flight support by LightHawk (May 2019).
Pine Creek compressor station FLIR camera footage by Earthworks (May 2019).
Project funding provided by:
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/DSC_0624_LowRes.jpg29444496Shannon Smithhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgShannon Smith2019-08-07 09:36:032020-03-20 17:32:33Wildness Lost - Pine Creek
In 2012, a battle between Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania was underway. Politicians and businesses from each state were eagerly campaigning for the opportunity to host Royal Dutch Shell’s “world-class” petrochemical facility. The facility in question was an ethane cracker, the first of its kind to be built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. In the end, Pennsylvania’s record-breaking tax incentive package won Shell over, and construction on the ethane cracker plant began in 2017.
Once completed, the ethane cracker will convert ethane from fracked wells into 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year.
Shell’s ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, PA. Image by Ted Auch, FracTracker.
Aerial support provided by LightHawk.
Ohio and West Virginia, however, have not been left out of the petrochemical game. In addition to the NGL pipelines, cryogenic plants, and fractionation facilities in these states, plans for ethane cracker projects are also in the works.
In 2017, PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC) put Ohio in second place in the “race to build an ethane cracker,” when it decided to build a plant in Belmont County, Ohio.
But first, why is the petrochemical industry expanding in the Ohio River Valley?
Fracking has opened up huge volumes of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Fracked wells in these states extract methane, which is then transported in pipelines and used as a residential, industrial, or commercial energy source. The gas in this region, however, contains more than just methane. Classified as “wet gas,” the natural gas stream from regional wells also contains natural gas liquids (NGLs). These NGLs include propane, ethane, and butane, and industry is eager to create a market for them.
Plastic pellets, also called “nurdles,” the end product of ethane crackers.
Major processing facilities, such as cryogenic and fractionation plants, receive natural gas streams and separate the NGLs, such as ethane, from the methane. After ethane is separated, it can be “cracked” into ethylene, and converted to polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. The plastic is shipped in pellet form to manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad, where it is made into a variety of plastic products.
By building ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley, industry is taking advantage of the region’s vast underground resources.
PTTGC ethane cracker: The facts
PTTGC’s website states that the company “is Thailand’s largest and Asia’s leading integrated petrochemical and refining company.” While this ethane cracker has been years in the making, the company states that “a final investment decision has not been made.” The image below shows land that PTTGC has purchased for the plant, totaling roughly 500 acres, in Dilles Bottom, Mead Township.
According to the Ohio EPA, the plant will turn ethylene into:
700,000 tons of high density polyethylene (HDPE) per year
900,000 tons Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)
HDPE is a common type of plastic, used in many products such as bags, bottles, or crates. Look for it on containers with a “2” in the recycling triangle. LLDPE is another common type of plastic that’s weaker and more flexible; it’s marked with a “4.”
The ethane cracker complex will contain:
An ethylene plant
Four ethylene-based derivatives plants.
Six 552 MMBtu/hour cracking furnaces fueled by natural gas and tail gas with ethane backup
Three 400 MMBTU/hr steam boilers fueled by natural gas and ethane
A primary and backup 6.2 MMBtu/hour thermal oxidizer
A high pressure ground flare (1.8 MMBtu/hour)
A low pressure ground flare (0.78 MMBtu/hour)
Wastewater treatment systems
Equipment to capture fugitive emissions
Railcars for pygas (liquid product) and HDPE and LLDPE pellets
Emergency firewater pumps
Emergency diesel-fired generator engines
A cooling tower
Impacts on air quality
The plant received water permits last year, and air permits are currently under review. On November 29, 2018, the Ohio EPA held an information session and hearing for a draft air permit (the permit can be viewed here, by entering permit number P0124972).
The plant will be built in the community of Dilles Bottom, on the former property of FirstEnergy’s R.E. Burger Power Station, a coal power plant that shut down in 2011. The site was demolished in 2016 in preparation for PTTGC’s ethane cracker. In 2018, PTTGC also purchased property from Ohio-West Virginia Excavating Company. In total, the ethane cracker will occupy 500 acres.
R.E. Burger Power Station, which has been demolished for the PTTGC Ethane Cracker. Image Source
Table 1, below, is a comparison of the previous major source of air pollution source, the R.E. Burger Power Station, and predictions of the future emissions from the PTTGC ethane cracker. The far right column shows what percent of the former emissions the ethane cracker will release.
Table 1: Former and Future Air Emissions in Dilles Bottom, Ohio
R.E.Burger Power Station (2010 emissions)
PTTGC Ethane Cracker (predicted emissions)
Percent of former emissions
CO (carbon monoxide)
NOx (nitrogen oxides)
SO2 (sulfur dioxide)
PM10 (particulate matter, 10)
PM2.5 (particulate matter, 2.5)
VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
As you can see, the ethane cracker will emit substantially less sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxides compared with the R.E. Burger site. This makes sense, as these two pollutants are associated with burning coal. On the flip side, the ethane cracker will emit almost four times as much carbon monoxide and 263,900% more volatile organic compounds (percentages bolded in Table 1, above).
In addition to these pollutants, the ethane cracker will emit 38 tons per year of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS), a group of pollutants that includes benzene, chlorine, and ethyl chloride. These pollutants are characterized by the EPA as being “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects.”
While these emission numbers seem high, they still meet federal requirements and nearly all state guidelines. If the ethane cracker becomes operational, pollutant monitoring will be important to ensure the plant is in compliance and how emissions impact air quality. The plant will also attract more development to an already heavily industrialized area; brine trucks, trains, pipelines, fracked wells, compressor stations, cryogenic facilities, and natural gas liquid storage are all part of the ethane-to-plastic manufacturing process. The plastics coming from the plant will travel to facilities in the U.S. and abroad to create different plastic products. These facilities are an additional source of emissions.
Air permitting does not consider the full life cycle of the plant, from construction of the plant to its demolition, or the development associated with it.
As such, this plant will be major step back for local air quality, erasing recent improvements in the Wheeling metropolitan area, historically listed as one of the most polluted metropolitan areas in the country. Furthermore, the pollutants that will be increasing the most are associated with serious health effects. Over short term exposure, high levels of VOCs are associated with headaches and respiratory symptoms, and over long term exposure, cancer, liver and kidney damage.
