Front Range Citizen Science Health Tracking Project
Fracking is increasing at an alarming rate in Colorado, raising concerns about possible negative health outcomes. While mapping and air monitoring can contribute valuable data on this topic, there is an information gap when it comes to understanding the true human impact of fracking in the Front Range. To fill this gap, FracTracker Alliance is launching the Front Range Citizen Science Health Tracking Project in partnership with several community groups.
Residents can contribute valuable data about the fracking industry and its impacts from their phone anytime and anywhere. We’ll compare these reports with real-time air quality measurements to gain an in-depth look at the way fracking is affecting Coloradans.
Check back soon for dates and locations of our in-person meetings
As a participant, you will join hundreds of other residents in collecting data that will be compared with real-time air quality measurements. You’ll also receive information on threats to your air quality and tips on how to protect your health throughout the length of this year-long project.
Make an important contribution to all Coloradans who breathe air and get involved!
Sign up if you’d like to get involved or stay up to date on the project:
FracTracker – The Mobile App
The oil and gas industry – from its wells to pipelines to refineries – has a variety of ways of impacting the communities and environment that surround its infrastructure. We want to help you document it!
Check the Oil & Gas Map
Find wells, pipelines, & user reports near you on the map
View recent reports from other app users
Submit a Report
Submit reports & photos about nearby activity & issues you witness
Classify reports by senses impacted, such as from noise or odors
The FracTracker web app is another way to explore the scope and impacts of oil and gas development. Just like the mobile app, this tool contains an activity feed of user reports and a map of these reports. Watch a short video tutorial of the web app.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/TruckFeatureImage.jpg6661500Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngErica Jackson2020-02-28 23:18:032020-07-17 10:27:25Front Range Health Tracking Project
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-scaled.jpg6671500Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngErica Jackson2019-12-18 10:56:062021-04-15 14:55:33Allegheny 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-scaled.jpg9821500Shannon Smithhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngShannon Smith2019-08-07 09:36:032020-03-20 17:32:33Wildness Lost – Pine Creek
Designating a well as “idle” is a temporary solution for operators, but comes at a great economic and environmental cost to Californians
Idle wells are oil and gas wells which are not in use for production, injection, or other purposes, but also have not been permanently sealed. During a well’s productive phase, it is pumping and producing oil and/or natural gas which profit its operators, such as Exxon, Shell, or California Resources Corporation. When the formations of underground oil pools have been drained, production of oil and gas decreases. Certain techniques such as hydraulic fracturing may be used to stimulate additional production, but at some point operators decide a well is no longer economically sound to produce oil or gas. Operators are supposed to retire the wells by filling the well-bores with cement to permanently seal the well, a process called “plugging.”
A second, impermanent option is for operators to forego plugging the well to a later date and designate the well as idle. Instead of plugging a well, operators cap the well. Capping a well is much cheaper than plugging a well and wells can be capped and left “idle” for indefinite amounts of time.
Unplugged wells can leak explosive gases into neighborhoods and leach toxic fluids into drinking waters. Plugging a well helps protect groundwater and air quality, and prevents greenhouse gasses from escaping and expediting climate change. Therefore it’s important that idle wells are plugged.
Wells are left idle for two main reasons: either the cost of plugging is prohibitive, or there may be potential for future extraction when oil and gas prices will fetch a higher profit margin. While idle wells are touted by industry as assets, they are in fact liabilities. Idle wells are often dumped to smaller or questionable operators.
Wells that have passed their production phase can also be “orphaned.” In some cases, it is possible that the owner and operator may be dead! Or, as often happens, the smaller operators go out of business with no money left over to plug their wells or resume pumping. When idle wells are orphaned from their operators, the state becomes responsible for the proper plugging and abandonment.
The cost to plug a well can be prohibitively high for small operators. If the operators (who profited from the well) don’t plug it, the costs are externalized to states, and therefore, the public. For example, the state of California plugged two wells in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles at a cost of over $1 million. The costs are much higher in urban areas than, say, the farmland and oilfields of the Central Valley.
Since 1977, California has permanently sealed about 1,400 orphan wells at a cost of $29.5 million, according to reports by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). That’s an average cost of about $21,000 per well, not accounting for inflation. From 2002-2018, DOGGR plugged about 600 wells at a cost of $18.6 million; an average cost of about $31,000.
