Pipeline Map

Mariner East 2 Causes Dozens of Spills Since Lockdown Began, Over 300 in Total

FracTracker Alliance has released a new map of drilling fluid spills along the Mariner East 2 pipeline route, showing 320 spills from its construction since 2017. Of those, a combined 147 incidents have released over 260,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Pennsylvania waterways. 

The unpermitted discharge of drilling fluid, considered “industrial waste,” into waters of the Commonwealth violates The Clean Streams Law.

What you need to know:

  • Sunoco’s installation of the Mariner East 2 pipeline has triggered 320 incidences of drilling mud spills since 2017, releasing between 344,590 – 405,990 gallons of drilling fluid into the environment. View an interactive map and see a timeline of these incidents.
  • Construction has caused between 260,672 – 266,223 gallons of drilling fluid to spill into waterways, threatening the health of ecosystems and negatively affecting the drinking water of many residents.
  • There have been 36 spills since Pennsylvania entered a statewide shutdown on March 16th, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These spills released over 10,000 gallons of drilling fluid — most of which poured into Marsh Creek Lake in Marsh Creek State Park. See a map of this incident.

Pipeline Map

 

While the total reported volume of drilling fluid released into the environment from the pipeline’s construction is between 344,590 – 405,990 gallons, the actual total is larger, as there are 28 spills with unknown volumes. Spills of drilling mud are also referred to as “inadvertent returns,” or “frac-outs.” 

Most of these spills occurred during implementation of horizontal directional drills (HDD). HDDs are used to install a pipeline under a waterway, road, or other sensitive area. This technique requires large quantities of drilling fluid (comprising water, bentonite clay, and chemical additives), which when spilled into the environment, can damage ecosystems and contaminate drinking water sources. 

ME2 Background

The Mariner East 2 pipeline project is part of the Mariner East pipeline system, which carries natural gas liquids (NGLs) extracted by fracked wells in the Ohio River Valley east, to the Marcus Hook Facility in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. The NGLs will then go to Europe to be turned into plastic. Explore FracTracker’s other resources on this project:

Three dozen spills during COVID-19 pandemic

There have been 36 spills since the Commonwealth shutdown statewide on March 16th, 2020, leaks that have jeopardized drinking water sources, putting communities at even higher risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most concerning occurred on August 10th, when pipeline construction released 8,163 gallons of drilling fluids into a wetland and stream system that drains into Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County, a drinking water reservoir (Figure 1). The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, private contractors, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are responding to the incident and conducting water tests.

On August 11th, construction caused a 15-foot wide and eight-foot deep subsidence event in the wetland (Figure 1). This caused drilling fluid to flow underground and contaminate groundwater, while also “adversely impacting the functions and values of the wetland.” Thirty-three acres of the lake are now closed to boating, fishing, and other uses of the lake — an extra blow, given the solace state parks have provided to many during this pandemic.

Map of Spills at Marsh Creek Lake

Figure 1. This HDD crossing in Upper Uwchlan Township, Chester County, caused over 8,000 gallons of drilling mud to spill into waterways. However, installation of the parallel 16-inch pipeline also caused spills at this same location in 2017.

A plume of drilling mud, captured here on video, entered the Marsh Creek Lake and settled on the lake bottom. 

Upper Uwchlan Reroute

Last week, the PA DEP ordered Sunoco to suspend work on this HDD site and to implement a reroute using a course Sunoco had identified as an alternative in 2017:

“A 1.01 mile reroute to the north of the HDD is technically feasible. This would entail adjusting the project route prior to this HDD’s northwest entry/exit point to proceed north, cross under the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then proceed east for 0.7 miles parallel to the turnpike, cross Little Conestoga Road, then turn south, cross under the turnpike, and then reintersect the existing project route just east of this HDD’s southeast entry/exit point. There is no existing utility corridor here, however; therefore, this route would create a Greenfield utility corridor and would result in encumbering previously unaffected properties. The route would still cross two Waters of the Commonwealth and possible forested wetlands, and would pass in near proximity or immediately adjacent to five residential home sites. Both crossings of the turnpike would require “mini” HDDs or direct pipe bores to achieve the required depth of cover under the highway. Considered against the possibility of additional IRs [inadvertent returns] occurring on the proposed HDD, which are readily contained and cleaned up with minimal affect to natural resources, the permanent taking of the new 4 easement and likely need to use condemnation against previously unaffected landowners results in SPLP’s opinion that managing the proposed HDD is the preferred option.”

Based on that description, the route could follow the general direction of the dashed line in Figure 2:

Map of pipeline

Figure 2. Possible reroute of Mariner East 2 Pipeline shown with dashed line

The DEP’s order also requires Sunoco to restore and remediate “impacted aquatic life, biota, and habitat, including the functions and values of the impacted wetlands resources, and all impacted recreational uses.” Sunoco must submit an Impact Assessment and Restoration Plan for this drill site by October 1, 2020, and the plan must provide for five years of monitoring after its completed restoration. In the meantime, Sunoco must secure the borehole using “grouting or equivalent method,” and continue to monitor the site. 

Sunoco’s continued negligence

The August incident likely surprised no one, as it was not the first spill at this location, and Sunoco’s own assessment acknowledged that this HDD crossing came with “a moderate to high risk of drilling fluid loss and IRs.”

Residents also sounded alarm bells for this drilling site. The proposal for just this location garnered over 200 public comments, all of which called on the DEP to deny Sunoco’s permit for drilling in this area. Many implored the DEP to consider the alternate route Sunoco must now use. 

George Alexander, a Delaware County resident who runs a blog on this pipeline, the Dragonpipe Diary, says, “Sunoco/Energy Transfer continues to demonstrate in real time that they cannot build the Mariner Pipelines without inflicting harm upon our communities … The Marsh Creek situation is reminiscent of the damage to another favorite Pennsylvania lake, Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County.”

In 2017, Sunoco spilled over 200,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Raystown Lake, and released millions more underground. The spill caked acres of the lakebed with a coating of mud, hurting aquatic life and limiting recreational access to the lake. Sunoco failed to report the spills when they occurred, and the DEP fined the company $1.95 million for the incident. The fine is one of many Sunoco has incurred, including a $12.6 million penalty in February 2018 for permit violations, and more recently, a $355,636 penalty for drilling fluid discharges into waterways across eight counties.

Bleak outlook for oil and gas pipelines

On top of the delays, fines, strong public opposition, and even House and Senate members calling for permits to be revoked,  there’s another factor working against Sunoco — the bleak financial outlook of the petrochemical industry.

The fracking boom triggered investment in projects to convert the fracked gas to plastic, leading to an oversupply in the global market. The industry made ambitious plans based on the price of plastic being $1/pound. Now, in 2020, the price is 40 – 60 cents per pound. If the Mariner East 2 pipeline is brought online, it likely will not be as profitable as its operators expected.

The poor finances of the oil and gas industry have led to the demise of several pipeline projects over the last few months. Phillips 66 announced in March it was deferring two pipelines — the Liberty Pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Wyoming to Oklahoma — and the Red Oak Pipeline system, planned to cross from Oklahoma to Texas. Kinder Morgan expressed uncertainty for its proposed Texas Permian Pass pipeline,  and Enterprise Products Partners cancelled its Midland-to-ECHO crude oil pipeline project. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline also was cancelled this past July by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, following “an unacceptable layer of uncertainty and anticipated delays,” and the Williams Constitution pipeline was also abandoned after years of challenges. In fact, the EIA recently reported that more pipeline capacity has been cancelled in 2020 than new capacity brought in service.

Will the Mariner East 2 be the next to fall?

Before you go

A note from the Safety 7: The Safety 7 are seven residents of Delaware and Chester Counties who are challenging Sunoco before the [Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission]. If you are outraged at the ongoing threat to our communities from this dangerous, destructive pipeline, please consider donating to the Safety 7 Legal fund … Our next hearing begins September 29, and funds from your support are urgently needed. This motion is representative of the kind of legal work we need, if we are to prevail in protecting our communities from this dangerous pipeline project. Please contribute today if you are able, and please share this appeal widely and let your friends and family know why this case matters to you!

Learn more and donate here.

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

This map and analysis relied on data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Support this work

Stay in the know

 

Pump jack in Lost Hills, Kern County, CA.

Recommendations for an EIR to prioritize Kern County Frontline Communities

Kern County Environmental Impact Report

As we have discussed in previous reports, Kern County is required to develop a new set of environmental impact report (EIR) requirements for permitting new oil and gas wells.

With this recent development, it is necessary to provide science-based recommendations for the EIR to prioritize the protection of the health of frontline communities. Frontline communities bear the most risk. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure and exposure to water and soil contamination most affect those living closest. It is therefore vital for an EIR to institute protections that address these known and well-established sources of exposure. In addition, the EIR must prioritize a requirement by law that all regulatory information is equitably available and imparted to Frontline Communities; with Kern County, this means providing regulatory notices in Spanish, the predominantly spoken language in this area, according to household census data.

In preparation of the Kern County rule-making process, FracTracker Alliance has prepared new analyses of Kern County communities. These analyses have mapped and assessed the distribution of oil and gas wells within Kern County for proximity to sensitive receptors. This information is vital to understand how the “most drilled County” in the United States manages the risks associated with oil and gas extraction. According to CalGEM data updated September 1, 2020, there are 78,016 operational oil and gas wells countywide. Of these, 5,906 (7.6%) are within 2,500 feet of a sensitive receptor, receptors being homes, schools, healthcare facilities, child daycare facilities, and elderly care facilities. Thirty-six CHHS healthcare facilities and 35 schools in Kern County are within 2,500 feet of an operational oil and gas well. In fact, 646 operational wells are within 2,500 feet of a school in Kern County. Most of these at-risk, sensitive receptors are in Kern’s cities, large and small.

Table 1. Well Counts in Kern County

Most of the population of Kern County is in its cities. Unincorporated, rural areas of Kern County are in majority zoned for large estate landownership and agriculture, and have low population density, rather than designated for residential, single-family homes, apartments, developments, and mobile homes. Oil and gas extraction operations and well sites are dispersed throughout the county, including near and within the residentially-zoned areas of cities. Given that the county’s population density is highest in cities, these areas present the greatest public health risk for exposures to toxic emissions and spills from fossil fuel extraction operations. This analysis focuses specifically on the Frontline Communities of Kern County, where oil and gas extraction is occurring near city limits.

Table 2. Operational oil and gas well counts near cities and sensitive receptors.

Frontline Communities

These include Lost Hills, Lamont, Taft, Arvin, Shafter and Bakersfield. In Table 2 (above) are counts of operational wells within two miles of each city, along with demographic profiles for each incorporated/unincorporated city, based on American Community Survey (2013-2018) census data (downloaded from Census.gov). Population estimates are based on the ACS block groups. For block groups larger than city boundaries, the population was assumed to be within city limits, although in certain cases, such as Arvin, a small section of a block group was eliminated from the city demographic counts. This assumption is validated by the county and city zoning parcels. The maps below in Figures 1 – 6 show the municipal zoning parcels for these cities, with maps that include operational oil and gas wells. Note the proximity of residential- and urban-zoned parcels to oil and gas extraction in Kern County, as well as the difference in zoning between the cities and the rest of the county. Cities are zoned for residences, including apartments, single-family homes, and mobile homes. Most of the rest of the county is agriculture and estates, where predominantly wealthy residents and corporations own large holdings.

Figure 1. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Lost Hills.

 

Figure 2. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Lamont.

 

Figure 3. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Taft.

 

Figure 4. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Arvin.

 

Figure 5. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Shafter.

 

Figure 6. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Bakersfield.

Economic Disparity in Environmental Justice Communities

These six cities and their Frontline Communities experience a disparity of exposure to environmental pollutants, particularly emissions from oil and gas extraction operations — as well as pesticides, regionally degraded air quality (from ozone and particulate matter), and contaminated groundwater. Besides the risk disparity, these communities are also vulnerable from several other factors, including disparities in economic opportunity, demographics, and access to information.

Compared to the rest of Kern County, Frontline Communities in these unincorporated and incorporated cities have less financial opportunity. The maps in Figures 7 – 9 below show block groups and the proportions of the population with annual median incomes less than or equal to $40,000. This value was chosen because it is less than 80% of the countywide median income of $51,579 in 2018. For comparison, the statewide median income is $75,277. Lack of economic opportunity for these communities limits the ability to leverage financial resources to protect their community health and to maintain local-level financial independence from corporate influence. In Lost Hills, over 80% of the city block group closest to the Lost Hills Oil Field has a median income less than or equal to $40,000. The same trend is visible for Lamont, Taft, and Arvin. In Figure 9, the only section of Taft with higher annual median income is sparsely populated and predominantly open space, as confirmed in Figure 3. For the areas of Frontline Community block groups within 2,500 feet of an operational well, 36% of the population makes under $40,000; 80% of the Kern County annual median income is $41,000.

In the maps below, the American Community Survey data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) in the map refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the population’s annual median income is less than or equal to $40,000.

 

Table 3. Demographical Profile of each city, including the percentage of Spanish-speaking households and proportion of households with limited English proficiency.

 

Figure 7. Lost Hills income disparity: This map shows the population percentage with annual incomes of less than or equal to $40,000, which is less than 80% of the Kern median income of $51,579 (2018).

 

Figure 8. Lamont income disparity: This map shows the population percentage with annual incomes less than or equal to $40,000, which is less than 80% of the Kern median income of $51,579 (2018).

 

Figure 9. Taft income disparity: This map shows the population percentage with annual incomes less than or equal to $40,000, which is less than 80% of the Kern median income of $51,579 (2018).

 

Figure 10. Arvin income disparity: This map shows the population percentage with annual incomes less than or equal to $40,000, which is less than 80% of the Kern median income of $51,579 (2018).

Linguistic Isolation Disenfranchises Frontline Communities

Access to information is vital for representation. Without representation, communities have no power over their autonomy. Kern County’s Frontline Communities are denied this basic, but absolutely vital right. According to the U.S. Census, over 51% of Kern County is Hispanic, and the maps below show that the demographics of the Frontline Communities in these cities are regularly between 80 – 100% Hispanic. Additionally, the maps illustrate that the households in these communities are majority Spanish-speaking households, many with limited English proficiency (all persons aged five and older reported speaking English less than “very well”). Yet Kern County regulators only provide information, notices, and other materials in English. This linguistically segregates power in Kern County, limiting Spanish-speaking Kern residents and citizens from participating in local decision-making processes.

Using the five-year ACS census data (2018) clipped by the 2,500 feet well setback zone, I have calculated the percentage and number of Spanish-speaking households. For the areas of Frontline Community block groups within 2,500 feet of an operational well, 9,077 households (30.8%) speak Spanish as their primary language, and 1,900 households have limited access to proficient English translators.

Figure 11. Lost Hills Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the population is Hispanic.

 

Figure 12. Lost Hills Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.

 

Figure 13. Lost Hills Limited English Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the household percentage that speak Spanish as their primary language, with limited English-speaking proficiency. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking and have limited English proficiency.

 

Figure 14. Lamont Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the populations is Hispanic.

 

Figure 15. Lamont Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.

 

Figure 16. Lamont Limited English Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language, with limited English-speaking proficiency. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking and have limited English proficiency.

 

Figure 17. Taft Hispanic population demographics: The map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps the American Community Survey data is summarized in percentages of 1, where, for example, light orange (<.400) in the map below refers to areas where 20%-40% of the populations is Hispanic.

 

Figure 18. Taft Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.

 

Figure 19. Arvin Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the populations is Hispanic.

 

Figure 20. Arvin Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.

 

Figure 21. Arvin Limited English Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language, with limited English-speaking proficiency. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking, with limited English proficiency.

 

Figure 22. Shafter Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the populations is Hispanic.

 

Figure 23. Shafter Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.

 

Figure 24. Bakersfield Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the populations is Hispanic.

 

Figure 25. Bakersfield Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.

Conclusions

These maps make it visually clear that the Frontline Communities near oil and gas extraction in Kern County are largely disenfranchised from the democratic process, a direct result of California’s regulatory agencies refusing to provide notices and other important documents and information in Spanish. Additionally, these same communities have limited options, due to economic disparities that make Kern County’s Frontline Communities the poorest in the state of CA. These two factors leveraged against communities prevent them from obtaining self-governance or autonomy over the industrialization occurring in and around their neighborhoods. Furthermore, the demarcations of census boundaries splitting the incorporated and unincorporated cities are essentially gerrymandered to disguise the blatant environmental inequities that exist in Kern County, in direct violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. Kern County must consider these injustices in the development of new environmental impact review requirements for oil and gas operators.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Support this work

Stay in the know

Health & Environmental Effects of Fracking

The Health & Environmental Effects of Fracking

As unconventional oil and natural gas extraction operations have expanded throughout the United States over the past decade, the harmful health and environmental effects of fracking have become increasingly apparent and are supported by a steadily growing number of scientific studies and reports. Although some uncertainties remain around the exact exposure pathways, it is clear that issues associated with fracking negatively impact public health and the surrounding environment.

Health Effects

Holding oil and gas companies accountable for the environmental health effects of unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD), or “fracking,” has been challenging in the US because current regulations do not require drilling operators to disclose exactly what chemicals are used. However, many of the chemicals used for fracking have been identified and come with serious health consequences. The primary known compounds of concern include BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) and associated pollutants such as tropospheric ozone and hydrogen sulfide. BTEX chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans, and can lead to other serious health problems including damage to the nervous, respiratory, and immune system. While some of these BTEX chemicals can occur naturally in groundwater sources, spills and transport of these chemicals used during fracking can be a major source of groundwater contamination. 

Exposure to pollution caused from fracking activity can lead to many negative short-term and long-lasting health effects. Reported health effects from short-term exposures to these pollutants include headaches, coughing, nausea, nose bleeds, skin and eye irritation, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Recent studies have also found an association between pregnant women living in close proximity to fracking sites and low-birth weights and heart defects. Additionally, a recent study conducted in the rural area of Eagle Ford, Texas found that pregnant women living within five kilometers (or about three miles) of fracking operations that regularly engaged in “flaring,” or the burning of excess natural gas, were 50% more likely to have a preterm birth than those without exposure. 

1
2
3
4
5
6

Figure 1. Summary of known health impacts associated with unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD).

Exposure to radioactive materials is also a serious concern. During the fracking process as  high-pressured water and chemicals fracture the rock formations, naturally occurring radioactive elements like radium are also drawn out of the rocks in addition to oil and natural gas. As the oil and natural gas are extracted from the ground, the radioactive material primarily comes back as a component of brine, a byproduct of the extraction process. The brine is then hauled to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the ground. Exposure to radioactivity can lead to adverse health effects such as nausea, headaches, skin irritation, fatigue, and cancer. 

With fracking also comes construction, excessive truck traffic, noise, and light pollution. This has led to a rise in mental health effects including stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as sleep disruptions. 

A 2020 report published by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General contains numerous testimonials from those impacted by fracking, as well as grand jury findings on environmental crimes among shale gas operations. 

How can I be exposed?

Exposure to the hazardous materials used in fracking can occur through many pathways including breathing polluted air, drinking, bathing or cooking with contaminated water, or eating food grown in contaminated soil. Especially vulnerable populations to the harmful chemicals used in fracking include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with preexisting health conditions.

Considerations Around Scientific Certainty

While it is clear that fracking adversely impacts our health, there is still some uncertainty surrounding the exact exposure pathways and the extent that fracking can be associated with certain health effects. A compendium published in 2019 reviewed over 1,500 scientific studies and reports about the risks of fracking, and revealed that 90% found evidence of harm. Although there have been various reports of suspected pediatric cancer clusters in heavily fracked regions, there are minimal longitudinal scientific studies about the correlation between fracking and cancer. The primary reason for this is because the time between the initial exposure to a cancer-causing substance and a cancer diagnosis can take decades. Because fracking in the Marcellus Shale region is a relatively new development, this is an area of research health scientists should focus on in the coming years. While we know that drilling operations use cancer-causing chemicals, more studies are needed to understand the public’s exposure to this pollution and the extent of excess morbidity connected to fracking. 

Methane and Air & Water Quality Concerns

Figure 2. FracTracker’s photo album of air and water quality concerns

Environmental Effects



Air Quality

Fracking has caused detrimental impacts on local air quality, especially for those living within 3-5 miles of UOGD operations. Diesel emissions from truck traffic and heavy machinery used in the preparation, drilling, and production of natural gas release large amounts of toxins and particulate matter (PM). These small particles can infiltrate deeply into the respiratory system, elevating the risk for asthma attacks and cardiopulmonary disease. Other toxins released during UOGD operations include hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a toxic gas that may be present in oil and gas formations. Hydrogen sulfide can cause extensive damage to the central nervous system. BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) chemicals and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are also released during fracking operations, and have been known to cause leukemia; liver damage; eye, nose and throat irritation; and headaches. While oil and gas workers use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from these harmful toxins, residents in surrounding communities are exposed to these hazardous conditions without protection. 

Regional air quality concerns from UOGD include tropospheric ozone, or ‘smog’. VOCs and other chemicals emitted from fracking can react with sunlight to form smog.  While ozone high in the atmosphere provides valuable protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays, ozone at ground level is hazardous for human health. Ozone may cause a range of respiratory effects like shortness of breath, reduced lung function, aggravated asthma and chronic respiratory disease symptoms. 

Expanding beyond local and regional impacts, fracking and UOGD has global implications. With increasing emissions from truck traffic, construction, and high rates of methane leaks, fracking emissions will continue to worsen the climate change crisis. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 86 times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide (on a weight basis) over a 20 year period. Fracking wells can leak 40-60% more methane than conventional natural gas wells, and recent studies have indicated that emissions are significantly higher than previously thought. 

Unhealthy air quality also presents occupational exposures to oil and gas workers through frac sand mining. Frac sand, or silica, is used to hold open the fractures in the rock formations so the oil and gas can be released during the drilling process. Silica dust is extremely small in diameter and can easily be inhaled, making its way to the lower respiratory tract. Silica is classified as a human lung carcinogen, and when inhaled may lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, respiratory failure, and lung cancer. 





Water Quality

 Many states allow this brine to be reused on roads for dust control and de-icing. Regulations vary from state to state, but many areas do not require any level of pretreatment before reuse.  

Not only does fracking affect water quality, but it also depletes the quantity of available fresh water. Water use per fracking well has increased dramatically in recent years, with each well consuming over 14.3 million gallons of water on average. For more information about increasing fracking water use, click here

A summary of other water contamination pathways can be found on page 13 of Earthworks’ Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Waste Report (2019). 

Soil

In addition to air and water contamination, UOGD operations can also harm soil quality. Harmful chemicals including BTEX chemicals and heavy metals like mercury and lead have contaminated agricultural areas near fracking operations.  Exposure can occur from eating produce grown on contaminated soil, or by consuming animals that consumed contaminated feed. These contaminants can also alter the pH and nutrient availability of the soil, resulting in decreased crop production and economic losses. Children are also at high risk of exposure to contaminated soil due to their frequent hand to mouth behavior. Lastly, the practice of frac sand mining can make land reclamation nearly impossible, leaving irreparable damage to the landscape.

Toledo Refining Co Refinery in Toledo, OH, July 2019

Figure 3. Toledo Refining Company Refinery in Toledo, OH, July 2019. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

Report Your Environmental and Health Concerns

If you think that your health or environment have been negatively impacted by fracking operations, contact:

  • For an emergency requiring immediate local police, fire, or emergency medical services, always call 911 first
  • To report a spill or other emergency in PA, contact the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP): 1-800-541-2050 or report to your regional office. In Southwestern PA, call 412-442-4000.
  • PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) Environmental Complaint Line (PA only): 1-888-723-3721 or online. (To find your state environmental or health agency, click here.)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Violations form online.
  • Join the Environmental Health Project Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry & Resource Network here

Support this work

Stay in the know

Landscape Changes and Mental Health Impacts in Southwestern Pennsylvania Communities: A Qualitative Study

 

By Emma Vieregge, FracTracker Summer 2020 Environmental and Health Fellow

Overview

Unconventional oil and natural gas development, or “fracking,” began in Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. Since then, over 12,000 unconventional wells have been drilled in the state, and over 15,000 violations have been documented at unconventional well sites. As fracking operations continue to expand, increasing numbers of residents have experienced significant health impacts and irreparable damage to their property. Southwest Pennsylvania in particular has been heavily impacted, with high concentrations of oil and gas infrastructure developed in Washington, Greene, and Fayette Counties.

Fracking operations have led to declining air quality, water and soil contamination, and drastic changes to the physical landscape including deforestation, habitat fragmentation, road construction, and damaged farmland. While the volume of scientific literature about the physical and mental health impacts of fracking is rising, few studies exist that specifically focus on residents’ perceptions of the changing physical landscape. The primary goal of this qualitative study was to identify residents’ attitudes about the changing physical landscape resulting from fracking operations. Furthermore, how have these landscape changes affected residents’ engagement with the outdoors and their overall health?

Mental health, green spaces, and a changing landscape

Many scientific studies have documented the relationship between fracking developments and mental health, and between mental health and access to green spaces and engagement with the outdoors. Peer-reviewed studies have looked at heavily fracked communities across the US, many of which focus on Pennsylvania residents. Methods typically involve one-on-one interviews, larger focus groups, surveys, or a combination of the three, to identify how living amongst oil and gas operations takes a toll on everyday life. These studies have found an increase in stress and anxiety, feelings of powerlessness against the oil and gas industry, social conflicts, sleep disturbances, and reduced life satisfaction. Additionally, residents have experienced disruptions in their sense of place and social identity. For a summary of published research about the mental health impacts from fracking, click here.

A healthy strategy many choose to cope with stress and anxiety is engagement in outdoor recreation. Having easily accessible “green spaces,” or land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation such as parks and conservation areas have been shown to promote physical and mental health. Many scientific studies have identified significantly fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress in populations with higher levels of neighborhood green space.1 Additionally, green spaces can aid recovery from mental fatigue and community social cohesion.2 3 However, residents in Southwestern Pennsylvania may slowly see their access to green spaces and opportunities for outdoor recreation decline due to the expansion of fracking operations. Figure 1 below shows a visual representation of the interconnected relationship between fracking, access to green spaces, and negative mental health impacts.

Figure 1. The interconnected relationship between fracking operations, landscape changes and decreasing access to outdoor recreation, and negative mental health impacts.

 

In the last 10-15 years, fracking operations in Southwest Pennsylvania have exploded. The development of new pipelines, access roads, well pads, impoundments, and compressor stations is widespread and altering the physical landscape. Figure 2 below illustrates just one of many examples of landscape disruption caused from fracking operations.

 

Figure 2. Examples of changes in the physical landscape caused from fracking operations in Greene County (A) and Washington County (B), Pennsylvania. Images taken from Google Earth.

 

Additionally, this time-slider map (Figure 3) illustrates a larger scale view of landscape changes in Greene County, Pennsylvania in a region just east of Waynesburg.

 

Figure 3. Time-slider map of a region in Greene County, PA where the left portion of the map is imagery from 2005, and the right portion of the map is from 2017. Active oil and gas wells are indicated by a blue pin, and compressor stations are in green.

 

Study design

A qualitative study was conducted to answer the following research questions:

  1. What are residents’ perception of the landscape changes brought about by fracking?
  2. Have these landscape changes caused any mental health impacts?
  3. Have changes to the physical landscape from oil and gas operations resulting in any changes in engagement with outdoor recreation?

To better understand these topics, residents living in Southwestern Pennsylvania were recruited to participate in one-on-one phone interviews, and an online survey was also distributed throughout the FracTracker Alliance network. Recruitment for the one-on-one phone interviews was accomplished through FracTracker’s social media, and email blasts through other partnering organizations such as Halt the Harm Network, People Over Petro, and the Clean Air Council. Similarly, the online survey was shared on FracTracker’s social media and also distributed through our monthly newsletter. Since this was not a randomized sample to select participants, these results should not be generalized to all residents living near oil and gas infrastructure. However, this study identifies how certain individuals have been impacted by the changing landscape brought about by fracking operations.

Eight residents completed phone interviews, all of whom resided in Washington County, PA. Residents were first asked how long they have lived in their current home, and if there was oil and gas infrastructure on or near their property. Oil and gas infrastructure was defined as well pads, compressor stations, pipelines, ponds or impoundments, or access roads. Next, residents were asked if they had any health concerns regarding fracking operations and gave personal accounts of how fracking operations have altered the physical landscape near their home and in their surrounding community. For those with agricultural land, additional questions were asked about fracking’s impact on residents’ ability to use their farmland. Lastly, residents were asked questions focused on engagement in outdoor recreation and if fracking had any impact on outdoor recreation opportunities. NVivo, a qualitative analysis software, was used identify emergent themes throughout the interviews,

In addition to the interviews, an online survey was also made available.The main purpose of the survey was to gauge where concerns about landscape changes from fracking operations fell in relation to other oil and gas impacts (i.e. air pollution, water contamination, excess noise and traffic, and soil contamination). Nine responses were recorded, and the results are discussed below. However, if you would like to add your thoughts, you can find the survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Z5DCWBD.

Main findings and emergent themes

Various emergent themes surrounding the oil and gas industry’s impact on public health and the environment were identified throughout the resident interviews. Residents shared their personal experiences and how they have been directly impacted by fracking operations, especially with reference to the changing physical landscape surrounding their homes and throughout their communities. Participants’ time of residence in Washington County ranged from 3 years to their entire life, and all participants had oil and gas infrastructure (well pad, pipelines, impoundment, access roads, or compressor station) on or next to their property.

Changes to the physical landscape and residents’ attitudes toward the altered environment

The first overarching theme was changes to the physical landscape and residents’ attitudes toward the altered environment. All interview participants expressed concerns about the changes to the physical landscape on or surrounding their property, especially regarding access roads and well pads. Although one participant mentioned that widening the township road in order to make room for fracking trucks benefited the local community, the majority of participants expressed frustration about the construction of access roads, excessive truck traffic, noise, and dust from the unpaved access roads. One individual stated, “My main concern is the dust from the road. I’m constantly breathing that in, and it’s all over my shed, on the cars, the inside of the house, the outside of the house.” Multiple participants discussed the oil and gas operations disrupting what was once peaceful farmland with beautiful scenery (see an example in Figure 4 below). Another individual stated, “And of course, the noise is just unbearable. They don’t stop…the clanging on the pipe, the blow off with the wells, pumps running, generators, trucks coming down the hill with their engine brakes on, blowing their horn every time they want another truck to move.”

 

Figure 4. Aerial view of oil and gas infrastructure next to a home in Scenery Hill, PA. Image courtesy of Lois Bower-Bjornson from the Clean Air Council.

 

Impacts to outdoor recreation activities

Impacts to outdoor recreation activities such as hunting, fishing, and hiking were another recurring theme throughout the interviews. Again, a majority of participants believed their opportunities to partake in outdoor recreation have been limited since fracking operations began in their area.

Among the top concerns was deteriorating air quality and increasing numbers of ozone action days, or days when the air quality index (AQI) for ozone reaches an unhealthy level for sensitive populations. Various participants expressed concerns about letting their children outside due to harmful air emissions and odors originating from well pads or compressor stations. Excessive truck traffic was also a safety concern that was mentioned, especially for those individuals with access roads on or neighboring their property.

Additionally, one individual noted landscape changes in areas commonly used for hiking stating, “You might be hiking along a trail and then realize that you’re no longer on the trail. You’re actually on a pipeline cut. Or you’ll get confused while you’re hiking because you’ll intersect with a road that was developed for a well pad, and it’s not on your map.” Along with hiking, participants also noted a change in hunting and fishing opportunities since fracking moved into the region. Concerns were expressed regarding harvesting any fish or wild game due to possible contamination from fracking chemicals, especially near watersheds with known chemical spills.

Going for a hike and immersing oneself in nature is a healthy way to unwind and relieve stress. However, a rising number of well pads and compressor stations are put in place near parks, hiking trails, and state game lands throughout Southwest Pennsylvania (Figure 5). Participants expressed concerns about feeling unable to escape oil and gas infrastructure, even when visiting these recreational areas. As one individual mentioned, “It really does change your experience of the outdoors. And, you know, it’s an area that’s supposed to be a protected natural area. Then you know you can’t really get away. Even there in public lands far away from buildings and roads. And you can’t really get away from it.”

 

Figure 5. A map of active oil and gas well pads and compressor stations in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Map layers also indicate wells pads and compressor stations within 1 mile of a park, hiking trail, ball park, or state game land.

View map fullscreen

Mental health impacts

But what are the mental health impacts that result from the changing physical landscape brought about by fracking? Aside from the physical health effects caused by fracking activity — such as respiratory illnesses from air pollution or skin irritation from contaminated well water — these landscape changes have taken a toll on participants’ mental health as well.

Sentimental value and emotional distress

Many participants described the sentimental value of their property, and the beautiful scenery surrounding their generational family farms. But after fracking began on neighboring property, witnessing their tranquil family farm suddenly become surrounded by dusty access roads, excessive truck traffic, noise, and deteriorating air quality took a serious emotional and mental toll. When asked about the impact of the changing landscape, one participant stated, “It’s the emotional part of watching her childhood farm being destroyed while she is trying to do everything she can to rebuild it to the way it used to be.”

An additional emergent theme surrounding fracking landscape changes was surrounding agricultural impacts. Participants with agricultural land were asked additional questions about fracking’s impacts on their ability to use their farmland. One individual noted that one of their fields was now unusable due to large rocks and filter fabrics left from construction of a well pad, and redirected runoff uphill of their fields. The loss of productive farmland has further contributed to the mental and emotional stress. One participant added, “Our house is ruined, our health is ruined, and our farms are ruined.” In addition to agricultural impacts on large farms, multiple participants also mentioned concerns about their smaller-scale gardens, citing uncertainty about the impacts of air pollution and soil contamination on their produce.

Feelings of powerlessness and social tension

Some participants mentioned feelings of powerlessness against the oil and gas industry. Many families were not consulted prior to fracking operations beginning adjacent to their property. In some cases, this has resulted in significant declines in property values, leaving residents with no financial means to escape oil and gas activity. It is important to note that many residents are given temporary financial incentives to allow fracking on their land. However, to some, the monetary compensation failed to make up for the toll fracking took on their physical and mental health. Lastly, some participants also mentioned feeling stress and anxiety from the social tension resulting from fracking. Debates about the restrictions and regulations on fracking have divided many communities, leading to conflicts and social tensions between once-amiable neighbors.

Survey results

In addition to the interviews, an online survey was distributed to gain more insight as to where concerns about the changing physical landscape fell in relation to other effects associated with oil and gas development (such as poor air quality, water or soil contamination, truck traffic, and noise).

Nine individuals responded to the survey, all of whom indicated having oil and gas infrastructure within five miles of their home. All respondents also indicated that they participated in a wide variety of outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, wildlife viewing/photography, camping, hunting, and fishing.

Interestedly, only five respondents stated they felt fracking had a negative impact on their health, three responded they were unsure, and one responded no. However, all participants felt fracking had a negative impact on their surrounding environment. When discussing outdoor recreation, eight of nine respondents stated they felt fracking limited their access to outdoor recreation opportunities.

Next, respondents indicated that the level of concern related to the changing landscape brought about by fracking was equal to concerns about air pollution, water and soil contamination, noise, and truck traffic (using a 5-point likert scale). Lastly, one respondent stated that they closed their outdoor recreation tourism business due to blowdown emission (the release of gas from a pipeline to the atmosphere in order to relieve pressure in the pipe so that maintenance or testing can take place) and noise from fracking operations.

Conclusion and future directions

In summary, fracking operations have deeply impacted these individuals living in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Not only do residents experience deteriorating air quality, water contamination, and physical health effects, but the mental and emotional toll of witnessing multigenerational farms become forever changed can be overbearing. Other mental health impacts included rising social tensions, feelings of powerlessness, and continuous emotional distress. Fracking operations continue to change the physical landscape, tarnishing Southwest Pennsylvania’s natural beauty and threatening access to outdoor recreation opportunities. Unfortunately, those not living in the direct path of fracking operations struggle to grasp the severity of fracking’s impact on families living with oil and gas infrastructure on or near their property. More widespread awareness of fracking’s impacts is needed to educate communities and call for stricter enforcement of regulations for the oil and gas industry. As one resident summed up their experiences,

 

“Engines are running full blast, shining lights, and just spewing toxins out there. And you can’t get away from it. You just can’t. You can’t drink the water. You can’t breathe the air. You can’t farm the ground. And you’re stuck here.”

 

Hopefully, shedding light on residents’ experiences such as these will bring policymakers to reconsider fracking regulations to minimize the impact on public health and the surrounding environment.

 

By Emma Vieregge, FracTracker Summer 2020 Environmental and Health Fellow

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to all participants who took the time to share their experiences with me, Lois Bower-Bjornson with the Clean Air Council, Jessa Chabeau at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, and the FracTracker team for all of their feedback and expertise.

Feature image courtesy of Lois Bower-Bjornson from the Clean Air Council.

References:

1 Beyer, K., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F., & Malecki, K. (2014). Exposure to Neighborhood Green Space and Mental Health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(3), 3453-3472. doi:10.3390/ijerph110303453

2 Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., . . . Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 140(3), 300-305. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2012.03.012

3 Maas, J., Dillen, S. M., Verheij, R. A., & Groenewegen, P. P. (2009). Social contacts as a possible mechanism behind the relation between green space and health. Health & Place, 15(2), 586-595. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.09.006

Support this work

Stay in the know

Testimony to PA DEP on Control of Methane & VOC Emissions from Oil and Natural Gas Sources

This testimony was provided by Shannon Smith, FracTracker Manager of Communications & Development, at the July 23rd hearing on the control of methane & VOC emissions from oil and natural gas sources hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

My name is Shannon Smith and I’m a resident of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. I am the Manager of Communications and Development at the nonprofit organization FracTracker Alliance. FracTracker studies and maps issues related to unconventional oil and gas development, and we have been a top source of information on these topics since 2010. Last year alone, FracTracker’s website received over 260,000 users. FracTracker, the project, was originally developed to investigate health concerns and data gaps surrounding Western Pennsylvania fracking.

I would like to address the proposed rule to reduce emissions of methane and other harmful air pollution, such as smog-forming volatile organic compounds, which I will refer to as VOCs, from existing oil and gas operations. I thank the DEP for the opportunity to address this important issue.

The proposed rule will protect Pennsylvanians from methane and harmful VOCs from oil and gas sources, but to a limited extent. The proposed rule does not adequately protect our air, climate, nor public health, because it includes loopholes that would leave over half of all potential cuts to methane and VOC pollution from the industry unchecked.

Emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane and VOC pollution harm communities by contributing to the climate crisis, endangering households and workers through explosions and fires, and causing serious health impairments. Poor air quality also contributes to the economic drain of Pennsylvania’s communities due to increased health care costs, lower property values, a declining tax base, and difficulty in attracting and retaining businesses.

Oil and gas related air pollution has known human health impacts including impairment of the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukemia, depression, and genetic impacts like low birth weight.

One indirect impact especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, is the increased incidence and severity of respiratory viral infections in populations living in areas with poor air quality, as indicated by a number of studies.

Given the available data, FracTracker Alliance estimates that there are 106,224 oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. Out of the 12,574 drilled unconventional wells, there have been 15,164 cited violations. Undoubtedly the number of violations would be higher with stricter monitoring.

There is a need for more stringent environmental regulations and enforcement, and efforts to do so should be applauded only if they adequately respond to the scientific evidence regarding risks to public health. These measures are only successful if there is long-term predictability that will ultimately drive investments in clean energy technologies. Emission rollbacks undermine decades of efforts to shift industries towards cleaner practices. So, I urge the DEP to close the loophole in the proposed rulemaking that exempts low-producing wells from the rule’s leak inspection requirements. Low-producing wells are responsible for more than half of the methane pollution from oil and gas sources in Pennsylvania, and all wells, regardless of production, require routine inspections.

I also ask that the Department eliminate the provision that allows operators to reduce the frequency of inspections based on the results of previous inspections. Research does not show that the quantity of leaking components from oil and gas sources indicates or predicts the frequency or quantity of future leaks.

In fact, large and uncontrolled leaks are random and can only be detected with frequent and regular inspections. Short-term peaks of air pollution due to oil and gas activities are common and can cause health impairments in a matter of minutes, especially in sensitive populations such as people with asthma, children, and the elderly. I urge the Department to close loopholes that would exempt certain wells from leak detection and repair requirements, and ensure that this proposal includes requirements for all emission sources covered in DEP’s already adopted standards for new oil and gas sources.

Furthermore, conventional operators should have to report their emissions, and the Department should require air monitoring technologies that have the capacity to detect peaks rather than simply averages. We need adequate data in order to properly enforce regulations and meet Pennsylvania’s climate goals of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

Pine Creek compressor station FLIR camera footage by Earthworks (May 2019).

Support this work

Stay in the know

FracTracker Falcon Pipeline spills map

Falcon Pipeline Construction Releases over 250,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid in Pennsylvania and Ohio

Part of the Falcon Public Environmental Impact Assessment – a FracTracker series on the impacts of Falcon Ethane Pipeline System

Challenges have plagued Shell’s construction of the Falcon Pipeline System through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, according to documents from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Records show that at least 70 spills have occurred since construction began in early 2019, releasing over a quarter million gallons of drilling fluid. Yet the true number and volume of spills is uncertain due to inaccuracies in reporting by Shell and discrepancies in regulation by state agencies. 

Drilling Mud Spill

A drilling fluid spill from Falcon Pipeline construction near Moffett Mill Road in Beaver County, PA. Source: Pennsylvania DEP

Releases of drilling fluid during Falcon’s construction include inadvertent returns and losses of circulation – two technical words used to describe spills of drilling fluid that occur during pipeline construction.

Drilling fluid, which consists of water, bentonite clay, and chemical additives, is used when workers drill a borehole horizontally underground to pull a pipeline underneath a water body, road, or other sensitive location. This type of installation is called a HDD (horizontal directional drill), and is pictured in Figure 1.

HDD Pipeline Diagram

Figure 1. An HDD operation – Thousands of gallons of drilling fluid are used in this process, creating the potential for spills. Click to expand. Source: Enbridge Pipeline

 

Here’s a breakdown of what these types of spills are and how often they’ve occurred during Falcon pipeline construction, as of March, 2020:

  • Loss of circulation 
    • Definition: A loss of circulation occurs when there is a decrease in the volume of drilling fluid returning to the entry or exit point of a borehole. A loss can occur when drilling fluid is blocked and therefore prevented from leaving a borehole, or when fluid is lost underground.
    • Cause: Losses of circulation occur frequently during HDD construction and can be caused by misdirected drilling, underground voids, equipment blockages or failures, overburdened soils, and weathered bedrock.
    • Construction of the Falcon has caused at least 49 losses of circulation releasing at least 245,530 gallons of drilling fluid. Incidents include:
      • 15 losses in Ohio – totaling 73,414 gallons
      • 34 losses in Pennsylvania – totaling 172,116 gallons
  • Inadvertent return
    • Definition: An inadvertent return occurs when drilling fluid used in pipeline installation is accidentally released and migrates to Earth’s surface. Oftentimes, a loss of circulation becomes an inadvertent return when underground formations create pathways for fluid to surface. Additionally, Shell’s records indicate that if a loss of circulation is large enough, (releasing over 50% percent of drilling fluids over 24-hours, 25% of fluids over 48-hours, or a daily max not to exceed 50,000 gallons) it qualifies as an inadvertent return even if fluid doesn’t surface.
    • Cause: Inadvertent returns are also frequent during HDD construction and are caused by many of the same factors as losses of circulation. 
    • Construction of the Falcon has caused at least 20 inadvertent returns, releasing at least 5,581 gallons of drilling fluid. These incidents include:
      • 18 inadvertent returns in Pennsylvania – totaling 5,546 gallons 
        • 2,639 gallons into water resources (streams and wetlands)
      • 2 inadvertent returns Ohio – totaling 35 gallons 
        • 35 gallons into water resources (streams and wetlands)

However, according to the Ohio EPA, Shell is not required to submit reports for losses of circulation that are less than the definition of an inadvertent return, so many losses may not be captured in the list above. Additionally, documents reveal inconsistent volumes of drilling mud reported and discrepancies in the way releases are regulated by the Pennsylvania DEP and the Ohio EPA.

Very few of these incidents were published online for the public to see; FracTracker obtained information on them through a public records request. The map below shows the location of all known drilling fluid releases from that request, along with features relevant to the pipeline’s construction. Click here to view full screen, and add features to the map by checking the box next to them in the legend. For definitions and additional details, click on the information icon.

 

View map full screen 

Jefferson County, Ohio

Our investigation into these incidents began early this year when we received an anonymous tip about a release of drilling fluids in the range of millions of gallons at the SCIO-06 HDD over Wolf Run Road in Jefferson County, Ohio. The source stated that the release could be contaminating drinking water for residents and livestock.

Working with Clean Air Council, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, and DeSmog Blog, we quickly discovered that this spill was just the beginning of the Falcon’s construction issues.

Documents from the Ohio EPA confirm that there were at least eight losses of circulation at this location between August 2019 and January 2020, including losses of unknown volume. The SCIO-06 HDD location is of particular concern because it crosses beneath two streams (Wolf Run and a stream connected to Wolf Run) and a wetland, is near groundwater wells, and runs over an inactive coal mine (Figure 2).

Map of spills along pipeline

Figure 2. Losses of circulation that occurred at the SCIO-06 horizontal directional drill (HDD) site along the Falcon Pipeline in Jefferson County Ohio. Data Sources: OH EPA, AECOM

According to Shell’s survey, the coal mine (shown in Figure 2 in blue) is 290 feet below the HDD crossing. A hazardous scenario could arise if an HDD site interacts with mine voids, releasing drilling fluid into the void and creating a new mine void discharge. 

A similar situation occurred in 2018, when EQT Corp. was fined $294,000 after the pipeline it was installing under a road in Forward Township, Pennsylvania hit an old mine, releasing four million gallons of mine drainage into the Monongahela River. 

The Ohio EPA’s Division of Drinking and Ground Waters looked into the issues around this site and reported, “GIS analysis of the pipeline location in Jefferson Co. does not appear to risk any vulnerable ground water resources in the area, except local private water supply wells.  However, the incident location is above a known abandoned (pre-1977) coal mine complex, mapped by ODNR.”

If you believe your environment may be impacted by pipeline construction, you may contact Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services for assistance, and as always you can reach out to FracTracker Alliance with questions and concerns.

 

While we cannot confirm if there was a spill in the range of millions of gallons as the source claimed, the reported losses of circulation at the SCIO-06 site total over 60,000 gallons of drilling fluid. Additionally, on December 10th, 2019, the Ohio EPA asked AECOM (the engineering company contracted by Shell for this project) to estimate what the total fluid loss would be if workers were to continue drilling to complete the SCIO-06 crossing. AECOM reported that, in a “very conservative scenario based on the current level of fluid loss…Overall mud loss to the formation could exceed 3,000,000 gallons.” 

Despite this possibility of a 3 million+ gallon spill, Shell resumed construction in January, 2020. The company experienced another loss of circulation of 4,583 gallons, reportedly caused by a change in formation. However, in correspondence with a resident, Shell stated that the volume lost was 3,200 gallons. 

Whatever the amount, this January loss of circulation appears to have convinced Shell that an HDD crossing at this location was too difficult to complete, and in February 2020, Shell decided to change the type of crossing at the SCIO-06 site to a guided bore underneath Wolf Run Rd and open cut trench through the stream crossings (Figure 3).

Pipeline Map

Figure 3. The SCIO-06 HDD site, which may be changed from an HDD crossing to an open cut trench and conventional bore to cross Wolf Run Rd, Wolf Run stream (darker blue), an intermittent stream (light blue) and a wetland (teal). Click to expand.

An investigation by DeSmog Blog revealed that Shell applied for the route change under Nationwide Permit 12, a permit required for water crossings. While the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the route change on March 17th, one month later, a Montana federal court overseeing a case on the Keystone XL pipeline determined that the Nationwide Permit 12 did not meet standards set by federal environmental laws – a decision which may nullify the Falcon’s permit status. At this time, the ramifications of this decision on the Falcon remain unclear.

Inconsistencies in Reporting

In looking through Shell’s loss of circulation reports, we noted several discrepancies about the volume of drilling fluid released for different spills, including those that occurred at the SCIO-06 site. As one example, the Ohio EPA stated an email about the SCIO-06 HDD, “The reported loss of fluid from August 1, 2019 to August 14, 2019 in the memo does not appear to agree with the 21,950 gallons of fluid loss reported to me during my site visit on August 14, 2019 or the fluid loss reported in the conference call on August 13, 2019.” 

In addition to errors on Shell’s end, our review of documents revealed significant confusion around the regulation of drilling fluid spills. In an email from September 26, 2019, months after construction began, Shell raised the following questions with the Ohio EPA: 

  • when a loss of circulation becomes an inadvertent return – the Ohio EPA clarifies: “For purposes of HDD activities in Ohio, an inadvertent return is defined as the unintended return of any fluid to the surface, as well as losses of fluids to underground formations which exceed 50-percent over a 24-hour period and/or 25-percent loss of fluids or annular pressure sustained over a 48-hour period;”
  • when the clock starts for the aforementioned time periods – the Ohio EPA says the time starts when “the drill commences drilling;”
  • whether Shell needs to submit loss of circulation reports for losses that are less than the aforementioned definition of an inadvertent return – the Ohio EPA responds, “No. This is not required in the permit.”

How are these spills measured?

A possible explanation for why Shell reported inconsistent volumes of spills is because they were not using the proper technology to measure them.

Shell’s “Inadvertent Returns from HDD: Assessment, Preparedness, Prevention and Response Plan” states that drilling rigs must be equipped with “instruments which can measure and record in real time, the following information: borehole annular pressure during the pilot hole operation; drilling fluid discharge rate; the spatial position of the drilling bit or reamer bit; and the drill string axial and torsional loads.”

In other words, Shell should be using monitoring equipment to measure and report volumes of drilling fluid released.

Despite that requirement, Shell was initially monitoring releases manually by measuring the remaining fluid levels in tanks. After inspectors with the Pennsylvania DEP realized this in October, 2019, the Department issued a Notice of Violation to Shell, asking the company to immediately cease all Pennsylvania HDD operations and implement recording instruments. The violation also cited Shell for not filing weekly inadvertent return reports and not reporting where recovered drilling fluids were disposed. 

In Ohio, there is no record of a similar request from the Ohio EPA. The anonymous source that originally informed us of issues at the SCIO-6 HDD stated that local officials and regulatory agencies in Ohio were likely not informed of the full volumes of the industrial waste releases based on actual meter readings, but rather estimates that minimize the perceived impact. 

While we cannot confirm this claim, we know a few things for sure: 1) there are conflicting reports about the volume of drilling fluids spilled in Ohio, 2) according to Shell’s engineers, there is the potential for a 3 million+ gallon spill at the SCIO-06 site, and 3) there are instances of Shell not following its permits with regard to measuring and reporting fluid losses. 

The inconsistent ways that fluid losses (particularly those that occur underground) are defined, reported, and measured leave too many opportunities for Shell to impact sensitive ecosystems and drinking water sources without being held accountable.

What are the impacts of drilling fluid spills?

Drilling fluid is primarily composed of water and bentonite clay (sodium montmorillonite), which is nontoxic. If a fluid loss occurs, workers often use additives to try and create a seal to prevent drilling fluid from escaping into underground voids. According to Shell’s “Inadvertent Returns From HDD” plan, it only uses additives that meet food standards, are not petroleum based, and are consistent with materials used in drinking water operations.

However, large inadvertent returns into waterways cause heavy sedimentation and can have harmful effects on aquatic life. They can also ruin drinking water sources. Inadvertent returns caused by HDD construction along the Mariner East 2 pipeline have contaminated many water wells.

Losses of circulation can impact drinking water too. This past April in Texas, construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline caused a loss that left residents with muddy well water. A 3 million gallon loss of circulation along the Mariner East route led to 208,000 gallons of drilling mud entering a lake, and a $2 million fine for Sunoco, the pipeline’s operator.

Our Falcon Public EIA Project found 240 groundwater wells within 1/4 mile of the pipeline and 24 within 1,000 ft of an HDD site. The pipeline also crosses near surface water reservoirs. Drilling mud spills could put these drinking water sources at risk.

But when it comes to understanding the true impact of the more than 245,000+ gallons of drilling fluid lost beneath Pennsylvania and Ohio, there are a lot of remaining questions. The Falcon route crosses over roughly 20 miles of under-mined land (including 5.6 miles of active coal mines) and 25 miles of porous karst limestone formations (learn more about karst). Add in to the mix the thousands of abandoned, conventional, and fracked wells in the region – and you start to get a picture of how holey the land is. Where or how drilling fluid interacts with these voids underground is largely unknown.

Other Drilling Fluid Losses

In addition to the SCIO-04 HDD, there are other drilling fluid losses that occurred in sensitive locations.

In Robinson Township, Pennsylvania, over a dozen losses of circulation (many of which occurred over the span of several days) released a reported 90,067 gallons of drilling fluid into the ground at the HOU-04 HDD. This HDD is above inactive surface and underground mines.

The Falcon passes through and near surface drinking water sources. In Beaver County, Pennsylvania, the pipeline crosses the headwaters of the Ambridge Reservoir and the water line that carries out its water for residents in Beaver County townships (Ambridge, Baden, Economy, Harmony, and New Sewickley) and Allegheny County townships (Leet, Leetsdale, Bell Acres, and Edgeworth). The group Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir, which formed in 2012 to protect the reservoir from unconventional oil and gas infrastructure, led efforts to stop Falcon Construction, and the Ambridge Water Authority itself called the path of the pipeline “not acceptable.” In response to public pressure, Shell did agree to build a back up line to the West View Water Authority in case issues arose from the Falcon’s construction.

Unfortunately, a 50-gallon inadvertent return was reported at the HDD that crosses the waterline (Figure 4), and a 160 gallon inadvertent return occurred in Raccoon Municipal Park within the watershed and near its protected headwaters (Figure 5). Both of these releases are reported to have occurred within the pipeline’s construction area and not into waterways.

Spill from Falcon construction

Figure 4) HOU-10 HDD location on the Falcon Pipeline, where 50 gallons were released on the drill pad on 7/9/2019

Spill from pipeline construction

Figure 5) SCIO-05 HDD location on the Falcon Pipeline, where 160 gallons were released on 6/10/19, within the pipeline’s LOD (limit of disturbance)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farther west, the pipeline crosses through the watershed of the Tappan Reservoir, which provides water for residents in Scio, Ohio and the Ohio River, which serves over 5 million people.

A 35- gallon inadvertent return occurred at a conventional bore within the Tappan Lake Protection Area, impacting a wetland and stream. We are not aware of any spills impacting the Ohio River.

Pipelines in a Pandemic

This investigation makes it clear that weak laws and enforcement around drilling fluid spills allows pipeline construction to harm sensitive ecosystems and put drinking water sources at risk. Furthermore, regulations don’t require state agencies or Shell to notify communities when many of these drilling mud spills occur.

Despite the issues Shell experienced during construction, work on the Falcon continued over the past months during state shelter-in-place orders, while many businesses were forced to close. 

The problem continues where the 97-mile pipeline ends – at the Shell ethane cracker. In March, workers raised concerns about the unsanitary conditions of the site, and stated that crowded workspaces made social distancing impossible. While Shell did halt construction temporarily, state officials gave the company the OK to continue work – even without the waiver many businesses had to obtain. 

The state’s decision was based on the fact it considered the ethane cracker to “support electrical power generation, transmission and distribution.” The ethane cracker – which is still months and likely years away from operation – does not currently produce electrical power and will only provide power generation to support plastic manufacturing.

This claim continues a long pattern of the industry attempting to trick the public into believing that we must continue expanding oil and gas operations to meet our country’s energy needs. In reality, Shell and other oil and gas companies are attempting to line their own pockets by turning the country’s massive oversupply of fracked gas into plastic. And just as Shell and state governments have put the health of residents and workers on the line by continuing construction during a global pandemic, they are sacrificing the health of communities on the frontlines of the plastic industry and climate change by pushing forward the build-out of the petrochemical industry during a global climate crisis.

This election year, while public officials are pushing forward major action to respond to the economic collapse, let’s push for policies and candidates that align with the people’s needs, not Big Oil’s.

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

Support this work

Stay in the know

Map of New 2020 Fracking Permits in California

California, Back in Frack

California is once again a fracked state. The moratorium on well stimulations (hydraulic fracturing and acidizing) that lasted since June 26, 2019 has now come to an end. As of April 3rd, 2020, California’s oil and gas regulatory body, California Geological Energy Management Division (CalGEM), approved 24 new permits to frack new wells. The wells were permitted to the operator Aera Energy. Well types to be fracked include 22 oil and gas production wells and 2 water flood wells; 18 of which are in the South Belridge Field and 6 North Belridge Field. Locations of the wells are shown in the map in Figure 1, and are mapped with the rest of 2020’s approved well drilling and rework permits in Consumer Watchdog’s updated release on NewsomWellWatch.org. Please read our press release with Consumer Watchdog here!

Figure 1. Map of New Fracking Permits in California

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

Health Risks

Fortunately, these 24 approved well stimulation permits are not located in close proximity to communities that would be directly impacted by the negative contributions to air quality and potential groundwater quality degradation that result from drilling and stimulating oil and gas wells. Regardless of where oil and gas wells and stimulations are permitted in relation to Frontline Communities, these wells will still degrade the regional air quality of the San Joaquin Valley. The San Joaquin Valley has the worst air quality in the country. According to the U.S. EPA, oil and gas production is a main contributor of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) and NOX in the Valley. In addition to VOC’s being carcinogens, these pollutants are precursors to the ozone and smog that cause health impacts such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular disease, and negative birth outcomes.

Geology and Spills

Additionally, the dolomite formations where these 24 stimulations were permitted have also experienced the same type of oil seeps and spills (known as surface expressions) as the Cymric Field just to the south. Readers may remember the operator Chevron spilling 1.3 million gallons of oil and wastewater in an uncontrollable seep resulting from high pressure injection wells.

Whereas Governor Newsom may have put a halt to unpermitted high-pressure injections, regulators have just approved permits for 24 new fracking operations, a.k.a well stimulations. The irony here is that risks inherent in the fracking process in California include the same risks associated with high pressure steam injection operations. Both techniques elevate the downhole pressure of a well to the point that the formation “source” rock is fractured. These techniques increase the likelihood of downhole communication with other surrounding wells, both active and plugged. Downhole communication events between wells, in this case known as “frack hits” are a major cause of well casing failures and blowouts, which in turn are the primary cause of surface expressions. Simply put, high pressure injections in over-developed oil fields result in spills, and in this case, these 24 permitted stimulations are within 1,500’ of over 7,000 existing wells, a distance specifically identified by CalGEM as a high-risk zone for downhole communication between wells.

Regulation

So how did these wells get approved? Here’s the story, as told by CalGEM:

​​​​In November, CalGEM requested a third-party scientific review of pending well stimulation permit applications to ensure the state’s technical standards for public health, safety and environmental protection are met prior to approval of each permit. To ensure the proposed permits comply with California law, including the state’s technical standards to protect public health, safety, and environmental protection, the Department of Conservation asked experts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to assess CalGEM’s permit review process. LLNL also evaluated the completeness of operators’ application materials and CalGEM’s engineering and geologic analyses.

The independent scientific review is one of Governor Newsom’s initiatives to ensure oil and gas regulations protect public health, safety, and environmental protection. This review, which assesses the completeness of each proposed hydraulic fracturing permit, is taking place as an interim measure while a broader audit is completed of CalGEM’s permitting process for well stimulation. That audit is being completed by the Department of Finance Office of Audits and Evaluation (OSAE) and will be completed and shared publicly later this year. LLNL experts are continuing evaluation on a permit-by-permit basis and conducting a rigorous technical review to verify geological claims made by well operators in the application process. Permit by permit review will continue until the Department of Finance Audit is complete later this year.

LLNL’s scientific review of the permit applications and process found that the permitting process met statutory and regulatory requirements. LLNL found, however, that CalGEM could improve its evaluation of the technical models used in the permit approval process. As a result, CalGEM now requires all operators to provide an Axial Dimensional Stimulation Area (ADSA) Narrative Report for each oilfield and fracture interval which must be validated by LLNL and conform to the new CalGEM permitting process. This will improve CalGEM’s ability to independently validate applicants’ fracture modeling.

While this sounds like a methodological approach to the permitting process, it is still flawed in several ways. First and foremost, there is still no process for community input, let alone community decision-making. Community stakeholders are not engaged at in point in this process. Furthermore the contribution of oil and gas extraction operations to the degradation of environmental quality is already well established. In the case of these 24 fracking permits, they will contribute to the further degradation of regional air quality and continue the legacy of groundwater contamination within the sacrifice zone surrounding the Belridge fields.

Fracking in the Age of Pandemics

While we are critical of Governor Newsom’s climate-changing oil extraction policies, FracTracker would like to recognize the leadership Governor Newsom has shown instituting responsible policies to keep Californians as safe as possible and protected from the threat of COVID-19. While there can still be more done to provide relief for the most financially vulnerable, such as instituting a rent moratorium for those that do not own their own homes, California leads as an example for the public health interventions that need to be instituted nation-wide. The Governors inclusion of undocumented citizens in the state’s economic stimulus program is a first step, and FracTracker Alliance fully supports increasing the amount to at least match the $1,200 provided to the rest of Californians.

Conclusion

Regardless, the threat of COVID-19 cannot be addressed in a vacuum. Threats of infection are magnified for Frontline Communities. Living near oil and gas operations exposes communities to a cocktail of volatile organic compounds that suppress the immune system, increasing the risk of contracting viral lung infections. Frontline Communities are therefore particularly vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19. California and Governor Newsom need to consider the public health implications of permitting new fracking and new oil and gas wells, particularly those permits within 2,500’ of hospitals, schools, and other sensitive sites, above all during an existing pandemic.

By Kyle Ferrar, MPH, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Support this work

Stay in the know

California well pad

California Setback Analyses Summary

FracTracker Alliance has conducted numerous spatial analyses concerning the proximity of oil and gas extraction infrastructure to sensitive receptors, including healthcare centers, locations where children congregate, locations where the elderly congregate, as well sensitive habitat for endangered and threatened wildlife. In this article, we summarize the results of a handful of these analyses that are most relevant to the impact a 2,500’ minimum setback would have on oil and gas extraction in California, discussed here in our recent article. We are providing these summaries as useful references for creating materials and crafting documents in support of establishing policies to protect public health and Frontline Communities, such as setbacks regulations. For further readings on the health threats oil and gas poses for Frontline Communities see PSE Healthy Energy’s literature review of the negative impacts of oil and gas extraction (2009-2015)1, FracTracker Alliance’s literature review of negative health impacts (2016-2019)2, and Stand-LA’s review of literature showing health impacts at multiple distances with reference to 2,500’.3

California Population Counts

In the 2018 The Sky’s Limit report by Oil Change International (OCI),4 FracTracker’s analysis showed that 8,493 active or newly permitted oil and gas wells were located within a 2,500’ buffer of sensitive sites including occupied dwellings, schools, hospitals, and playgrounds. At the time, it was estimated that over 850,000 Californians lived within the setback distance of at least one of these oil and gas wells.

An assessment of the number of California citizens living proximal to active oil and gas production wells was also conducted for the CCST State Bill 4 Report on Well Stimulation in 2016.5 The analysis calculated the number of California residents living within 2,500’ of an active (producing) oil and gas well, and based estimates of demographic percentages on 2015 ACS data at the census block level. The report found that:

  • 859,699 individuals in California live within 2,500’ of an active oil and gas well
  • Of this, a total of 385,067 are “Non-white” (45%)
  • Of this, a total of 341,231 are “Hispanic” (40%) *[as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau]

Population counts within the setbacks were calculated for smaller census designated areas including counties and census tracts. The results of the calculations are presented in Table 1 and the analysis is shown in the maps in Figure 1 and Figure 2 below.

Data for the City of Los Angeles was also aggregated. Results showed:

  • 215,624 individuals in the City of Los Angeles live within 2,500’ of an active oil and gas well
  • Of this, a total of 114,593 are “Non-white” (53%)
  • Of this, a total of 119,563 are “Hispanic” (55%) *[as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau]

Table 1. Population Counts by County. The table presents the counts of individuals living within 2,500’ of an active oil and gas well, aggregated by county. The top 12 counties with the highest population counts are shown. “Impacted Population” is the count of individuals estimated to live within 2,500’ of an oil and gas well. The “% Non-white” and “% Hispanic” columns report the estimated percentage of the impacted population of said demographic.

County Total Pop. Impacted Pop. Impacted % Non-white Impacted % Hispanic
Los Angeles 9,818,605 541,818 0.54 0.46
Orange 3,010,232 202,450 0.25 0.19
Kern 839,631 71,506 0.34 0.43
Santa Barbara 423,895 8,821 0.44 0.71
Ventura 823,318 8,555 0.37 0.59
San Bernardino 2,035,210 6,900 0.42 0.59
Riverside 2,189,641 5,835 0.46 0.33
Fresno 930,450 2,477 0.34 0.50
San Joaquin 685,306 2,451 0.55 0.42
Solano 413,344 2,430 0.15 0.15
Colusa 21,419 1,920 0.39 0.70
Contra Costa 1,049,025 1,174 0.35 0.30

 

California oil and gas well setback analysis

Figure 1. Map of impacted census tracts for a 2,500’ setback in California. The map shows areas of California that would be impacted by a 2,500’ setback from active oil and gas wells in California.

 

 

Los Angeles 2500ft Setback Analysis

Figure 2. Map of impacted census tracts for a 2,500’ setback in Los Angeles. The map shows areas of California that would be impacted by a 2,500’ setback from active oil and gas wells in Los Angeles.

 

From the analysis we find that the majority of California citizens living near active production wells are located in Los Angeles County. This amounts to 61% of the total count of individuals within 2,500’ in the full state. Additionally, the well sample population is limited to only wells that are reported with an “active” status. Including wells identified as idle or support wells such as Class II injection or EOR wells would increase both the total numbers and the demographical percentages because of the high population density in Los Angeles.

 

Well Counts – Updated Data

Using California Geologic Energy Management Division (CALGEM) data published March 1, 2020, we find that there are 105,808 wells reported as Active/Idle/New in California. There are 16,690 are located within 2,500′ of a sensitive receptor (15.77%). Of the 74,775 active wells in the state, 9,835 fall within the 2,500’ setback distance.6

There are 6,558 idle wells that fall within the 2500’ setback distance, of nearly 30,000 idle wells in the state. Putting these idle wells back online would be blocked if they required reworks to ramp up production. For the most part operators do not intend for most idle wells to come back online. Rather they are just avoiding the costs of plugging.

Of the 3,783 permitted wells not yet in production, or “new wells,” 298 are located within the 2,500’ buffer zone (235 in Kern County).

In Los Angeles, Rule 1148.2 requires operators to notify the South Coast Air Quality Management District of activities at well sites, including permit approvals for stimulations and reworks. Of the 1,361 reports made to the air district since the beginning of 2018 through April 1, 2019; 634 (47%) were for wells that would be impacted by the setback distance; 412 reports were for something other than “well maintenance” of which 348 were for gravel packing, 4 for matrix acidizing, and 65 were for well drilling.

We also analyzed data reported to DOGGR under the well stimulation requirements of SB4. From 1/1/2016 to 4/1/19 there were 576 well stimulation treatment permits granted under the SB4 regulations. Only 1 hydraulic fracturing event, permitted in Goleta, would have been impacted by a 2,500’ setback.

Production

Also part of the OCI The Sky’s Limit report,4 we approximated the amount of oil produced from wells within 2,500’ of sensitive receptors. Using the API numbers of wells identified as being within the buffer area, we pulled production data for each well from the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) database. The results are based on 2016 production data, the latest complete data available at the time of the analysis. The data indicated that 12% of statewide production came from wells within the buffer zone in 2016. Looking at the production data for a full 6 year period (2010 – 2016), production from wells within the buffer zone was 10% on average statewide. Limiting the analysis to only Kern County, the result was actually smaller. About 5% of countywide production in 2016 (6.1 million barrels) was found to come from wells in the buffer zone.

Low Income Communities

FracTracker conducted an analysis in Kern County for the California Environmental Justice Alliance’s 2018 Environmental Justice Agency Assessment.7 We assessed the proportions of wells near sensitive receptors that are located in low-income communities (at or below 80% of the Kern County Average Median Income). We found that 5,229 active/idle/new oil and gas wells were within 2,500’ from sensitive receptors in low-income communities, including 3,700 active, 1,346 idle, and 183 newly permitted “new” oil and gas wells. The maps in Figures 3 and 4 below show these areas of Kern County and specifically Bakersfield, California.

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

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

Kern County AB345 Wells and Medium Income

Figure 3. Map of Kern County census tracts with wells impacted by a 2,500’ setback, with median income brackets.

 

Bakersfield Kern County California AB345 Wells and Median Income

Figure 4. Map of Kern County census tracts with wells impacted by a 2,500’ setback, with median income brackets.

Schools and Environmental Justice

FracTracker conducted an environmental justice analysis to investigate student demographics in schools near oil and gas drilling in California.8 The school enrollment data is from 2013 and the oil and gas wells data is from June 2014. For the analysis we used multiple distances, including 0.5 miles (about 2,500’). Based on the statistical comparisons in the report, we made the following conclusions:

  • Students attending school near at least one active oil and gas well are 10.5% more likely to be Hispanic.
  • Students attending school near at least one active oil and gas well are 6.7% more likely to be a minority.
  • There are 61,612 students who attend school within 1 mile of a stimulated oil or gas well, and 12,362 students who attend school within 0.5 miles of a stimulated oil or gas well.
  • School districts with greater Hispanic and non-white student enrollment are more likely to house wells that have been hydraulically fractured.
  • Schools campuses with greater Hispanic and non-white student enrollment are more likely to be closer to more oil and gas wells and wells that have been hydraulically fractured.
  • Students attending school within 1 mile of oil and gas wells are predominantly non-white (79.6%), and 60.3% are Hispanic.
  • The top 11 school districts with the highest well counts are located the San Joaquin Valley with 10 districts in Kern County and the other just north of Kern in Fresno County.
  • The two districts with the highest well counts are in Kern County: Taft Union High School District, host to 33,155 oil and gas wells; and Kern Union High School District, host to 19,800 oil and gas wells.
  • Of the schools with the most wells within a 1 mile radius, 8/10 are located in Los Angeles County.
  • There are 485 active/new oil and gas wells within 1 mile of a school and 177 active/new oil and gas wells within 0.5 miles of a school. This does not include idle wells.
  • There are 352,784 students who attend school within 1 mile of an oil or gas well, and 121,903 student who attend school within 0.5 miles of an oil or gas well. This does not include idle wells

Permits

In collaboration with Consumer Watchdog,9 we counted permit applications that were approved in 2018 during Governor Brown’s administration, as well as in 2019 and 2020 under Governor Newsom. The analysis included permits for drilling new wells, well reworks, deepening wells and well sidetracks. Almost 10% of permits issued during the first two months of 2020 have been issued within 2,500’ of sensitive receptors including homes, hospitals, schools, daycares, and nursing facilities. This is slightly lower than the average for all approved permits in 2019 (12.2%). In 2018, Governor Brown approved 4,369 permits, of which 518 permits (about 12%) were granted within the proposed 2,500’ setback.

Conclusion

FracTracker Alliance’s body of work in California provides a summary of the population demographics of communities most impacted by oil and gas extraction. It is clear that communities of color in Los Angeles and Kern County make up the majority of Frontline Communities. New oil and gas wells are not permitted in equitable locations and setbacks from currently active oil and gas extraction sites are an environmental justice necessity.  Putting a ban on new permits and shutting down existing wells located within 2,500’ of sensitive receptors such as schools, hospitals, and homes would have a very small impact on overall production of oil in California. It is clear that the public health and environmental equity benefits of a 2,500’ setback far outweigh any and all drawbacks. We hope that the resources summarized in this article provide a useful source of condensed information for those that feel similarly.

References

  1. Hays J, Shonkoff SBC. 2016. Toward an Understanding of the Environmental and Public Health Impacts of Unconventional Natural Gas Development: A Categorical Assessment of the Peer-Reviewed Scientific Literature, 2009-2015. PLOS ONE 11(4): e0154164. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154164Ferrar, K.
  2. Ferrar,K., Jackson, E. 2019. Categorical Review of Health Reports on Unconventional Oil and Gas Development; Impacts in Pennsylvania. FracTracker Alliance, Delaware Riverkeeper. https://www.delawareriverkeeper.org/sites/default/files/FracTrackerAlliance_DRKHealthReview_Final_4.25.19.pdf.
  3. Wong, Nicole. 2017. Existing scientific literature on setback distances from oil and gas development sites. Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling Los Angeles. https://www.stand.la/uploads/5/3/9/0/53904099/2500_literature_review_report-final_jul13.pdf.
  4. Trout, K. 2018. The Sky’s Limit. Oil Change International. http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2018/05/Skys_Limit_California_Oil_Production_R2.pdf.
  5. Shonkoff et al. 2016. Potential Impacts of Well Stimulation on Human Health in California; Well Stimulation in California Chapter Six. California Council on Science and Technology. https://www.ccst.us/wp-content/uploads/160708-sb4-vol-II-6-1.pdf.
  6. Ferrar, Kyle. 2020. California Setback Analyses Summary. FracTracker Alliance. FracTracker.org. https://www.fractracker.org/2020/04/california-setback-analysis-summary/
  7. California Environmental Justice Alliance. 2018. Environmental Justice Agency Assessment. https://caleja.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/CEJA-Agency-Assessment-FULL-FINAL-Web.pdf.
  8. Ferrar, Kyle. 2014. Hydraulic Fracturing Stimulations and Oil Drilling Near California Schools and within School Districts Disproportionately Burdens Hispanic and Non-White Students. FracTracker Alliance. https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Fractracker_SchoolEnrollmentReport_11.17.14.pdf.
  9. Ferrar, K. 2019. Permitting New Oil and Gas Wells Under the Newsom Administration. FracTracker Alliance. https://www.fractracker.org/2019/07/permitting-more-oil-gas-newsom/.

Feature photo of a well pad in California in April 2018, by Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance.

Support this work

Stay in the know

COVID-19 and the oil & gas industry

COVID-19 and the oil and gas industry are at odds. Air pollution created by oil and gas activities make people more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19. Simultaneously, the economic impact of the pandemic is posing major challenges to oil and gas companies that were already struggling to meet their bottom line. In responding to these challenges, will our elected leaders agree on a stimulus package that prioritizes people over profits?

Health Impacts of COVID-19 and Oil & Gas 

People living in areas with poor air quality may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, a disease that affects the lungs. Poor air quality is linked to higher rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), even without a pandemic.

Air pollution from oil and gas development can come from compressor stations, condensate tanks, construction activity, dehydrators, engines, fugitive emissions, pits, vehicles, and venting and flaring. The impact is so severe that for every three job years created by fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one year of life is lost due to increased exposure to pollution. 

Yes, air quality has improved in certain areas of China and elsewhere due to decreased traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite our eagerness for good news, sightings of dolphins in Italian waterways does not mean that mother earth has forgiven us or “hit the reset button.”

Significant environmental health concerns persist, despite some improvements in air quality. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was caused by another coronavirus, patients from areas with the high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS compared to those who lived in places with little pollution.

On March 8th, Stanford University environmental resource economist Marshall Burke looked at the impacts of air quality improvements under COVID-19, and offered this important caveat: 

“It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health. Again I emphasize that the effects calculated above are just the health benefits of the air pollution changes, and do not account for the many other short- or long-term negative consequences of social and economic disruption on health or other outcomes; these harms could exceed any health benefits from reduced air pollution.  But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, i.e. the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.”

This is an environmental justice issue. Higher levels of air pollution tend to be in communities with more poverty, people of color, and immigrants. Other health impacts related to oil and gas activities, from cancer to negative birth outcomes, compromise people’s health, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Plus, marginalized communities experience disproportionate barriers to healthcare as well as a heavier economic toll during city-wide lockdowns.

Financial Instability of the Oil & Gas Industry in the Face of COVID-19 

The COVID-19 health crisis is setting off major changes in the oil and gas industry. The situation may thwart plans for additional petrochemical expansion and cause investors to turn away from fracking for good.

Persistent Negative Returns 

Oil, gas, and petrochemical producers were facing financial uncertainties even before COVID-19 began to spread internationally. Now, the economics have never been worse

In 2019, shale-focused oil and gas producers ended the year with net losses of $6.7 billion. This capped off the decade of the “shale revolution,” during which oil and gas companies spent $189 billion more on drilling and other capital expenses than they brought in through sales. This negative cash flow is a huge red flag for investors.  

“North America’s shale industry has never succeeded in producing positive free cash flows for any full year since the practice of fracking became widespread.” IEEFA

 

Plummeting Prices

Shale companies in the United States produce more natural gas than they can sell, to the extent that they frequently resort to burning gas straight into the atmosphere. This oversupply drives down prices, a phenomenon that industry refers to as a “price glut.”

The oil-price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia has been taking a toll on oil and gas prices as well. Saudi Arabia plans to increase oil production by 2 – 3 million barrels per day in April, bringing the global total to 102 million barrels produced per day. But with the global COVID-19 lockdown, transportation has decreased considerably, and the world may only need 90 million barrels per day

If you’ve taken Econ 101, you know that when production increases as demand decreases, prices plummet. Some analysts estimate that the price of oil will soon fall to as low as $5 per barrel, (compared to the OPEC+ intended price of $60 per barrel). 

Corporate welfare vs. public health and safety

Oil and gas industry lobbyists have asked Congress for financial support in response to COVID-19. Two stimulus bills in both the House and Senate are currently competing for aid.

Speaker McConnell’s bill seeks to provide corporate welfare with a $415 billion fund. This would largely benefit industries like oil and gas, airlines, and cruise ships. Friends of the Earth gauged the potential bailout to the fracking industry at $26.287 billion. In another approach, the GOP Senate is seeking to raise oil prices by directly purchasing for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the nation’s emergency oil supply.

Speaker Pelosi’s proposed stimulus bill includes $250 billion in emergency funding with stricter conditions on corporate use, but doesn’t contain strong enough language to prevent a massive bailout to oil and gas companies.

Hopefully with public pressure, Democrats will take a firmer stance and push for economic stimulus to be directed to healthcare, paid sick leave, stronger unemployment insurance, free COVID-19 testing, and food security. 

Grasping at straws

Fracking companies were struggling to stay afloat before COVID-19 even with generous government subsidies. It’s becoming very clear that the fracking boom is finally busting. In an attempt to make use of the oversupply of gas and win back investors, the petrochemical industry is expanding rapidly. There are currently plans for $164 billion of new infrastructure in the United States that would turn fracked natural gas into plastic. 

Belmont Cracker Plant - Potential Petrochemical Infrastructure in the Ohio River Valley

The location of the proposed PTTGC Ethane Cracker in Belmont, Ohio. Go to this map.

There are several fundamental flaws with this plan. One is that the price of plastic is falling. A new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) states that the price of plastic today is 40% lower than industry projections in 2010-2013. This is around the time that plans started for a $5.7 billion petrochemical complex in Belmont County, Ohio. This would be the second major infrastructural addition to the planned petrochemical buildout in the Ohio River Valley, the first being the multi-billion dollar ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

Secondly, there is more national and global competition than anticipated, both in supply and production. Natural gas and petrochemical companies have invested in infrastructure in an attempt to take advantage of cheap natural gas, creating an oversupply of plastic, again decreasing prices and revenue. Plus, governments around the world are banning single-use plastics, and McKinsey & Company estimates that up to 60% of plastic production could be based on reuse and recycling by 2050. 

Sharp declines in feedstock prices do not lead to rising demand for petrochemical end products.

Third, oil and gas companies were overly optimistic in their projections of national economic growth. The IMF recently projected that GDP growth will slow down in China and the United States in the coming years. And this was before the historic drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The risks are becoming insurmountable. The price of plastics is sinking and the market is already oversupplied due to industry overbuilding and increased competition,” said Tom Sanzillo, IEEFA’s director of finance and author of the report.

 

 

The Show’s Over for Oil & Gas 

Oil, gas, and petrochemical companies are facing perilous prospects from demand and supply sides. Increasing supply does not match up with decreasing demand, and as a result the price of oil and plastics are dropping quickly. Tens of thousands of oil and gas workers are being fired, and more than 200 oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy in North America in the past five years. Investors are no longer interested in propping up failing companies.

Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants. At this point, the economy is bound to move towards cleaner and more economically sustainable energy solutions. 

It’s not always necessary or appropriate to find a “silver lining” in crises, and it’s wrong to celebrate reduced pollution or renewable energy achievements that come as the direct result of illness and death. Everyone’s first priority must be their health and the health of their community. Yet the pandemic has exposed fundamental flaws in our energy system, and given elected leaders a moment to pause and consider how we should move forward.

It is a pivotal moment in terms of global energy production. With determination, the United States can exercise the political willpower to prioritize people over profits– in this case, public health over fossil fuel companies.

Top photo of petrochemical activity in the Houston, Texas area. By Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. Aerial assistance provided by LightHawk. 

Support this work

Stay in the know

Truck on Dirt Road

Front Range Health Tracking Project

Is fracking impacting your air quality?

Rig

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 

Why Participate?

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! 


App Features


  • Check the Oil & Gas Map

    Find wells, pipelines, & user reports near you on the map

  • Activity Feed

    View recent reports from other app users

  • Submit a Report

    Submit reports & photos about nearby activity & issues you witness

  • Impacted Senses

    Classify reports by senses impacted, such as from noise or odors

  • Activity Feed

    Mobile App Newsfeed
  • Wells, Pipelines, & Reports

  • Intuitive Reporting

  • Industry Selection

  • Senses Impacted

  • User Profile


Download on the App Store

Android App on Google Play

Explore the FracTracker App from your laptop

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.

Este recurso está disponible en español.