In addition to air quality impacts, ethane cracker plants also pose risks from fires, explosions, and other types of unplanned accidents. In 2013, a ruptured boiler at an ethane cracker in Louisiana caused an explosion that sent 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air. Three hundred workers evacuated, but sadly there were 167 suffered injuries and 2 deaths.
While researching Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County, FracTracker worked with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn about emergency planning around the petrochemical industry. Emergency planners map out two and five mile zones around facilities, called emergency planning zones, and identify vulnerabilities and emergency responders within them.
With this in mind, the map below shows a two and five-mile radius around PTTGC’s property, as reported by Belmont County Auditor. Within these emergency planning zones are the locations of schools, day cares, hospitals, fire stations, emergency medical services, hospitals, and local law enforcement offices, reported by Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data.
The map also includes census data from the EPA that identifies potential environmental justice concerns. By clicking on the census block groups, you will see demographic information, such as income status, age, and education level. These data are important in recognizing populations that may already be disproportionately burdened by or more vulnerable to environmental hazards.
Finally, the map displays environmental data, also from the EPA, including a visualization of particulate matter along the Ohio River Valley, where massive petrochemical development is occurring. By clicking on a census block and then the arrow at the top, you will find a number of other statistics on local environmental concerns.
Emergency planning zones for Shell’s ethane cracker are available here.
Within the 5 mile emergency planning zone, there are:
9 fire or EMS stations
17 schools and/or day cares
6 local law enforcement offices
Within the 2 mile emergency planning zone, there are:
3 fire or EMS stations
7 schools and/or day cares
3 local law enforcement offices
Sites of capacity, such as the fire and EMS stations, could provide emergency support in the case of an accident. Sites of vulnerability, such as the many schools and day cares, should be aware of and prepared to respond to the various physical and chemical risks associated with ethane crackers.
The census block where the ethane cracker is planned has a population of 1,252. Of this population, 359 are 65 years or older. That is well above national average and important to note; air pollutants released from the plant are associated with health effects such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, to which older populations are more vulnerable.
PTTGC’s ethane cracker, if built, will drastically alter the air quality of Belmont County, OH, and the adjacent Marshall County, WV. Everyday, the thousands of people in the surrounding region, including the students of over a dozen schools, will breathe in its emissions.
This population is also vulnerable to unpredictable accidents and explosions that are a risk when manufacturing products from ethane, a highly flammable liquid. Many of these concerns were recently voiced by local residents at the air permit hearing.
Despite these concerns and pushback, PTTGC’s website for this ethane cracker, pttgcbelmontcountyoh.com, does not address emergency plans for the area. It also fails to acknowledge the potential for any adverse environmental impacts associated with the plant or the pipelines, fracked wells, and train and truck traffic it will attract to the region.
With this in mind, we call upon PTTGC to acknowledge the risks of its facility to Belmont County and provide the public with emergency preparedness plans, before the permitting process continues.
If you have thoughts or concerns regarding PTTGC’s ethane cracker and its impact on air quality, the Ohio EPA is accepting written comments through December 11, 2018. We encourage you to look through the data on this map or conduct your own investigations and submit comments on air permit #P0124972.
The city of Los Angeles is considering a 2,500-foot setback safety buffer between residences and oil and gas wells. Support for the proposal is being led by the grassroots group Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling (STAND-LA). The push for a setback follows a recent report by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. According to Stand LA:
The report, requested by both the Los Angeles County Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council, outlines the health impacts faced by residents living, attending school or worshiping near one of Los Angeles County’s 3,468 active oil wells, 880 of which operate in the City of Los Angeles.
The Department outlines the clear health impacts on residents living near active oil wells, including: adverse birth outcomes, increased cancer risk, eye, nose and throat irritation, exacerbation of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, neurological effects such as headaches and dizziness, gastrointestinal effects such as nausea and abdominal pain, and mental health impacts such as depression, anxiety or fatigue.
This information is, of course, nothing new. Living near oil and gas extraction activities, and specifically actively producing wells, has been shown in the literature to increase risks of various health impacts – including asthma and other respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, cancer, birth defects, nervous disorders and dermal irritation, among others.1
While Los Angeles would benefit the most from any type of setback regulation due to the county and city’s high population density, the rest of the state would also benefit from the same.
We conducted an assessment of the number of California citizens living proximal to active oil and gas production wells to see who all would be affected by such a change. Population counts were estimated for individuals living within 2,500 feet of an oil and gas production well for the entire state. An interactive map of the wells that fall within 2,500 feet of a residence in California is shown just below in Figure 1.
Figure 1. California 2,500’ oil and gas well buffer, above. The map shows a 2,500’ buffer around active oil and gas wells in California. Wells that are located within 1,000’; 1,500’; and 2,500’ from a residence, hospital or school are also shown in the map. The counts of individuals located within 2,500’ of an active well are displayed for census tracts.
The number and percentage of California residents living within 2,500 feet of an active (producing) oil and gas well are listed below:
Total At-Risk Population
859,699 individuals in California live within 2,500 feet of an active oil and gas well
Of the total, 385,067 are “Non-white” (45%)
Of the total, 341,231 are “Hispanic” (40%) as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau2
We calculated population counts within the setbacks for smaller census-designated areas, including counties and census tracts. The results of the calculations are presented in Table 1 below.
Table 1. Population Counts by County
Impacted % Non-White
Impacted % Hispanic
Table 1 presents the counts of individuals living within 2,500 feet of an active oil and gas well, aggregated by county. Only the top 12 counties with the highest population counts are shown. “Impacted Population” is the count of individuals estimated to live within 2,500 feet of an oil and gas well. The “% Non-white” and “% Hispanic” columns report the estimated percentage of the impacted population of said demographic. There may be some overlap in these categories.
California is unique in many ways, beautiful beaches and oceans, steep mountains, massive forests, but not least of all is the intensity of the oil and gas industry. Not only are some of the largest volumes of oil extracted from this state, but extraction occurs incredibly close to homes, sometimes within communities – as shown in the photo at the top of this post.
