Fracking in Pennsylvania: Not Worth It

Despite the ever-increasing heaps of violations and drilling waste, Pennsylvania’s fracked wells continue to produce an excess supply of gas, driving prices down. To cut their losses, the oil and gas industry is turning towards increased exports and petrochemical production. Continuing to expand fracking in Pennsylvania will only increase risks to the public and to the climate, all for what may amount to another boom and bust cycle that is largely unprofitable to investors.

Let’s take a look at gas production, waste, newly drilled wells, and violations in Pennsylvania in the past year to understand just how precarious the fracking industry is.

Production

Fracked hydrocarbon production continues to rise in Pennsylvania, resulting in an increase in waste production, violations, greenhouse gas emissions, and public health concerns. There are three types of hydrocarbons produced from wells in Pennsylvania: gas, condensate, and oil. Gas is composed mostly of methane, the most basic of the hydrocarbons, but in some parts of Pennsylvania, there can be significant quantities of ethane, propane, and other so-called “natural gas liquids” (NGLs) mixed in. Each of these NGLs are actually gaseous at atmospheric conditions, but operators try to separate these with a combination of pressure and low temperatures, converting them to a liquid phase. Some of these NGLs can be separated on-site, and this is typically referred to as condensate. Fracked wells in Pennsylvania also produce a relatively tiny amount of oil.

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For those of you wondering why we are looking at the November, 2018 through October, 2019 time frame, this is simply a reflection of the available data. In this 12-month period, 9,858 fracked Pennsylvania wells, classified as “unconventional,” reported producing 6.68 trillion cubic feet of gas (Tcf), 4.89 million barrels of condensate, and just over 70,000 barrels of oil.

By means of comparison, Pennsylvania consumed about 1.46 Tcf of gas across all sectors in 2018, of which just 253 billion cubic feet (Bcf) was used in the homes of Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million residents. In fact, the amount of gas produced in Pennsylvania exceeds residential consumption in the entire United States by almost 1.7 Tcf. However, less than 17% of all gas consumed in Pennsylvania is for residential use, with nearly 28% being used for industrial purposes (including petrochemical development), and more than 35% used to generate electricity.

Fracked Gas Production and Consumption in Pennsylvania from 2013 through 2018

Figure 1. Fracked gas production compared to all fracked gas consumption and residential gas consumption in Pennsylvania from 2013 through 2018. Data from ref. Energy Information Administration.

 

While gas production has expansive hotspots in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state, the liquid production comes from a much more limited geography. Eighty percent of all condensate production came from Washington County, while 87% of all fracked oil came from wells in Mercer County.

Because the definition of condensate has been somewhat controversial in the past (while the oil export ban was still in effect), I asked the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the definition, and was told that if hydrocarbons come out of the well as a liquid, they should be reported as oil. If they are gaseous but condense to a liquid at standard temperature and pressure (60 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure 14.7 PSIA) on-site, then it is to be reported as condensate. Any NGLs that remain gaseous but are removed from the gas supply further downstream are reported as gas in this report. For this reason, it is not really possible to use the production report to find specific amounts of NGLs produced in the state, but it certainly exceeds condensate production by an appreciable margin.

The one-year volume withdrawal of gas from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania is equal to the volume of 3.2 Mount Everests

The volume of gas withdrawn from fracked wells in Pennsylvania in just one year is equal to the volume of 3.2 Mount Everests!

 

Waste

Hydrocarbons aren’t the only thing that come out of the ground when operators drill and frack wells in Pennsylvania. Drillers also report a staggering amount of waste products, including more than 65 million barrels (2.7 billion gallons) of liquid waste and 1.2 million tons of solid waste in the 12-month period.

Waste facilities have significant issues such as inducing earthquakes, toxic leachate, and radioactive sediments in streambeds.

Waste Type Liquid Waste (Barrels) Solid Waste (Tons)
Basic Sediment 63
Brine Co-Product 247
Drill Cuttings 1,094,208
Drilling Fluid Waste 1,439,338 11,378
Filter Socks 143
Other Oil & Gas Wastes 2,236,750 6,387
Produced Fluid 61,376,465 41,165
Servicing Fluid 17,196 3,250
Soil Contaminated by Oil & Gas Related Spills 25,505
Spent Lubricant Waste 1,104
Synthetic Liner Materials 21,051
Unused Fracturing Fluid Waste 7,077 1,593
Waste Water Treatment Sludge 35,151
Grand Total 65,078,240 1,239,831

Figure 2. Oil and gas waste generated by fracked wells as reported by drillers from November 1, 2018 through October 31, 2019. Data from ref: PA DEP.

Some of the waste is probably best described as sludge, and several of the categories allow for reporting in barrels or tons. Almost all of the waste was in the well bore at one time or another, although there are some site-related materials that need to be disposed of, including filter socks which separate liquid and solid waste, soils contaminated by spills, spent lubricant, liners, and unused frack fluid waste.

Where does all of this waste go? We worked with Earthworks earlier this year to take a deep dive into the data, focusing on these facilities that receive waste from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas wells. While the majority of the waste is dealt with in-state, a significant quantity crosses state lines to landfills and injection wells in neighboring states, and sometimes as far away as Idaho.

Please see the report, Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Waste for more details.

 

Drilled Wells

Oil and gas operators have started the drilling process for 616 fracking wells in 2019, which appear on the Pennsylvania DEP spud report. This is less than one third of the 2011 peak of 1,956 fracked wells, and 2019 is the fifth consecutive year with fewer than 1,000 wells drilled. This has the effect of making industry projections relying on 1,500 or more drilled wells per year seem rather dubious.

 

Fracked Unconventional Wells Drilled per Year in Pennsylvania from 2005 through 2019

Figure 3. Unconventional (fracked) wells drilled from 2005 through December 23, 2019, showing totals by regional office. Data from ref: PA DEP.

 

Oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania fall under the jurisdiction of three different regional offices. By looking at Figure 2, it becomes apparent that the North Central Regional Office (blue line) was a huge driver of the 2009 to 2014 drilling boom, before falling back to a similar drilling rate of the Southwest Regional Office.

The slowdown in drilling for gas in recent years is related to the lack of demand for the product. In turn, this drives prices down, a phenomenon that industry refers to as a “price glut.” The situation it is forcing major players in the regions such as Range Resources to reduce their holdings in Appalachia, and some, such as Chevron, are pulling out entirely.

Violations

Disturbingly, 2019 was the fifth straight year that the number of violations issued by DEP will exceed the total number of wells drilled.

Unconventional fracked wells drilled and violations issued from 2005 through 2019

Figure 4. Unconventional (fracked) drilled wells and issued violations from 2005 through December 2019. Data from ref: DEP.

 

Violations related to unconventional drilling are a bit unwieldy to summarize. The 13,833 incidents reported in Pennsylvania fall into 359 different categories, representing the specific regulations in which the drilling operator fell short of expectations. The industry likes to dismiss many of these as being administrative matters, and indeed, the DEP does categorize the violations as either “Administrative” or “Environmental, Health & Safety”. However, 9,998 (72%) of the violations through December 3, 2019, are in the latter category, and even some of the ones that are categorized as administrative seem like they ought to be in environmental, health, and safety. For example, let’s look at the 15 most frequent infractions:

Violation Code Incidents Category
SWMA301 – Failure to properly store, transport, process or dispose of a residual waste. 767 Environmental Health & Safety
CSL 402(b) – POTENTIAL POLLUTION – Conducting an activity regulated by a permit issued pursuant to Section 402 of The Clean Streams Law to prevent the potential of pollution to waters of the Commonwealth without a permit or contrary to a permit issued under that authority by the Department. 613 Environmental Health & Safety
102.4 – Failure to minimize accelerated erosion, implement E&S plan, maintain E&S controls. Failure to stabilize site until total site restoration under OGA Sec 206(c)(d) 595 Environmental Health & Safety
SWMA 301 – MANAGEMENT OF RESIDUAL WASTE – Person operated a residual waste processing or disposal facility without obtaining a permit for such facility from DEP. Person stored, transported, processed, or disposed of residual waste inconsistent with or unauthorized by the rules and regulations of DEP. 540 Environmental Health & Safety
601.101 – O&G Act 223-General. Used only when a specific O&G Act code cannot be used 469 Administrative
402CSL – Failure to adopt pollution prevention measures required or prescribed by DEP by handling materials that create a danger of pollution. 362 Environmental Health & Safety
78.54* – Failure to properly control or dispose of industrial or residual waste to prevent pollution of the waters of the Commonwealth. 339 Environmental Health & Safety
401 CSL – Discharge of pollutional material to waters of Commonwealth. 299 Environmental Health & Safety
102.4(b)1 – EROSION AND SEDIMENT CONTROL REQUIREMENTS – Person conducting earth disturbance activity failed to implement and maintain E & S BMPs to minimize the potential for accelerated erosion and sedimentation. 285 Environmental Health & Safety
102.5(m)4 – PERMIT REQUIREMENTS – GENERAL PERMITS – Person failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the E & S Control General Permit. 283 Environmental Health & Safety
78.56(1) – Pit and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances. 256 Administrative
78a53 – EROSION AND SEDIMENT CONTROL AND STORMWATER MANAGEMENT – Person proposing or conducting earth disturbance activities associated with oil and gas operations failed to comply with 25 Pa. Code § 102. 247 Environmental Health & Safety
102.11(a)1 – GENERAL REQUIREMENTS – BMP AND DESIGN STANDARDS – Person failed to design, implement and maintain E & S BMPs to minimize the potential for accelerated erosion and sedimentation to protect, maintain, reclaim and restore water quality and existing and designated uses. 235 Environmental Health & Safety
CSL 401 – PROHIBITION AGAINST OTHER POLLUTIONS – Discharged substance of any kind or character resulting in pollution of Waters of the Commonwealth. 235 Environmental Health & Safety
OGA3216(C) – WELL SITE RESTORATIONS – PITS, DRILLING SUPPLIES AND EQUIPMENT – Failure to fill all pits used to contain produced fluids or industrial wastes and remove unnecessary drilling supplies/equipment not needed for production within 9 months from completion of drilling of well. 206 Environmental Health & Safety

Figure 5. Top 15 most frequently cited violations for unconventional drilling operations in Pennsylvania through December 3, 2019. Data from ref: DEP.

Of the 15 most common categories, only two are considered administrative violations. One of these is a general code, where we don’t know what happened to warrant the infraction without reading the written narrative that accompanies the data, and is therefore impossible to categorize. The only other administrative violation in the top 15 categories reads, “78.56(1) – Pit and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances,” which certainly sounds like it would have some real-world implications beyond administrative concerns.

Check out our Pennsylvania Shale Viewer map to see if there are violations at wells near you.

Bloated With Gas, Fraught With Trouble

To address the excess supply of gas, companies have tried to export the gas and liquids to other markets through pipelines. Those efforts have been fraught with trouble as well. Residents are reluctant to put up with an endless barrage of new pipelines, yielding their land and putting their safety at risk for an industry that can’t seem to move the product safely. The Revolution pipeline explosion hasn’t helped that perception, nor have all of the sinkholes and hundreds of leaky “inadvertent returns” along the path of the Mariner East pipeline system. In a sense, the industry’s best case scenario is to call these failures incompetence, because otherwise they would be forced to admit that the 2.5 million miles of hydrocarbon pipelines in the United States are inherently risky, prone to failure any time and any place.

In addition to increasing the transportation and export of natural gas to new markets, private companies and elected officials are collaborating to attract foreign investors to fund a massive petrochemical expansion in the Ohio River Valley. The planned petrochemical plants intend to capitalize on the cheap feedstock of natural gas.

Pennsylvania’s high content of NGLs is a selling point by the industry, because they have an added value when compared to gas. While all of these hydrocarbons can burn and produce energy in a similar manner, operators are required to remove most of them to get the energy content of the gas into an acceptable range for gas transmission lines. Because of this, enormous facilities have to be built to separate these NGLs, while even larger facilities are constructed to consume it all. Shell’s Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex ethane cracker being built in Beaver County, PA is scheduled to make 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene per year, mostly for plastics.

This comes at a time when communities around the country and the world are enacting new regulations to rein in plastic pollution, which our descendants are going to finding on the beach for thousands of years, even if everyone on the planet were to stop using single-use plastics today. Of course, none of these bans or taxes are currently permitted in Pennsylvania, but adding 1.6 million metric tons per year to our current supply is unnecessary, and indeed, it is only the beginning for the region. A similar facility, known as the PTT Global Chemical cracker appears to be moving forward in Eastern Ohio, and ExxonMobil appears to be thinking about building one in the region as well. Industry analysts think the region produces enough NGLs to support five of these ethane crackers.

Despite all of these problems, the oil and gas industry still plans to fill the Ohio River Valley with new petrochemical plants, gas processing plants, and storage facilities in the hopes that someday, somebody may want what they’ve taken from the ground.

Here’s hoping that 2020 is a safer and healthier year than 2019 was. But there is no need to leave it up to chance. Together, we have the power to change things, if we all demand that our voices are heard. As a start, consider contacting your elected officials to let them know that renewing Pennsylvania’s blocking of municipal bans and taxes on plastic bags is unacceptable.

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

 

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Captina Creek Watershed Feature

Fracking Threatens Ohio’s Captina Creek Watershed

FracTracker’s Great Lakes Program Coordinator Ted Auch explores the risks and damages brought on by fracking in Ohio’s Captina Creek Watershed

 

Scroll down or click here to view the story map full screen

The Captina Creek Watershed straddles the counties of Belmont and Monroe in Southeastern Ohio and feeds into the Ohio River. It is the highest quality watershed in all of Ohio and a great examples of what the Ohio River Valley’s tributaries once looked, smelled, and sounded like. Sadly, today it is caught in the cross-hairs of the oil and gas industry by way of drilling, massive amounts of water demands, pipeline construction, and fracking waste production, transport, and disposal. The images and footage presented in the story map below are testament to the risks and damage inherent to fracking in the Captina Creek watershed and to this industry at large. Data included herein includes gas gathering and interstate transmission pipelines like the Rover, NEXUS, and Utopia (Figure 1), along with Class II wastewater injection wells, compressor stations, unconventional laterals, and freshwater withdrawal sites and volumes.

Ohio Rover NEXUS Pipelines map

The image at the top of the page captures my motivation for taking a deeper dive into this watershed. Having spent 13+ years living in Vermont and hiking throughout The Green and Adirondack Mountains, I fell in love with the two most prominent tree species in this photo: Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) and Northern Hemlock (Tsuga candadensis). This feeling of being at home was reason enough to be thankful for Captina Creek in my eyes. Seeing this region under pressure from the oil and gas industry really hit me in my botanical soul. We remain positive with regards to the area’s future, but protective action against fracking in the Captina Creek Watershed is needed immediately!

Fracking in the Captina Creek Watershed: A Story Map

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How State Regulations Hold Us back and What Other Countries are doing about Fracking

By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern 

Feature photo of oil and gas drilling in North Dakota, and is by by Nick Lund, NPCA, 2014

 

Although there are some federal regulations in place to protect the environment indirectly from fracking in the United States, the regulations that try to keep fracking in check are largely implemented at the state governing level. This has led to a patchwork of regulations that differ in strictness from state to state. This leads to the concern that there will be a race to the bottom where states lower the strictness of their regulations in order to draw in more fracking. While it might be tempting to welcome an industry that often creates a temporary economic spike, the costs of mitigating the environmental damage from fracking far out-weighs the profit gained. Germany, Scotland, and France are examples of countries that have taken more appropriate regulatory measures to protect their populations from the risks involved in unconventional oil and gas development.

The Shortfalls of State by State Regulations

For a detailed overview of how fracking regulation differs between states, check out the Resources for the Future report, The State of State Shale Gas Regulation, which analyzes 25 regulatory elements and how they differ between states. Two of their maps that attest to this vast difference in regulation are the “Fracturing Fluid Disclosure Requirements” map as well as the “Venting Regulations” map.

The “Fracturing Fluid Disclosure Requirements” map shows regulatory differences between states regarding whether or not the chemical mixture used to break up rock formations must be made known to the public. “Disclosure” means that the chemical mixture is made known to the public and “No Regulation” means that there is nothing that obligates companies to share this information, which usually implies this information is not available.

Fig 1. Map of fracking fluid disclosure requirements by state, from Resources for the Future’s report, “The State of State Shale Gas Regulation.” Original data from US Energy Information Administration.

 

Note from the editor: There are several exemptions that allow states to limit the scope of reporting chemicals used in underground fluid injection for fracking. For example, all states that require chemical disclosure are entitled to exemptions for chemicals that are considered trade secrets.  

Concealing the identity of chemicals increases the risk of harm from chemical exposure for people and the environment. Emergency first responders are especially at risk, as they may have to act quickly to put out a fracking-induced fire without knowing the safety measures necessary to avoid exposure to dangerous chemicals. The population at large is at risk of exposure though several pathways such as leaks, spills, and air emissions. Partnership for Policy Integrity, along with data analysis by FracTracker, investigated the implications of keeping the identity of certain fracking chemicals secret in two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These reports point to evidence that exposure to concealed fracking chemicals could have serious health effects including blood toxicity, developmental toxicity, liver toxicity and neurotoxicity.

 

The second map, “Venting Regulations,” shows which states have regulations that limit or ban venting and which do not. Venting is the direct release of methane from the well site into the atmosphere. Methane has 30 times the green-house gas effect as carbon dioxide. Given methane’s severe impact on the environment, no venting whatsoever should be allowed at well sites.

Fig 2. Map of fracking venting regulations by state, from Resources for the Future’s report, “The State of State Shale Gas Regulation.” Original data from US Energy Information Administration.

Having overarching federal regulatory infrastructure to regulate fracking would help to avoid risks such as toxic chemical exposure and accelerated climate change. Although leaving regulation development to states allows for more specialized laws, there are certain aspects of environmental protection that apply to every area in the United States and are necessary as standard protection against the effects of fracking.

How do other countries regulate fracking?

Stronger federal regulation of fracking has worked well in the past and can be seen in several other countries.

Germany

In 2017, Germany passed new legislation that largely banned unconventional hydraulic fracking. The ban on unconventional fracking excludes four experimental wells per state that will be commissioned by the German government to an independent expert commission to identify knowledge gaps and risks with regards to fracking. Conventional fracking also received tighter regulations including a ban on fracking near drinking water sources. In 2021, the ban will be reevaluated, taking into account research results, public perception, long term damage to residents and the environment, and technological advances. This is a perfect example of how a country can use overarching federal regulation to make informed decisions about industry action.

Scotland

In 2015, Scotland placed a moratorium into effect that halted all fracking in the country. Since 2017, the government has held that the moratorium will stand indefinitely as an effective ban on fracking in the country, but the country is still working on the legislature that will officially ban fracking. Meanwhile, the Scottish government conducted one of the most far-reaching investigations into unconventional oil and gas development, which included a four-month public consultation period. This public consultation garnered 65,000 responses, 65% of which were from former coal mining communities targeted by the fracking industry. Of those responses, 99% of responses opposed fracking.

The Scottish people should be applauded for holding their federal government accountable in fulfilling its responsibility to protect its people and its environment against the effects of fracking.

France

In December 2017, France passed a law that bans exploration and production of all oil and natural gas by the year 2040. This applies to mainland France as well as all French territories. Although France has limited natural gas resources, it is hoped that the ban will be contagious and spread to other countries. This is a prime example of a country making a decision to protect their environment through regulation.

Although France’s banning of fracking was largely symbolic and may not result in a considerable reduction of greenhouse gases related to natural gas exploration, the country is sending a message to the world that we need to facilitate the end of the fossil fuel era and a move toward renewables.

Back to the US, the world’s leading producer of natural gas

Federal regulation on fracking should be holding the oil and gas industry in check by requiring states to meet basic measures to protect people and the environment. States could then develop more stringent regulations as they see fit. It is important that we come to a national consensus on the environmental and health hazards of fracking, and consequently, to adopt appropriate federal regulations.


By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern

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

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

 

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

 

Dangers of Unplugged Orphan Oil and Gas Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inaccurate Records and Inefficient Detection Methods

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Drones Pave the Way for Oil and Gas Well Detection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ohio’s Secret Fracking Chemicals

Ohio’s Secret Fracking Chemicals

Records Show Widespread Use of Secret Fracking Chemicals Poses Risks to Water Supplies, Health in the Buckeye State

Photo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showing a fire on June 28-29, 2014 at the Eisenbarth Well operated by Statoil in Monroe County, Ohio. The photographer is not listed.[i]

Ohio’s Secret Fracking Chemicals:

Records Show Widespread Use of Secret Fracking Chemicals Poses Risks to Water Supplies, Health in the Buckeye State

A Research Report by Dusty Horwitt, J.D.
Partnership for Policy Integrity
September 16, 2019

This report, by Partnership for Policy Integrity, with mapping and data analysis by FracTracker Alliance, shows that Ohioans may be unknowingly exposed to toxic secret drilling and fracking chemicals through multiple pathways including leaks, spills, air emissions and underground migration at oil and gas production wells.

Evidence compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) including data released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that these chemicals could have serious health effects including blood toxicity, developmental toxicity, liver toxicity and neurotoxicity.


Take Action

Click on this link to jump to the Call to Action section of this page

On this page, you can read the report, use the interactive map to locate oil and gas wells fracked with secret chemicals, and write a letter of concern to first responders in your Ohio county.




1400

Number of Ohio oil and gas wells that have been injected with secret chemicals (2013 – 2018)

11000

Number of times secret fracking chemicals have been injected into Ohio wells (2013 – 2018)

13000000

average number of gallons used to frack a single well (2018)

70000

fish died after tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled into a tributary from a natural gas well in Monroe County (2014)

Take Action

If you are concerned about the findings presented in the Ohio’s Secret Fracking Chemicals report, please consider taking action today. Multiple first responders, and grassroots organizations working on environmental and public health issues in Ohio ask that you complete the form below to send a letter to first responders in your county. If you do not live in Ohio, your letter will be sent to first responders Franklin County, Ohio.

Halt the Harm Network and FracTracker Alliance will send a paper copy of your letter to the appropriate first responder location(s). See below for a map of these locations by Ohio county.

EXAMPLE LETTER

You may compose your own letter or use the example letter below as a guide.

Take Action

If you are concerned about the findings presented in the Ohio’s Secret Fracking Chemicals report, please consider taking action today. Multiple first responders, and grassroots organizations working on environmental and public health issues in Ohio ask that you complete the form below to send a letter to first responders in your county. If you do not live in Ohio, your letter will be sent to first responders in Franklin County, Ohio.

Halt the Harm Network and FracTracker Alliance will send a paper copy of your letter to the appropriate first responder location(s). See below for a map of these locations by Ohio county.

EXAMPLE LETTER

You may compose your own letter or use the example letter below as a guide.

Dear Chief,

Thanks to you and all first responders for your selfless acts of service. I am reaching out because I am concerned that there are dangerous chemicals being used at fracking sites in our county and across the county. Because the identity of many of these chemicals are kept secret, any spills or accidents present a significant risk to you as a first responder as well as to the public.

The report “Ohio’s Secret Fracking Chemicals” provides research about secret fracking chemicals and maps of oil and gas wells where secret fracking chemicals were used. The report’s author also interviewed Silverio Caggiano, Battalion Chief with the Youngstown Fire Department and an original member of the Ohio Hazardous Materials and Weapons of Mass Destruction Technical Advisory Committee. The Chief, the data, and the stories paint a clear picture of Ohio’s exposure to a mix of dangerous chemicals, lack of equipment, lack of training, and inadequate information. This failure by the State and other authorities creates risks for your first responders and all of us in the community.

Please join us in the fight against secret chemicals in our community by calling for the following measures to be put in place:

  • Require full public disclosure of drilling and fracking chemicals in one location where information can be easily searched and sorted (e.g. citizens can locate each well in which toxic chemicals were used).
  • Require disclosure before drilling and fracking occurs.
  • Require that no Class II wells for underground fracking wastewater disposal be permitted in Ohio unless disposal companies report all of the following in their permit requests: A) Average and Maximum Volumes, B) Average and Maximum wellhead pressures, C) Groundwater/water source and rate of withdrawal, D) Egress
  • Require testing of groundwater and well water for a representative number of homes within 2 miles of oil and gas wells and underground injection wells by impartial third parties to guard against migration of toxic chemicals. Data should be collected monthly.
  • Grant communities the power to determine where, and under what conditions, drilling and fracking occur.
  • Demand companies that operate underground fracking wastewater injection wells pay for independent third parties to conduct groundwater monitoring and data collection about health impacts.
  • Require that all haulers transporting fracking wastewater, also known as brine, permitted to operate in Ohio maintain complete manifests for every truck and maintain GPS tracking for all routes into and out of the state as well as across state lines.
  • Require all brine haulers report the number of trucks in operation and how they go about cleaning each truck on a quarterly basis.
  • Require that all brine haulers list where they maintain truck yards in addition to where they are domiciled.
  • Require that all waste landfills in Ohio collect detailed manifest on tonnage of drill cuttings coming into their facilities, source by company and well API, and that all waste be tested for radioactivity level that the level shall not exceed 1-2 picocuries per gram.

You have my full support in requests for this information. It is important to all of us. Please let me know if you have seen the report, reviewed the chemicals, and have appropriate response, training, and equipment in place.

Sincerely,

Letter to Ohio first Responders Re: Secret Fracking Chemicals

Letter to Ohio first Responders Re: Secret Fracking Chemicals

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Ohio First Responders by County

Click on your county to learn more

Photograph of the Eisenbarth well site is from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The photographer is not listed.[ii]

[i] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On Scene Coordinator. Eisenbarth Well Response. Fire Damage on Eisenbarth Well Pad (June 29, 2014). Accessed September 2, 2019 at https://response.epa.gov/site/image_zoom.aspx?site_id=9350&counter=221854&category=.

[ii] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On Scene Coordinator. Eisenbarth Well Response. View of Damaged Equipment on Well Pad (June 29, 2014). Accessed September 2, 2019 at https://response.epa.gov/site/image_zoom.aspx?site_id=9350&counter=221847&category=.

Abandoned Wells in Pennsylvania: We’re Not Doing Enough

By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern 

Fracking in Pennsylvania: The History

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

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

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

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

 

Dangers of unplugged abandoned wells

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

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

 Bankruptcy and Bonds

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

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

The New Contract

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

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

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

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

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

Washington County Case study

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

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

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

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

These are some of the physical effects of abandoned wells:

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

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

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

INTRODUCTION

“The Iroquois…called Pine Creek ‘Tiadaghton’ meaning either ‘The River of Pines’ or ‘The Lost or Bewildered River’.”[i] The river’s iconic watershed in North Central Pennsylvania spans 979 square miles, spanning parts of Clinton, Lycoming, Potter, and Tioga counties, and an infamous 47-mile gorge through which the Pine Creek flows. At 87 miles in length, it is the largest tributary to the West Branch Susquehanna River.[ii]

In 1964, Congress included Pine Creek as one of 27 rivers under study for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System.[iii]  Four years later, the US Department of the Interior designated twelve miles of the canyon a National Natural Landmark. In 1992, Pine Creek was recognized as a Pennsylvania Scenic River.[iv] These accolades underscore its vibrant beauty, ecological value, and cultural significance.

A rugged landscape carved into the Allegheny Plateau, the watershed contains extensive public lands and the highest concentrations of exceptional value (EV) and high quality (HQ) streams anywhere in Pennsylvania.  It is a prized recreational attraction in the region known as the Pennsylvania Wilds, a destination for nature-based tourism. The area has endured episodes of resource extraction – logging, coal mining, and shallow gas development – but nothing quite the same as the assault from hundreds of new unconventional gas wells and the sprawling pads, pipelines, impoundments, compressor stations, and access roads accompanying such development.

Modern extraction is heavy industry – loud, dusty, and dirty. It is incongruent with the thick forests, sensitive habitats, hushed solitude, and star-drenched skies one expects to experience in many wilderness pursuits. Threats to air, water, and wildlife are manifest. Landscape fragmentation and forest loss are collateral damage. Ecological impacts, while sometimes immediate, are often insidious as they slowly degrade environmental health over time. The Oil and Gas Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) acknowledged in a 2012 presentation: “…that Marcellus Shale will be a long-term influence on the character of Pennsylvania landscapes.”[v] To what extent remains to be determined.

Writer and conservationist Samuel P. Hayes noted “The Pennsylvania Administrative Code of 1929 identified watershed protection as the primary purpose of the state forests.”[vi] Enduring more than 10 years of fracking history, and with more planned, the Pine Creek watershed is an experiment for this tenent and overdue for the geospatial examination that follows.


According to the NOAA, a watershed is a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays, and the ocean.

Use the time slider below to explore the changes in the Pine Creek watershed from 2008 to 2016

A LEGACY OF EXTRACTION

Humans have left their mark on Pine Creek for thousands of years, but the effects of timber and fossil fuel extraction in the last 220 years are most notable. Historical accounts and agency records provide substantial documentation of these impacts.

TIMBER

In 1799, Pine Creek’s first sawmill was set up near the confluence with Little Pine Creek. By 1810, eleven saw mills were in operation. In the next 30 years, that number rose to 145. Pine Creek earned the moniker of “Lumber Capital of the World,” but by the end of the Civil War, the great pine forests along Pine Creek were depleted due to clearcutting. By the end of the Civil War, the great pine forests along Pine Creek were depleted. Underappreciated for lumber, eastern hemlocks remained, but were eventually felled as well, their bark prized for tanning leather. The advent of logging railroads accelerated the forest’s demise. By the first years of the 20th century, the trees were all but gone, “…branches and stumps littered the mountainsides and sparks from locomotives created fires of holocaustal proportions.”[vii]

Sadly, much of the wildlife was gone too. Bounties, market hunting, and habitat loss had taken a toll. The area’s last timber wolf was killed in 1875. The beaver, otter, fisher, martin, lynx, and wolverine were exterminated by the early 1900s. The remaining solitary panthers lasted until the 1930s, then “faded into oblivion.”[viii]

COAL

While not often thought of as a part of Pennsylvania’s coal country, the Pine Creek Watershed has seen its share of coal mining and related activity. Coal was first discovered along the Babb Creek portion of the watershed in 1782, and mining operations began in earnest in the 1860s. By 1990, the area was so impacted by mine drainage and other pollution that there were no fish found in Babb Creek. Efforts to rehabilitate the stream have made some progress, raising the pH of the stream and restoring fish populations, to the point where Babb Creek was officially removed from the list of impaired streams in 2016.

Within the watershed’s abandoned mine areas, 68 specific sites totaling nearly 500 acres are flagged as “containing public health, safety, and public welfare problems created by past coal mining.” This represents more than 11% of the total mined area. Only five of these 68 sites – all strip mines – have completed the reclamation process.

Table 1. Problematic coal mine areas in the Pine Creek Watershed

SITE TYPEABANDONED RECLAMATION COMPLETETOTAL FACILITIESTOTAL ACRES
Dry Strip Mine31536322.0
Flooded Strip Mine221.7
Spoil Pile1313148.4
Refuse Pile121223.2
Known Subsidence Prone Area220.4
Coal Processing Settling Basin331.5
TOTAL63568497.4

OIL & GAS

The oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania started with the Drake Well near Titusville in 1859, before the onset of the Civil War. In the years since, perhaps as many as 760,000 such wells have been drilled statewide.[ix] While the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the current state agency with regulatory oversight of the industry, it estimates that there could be as many as 560,000 wells drilled that they have no record of in their database. Given the lack of data for these early wells, it is not possible to know exactly how many wells have been drilled in the Pine Creek Watershed.[x]

Over a century ago, pollution was seen as the price to be paid for a job in timbering or mining.  Some politicians seem to want a return to those bad old days by gutting some of our reasonable regulations that protect our air and water. Here, as in the rest of the Marcellus gas play, our politicians are not protecting our air and water as mandated in Article 1, Section 27 of our State Constitution.

-Dick Martin Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Forest Coalition and board member of Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation, PEDF

A Wealth of Public Lands & Recreational Opportunity

The Pine Creek Watershed is in the heart of the Pennsylvania Wilds, a 12-county region in North Central Pennsylvania focused on nature-based tourism. “Adventure to one of the largest expanses of green between New York City and Chicago,” touts the initiative’s website.[xi]  The area includes over two million acres of public land, and is marketed for its notorious starry skies, quaint towns, large elk herd, and other attractions, like Pine Creek.

The watershed and its trails and public lands contribute substantially to the PA Wilds estate and offerings, including:

  • 1,666 stream miles (187.6 miles Exceptional Value and 1,011.5 miles High Quality)
  • Eight state parks, spanning 4,713 acres (7.36 sq. miles)
  • Four state forests, covering 264,771 acres (414 sq. miles)
  • Eight natural areas
  • Three wild areas
  • Seven state game lands, totaling 51,474 acres (80.42 sq. miles)
  • And 31 trails, traversing 789 miles

These largely remote and rugged spaces are relished for their idyllic and pristine qualities. Modern extraction brings discordant traffic, noise, lights, and releases of pollutants into the air and water. Stream waters – ideal for trout, anglers, and paddlers – are siphoned for the fracturing process. Trails are interrupted by pipelines and access roads. The erosion of outdoor experiences is piecemeal and pervasive.

A recent study lends credence to the concern that shale gas development is incongruent with the region’s ecotourism and recreational goals. “The Impacts of Shale Natural Gas Energy Development on Outdoor Recreation: A Statewide Assessment of Pennsylvanians” found that “only a small population of Pennsylvania outdoor recreationists were impacted by [shale natural gas energy development (SGD)] related activities. In the regions of Pennsylvania where SGD was most prominent (e.g., North Central and Southwest), outdoor recreation impacts were considerably higher.”[xii]



Weak rules favor the gas companies and allow them to waste resources, pollute our air, and destroy our climate. Continued exploitation of our public lands diminishes the value of this common good.

Leann Leiter, OH/PA Field Advocate, Earthworks

Read more about Leann’s view on fracking in Pine Creek and using FLIR photography to expose polluting emissions. Go to this post on Earthworks’ blog.

Fracking Comes to Pine Creek

Natural resource extraction in the Pine Creek Watershed did not stop with timber, coal, and traditional oil and gas. The drilling landscape in Pennsylvania changed dramatically around 2005, as operators began to develop the Marcellus Shale, a carbon-rich black shale that had eluded the industry for decades, because the rock formation was reluctant to release the large quantities of gas trapped within it. Based on successes in other shale formations, the Marcellus began to be drilled with a combination of horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing – now using millions of gallons of fluids, instead of tens of thousands – and built upon multi-acre well pads. Operators were successful in releasing the gas, and this type of well, known as “unconventional” drilling, took off in vast swaths of Pennsylvania. Similar techniques were extended to other formations, notably the Utica shale formation.

The map below shows the cumulative footprint of extractive practices in Pine Creek, with the exclusion of timber.

Midstream Infrastructure

In 2018, unconventional wells in the Pine Creek Watershed produced 203 billion cubic feet of gas, which is more than the entire state of West Virginia consumed in 2017, not including electricity generation. To get all of that gas to market requires an extensive network of pipelines, and multi-acre compressor stations are required to push the gas through those pipes.

Pipeline data for the region, largely based on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) public pipeline viewer map, includes over 85 miles of pipelines in the watershed. However, this data does not include any of the gathering lines that crisscross the watershed, connecting the drilling sites to the midstream network.

Among other concerns, gas pipelines need to be placed in areas where they will not be impacted by tree roots, and so operators clear a 50-foot wide right-of-way, at minimum. This width results in the clearing of more than 6 acres per linear mile of pipe, which would be a total of 515 acres for the known pipeline routes in the region. However, the 50-foot width is a minimum, and some rights-of-way exceeding 300 feet were observed in the watershed, which would require the clearing of more than 36 acres per linear mile. These land clearing impacts are in addition to those required for well pads, access roads, and other infrastructure.

Many of the compressor stations in the Pine Creek Watershed are considered major pollution sources, and therefore require a Title V permit from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means that they either produce at least 10 tons per year of any single hazardous air pollutant, or at least 25 tons of any combination of pollutants on the list.

Missing pipeline data is evidenced by FracTracker’s records of many compressor stations that are not along documented pipeline routes. Of the 26 compressors in the watershed that we have records for, only six are within 250 meters of known pipeline routes. Similarly, only 29 of the 594 drilled unconventional wells in the watershed are within the quarter-kilometer radius of known pipeline routes. One way or another, all compressors and well sites have to be connected to pipelines.



Table 2. Oil & Gas Well Status in the Pine Creek Watershed


Oil & Gas Well Status# of Wells
Operator reported not drilled404
Proposed but never materialized111
Active (conventional) 25
Active (unconventional) 529
Other304
TOTAL1,374

The PA DEP has records for 1,374 oil and gas wells within the watershed, although not all of these were actually drilled.  Of these wells, 404 wells have an official status of “operator reported not drilled,” while an additional 111 have a similar status of “proposed but never materialized.” Of the remaining 859 wells, 554 are currently considered active (including 25 conventional and 529 unconventional wells). An active status is given once the well is proposed — even before it is officially permitted by DEP, let alone drilled. The status remains until some other status applies.

Seventy-four wells are considered to be “regulatory inactive” (four conventional, 71 unconventional), meaning that the well has not been in production for at least a year, and must meet several other requirements. The remainder of the wells in the watershed have reached the end of their functional life, of which 168 have been plugged (119 conventional, 49 unconventional). This is done by filling the well bore with concrete, and is considered permanent, although the plugs have been known to fail from time to time. Fifty-seven additional conventional wells are considered abandoned, meaning that they are at the end of their useful life but have not been appropriately plugged, neither by the operator nor DEP. Five additional conventional wells are considered to be orphaned, which is a similar status to abandoned, but these wells are no longer linked to an operator active in the state. Given the lack of recordkeeping in the early part of the industry’s history in PA, the number of plugged, abandoned, and orphaned wells in the Pine Creek Watershed is likely significantly underrepresented.

Conventional drilling activity has essentially ceased in the watershed. A single well categorized as conventional, the Bliss 3H well, has been drilled in 2019. In fact, this well is almost certainly miscategorized. Not only does its well name follow conventions for horizontal unconventional wells, but the DEP’s formation report indicates that it is in fact drilled into the Marcellus Shale.  Prior to Bliss 3H, the two most recent conventional wells were drilled in 2011.

Unconventional drilling is a different story altogether. In terms of the number of wells drilled, the peak within the Pine Creek Watershed was in 2011, with 186 wells drilled. That represented 9.5% of the statewide total that year, and Pine Creek is just one of 35 comparably sized watersheds targeted for unconventional development in Pennsylvania.

More recently, there were 16 wells drilled in the watershed in 2018, and 17 wells through the halfway point of 2019, indicating that the extraction efforts are once again on the upswing.

Table 3. Number of unconventional wells drilled in Pennsylvania and the Pine Creek Watershed

YEARSTATEWIDEPINE CREEK WATERSHEDPCT. TOTAL
20063712.7%
200711310.9%
200833292.7%
2009821263.2%
201015981147.1%
201119561869.5%
20121351856.3%
20131212484.0%
20141369302.2%
2015784111.4%
2016503204.0%
2017810293.6%
2018777162.1%
2019 (YTD)366174.6%
TOTAL119995935.8%

The map below shows a heavily forested section of the watershed that has been significantly damaged by unconventional oil and gas development. Notice the forest fragmentation and land disturbance that has occurred as a result of fracking activities.

Use the time slider below to explore the changes in the Pine Creek watershed from 2008 to 2016

On May 9, 2019, nearly two dozen people descended upon the Pine Creek Watershed for the purpose of chronicling the impacts that the oil and gas industry is currently wreaking on the landscape. The documentation began early in the morning at the William T. Piper Memorial Airport in the town of Lock Haven, located in Clinton County. FracTracker  Alliance organized the blitz with numerous partner organizations, including EarthWorks, Sierra Club, Save Our Streams PA, Responsible Drilling Alliance, Pennsylvania Forest Coalition, Environeers, Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group, and Lebanon Pipeline Awareness.

The massive watershed was broken up into 10 impact zones, which were mostly determined by concentrations of known sites such as well pads, compressor stations, retention ponds, and pipeline corridors.

Some people brought cameras and specialized equipment to Pine Ceek, such methane sensors and global positioning system devices. Participants were encouraged to try out the FracTracker Mobile App, which was designed to allow users to communicate and share the location of oil and gas concerns. Earthworks brought a FLIR infrared camera, which can capture volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that are typically invisible to the human eye, but that still pose significant risks to health and the environment. Others participants brought specialized knowledge of oil and gas operations from a variety of perspectives, from those who had previously interacted with the industry professionally, to those who have been forced to live in close proximity of these massive structures for more than a decade.

While we knew that it would not be possible to photograph every impact in the watershed, the results of this group effort were tremendous, including hundreds of photos, dozens of app submissions, and numerous infrared videos.  All of these have been curated in the map above. In our exuberance, we documented a number of facilities that wound up not being in the Pine Creek Watershed – still impactful but beyond the scope of this project. In some cases, multiple photos were taken of the same location, and we selected the most representative one or two for each site. Altogether, the map above shows 22 aerial images, 84 app submissions, 46 additional photos, and nine infrared FLIR videos.

FracTracker also collaborated with a pilot from LightHawk, a nonprofit group that connects conservation-minded pilots with groups that can benefit from the rare opportunity to view infrastructure and impacts from the air. Together, LightHawk and FracTracker’s Ted Auch flew in a mostly clockwise loop around the watershed, producing the aerial photography highlighted in this article, and in the map below.

The benefits of being able to see these impacts from the air is incalculable. Not only does it give viewers a sense of the full scope of the impact, but in some cases, it provides access to sites and activities that would otherwise be entirely occluded to the public, such as sites with active drilling or hydraulic fracturing operations, or when the access roads are behind barriers that are posted as no trespassing zones.

It can be difficult to maintain a sense of the massive scale of these operations when looking at aerial images. One thing that can help to maintain this perspective is by focusing on easily identifiable objects, such as nearby trees or large trucks, but it is even more useful to cross-reference these aerial images with those taken at ground level.

Water – A Precious Resource

Drilling unconventional wells requires the use of millions of gallons of water per well, sometimes as high as 100 million gallons. Unconventional drilling operations in Pennsylvania are required to self-report water, sand, and chemical quantities used in the hydraulic fracturing stage of well production to a registry known as FracFocus. Because of this, we have a pretty good idea of water used for this stage of the operation.

This does not account for all of the industry’s water consumption. The amount of water required to maintain and operate pipelines, compressor stations and other processing facilities, and to suppress dust on well pads, access roads, and pipeline rights-of-way is unknown, but likely significant. Much of the water used for oil and gas operations in this watershed is withdrawn from rivers and streams and the groundwater beneath the watershed.

Table 3. Water consumption by well in the Pine Creek Watershed

CATEGORYGALLONSEQUIVALENT PERSONS (ANNUAL USAGE)
Average Single Well6,745,697246
Maximum Single Well13,313,916486
All Wells (2013-2017)850,648,21931,074

There are 60 water-related facilities for oil and gas operations active within the watershed in 2019, including two ground water withdrawal locations, 20 surface water withdrawal locations, and 38 interconnections, mostly retention ponds. This dataset does not include limits on the 22 withdrawal locations, however, one of the surface withdrawal sites was observed with signage permitting the removal of 936,000 gallons per day. If this amount is typical, then the combined facilities in the watershed would have a daily capacity of about 20.6 million gallons, which is about 27 times the daily residential consumption within the watershed.

Predictably, water withdrawals ebb and flow with fluctuations in drilling activity, with peak consumption exceeding 1.2 billion gallons in the three-month period between April and June 2014, and an aggregate total of nearly 20.4 billion gallons between July 2008 and December 2016. It is not known what fraction of these withdrawals occurred in the Pine Creek Watershed.

Violations

Between October 22, 2007, and April 24, 2019, the Pennsylvania DEP issued 949 violations to unconventional oil and gas operations within the Pine Creek Watershed.[xiii] It can be difficult to know precisely what happened in the field based on the notations in the corresponding compliance reports. For example, if an operator failed to comply with the terms of their erosion and sediment control permit, it is unclear whether there was a sediment runoff event that impacted surface waters or not. However, as these rules were put into place to protect Pennsylvania’s waterways, there is no question that the potential for negative water impacts exists. Therefore, erosion and sedimentation violations  are included in this analysis.

Other violations are quite explicit, however. The operator of the Hoffman 2H well in Liberty Township, Tioga County was cited for failing to prevent “gas, oil, brine, completion and servicing fluids, and any other fluids or materials from below the casing seat from entering fresh groundwater,” and failing to “prevent pollution or diminution of fresh groundwater.” A well on the Tract 007 – Pad G well pad was left unplugged. “Upon abandoning a well, the owner or operator failed to plug the well to stop the vertical flow of fluids or gas within the well bore.”

The violation description falls into more than 100 categories for sites within the watershed. We have simplified those as follows:

Table 4. Oil and gas violations in the Pine Creek Watershed

VIOLATIONSCOUNTWATER RELATED
Administrative 61No
Casing / Cement Violation31Yes
Clean Streams Law Violation32Yes
Erosion & Sediment84Yes
Failed to Control / Dispose of Fluids279Yes
Failure to Comply With Permit3No
Failure to Plug Well1Yes
Failure to Prevent Pollution Event23Yes
Failure to Protect Water Supplies8Yes
Failure to Report Pollution Event20Yes
Failure to Restore Site8No
Hazardous Venting1No
Industrial Waste / Pollutional Material Discharge229Yes
Rat Hole Not Filled7Yes
Residual Waste Mismanagement2Yes
Restricted Site Access to Inspector1No
Site Restoration Violation9No
Unmarked Plugged Well1No
Unpermitted Residual Waste Processing73Yes
Unsound Impoundment20Yes
Unspecified Violation48No
Waste Analysis Not Completed1No
Water Obstruction & Encroachment7Yes
TOTAL949

Altogether, 816 out of the 949 violations (86%) issued in the Pine Creek Watershed were likely to have an impact on either surface or ground water in the region. Two sites have more than 50 violations each, including the Phoenix Well Pad, with 116 violations in Duncan Township, Tioga County, and the Bonnell Run Hunting & Fishing Corp Well Pad in Pine Township, Lycoming County, with 94 violations.

Water Complaints

When things go wrong with oil and gas operations, it is often residents in the surrounding areas that are exposed to the impacts. There are limited actions that affected neighbors can take, but one thing that they can do is register a complaint with the appropriate regulatory agency, in this case the Pennsylvania DEP.

A thorough file review was conducted by Public Herald for complaints related to oil and gas operations in PA, yielding 9,442 complaints between 2004 and 2016. While this includes all oil and gas related complaints, Public Herald’s analysis show that the frequency is highly correlated with the unconventional drilling boom that occurred within that time frame, with the number of new wells and complaints both peaking in 2011.

Many of these complaints occurred in the Pine Creek Watershed. It is impossible to know the exact number, as the precise location of the events was redacted in the records provided by DEP.  Most of the records do include the county and in some cases, the municipality. Altogether, there were complaints in 32 municipalities that are either partially or entirely within the watershed, for a total of 185 total complaints.  Of those, 116 of (63%) specifically indicate water impacts, spread out over 25 municipalities throughout the watershed.

Additional complaints with unspecified municipalities were received by DEP in Lycoming County (n=4), Potter County (n=4), and Tioga County (n=3). These counties substantially overlap with the Pine Creek Watershed, but the data is unclear as to whether or not these impacts were noted within the watershed or not.

It is worth remembering that complaints are dependent upon observation from neighbors and other passersby. As Pine Creek is composed of rugged terrain with vast swaths of public land, it is relatively sparsely populated. It is likely that if these drilling sites were placed in more densely populated areas, the number of complaints related to these operations would be even higher.


“It was 2007, and my water well was fine. I mean, I didn’t have any problem with it. I was cooking, drinking, bathing with it and everything else. Well, then after they drilled I thought it was kind of…it didn’t taste like it did before.”[xiv]

– Judy Eckhart

A Waste-Filled Proposition

Since the Pine Creek Watershed has been the site of considerable oil and gas extraction activity, it has also been the site of significant quantities of waste generated by the industry, which is classified as residual waste in Pennsylvania. This category is supposedly for nonhazardous industrial waste, although both liquid and solid waste streams from oil and gas operations pose significant risks to people exposed to them, as well as to the environment. Oil and gas waste is contaminated with a variety of dangerous volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, which are frequently highly radioactive. There are also a large number of chemicals that are injected into the well bore that flow back to the surface, the content of which is often kept secret, even from workers who make use of them onsite.

There were 37 sites in the Pine Creek Watershed that accepted liquid waste between 2011 and 2018. Of these sites, 30 (81%) were well pads, where flowback from drilling may be partially reused. While this reduces the overall volume of waste that ultimately needs to be disposed of, it frequently increases the concentration of hazardous contaminants that are found in the waste stream, which can make its eventual disposal more challenging. Most of the sites that accept waste do reuse that waste. However, the largest quantity of waste are from the remaining seven sites.

Table 5. Disposal of liquid gas waste in the Pine Creek Watershed

CATEGORYBARRELSGALLONSPCT. TOTAL
Reuse at Well Pads2,042,66285,791,80123%
Other Facilities6,701,292281,454,26177%
GRAND TOTAL8,743,954367,246,062100%

One single site – the Hydro Recovery LP Antrim Facility in Pine Township, Lycoming County – accounted for the majority of liquid waste disposed in the watershed, with 6,622,255 barrels (278,134,704 gallons.) has This amounts to 98.8% of all liquid waste that was not reused at other well pads.

Wastewater is also spread on roads in some communities, as a way to suppress dust on dirt roads.  3,001 barrels (126,050 gallons) of liquid waste have been used for road spreading efforts in regions intersecting the watershed in Ulysses Township, Potter County, and across private lots and roads throughout Potter and Tioga counties. Note that these figures include waste generated from conventional wells, which have different legal requirements for disposal than waste from unconventional wells, despite a similar chemical profile.

There are three facilities that have accepted solid oil and gas waste in the watershed, including a small one operated by Environmental Products and Services of Vermont (55 tons), Hydro Recovery LP Antrim Facility (10,415 tons), and Phoenix Resources Landfill (900,094 tons). This includes 200,808 tons in 2018, which is close to the previous peak value of 216,873 tons accepted in 2012.

Figure 1. Tons of solid O&G waste accepted at the Phoenix Resources Landfill


Recap: How has a decade of fracking impacted the Pine Creek Watershed?

  • 1,374 recorded oil and gas wells in the watershed
    • 554 are currently considered active
    • including 25 conventional and 529 unconventional wells
  • 949 violations to unconventional oil and gas operations within the Pine Creek Watershed, 86% of which were likely to have an impact on either surface or ground water
  • 185 complaints in 32 municipalities that are either partially or entirely within the watershed
  • A minimum of 515 acres cleared for the known gas pipeline routes in the region
  • 26 compressor stations in the watershed
  • 850,648,219 gallons of water used to frack wells in the watershed between 2013-2017
  • 60 water-related facilities for oil and gas operations active within the watershed active in 2019, including two ground water withdrawal locations, 20 surface water withdrawal locations, and 38 interconnections (mostly retention ponds)
  • 37 sites in the Pine Creek Watershed that accepted liquid waste between 2011 and 2018

And When It’s Over?

In the last ice age, glaciers came from the finger lakes area into Pine Creek. This made the soil there very deep and rich– in fact, people come from all over to study that soil. The Pine Creek area could be a mecca for sustainable agriculture. There is great soil, excellent water, and plenty of space for wind and solar. Under the right leadership, this region of Pennsylvania could feed people in a time when climate resilience is so urgently needed.

Melissa Troutman, Research & Policy Analyst, Earthworks. Director of “Triple Divide.” Journalist, Public Herald

The Pine Creek region retains a primeval grandeur – an alluring wild spirit of great pride and significance to our state. Natural gas development has – and will further – compromise the natural and experiential qualities of this special place. For the benefit of Pennsylvanians today and tomorrow, extraction must be replaced by cleaner forms of energy and conservation values made preeminent.

Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

The Pine Creek Watershed in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin has seen more than its fair share of industrial impacts in the centuries since European contact, from repeated timber clearcutting, to coal extraction, to the development of unconventional oil and gas resources in the 21st century. Despite all of this, Pine Creek remains one of the Commonwealth’s natural gems, a cornerstone of the famed Pennsylvania Wilds.

Many of the impacts to the watershed could be thought of as temporary, in that they would likely stop occurring when the oil and gas developers decide to pack up and leave for good. This includes things like truck traffic, with all of the dust and diesel exhaust that accompanies that, pollution from compressor stations and leaky pipe junctions, and even most surface spills.

And yet in some ways, the ability of the land to sustain this industry becomes substantially impaired, and impacts become much more prolonged. Consider, for example, that prior logging efforts have permanently changed both the flora and fauna of the region. Similarly, while there is no more active coal mining in Pine Creek, almost 500 acres of sites deemed to be problematic remain, and some streams impacted by contaminated runoff and mine drainage have yet to return to their former pristine state, even decades later.  

Unconventional drilling in the watershed will have similarly permanent impacts. While there is a legal threshold for site restoration, these multi-acre drill sites will not resemble the heavily forested landscape that once stood there when they reach the end of their useful life. Access roads and gathering lines that crisscross the landscape must be maintained until all well pads in the area are out of service, and then the aging infrastructure will remain in situ. Contaminated groundwater supplies are likely to take centuries to recover, if it is even possible at all.  

Thousands of feet of rock once separated the unconventional formations from the surface. That distance was a barrier not just to the gas, but also to salty brines, toxic heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials that are present at those depths. To date, 593 holes have been drilled in the Pine Creek Watershed, creating 593 pathways for all of these materials to move to the surface. The only things keeping them in place are concrete and steel, both of which will inevitably fail over the course of time, particularly in the highly saline environment of an old gas well. 

Even if the industry were to leave today and properly plug all of the wells in the Pine Creek Watershed, impacts from the drilling are likely to remain for many years to come.

[i] Owlett, Steven. Seasons Along the Tiadaghton: An Environmental History of the Pine Creek Gorge. Wellsboro, PA: Steven E. Owlett, 1993. P. 11.

[ii] Wikipedia. Pine Creek (Pennsylvania). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Creek_(Pennsylvania)

[iii] Owlett, Steven. Seasons Along the Tiadaghton: An Environmental History of the Pine Creek Gorge. Wellsboro, PA: Steven E. Owlett, 1993. P. 11.

[iv] DCNR. History of Colton Point State Park, 2019. https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/ColtonPointStatePark/Pages/History.aspx

[v]  DCNR, Bureau of Forestry.  Marcellus Shale Management Field Tour, 2012. http://www.paforestcoalition.org/documents/Marcellus_Shale_Management_Field_Tour_5-14-12.pdf

[vi] Hayes, Samuel P. Wars in the Woods: The Rise of Ecological Forestry in America. Pittsburgh, PA. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.  (2007). P 120-121.

[vii] Owlett, Steven. Seasons Along the Tiadaghton: An Environmental History of the Pine Creek Gorge. Wellsboro, PA: Steven E. Owlett, 1993. P.58-60.

[viii] Owlett, Steven. Seasons Along the Tiadaghton: An Environmental History of the Pine Creek Gorge. Wellsboro, PA: Steven E. Owlett, 1993. P.61.

[ix] Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Oil Gas Locations – Conventional Unconventional, 2019. https://www.pasda.psu.edu/uci/DataSummary.aspx?dataset=1088

[x] Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Abandoned and Orphan Oil and Gas Wells and the Well Plugging Program, 2018. http://www.depgreenport.state.pa.us/elibrary/PDFProvider.ashx?action=PDFStream&docID=1419023&chksum=&revision=0&docName=ABANDONED+AND+ORPHAN+OIL+AND+GAS+WELLS+AND+THE+WELL+PLUGGING+PROGRAM&nativeExt=pdf&PromptToSave=False&Size=411528&ViewerMode=2&overlay=0

[xi] Pennsylvania Wilds. Homepage, 2019. https://pawilds.com/#modal-2

[xii]  Ferguson et al. The impacts of shale natural gas energy development on outdoor recreation: A statewide assessment of pennsylvanians, September 2019. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism. Volume 27.

[xiii]Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Oil and Gas Compliance Report Viewer. 2019. http://www.depreportingservices.state.pa.us/ReportServer/Pages/ReportViewer.aspx?/Oil_Gas/OG_Compliance

[xiv] Joshua Pribanic & Melissa Troutman. Triple Divide, 2013.

All aerial photography by Ted Auch with flight support by LightHawk (May 2019).

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

Project funding provided by:

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

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

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

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

The “Shale Revolution”

the allegheny plateau

The Allegheny Plateau. Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

The Appalachian Storage Hub

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

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

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

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

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

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

State-level support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National-level support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International interest

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

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

“Critical” infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

Producing wells mapped

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


View Map Full Screen

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Permitting New Oil and Gas Wells Under the Newsom Administration

California regulators halt well permitting after Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker reveal a surge in well permits under California Governor Newsom

October 24th, 2019 update: 

There have been several exciting updates since FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog released a report on fracking and regulatory corruption under Governor Newsom’s administration, detailed in the article below.

On July 11th, 2019, immediately following the report’s release, Governor Newsom fired Ken Harris, head of California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).

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

Two months later in September, it was announced that no new fracking permits had been approved in California since the report was issued. We’re thrilled to see this immediate cessation. Yet, while new fracking activity has halted, other forms of oil and gas development continue to threaten Californian’s health and natural resources.

FracTracker Alliance’s review of public records found that DOGGR issued approximately 1,200 permits for steam injection and other “enhanced recovery” techniques through September 2nd, a 60% increase from the 749 permits issued in the same period last year. Sources within DOGGR revealed that at least 40 illegal oil spills from wells were ongoing in Kern and Santa Barbara Counties.

A final development came on October 12th, when Governor Newsom signed a bill to prevent oil and gas development on state lands. As state lands often neighbor federal lands, this bill will play a role in protecting federal land from pipelines, wells, and other polluting infrastructure. Newsom also changed the name of DOGGR to the “Geologic Energy Management Division,” and modified its mission to include protecting public health and environmental quality.

We remain hopeful that Newsom will take a bold stance in leading California away from fossil fuels.

Original July 11th, 2019 FracTracker article:

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

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

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

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

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

Governor Brown’s Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Findings

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

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

First, what are the types of permits issued?

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

How many permits have regulators issued?

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

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

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

Who is applying for permits?

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

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

Table 1. Permit Counts by Operator

Where are the permits being issued?

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

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

Table 2. Permit Counts by Field

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

Could this be an early industry death rattle?

Figure 3. Crude prices in 2018 and 2019

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance