Mapping gathering lines in OH and WV feature

Mapping Gathering Lines in Ohio and West Virginia

As a spring 2020 intern with FracTracker, my work mostly involved mapping gathering lines in West Virginia and Ohio. Gathering lines are pipelines that transport oil and gas from the wellhead to either compressor stations or storage/processing facilities. The transmission pipelines (which are often larger in diameter than gathering lines) take the oil and gas from the processing facilities to other storage facilities/compressor stations, or to distribution pipelines which go to end users and consumers. As you can see from Figure 2 in the map of Doddridge County, WV, many gathering lines eventually converge at a compressor station. You can think of gathering lines like small brooks and streams that feed transmission pipelines. The transmission lines are the main arteries, like a river, moving larger quantities of gas and oil over longer distances.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

The main project and goal of my internship was to record as many gathering pipelines as I could find in Ohio and West Virginia, since gathering lines are not generally mapped and therefore not easily available for the public to view. For example, the National Pipeline Mapping System’s public map viewer (created by the Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) has a note stating, “It does not contain gas gathering or distribution pipelines.” Mapping gathering lines makes this data accessible to the public and will allow us to see the bigger picture when it comes to assessing the environmental impact of pipelines.

After collecting gathering line location data, I performed GIS analysis to determine the amount of acreage of land that has been clearcut due to gathering pipeline installations.

Another analysis we could perform using this data is to count the total number of waterways that the gathering lines cross/interact with and assess the quality of water and wildlife in areas with higher concentrations of gathering pipelines.

Oil and Gas Wells and Gathering Lines in OH and WV

Figure 1. This map shows an overview of gathering line pipelines in the Powhatan Point, Ohio and Moundsville, West Virginia of the Ohio River Valley.

 

PIPELINE GATHERING LINE MAPPING PROCESS

I worked with an aerial imagery BaseMap layer (a BaseMap is the bottommost layer when viewing a map), a county boundaries layer, production well location points, and compressor station location points. I then traced lines on the earth that appeared to be gathering lines by creating polygon shapefiles in the GIS application ArcMap.

My methodology and process of finding the actual routes of the gathering lines included examining locations at various map scale ranges to find emerging line patterns of barren land that connect different production well points on the map. I would either concentrate on looking for patterns along well pad location points and look for paths that may connect those points, or I would begin at the nearest gathering line I had recorded to try to find off-shoot paths off of those pipelines that may connect to a well pad, compressor station or previously recorded gathering line.

I did run into a few problems during my search for gathering lines. Sometimes, I would begin to trace a gathering line path, only to either loose the path entirely, or on further inspection, find that it was a power line path. Other times when using the aerial imagery basemap, the gathering line would flow into an aerial photo from a year prior to the pipeline installation and I would again lose the path. To work around these issues, I would first follow the gathering line trail to its end point before I started tracing the path. I would also view the path very closely in various scale ranges to ensure I wasn’t tracing a road, waterway, or powerline pathway.

ACREAGE ANALYSIS

In the three months that I was working on recording gathering pipeline paths in Ohio and West Virginia, I found approximately 29,103 acres (3,494 miles) of barren land clearcut by gathering pipelines. These total amounts are not exact since not all gathering lines can be confirmed. There are still more gathering lines to be recorded in both Ohio and West Virginia, but these figures give the reader an idea of the land disturbance caused by gathering lines, as shown in Figures 1 and 2.

In Ohio, I recorded approximately 10,083 acres (641 miles) with the average individual gathering pipeline taking up about 45 acres of land. With my gathering line data and data previously recorded by FracTracker, I found that there are 28,490 acres (1,690 miles) of land spanning 9 counties in southeastern Ohio that have been cleared and used by gathering lines.

For West Virginia, I was able to record approximately 19,020 acres (1,547 miles) of gathering lines, with the average gathering line taking up about 48 acres of space each. With previous data recorded in West Virginia by FracTracker, the total we have so far for the state is 22,897 acres (1,804 miles), although that is only accounting for the 9 counties in northern West Virginia that are recorded.

Wells and Gathering Lines in Doddridge County, WV

Figure 2. This aerial view map shows connecting gathering line pipelines that cover a small portion of Doddridge County, WV. 

 

CONCLUSION

I was shocked to see how many gathering lines there are in these rural areas. Not only are they very prevalent in these less populated communities, but it was surprising to see how concentrated and close together they tend to be. When most people think of pipelines, they think of the big transmission pipeline paths that cross multiple states and are unaware of how much land that the infrastructure of these gathering pipelines also take up.

It was also very eye-opening to find that there are at least 29,000 acres of land in Ohio and West Virginia that were clearcut for the installation of gathering lines. It is even more shocking that these gathering pipelines are not being recorded or mapped and that this data is not publicly available from the National Pipeline Mapping System. While driving through these areas you may only see one or two pipelines briefly from your car, but by viewing the land from a bird’s eye perspective, you get a sense of the scale of this massive network. While the transmission pipeline arteries tend to be bigger, the veins of gathering lines displace a large amount of land as well.

I was also surprised by the sheer number of gathering lines I found that crossed waterways, rivers, and streams. During this project, it wasn’t unusual at all to follow a gathering line path that would cross water multiple times. In the future, I would be interested to look at the number of times these gathering pipelines cross paths with a stream or river, and the impact that this has on water quality and surrounding environment. I hope to continue to record gathering lines in Ohio and West Virginia, as well as Pennsylvania, so that we may learn more about this infrastructure and the impact it may have on the environment.

About Me

I first heard of FracTracker three years ago when I was volunteering with an environmental group called Keep Wayne Wild in Ohio. Since learning about FracTracker, I have been impressed with their eye-opening projects and their ability to make the gas and oil industry more transparent. A few years after first hearing about FracTracker, and as my interest in the GIS field continued to grow, I began taking GIS classes and reached out to them for this internship opportunity.

By Trevor Oatts, FracTracker Spring 2020 Data & GIS Intern

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FracTracker Falcon Pipeline spills map

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

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

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

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

Drilling Mud Spill

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

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

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

HDD Pipeline Diagram

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

View map full screen 

Jefferson County, Ohio

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

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

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

Map of spills along pipeline

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Pipeline Map

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

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

Inconsistencies in Reporting

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

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

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

How are these spills measured?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the impacts of drilling fluid spills?

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

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

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

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

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

Other Drilling Fluid Losses

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

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

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

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

Spill from Falcon construction

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

Spill from pipeline construction

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Pipelines in a Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North Brooklyn Pipeline demographics map

New Yorkers mount resistance against North Brooklyn Pipeline

By Kim Fraczek (Sane Energy Project), with input and mapping by Karen Edelstein (FracTracker Alliance)

Despite overwhelming concern about the impacts of fossil fuels on climate chaos, pipeline projects are springing up all over the country in an effort find markets for the surplus of fracked gas extracted from the Marcellus region in Pennsylvania. New Yorkers are directly impacted by these problematic supply chains. The energy company, National Grid, is proposing to raise New Yorkers’ monthly bills in order to complete a new, 30-inch high-pressure fracked gas transmission pipeline through Brooklyn, New York. National Grid euphemistically named the 350-psi pipeline the “The Metropolitan Reliability Pipeline Project.” Gas moving through this pipeline is destined for a National Grid Depot on Newtown Creek, which divides Brooklyn from the borough of Queens. National Grid plans to expand liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage and vaporizer operations at the Depot. The Depot expansion will also facilitate trucking transport of gas to and from North Brooklyn to destinations in Long Island and Massachusetts.

For an industry explanation on how vaporizers work, click here.

National Grid Depot in Brooklyn, NY

National Grid Depot is located on the western bank of Newtown Creek. Source: Google Maps

 

National Grid is asking the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) to approve: 

  • A charge of $185 million to rate-payers in order to finish the current pipeline phase under construction in Bushwick. Pipeline construction would continue north into East Williamsburg and Greenpoint (other sections of Brooklyn)
  • $23 million to replace two old vaporizers at National Grid’s Greenpoint LNG facility
  • $54 million to add two new vaporizers to the Greenpoint LNG facility
  • $31.5 million over the next 4 years to add “portable LNG capabilities at the Greenpoint site that will allow LNG delivered via truck to on-system injection points.” National Grid is currently seeking a variance from New York City for permission to bring LNG trucks onto city property. Currently, this sort of activity is illegal due to high risk of fires and explosions.

Impacts on the community, resistance to the pipeline

Pipelines also present risks of catching fire and exploding. On average, a 350-psi gas pipeline has an evacuation radius of approximately 1275 feet. FracTracker Alliance created the interactive map, below, using 2010 census data to show population density in the neighborhoods within this blast zone. According to FracTracker, there were 614 reported pipeline incidents in the United States in 2019 alone, resulting in the death of 10 people, injuries to another 35, and about $259 million in damages.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

There is widespread community opposition to this pipeline, LNG expansion, and trucking proposal because it will:

Opponents of this pipeline project also raise objections that the pipeline will:

  • Become a stranded asset leaving residents to foot the bill for the pipeline as city and state climate laws are implemented
  • Contribute carbon monoxide and methane to the atmosphere, thereby accelerating climate change and its impacts on coastal metropolises like New York City

Project Status

National Grid is currently constructing Phase 4 of the pipeline. However, public pressure and concern about COVID-19 safety measures forced them to stop construction on March 27, 2020. After Governor Cuomo issued an executive order to halt all non-essential work, neighbors reported the company was not mandating personal protective equipment (PPE) nor social distancing for its workers.

Additionally, funding to build north of Montrose Avenue in Bushwick through to Greenpoint—neighborhoods in northeastern Brooklyn on the border with Queens that make up the fifth phase of the pipeline construction—is pending a decision by the Public Service Commission. The approval of the fifth phase of the pipeline would allow it to reach the LNG facility at Greenpoint.

Generalized map of Brooklyn neighborhoods

Generalized map of Brooklyn neighborhoods. Source: Wikipedia.

The current National Grid rate case proceeding is in its last stage of  discovery, testimony, cross-examination, and final briefs from parties to the rate case. The Administrative Law Judges overseeing the proceeding will review all parties’ information, and make a recommendation to the Public Service Commission, a five-person panel appointed by New York State Governor Cuomo to regulate our utilities.  This decision will most likely happen at the monthly meeting on June 18, 2020, where they also may make a decision on National Grid’s Long Term Plan proceeding that could determine the future of LNG expansion in North Brooklyn.

What are the broader economic and political concerns for stopping this, and other new pipeline projects?

Sane Energy Project has laid out a clear and cogent set of arguments. These include:

  • This project is not about “modernizing” our system for heating and cooking. This is about an expansion to charge rate-payers an increase and to grow profits for National Grid’s shareholders.
  • This is a transmission pipeline, not a gas distribution line. It will not service the affected community where the already trafficked main thoroughfares and already stressed trucking routes for local businesses will be dug up.
  • Gas pipelines are not safe. According to the United States Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration (PHMSA), between 2016 and 2018, an average of 638 pipeline incidents per year resulted in a total of 43 fatalities and 204 injuries . The cost to the public for these incidents over those three years was nearly $2.7 billion. [For more analysis on national pipeline incidents, see FracTracker’s February 2020 article.]
  • Fracking exacerbates climate change. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Over a 20 year period, it contributes 86 to 100 times more atmospheric warming than equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide. Climate change is destroying Earth’s ability to sustain life.
  • This project holds New York State back on our renewable energy goals. We should be mandating any gas pipelines should be replaced with geothermal energy, along with energy efficiency measures in our buildings.
  • The industry coined the term “natural” gas to create the sense that it is clean, but the extraction, transport and burning of this gas creates air pollution, disturbs ecosystems, contaminates drinking water sources, and disproportionately affects lower income communities and communities of color.
  • A report authored by Suzanne Mattei, former DEC Region 2 Chief, notes National Grid does not have gas supply constraints–the situation where consumer demand exceeds the supply. Mattei contends that this is a manufactured crisis to maintain business-as-usual, keep us hooked on fossil fuels, and charge rate-payers for construction well after the lifespan of this pipeline. This makes local constituents pay for the company’s stranded assets. National Grid themselves report that they are able to handle yearly peak demand through existing supplemental gas sources. What’s more, the EIA expects for natural gas demand to remain flat over the course of the next decade, refuting National Grid’s claim that their massive pipeline project is necessary to respond to the few hours of peak demand experienced each year.
  • This is actually a substantial project, which avoided more stringent permitting and discussion by breaking the work into five separate projections, a process known as “segmentation”. The North Brooklyn Pipeline project is disguised as a local upgrade by segmentation, while in reality, it is a much larger project leading to an LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) depot, CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) and other fracking infrastructure facilities in Greenpoint.
  • National Grid is requesting almost 185 million ratepayer dollars over the next three years to complete the project.

What’s next?

As gas prices continue to drop and renewable energy technologies are more accessible and wide-spread, the whole equation that relies on a fossil fuel-based economy becomes more desperate and unsustainable. Many communities are also saying “no” to new pipelines in their communities, so industry is looking to ship fracked gas over land by truck. Another method for disposing of surplus gas is to compress it into LNG (liquefied natural gas) and ship it to international markets by boat.

For more updates on the North Brooklyn Pipeline, check Sane Energy Project’s website. If you live in the New York/Metropolitan area and want to get involved in this fight, there are numerous ways in which you can work with Sane Energy. Click here for details.

National Energy and Petrochemical Map

FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!

The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:

         For oil and gas wells, view FracTracker’s state maps. 

This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?

Key Takeaways

  • Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants.
  • The state generating the largest amount of solar energy is California, while wind energy is Texas. The state with the greatest relative solar energy is not technically a state – it’s D.C., where 18% of electricity generation is from solar, closely followed by Nevada at 17%. Iowa leads the country in relative wind energy production, at 45%.
  • The state generating the most amount of energy from both natural gas and coal is Texas. Relatively, West Virginia has the greatest reliance on coal for electricity (85%), and Rhode Island has the greatest percentage of natural gas (92%).
  • With 28% of total U.S. energy consumption for transportation, many of the refineries, crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, and terminals on this map are dedicated towards gasoline, diesel, and other fuel production.
  • Petrochemical production, which is expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, takes the form of chemical plants, ethylene crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines on this map, largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast.

Electricity generation

The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?

National Map of Power plants

Power plants by energy source. Data from EIA.

In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.

In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).

National Energy Sources Pie Chart

Figure 1. Electricity generation by source in the United States, 2019. Data from EIA.

This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.Fracking's astronomical decline rates - after one year, a well may be producing less than one-fifth of the oil and gas it produced its first year. To keep up with production, operators must pump exponentially more water, chemicals, and sand, or just drill a new well.

The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”

The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.

This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.

In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.

How does your state generate electricity?
Legend

Figure 2. Electricity generation state-wide by source, 2019. Data from EIA.

One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others.  The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Transportation

In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.

Map of transportation infrastructure

Transportation Fuel Infrastructure. Data from EIA.

The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.

The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses.  Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.

China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.

In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a  “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.

We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.

Petrochemicals

Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.

This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.

Map of Petrochemical Infrastructure

Petrochemical infrastructure. Data from EIA.

Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.

Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.

The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.

As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.

Petrochemical infrastructure

Petrochemical development off the coast of Texas, November 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.

“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”

Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.

Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)

In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”

What will this map look like in the next 30 years?

A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”

Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could  zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?

Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.

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destroyed home following pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA

Pipelines Continue to Catch Fire and Explode

For the past decade, petroleum operators in the United States have been busy pumping record amounts of oil and gas from the ground. But has the pace been too frenzied? Since the vast majority of the oil and gas is not used in situ, the industry must transport these hydrocarbon products to other locations. The principal way of achieving this is through pipelines, a process which has resulted in thousands of incidents, causing hundreds of injuries and fatalities, thousands of evacuations, and billions of dollars’ worth of damage.

The United States has an estimated 3 million miles of hazardous liquid, gas distribution, and gathering and transmission pipelines in operation, and more are being built every day. Not only have the pipelines themselves become so ubiquitous that most people never give them a second thought, the incidents themselves have become so familiar to us that even severe ones struggle to gain any attention outside of the local media area.

In 2019, there were 614 reported pipeline incidents in the United States, resulting in the death of 10 people, injuries to another 35, and about $259 million in damages. As mentioned below, some of these totals are likely to creep upward as additional reports are filed. In terms of statistical fluctuations, 2019 was slightly better than normal, but of course statistics only tell a part of the story. Friends and family of the ten people that died last year would find no comfort knowing that there were fewer such casualties than 2017, for example. Similarly, it would be useless to comfort a family that lost their home by reminding them that someone lost an even bigger and more expensive home the year before.

Keeping in mind the human impact, let’s take a look at the data.

Pipeline Incident Summary

These incidents are broken into three separate reports:

  1. Hazardous Liquids (including crude oil, refined petroleum products, and natural gas liquids).
  2. Gas Distribution (lines that take gas to residents and other consumers), and
  3. Gas Transmission & Gathering (collectively bringing gas from well sites to processing facilities and distant markets)

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Table 1: Summary of pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 12/31/2019

Report Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
Hazardous Liquids Lines 3,978 10 26 2,482 2,812,391,218 130 15
Gas Transmission & Gathering Lines 1,226 25 108 12,984 1,315,162,976 133 57
Gas Distribution 1,094 105 522 20,526 1,229,189,997 659 257
Totals 6,298 140 656 35,992 5,356,744,191 922 329

But is increasing the capacity of the pipes a good idea? As FracTracker has shown in the past, pipeline incidents occur at a rate of about 1.7 per day incidents per day. This holds true with updated data, showing 6,298 incidents from January 1, 2010 through December 17, 2019, which was the latest report filed when the data was downloaded in early February 2020.

Pipeline Usage in the United States

In 2018, roughly three million miles of natural gas pipelines transported almost 28 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas, which is roughly 13 times the volume of Mount Everest. For liquids, pipeline data is available showing shipments of from one region of the country (known as a PAD District) to another, which shows that 1.27 billion barrels of crude oil were shipped through almost 81,000 miles of pipelines in 2018, and 3.39 billion barrels through nearly 214,000 miles of pipes when counting natural gas liquids and refined petroleum products.

Note that these figures are less than 2018 estimates based on 70% of liquid petroleum products being moved by pipeline. This discrepancy could be accounted for by the dramatic increase in production in recent years, or perhaps by intra-PAD shipments not listed in the data above. For example, petroleum produced in the Permian Basin in western Texas and eastern New Mexico may travel nearly 500 miles by pipeline en route to export terminals on the Gulf coast, while remaining in the same PAD District. If the 70% estimate holds true, then roughly 2.8 billion barrels (117 billion gallons) of crude would be shipped by pipeline, more than twice as much as the 1.27 billion barrel figure shown above.

The drilling boom in the United States was quickly followed by a boom in pipeline construction. Total mileage for liquid pipelines – known as hazardous liquid lines – increased by 20% from 2010 to 2018. For those aware of thousands of miles of recent gas pipeline projects, it is confusing to hear that the data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) are mixed for natural gas. It does show a 2.4% increase in total miles for gas distribution mainlines to 1.3 million miles, and a 2.0% increase over the same time in distribution service lines, which run from the mainlines to the consumer. However, the total mileage for transmission lines – which are large diameter pipes that move gas long distances – actually contracted 2.1% to just under 302,000 miles. Total mileage for gathering lines fell even more, by 8.4% to just under 18,000 miles. However, since PHMSA estimates only 5% of gathering lines report to the agency, this last figure is probably not a valid estimate.

If this data is accurate, it means that the thousands of miles of transmission and gathering lines built in recent years were more than offset by decommissioned routes. However, given the record production levels mentioned above, it is almost certain that total capacity of the system has gone up, which can be accomplished through a combination of increased pressure and diameter of the pipe.

Hazardous Liquids

Table. 2. Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Incident Impact Summary. Data from PHMSA.
Year Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
2010 350 1 3 686 1,075,193,990 8 1
2011 344 0 1 201 273,526,547 9 2
2012 366 3 4 235 145,477,426 10 2
2013 401 1 6 858 278,525,540 15 2
2014 455 0 0 34 140,211,610 20 4
2015 460 1 0 138 256,251,180 16 1
2016 420 3 9 104 212,944,094 17 2
2017 415 1 1 58 163,118,772 7 0
2018 405 0 2 165 152,573,682 15 1
2019 362 0 0 3 114,568,377 13 0
Grand Total 3978 10 26 2482 2,812,391,218 130 15

The most important statistics when considering pipeline incidents are those representing bodily harm – injuries and fatalities. In those respects, at least, 2019 was a good year for hazardous liquid pipelines, with no reported injuries or fatalities. Most of the other metrics were below average as well, including 362 total incidents, three evacuees, $115 million in damages, and zero explosions. The 13 reported fires represents a typical year. However, we should keep in mind that the results may not be complete for 2019. The data was downloaded on February 3, 2020, but represented the January 2020 update of the dataset. Additionally, there is often a gap between the incident date and the reporting date, which is sometimes measured in months.

One thing that really sticks out about hazardous liquid pipelines is that the pipelines that fail the most often are the newest. Of the hazardous liquid incidents since 2010, 906 occurred in pipelines that were installed within the decade. By means of comparison, the same amount of incidents occurred in the same period for pipes installed in the 40 years between 1970 and 2009. Of course, the largest category is “Unspecified,” where the install year of the pipeline was left blank in 1,459 of the 3,978 total incidents (37%).

The causes of the incidents are dominated by equipment failure, where the 1,811 incidents accounted for 46% of the total. The next highest total was corrosion failure with 798 incidents, or 20% of the total. Six of the incidents in the “Other Outside Force Damage” are attributed to intentional damage, representing 0.15% of the total.

Gas Transmission & Gathering

Table. 3. Gas Transmission and Gathering Pipeline Incident Impact Summary. Data from PHMSA.
Year Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
2010 116 10 61 373 596,151,925 19 7
2011 128 0 1 874 125,497,792 14 6
2012 116 0 7 904 58,798,676 15 7
2013 112 0 2 3,103 53,022,396 11 4
2014 142 1 1 1,482 61,533,154 15 6
2015 149 6 16 565 61,498,753 10 6
2016 97 3 3 944 107,524,564 8 4
2017 126 3 3 202 85,665,233 17 7
2018 118 1 7 4,088 77,753,611 17 6
2019 122 1 7 449 87,716,872 7 4
Grand Total 1,226 25 108 12,984 1,315,162,976 133 57

One person died and seven were injured from gas transmission and gathering line accidents that were reported to PHMSA in 2019, which were both below average for this dataset. The total number of incidents was typical, while the 499 evacuees, $88 million in property damage, seven fires, and four explosions were all below normal. Note that only a small fraction of the nation’s gathering lines are required to report incident data to PHMSA, so this data should not be seen as comprehensive. And as with the hazardous liquid incidents, it is likely that not all incidents occurring during the year have had reports filed in time for this analysis.

The distribution of the age of pipes that failed within the past decade is different from the hazardous liquid pipelines. Pipes installed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were the most likely to fail, although failures in routes built this century represent a secondary peak. The number of incidents where the age of pipe data field was not completed remains high at 135 incidents, but the data gap is not as outrageous as it is for hazardous liquid lines.

Once again, equipment failure is the most common cause of transmission and gathering line accidents, with 390 incidents accounting for 32% of the total. Corrosion failure was the second most common reason, with 239 incidents accounting for an additional 19%. One incident was attributed to intentional damage, accounting for 0.08% of the total.

Gas Distribution

Year Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
2010 120 11 44 2,080 21,155,972 82 29
2011 116 13 53 4,417 27,105,022 73 32
2012 88 9 46 746 25,556,562 61 22
2013 104 8 36 1,606 37,363,960 59 20
2014 106 18 93 2,037 72,885,067 61 30
2015 101 4 32 948 32,176,608 65 24
2016 115 10 75 2,510 56,900,068 71 28
2017 104 16 34 1,960 72,226,380 57 17
2018 110 7 81 2,561 827,647,610 64 31
2019 130 9 28 1,661 56,172,748 66 24
Grand Total 1,094 105 522 20,526 1,229,189,997 659 257
Table 4. Gas Distribution Pipeline Incident Impact Summary. Data from PHMSA.

The nine fatalities and 28 injuries reported for gas distribution lines in 2019 were obviously tragic, but these totals are both below what would be expected in a typical year. The 130 incidents and 66 fires were both above average totals, while the 1,661 evacuees, $56 million in property damage, and 24 explosions were all below average. As with the other reports, these totals are subject to change as additional reports are filed.

The distribution for the age of pipes that failed during the past decade is more like a normal (or bell curve) distribution than the other two datasets, with the most incidents occurring in pipeline routes laid in the 1990s. Much like the hazardous liquids dataset, however, the largest category is “Unspecified”, where the age of the pipe was not entered into the data for one reason or another. These 222 incidents account for 20% of the total, and if we had this data, the distribution could be significantly different.

The causes of distribution line incidents are attributed very differently than either the hazardous liquids or transmission and gathering line datasets. The leading cause is “Other Outside Force Damage,” with 355 incidents accounting for 32% of the total, followed by 330 “Excavation Damage” incidents accounting for an additional 30%. This difference could well be explained because this type of line tends to occur in highly populated areas. The largest subtype for the outside force damage category is damage by motor vehicles not involved in excavation, with 160 incidents, followed by fires or explosions which the operator claims did not originate with the pipeline, with 78 incidents. Intentional damage remains rare – although still way too high – with 15 incidents, or 1.4% of the overall total.

Data Notes

PHMSA incident data is ultimately self-reported by the various operators. Because the vast majority of gathering lines do not report to the agency, this dataset should not be seen as comprehensive for incidents in that category.

There were eleven issues with faulty location data that we were able to correct for this map. There are likely to be more, as only the ones with coordinates rendering outside of the United States were identified. Some of these had mixed up latitude and longitude values, or omitted the negative value for longitude, placing the points in Kyrgyzstan, the Himalayas, and Mongolia. One record had no coordinates at all, but included a detailed description of the location, which was then found on Google Maps. Two wells that rendered in Canada were on the correct longitude for the county that they belonged in, but had faulty latitude values. One of these was reduced by exactly 20° of latitude, while the other was reduced by exactly 7° of latitude, and were then located in the proper county. Other than the adjustments for these eleven incidents, all location data reflects the data available on the PHMSA .

Additional Leaks

The data above reflects 6,298 incidents over the course of a decade, with a few more incidents likely to trickle in during the next few updates of the reports by PHMSA. And while these discrete incidents account for the majority of human impacts in terms of life and well-being, it is worth noting that these 1.7 incidents per day are not the only problems that occur along millions of miles of pipelines in this country.

William Limpert has analyzed information about pipeline leakage in gas transmission lines, which found that 0.35% of the volume of gas was lost in transmission, one tenth of which was vented or flared intentionally, for example in compressor station blowdown events. This means that 0.315% of the gas is released unintentionally.

These numbers sound tiny, but due to the enormous volume of gas transported in pipes, they really add up quickly. For example, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Mr. Limpert’s primary focus, is scheduled to transmit 1.5 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas per day. At a typical rate of failure, we could expect leakage of 4.725 million cubic feet (MMcf) per day, or 1.725 billion cubic feet over the course of a year. That’s enough gas to provide to all Pennsylvania residential consumers for about 13 days in August, and this is just from one pipeline.

As mentioned above, the entire pipeline network moved about 28 Tcf in 2018. The estimated amount leaked at 0.315% is 88.2 Bcf. What would residential consumers pay for that volume of gas? Even with the current low prices due to the gas glut, the average residual price was $9.43 per Mcf in November 2019, the most recent data available. That means that residential consumers would pay roughly $832 million for an equivalent amount of gas.

Still More Leaks

There are also countless leaks that occur during the construction of the pipelines themselves. When pipelines are built, they have numerous obstacles to navigate during their construction. Among the most challenging are linear obstacles, such as roads and streams. A method that the industry regularly uses to avoid having to trench through these features is horizontal directional drilling (HDD).

While HDDs are meant to minimize impacts, they very frequently result in an incident known as an “inadvertent return,” when volumes of drilling mud return to the surface through a series of underground voids, frequently karst geology or abandoned mines. The leaking borehole under the road or stream then leaks drilling mud – sometimes thousands of gallons of it – which can then affect aquatic stream life. Additionally, these areas represent voids in the matrix that is intended to keep the pipeline stable and may represent future opportunities for catastrophic failure.

These features are so prevalent in some parts of the country that pipeline operators seem to be unable to avoid them, and regulators seem unwilling to press the issue in a proactive fashion. For example, Energy Transfers’ Mariner East II pipeline is currently being built to move natural gas liquids from Appalachia to its industrial complex and export terminal at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. During construction, there have been hundreds of inadvertent returns, both to the soil and waters of the Commonwealth. The presence of karst and abandoned mines along the route were well known ahead of time to the operator designing and implementing the HDDs, as well as the regulators who approved their use.

The many issues along the Mariner East II route, when combined with a massive pipeline explosion in Beaver County led to Pennsylvania’s decision to temporarily block all permit actions by the operator statewide. That hold is now lifted, leading residents along the route worried about a new batch of inadvertent returns, related sinkholes, and other follies as the project is completed. Construction activities for the parallel Mariner East 2X pipeline are already underway.

While residents along the Mariner East pipeline system have seen more than their fair share of impacts from the construction, these impacts are not at all rare on unusual. What is unusual, however, is for regulators to provide data highlighting these types of errors. In Pennsylvania, enough people requesting data on a variety of problematic pipelines has prompted the Department of Environmental Protection to create a Pennsylvania Pipeline Portal page. This only includes information on recent major pipeline projects and is not comprehensive in terms of content, but it is a major step in the right direction in terms of data transparency.

Can We Do Better?

Statistics can never capture the full force of tragedies. Most of us are aware of this point intellectually, and yet when we are confronted with such numbers, it seems that we are obliged to process them in one form or another. Perhaps the most common way is to compartmentalize it, where we might acknowledge the data and misfortune that they represent, but the file it away in the messy cabinet of our mind, clearing the slate of active thought for the next bit of information. Many of us never stop to question whether we can do better.

So, can we do better with pipelines? Perhaps so. If there are structural hazards such as abandoned mines or karst, perhaps regulators could demand that the operator route around them. If there are residents nearby, communities should demand that the pipeline get rerouted as well. Of course, these reroutes will just push the impacts elsewhere, but hopefully to an area where people won’t be affected by them, if such a place exists. Certainly, there could be better standards for construction and identification, so that there are fewer accidents involving pipelines. Or better yet, we could transition to renewable fuels for an ever-increasing share of our energy needs, making dirty and dangerous pipelines a relic of the past.

The one thing that we can no longer afford to do is continue to stick our fingers in our ears and dismiss the entire issue of pipeline safety as manageable or the cost of doing business.

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

Feature image at top of page shows San Bruno, California, following the 2010 pipeline explosion

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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

 

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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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