CA Setbacks Map

People and Production: Reducing Risk in California Extraction

Executive Summary

New research shows that low-income communities and communities of color that are most impacted by oil and gas extraction (Frontline Communities) in California are at an elevated risk for preterm birth, low birth weight, and other negative birth outcomes. This is in addition to the elevated risks of cancer; risks for respiratory, cardiovascular, and pulmonary disorders; and risks for eyes, ears, nose, throat, and skin irritation that Frontline Communities face, among others. Public health interventions including setback requirements for oil and gas drilling are necessary to address the environmental health endemics documented in Frontline Communities. 

This report focuses on the two immediate stakeholders impacted by oil and gas well drilling setbacks: Frontline Communities and oil and gas operators. First, using U.S. Census data this report helps to define the Frontline Communities most impacted by oil and gas extraction. Then, using GIS techniques and California state data, this report estimates the potential impact of a setback on California’s oil production. Results and conclusions of these analyses are outlined below.

  • Previous statewide and regional analyses on proximity of oil and gas extraction to various demographics, including analyses included in Kern County’s 2020 draft EIR, have inadequately investigated disparate impacts, and have published erroneous results.
  • This analysis shows that approximately 2.17 million Californians live within 2,500’ of an operational oil and gas well, and about 7.37 million Californians live within 1 mile. 
  • California’s Frontline Communities living closest to oil and gas extraction sites with high densities of wells are predominantly low income households with non-white and Latinx demographics.
  • The majority of oil and gas wells are located in environmental justice communities most impacted by contaminated groundwater and air quality degradation resulting from oil and gas extraction, with high risks of low-birth weight pregnancy outcomes.
  • Adequate Setbacks for permitting new oil and gas wells will reduce health risks for Frontline Communities.
  • Setbacks for permitting new oil and gas wells will not decrease existing California oil and gas production.
  • Phasing out wells within setback distances will further decrease health risks for Frontline Communities.
  • Phasing out wells by disallowing rework permits within a 2,500’ setback distance will have a minimal impact on overall statewide oil production, estimated at an annual maximum loss of 1% by volume.
  • Setbacks greater than 2,500’ in combination with other public health interventions are necessary to reduce risk for Frontline Communities.
  • Based on the peer reviewed literature, a setback of at least one mile is recommended.

 

Introduction

The energy focused on instituting policies to protect the health of Frontline Communities in California from the negative impacts of oil and gas extraction is at an all-time high. In August 2020, Assembly Bill 345 was heard in the State Senate’s Natural Resources Committee, but was blocked from reaching the Senate floor for a vote. The bill would have required the Geologic Energy Management Division in the Department of Conservation (CalGEM) to establish a minimum setback distance between oil and gas production and related activities and sensitive receptors like homes, schools, and hospitals. While this strong effort to establish health and safety setbacks through the state legislature may have failed, the movement has paved the way for local actions. Additionally, California is in the midst of a statewide public health rule-making process to address the health impacts of oil and gas extraction currently experienced by Frontline Communities. 

In related advocacy, Frontline Community groups in California recommended a minimum 2500’ setback based on scientific studies, including a 2015 report by the California Council on Science and Technology which identified “significant” health risks at a distance of one-half mile from drill sites. A recent grand jury report from Pennsylvania recommended 5,000’ setbacks, with 2,500’ as a minimum requirement to address the most impacted communities. Additionally, the state of Colorado has recently adopted 2,000’ setbacks for homes and schools, while the existing 2,000’ setback has had minimal impacts on oil and gas production. 

In September 2020, Governor Newsom declared the deadline for the first draft of the pre-regulatory rule-making report will be the first of January 2021. FracTracker Alliance has therefore completed an updated assessment of  the Frontline Communities most impacted by oil and has projected the potential impact on oil and gas extraction operations. An interactive map of oil and gas activity and Frontline Communities is shown below in Figure 1. The map identifies the operational (active, idle, and new) oil and gas wells located within 2,500’ and 1 mile buffer zones from sensitive receptors, defined as homes, schools, licensed daycares and healthcare facilities.

The impacts of oil and gas drilling do not stop at 2,500’, as regional groundwater contamination and air quality degradation of ozone creation and PM2.5 concentrations are widespread hazards of oil and gas extraction. Phasing out wells within 2,500’ of homes will reduce the negative health effects for the Frontline Communities bearing the brunt of the risks associated with living near oil and gas wells, as well as reduce regional environmental hazards. These risks include over 24 categories of health impacts and symptoms associated with 14 bodily systems, including eyes, ears, nose, and throat; mental health; reproduction and pregnancy; endocrine; respiratory; cardiovascular and pulmonary; blood and immune system; kidneys and urinary system; general health; sexual health; and physical health among others. The most regularly documented health outcomes include mortality, asthma and respiratory outcomes, cancer risk including hematological (blood) cancer, preterm birth, low birth weight and other negative birth outcomes.

The interactive map below in Figure 1 shows the operational oil and gas wells located within 2,500’ of sensitive receptors, including homes, schools, healthcare facilities, prisons, and permitted daycares. Overall in the state of California, 16,724 operational (8,618 active, 7,786 idle, and 320 new) wells are located within the 2,500’ setback. Of the total ~105,000 operational (62,000 active, 37,400 idle, and 6,000 new), about 16% are within the setback. These wells accounted for 12.8% of the total oil/condensate produced in California in 2019. Table 1 below shows the counties where these wells are located, by well permit status. It bears noting that these figures on well location and production represent only a snapshot of current industry activity. As discussed below, current setback proposals would provide a phase out period for existing wells that would greatly reduce any immediate impact on production. Further, directional and even horizontal drilling is common in California, meaning operators can relocate their surface drilling equipment to safer distances and still access oil and gas reserves to maintain production.   

 

Table 1. Status of wells within the 2,500’ setback zone, by county. The table shows the counts of wells located within the 2,500’ setback from homes and other sensitive receptors, broken out by the status of the wells.

  Well Count by Status
County Active New Idle
Kern 3,501 234 2,171
Los Angeles 2,580 29 3,006
Orange 914 13 816
Ventura 534 7 600
Santa Barbara 198 17 241
Los Angeles Offshore 168 2 51
Glenn 133   76
San Joaquin 97   71
Monterey 88 9 95
Fresno 86 6 137
Sutter 73   71
Tulare 65 1 30
Colusa 47   80
Tehama 38   34
Solano 30 0 65
Sacramento 22 1 38
San Bernardino 14   29
Humboldt 12   11
Alameda 7   3
Contra Costa 5 1 16
San Benito 3   4
San Luis Obispo 2   14
Yolo 1   13
Grand Total 8,618 320 7,786

 

View map fullscreen

Figure 1. Map of California operational oil and gas wells with 2,500’ and one mile setback distances. One mile setbacks are included as a minimum recommendation of this report based on peer reviewed literature. This report recommends the state of California consider one mile as a minimum setback distance to protect Frontline Communities. As you zoom into the map additional, more detailed layers will appear.

Methods (Quick Overview)

In this article we conducted spatial analyses using both the demographics of Frontline Communities and the amount of oil produced from wells near Frontline Communities. This assessment used CalGEM data (updated 10/1/20) to map the locations of operational oil and gas wells and permits, as shown above in Figure 1. The analyses of oil production data utilized CalGEM’s annual production data reporting barrels of oil/condensate. GIS analyses were completed using ESRI ArcGIs Pro Ver. 2.6.1 with data projected in NAD83 California Teale Albers.

Wells within 2,500’ and 1 mile of sensitive receptors were determined using GIS techniques. This report defines sensitive receptors as residences, schools, licensed child daycare centers, healthcare facilities. Sensitive receptor datasets were downloaded from California Health and Human Services, and the California Department of Education

We used block group level “census designated areas” from American Community Survey (2013-2018) demographics to estimate counts of Californians living near oil and gas extraction activity. Census block groups were clipped using the buffered datasets of operational oil and gas wells. A uniform population distribution within the census blocks was assumed in order to determine the population counts of block groups within 2,500’ of an operational oil and gas well, 2,500’ to 1 mile from an operational well, and beyond 1 mile from an operational well. Census demographics and total population counts were scaled using the proportion of the clipped block groups within the setback area (Areal percentage = Area of block group within [2,500’; 2,500’-1 mile; Beyond 1 mile] of an operational well / Total area of block group). 

This conservative approach provided a general overview of the count and demographics of Californians living near extraction operations, but does little to shed light on most impacted Frontline Communities; specifically urban areas with dense populations near large oil fields. More granular analyses at the local level were necessary to address the spatial bias resulting from non-uniform census block group dimensions and population density distributions, as well as the distribution of operational oil and gas wells within the census block groups. Consequently, we conducted further analysis utilizing customized sample areas for each oil field, which were selected manually using remote sensing data. Full census blocks were used to summarize the actual areas and the urban populations constituting the majority of Frontline Communities. 

In the localized, static maps that follow, the census blocks included in the population summaries are shown in pink, while the surrounding census blocks are shown in blue. As seen in Table 2, census data for this initial environmental justice assessment was limited to “Race” (Census Table XO2), “Hispanic or Latino Origin” (Census Table XO3) and several other indicators including “Annual Median Income of Households” (Census Table X19) and “Poverty” (Census Table X17).

Results and Discussion

California Statewide Analysis

Demographics

As a baseline, it is important to provide statewide estimations to track the total number of Californians living near oil and gas extraction operations. This analysis showed that about 2.17 million Californians live within 2,500’ of an operational oil and gas well, and about 7.37 million Californians live within 1 mile. The demographics of these communities at and between these distances is shown below in Table 2, alongside demographic estimates of the California population living beyond 1 mile from an oil and gas well. Census block groups closer to oil and gas wells have higher proportions of Non-white (calculated by subtracting “White Only” from “Total Population”) and Latinx (“Hispanic or Latino Origin”) populations, as well as higher proportions of low-income households, based on both median annual income and poverty thresholds. The analysis show that communities living closer to oil and gas wells have higher percentages of non-white and Latinx populations when compared to the population living beyond 1 mile from an operational oil and gas wells. Communities closer to oil and gas wells are also more likely to be closer to the poverty threshold with lower median annual household incomes.

 

Table 2. The table shows statewide demographics at multiple distances from operational oil and gas wells. Included are estimates of the non-white and Latinx proportions of the populations within set distances from operational oil and gas wells. The percentage of populations within several poverty thresholds were also summarized, along with median annual household income and age.

  Distance from an operational oil and gas well
Indicators of Disparity Within 2,500′ 2,500′ – 1 Mile Beyond 1 Mile (Statewide)
Demographics:  Non-white 44.44% 43.56% 39.16%
Demographics:  Latinx 43.25% 44.97% 37.79%
Poverty:  Under Poverty Threshold 15.01% 14.97% 14.12%
Poverty:  Under 1.5X Poverty Threshold 24.31% 24.85% 23.25%
Poverty:  Under 2X Poverty Threshold 33.59% 34.25% 32.17%
Median Annual Household Income < $40k 30.09% 30.73% 28.72%
Median Annual Household Income <$75k 53.53% 54.36% 51.76%
Age:  0-5 years 6.08% 6.12% 6.37%
Age:  <18 years 21.54% 22.12% 23.39%
Age:   65+ 13.17% 13.11% 13.68%
Demographics: White only 55.56% 56.44% 60.84%

 

CalEnviroScreen

CalGEM operational wells data was also overlaid on CalEnviroScreen 3.0 (CES) indicators of environmental health. CES is provided by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), on behalf of the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA).

CalEnviroScreen data, like U.S. Census data, is also aggregated at the census block group level. While this data can also suffer from the same spatial bias as the statewide analysis above, CES is still very useful to visualize and map the regional pollution burden to assess disparate impacts. The results of the analysis are shown below in Table 3. Counts of operational oil and gas wells for ranges of CES percentile scores. Higher percentiles represent increased environmental degradation or negative health impacts as specified. Of note, the majority of operational oil and gas wells are located in census tracts with the worst scores for air quality degradation and high incidence of low birth weight.

The large number of wells located in the 60-80th percentile rather than the worst (80-100th percentile) is a result of spatial bias, and the many factors that are aggregated to generate the CES Total Scores. These factors include relative affluence and other indicators of socio-economic status. The majority of the worst (80th-100 percentile for Total CES Score) census block groups are located in low-income urban census block groups, many in Northern California cities that do not host urban drilling operations.

This spatial bias results from edge effects of census block groups, where communities living near oil and gas extraction operations may not live in the same census block groups as the oil and gas wells, and are therefore not counted. The authors would recommend future analyses be designed that use CES data to assess disparate impacts in the census block groups most impacted by oil and gas extraction. Neighboring census block groups that do not physically contain operational wells still suffer the consequences of proximity.

For the asthma rankings, the majority of wells are located in the best CES 3.0 percentile (0-20th percentile) for Asthma. While there is much urban drilling in Los Angeles, the spatial bias in this type of analysis gives more weight to the majority of oil and gas wells that are located in rural areas, which historically have much lower asthma rates. This is a result of the very high incidence of asthma in cities without urban drilling such as the Bay Area and Sacramento (80-100th percentile).

 

Table 3. Counts of operational oil and gas wells in select CalEnviroScreen 3.0 indicators census tracts.

  Operational Well Counts by CES3.0 Percentile
  0-20%ile 20-40%ile 40-60%ile 60-80%ile 80-100%ile
PM2.5 Air Quality Degradation 5,708 4,237 16,614 7,089 69,987
Ozone Air Quality Degradation 2,238 5,435 6,107 9,898 79,957
Contaminated Drinking Water 1,019 1,675 53,452 6,214 41,206
High Incidence of Low Birth Weight 10,186 13,368 14,995 3,236 58,036
High Incidence of Asthma 40,247 19,827 18,902 4,867 19,792
Total CES 3.0 1,583 5,756 15,671 65,356 12,985

 

Spatial Bias

Using census data to assess the demographics of those communities most affected by oil and gas drilling can produce misleading results both because of how census designated areas (census tracts and block groups) are designed and because of the uneven distribution of residents within tracts. For example, the majority of Californians who live closest to high concentrations of oil and gas extraction, such as the Kern River oil field, do so in residentially zoned cities and urban settings. In most Frontline Communities the urban census designated areas do not actually contain many wellsites. Instead urban census designated areas are located next to the “estate” and “industrial” (including petroleum extraction) zoned census designated areas that contain the well-sites. 

Estate and industrially zoned census designated areas contain the majority of well-sites in Kern County. They are much larger than residentially zoned areas with very low population densities and higher indicators of socioeconomic status. Population centers within the estate zoned areas are often located on the opposite end and farther from well sites than the lower income communities and communities of color living in the neighboring, residentially-zoned census designated areas (e.g., Lost Hills and Shafter). In these cases the statewide demographic summaries above misrepresent the Frontline Communities who are truly closest to extraction operations. Localized environmental justice demographics assessments can also be manipulated in this way.

For instance, The 2020 Kern County draft EIR (chapter 7 PDF pp. 1292-1305) used well counts aggregated by census tracts to conclude that wells in Kern County were not located in disparately impacted communities. Among other requirements for scientific integrity, the draft Kern EIR fails to take into account how the shape, size, and orientation of census designated areas affect the results of an environmental justice assessment. In addition, the EIR uses low-resolution data summarized at the census tract level. Census tracts are much too large to be used to investigate localized health impacts or disparities. Using these blatantly inadequate methods, the draft EIR even claimed Kern County’s oil and gas wells are predominantly located in higher income, white communities, which is outright wrong. For more specific criticisms of the Draft EIR read the FracTracker analysis of the 2020 Kern County EIR.

Results from these types of analyses can be very misleading. Using generalized methods of attributing wells to specific census designated areas does little to identify the communities most impacted by the localized environmental degradation resulting from oil and gas extraction operations, particularly when large census areas such as census tracts are used. 

This report therefore takes a different approach, focusing directly on California’s most heavily drilled communities. To understand who and which communities are most harmed by the large-scale industrial oil and gas extraction operations in California, spatial analyses must be refined to focus individually on the communities closest to the highest density extraction operations. For the analyses below, census block groups within 2,500’ of ten different Frontline Communities, all located near some of California’s largest oil and gas fields, were manually identified. The selected block groups’ major population centers were all located within the 2,500’ buffers. Unlike the statewide analysis above, the localized analyses below do not assume homogenous population distributions. Using these methods, FracTracker has identified and demographically described some of the most vulnerable California communities most at risk to the impacts of oil and gas extraction. In the maps below, the “case” census block groups used to generate descriptive demographic summaries of at risk communities bordering extraction operations are outlined in pink, while surrounding census block groups are outlined in light blue.

Well Density

The analyses above are important to understand some of the public health risks of living near oil and gas drilling in California. Yet the methods above used statewide aggregation of well counts and static buffers that do not not show the spectrum of risk resulting from well density. Numerous Frontline Communities in California are within 1 mile or even 2,500’ of literally thousands of oil and gas wells. Conversely, there are many census areas in California that have been included within the spatial analysis of the full state, as described above, located near a single low producing well. Therefore the above methods conservatively summarize demographics and dilute the signal of disparate impacts for low income communities of color. Those methods are not able to differentiate between such scenarios as living near one low-producing well in the Beverly Hills golf course versus living in the middle of the Wilmington Oil Field. 

As with any toxin, the dosage determines the intensity of the poison. In environmental sciences, increasing exposure to toxins by increasing the number of sources of a toxin can increase the dosage and therefore the severity of the health impact. The impact of well density has been documented in numerous epidemiological studies as a significant indicator of negative health outcomes, including recently published reports from Stanford University and The University of California – Berkeley linking adverse birth outcomes with living near oil and gas wells in California (Tran et. al 2020, Gonzalez et. al 2020). Therefore the rest of this report focuses on the Frontline Communities living near large oil extraction operations–i.e., oil fields with high densities of operational oil and gas wells. 

 

Kern County

Toggle between the sections below by clicking in the upper left corner of the title bar. 

The City of Shafter, California, is located near more than 100 operational wells in the North Shafter oil field, as shown below in the map in Figure 2. Technically, the wells are located within a donut-shaped census block group (outlined in blue) that surrounds the limits of the urban census block groups (outlined in pink). Shafter’s population of nearly 20,000 is over 86% Latinx, but the surrounding “donut” with just 2,000 people is about 70% Latinx, much wealthier, and with very low population density. The other neighboring rural census areas housing the rest of the Shafter oil field wells follow this same trend. 

An uninformed analysis, such as the Kern County EIR, would conclude that the 2,000 individuals who live within the blue “donut” are at the highest risk, because they share the same census designated area as the wells. Notably, the only population center of this census block group (or census tracts, which follow this same trend) is at the opposite end of the block group, farthest from the Shafter oil field. Instead, the most at-risk community is the urban community of Shafter with high population density; the census block groups within the pink hole of the donut contain the communities and homes nearest the North Shafter field.

Figure 2. The City of Shafter, California is located just to the south of the North Shafter oil field. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, as well as the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries. 

The cities of Lost Hills, Arvin, and Taft are all very similar to Shafter. The cities have densely populated urban centers located within or directly next to an oil field. In the maps below in Figures 3 readers can see the community of Lost Hills next to the Lost Hills oil field. Lost Hills, like the densely populated cities of Arvin and Taft, are located very close to large scale extraction operations. Census block groups that include the most impacted area of Lost Hills is outlined in pink, while surrounding low population density census block groups are shown in blue. The majority of the areas outlined in blue are zoned as “estate” and “agriculture” areas. The outlines of the city boundaries are also shown, along with 2,500’ and 1 mile setback distances from currently operational oil and gas wells.

Lost Hills is another situation where a donut-shaped census area distorts the results of low resolution demographics assessments, such as the one conducted by Kern County in their 2020 Draft EIR (PDF pp. 1292-1305). Almost all of the wells within the Lost Hills oil fields are just outside of a 2,500’ setback, but the incredibly high density of extraction operations results in the combined impact of the sum of these wells on degraded air quality. While stringent setback distances from oil and gas wells are a necessary component of environmental justice, a 2,500’ setback on its own is not enough to reduce exposures and risk for the Frontline Community of Lost Hills. For these Frontline Communities, a setback needs to be much larger to reduce exposures. In fact, limiting a public health intervention to a setback requirement alone is not sufficient to address the environmental health inequities in Lost Hills, Shafter, and other similar communities. 

Lost Hill’s nearly 2,000 residents are over 99% Latinx, and over 70% of the households make less than $40,000 in annual income (which is substantially less than the annual median income of Kern County households [at $52,479]). The map in Figure 3 shows that the Lost Hills public elementary school is located within 2,500’ of the Lost Hills oil field and within two miles of more than 2,600 operational wells, in addition to the 6,000 operational wells in the rest of the field. 

The City of Arvin has 8 operational oil and gas wells within the city limits, and another 71 operational wells within 2 miles. Arvin, with nearly 22,000 people, is over 90% Latinx, and over 60% of the households make less than $40,000 in annual income. 

Additionally the City of Taft, located directly between the Buena Vista and Midway Sunset Fields, has a demographic profile with a Latinx population at least 10% higher than the rest of southern Kern County. 

Lost Hills, Arvin, and Taft are among the most impacted densely populated  areas of Kern County and represent the most Kern citizens at risk of exposure to air quality degradation from oil and gas extraction.

In all of these cases, if only census tract well counts are considered, like in the 2020 Kern County draft EIR, these Frontline Communities will be completely disregarded. Census tracts are intentionally drawn to separate urban/residential areas from industrial/estate/agricultural areas. The census areas that contain the oil fields are very large and sparsely populated, while neighboring census areas with dense population centers, such as these small cities, are most impacted by the oil and gas fields.

Figure 3. The Unincorporated City of Lost Hills in Kern County, California is located within 2,500’ of the Lost Hills Oil Field. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, as well as the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries. 

The City of Bakersfield is a unique scenario. It is the largest city in Kern County and as a result suburban developments surround parts of the city. Urban flight has moved much of the wealth into these suburbs. The suburban sprawl has occurred in directions including North toward the Kern River oil field, predominantly on the field’s western flank in Oildale and Seguro. In the map below in Figure 4, these areas are located just to the north of the Kern River.