The map above shows the locations of idle wells in California. There are 29,515 wells listed as idle and 122,467 plugged or buried wells as of the most recent DOGGR data, downloaded 3/20/19. There are a total of 245,116 oil and gas wells in the state, including active, idle, new (permitted) or plugged.
Of the over 29,000 wells are listed as idle, only 3,088 (10.4%) reported production in 2018. Operators recovered 338,201 barrels of oil and 178,871 cubic feet of gas from them in 2018. Operators injected 1,550,436,085 gallons of water/steam into idle injection wells in 2018, and 137,908,884 cubic feet of gas.
The tables below (Tables 1-3) provide the rankings for idle well counts by operator, oil field, and county (respectively). Chevron, Aera, Shell, and California Resources Corporation have the most idle wells. The majority of the Chevron idle wells are located in the Midway Sunset Field. Well over half of all idle wells are located in Kern County.
Table 1. Idle Well Counts by Operator
Idle Well Count
Chevron U.S.A. Inc.
Aera Energy LLC
California Resources Production Corporation
California Resources Elk Hills, LLC
Berry Petroleum Company, LLC
E & B Natural Resources Management Corporation
Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC
HVI Cat Canyon, Inc.
Seneca Resources Company, LLC
Crimson Resource Management Corp.
Table 2. Idle Well Counts by Oil Field
Count by Field
Table 3. Idle Well Counts by County
Count by County
San Luis Obispo
According to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) the count of idle wells in California has increased from just over 20,000 idle wells in 2015 to nearly 30,000 wells in 2018! That’s an increase of nearly 50% in just 3 years!
A U.S. EPA report on idle wells published in 2011 warned that existing monitoring requirements of idle wells in California was “not consistent with adequate protection” of underground sources of drinking water. Idle wells may have leaks and damage that go unnoticed for years, according to an assessment by the state Department of Conservation (DOC). The California Council on Science and Technology is actively researching this and many other issues associated with idle and orphaned wells. The published report will include policy recommendations considering the determined risks. The report will determine the following:
State liability for the plugging and abandoning of deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
Assessment of costs associated with plugging and abandoning deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
Exploration of mechanisms to ameliorate plugging, abandoning, and decommissioning burdens on the state, including examples from other regions and questions for policy makers to consider based on state policies
As of 2018, new CA legislation is in effect to incentivize operators to properly plug and abandon their stocks of idle wells. In California, idle wells are defined as wells that have not had a 6-month continuous period of production over a 2-year period (previously a 5-year period). The new regulations require operators to pay idle well fees. The fees also contribute towards the plugging and proper abandonment of California’s existing stock of orphaned wells. The new fees are meant to act as bonds to cover the cost of plugging wells, but the fees are far too low:
$150 for each well that has been idle for 3 years or longer, but less than 8 years
$300 for each well that has been idle for 8 years or longer, but less than 15 years
$750 for each well that has been idle for 15 years or longer, but less than 20 years
$1,500 for each well that has been idle for 20 years or longer
Operators are also allowed to forego idle well fees if they institute long-term idle well management and elimination plans. These management plans require operators to plug a certain number of idle wells each year.
In February 2019, State Assembly member Chris Holden introduced an idle oil well emissions reporting bill. Assembly bill 1328 requires operators to monitor idle and abandoned wells for leaks. Operators are also required to report hydrocarbon emission leaks discovered during the well plugging process. The collected results will then be reported publicly by the CA Department of Conservation. According to Holden, “Assembly Bill 1328 will help solve a critical knowledge gap associated with aging oil and gas infrastructure in California.”
While the majority of idle wells are located in Kern County, many are also located in California’s South Coast region. Due to the long history and high density of wells in the Los Angeles, the city has additional regulations. City rules indicate that oil wells left idle for over one year must be shut down or reactivated within a month after the city fire chief tells them to do so.
Who is responsible?
All of California’s wells, from Kern County to three miles offshore, on private and public lands, are managed by DOGGR, a division of the state’s Department of Conservation. Responsibilities include establishing and enforcing the requirements and procedures for permitting wells, managing drilling and production, and at the end of a well’s lifecycle, plugging and “abandoning” it.
To help ensure operator liability for the entire lifetime of a well, bonds or well fees are required in most states. In 2018, California updated the bonding requirements for newly permitted oil and gas wells. These fees are in addition to the aforementioned idle well fees. Operators have the option of paying a blanket bond or a bond amount per well. In 2018, these fees raised $4.3 million.
Individual well fees:
Wells less than 10,000 feet deep: $10,000
Wells more than 10,000 feet deep: $25,000
Less than 50 wells: $200,000
50 to 500 wells: $400,000
500 to 10,000 wells: $2,000,000
Over 10,000 wells: $3,000,000
With an average cost of at least $31,000 to plug a well, California’s new bonding requirements are still insufficient. Neither the updated individual nor blanket fees provide even half the cost required to plug a typical well.
Strategies for the managed decline of the fossil fuel industry are necessary to make the proposal a reality. Requiring the industry operators to shut down, plug and properly abandon wells is a step in the right direction, but California’s new bonding and idle well fees are far too low to cover the cost of orphan wells or to encourage the plugging of idle wells. Additionally, it must be stated that even properly abandoned wells have a legacy of causing groundwater contamination and leaking greenhouse gases such as methane and other toxic VOCs into the atmosphere.
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/IdleWellsHathaway_resize.jpg400900Kyle Ferrar, MPHhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngKyle Ferrar, MPH2019-04-03 11:30:582021-04-15 14:56:34Idle Wells are a Major Risk
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
In California’s Central Valley and along the South Coast, there are many communities littered with abandoned oil and gas wells, buried underground.
Many have had homes, buildings, or public parks built over top of them. Some of them were never plugged, and many of those that were plugged have since failed and are leaking oil, natural gas, and toxic formation waters (water from the geologic layer being tapped for oil and gas). Yet this issue has been largely ignored. Oil and gas wells continue to be permitted without consideration for failing and failed plugged wells. When leaking wells are found, often nothing is done to fix the issue.
As a result, greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere and present an explosion risk for homes built over top of them. Groundwater, including sources of drinking water, is known to be impacted by abandoned wells in California, yet resources are not being used to track groundwater contamination.
Abandoned wells: plugged and orphaned
The term “abandoned” typically refers to wells that have been taken out of production. At the end of their lifetime, wells may be properly abandoned by operators such as Chevron and Shell or they may be orphaned.
When operators properly abandon wells, they plug them with cement to prevent oil, natural gas, and salty, toxic formation brine from escaping the geological formation that was tapped for production. Properly plugging a well helps prevent groundwater contamination and further air quality degradation from the well. The well-site at the surface may also be regraded to an ecological environment similar to its original state.
Wells that are improperly abandoned are either plugged incorrectly or are “orphaned” by their operators. When wells are orphaned, the financial liability for plugging the well and the environmental cleanup falls on the state, and therefore, the taxpayers.
You don’t see them?
In California’s Central Valley and South Coast abandoned wells are everywhere. Below churches, schools, homes, they even under the sidewalks in downtown Los Angeles!
FracTracker Alliance and Earthworks recently spent time in Los Angeles with an infrared camera that shows methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. We visited several active neighborhood drilling sites and filmed plumes of toxic and carcinogenic VOCs floating over the walls of well-pads and into the surrounding neighborhoods. We also visited sites where abandoned, plugged wells had failed.
In the video below, we are standing on Wilshire Blvd in LA’s Miracle Mile District. An undocumented abandoned well under the sidewalk leaks toxic and carcinogenic VOCs through the cracks in the pavement as mothers push their children in walkers through the plume. This is just one case of many that the state is not able to address.
California regulatory data shows that there are 122,466 plugged wells in the state, as shown below in the map below. Determining how many of them are orphaned or improperly plugged is difficult, but we can come up with an estimate based on the wells’ ages.
While there are no available data on the dates that wells were plugged, there are data on “spud dates,” the date when operators begin drilling into the ground. Of the 18,000 wells listing spud dates, about 70% were drilled prior to 1980. Wells drilled before 1980 have a higher risk of well casing failures and are more likely to be sources of groundwater contamination.
With a total of over 245,000 wells in the state database, and considering the lack of monitoring prior to 1950, it’s reasonable to assume there are over 80,000 improperly plugged and unplugged wells in California.
The regions with the highest counts of plugged wells are the Central Valley and the South Coast. The top 10 county ranks are listed below in Table 1. Kern County has more than half of the total plugged wells in the entire state.
In 2017, FracTracker Alliance organized an exercise to track down the locations of Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells that are not included in the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s digital records. Using paper maps and the FracTracker Mobile App, volunteers explored Pennsylvania woodlands in search of these hidden greenhouse gas emitters.
What are the risks?
Studies by Kang et al. 2014, Kang et al 2016, Boothroyd et al 2016, and Townsend-Small et al. 2016 have all measured methane emissions from abandoned wells. Both properly plugged and improperly abandoned wells have been shown to leak methane and other VOCs to the atmosphere as well as into the surrounding groundwater, soil, and surface waters. Leaks were shown to begin just 10 years after operators plugged the wells.
The high density of aging and improperly plugged wells is a major risk factor for the current and future development of California’s oil and gas fields. When fields with old wells are reworked using new technology, such as hydraulic fracturing, CO2 flooding, or solvent flooding (including acidizing, water flooding, or steam flooding), the injection of additional fluid and gas increases pressure in a reservoir. Poorly plugged or aging wells often lack the integrity to avoid a blowout (the uncontrolled release of oil and/or gas from a well). There is a consistent risk that formation fluids will be forced to migrate up the plugged wellbores and bypass the existing plugs.
In a 2014 report, the U.S. Geological Service warned the California State Water Resources Control Board that the integrity of abandoned wells is a serious threat to groundwater sources, stating, “Even a small percentage of compromised well bores could correspond to a large number of transport pathways.”
The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) has also suggested the need for additional research on existing aquifer contamination. In 2014, they called for widespread testing of groundwater near oil and gas fields, which has still not occurred.
In addition to the contamination of underground sources of drinking water, abandoned well failures can even create a pathway for methane and fluids to escape to Earth’s surface. In many cases, such as in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California, where drilling began prior to the turn of the 20th century, many wells have been left unplugged. Of the abandoned wells that were plugged, the plugging process was much less adequate than it is today.
If plugged wells are allowed to leak, surface expressions can form. These leaks can travel to the Earth’s crust where oil, gas, and formation waters saturate the topsoil. A construction supervisor for Chevron named David Taylor was killed by such an event in the Midway-Sunset oil field near Bakersfield, CA. According to the LA Times, Chevron had been trying to control the pressure at the well-site. The company had stopped injections near the well, but neighboring operators continued high-pressure injections into the pool. As a result, migration pathways along old wells allowed formation fluids to saturate the Earth just under the well-site. Tragically, Taylor fell into a 10-foot diameter crater of 190° fluid and hydrogen sulfide.
Following David Taylor’s death in 2011, California regulators vowed to make urgent reforms to the management of underground injection, and new rules finally went into effect on April 1, 2018. These regulations require more consistent monitoring of pressure and set maximum pressure standards. While this will help with the management of enhanced oil recovery operations, such as steam and water flooding and wastewater disposal, the issue of abandoned wells is not being addressed.
Why would the state of California allow new oil and gas drilling when the industry refuses to address the existing messes? Why are these messes the responsibility of private landholders and the state when operators declare bankruptcy?
New bonding rules in some states have incentivized larger operators to plug their own wells, but old low-producing or idle wells are often sold off to smaller operators or shell (not Shell) companies prior to plugging. This practice has been the main source of orphaned wells. And regardless of whether wells are plugged or not, research shows that even plugged wells release fugitive emissions that increase with the age of the plug.
If the fossil fuel industry were to plug the existing 1.666 million currently active wells, there would be nearly 5 million plugged wells that require regular inspections, maintenance, and for the majority, re-plugging, to prevent the flow of greenhouse gases. This is already unattainable, and drilling more wells adds to this climate disaster.
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/chevron-surface-expression_resize.jpg400900Kyle Ferrar, MPHhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngKyle Ferrar, MPH2019-03-29 09:08:262021-04-15 14:56:53Literally Millions of Failing, Abandoned Wells
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, tons per year)
PTTGC Ethane Cracker (predicted emissions, tons per year)
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/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngFracTracker Alliance2017-08-03 12:40:072021-04-15 15:02:36The 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.
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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.
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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/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngKyle Ferrar, MPH2017-05-10 09:48:052021-04-15 15:03:07Tracking Refinery Emissions in California’s Bay Area Refinery Corridor