The majority of California citizens living near active production wells are located in Los Angeles County – well over half a million people. LA County makes up 61% of Californians living within 2,500 feet of an oil and gas well, and half of them are non-white minority, people of color.
Additionally, the well sample population used in this analysis is limited to only active production wells. Much more of California’s population is exposed to pollutants from the oil and gas support activities and wells. These pollutants include acidic vapors, hydrocarbons, and diesel particulate matter from exhaust.
Our numbers are, therefore, a conservative estimate of just those living near extraction wells. Including the other activities would increase both the total numbers and the demographic percentages because of the high population density in Los Angeles.
For many communities in California, therefore, it is essentially impossible for residents to escape oil and gas pollution.
The Analysis – How it was done!
Since the focus of this assessment was the potential for impacts to public health, the analysis was limited to oil and gas wells identified as active – meaning they are producing or are viable to produce oil and/or natural gas. This limitation on the dataset was justified to remain conservative to the most viable modes of exposure to contaminants from well sites. Under the assumption that “plugged,” “buried,” or “idle” wells that are not producing (or at least reporting production figures to DOGGR) do not purvey as much as a risk of air emissions, the main route of transport for pollutants to the surrounding communities is via air emissions from “producing” oil and gas wells. The status of wells was taken from DOGGR’s “AllWells.zip” dataset (downloaded 3/7/18).
The first step was to identify oil and gas wells in California affected by 2,500’ and shorter setbacks from occupied dwellings. To achieve this, the footprints of occupied dwellings were identified, and where there was not a data source available the footprints were digitized.
Using GIS tools, 2,500’ buffers were generated from the boundary of the occupied dwellings and a subset of active oil and gas wells located within the buffer zone were generated.
A combination of county and city zoning data and county parcel data was used to direct the selection of building footprint GIS data and the generation of additional building footprint data. Building footprint data is readily available for a number of California cities, but was not available for rural areas.
Existing footprint data was vetted using zoning codes.
Areas located within 2,500’ of well-heads were prioritized for screening satellite imagery in areas zoned for residential use.
Buildings and facilities housing vulnerable populations were also included. Vulnerable populations include people such as children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. These areas pose an elevated risk for such sensitive populations when they live near hazardous sites, such as oil fields in LA. A variety of these types of sites were included in the GIS analysis, including schools and healthcare facilities.
GIS techniques were used to buffer active oil and gas wells at 2,500 feet. GIS shapefiles and 2010 Decennial census data was downloaded from American Fact Finder via Census.gov for the entire state of California at the census block level.2 Census block GIS layers were clipped to the 2,500-foot buffers. Population data found in Summary File 1 for the 2010 census was attached to the clipped census block GIS layers. Adjusted population counts were calculated according to the proportion of the area of the census block falling within the 2,500’ buffer.
Industry analysts forecast 47,600 new unconventional oil and gas wells may be drilled in Pennsylvania by 2045, fueling new natural gas power plants and petrochemical facilities in PA and beyond. Based on industry projections and current rates of consumption, FracTracker – a national data-driven non-profit – estimates the buildout would require 583 billion gallons of fresh water, 386 million tons of sand, 798,000 acres of land, 131 billion gallons of liquid waste, 45 million tons of solid waste, and more than 323 million truck trips to drilling sites.
“Only 1,801 of the 10,851 unconventional wells already drilled count as a part of this projection, meaning we could see an additional 45,799 such wells in the coming decades,” commented Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology for FracTracker and lead author on the report.
Why the push for so much more drilling? Out of state – and out of country – transport is the outlet for surplus production.
“The oil and gas industry overstates the need for more hydrocarbons,” asserted FracTracker Alliance’s Executive Director, Brook Lenker. “While other countries and states are focusing more on renewables, PA seems resolute to increase its fossil fuel portfolio.”
The report determined that the projected cleared land for well pads and pipelines into the year 2045 could support solar power generation for 285 million homes, more than double the number that exist in the U.S.
“A Hazy Future shows that a fossil fuel-based future for Pennsylvania would come at the expense of its communities’ health, clean air, water and land. It makes clear that a dirty energy future is unnecessary,” said Earthworks’ Pennsylvania Field Advocate, Leann Leiter. Earthworks endorsed FracTracker’s report. She continued, “I hope Governor Wolf reads this and makes the right choices for all Pennsylvanians present and future.”
A Hazy Future reviews the current state of energy demand and use in Pennsylvania, calculates the footprint of industry projections of the proposed buildout, and assesses what that would look like for residents of the Commonwealth.
Started in 2010 as a southwestern Pennsylvania area website, FracTracker Alliance is a national organization with regional offices across the United States in Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, New York, Ohio, and California. The organization’s mission is to study, map, and communicate the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation. Its goal is to support advocacy groups at the local, regional, and national level, informing their actions to positively shape our nation’s energy future.
Imagine that tonight you head home to cook dinner. But, standing at your kitchen sink, you find that your tap water is suddenly running a funny color or gives off a bad smell. So instead of cooking, you order a pizza and decide to work outside in your garden. Just as you’re getting your hands dirty, however, you hear the roar of the compressor station that you see from your yard as its “blows off” some substance. Going back inside, and closing your windows to keep out the foul air, you think of the tap water and decide a shower is out of the question. Imagine that you resign yourself to just going to bed early – only to be kept awake by the bright and unnatural glow of gas being flared at the nearby wellhead.
Scenarios just like these can and do happen when hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, encroaches upon residential areas.
In Part 1 of this two-part series, we described how the many aspects of fracking can destroy a healthy home environment and argued for a frame that focuses on those impacts. A frame is a way of contextualizing, communicating about, and understanding an issue.
This article brings in the idea of rights, and lists several declared rights that fracking violates. Returning to the topic of framing, we then challenge the fracking-friendly frame, by calling into question three common ways of talking about fracking that ignore the rights of those impacted.
In short, the push to support fracking often ignores the rights of people living near it.
Healthy Homes for Human Flourishing
First, let’s explore why a having healthy home matters.