This is a poignant example of the development of cheap land for housing developments in an area where oil and gas operations already existed; an issue that needs to be considered in the development of setbacks and public health interventions and policies. This small population of predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods shares similar risks as the lower-income Communities of Color who account for the majority of Bakersfield’s urban center. Even though these suburban communities are less vulnerable to the oppressive forces of systemic racism, real estate markets will continue to prioritize cheap land for development, moving communities closer to extraction operations. 

Regardless of the implications of urban sprawl and suburban development, it is important to no disregard the risks to  the demographics of the at-risk areas of the city of Bakersfield are predominantly Non-white (31%) and Latinx (60%), particularly as compared to the city’s suburbs (15% Non-white and 26% Latinx). About 33,000 people live in the city’s northern suburbs, and another 470,000 live in Bakersfield’s urban city center just to the south of the 16,500 operational wells in the Kern River, Front, and Bluff oil fields. The urban population of Bakersfield is a large Frontline Community exposed to the local and regional negative air quality impacts of the Kern River and numerous other surrounding oil fields.

Figure 4. Map of the city of Bakersfield in Kern County, California located between several major oil fields including the Kern Front oil field. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, as well as the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries.  

 

Southern California

The City of Ventura and the proximity of the Ventura oil field is a similar situation to cities in Kern. The urban center of Ventura is bisected by the Ventura oil field’s nearly 1,200 operational wells. While over 70% of the city’s population is Latinx, the very sparsely populated census areas also containing portions of the oil field are 34% Latinx. 

In the map below in Figure 5, take note of the population distribution within the portion of the city closest to the oil field versus the census areas to the east. While a statewide or less granular analysis would assume an evenly distributed population density, in this localized analysis, it is clear that the most vulnerable Frontline Communities are the urban centers closest to the oil fields. Even though the census blocks to the east contain oil and gas wells, the populations are less at risk because the population centers are located farther from the oil field.

Figure 5. Ventura Oil Field in Ventura, California census areas within the 2,500’ setback area. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, as well as the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries. 

Los Angeles

In Los Angeles County, Inglewood, Wilmington, Long Beach, and Los Angeles City are some of the largest oil and gas fields. There are many areas in Los Angeles where a single low-producing well is located in an upper middle class suburb, on a golf course, or next to the Beverly Hills High School. 

While all well sites present sources of exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other air toxics, these four oil fields have incredibly high densities of oil and gas wells in urban neighborhoods. The demographics of the Frontline Communities located within 2,500’ of these major fields are presented below in Table 4. These areas are additionally lower income communities; for example, over 50% of annual household incomes in the census areas surrounding the Los Angeles City oil field are below $40,000, while the Los Angeles County median annual income is over $62,000. 

Table 4. Demographics for Frontline Communities living within 2,500’ of Los Angeles’s major oil and gas fields along with counts of operational wells in the fields are shown in the table. The demographic “Latinx” is the count of “Hispanic or Latino Origin” population, and “non-white” was calculated by subtracting “white only” from “total population.”

 

Oil Field Well Count Non-white (%) Latinx (%)
Inglewood 914 62% 11%
Wilmington 2,995 56% 63%
Long Beach 687 50% 30%
Los Angeles City 872 69% 59%
Ventura 1,193 10% 72%

 

Toggle between the sections below by clicking in the upper left corner of the title bar. 

Figure 6. Inglewood Oil Field Frontline Community, Inglewood, California census areas within a 2,500’ setback area. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, as well as the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries.

Figure 7. Wilmington Oil Field Frontline Community, Wilmington, California census areas within a 2,500’ setback area. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, as well as the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries.

Figure 8. Long Beach Oil Field Frontline Community, Long Beach, California census areas within a 2,500’ setback area. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, as well as the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries.

Figure 9. Los Angeles City Oil Field Frontline Community census areas within a 2,500’ setback area. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, as well as the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries.

 

Production

The creation of public health policies such as 2,500’ setbacks to help protect Frontline Communities is controversial in California as many state legislators are still beholden to the oil and gas industry. The industry itself pushes back strongly against any proposal that could affect their bottom line, no matter how insignificant the financial impact may be. When AB345 was proposed, the industry’s lobbying organization Western States Petroleum Association claimed that institution of 2500’ setbacks would immediately shut down at least 30% of California’s total oil production. This number is an outright fabrication. 

As shown in Table 1 above, a 2,500’ setback would impact the less than 9,000 active and new wells; 42% in Kern County and 29% in Los Angeles County. Ventura and Orange Counties are a distant 3rd and 4th, respectively. These counts are further broken down by field in Table 5 below. Statewide these wells accounted for just 12.8% of California’s current oil production by volume (as reported in barrels of oil/condensate by CalGEM), which is much smaller than the wholly unsubstantiated 30% decline claimed by industry.

 

Table 5. Counts of wells by well status for operational (active, idle, and new) oil and gas wells located within a 2,500’ setback.  Fields include the count of wells within the 2,500’ setback and the amount of oil produced from those wells within the setback. The percentage of total oil from that field is also included.

 

Oil Field County Well Count Well Ct % of Total 2019 Oil Prod (BBLS) Oil Prod % of Total
Wilmington Los Angeles 2,514 83% 2,292,669 22%
Kern River Kern 1,338 9% 2,121,071 12%
Inglewood Los Angeles 891 97% 1,806,354 96%
Midway-Sunset Kern 1,892 10% 1,614,081 8%
Ventura Ventura 287 24% 1,202,764 31%
Long Beach Los Angeles 687 100% 1,036,506 100%
Brea-Olinda Los Angeles 695 97% 967,223 95%
Huntington Beach Orange 528 83% 753,494 42%
Placerita Los Angeles 448 100% 508,182 100%
Santa Fe Springs Los Angeles 304 99% 421,719 72%
Cat Canyon Santa Barbara 115 10% 418,697 36%
Beverly Hills Los Angeles 156 100% 351,877 100%
McKittrick Kern 334 18% 346,738 10%
Montebello Los Angeles 227 98% 318,657 97%
Fruitvale Kern 286 80% 316,184 75%
San Ardo Monterey 180 13% 313,339 4%
Torrance Los Angeles 219 100% 307,413 100%
Seal Beach Los Angeles 175 88% 282,790 74%
Shafter, North Kern 70 78% 267,256 66%
Edison Kern 520 41% 261,098 39%
Brentwood Contra Costa 4 100% 230,868 100%
Oxnard Ventura 124 82% 214,884 100%
Sansinena Los Angeles 162 100% 207,474 100%
Poso Creek Kern 320 16% 193,533 4%
Rosecrans Los Angeles 94 100% 174,720 100%
Rio Bravo Kern 80 74% 166,444 82%
Richfield Orange 231 100% 165,426 100%
Coyote, East Orange 81 100% 163,639 100%
San Vicente Los Angeles 48 100% 162,940 100%

 

In the case that setback regulations are crafted both to prohibit new drilling and to phase out existing operations within the setback distance, the industry would have the opportunity to respond with measures that preserve the majority of production volumes, particularly in the Central Valley. For example, in Kern County, the overwhelming majority of new wells drilled in 2020 are directional or horizontal; these drilling technologies would allow operators to access the same below ground resources from surface locations that are further away from and safer for communities. Further, for existing wells within the 2,500’ setback, current proposals would institute a phase out period. Existing wells could be allowed to continue to operate under the terms of their current permits but not allowed to expand or rework their operations to increase or extend production; alternatively (or in addition), well operators could continue for a prescribed timeframe formulated to allow them to recoup their investment (called “amortization”). 

Los Angeles

It is clear that the oil fields of Los Angeles would be the most impacted if setbacks phased out the wells responsible for the highest risk to Frontline Communities. The majority of Los Angeles’s urban oil fields are located entirely within 2,500’ of homes, schools, healthcare facilities and daycares. 

As shown above in Table 5, wells within the setback produce 96% of the oil in the Inglewood fields, 84% in the Long Beach field, and 100% of the oil in several other smaller fields. With the phase out of these wells, oil extraction would cease in these fields. Most of these fields produce very low volumes of oil and already have high counts of idle wells, 28% idle in Wilmington, 25% in Inglewood, and 56% in Long Beach for example. The sole outlier of this trend is the Wilmington field. The majority of production in the Wilmington field comes from wells located in the Long Beach harbor, enough of them located outside of the 2,500’ setback such that while 83% of the Wilmington field wells are within the 2,500’ setback, these wells account for only 22% of the field’s overall production. 

Kern County

The situation in Kern County is quite the opposite of Los Angeles, where the majority of operational wells are located within 2,500’ of homes, residences, and other sensitive receptors like healthcare facilities. In Kern, the overwhelming majority of wells are located beyond 2,500’ and even 1 mile from sensitive receptors. While the Midway-Sunset and Kern River fields have the most wells within the 2,500’ setback area, those wells make up a small percentage of the total operational wells in the fields. As can be seen in the map in Figure 1, wells within the 2,500’ setback zone in the large Kern oil fields are entirely located on the borders of the fields. Overall, a 2,500’ setback in Kern County would only affect 7.1% of active/new wells, accounting for 5.97% of the county’s production.  

The oil and gas industry and operators in states including Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New Mexico, and Oklahoma are very vocal of their ability to avoid surface disturbance and target oil and gas pools located under sensitive receptors (homes, schools, healthcare facilities, endangered species habitat etc.) using directional drilling. According to the industry, directional drilling has been used for nearly a century to extract resources from areas where surface disruption would impact sensitive communities and habitats. 

The same is true for California, especially in Kern County and especially recently. An October 2020 draft environmental impact report by the Kern County Planning and Natural Resource Department disclosed that in a dataset of 9,803 wells drilled from 2000 to 2020 by the California Resources Corporation, the majority of wells were drilled directionally (46%) or horizontally (10%), as opposed to vertically. More recent wells in the County have utilized directional and horizontal drilling even more heavily: a 2020 dataset of wells drilled county-wide indicates that 76% were drilled directionally and an additional 7% were drilled horizontally; only 17% were drilled vertically. These statistics indicate that, even if all wells neighboring Frontline Communities in Kern County were to be phased out (itself a small percentage of the total number of wells in the county), there would only be a small impact on Kern County oil production owing to the prevalence of non-vertical techniques that allow operators the flexibility to access reserves from different surface locations. As noted previously, if all oil production from within the 2,500’ setback zone were to be immediately eliminated statewide, it would mean a maximum decrease of just 12.8% of California’s current annual oil production. But the availability of directional and horizontal drilling in Kern County, where the lion’s share of all drilling statewide occurs, means it is more likely that the decrease in production will be significantly less than 12.8% and likely much less than 10%. 

Existing Well Phase Out

Any assertion that a 2,500’ setback would immediately affect oil production is baseless because current setback proposals would institute a phase out period for existing wells. For example, existing permitted wells could be allowed to continue to operate under the terms of their current permits but not allowed to expand or rework their operations to increase or extend production. Alternatively, under a policy approach known as amortization, well operators could continue for a prescribed timeframe formulated to allow them to recoup their investment.   