Everyone has a basic need for a safe, healthy place to live. The World Health Organization identifies the social determinants of health (SDH) as the “conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” Applied to healthy homes, these SDH include access to clean air and safe drinking water, and protection from intrusion and disaster. Health is not merely the absence of disease. Health can mean the ability to function, to live one’s life, to flourish.
Human flourishing demands a healthy home environment. Picture again the scenario at the beginning of this article. Would you be able to care for yourself and your family members, to meet your basic needs, or to lead a satisfying life if your home didn’t seem like a safe place to live?
Using Rights to Make the Case
Many people who live near drilling often ask themselves that very question. These include people like Pam Judy, with a compressor station less than 800 feet from her house, who questions the long term effects of breathing in the 16 chemicals detected in air test conducted by the PA Department of Environmental Protection.
Simply reading or watching the stories of those directly impacted by gas development makes a moving argument for the right to a healthy home environment – and that argument also has a lot of backing. Researchers have made a powerful case that fracking can and has violated human rights, by impacting the health for those downwind or downstream and by denying civil liberties to those pushed aside or silenced during the debate. These same researchers showed specifically that fracking has violated the rights to privacy, family, home, and protection of property.
Various governments and non-governmental organizations around the world have likewise called out human rights violations due to fracking. Other human rights declarations are relevant here, too. Fracking’s impacts are incompatible with the rights to health and to housing. Here’s a sampling:
This sampling of precedents includes statements and declarations by the United Nations and the Organization of American States. It shows that when it comes to human rights and fracking, a strong case has already been made by respected international organizations.
Challenging the fracking-friendly frame
A rights-based perspective, informed by precedents like those above, gives us a strong platform from which to examine and counter arguments that support or promote fracking. We can call those pro-fracking arguments a “fracking-friendly” frame.
A fracking-friendly frame denies or minimizes the human impacts. We can hear elements of the fracking-friendly frame underlying industry promises and political talking points, and witness how they leach into common dialogue between citizens.
Element #1: “Economic impacts”- but only the positives
An “economic impacts ” emphasis tends to focus on narrowly-defined economic benefits , while excluding other real, negative economic drawbacks , like the latter half of boom & bust cycles. Consider this infographic of the “economic impacts” of an Appalachian petrochemical hub scenario–an industry reliant upon the cheap and abundant fracked natural gas of the region. The document offers projected estimates for industry profits and employment levels potentially generated by the five ethane crackers planned for the region. But this document – and its focus on economics – says nothing about the negative consequences to the community. Due to air emissions from these facilities, health costs from fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) could amount to between $120 and $270 million each year, without even factoring in the additional impacts of ozone or toxics. A focus on economic impacts also says nothing about the incalculable value of lives – and quality of life – lost, which could amount to between 14 and 32 additional deaths annually, plus increased asthma, heart attacks, and bronchitis.
Element #2: “Choice”
A false assumption of choice is built into the fracking-friendly frame. This element assumes that people have a choice–if they don’t like the drilling next door, they can just move. Yet, as well water becomes degraded and countryside views become dominated by unprecedented industrial development, selling a home can be a difficult proposition. As one researcher summed it up,
the various forms of land damage from fracking often result in decreased property values, making resale and farming difficult , and also making it harder to acquire mortgages and insurance. Properties adjoining drilling sites are often simply unsellable, as no one wants to live with the noise, the bad air, and the possibility of water pollution.
Others confirm this fallout to home values. A recent report assessing 16 other studies on how UOGD affects home prices points to significant potential decreases in housing values for those on well water (up to -$33,000) and those without ownership of their mineral rights (up to -$60,000). These unfortunate realities belie the idea of choice.
On left, a white fracking rig at the far left of the image sits near a cabin overlooking the town of McDonald, PA. On right, a pipeline cut descends a hillside and into a residential development outside of Houston, PA. Photo credit: Leann Leiter.
In interviews conducted with women living in close quarters to drilling activity, three health care professionals discovered the sense of powerlessness experienced they felt. One woman contemplated moving away from the region in spite of opposition from her husband and her own attachment to her home. In my own interaction with affected families, many express powerful feelings about relocation like sadness about leaving land owned for generations, or an eagerness to escape a home that no longer feels safe. Many express a sense of injustice for being forced to make such painful choices.
Element #3: “Sacrifice of the few for the good of the many”
Another underlying assumption of a fracking-friendly frame is that of “sacrifice of the few for the good of the many.” It declares that a “few” people will have to live near fracking and bear the unfortunate consequences, so many others can have cheap oil and gas. The belief bubbles up among the public, such as in this comment collected during a survey of people living in the Marcellus shale gas region:
Energy has to come from somewhere. The needs of the many may outweigh the inconvenience of the few who live near the exploration efforts. This is not an ideal situation for all residents, but it is the reality.
This person’s statement shows acceptance of the assumption that energy for all requires unevenly shared sacrifice, and indicates a drastic underestimation of the populations impacted. It also indicates a misperception of the impacts, which unfortunately go far beyond mere “inconvenience” for many residents.
We can break down these assumptions by questioning how many people make sacrifices in the name of gas extraction. An interactive map by FracTracker shows that over 12 million Americans live within a risky ½ mile of oil and gas facilities (including both fracking wells and other types). Mounting research indicates health threats for distances of ½ mile or greater. That meaning this ever-growing number of Americans have increased rates of asthma and prenatal harms, with the most vulnerable – the young, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions – at the highest risk. The 12 million figure, already a conservative estimate, would be significantly higher if factoring in other oil and gas infrastructure like pipelines or frac sand mining operations, each of which carry their own risks.
Populations in US near activity oil and gas drilling activity in 2016. Click to explore the interactive map.
The view of nearby homes from a pipeline right-of-way, along with list of emergency contacts in case of incident. Safety precautions like these remind us of the potentially injurious nature of gas infrastructure. They also highlight the level of sacrifice being demanded of households near the hazard. Photo credit: Leann Leiter.
Building social support
These elements of a fracking-friendly frame function to isolate those who are experiencing negative effects in their own homes by minimizing, even denying, the impacts they are experiencing. Researchers in extractive regions have observed the power of this isolation. In some rural areas, isolation may be supported in part by cultural norms, such as an Appalachian appreciation for “minding one’s own business.” In at least one fracking-affected community, this widely-accepted norm hampers sharing among neighbors, prompting one resident’s complaint that “we’re all fighting like individuals.” In a study of a community being driven from their homes by coal mining and power generation, another set of extractive, industrial activities, one participant lamented:
I think one of the problems of the mining and the industry is, they play on the basic everyday person’s lack of resources. There’s no social support for displacement, none whatsoever.
A healthy homes frame, focused on universally shared human rights, powerfully counters the isolation. It reminds those who are suffering or have concerns about the changes to their home environment that they are not alone; others around the world are experiencing similar impacts to their households. Adopting this frame for understanding fracking is a show of support, one that acknowledges their plight.
Nearly everyone values and desires a healthy home, regardless of whether that home is an apartment, a nursing home, a cabin, or a mobile home. This frame extends beyond geographical, economical, and cultural barriers. It encourages social support from those currently removed from shale plays and the hydraulic fracturing used in extracting their resources. It empowers action, with the home front as a site of resistance, by articulating the range of rights being violated.
Focusing on what we’re fighting for
Re-centering the problems of fracking as they impact the right to a healthy home makes sense to those of us witnessing the degradation of the places people need in order to live and flourish. A rights-based approach focuses on what we’re fighting for, rather than giving extra airtime to the already-powerful frame we must fight against.
For communities at any stage of gas development, Environmental Health Project has created a Where to Turn for Help directory full of sources for air testing services, community organizing, health information, tracking and reporting fracking development and violations, and much more.
Whether or not you feel the direct impacts of fracking, we are all connected to this extensive process. Fracking’s commodity products – energy and plastics – are part of all of our lives; it’s climate-altering effect diminishes all of our futures. More importantly, we all have a crucial role to play. Here is how you can get further involved:
Communicate with your lawmakers – share with them this article series or your own take on fracking, and ask what frame they are using when they make decisions on this and other dangerous modes of energy extraction.
Join Halt the Harm Network to get connected to people, groups and events “working to fight the harms of oil and gas development.”
Bringing rights into the conversation on fracking challenges the fracking-friendly frame, and promotes instead protection for those in fracked households.
Special thanks to the many individuals and families who shared the experiences that informed this article series.
Resick, L. K., Knestrick, J. M., Counts, M. M., & Pizzuto, L. K. (2013). The meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of the environment. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences , 3 (3), 290-296.
Short, D., Elliot, J., Norder, K., Lloyd-Davies, E., & Morley, J. (2015). Extreme energy, ‘fracking’ and human rights: a new field for human rights impact assessments? , The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:6, 697-736, DOI:10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219
John Graham, Senior Scientist at Clean Air Task Force, personal communication, June 9, 2017. Health impacts modeling completed using EPA Co-Benefits and Risk Assessment (COBRA) Screening Tool, using estimated PM 2.5 air emissions for permitted Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County, PA and four additional facilities planned in Ohio and West Virginia.
Richard Heinberg cited in Short, D., Elliot, J., Norder, K., Lloyd-Davies, E., & Morley, J. (2015). Extreme energy, ‘fracking’ and human rights: a new field for human rights impact assessments? , The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:6, 697-736, DOI:10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219
Resick, L. K., Knestrick, J. M., Counts, M. M., & Pizzuto, L. K. (2013). The meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of the environment. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences , 3 (3), 290-296.
Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures. Routledge.
Resick, L. K., Knestrick, J. M., Counts, M. M., & Pizzuto, L. K. (2013). The meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of the environment. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences , 3 (3), 290-296.
Connor et al., p. 54. Linda Connor, Glenn Albrecht, Nick Higginbotham, Sonia Freeman, and Wayne Smith. (2004). Environmental Change and Human Health in Upper Hunter Communities of New South Wales, Australia. EcoHealth 1 (Suppl.2), ,47-58. DOI: 10.1007/s10393-004-0053-2
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Pipeline-House-Feature-Leiter.jpg400900FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgFracTracker Alliance2017-08-03 12:40:072020-03-11 15:39:06The Right to a Healthy Home
Air quality in the California Bay Area has been steadily improving over the last decade, and the trend can even be seen over just the course of the last few years. In this article we explore data from the ambient air quality monitoring networks in the Bay Area, including a look at refinery emissions.
From the data and air quality reports we find that that many criteria pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and oxides of nitrogen (NOX) have decreased dramatically, and areas that were degraded are now in compliance.
While air pollution from certain sectors such as transportation have been decreasing, the north coast of the East Bay region is home to a variety of petrochemical industry sites. This includes five petroleum refineries. The refineries not only contribute to these criteria pollutants, but also emit a unique cocktail of toxic and carcinogenic compounds that are not monitored and continue to impact cardiovascular health in the region. This region, aptly named the “refinery corridor” has a petroleum refining capacity of roughly 800,000 BPD (barrels per day) of crude oil.
Petroleum refineries in California’s East Bay have always been a contentious issue, and several of the refineries date back to almost the turn of the 20th century. The refineries have continuously increased their capacities and abilities to refine dirtier crude oil through “modernization projects.” As a result, air quality and health impacts became such a concern that in 2006 and again in 2012, Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party candidate, was elected as Mayor of the City of Richmond. Richmond, CA became the largest city in the U.S. with a Green Party Mayor. While there have been many strides in the recent decade to clean up these major sources of air pollution, health impacts in the region including cardiovascular disease and asthma, as well as cancer rates, are still disproportionately high.
To give additional background on this issue, let’s discuss some the regulations tasked with protecting people and the environment in California, as well as climate change targets.
However – a current proposal will actually allow the refineries to process more crude oil by setting a standard for emissions by volume of crude/petroleum refined, rather than an actual cap on emissions. The current regulatory approach focuses on “source-by-source” regulations of individual equipment, which ignores the overall picture of what’s spewing into nearby communities and the atmosphere. Even the state air resources board has supported a move to block the refineries from accepting more heavy crude from the Canadian tar sands.
Upgrades are also being implemented to address greenhouse gas emissions. While the upgrades address the carbon emissions, regulatory standards without strict caps for other pollutants will allow emissions of criteria and toxic air pollutants such as VOC’s, nitrosamines, heavy metals, etc… to increase. In fact, newly proposed emissions standards for refineries will make it easier for the refineries to increase their crude oil volumes by regulating emissions on per-barrel standards. Current refining volumes can be seen below in Table 1, along with their maximum capacity.
Table 1. Bay Area refineries average oil processed and total capacity
Ave. oil processed Barrels Per Day (2012 est.)
Max. capacity (BPD)
Chevron U.S.A. Inc. Richmond Refinery
Tesoro Refining & Marketing, Golden Eagle Refinery
The Bay Area, and in particular the city of Richmond, have been noted in the literature as a place where environmental racism and environmental health disparity exist. The city’s residents of color disproportionately live near the refineries and chemical plants, which is noted in early works on environmental racism by pioneers of the idea, such as Robert Bullard (Bullard 1993a,b).
Since the issue has been brought to national attention by environmental justice groups like West County Toxics Coalition, progress has been made to try to bring justice, but it has been limited. People of color are still disproportionately exposed to toxic, industrial pollution in that area. A recent study showed 93% of respondents in Richmond were concerned about the link between pollution and health, and 81% were concerned about a specific polluter, mainly the Chevron Refinery (Brody et al. 2012). Recent health reports continue to show the trend that these refinery communities suffer disproportionately from cases of asthma and cardiovascular disease and higher mortality rates from a variety of cancers.
Health Impact Studies
Manufacturing and refining are known to produce particularly toxic pollution. Additionally, there has been research done on the specific makeup of pollution in the refinery corridor. The best study to do this is the Northern California Household Exposure Study (Brody et al. 2009). They examined indoor and outdoor air in Richmond, a refinery corridor community, and Bolinas, a nearby but far more rural community. They found 33% more compounds in Richmond, along with higher concentrations of each compound. The study also found very high concentrations of vanadium and nickel in Richmond, some of the highest levels in the state. Vanadium and nickel have been shown to be some of the most dangerous PM2.5 components as we previously stated, which gives reason to believe the air pollution in Richmond is more toxic than in surrounding areas.
Another very similar study compared the levels of endocrine disrupting compounds in Richmond and Bolinas homes, and found 40 in Richmond homes and only 10 in Bolinas (Rudel et al. 2010). This supports the idea that a large variety of pollutants with synergistic effects may be contributing to the increased mortality and hospital visits for communities in this region. This small body of research on pollution in Richmond suggests that the composition of air pollution may be more toxic and thus trigger more pollution-related adverse health outcomes than in surrounding communities.
Air Quality Monitoring
As discussed above and in FracTracker’s previous reports on the refinery corridor, the refinery emissions are a unique cocktail whose synergistic effects may be driving much of the cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer risk in the region. Therefore, the risk drivers in the Bay Area need to be prioritized, in particular the compounds of interest emitted by the petrochemical facilities.
The targets for emissions monitoring are compounds associated with the highest risk in the neighboring communities. An expert panel was convened in 2013 to develop plans for a monitoring network in the refinery corridor. Experts found that measurements should be collected at 5 minute intervals and displayed to the public real-time. The gradient of ambient air concentrations is determined by the distance from refinery, so a network of three near-fence-line monitors was recommended. Major drivers of risk are supposed to be identified by air quality monitoring conducted as a part of Air District Regulation 12m Rule 15: Petroleum Refining Emissions tracking. According to the rule, fence-line monitoring plans by refinery operators:
… must measure benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes (BTEX) and HS concentrations at refinery fence-lines with open path technology capable of measuring in the parts per billion range regardless of path length. Open path measurement of SO2, alkanes or other organic compound indicators, 1, 3-butadiene, and ammonia concentrations are to be considered in the Air Monitoring Plan.
The following analysis found that the majority of hazardous pollutants emitted from refineries are not monitored downwind of the facility fence-lines, much less the list explicitly named in the regulations above.
As shown below in Figure 1, the most impacted communities are in those directly downwind of the facility. According to the BAAQMD, each petroleum refinery is supposed to have fence-line monitoring. Despite this regulation developed by air quality and health experts, only two out of the five refineries have even one fence-line monitor. Real-time air monitoring data at the Chevron Richmond fence-line monitor and the Phillips 66 Rodeo fence-line monitor can be found on fenceline.org. Data from these monitors are also aggregated by the U.S. EPA, and along with the other local monitors, can be viewed on the EPA’s interactive mapping platform.
Figure 1. Map of Hydrogen Sulfide Emissions from the Richmond Chevron Refinery
Hazardous Emissions and Ambient Pollution
Since the majority of hazardous chemicals emitted from the refineries are not measured at monitoring sites, or there are not any monitoring sites at the fence-line or downwind of the facility, our mapping exercises instead focus on the hazardous air pollution for which there is data.
As shown in the map of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) above, the communities immediately neighboring the refineries are subjected to the majority of hazardous emissions. The map shows the rapidly decreasing concentration gradient as you get away from the facility. H2S would have been a good signature of refinery emissions throughout the region if there were more than three monitors. Also, those monitors only existed until 2013, when they were replaced with a singular monitor in a much better location, as shown on the map. The 2016 max value is much higher because it is more directly downwind of Chevron Refinery.
The interpolated map layer was created using 2013 monitoring data from three monitors that have since been removed. The 2016 monitoring location is in a different location and has a maximum value more than twice what was recorded at the 2013 location.
Table 2. Inventory of criteria pollutant emissions for the largest sectors in the Bay Area
Annual average tons per day
Table adapted from the BAAQMD Refinery Report. PM10 = particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter (about the width of a human hair); PM2.5 = PM less than 2.5 microns in diameter; ROG = reactive organic gases; NOX = nitrogen oxides; SOX = sulfur oxides; CO = carbon monoxide.
Additionally, exposure assessment can also rely on using surrogate emissions to understand where the plumes from the refineries are interacting with the surrounding communities. It is particularly important to also discriminate between different sources of pollution. As we see in Table 2 above, the largest volume of particulate matter (PM), NOX, and CO emissions actually come from mobile sources, whereas the largest source of sulfur dioxide and other oxides (SOX) is from stationary sources. Since the relationship between PM2.5 and health outcomes is most established, the response to ambient levels of PM2.5 in the refinery corridor gives insight into the composition of PM as well as the presence of other species of hazardous air pollution. On the other hand, SO2 can be used as a surrogate for the footprint of un-monitored air toxics.
Figure 2. Map of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District
Figure 2 above displays ambient levels of PM2.5, and as the map shows, the highest levels of particulate matter surround the larger metro area of downtown Oakland and also track with the larger commuting corridors. The map shows evidence that the largest contributor to PM2.5 is truly the transportation (mobile) sector. PM2.5 is one hazardous air pollutant which negatively impacts health, causing heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), among other conditions. PM2.5 is particulate matter pollution, meaning small particles suspended in the air, specifically particles under 2.5 microns in diameter. Exposure to high levels of PM2.5 increases the risk of MI within hours and for the next 1-2 days (Brooks et al. 2004; Poloniecki et al. 1997).While refineries may not be the largest source of PM in the Bay Area, they are still large point sources that contribute to high local conditions of smog.
The chemical make-up of the particulate matter also needs to be considered. In addition, the toxicity of PM from the refineries is of particular concern. Since particulate matter acts like small carbon sponges, the source of PM affects its toxicity. The cocktail of hazardous air toxics emitted by refineries absorb and adsorb to the surfaces of PM. When inhaled with PM, these toxics including heavy metals and carcinogens are delivered deep into lung tissue.
Pooled results of many studies showed that for every 10 micrograms per meter cubed increase in PM2.5 levels, the risk of MI increases 0.4-1% (Brooks et al. 2010). However, this relationship has not been studied in the context of EJ communities. EJ communities are generally low income communities of color (Bullard 1993), which have higher exposures to pollution, more sources of stress, and higher biological markers of stress (Szanton et al. 2010; Carlson and Chamberlein 2005). All of these factors may affect the relationship between PM2.5 and MI, and increase the health impact of pollution in EJ communities relative to what has been found in the literature.
Figure 3 below shows the fingerprint of the refinery emissions on the refinery corridor, using SO2 emissions as a surrogate for the cocktail of toxic emissions. The relationship between SO2 and health endpoints of cardiovascular disease and asthma have also been established in the literature (Kaldor et al. 1984).
In addition to assessing SO2 as a direct health stressor, it is also the most effective tracer of industrial emissions and specifically petroleum refineries for a number of reasons. Petroleum refineries are the largest source of SO2 in the BAAQMD by far (Table 1), and there are more monitors for SO2 than any of the other emitted chemical species that can be used to fingerprint the refineries. The distribution of SO2 is therefore representative of the cocktail of a combination of the hazardous chemicals released in refinery emissions.
Figure 3. Map of Sulfur Dioxide for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District
The next step for FracTracker Alliance is to further explore the relationship between health effects in the refinery communities and ambient levels of air pollution emitted by the refineries. Our staff is currently working with the California Department of Public Health to analyze the response of daily emergency room discharges for a variety of health impacts including cardiovascular disease and asthma.
Brody, J. G., R. Morello-Frosch, A. Zota, P. Brown, C. Pérez, and R. A. Rudel. 2009. Linking Exposure Assessment Science With Policy Objectives for Environmental Justice and Breast Cancer Advocacy: The Northern California Household Exposure Study. American Journal of Public Health 99:S600–S609.
Brook, R. D., B. Franklin, W. Cascio, Y. Hong, G. Howard, M. Lipsett, R. Luepker, M. Mittleman, J. Samet, S. C. Smith, and I. Tager. 2004. Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 109:2655–2671.
Brooks, R. D., S. Rajagopalan, C. A. Pope, J. R. Brook, A. Bhatnagar, A. V. Diez-Roux, F. Holguin, Y. Hong, R. V. Luepker, M. A. Mittleman, A. Peters, D. Siscovick, S. C. Smith, L. Whitsel, and J. D. Kaufman. 2010. Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 121:2331–2378.
Bullard, R. D. 1993a. Race and Environmental Justice in the United States Symposium: Earth Rights and Responsibilities: Human Rights and Environmental Protection. Yale Journal of International Law 18:319–336.
Bullard, R. D. 1993b. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. South End Press.
Carlson, E.D. and Chamberlain, R.M. (2005), Allostatic load and health disparities: A theoretical orientation. Res. Nurs. Health, 28: 306–315. doi:10.1002/nur.20084
Kaldor, J., J. A. Harris, E. Glazer, S. Glaser, R. Neutra, R. Mayberry, V. Nelson, L. Robinson, and D. Reed. 1984. Statistical association between cancer incidence and major-cause mortality, and estimated residential exposure to air emissions from petroleum and chemical plants. Environmental Health Perspectives 54:319–332.
Poloniecki, J. D., R. W. Atkinson, A. P. de Leon, and H. R. Anderson. 1997. Daily Time Series for Cardiovascular Hospital Admissions and Previous Day’s Air Pollution in London, UK. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 54:535–540.
Rudel, R. A., R. E. Dodson, L. J. Perovich, R. Morello-Frosch, D. E. Camann, M. M. Zuniga, A. Y. Yau, A. C. Just, and J. G. Brody. 2010. Semivolatile Endocrine-Disrupting Compounds in Paired Indoor and Outdoor Air in Two Northern California Communities. Environmental Science & Technology 44:6583–6590.
Szanton SL, Thorpe RJ, Whitfield KE. Life-course Financial Strain and Health in African-Americans. Social science & medicine (1982). 2010;71(2):259-265. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.04.001.