If wells within the setback distance are phased out pursuant to a “no rework” policy, operators would be afforded some time to maximize production in order to ensure that operators receive a sufficient return on their investment under the terms of their existing permits before they shut down. Under such an approach, older wells with increasing risks of fugitive emissions through leaks at the surface and well casing failures could be sequentially phased out by placing a ban on rework permits not required for maintenance or safety. CalGEM permitted well reworks, including sidetracks and deeper drills, increase production and the lifespan of wells. The catalog of rework permits can be found on the CalGEM website.

Based on CalGEM’s production data from 2018 and 2019, a phase out effectuated by disallowing well reworks would result in an annual reduction of less than 1% of total oil production. Of the 52,997 wells reporting  oil/condensate production volumes in 2018, 338 received a rework permit in the same year. In 2019, of the 48,860 wells reporting oil production volumes, 285 received rework permits. By volume, the wells that received rework permits accounted for 0.87% of oil production in 2018 and just 0.04% in 2019. 

Conclusion

The oil and gas industry in California has consistently pushed back against Frontline Communities who demand public health protections against emissions from oil and gas operations. This occurs even when there will be little to no impact reducing production. It is an industry policy to refuse any concessions and oppose all measures, even to protect public health, by leveraging the industry’s wealth at every level of the political hierarchy. 

Fatefully, 2020 has resulted in multiple wins for public health in California. While the failure of AB345 made it clear that the California state legislature is still beholden to the fossil fuel industry, the momentum has continued. Community grassroots groups in Ventura County successfully passed a 1,500’ setback ordinance for occupied dwellings and 2,500’ setbacks for sensitive receptor sites including healthcare facilities and schools. Just south of Ventura, the County of Los Angeles is also in the midst of a rule-making process that is considering multiple setbacks, including 1,000’ to 2,500’ distances. And a committee of the Los Angeles City Council just voted to develop a proposal that would phase out oil drilling across the city as a non-conforming use. 

While Ventura and Los Angeles are making progress, Kern County is creating a new process to streamline oil and gas well permitting and has even proposed to decrease the existing zone-specific 300’ setbacks from homes to 210’. 

Kern County Frontline Communities and the rest of California also deserve the same consideration as residents of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. The research is clear that a setback of at least one mile in addition to more site specific public health interventions are necessary to reduce the negative health impacts resulting from these industrial operations within and neighboring Frontline Communities. 

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

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Documenting emissions from new oil and gas wells in California

 

Working with the environmental nonprofit Earthworks, FracTracker Alliance filmed emissions from oil and gas sites that have been issued permits in California under Governor Gavin Newsom since the beginning of 2019. Using state-of-the-art technology called optical gas imaging (OGI), we documented otherwise invisible toxic pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) being released from oil and gas wells and other infrastructure. This powerful technology provides further evidence of the negative consequences that come from each issued permit. Every single permit approval enabled by decisions made under Newsom can have substantial, visible impacts on local and regional air quality, contributes to climate change, and potentially exposes communities to health-harming pollution.

Despite a stated commitment to transition rapidly off fossil fuels, California has issued 7,625 permits to drill new oil and gas wells and rework existing wells since the beginning of 2019 — that is, on Governor Gavin Newsom’s watch. This expansion of the industry has clear implications for climate change and public health, as this article will demonstrate.

 

Intro

In collaboration with Consumer Watchdog, FracTracker Alliance has been periodically reporting on the number and locations of oil and gas wells permitted by Governor Newsom in California. In July of 2019, we showed how the rate of fracking under Governor Newsom had doubled, as compared to counts under former Governor Brown. Since then we have continued tracking the numbers and updating the California public via multiple news stories, blog reports, and with a map of new permits on NewsomWellWatch.com, where permitting data for the third quarter of 2020 has just been posted.

Now again, the rate of new oil and gas well permits issued by the California Geologic Energy Management division (CALGEM) continues to increase even faster in 2020, with permits issued to drill new oil and gas production wells nearly doubling since 2019. But what exactly does this mean for Frontline Communities and climate change? To answer this question, FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog teamed up with Earthworks’ Community Empowerment Project (CEP).

CEP’s California team worked with community members and grassroots groups to film emissions of methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from oil and gas extraction sites, including infrastructure servicing oil and gas production wells such as the well-heads, separators, compressors, crude oil and produced water tanks, and gathering lines. Emissions of GHGs, such as methane, are a violation of the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) California oil and gas rule (COGR), California Code of Regulations, Title 17, Division 3, Chapter 1, Subchapter 10 Climate Change, Article 4, § 95669, Leak Detection and Repair.

The emissions were filmed by a certified thermographer with a FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) GF320 camera that uses optical gas imaging (OGI) technology. The OGI technology allows the camera to film and record visualizations of VOC emissions based on the absorption of infrared light. It is the exact same technology required by the U.S. EPA under the rule for new source performance standards and the by California Air Resources Board for Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) to properly inspect oil and gas infrastructure. The video footage clearly shows the presence of a range of VOCs, methane, and other gases that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

The footage shown below is in greyscale and can appear grainy when the camera is being operated in high sensitivity modes, which is sometimes necessary to visualize certain pollution releases. The descriptions preceding each video explain what the trained camera operator saw and documented. A map of these sites is presented at NewsomWellWatch.com.

Newsom Well Watch interactive map

Navigate to the next slide using the arrows at the bottom of the map.

 

Find the story map, and more by clicking the image below.

 

Case Studies on Permitted Sites

Cat Canyon Tunnell Well Pad.

Earthworks’ California CEP thermographer visited this site in December of 2019, and just happened to arrive while the operator (oil and gas company) was conducting activities underground, including drilling new wells and reworking existing wells. In 2019 the operator, Vaquero Energy, was approved to drill 10 new cyclic steam wells and rework 23 existing oil and gas production wells at this site.

The footage shows significant emissions coming from an unknown source near the wellheads on the well pad; most likely these emissions were coming directly from the open boreholes of the wells. The emissions potentially include a cocktail of VOCs and GHGs such as methane, ethane, benzene, and toluene. This footage provides a candid view of what is released during these types of activities. The pollution shown appears to be the result of an uncontrolled source commonly resulting from drilling and reworking wells

Additionally, inspectors are rarely, if ever, present during these types of activities to ensure that they are conducted in accordance with regulations. The CEP camera operator reported the emissions and provided the OGI video to the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. By the time the inspector arrived, however, the drilling crew had ceased operations. The inspector did not detect any of these emissions, and as a result the operator was not held accountable for this large pollution release.

In the footage below, the emissions can be seen traveling over the fenceline of the well pad, swirling and mixing with the wind. This site is a clear example of what to look for in the following videos, since the emissions are so obvious. Fortunately, there are no homes or buildings in close proximity to this site, which potentially limited direct pollution exposure — although the pollution still degrades air quality and can pose an occupational health risk to oil field workers.

 

South Los Angeles Murphy Drill Site

The Murphy Drill Site in Los Angeles has been a long-standing nuisance and source of harmful pollution for neighbors in Jefferson Park. The site houses 31 individual operational wells, including 9 enhanced oil recovery injection wells and 22 oil and gas production wells, as shown below in the map in Figure 1. The wells are operated by Freeport-McMoran, while the site is owned by the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles. The site is within 200 feet of homes, playgrounds and a health clinic. There are over 16,000 residents within 2,500’ of the site, as well as a special needs high school, an elementary school, a hospice facility, and a senior housing complex.

Map of the California Murphy drill site

Figure 1. Map of the Murphy drill site

The neighborhoods near the Murphy Site are plagued with strong chemical odors, including those linked to oil and gas operations (such as the “rotten egg” smell of health-harming hydrogen sulfide), most likely from the toxic waste incinerators on site. Community members have suffered from respiratory problems, chronic nosebleeds, skin and eye irritation, and headaches. The operators have received multiple violations, including for releasing emissions at concentrations 400% over the allowable limit of methane and VOCs. Some of these violations were the direct result of complaints from the community and the Earthworks CEP team, which filmed pollution from the site on multiple occasions. Yet despite receiving “Notices of Violations” and fines, Freeport-McMoran has been allowed to continue operations. In OGI footage, emissions are visible continuously escaping from a vent on the equipment. While this leak has been addressed by regulators, each new visit to this site tends to result in finding new uncontrolled emissions sources.

 

South Los Angeles Jefferson Drill Site

The Jefferson drill site is very similar situation to the Murphy Site. The sites have the same operator, Freeport-McMoran, and surrounding neighborhoods in both locations have suffered from exposure to toxic pollution as well as odors, truck traffic, and noise. The Jefferson site has 49 operational wells, including 15 enhanced oil recovery wells, as shown below in Figure 2. In 2013 the operator reported using over 130,000 pounds of corrosive acids and other toxic chemicals for enhanced oil recovery operations. Regardless, an environmental impact report has never been completed for this site.

Map of the Jefferson drill site in South Los Angeles

Figure 2. Map of the Jefferson drill site in South Los Angeles.

 

The site is located 3 feet from the nearest home, and the surrounding residential buildings are considered “buffers” for the rest of the neighborhood, which also includes an elementary school about 700 feet away. The site was nearly shut down by the City of Los Angeles in 2019, but is currently still operational. In 2019 the site was even issued a permit to rework an existing well in order to increase production from the site. The footage below shows a large, consistent release of pollution from equipment on the well pad. The plume appears above the site and is visible against the background of the sky. The Earthworks CEP team reported the pollution to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), which conducted an inspection, stopped the leak, and issued a notice of violation and a fine. It is not clear exactly how long this pollution problem had gone unnoticed or unaddressed, and it is not unlikely that another leak will occur without being quickly identified.

 

Wilmington E&B Resources WNF-I Site on Main St

The WNF-I drilling site is located in Carson in the City of Los Angeles. Operated by E&B Natural resources in the Wilmington oil and gas field, the site houses 35 operational oil and gas wells, including 12 enhanced oil recovery wells and a wastewater disposal well. There is also extensive above-ground infrastructure on the well site, including a large, high-volume tank battery used to store oil and wastewater produced from numerous oil and gas wells in the area.

Using OGI, Earthworks identified a large pollution release from the top of the largest tank. In the video footage, the plume or cloud of gases (likely methane and VOCs) can be seen hovering over the site and slowly dispersing over the fence-line into the communities of West Carson and Avalon Village. Despite clear operational problems, CalGEM approved this site for two rework permits in 2019 and then three re-drills (known as sidetracks) of existing wells in 2020 in order to increase production. The SCAQMD reports that they have inspected this facility, but it is not clear whether this major uncontrolled source has been stopped.

 

Long Beach Signal Hill Drill Site

At an urban drilling site in the neighborhood of Signal Hill in Los Angeles County, Earthworks filmed and documented pollution releases from numerous pieces of equipment. The site includes 15 operational oil and gas wells operated by Signal Hill Petroleum and The Termo Company. Emissions of gases (likely methane and VOCs) were documented on infrastructure from both operators. At this site, Signal Hill Petroleum received a permit in April 2019 to rework an operational well to increase production. That well is located less than 70’ from a home.

While this site is located within Los Angeles County, it is outside the jurisdiction of the city itself. Any local protections for drilling sites within the Los Angeles city limits are not afforded to communities such as Signal Hill. This area that includes the Signal Hill oil field and the Signal Hill portion of the Long Beach oil field, where many well sites are unmaintained and oversight is limited — conditions that in turn can result in corrosion and pollution leaks. The SCAQMD inspected this site and reported that these uncontrolled sources of emissions have been addressed by the operator, but it is not clear if the emission have stopped.

Midway-Sunset Crail Tank Farm

This tank farm, located in Kern County, services a number of wells operated by Holmes Western Oil Corporation on the outskirts of the Mid-Way Sunset Field. Of the wells serviced by this site, permits were issued to four active oil and gas production wells in 2019. The permits authorized the operator to rework the wellbores in order to increase production. The site contains nine operational oil and gas wells, including eight production wells pumping oil to the surface and one wastewater disposal well. There are multiple homes near this site, within 400’ to the west and within 300’ to the northeast.

For each gallon of oil produced, another ten gallons of contaminated wastewater are brought to the surface. Using diesel or gas generators this wastewater is pumped back into the ground. California regulators have a bad track record of managing underground injection of wastewater, which is now under the U.S. EPA’s oversight. The groundwater in this area of Kern County is largely contaminated and considered a sacrifice zone.

The emissions from this site are from the pressure release valves on the tops of multiple tanks. The tanks store both crude oil and wastewater. The infrared spectrum allows the camera to film the tank levels, which are nearly full. As the tanks fill with more crude oil and hydrocarbon contaminated wastewater the head space of the tank pressurizes with more VOC’s. This footage was also filmed at night when emissions are typically much lower. During the day heat from the sun (radiative energy) heats the tanks and increases the head space pressure resulting in greater emissions. While the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) was notified of these uncontrolled sources of emissions, their own inspections of the site did not identify an actionable offense on the part of the operator and these uncontrolled emissions continue to be released.

 

Tank Emissions

Crude oil and wastewater storage tanks are a common source of fugitive emissions and represent the majority of emissions presented in this report. Some tanks and well-sites use best practices that include closed vapor recovery systems to prevent venting tanks from leaking, but the vast majority do not and vent directly to the atmosphere. In all cases, tanks and pipeline infrastructure use pressure release valves to vent emissions when pressure builds too high. This venting is permitted as strictly an emergency activity to prevent hazardous build-up of pressure. Vents are even designed to open and reset themselves automatically. Consequently, tank venting is a common practice and operators seem to often leave these valves open.

While the recently enacted California Oil and Gas Rule (COGR) places limits on GHG emissions from all oil and gas facilities, internal policy of the San Joaquin Air Valley Air Pollution Control District has previously exempted tanks at low-producing well sites from having to be kept in a leak-free condition, creating a regulatory conflict that air districts and CARB need to resolve. This type of emissions source is also difficult for regulators to identify during inspections, for a number of reasons. These valves are typically located on the tops of large tanks where they are difficult to access and view, and inspections and sampling can only occur by chance (i.e., when the valve in open). Further, these valves can be immediately closed by operators during or upon notification of an upcoming inspection.

New Permits: Moving in the Wrong Direction

When Earthworks CEP uses OGI cameras to inspect an oil and gas site in California, finding and documenting pollution releases is so common that it is the default expectation. Because of access and proximity limitations, it is possible that more pollution is being released from sites than CEP can identify. All of these examples of pollution, including releases of methane and VOCs, add up to potentially degrade air quality and expose Frontline Communities to health risks — as well as many others just like them. This summary represents a small collection of leaking well sites visited by Earthworks CEP, which have coincidentally received new permits to operate and rework existing wells since January 1, 2019. CEP has also documented many other hazardous cases, such as the Jewett 1-23 site in Arvin (shown in the footage below), that is persistently exposing elementary school students to VOCs. These sites surely make up only a small proportion of the polluting oil and gas sites in California that harm climate and health.

From the initial drilling of an oil and gas well, during production, and into subsequent reworks, all phases of a well’s lifetime result in unpermitted and undocumented fugitive emissions. Regulating emissions from oil and gas extraction operations has not been effective in California. Regardless of notices of violations and fines, polluting facilities and well sites continue to operate and even receive new permits. Even the COGR rule, lauded as the most stringent GHG emissions regulation in the nation is technically unable to eliminate or even identify these uncontrolled sources. It is clear that the only ways to reduce exposures to these emissions for Frontline Communities is to institute protective setbacks and stop permitting the drilling of new wells and the reworking of aging wells.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

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Oil & Gas waste tank operated by SWEPI and Enervest at the Hayes pad, Otsego County, Michigan May 21st, 2016

The North Dakota Shale Viewer Reimagined: Mapping the Water and Waste Impact

We updated the FracTracker North Dakota Shale Viewer with current data and additional details on the astronomical levels of water used and waste produced throughout the process of fracking for oil and gas in North Dakota.

As folks who visit the FracTracker website may know, the fracking industry is predicated on cheap sources of water and waste disposal. The water they use to bust open shale seams becomes part of the waste stream that they refer to by the benign term “brine,” equating it to nothing more than the salt water we swim in when we hit the beaches.

Some oil and gas operators like SWEPI and Enervest in Michigan, however, have taken to calling their waste “SLOP” (Figure 1), which from my standpoint is actually refreshingly honest.

Fracking Energy Return on Investment 2012 – 2020

Since we created our North Dakota Shale Viewer on October 5th, 2012, much has changed across the fracking landscape, while other songs have remained the same. Both of these truths exist with respect to fracking’s impact on water and the industry’s inability to get its collective head around the billions of barrels of oftentimes radioactive waste it produces by its very nature. From the outset, fracking was on dubious footing when it came to the water and waste associated with its operations, and we have seen a nearly universal and exponential increase in water demand and waste production on a per well basis since fracking became the highly divisive topic it remains to this day.

Oil & Gas waste tank operated by SWEPI and Enervest at the Hayes pad, Otsego County, Michigan May 21st, 2016 (44.892933, -84.786530).

Figure 1. Oil & Gas waste tank operated by SWEPI and Enervest at the Hayes pad, Otsego County, Michigan May 21st, 2016 (44.892933, -84.786530). Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

Environmental economists like to look at energy sources from a more holistic standpoint vis a vis engineers, traditional economists, and the divide-and-conquer rhetoric from Bismarck to the White House. They do this by placing all manner of energy sources along a spectrum of Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI).

Since the dawn of the fracking revolution, shale gas from horizontal wells has been near the bottom of the league tables with respect to EROEI which means it “…has decreased from more than 1000:1 in 1919 to 5:1 in the 2010s, and for production from about 25:1 in the 1970s to approximately 10:1 in 2007” for US oil and gas according to Hall et al. (2014). This is what John Erik Meyer has come the “EROI Mountain” whereby we’ve already “burned through the richest resources.”

It stands to reason that if natural gas from fracking were a real “bridge fuel” in the transition away from coal, it would at least approach or exceed the EROEI of the latter, but at 46:1 coal is still four times more efficient than natural gas. However, it must be said that coal’s days are numbered as well. Witness the recent bankruptcy of coal giant Murray Energy, and the only reason its EROEI has increased or remained steady is because the mining industry has transitioned to almost exclusively mountaintop removal and/or strip mining and the associated efficiencies resulting from mechanization/automation.

The North Dakota Shale Viewer

We enhanced our North Dakota Shale Viewer nearly eight years since it debuted. This exercise included the addition of several data layers that speak to the above issues and how they have changed since we first launched the North Dakota Shale Viewer.

View map fullscreen 

It is worth noting that oil production in total across North Dakota has not even doubled since 2012, and gas production has only managed to increase 3.5-fold. However, the numbers look even worse when you look at these totals on a per well basis, which as I have mentioned seems to me to be the only way reasonable people should be looking at production. Using this lens, we see that production of oil in North Dakota on a per well basis oil is 1% less than it was in 2012 and gas production has not even doubled per well. This is a stunning contrast to the upticks in water and waste we have documented and are now including in our North Dakota Shale Viewer.

Water Demand Rises for Fracking

We’ve incorporated individual horizontal well freshwater demand for nearly 12,000 wells up to and including Q1-2020. The numbers are jaw dropping when you consider that at the time we debuted this map North Dakota, unconventional wells were using roughly 2.1 million gallons per well compared to an average of 8.3 million gallons per well so far this year. This per well increase is something we have been documenting for years now in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

This is concerning for multiple reasons, the first being that if fracking ever were to rebound to its halcyon days of the early teens, it would mean some of our country’s most prized and fragile watersheds would be pushed to an irreversible hydrological tipping point. Hoekstra et al. (2012) have come to call this the “blue water” precautionary principle whereby “depletion beyond 20% of a river’s natural flow increases risks to ecological health and ecosystem services.”

Another concern is that while permitting in North Dakota has slowed like it has nationwide, the aforementioned quarterly water usage totals per well are now 5.25 times what they were in October 2012 and the total water used by the industry in North Dakota now amounts to 60.43 billion gallons– that we know of —  which is nearly 50 times what the industry had used when we created our North Dakota Shale Viewer (Figure 2).[1]

With respect to the points made earlier about the value of EROEI, this increase in water demand has not been reflected in the productivity of North Dakota’s oil and gas wells, which means the EROEI continues to fall at rate that should make the industry blush.  Furthermore, this trend should prompt regulators and elected officials in Bismarck and elsewhere to begin to ask if the long-term and permanent environmental and/or hydrological risk is worth the short-term rewards vis à vis the “blue water” precautionary principle, in this case of the Missouri River, outlined by Hoekstra et al. (2012). It is my opinion that it most assuredly is not and never was worth the risk!

The most stunning aspect of the above divergence in production and water demand is that on a per well basis, water only costs the industry roughly 0.46-0.76% of total well pad costs. This narrow range is a function of the water pricing schemes shared with me by the North Dakota Western Area Water Supply Authority (WAWSA). This speaks to an average price of water between $3.68 and $4.07 per 1,000 gallons for “industrial” use (aka, fracking industry) by way of eight depots and “several hundred miles of transmission and distribution lines” spread across the state’s four northwest counties of Mountrail, Divide, Williams, and McKenzie.

 

Figure 2. Average Freshwater Demand Per Well and Cumulative Freshwater Demand by North Dakota fracking industry from 2011 to Q1-2020.

Average Freshwater Demand Per Well and Cumulative Freshwater Demand by North Dakota fracking industry from 2011 to Q1-2020

Increasing Fracking Waste Production

On the fracking waste front, the monthly trend is quite volatile relative to what we’ve documented in states like Oklahoma, Kansas, and Ohio. Nonetheless, the amount of waste produced is increasing per well and in total. How you quantify this increase is quite sensitive to the models you fit to the data. The exponential and polynomial (Plotted in Figure 3) fits yield 4.76 to 9.81 million barrel per month increases, while linear and power functions yield the opposite resulting in 1.82 to 10.91 million-barrel declines per month. If we assume the real answer is somewhere in between we see that fracking waste is increasingly slightly at a rate of 1.51% per year or 460,194 barrels per month.

 

Figure 3. Average Per Well and Monthly Total Fracking Waste Disposal across 675 North Dakota Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) wells from 2010 to Q1-2020.

Average Per Well and Monthly Total Fracking Waste Disposal across 675 North Dakota Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) wells from 2010 to Q1-2020.

 

North Dakota has concerning legislation related to oil and gas waste disposal. Senate Bill 2344 claims that landowners do not actually own the “subsurface pore space” beneath their property. The bill was passed into law by Legislature last Spring but there are numerous lawsuits working against it. We will have further analysis of this bill published on FracTracker.org soon.

 

Earthworks ND Frack Waste Report

FracTracker collaborated with Earthworks to create an interactive map that allows North Dakota residents to determine if oil and gas waste is disposed of or has spilled near them in addition to a list of recommendations for state and local policymakers, including the closing of the state’s harmful oil and gas hazardous waste loophole. Read the report for detailed information about oil and gas waste in North Dakota.

 

The Value of Our Water

This data is critical to understanding the environmental and/or hydrological impact(s) of fracking, whether it is Central Appalachia’s Ohio River Valley, or in this case North Dakota’s Missouri River Basin. We will continue to periodically update this data.

Without supply-side price signaling or adequate regulation, it appears that the industry is uninterested and insufficiently incentivized to develop efficiencies in water use. It is my opinion that the only way the industry will be incentivized to do so is if states put a more prohibitive and environmentally responsible price on water and waste. In the absence of outright bans on fracking, we must demand the industry is held accountable for pushing watersheds to the brink of their capacity, and in the process, compromising the water needs of so many communities, flora, and fauna.

Data Links

  1. Water Usage for nearly 12,000 fracked laterals in North Dakota up to and including April, 2020. We also include API number and operator in GIS, KML, and Spreadsheet formats. (https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/ND_FracFocus_April_2020_With_KML_Excel.zip)
  2. Monthly volumes (2010 to 2020) and demographics for surrounding area for the 675 Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) Fracking Waste Injection Wells in North Dakota. We also include API number and operator in GIS, KML, and Spreadsheet formats. (https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/ND_ClassII_Well_MonthlyWaste_2010_Q2_2020_Demographics_WithKML_Excel.zip)
  3. North Dakota Gas Plants (https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/GasPlants_WithExcel_KML.zip)

[1] Here in Ohio where I have been looking most closely at water supply and demand across the fracking landscape it is clear that we aren’t accounting for some 10-12% of water demand when we compare documented water withdrawals in the numerator with water usage in the denominator.

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

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Systematic Racism in Kern County Oil and Gas Permitting Ordinance

Kern County, California has approved at least 18,356 illegal permits to drill new and rework existing oil and gas wells since 2015 (data updated May 18, 2020). In a monumental decision in February of 2020, a California court ruled that a Kern County oil and gas ordinance paid for and drafted by the oil industry violated the state’s foundational environmental law. Kern County has failed to consider the environmental harms resulting from oil and gas drilling, such as water supply and air quality problems, farmland degradation, and increased noise, and communities have had enough.

Starting in 2015, Kern County used a local ordinance to fast-track the drilling of up to 72,000 new oil and gas wells over the next 25 years. The court’s recent decision allows the existing 18,356 permits to remain valid, but blocked the county from issuing any more permits after the end of April, 2020. This is an important victory for Kern County communities, but the existing permits present a public health threat that regulators have never adequately addressed.

To better understand the impacts of these illegal permits, and identify the communities most impacted, FracTracker Alliance has conducted an environmental justice spatial analysis based on the location of the permits. A map of the permits is found below in Figure 1. shows that there are 18,356 “Drilling” and “Rework” permits issued in Kern County since 2015, as well as the 1,304 permits located within 2,500’ of a sensitive receptor, including hospitals, schools, daycares, and homes.

 

Figure 1. Map of California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), approved drilling and rework permits, 2015-2019.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Ordinance

The ordinance, written by oil industry consultants, sidestepped state requirements for environmental reviews or public notices, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). It was used as a blanket environmental impact report (EIR), so that the threats of specific projects need not be considered.

To pass the ordinance, the county used a flawed study to hide the immense harm caused by oil and gas drilling and extraction. The appellate court that ruled against the ordinance stated it was passed “despite its significant, adverse environmental impacts.” As a result, the county allowed wells to be constructed next to people’s homes, schools, daycares, and healthcare facilities.

Permitting Summary

FracTracker aggregated, cleaned, and compiled California Geologic Energy Management Division’s (CalGEM) datasets of well permits. A breakdown of the statewide counts of permit types is shown below in Table 1. The table shows that in 2019, permits to drill new oil and gas wells made up about 34% of total permits. Over the course of the last five years, statewide permits have been distributed pretty equally between drilling wells, reworking wells to increase production (including re-drilling activities like deepening and sidetracking wells), and plugging and abandoning wells.

 

Breakdown of permit types issued by California Geologic Energy Management Division

Table 1. Breakdown of permit types issued by California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), 2015-2019.

 

The illegal Kern County ordinance took effect in 2015. Note the permit count increase from 2014 to 2015 in the graph in Figure 2 below. The data shows that Kern County permitting counts increased in 2015 with the passage of the illegal ordinance. In 2016, a new statewide rule (State Bill 4) took effect regulating hydraulic fracturing. Since most oil and gas drilling in California was using hydraulic fracturing, permit numbers statewide, including in Kern, fell drastically. Since 2016, permitting rates have been climbing back up to pre-2016 levels. As of May 18, 2020, Kern County has already approved 1,310 new drilling permits, putting Kern County on track to meet or exceed 2015 permit numbers.

 

Time Series of drilling permits issued by Kern County, California, 2014 to present

Figure 2. Time Series of drilling permits issued by Kern County, California, 2014 to present.

 

 

  • 2015

    New Kern ordinance to fast-track permits. Kern permits increase disproportionately.

  • 2016

    New SB4 statewide fracking permit requirements. Kern permits decrease as a result.

    2016

  • 2017 - 2020

    Proportion of Kern permits begin to increase once again

  • 2020

    California court ruled that a Kern County oil and gas ordinance paid for and drafted by the oil industry violated the state’s foundational environmental law. State permitting continues under CalGEM.

    2020

 

Kern County is the most heavily drilled county in the United States, and from 2015 to 2019 well permits were issued in Kern at elevated numbers as compared to the rest of the state. From the implementation of the ordinance (2014 to 2015), the proportion of drilling permits issued by Kern County increased from 82% to 94% of the state total. In Figure 3 below, the time series shows that Kern County makes up the majority of permits issued to drill new wells in California, and the proportion of wells drilled in Kern County has been higher from 2015 to 2019 than it had been prior. Not only did the ordinance allow permits to be drilled without any consideration for the community and public health impacts of Frontline Communities, but the actual numbers and proportions of wells drilled in Kern County increased as well. We have mapped these permits in Figure 3 below to show exactly where they are located.

 

Time series of permits issued to drill new wells in California from 1998 to 2019

Figure 3. Time series of permits issued to drill new wells in California from 1998 to 2019. The contribution of individual counties is shown with different colors, the area under the trend line representing the cumulative total.

 

Environmental Justice Mapping

The locations of well permits were mapped using GIS software and overlaid with indicators of social and environmental justice. The layers of Environmental Justice (EJ) mapping data were derived from CalEnviroScreen 3.0 census tract data, assigned to the block level, and 2015 American Community Survey demographical data, also summarized at the census block data.

Demographics

One of the major failings of the Kern County ordinance was the lack of risk communication with Frontline Communities. Not only were communities not informed of proposed drilling projects, all communications from Kern County and CalGem have been posted solely in English. Any attempts at communication of impacts and notices have excluded non-English speakers. Providing notices and information in non-English languages, at the very least in Spanish, needs to be a top priority for any regulatory body in California. The current permitting policy leverages systematic racism to preclude communities from participating in the decision-making processes that directly affect their families’ health.

As shown below in map in Figure 4, the majority of Kern County ranks high in “linguistic isolation” according to CalEnviroScreen 3.0. Our analysis shows that 11,244 permits were issued in block groups that CalEnviroscreen 3.0 has ranked in the top 60th percentile for linguistic isolation. A total 16,143 permits were issued in block groups that are 40% or more Hispanic, and that number increases to 18,000 (98.1%) permits if you include the permits issued in the Midway-Sunset Field, located on the border of one of Kern’s largest, and predominantly “Hispanic,” census block groups.

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 4. Map of Oil and Gas Permits with Kern County “Hispanic” Demographics and Language Disparities. The shades of yellow to red census blocks represent the 60th percentile and above linguistic isolation. Hatched census tracts are census blocks with demographical profiles over 40% Hispanic.

 

Within Kern County, these permits were approved mostly in low income areas, and areas with pre-existing environmental degradation. In the map in Figure 5, below, permit locations were overlaid with CalEnviroScreen 3.0 rankings for existing environmental degradation and median income data from the American Community Survey (2015) to visually show the disparity.

Our analysis shows that 17,978 0f the 18,356 total drilling and reworking permits were issued in census block groups where the median income was at least 20% lower than that of Kern County (Kern median income = $51,579). Additionally, these areas are more impacted by existing sources of pollution. In fact, 18,298 (99.7%) permits were issued in census blocks designated as the above the 60th percentile of those suffering from existing pollution burden by CalEnviroScreen 3.0.

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 5. Map of oil and gas permits with Kern County environmental justice areas. Shown in shades of blue are the block groups with median incomes less than 80% of that of the Kern County ($51,579). The hatched areas are above the 60th percentile for CalEnviroScreen pollution burden.

 

Conclusion

Our results find that from 2015-2019, very few well permits were issued in census blocks that are predominantly white, with median incomes above the median, and low rankings of linguistic isolation. The policies enacted by Kern County to fast track permits were instituted in predominantly poor, linguistically isolated, Hispanic communities already suffering from existing environmental degradation. Through systematic racism, these areas have become Kern County’s “sacrifice zones.” Moving forward, we are pressuring Kern County to adopt a permitting approach that considers the health of Frontline Communities.

Unfortunately, since the court’s decision, well permitting in Kern County has not only continued, but actually accelerated. While the appellate court ordered permitting to stop for one month, the gap was quickly filled. Between March 28 and May 18, 2020; CalGEM approved 733 permits to drill new wells and rework existing wells in Kern County. In addition, CalGEM approved 38 new fracking permits in 2020 since March 28th, all in Kern County (regulated separately under State Bill 4), increasing the environmental burden on Kern communities further. Like Kern County, CalGEM’s permitting process also deserves scrutiny, as state permitting requirements are lax.

These irresponsible policies have had a direct impact on the health of Central Valley communities. Environmental monitoring has shown time and again that emissions from oil and gas wells include a cocktail of air toxics and carcinogens, and that living near oil and gas activity has been shown to be associated with numerous health impacts such as low birth weight, cancer, skin problems, asthma, and depression, The exclusion of Spanish-speaking residents from notifications and information on decisions that affect their health is an even further condemnation of the systematic and outright racism of Kern County’s permitting approach.

There is more work to be done, but the elimination of Kern County’s fast-tracking ordinance is a major win for public health and democracy.

FracTracker Alliance would like to congratulate the organizations responsible for this legislative victory and thank them for all their hard work. They include Committee for a Better Arvin, Committee for a Better Shafter, and Greenfield Walking Group, represented by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, together with the Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club, who was represented by Earthjustice.

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

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Bushkill Falls PA

Fracking Water Use in Pennsylvania Increases Dramatically

Unconventional wells in Pennsylvania were always resource-intensive, but the maps below show how the amount of water used per well has grown significantly in recent years. In 2013, these wells used an average of 5.8 million gallons per well. By 2019, that figure had increased 145%, consuming more than 14.3 million gallons per well. This is a glimpse into the unsustainable resource demands of this industry and the decreasing energy returned on investment.

 

As fracking proponents will eagerly remind you, hydraulic fracturing was invented decades ago – back in 1947 – so the practice has been in use for quite a while. What really separates modern unconventional shale gas wells from the supposedly traditional, conventional wells is more a matter of scale than anything else. While conventional wells are typically fracked with tens of thousands of gallons of fluid, their unconventional counterparts are far thirstier, consuming millions of gallons per well.

And of course, more inputs translate into more outputs — not necessarily in the form of gas, but in the form of toxic, radioactive waste. This creates a slew of problems ranging from health impacts, to increased transportation, to disposal.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

However, this increase in consumption has continued to grow on a per-well basis, so that wells drilled in recent years aren’t really in the same category as wells drilled a decade ago at the beginning of Pennsylvania’s unconventional boom.

In Pennsylvania, unconventional wells are primarily drilled into two deep shale layers, the Devonian-aged Marcellus Shale, which is about 390 million years old, and the Utica Shale from the Late Ordovician period, which was deposited about 60 million years before the Marcellus. These formations have been known about for decades, but did not yield enough gas justify the expense of drilling until the 21st century, when horizontal drilling allowed for a much greater surface area of exposure to the shale formations. However, stimulating this increased distance also requires significantly more fracking fluid – a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals – which increased the consumptive use of water by several orders of magnitude.  And in the end, all of this extra work that is required to extract the gas from the ground has made the industry unprofitable, as high production numbers have outpaced demand.

FracFocus Data

As residents in shale fields around the country started to see impacts to their drinking water, they began to demand to know more about what was injected into the ground around them. The industry’s response was FracFocus, a national registry to address the water component of this question, if not the issue of fracking chemicals. In the early days, visitors to the site could only access data one well at a time, so systematic analyses by third parties were precluded. Additionally, record keeping was sloppy, with widespread data entry issues, incorrect locations, duplicate entries, and so forth.

Many of these issues were addressed with the rollout of FracFocus 2.0 in May of 2013. This fixed many of the data entry issues, such as the six different spellings of “Susquehanna” that were used, and enabled downloads of the entire data set. For that reason, when we wanted to look at changes over time, our analysis started in 2013, where only minimal obvious corrections were required at the county level.

Average Water used per Well in PA

Unconventional wells in Pennsylvania were always resource-intensive, but this GIF shows that the amount of water used per well has grown significantly in recent years. In 2013, these wells used an average of 5.8 million gallons per well. By 2019, that figure had increased 145%, consuming more than 14.3 million gallons per well. This is a glimpse into the unsustainable resource demands of this industry and the decreasing energy returned on investment.

 

However, statewide data is available since 2008, and as long as we keep in mind the data quality issues from the earlier years, the results are even more stark.

Year FracFocus Reports Total Water (gal) Average Water per Well (gal) Maximum Water (gal)
2008 2 4,117,827 4,117,827 4,117,827
2009 19 37,415,216 4,157,246 6,176,104
2010 57 123,747,550 4,267,157 7,595,793
2011 1,174 786,513,944 4,345,381 12,146,478
2012 1,375 2,721,696,367 4,676,454 14,247,085
2013 1,272 7,431,752,338 5,842,573 19,422,270
2014 1,277 10,359,150,398 8,112,099 26,927,838
2015 904 8,216,787,382 9,089,367 32,049,750
2016 589 5,933,622,817 10,074,063 32,701,940
2017 710 8,547,034,675 12,038,077 38,681,496
2018 805 10,901,333,749 13,542,030 36,812,580
2019 686 9,811,475,207 14,302,442 39,329,556
2020 76 986,425,600 12,979,284 29,177,980
Grand Total 8,946 65,861,073,069 9,248,852 39,329,556

Figure 1: While the total number of frack jobs reported to FracFocus has declined over the years, the amount of water per well has increased substantially.

 

In terms of the total number of unconventional wells drilled, the boom years in Pennsylvania were around 2010 to 2014, with more than 1,000 wells drilled each of those years, a total that has not been achieved again since. It is important to note that in this FracFocus data, we are not counting the wells, per se, but the reported instances of well stimulation through hydraulic fracturing, commonly called frack jobs. In the earliest portion of the date range, submitting data to FracFocus was voluntary, and therefore the total activity from 2008 through 2010 is vastly undercounted, but we have included what data was available.

It should be noted that the average consumption for frack jobs started in 2020 are down from the 2019 totals, however, the sample size is considerably smaller. This smaller sample due, in part, to reduced drilling activity due to oversupply of gas in the Northeast, but also due to the fact that the year is still in progress. This analysis is based on data downloaded from FracFocus in April 2020.

Changes Over Time

As we examine changes in the average water consumption over time from Figure 1, we can see that operators in Pennsylvania averaged between 4-5 million gallons of water per well from 2008 to 2012. The numbers take off from there, tripling to more than 14 million gallons for 2019, the last full year available. At the same time, drilling operators began experimenting with truly monstrous quantities of water. In 2008, the only well with water data available used just over 4.1 million gallons. By 2019, there was a well that used 39.3 million gallons of water, almost a tenfold increase.

From late 2008 through early 2020, the industry recorded the use of 65.8 billion gallons of water in unconventional wells. Since we know that many wells during the early boom years did not report to FracFocus, the actual usage must be substantially higher. For the years with the most reliable and complete data – 2013 to 2019 – total water consumption ranged from 5.9 to 10.9 billion gallons per year. For context, the average Pennsylvanian uses about 100 gallons per day, or 36,500 gallons per year.

That means that the 10.9 billion gallons that were pumped into fracked wells in 2018 equals the total usage of 298,667 residents for an entire year. Alternatively, that water could have filled 16,517 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It is equivalent to 33,455 acre-feet, meaning it could fill an acre-sized column of water that stretches more than six miles high.

Surely, there must be a better way to make use of our precious resources than to turn millions upon millions of gallons of water into toxic waste.

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

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Map of New 2020 Fracking Permits in California

California, Back in Frack

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

Figure 1. Map of New Fracking Permits in California

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

Health Risks

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

Geology and Spills

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

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

Regulation

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

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

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

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

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

Fracking in the Age of Pandemics

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

Conclusion

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

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

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California well pad

California Setback Analyses Summary

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

California Population Counts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

California oil and gas well setback analysis

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

 

 

Los Angeles 2500ft Setback Analysis

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

 

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

 

Well Counts – Updated Data

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

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

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

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

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

Production

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

Low Income Communities

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

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

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

Kern County AB345 Wells and Medium Income

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

 

Bakersfield Kern County California AB345 Wells and Median Income

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

Schools and Environmental Justice

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

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

Permits

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

Conclusion

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

References

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

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

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New York State Oil & Gas Wells – 2020 Update

We’ve recently updated the New York State Oil and Gas Well Viewer with data up to 2020. The map and data below show that conventional gas drilling in New York State has decreased significantly since the first decade of 2000, but drilling for oil in western New York has increased in the past few years. In part thanks to the fracking ban in New York State, less than 1% of the wells in New York State have been drilled unconventionally.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

Summary

Currently, there are more active gas wells in New York State than all other types combined. Fewer than 1% of the wells in the New York State database have been drilled directionally or horizontally. And only a fraction of those were gas wells. Since 2014, high-volume hydraulic fracturing has been banned, due to health and environmental concerns.

Western New York State was once a very active region for oil drilling, but today, only 21% of all oil wells are still active. Additional well types include brine solution mines. Many of these mines, once a large enough cavern has been dissolved, are later converted into storage mines for gas.

 

Well type, as of 24 January 2020 Status = Active Status = Other (includes plugged and abandoned, unlisted/unknown, converted, voided/expired permit, etc.) 
Gas well 6,721 (58% of all active wells) 4,214 (13% of “other” categories)
Oil well 3,581 (31% of all active wells) 13,217 (40% of “other” categories)
Storage well 840 (7% of all active wells) 146 (<1% of “other” categories)
Monitoring well 165 (1% of all active wells) 311 (1% of “other” categories)
Brine well 138 (1% of all active wells) 593 (2% of “other” categories)
Other (145 geothermal, 7724 category not listed) 85 (1% of all active wells) 7,784 (23% of “other” categories)
Disposal well 36 (<1% of all active wells) 4,186 (13% of “other” categories)
Dry hole 4 (<1% of all active wells) 2,786 (8% of “other” categories)
Total 11,570 33,237 

Patterns in Well Drilling

Well drilling in New York State was at a high point between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s. After another peak in activity in the first decade of the 21st century with conventional gas drilling, activity has dropped off sharply.

New York State oil and gas wells per year 1990-2020

Figure 1. Oil and gas wells in New York State per year, 1990-2020. Data from NYS DEC.

A Potential Uptick in the Past Few Years

While gas drilling in New York State has tapered off dramatically, drilling for oil in Cattaraugus County in western New York has increased significantly since 2017.

New York State new oil wells 2017-2020

Figure 2. Oil wells drilled in Cattaraugus County, New York, 2018-19. Data from NYS DEC.

Nearly every one of the 169 new wells drilled in New York State during 2019 was an oil well within 5 miles of St. Bonaventure in Cattaraugus County. We’ll be following up shortly with a more in-depth analysis of the issues and risks associated with this oil “boom” in the upper reaches of the Allegheny River of New York State.

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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California Governor Gavin Newsom looks at surface expression oil spills

Governor Newsom Must Do More to Address the Cause of Oil Spill Surface Expressions

Chevron and other oil and gas companies in western Kern County have drilled so many oil and gas wells that they have essentially turned this area of California into a block of Swiss cheese. As a result, several of the most over-developed oil fields (in the world!) are suffering from gushing oil seeps known as surface expressions. Since May of 2019, one surface expression alone has spilled over 1.3 million gallons of oil and wastewater in the Cymric Field in southwestern California. Thirteen known surface expressions have been reported actively flowing in the Cymric field in 2019, one for over 15 years (GS5).

Regulators and Governor Newsom’s administration have attempted to address the issue but their response is not enough. Chevron was fined $2.7 million and Governor Newsom personally told Chevron to stop this spill, the location of which is shown below on the map in Figure 1. Oil and gas companies have also been ordered to lower their maximum injection pressures on new wells, limiting a technique called high pressure steam injection. Yet the state has continued to permit new cyclic steam and steam injection wells, the main cause of the surface expressions, including many in the same fields as the active surface expressions. Furthermore, data on new permit applications shows that Chevron and other operators intend to continue expanding their already bloated well counts. These new wells will increase the flow of oil to the surface via the over-abundance of existing older wells that serve as man-made pathways for toxic fluids.

Although Governor Newsom has made positive steps by halting new permits for higher pressure injections, the moratorium’s focus on injection pressure does not address all of the root causes of this epidemic of surface expressions, including over-development of these oil fields. Reducing the maximum injection pressures without also addressing the growing number of injection wells does nothing to reduce the pathways oil uses to travel to the surface. The Governor can reduce the active expressions and limit the risk for future expressions by halting permits for all new oil and gas wells, banning the existing use of steam injection, and forcing oil companies to plug and properly abandon older wells before they fail.

(To see Governor Newsom’s track record on permitting new oil and gas wells, see FracTracker Alliance’s collaboration with Consumer Watchdog at NewsomWellWatch.com)

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Figure 1. Map of 2018-2019 Cymric Oil Field Surface Expressions. The map includes the locations of surface expressions as well as the locations of new injections wells permitted in 2019 and current applications submitted since November 19, 2019.

Background

Steam injection is used more commonly in California than hydraulic fracturing, due to the nature of California’s abundant geological activity. Steam injection wells include wells devoted solely to injection and others, called cyclic steam wells, that alternate between injection of steam and production of oil and gas. It requires an extreme amount of energy to accomplish this, so they are considered energy intensive. These operations are known collectively as enhanced oil recovery (EOR) wells.

Steam injection wells increase the volume of oil produced when compared to conventional methods. They do this by injecting steam and water into the low-quality heavy crude produced in California in order to decrease the viscosity and push it towards the bottom holes of the production wells. The steam also pushes oil in other directions unintentionally, such as to the surface where it can spill out becoming a surface expression.

Some of the most notable negative impacts caused by EOR wells in California include greenhouse gas contributions, air and water contamination, and risks to workers.

Environmental Impacts

In addition to the creation of greenhouse gases from burning the fossil fuels extracted from California oil fields, oil and gas operators cause surface expressions and emit methane and other greenhouse gases as they leak out of the ground. The leaking natural gas is full of toxic and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds that degrade the local and regional air quality and exacerbate climate change. The majority of these expressions have not been documented by regulators and the emissions are not considered. The expressions also push oil and wastewater upwards through groundwater, leaving it contaminated. When the oil gets to the surface, it destroys terrestrial habitat for native plants and endangered species such as the long nosed leopard lizard. The seeps are also a major hazard to migratory birds that confuse the pooling oil for water sources.

Worker Safety

Surface expressions do not just ooze oil. When the pressure spreads underground beyond the target formation, it can cause oil, water, steam, rocks, and natural gas to shoot from the ground, presenting a deadly hazard to worker safety. Stories from oil field workers describe periods when oil companies increase steam injection volumes and activity as bringing chaos to the oil fields. Engineers across the region engaged in a high-stakes version of whack-a-mole, rushing to plug one geyser while others broke through elsewhere,” according to Julie Cart with the LA Times.

A construction supervisor for Chevron named David Taylor was killed by such an event in the Midway-Sunset oil field near Bakersfield, CA. According to the LA Times, Chevron had been trying to control the pressure at the well-site. The company had stopped injections near the well, but neighboring operators continued injections into the pool. As a result, migration pathways along old wells allowed formation fluids to saturate the Earth just under the well-site. Tragically, Taylor fell into a 10-foot diameter crater of 190° fluid and hydrogen sulfide.

High Pressure Steaming

The practice of high pressure steam injection is incredibly similar to hydraulic fracturing, but unfortunately is not regulated under the current rules established by State Bill 4 (SB4). The technique is used to stimulate increased production from “unconventional” target formations such as the Monterey Shale. Steam is injected at high pressures, fracturing shale and other sedimentary rocks. High pressure steam injection both opens new pathways in the source rock and decreases the viscosity of heavy crude, allowing crude to flow more easily to the borehole of the well.

In 2016, the oil and gas industry was able to introduce an exemption in the regulations to allow for the stimulation of wells without an SB4 permit, as long as it was using steam, even when the injection pressure was greater than the fracture gradient of the target formation. For the last three years the practice existed in a legal grey area without any oversight. Then, in July of 2019, Governor Newsom’s administration adopted new underground injection control regulations, which explicitly allowed steam injection at pressures above the fracture gradient of the formation (1724.10.3. Maximum Allowable Surface Injection Pressure). That means operators were essentially “fracking”, but using steam to fracture the targeted shale formation instead of water (hydraulic). With the formal approval of the practice, operators ramped up operations resulting in numerous new surface expressions forming and the flow rates of existing surface expressions increasing.

Governor Newsom’s Response

On November 19, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a press statement outlining the work his administration is planning to address issues with oil and gas drilling such as surface expressions. Along with two other strategies, the Governor called for an immediate end to high pressure cyclic steaming. This new ban was meant to stop the existing surface expressions in oil fields, and prevent any new ones. Unfortunately, the activities of Chevron and the other operators in these fields are likely to prevent the Governor’s intervention from having the intended impact. These operators are planning to drill many new injection wells in close proximity to the surface expressions, in effect increasing the flow of current surface expressions and increasing the risk of more in the future. From the time of the press release to the end of 2019, oil and gas operators applied for permits authorizing 184 new steam injection wells. The majority of these permits are in the same fields as the surface expressions.

Injection Pressure

The oil and gas industry has blamed the surface expressions entirely on the geology of the oil fields in the southwestern region of Kern, specifically on the brittle diatomite crust that lies above many of Central California’s oil formations. The thing is, diatomite is common throughout the Monterey Shale. In fact, the entire Monterey formation of the Santa Barbara-Ventura coast generally consists of an upper siliceous member (diatomaceous) (Stanford, 2013; Issacs 1981). The risk is not unique to just the Cymric, McKittrick and Midway-Sunset Fields, yet these three fields, along with the Lost Hills field to the north, have the highest counts of reported surface expressions, as shown in the map below in Figure 2.

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Figure 2. Map of California well density and surface expressions. The map visualizes California Department of Conservation (CA DOC) data summing surface expressions by oil field. Locations of new injections permit applications submitted since November 19, 2019 are also shown, summed by section.

 

These fields also have the highest concentration of wells in the state. Surface expressions in the oil fields of western Kern County provide a warning for the rest of the state. Over-development of an oil field is a major contributor to the potential for surface expressions. In the case of the Cymric field, there are simply too many wells drilled in a limited area. This is the reason Chevron shut down injection wells within 1,000’ of the surface expression, but even then the seep did not stop.

The map in Figure 2 shows that the Cymric field has the highest density of active and abandoned oil and gas wells in the state, providing plenty of man-made pathways to the surface. Our analysis shows that there are at least 319 reported wells drilled within 1,000’ of the 1Y surface expression. Another 154 wells are drilled within 1,000’ of the GS5 expression that has been actively flowing since 2003, including 11 active steam injection wells.

Wells in the Cymric field have been drilled in such numbers and in such close proximity that downhole communication between the wells is unavoidable. “Downhole communication” occurs when wells drilled in close proximity leak oil, natural gas and other formation materials between boreholes. This is a dangerous situation, for public health and worker safety. Downhole communication with unknown and known abandoned wells with brittle casings or active wells with poorly engineered casing that shear could even “blow sky high.”

To understand the spatial distribution of oil and gas wells in California, FracTracker used GIS to conduct a hot spot analysis. The parameters included all oil and gas wells in the state of California using California Department of Conservation (CA DOC) data (updated 1/4/20). Results of the analysis are shown in the map in Figure 2. Areas where the analysis showed statistically significant clusters of wells in high density are shown in purple, from low levels of statistical significance to high. Of note, the region with the highest level of statistically significant well density is located along the western side of Kern County. It is in the very same localized area as the eight surface expressions in the Cymric field, and includes the Cymric, McKittrick, and north end of the Midway-Sunset fields.

 

FieldNew Steam Well Permit Count
Midway-Sunset427
Cymric197
Belridge, South150
Kern River125
McKittrick105
Coalinga88
Poso Creek71
San Ardo69
Kern Front43
Lost Hills20
Arroyo Grande15
Cat Canyon10
Edison5
Orcutt4
Placerita1
Grand Total1130

Table 1. Count of new steam well permits approved in 2019, by field. Data taken from CA DOC Weekly Summary of Permits Data (ftp://ftp.consrv.ca.gov/pub/oil/).

 

OperatorNew Steam Well Permit Count
Aera Energy LLC381
Chevron U.S.A Inc.360
Berry Petroleum Company, LLC276
Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC112
E & B Natural Resources Management Corporation65
Seneca Resources Management Corporation61
California Resources Production Corporation46
Vaquero Energy, Inc.10
Crimson Resource Management Corp.5
Naftex Operating Company5
Kern River Holdings, Inc.4
Santa Maria Energy, LLC4
Grand Total1329

Table 2. Count of new steam well permits approved in 2019, by operator. Data taken from CA DOC Weekly Summary of Permits Data (ftp://ftp.consrv.ca.gov/pub/oil/).

State’s Response

On November 19, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a press statement outlining his administration’s plan to address several issues with oil and gas drilling. Among them, the Governor called for an immediate moratorium on issuing new permits for “high pressure cyclic steaming.” This new moratorium was meant curb the rise of surface expressions. Unfortunately the activities of Chevron and the other operators in these fields are likely to undermine the Governor’s action. These operators are planning to drill many new injection wells in close proximity to the surface expressions, in effect increasing the flow of current surface expressions and increasing the risk of more in the future. From the time of the press release to the end of 2019, oil and gas operators applied for permits authorizing 184 new steam injection wells. The majority of these permits are in the same fields as the surface expressions. While the newly implemented moratorium will prevent future permits, permits issued prior to November 19, 2019 remain valid and will continue injecting at high pressure.

The regulatory agency, formerly DOGGR and now CalGEM, has already approved 1,330 new steam injection wells during Governor Newsom’s first year in office; 874 in the Cymric, McKrittrick, and Midway-Sunset fields alone where there are already over 9,300 operating. For summaries of new steam well permits approved in 2019 by field and operator, see Table 1 and 2 below. Even though Chevron stated that they ceased operations within 1,000 feet of the surface expressions (see map in Figure 1), 17 new steam injection wells have been permitted within 1,000 feet in 2019 alone. After the death of David Taylor in 2015, regulators established an 800’ safety buffer zone from that expression, but that safety measure has been ignored for more recent spills. Today, 27 steam injection wells continue to operate and three new permits are being considered within 800’ of the largest 2019 spill. Regulators are now considering permits for an additional 83 new steam injection wells in the same sections of the Cymric oil field closest to these recent surface expressions.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The state’s current solution for reducing surface expressions – a moratorium on high pressure steam injection – is not enough. Chevron and regulators say that it is unclear what exactly is causing the surface expressions, but the data speaks for itself. Too many wells have been drilled in too close proximity. Lowering the injection pressures of individual injection wells alone will not improve the situation if more injection wells are approved into the same formation. Governor Newsom can begin the remediation by stopping the state from permitting new oil and gas wells, banning existing steam injection, and properly plugging and abandoning the leaking wells in these fields. If this is not a priority, California will undoubtedly experience more of these situations, where the density of wells leads to dangerous conditions and increased emissions in more fields, such as the Ventura, Oxnard, and Kern River. It is clear that in addition to high injection pressures, these impacts are the result of over-development via lackadaisical permit reviews and irresponsible environmental policy.

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

Feature Photo by Irfan Khan/LA Times via AP, Pool.

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