By Daniel Menza, Data & GIS Intern, and Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Cover photo credit: Claycord.com
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/tesoro-refinery_re.jpg400900Kyle Ferrar, MPHhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgKyle Ferrar, MPH2017-05-10 09:48:052020-03-12 15:56:08Tracking Refinery Emissions in California's Bay Area Refinery Corridor
As an American, you are part owner of 640 million acres of our nation’s shared public lands managed by the federal government. And chances are, you’ve enjoyed a few of these lands on family picnics, weekend hikes or summer camping trips. But did you know that some of your lands may also be leading to toxic air pollution and poor health for you or your neighbors, especially in 5 western states that have high oil and gas drilling activity?
A set of new interactive maps created by FracTracker, The Wilderness Society, and partner groups show the threatened populations who live within a half mile of federal oil and gas wells – people who may be breathing in toxic pollution on a regular basis.
Altogether, air pollution from oil and gas development on public lands threatens at least 73,900 people in the 5 western states we examined. The states, all of which are heavy oil and gas leasing areas, include Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
Figure 1. Close up of threat map in Colorado
In each state, the data show populations living near heavy concentrations of wells. For example just northeast of Denver, Colorado, in the heavily populated Weld County, at least 11,000 people are threatened by oil and gas development on public lands (Figure 1).
Western cities, like Farmington, New Mexico; Gillette, Wyoming; and Grand Junction, Colorado are at highest risk of exposure from air pollution. In New Mexico, especially, concentrated oil and gas activity disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and minorities. Many wells can be found near population centers, neighborhoods and even schools.
Colorado: Wells concentrated on Western Slope, Front Range
Note: The threatened population in states are a conservative estimate. It is likely that the numbers affected by air pollution are higher.
In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to try to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations through comprehensive regulations that included inspections of oil and gas operations and an upgrade in oil and gas infrastructure technology. Colorado’s new regulations are already showing both environmental and financial benefits.
But nearly 16,000 people – the majority living in the northwestern and northeastern part of the state – are still threatened by pollution from oil and gas on public lands.
Many of the people whose health is endangered from pollution are concentrated in the fossil-fuel rich area of the Western Slope, near Grand Junction. In that area, three counties make up 65% of the total area in Colorado threatened by oil and gas development.
In Weld County, just northeast of Denver, more than 11,000 residents are threatened by air pollution from oil and gas production on federal lands. But what’s even more alarming is that five schools are within a half mile radius of wells, putting children at risk on a daily basis of breathing in toxins that are known to increase asthma attacks. Recent studies have shown children miss 500,000 days of school nationally each year due to smog related to oil and gas production.
State regulations in Colorado have helped improve air quality, reduce methane emissions and promote worker care and safety in the past two years, but federal regulations expected by the end of 2016 will have a broader impact by regulating pollution from all states.
New Mexico: Pollution seen from space threatens 50,000 people
With more than 30,000 wells covering 4.6 million acres, New Mexico is one of the top states for oil and gas wells on public lands. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure in the Four Corners region are so great, they have formed a methane hot spot that has been extensively studied by NASA and is clearly visible from space.
Nearly 50,000 people in northwestern New Mexico – 40% of the population in San Juan County – live within a half mile of a well.
Dangerous emissions from those wells in San Juan County disproportionately affect minorities and disadvantaged populations, with about 20% Hispanic, almost 40% Native American, and over 20% living in poverty.
Another hot spot of oil and activity is in southeastern New Mexico stretching from the lands surrounding Roswell to the southern border with Texas. Wells in this region also cover the lands outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, potentially affecting the air quality and visibility for park visitors. Although less densely populated, another 4,000 people in two counties – with around 50% of the population Hispanic – are threatened by toxic air pollution.
Wyoming: Oil and gas emissions add to coal mining pollution
Pollution from oil and gas development in Wyoming, which has about as many wells as New Mexico, is focused in the Powder River Basin. This region in the northeast of the state provides 40% of the coal produced in the United States.
Oil and gas pollution threatens approximately 4,000 people in this region where scarred landscapes and polluted waterways are also prevalent from coal mining.
With the Obama administration’s current pause on federal coal leasing and a review of the federal coal program underway, stopping pollution from oil and gas on public lands in Wyoming would be a major step in achieving climate goals and preserving the health of local communities.
Utah: Air quality far below federal standards
Utah has almost 9,000 active wells on public lands. Oil and gas activity in Utah has created air quality below federal standards in one-third of Utah’s counties, heightening the risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Especially in the Uintah Basin in northeastern Utah – where the majority of oil and development occurs – a 2014 NOAA-led study found oil and gas activity can lead to high levels of ozone in the wintertime that exceed federal standards.
North Dakota: Dark skies threatened by oil and gas activity
The geology of western North Dakota includes the Bakken Formation, one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in the United States. As a result, high oil and gas production occurs on both private and public lands in the western part of the state.
The 70,000-plus-acre park – named after our president who first visited in 1883 and fell in love with the incredible western landscape – is completely surrounded by high oil and gas activity. Although drilling is not allowed in the park, nearby private and public lands are filled with active wells, producing pollution, traffic and noise that can be experienced from the park. Due to its remote location, the park is known for its incredible night sky, but oil and gas development increases air and light pollution, threatening visibility of the Milky Way and other astronomical wonders.
Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.
We need to clean up our air now
With U.S. public lands accounting for 1/5 of the greenhouse gas footprint in the United States, we need better regulations to reduce polluting methane emissions from the 96,000 active oil and gas wells on public lands.
Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is finalizing federal regulations that are expected by the end of 2016. These regulations are expected to curb emissions from existing sources – wells already in production – that are a significant source of methane pollution on public lands. This is crucial, since by 2018, it is estimated that nearly 90% of methane emissions will come from sources that existed in 2011.
Final regulations from the Bureau of Land Management will also add to other regulations from the EPA and guidance from the Obama administration to modernize energy development on public lands for the benefit of the American people, landscapes and the climate. In the face of a changing climate, we need to continue to monitor fossil fuel development on public lands and continue to push the government towards better protections for land, air, wildlife and local communities.
By The Wilderness Society – The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/ProdPublicLand-Feature.jpg400900Guest Authorhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgGuest Author2016-10-31 09:00:302020-03-11 16:41:39Interactive maps show nearness of oil and gas wells to communities in 5 states
FracTracker Alliance studies, maps, and communicates the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation.