A FracTracker Feature Series
Published on January 28, 2018
In August 2016, Shell Pipeline Co. (a subsidiary of Shell Appalachia) announced plans for the “Falcon Ethane Pipeline System,” a 97-mile pipeline network intended to feed Shell’s ethane cracker facility in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The Falcon will carry more than 107,000 barrels of ethane per day through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, to Shell’s facility, which would then “crack,” or break apart, ethane molecules to create ethylene and polyethylene. The Shell cracker would be the first step in building a regional petrochemical hub, which FracTracker has written about in previous articles.
Shell submitted permit applications to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in September 2017. Construction began in early 2019.
March 17, 2021 Update
State and federal agencies are investigating the construction of the Falcon Pipeline for serious public safety concerns & retaliation against workers who reported these issues. FracTracker Alliance and partners are calling for action from public agencies to hold Shell accountable.
June 16, 2020 Update
Since construction on the Falcon began in early 2020, there have been over 70 incidents of drilling fluid spilled in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Shell’s failure to accurately measure spills, combined with weak state regulations, has made it so these events largely occurred without the public being notified.
Lack of Transparency
Building pipelines is a highly disruptive process to the natural environment, as they must pass through sensitive areas such as streams, wetlands, and protected forests. Furthermore, ethane is classified by the federal government as a hazardous and a highly volatile liquid. You can read the MSDS for ethane here.
The Falcon pipeline would cross through 25 municipalities in three states, in some cases through residential neighborhoods. Should a leak occur, ethane is not easily detected because it is a colorless and odorless gas. Slightly heavier than air and extremely flammable, triggers such as ignition of a car engine, cell phones, doorbells, or light switches can provide an effective ignition source if concentrations are high enough.
Public participation in pipeline risk assessments is therefore critical. However, pipeline routes are rarely revealed until late in planning stages.
More often than not, the public is given few real opportunities to influence how impacts are assessed or to meaningfully shape a project. Part of the problem is that operators are required to provide paper and PDF maps in permit application that can contain hundreds of such maps. But they are not required to provide the underlying GIS (geographic information system) data used to produce those maps in most cases.
While the public can stitch paper maps together to understand a pipeline in its broader context, this can take many months to execute and comprehend. It is exceptionally rare for the public to have access to GIS data that might allow for independent assessments. Furthermore, all of this work must be done in within a narrow window of time when permits are posted by regulatory agencies for public comment.
An example can be seen in how the public obtained GIS data pertaining to Sunoco’s contentious Mariner East 2 pipeline (above). The PA DEP published the GIS data in response to mounting public pressure only two weeks prior to the close of public comments, also with the caveat that the release was not standard operating procedure.
Late-game transparency and antiquated permitting procedures provide little leverage for questioning the merits of the project. However, having access to this data has since allowed communities to mount challenges related to ME2’s water impacts and drilling spills that ultimately led the DEP to temporarily suspend Sunoco’s construction permits.
A Resource for Public Engagement
The Falcon Public EIA Project offers for the first time a highly detailed view of how a pipeline comes together from its infancy.
The resources on this page are meant to foster deeper engagements with regulatory agencies as they begin to evaluate the Falcon’s permit applications. The Falcon Public Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Project is meant to expand public dialogue about what should be included in EIAs and how they should apply to pipeline projects. The project also serves as a model for how data transparency ought to be done by regulatory agencies when engaging the public.
The maps and articles below raise a number of question: should we route a pipeline through the headwaters of a reservoir that provides drinking water to 30,000 people? Is it safe to locate pipelines in actively mined areas? Should the Beaver County Conservation District allow pipelines on public-owned property? Is the Falcon pipeline necessary at all? These are the kinds of discussions we hope emerge from the Falcon Public EIA Project.
Exploring the Data
FracTracker began monitoring the Falcon in December 2016, when we discovered a significant cache of GIS data related to the pipeline.
Through many months of recreating the data as it evolved, we developed a rich series of interactive maps and analysis illustrating the many components of the project. In January 2018, FracTracker obtained copies of Shell’s permit applications from the PA DEP. These documents, consisting of thousands of pages that pertain to only areas in Pennsylvania where the Falcon will be built, demonstrate how complicated public engagements with pipelines can be.
In order to make sense of the many components in Shell’s data and permit applications, we have organized our analysis along themes that explore how impacts would likely be critiqued in a more comprehensive EIA. We also include information from a spectrum of other sources to expand the conversation about what ought to be accounted for in defining impacts. You can read more about our methods in the last section below, as well as how to get involved in engaging with the Falcon pipeline proposal at the end of this page.
Pipelines are regulated by different federal, state, and local agencies depending on what they carry and where they go. This primer gives a rundown of these different agencies and their respective roles. We also explore what an EIA entails, as well as what often gets lost when conducting EIAs.
This segment introduces the route of the Falcon ethane pipeline system, other routes that were considered in the planning process, and the properties along the route that required easements. We locate facilities that will be built, such as metering stations and shutoff valves, as well as construction areas and access roads needed to build the pipeline.
In this segment we explore the many streams, wetlands, and ponds the Falcon must cross, as well as the techniques Shell will likely use in these crossings. Also explored are the geological and hydrological conditions of these areas, such as porous karst limestone and shallow groundwater that can complicate construction.
In this segment we begin to examine the ways that pipelines are assessed for potential risk to populated areas. We outline a method called “Class Locations” that determine how a pipeline is constructed, based on proximity to occupied structures and public facilities, then identify locations of highest risk along the Falcon’s route.
Continuing our examination of risk assessment, this segment utilizes an additional method used in pipeline construction called “high consequence areas” (HCAs) that take into consideration proximity to population centers, drinking water systems, and sensitive habitats. We also calculate the potential impact radius (aka “blast zone”) for the Falcon.
As part of the planning process, operators are required to consult with state and federal agencies to identify threatened, endangered, and protected species that may be impacted by a proposed pipeline. In this segment, we investigate how Shell conducted detailed field surveys to comply with special protection guidelines.
In this final segment, we explore entanglements with a region already impacted by a long history of energy development. Featured here are where the Falcon intersects mining facilities, well pads, and other pipelines. These tell a story of cumulative development and compounded risk.
FracTracker strives to maintain transparency in all of our projects so the public understands how we obtain, analyze, and mapped our data. This methods section describes our process in working with the Falcon data.
ADDITIONAL ANALYSIS (4/2/18): As the Falcon continues to gain the public’s attention, Shell has stressed their reputation as a good neighbor—committed to building and operating the pipeline in a safe manner. This article reviews federal data on pipeline incidents since 2002 and finds Shell’s safety record is actually one of the worst in the nation.
TECHNICAL COMMENTS (4/16/18): This document by FracTracker Alliance outlines some of the most prominent risks related to the proposed Falcon ethane pipeline that deserve close regulatory scrutiny by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. It was submitted as Public Comments on the Shell Falcon Ethane Pipeline System – Permit #: E02-1773, E04-369, E63-710
TECHNICAL DEFICIENCIES (10/03/18): In January of 2018, the DEP began reviewing Shell’s Chapter 105 application for water obstruction and encroachment. On June 1st, the DEP sent Shell technical deficiency letters listing 101 issues with the application. Shell responded to these deficiencies on August 1st. In this part of that project, we map out and explain all 101 deficiencies.
5/8/2019: In March of 2019, the imported pipes for the Falcon arrived at the Port of Philadelphia. As tree clearing and construction began, we shared frustration with residents that the project was underway while many of our concerns remain unaddressed. Learn about ongoing efforts to monitor Falcon Pipeline construction, and how to get involved.
6/16/2020: Challenges have plagued Shell’s construction of the Falcon Pipeline System through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, according to documents from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
How to Get Involved
Eyes On Shell Watchdog Team
If you live near the Shell ethane cracker, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania (where the Falcon Pipeline ends), you can get involved in local advocacy efforts by joining the Eyes on Shell Watchdog team. Learn how to report concerns, monitor your environment, and take action to protect your community. This team is coordinated by the local grassroots organization, Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community. Click here to learn more.
Be a Citizen Watchdog
In addition to submitting comments, we encourages concerned residents to get involved in tracking the Falcon pipeline’s potential impacts by using the FracTracker mobile app. The app is a free tool for documenting issues near you. It provides a way for people to submit geolocated photographs, descriptions, and more that can be shared with other users of the app and the broader community.
FracTracker has added the proposed Falcon pipeline route to the mobile app’s interactive map for reference in the field.
Resources for questions and concerns
You can file a report on any environmental impacts you see with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, here.
Shell Pipeline has also established a community hotline for this pipeline: 1-888-200-5266
For more information on this project, contact Erica Jackson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Decisions to drill or mine on public lands, however, are often extremely complicated.
By Allison M. Rohrs, Saint Francis University, Institute for Energy
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has historically been, and continues to be, home to an abundant array of energy resources like oil, gas, coal, timber, and windy ridgetops. Expectedly, these natural resources are found both on publicly and privately held land.
In Pennsylvania, the bulk of public lands are managed by two separate state agencies: The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which manages the state’s forest and park system, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), which manages the state’s game lands. Both of these state agencies manage oil, gas, and coal extraction as well as timbering on state property. Interestingly, neither of the agencies have utility-scale renewable energy generation on their land.
Some of Pennsylvania’s best wind resources can be found on the mountain ridges in the Commonwealth’s state forests and game lands, however, all proposals to build utility-scale wind farms have been denied by state agencies.
(Note: there are other state and federal agencies managing lands in PA, however, we focused our research on these two agencies specifically.)
Surprised to see that state lands have been greatly developed for different fossil industries but denied for wind energy, The Institute for Energy set out on a yearlong endeavor to collect as much information as we could about energy development on PA public lands. Using formal PA Right to Know requests, we worked with both DCNR and PGC to examine development procedures and management practices. We reviewed hundreds of available state agency reports, scientific documents, and Pennsylvania energy laws and regulations. We also worked with FracTracker Alliance to develop interactive maps that depict where energy development has occurred on state lands.
After a comprehensive review, we realized, like so much in life, the details are much more complicated than a simple yes or no decision to develop an energy project on state lands. Below is a brief summary of our findings, organized by energy extraction method:
Land/Mineral Ownership in Pennsylvania
One of the most significant issues to understand when discussing energy resources on state lands is the complexity of land ownership in Pennsylvania. In many instances, the development of an energy resource on publicly owned land is not a decision, but instead an obligation. In Pennsylvania, property rights are often severed between surface and subsurface ownership. In many cases, surface owners do not own the mineral rights beneath them, and, by PA law, are obligated to allow reasonable extraction of such resource, whether it be coal, oil, or gas. In Pennsylvania, approximately 85% of state park mineral rights are owned by someone other than the Commonwealth (severed rights).
Legal Authority to Lease
It is critical to note that DCNR and PGC are two entirely separate agencies with different missions, legal structures, and funding sources. This plays a significant role in decisions to allow oil, gas, and coal development on their properties. Both agencies have explicit legal authority under their individual statutes that allow them to lease the lands for mineral extraction. This becomes more of an issue when we discuss wind development, where legal authority is less clear, particularly for DCNR.
Oil and Gas Extraction
Oil and gas wells have been spudded on state parks, state forests, and state game lands. The decision to do so is multifaceted and ultimately decided by three major factors:
- Mineral ownership of the land,
- Legal authority to lease the land, and
- Potential impacts to the individual agency.
There is currently a moratorium on new surface leases of DCNR Lands. Moratoriums of such nature have been enacted and removed by different governors since 2010. Although there are no new lease agreements, extraction and production is still occurring on DCNR land from previously executed lease agreements and where the state does not own the mineral rights.
The Game Commission is still actively signing surface and non-surface use agreements for oil and gas extraction when they determine the action is beneficial to achieving their overall mission.
Revenues from the oil and gas industry play a significant role in the decision to drill or not. Both agencies have experienced increasing costs and decreasing revenues, overall, and have used oil and gas development as a way to bridge the gap.
Funds raised from DCNR’s oil and gas activities go back to the agency’s conservation efforts, although from 2009 to 2017, the State Legislature had directed much of this income to the state’s general fund to offset major budget deficits. Just this year, the PA Supreme Court ruled against this process and has restored the funds back to DCNR for conservations purposes.
All revenues generated from oil and gas development on state game lands stays within the Game Commission’s authority.
Along with positive economic benefits, there remains potential health and environmental risks unique to development on these public lands. Some studies indicate that users of these public lands could have potential exposure to pollution both in the air and in the water from active oil and gas infrastructure. The ease of public access to abandoned and active oil and gas infrastructure is a potential risk, as well. On the environmental side, many have argued that habitat fragmentation from oil and gas development is contradictory to the missions of the agencies. Both agencies have independent water monitoring groups specific to oil and gas activities as well as state regulated DEP monitoring. The potential negative effects on ground and surface water quality is an issue, however, mainly due the vast size of public lands and limited dwellings on these properties.
Use the map below to explore the PA state parks, forests, and game lands that have active oil and gas infrastructure.
Oil and Gas Wells on State Lands in PA
Thousands of acres of state forests and game lands have been mined for coal. Like oil and gas, this mineral is subject to similar fee simple ownership issues and is governed by the same laws that allow oil and gas extraction. DCNR, has not signed any virgin coal mining leases since the 1990s, but instead focuses on reclamation projects. There are coal mining operations, however, on forest land where DCNR does not own the mineral rights. The Game Commission still enters into surface and non-surface use agreements for mining.
In many circumstances, mining activity and abandoned mines were inherited by the state agencies and left to them to reclaim. Environmental and health impacts of mining specific to state land are generally attributed more to legacy mining and not to new mining operations.
Acid mine drainage and land subsidence has destroyed rivers and riparian habitats on these lands purposed for conservation.
The ease of public access and limited surveillance of public lands also makes abandoned mines and pits a dangerous health risk. Although threats to humans and water quality exist, abandoned mines have been noted for actually creating new bat habitat for endangered and threatened bat species.
Originally, we sought to quantify the total acreage of public lands affected by coal mining and abandoned mines; however, the dataset required to do so is not yet complete.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is currently in the process of digitizing over 84,000 hand drawn maps of mined coal seams in PA, an expected 15-year project.
Today, they have digitized approximately 30,000. The static map below demonstrates the areas with confirmed coal mining co-located on state lands:
The discussion about renewable energy development in PA is almost as complex as the fossil industries. There are no utility-scale renewables on state owned land. Both DCNR and the Game Commission have been approached by developers to lease state land for wind development, however all proposals have been denied.
Even when DCNR owns the surface rights, they still cite the lack of legal authority to lease the land for wind, as their statute does not explicitly state “wind turbines” as a lawful lease option.
The Game Commission does have the legal authority to lease its land for wind development, but has denied 19 out of 19 requests by developers to do so, citing many environmental and surface disturbances as the primary reason.
The development of wind projects in PA has slowed in the past five years, with only one new commercial wind farm being built. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that many of windiest locations on private lands have been developed.
We estimate that 35% of the state’s best wind resource is undevelopable simply because it is on public land.
Like all energy development, wind energy has potential environmental and health impacts, too. Wind could cause habitat fragmentation issues on land purposed for conservation. The wind energy industry also has realized negative effects on bird and bat species, most notably, the endangered Indiana bat. Health impacts unique to public lands and wind development include an increased risk of injury to hunters and recreators related to potential mechanical failure or ice throw off the blades. Unlike fossil energies, however, wind energy has potential to offset air emissions.
We estimate that wind development on PA public lands could offset and estimated 14,480,000 tons of CO2 annually if fully developed.
Commercial wind turbines are currently being installed at hub heights of 80-100 meters where the annual average wind resource is 6.5 m/s or greater. The following map demonstrates areas of Pennsylvania where the wind speeds are 6.5 m/s or greater at 100 meters, including areas overlapping state lands, where no utility scale development has occurred.
PA Wind Potential on State Lands
Biomass is organic material, such as wood, that is considered renewable because of its ability to be replenished. The harvesting of such wood (timber) occurs on both DCNR and PGC lands and provides funding for these agencies.
Small-scale wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass projects do exist on PA public lands for onsite consumption, however no renewables exist on a commercial or utility scale.
Both the fossil and renewable energy industries are forecasted to grow in Pennsylvania in the years to come. The complex decisions and obligations to develop energy resources on PA public lands should include thoughtful management and fair use of these public lands for all energy resources.
For more information and details, check out the entire comprehensive report on our website: www.francis.edu/energy.
This work was supported by The Heinz Endowments.
The United States is blessed with some of the most diverse natural landscapes in the world. Through foresight of great leaders over the decades, starting in 1906 — Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Benjamin Harrison, and Jimmy Carter – to name just a few — well over a half billion acres of wilderness have been set aside as national parks, refuges, monuments, and roadless areas. Some of the most famous of these protected areas include the Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Grand Tetons National Parks. In all, the federal government owns 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land that the United States comprises. These federal lands are administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM): 248.3 million acres, the US Forest Service: 192.9 million acres, US Fish and Wildlife Service: 89.1 million acres, and National Park Service: 78.9 million acres. In addition, the US Department of Defense administers 11.4 million acres.
Why are federal lands at risk?
While most people assume that federal wild lands are forever protected from development and commercial exploitation, quite the opposite is true. For most of the past century, federal lands have hunted, fished, logged and grazed by private individuals and enterprises. In addition, and in the cross-hairs of discussion here, is the practice of leasing lands to industrial interests for the purpose of extracting minerals, oil, and gas from these public lands.
Provisions for land conservation and restrictions on oil and gas extraction, in particular, became more stringent since the inception of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. However, environmentalists have watched in horror as the current administration in Washington has gutted the EPA, and installed climate change-deniers and corporate executives in high levels of office throughout a range of federal agencies. Notable is the appointment of Ryan Zinke as US Secretary of the Interior. Zinke, a former businessman, has a long record of opposing environmental viewpoints around extraction of oil, coal, and gas and cutting regulations. The League of Conservation Voters gives his voting record a lifetime score of 4 percent on environmental issues. As recently as this week, Joel Clement–one of Zinke’s senior advisors–resigned his post, citing, Zinke’s poor leadership, wasting of tax-payer dollars, and denial of climate change science.
Early in his tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Zinke initiated a review of 27 national monuments, a move that environmentalists feared could lead to the unraveling of protections on millions of acres of federal land, and also relaxed regulations on oil and gas exploration in those areas. Public comment on the plans to review these national monuments was intense; when the public comment period closed on July 10, 2017, the Interior Department had received over 2.4 million comments, the vast majority of which supported keeping the existing boundaries and restrictions as they are.
Federal lands under threat by Trump Administration
The above map shows which sites are under consideration for oil, gas, or coal extraction, or face boundary reduction of up to 88%. Click here to view this map full-screen with a legend, zoom in and click on areas of interest, etc.
Who should be allowed to use these resources?
Ranchers, loggers, and recreational hunters and anglers felt that the 1906 Antiquities Act had been over-interpreted, and therefore advocated for Zinke’s proposal. (The Act was the first U.S. law to provide protection for any general kind of cultural or natural resource.)
However, environmental advocates such as the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and others were adamantly opposed to opening up federal lands resources for extraction, citing the need for environmental protection, public access, and, importantly, concerns that the lands would be more easily transferred to state, local, or private interests. Environmentalists also argue that the revenue generated by tourism at these pristine sites would far exceed that generated by extractive resource activities. Attorneys and staff from NPCA and NRDC argued legislation in effect since the 1970s requires role for Congress in changing the boundaries of existing monuments. The President or his cabinet do not have that sole authority.
The Wilderness Society estimates that already, 90% of the land in the US West, owned by the Bureau of Land Management, is open for oil and gas leasing, while only 10% is set aside for other uses (Figure 2). According to information from Sourcewatch, in 2013, these lands included 12 National Monuments, Parks, Recreation Areas, and Preserves that had active drilling, and another 31 that might see possible drilling in the future.
What Zinke has Proposed
True to expectation, in August of 2017, Zinke issued a recommendation to shrink the boundaries of several national monuments to allow coal mining and other “traditional uses” — which appear to include large-scale timbering, as well as potentially oil and gas drilling. Sites include Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah (encompassing more than 3.2 million acres in lands considered sacred to Dine/Navajo people), Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon, and Gold Butte in Nevada. According to Zinke’s report, Grand Staircase-Escalante contains “an estimated several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits”. Zinke lifted Obama-era restrictions on coal leasing on federal lands this past March, 2017. However, just last week, a federal judge ruled that the current Administration’s efforts to suspend methane emission restrictions from pipelines crossing public lands were illegal. These are merely a few of the Obama-era environmental protections that Zinke is attempting to gut.
Zinke has proposed decreasing the size of Bears Ears National Monument from the current 1.35 million acres to a mere 160,000, a reduction of 88%. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of thirty Native American tribes, condemned the recommendation as a “slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country.” The Navajo Nation intends to sue the President’s administration if this reduction at Bears Ears is enacted.
Bears Ears National Monument, designated by President Barack Obama, contains tens of thousands of cultural artifacts, and is facing not only a threat of boundary shrinkage, but also a relaxing use restrictions within the Monument area. The current President has referred to Obama’s designation of the monument as “an egregious abuse of power.” Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated by President Bill Clinton, and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was designated by Clinton and expanded by President Obama.
The recommendation details were not made public in August, however, and only came to light in September through a leaked memo, published in The Washington Post. In the memo, Secretary Zinke noted that the existing boundaries were “arbitrary or likely politically motivated or boundaries could not be supported by science or reasons of resource management.” The memo goes on to say that “[i]t appears that certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining and timber production rather than to protect specific objects.” In addition, Zinke is advocating for the modification for commercial fishing uses of two marine national monuments: the Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll.
According to the Washingon Post, Zinke:
… plans to leave six designations in place: Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients; Idaho’s Craters of the Moon; Washington’s Hanford Reach; Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant; Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks; and California’s Sand to Snow.
Perplexingly, the report is silent on 11 of the 27 monuments named in the initial proposal. One of which is the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — over 725,000 square miles of ocean — in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The report also requests tribal co-management of “cultural resources” at Bears Ears, Rio Grande del Norte, and Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks. While one could imagine that greater involvement of indigenous people in the federal government’s management of the sacred landscapes to be a potentially positive improvement, the report is silent on the details. More information on tribal co-management and other options can be gleaned from a series of position papers written by the Property and Environment Research Center.
Of other note: Zinke is also suggesting the establishment of three new national monuments, including the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area in Montana, a sacred site of the Blackfeet Nation. Badger-Two Medicine was the site of a more than 30-year battle to retire 32,000 acres of oil and gas leases. The tribe prevailed, and the leases were canceled in November, 2016.
With potential lawsuits pending about boundary changes, galvanized push-back from environmental and tribal interests on resource management definitions for the targeted monuments, and general unpredictability on policy details and staffing in Washington, the trajectory of how this story will play out remains uncertain. FracTracker will continue to monitor for updates, and provide additional links in this story as they unfold.
Federal Lands Map Data Sources
National Monuments under consideration for change by Secretary Zinke:
Accessed from ArcGIS Online by FracTracker Alliance, 28 August 2017. Data apparently from federal sources, such as BLM, NPS, etc. Dataset developed by Kira Minehart, GIS intern with Natural Resources Defense Council.0=not currently targeted for policy or boundary change1= targeted for expanded resource use, such as logging, fishing, etc. 2=targeted for shrinkage of borders, and expanded resource use.
National Park Service lands with current or potential oil and gas drilling:
Downloaded by FracTracker Alliance on 9 November 2016, from National Park Service. Drilling information from here. List of sites threatened by oil and gas drilling from here (23 January 2013).
Badger-Two Medicine potential Monument:
Shapefile downloaded from USGS by FracTracker Alliance on 28 August 2017. This map layer consists of federally owned or administered lands of the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For the most part, only areas of 320 acres or more are included; some smaller areas deemed to be important or significant are also included. There may be private inholdings within the boundaries of Federal lands in this map layer. Some established Federal lands which are larger than 320 acres are not included in this map layer, because their boundaries were not available from the owning or administering agency. Complete metadata available here.
By Tom Burkett – River Healer Spokesperson, New Mexico Watchdog
The Greater Chaco region is known to the Diné (Navajo) as Dinétah, the land of their ancestors. It contains countless sacred sites that date to the Anasazi and is home of the Bisti Badlands and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a World Heritage Site. Currently WPX Energy has rights to lease about 100,000 acres of federal, state, and Navajo allottee lands in the oil rich San Juan Basin, which includes Greater Chaco.1 WPX Energy along with other fracking companies plan to continue establishing crude oil fracking wells on these sacred lands, although the Greater Chaco community has spoken out against fracking and continue to call for more safety and oversight from New Mexico state regulatory bodies such as the EMNRD Oil Conservation Division.
The River Healers pulled EMNRD records that show over 8,300 spills in New Mexico had been reported by the the fracking industry to EMNRD between 2011-2016 (map below). This is thousands more than reported by the Environmental Protection Agency. The records also showed how quickly reports of spills, fires, and explosions were processed by the EMNRD as ‘non-emergency’ and accepted industry reports that no groundwater had been contaminated.
Daniel Tso, Member of the Navajo Nation and Elder of the Counselor Chapter, led us to fracking sites in Greater Chaco that had reported spills and fires. Daniel Tso is one of many Navajo Nation members working on the frontlines to protect Greater Chaco, their ancestral land, and their pastoral ways of life from the expanding fracking industry. Traveling in white trucks and cars we blended in with the oil and gas trucks that dot indigenous community roads and group around fracking pads on squares federally owned land. Years of watchdogging the fracking destruction on their sacred land was communicated through Tso’s eyes looking over the landscape for new fracking disruption and a calm voice,
… the hurt on the sacred landscapes; the beauty of the land is destroyed, this affects our people’s mental, spiritual, and emotional health.
At each site our eyes were scanning the fracking sites and terrain for drone flight patterns while the native elders were slowly scanning the ground for pottery shards and signs of their ancestors. Arroyos sweep around the fracking pads and display how quickly the area can flash flood from rain that gathers on the striated volcanic ash hills of the badlands.
Fracking Regulation in NM
The EMNRD Oil Conservation Division has only 12 inspectors that are in charge of overseeing over 50,000 wells scattered throughout New Mexico.2 Skepticism around EMNRD’s ability to regulate not only comes from a short staff being stretched across 121,598 square miles of New Mexico’s terrain, but thousands of active fracking sites continue to report spills, fires, and explosions every year.3 Even more problematic is that Ken McQueen, Cabinet Secretary of EMNRD formerly served as Vice President of WPX Energy.4 Ken McQueen managed WPX Energy’s assets in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Colorado, and in addition, part of Wyoming. New Mexico Governor, Susana Martinez’s appointment of McQueen severely compromises the state’s ability to impartially oversee WPX Energy and regulate the fracking industry. Governor Martinez has been called to clean up the EMNRD, and rid the regulatory body of cabinet members more interested in protecting the assets of WPX than the health and rights of New Mexicans. Tso remarks,
The sacrifices of indigenous communities continue for a society that thinks gasoline comes from a gas station. That thinks oil is a commodity that is unending resource. This is unfortunate, and ultimately compromises our physical health. Yet this doesn’t matter to the industry. They want every last drop of crude oil even if it is cost prohibitive.
The River Healers maintain that Governor Martinez is complicit in the exploitation of human water rights as long as the EMNRD remains a compromised and unreliable regulatory body.
New Mexico governmental assimilation with the oil and gas industry is presented to the Greater Chaco indigenous communities in the form of 90,000-lb gross weight oilfield trucks. Western Refining started rolling out trucks with larger-than-life prints of state and county law enforcements officers and military personnel at the same time water protectors at Standing Rock were being arrested and assaulted by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota.5 The indigenous-led movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from desecrating sacred land and threatening rights to clean water has drawn greater resistance to oil and gas projects around the country.
Indigenous solidarity is felt in Greater Chaco, but Western Refining’s blatant propaganda campaign demonstrates how oil and gas corporations continue to threaten and silence the communities they extract oil from by displaying the paid power of state and federal law enforcement. The River Healers view this as a direct form of intimidation that aims to further a corporate ideology and remind native communities of the violence they experienced at the hand of the United States Federal Government in the past. The Western Refining campaign is a direct form of corporate-sponsored terrorism and should be grounds to ban their ability to use images of law enforcement officers to further their interests. Furthermore, the state should discontinue paying for officers to patrol facking roads and pads and instead use state funds to make state regulatory bodies work for the communities most impacted by the oil and gas industries.
What we are finding
Drone surveillance of fracking sites in Greater Chaco show how quickly the fracking industry has exploited a state government tied to the interests of a booming and unchecked resource extraction industry. In Greater Chaco this element of time is more deeply understood through the lens of the indigenous community.
Ultimately, the health of the fauna and flora are devastated. The adaptation of the delicate ecosystem is forever destroyed. Their recovery and healing will take years and years.
The Anasazi Kivas in Chaco Canyon took over 300 years to construct, while drill rigs such as Cyclone 32 take less than 10 days to drill 6,500 ft wells in the canyon plateau. We hiked 12 miles of the sacred Chaco Wash, pulled water samples, and saw the red palm of the Supernova Petrograph clinging to the understory of the canyon wall, clearly taking notice of what is happening above.
We deeply thank members of the Navajo Nation for inviting us into their lives, and our hearts stand with them in solidarity. Protect Greater Chaco! Dooda Fracking!
River Healers Site Videos
County: San Juan
Kimbeto Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36°14’22.38”, -107°43’51.38”
This particular site caught fire on June 11th, 2016 and was allowed to burn until July 14th. The fracking fire and contaminates spread to areas north and south of the fracking pad, burning Juniper trees within 200 feet of residential buildings. This fire is not the only documented case in the Greater Chaco Area where communities were disrupted and evacuated in the middle of the night. While community members remain concerned about their health, WPX reported that the incident was not an emergency and that no damage was caused to groundwater.
County: San Juan
Kimbeto Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36°13’43.23″, -107°44’28.72″
Drone surveys of this particular site show Cyclone 32, a 1500 Horsepower 755 ton drill rig manufactured in Wyoming. The drill rig is transported through Greater Chaco communities on small dusty single lane dirt roads used by the community members and school buses. The drilling is heard and seen moving from pad to pad. The rig is establishing multiple drill heads on pockets of land tucked along the Kimbeto Wash, a tributary to the Chaco River and sacred source of water security for members of the Greater Chaco Area in Nageezi, New Mexico.
County: San Juan
Kimbeto Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36°13’27.51″, -107°45’3.24″
No video available
County: Rio Arriba
Canada Larga River
GPS: 36°13’18.19″, -107°28’56.24″
Drone surveys show Lybrook Elementary School only 1600ft from a WPX Energy fracking site. The crude oil tanks of the site can be seen from the classroom windows of the school. The elementary school was moved to this location in 2006 because it was right across the highway from a large and expanding natural gas plant and had to relocate elementary students to a safe location.
Although the WPX Energy site is established on federal land, this area of Counselor, New Mexico is referred to as ‘The Checkerboard’ because of the quadrants of federal land that break up tribal land. The 5 well heads are highlighted to show that these pockets of federal land are being fracked with a high concentration of fracking wells. By drilling multiple wells in one pad location fracking companies are able to quickly drain the plays of crude oil under the the Greater Chaco Area and avoid signing contracts with the native property owners that live and attend school in the area they are fracking.
Chaco Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36° 9’45.22″, -107°29’11.47″
Drone surveys show crude oil being fracked within 840 ft of an indigenous community in Sandoval County, NM (Greater Chaco). The fracking site is located in the path of the community water supply, which had to be routed around the wellhead and crude tanks. The underground water line remains only 110 ft from active fracking activity.
Particular communities in Greater Chaco are dependent upon pastoral industry and the health of their livestock. Horses owned by the indigenous community are seen grazing on open and unprotected fracking pads. Many of these fracking pads have recorded spills of either fracking fluid, wastewater, or crude oil and pose health risks to the livestock grazing on potentially contaminated grasses and wastewater.
A Western Refining (WPX) crude truck can be seen driving down the community road. These dirt roads were designed to support local community traffic and school buses but are now heavily used by the fracking industry. 90,000-lb gross weight oilfield trucks haul the volatile crude oil through pastoral lands, endangering livestock and community members. Fracking companies continue to level dirt roads to accommodate the weight of their crude trucks. The practice cuts roads deep into the landscape. Roads in Greater Chaco now resemble trenches and make travel dangerous, block scenic views of ancestral land, and hinder the ability to monitor livestock and fracking development.
County: San Juan
Kimbeto Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36°15’20.46”, -107°41’43.14”
Drone surveys show 3 well heads, crude tanks, and compressors north of Hwy 550 in Nageezi, NM. The location is of importance because it shows how flaring is used to burn off methane caused by fracking and the transportation processes of crude oil. The River Healers droned this site when workers were not present and the flare tower was turned off for safety concerns, but the flame can usually be seen all the way from Hwy 550 tucked into the distinct hills of the Bisti Badlands. Such methane hotspots are of concern because methane causes severe health risks for individuals living near crude oil facilities. NASA has identified two large methane gas clouds in new Mexico. The methane gas is concentrated above fracking occurring in the San Juan Basin and Permian Basin and disproportionately affects the air quality of Greater Chaco, Four Corners Region, Farmington, and South East region of New Mexico.
Two unlined wastewater pits can be seen on the edge of the fracking pad near the well heads and compressors. Erosion caused by water drainage can be seen leading from the well heads and compressor areas directly to the wastewater pits. Drainages can also be seen coming directly out of the waste water pits and going into the Upper Kimbeto Wash, a tributary of the Chaco River. It is illegal for fracking companies to keep fracking wastewater in unlined pits in the state of New Mexico. The River Healers reported this possible water violation to the EMNRD Oil Conservation Division (a state regulatory body for the fracking industry). EMNRD replied that WPX Energy maintains that the wastewater is caused by stormwater runoff and contains no fracking contaminates. This is the first time we have heard of the fracking industry creating stormwater runoff pits and find the practice to be unusual. Further skepticism that these runoff pits are not contaminated comes from research about the site. In June of 2016, WPX Energy reported a spill of 600 gallons of crude oil at this site because of a fire. WPX maintains that no groundwater was impacted and marked the incident as not an emergency.
- WPX Adds Accreage in Gallup Oil Play, press release
- NM Oil and Gas Enforcement Inspections, Earthworks
- New Mexico Geologic Mapping Program, NM Bureau of Geology and Mineral resources
- New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department – Cabinet Secretary Ken McQueen
- Western Refining, Community Supporting Law Enforcement
By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
and Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology
FracTracker recently updated its Pennsylvania Shale Viewer to reflect the latest data on unconventional oil and gas permits and active wells in the state. Within this data, we noticed an increase in permitting over the past year for Allegheny County, PA. We have worked on a number of recent initiatives aimed at expanding conversations about unconventional oil and gas drilling by mapping mineral rights leasing and zoning ordinances in Allegheny County. In this article, we bring these various analyses together.
The analysis below can assist residents and public officials in preparing for what appears to be a pending wave of new development.
Over the past decade, unconventional oil and gas development has predominantly occurred in areas where shale formations are densest and most productive. For instance, the map below illustrates wells and permits in Southwestern Pennsylvania that track along the Marcellus Shale. An outlier on the map is Allegheny County when compared to its neighbors such as Washington and Greene Counties just to the south—two of the most drilled in the Commonwealth.
Unconventional wells and permits in Southwest Pennsylvania
A few factors may explain these spatial anomalies. First, oil and gas companies are generally reluctant to operate in heavily populated areas. This is partly due to the complications of acquiring leases and easements in tightly packed communities.
Infrastructure is second consideration. In the absence of compressor stations and midstream pipelines, companies can’t get their product to market.
A third factor is the stronger political opposition often found in urban centers. For example, Pittsburgh’s 2010 fracking ban pushed back against drillers and had a chilling effect in bordering municipalities. Many of Allegheny County’s municipalities have, thus, had the luxury of putting oil and gas-related land use decisions on the back burner. Nevertheless, operators have maintained interest in extracting untapped shale reserves that lie beneath their borders.
Recent Permitting & Drilling Trends
Within Allegheny County, PA, there are now 24 well pads containing a combined 248 permitted wells, of which 109 currently have an active status. On average, these numbers show a 20% increase in well permits annually (40-50 per year) since 2014. This figure compares to less than 10 per year prior to 2012. Furthermore, while only partway through 2017, we’ve already reached this 20% increase in new permits (41 since 8/24), with the overwhelming number of these being issues for Findlay and Forward Townships. A table and graph of permitting activity since 2008 is seen below.
Table and graph of permitted wells in Allegheny County
Interestingly, the number of active wells over the past few years does not track with increasing number of permits. In fact, active wells peaked in 2014-2015 and have steadily declined since, as is seen in the table and graph below. We credit these opposing trends to operators placing their wells into inactive status during a period of lower gas prices. Meanwhile, operators are increasing their applications for new wells in preparation for a predicted rebound as well as new pipelines and processing facilities coming online for delivering to new markets.
Table and graph of active wells in Allegheny County
Predicting Development: Mineral Rights Leasing
The locations of permits and active wells are not always good indicators of long-term future development. A better picture can be painted with data on properties leased for eventual drilling. In 2016, FracTracker built the Allegheny County Lease Mapping Project, which revealed the extent of oil and gas leasing agreements across the region. From that work came some interesting findings.
There are 467,200 acres in Allegheny County. We found 63,014 acres (18% of the county) are under some kind of oil and gas agreement – this includes mineral rights leases, as well as other agreement such as pipeline rights of ways. It is important to note that as many as 15% of the records we obtained in executing the project could not be mapped due to missing metadata (many block/lot numbers were no longer provided with online records after 2010), so these are conservative estimates.
The list below shows the top five municipalities found to have the most leases. Of note is how West Deer, North Fayette, and Elizabeth townships all have a significant number of leases, but do not yet register in permitting activity.
Most Leased Municipalities in Allegheny County, PA
- West Deer Township (5,325 leases)
- North Fayette Township (5,070 leases)
- Elizabeth Township (4,070 leases)
- Fawn Township (3,872 leases)
- Forward Township (3,801)
We also discovered that more than 70% of leased properties were zoned residential or agricultural, despite the fact that unconventional oil and gas development is a highly disruptive and industrialized activity. The list below shows a breakdown of zoning designations.
Leased Properties Zoning
- Residential (37%)
- Agricultural (34%)
- Commercial (23%)
- Industrial (3%)
- Other (3%)
Status of Protective Zoning
In 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upended state laws governing local oil and gas zoning rights with its landmark Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decision. The court struck down parts of Act 13 that imposed statewide zoning standards for oil and gas development. Zoning ordinances with stronger ordinances are now being adopted by some townships. However, many others have zoning codes that reflect pre-Robinson language, which allows mineral extraction everywhere, regardless of whether it is a compatible land use.
Drawing the connections between drilling trends, leasing activity, and protective zoning is, therefore, significant. Over the past six months, FracTracker has worked with Food & Water Watch to put our lease mapping data and state drilling data in context with assessments of Allegheny County’s municipal oil and gas zoning ordinances. The map below illustrates these overlaps.
Map of Allegheny County Drilling, Leasing, and Zoning
Allegheny County contains 130 municipalities. Food & Water Watch was able to obtain and review zoning codes for 104 of these 130. At least 56 municipalities have no zoning ordinances specific to oil and gas development. Of greatest concern, when placed in context with leasing and permitting data, FracTracker found that leases already existed in 43 of these 56 municipalities without oil and gas ordinances, although 8 of these 43 were found to have other less restrictive language regulating specific oil and gas activities, such as seismic testing. Fawn Township, one of the most permitted and most leased municipalities in the county, was found to have no oil and gas zoning ordinance.
It’s important to recognize that there is a significant difference between conventional oil and gas development and today’s heavily industrialized unconventional extraction industry. In many of Allegheny County’s municipalities there seems to be a presumption that there is no need to prepare zoning codes for drilling, despite data that suggest increased oil and gas development may be just around the corner.
With the deeper understanding of Allegheny County’s permitting trends, leasing activities, and the state of protective zoning presented in this article, municipalities would be wise to assess where they stand. Reviewing and updating their respective zoning codes to determine if they sufficiently address concerns related to unconventional drilling could be the most effective way to protect the interests of their residents.
Over 50% of land in the United States is dedicated to agriculture. Oil and gas development, particularly hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” is taking place near many of these farms.
Farms feed us, and unfortunately they are not protected from the impacts of fracking. Even if drilling can be done responsibly, accidents happen. In Colorado, for example, two spills occur on average per day, 15% of which result in water contamination.  Risking our food supply is not only a risk to our health – it’s a risk to national security.
Domestic oil and gas production has been promoted by the industry as a means to provide the U.S. with energy independence. The argument goes something like this: “We need to be a net exporter of energy so as to reduce our reliance on foreign countries for these resources, especially countries in the Middle East.” This ignores the point that for energy security we might want to keep rather than export fossil fuels.
However, energy independence and food independence are inextricably linked.
Considering that the basic human needs are clean water, food, shelter, and safety — along with energy — we need to think about self-reliance; we can’t be dependent on foreign countries for our food. The U.S. is currently a net exporter of agricultural products, and California produces 50% of the food consumed in the U.S. But what would happen if our foodsheds became contaminated?
Drilling Proximity – Why the concern?
Over 58% of US agricultural market value and 74% of US farms – both conventional and organic – operate within shale basins, active shale plays, and the primary frac sand geologies.
Why is this so important? Why be concerned? Here are just a few reasons:
- People can be exposed to the compounds involved with oil and gas extraction through spills, emissions, and other processes. The top five health impacts associated with these chemicals are: respiratory, nervous system, birth defects, and reproductive problems, blood disorders, and cancer.
- Rural gas gathering pipelines are unregulated; operators have no obligation to publicly report about incremental failures along the pipeline that may contaminate soil and water as long as they don’t require evacuations.
- Oil and gas operators are exempt from certain provisions of several environmental laws designed to protect public health and safety, including the Safe Water Drinking Act, The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. These exemptions, in a way, permit oil and gas operators to contaminate water supplies with chemicals from their operations, in particular hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced wastewater.
- The gold standard of clean, chemical-free food is the USDA National Organic Program Standards, as governed by the Organic Foods Production Act. Unfortunately, organic certification does not require testing for oil and gas chemicals in water being used in organic production. The organic standard is satisfied as long as state, water, and food safety agencies deem the water safe. To our knowledge these agencies do not test for oil and gas chemicals.
- Based on available data spills occur regularly. Recent research has identified that the mixture of chemicals from fracking fluid and produced wastewater interact in a way that can lead to soil accumulation of these chemicals. Potentially, then, the chemicals may be absorbed by plants. Fifteen chemicals often used in fracking have been identified as toxic, persistent and fast-traveling. Some farms – such as those in Southern California – are being irrigated with produced water from oil and gas operations. Additionally, every single farm in the San Jaoquin Valley is within eight miles of oil and gas operations.
- There is significant Competition for water between natural gas production and agriculture. This includes growing commodity crops for energy, such as ethanol. Natural gas operations result in removing water quantity available for agriculture, and changing the water quality, which affects the agricultural product. In drought stricken areas, water scarcity is already an issue. In addition, extreme heat as a result of climate change is putting more stress on farmers operating in already depleted watersheds. Layered on all of this is the growing realization that precipitation regimes are gradually – and in many places dramatically – transitioning from many smaller and more predictable events to fewer, more intense, and less predictable rain and snow events which is are harder for the landscape to capture, process, and store for agricultural and/or other uses.
- Operating costs: Farmers are already operating under razor- thin margins, with the cost of inputs continually increasing and the resilience of the soils and watersheds they rely upon coming into question with unconventional oil and gas’ expansion across the Midwest and Great Plains.
Over 45% of lands in the Western United States are owned by the federal government. Opening up public lands—by the Bureau of Land Management, United State Forest Service in particular—is controversial on multiple levels. As it relates to food security and independence, the issue often missed is that many headwaters to prime farmland reside on federal lands, along with the majority of cattle grazing.
There isn’t enough private land in the West for oil and gas operators to reach their production goals. They have to drill on public lands in order to scale up production and develop an export market for domestic natural gas. This means that public lands, taxpayer funded public lands, could potentially be used to irreparably harm prime agricultural and grazing lands (foodsheds). More alarming, is that the Trump Administration is focused on unfettered development, extraction and distribution of natural gas resources, including opening up public lands to oil and gas leasing and gutting regulations that protect us from pollution and public health risks.
The map we have developed shows that many of the largest farms in the West are surrounded by public lands. Sixty-percent of Colorado farms are surrounded by public lands, which are within shale basins or active shale plays. Four of the top natural gas producing counties in Colorado are also four of the top agricultural producing counties: Weld, Mesa, Montezuma, and LaPlata counties. The third, fifth, sixth, eighth and tenth agricultural producing counties in the State are surrounded by public lands within shale basins, respectively,: Larimer, Delta, El Paso, Montrose and Douglas counties. The 6,325 farms in these counties represent 17% of all Colorado farms, and 29% (nearly half) of Colorado at-risk farms for being surrounded by public lands and within shale basins.
These farms, headwaters, and public lands need to be protected if we are to maintain food independence and security. Producing potentially contaminated food is neither food independence, nor food security.
Why should policy makers and health insurers care? Chronic and terminal illnesses are on the rise. Healthcare costs have nowhere to go but up as long as the environment we live in, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe continue to be polluted at such a large scale. Attempts to reduce healthcare costs by insuring all Americans will have no impact if they are all sick. The insurance model only works when there are more healthy people in the pool than unhealthy people.
Mapping Conventional & Organic U.S. Farms
Below is an interactive map showing agricultural production in the U.S. You can use the map to zoom in at the county level to understand better the type of agricultural production taking place, as well as the value of the agricultural products at the county level.
U.S. Conventional and Organic Farms and Their Productivity Near Shale Plays and Basins
This map excludes Alaska for a variety of reasons. We include over 180 unique data points for each county across five categories: 1) Crops and Plants, 2) Economics, 3) Farms, 4) Livestock and Animals, and 5) Operators. We then break these major categories into 20 subcategories.
Table 1. Subcategories Utilized in the “US Shale Plays and Basins Along with Agricultural Productivity By County” map above
|Crops and Plants||Field Crops Harvested|
|Fruits, Tree Nuts, Berries, Nursery and Greenhouse|
|Hay and Forage Crops Harvested|
|Seed Crops Harvested|
|Vegetables and Melons Harvested|
|Economics||Buildings, Machinery and Equipment on Operation|
|Farm Production Expenses|
|Farm-Related Income and Direct Sales|
|Farms by Value of Sales|
|Market Value of Agricultural Products Sold|
|Farms||Agricultural Chemicals Used|
|Farms by Size|
|Farms by Type of Organization|
|Land in Farms and Land Use|
|Livestock and Animals||Livestock, Poultry, and Other Animals|
|Operators||Characteristics of Farm Operators|
|Hired Farm Labor|
|Primary Occupation of Operator|
|Tenure of Farm Operators and Farm Operations|
In total, there are 589,922 and 1,369,961 farms in US Shale Plays and Basins, respectively, averaging between 589 and 646 acres in size and spread across 2,146 counties (Figure 1). These farm counties produce roughly $87.31- 218.32 billion in agricultural products each year with the highest value per-acre being the Monterey and Monterey-Temblor Formations of Southern California, the Niobrara Formation in North Central Colorado, Eastern Barnett in North Central Texas, the Antrim in Michigan, and the Northern Appalachian Shale Basins of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio (Figures 2a/2b). Roughly 52% of all agricultural revenue generated in US Shale Play counties comes from livestock, poultry, and derivative products vs. a national average of 44% (Figure 3).
Put another way, the value of US Shale Basin agricultural infrastructure would rank as the 9th largest economy worldwide, between Italy and Brazil.
Family-owned farms are at the greatest risk. While corporations tend to own larger acreage farms, only 8.2% of US farms are owned by corporations. This figure is nearly halved in US Shale Plays, with 4.5% of farms owned by corporations, or 95% owned by families or individuals.
Figures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 above show the number of farms near drilling, as well as variations in the value of agricultural products produced in those regions.
Risk vs. Benefits in CO
Oil and gas activity is regulated on a somewhat patchwork basis, but generally it is overseen at the state level subject to federal laws. New York and Maryland are the only two states that ban fracking, while communities around the country have invoked zoning laws to ban fracking or impose moratoriums on a smaller scale. However, in Colorado, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over oil and gas regulation in the State. There, fracking bans imposed by local communities, with a large number of farms, have been found to be unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court.
Weld County is Colorado’s leading producer of cattle, grain, and sugar beets. Weld is the richest agricultural county in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, the fourth richest overall nationally, and the largest natural gas producer in CO. Compare this to the North Fork Valley on the Western Slope of CO, which is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the state, one of two viticultural (wine making) areas in the state, and has a reputation for being a farm-to-table hub. Delta County, in which the North Fork Valley is located, is known for its sustainable agriculture initiatives. Uniquely, Delta County is one of the few agricultural areas in the country so far untouched by the fracking boom – but that could all change. The Bureau of Land Management is considering opening 95% of BLM lands and minerals within and surrounding Delta County to oil and gas leasing.
Protecting Food Supplies
Oil and gas extraction is taking place on both private and public lands across the country. Prime and unique agricultural lands need to be protected from these industrial activities if we are to maintain food independence and ensure a healthy food supply. As demonstrated by the map above, agricultural communities in active shale plays may already in trouble. To prevent further damages on day-to-day food staples, it is imperative to increase awareness about this consequential issue.
How can people trust that the food they eat is safe to consume? Families trust farmers, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that the food supply chain is regulated and maintained. If most of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water/soil is not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, that supply chain is at risk. The secure production of our food – via clean air, water, and soil – is tantamount to lasting food independence.
I am the leader of Slow Food Western Slope, which functions as a chapter of Slow Food USA. We envision a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet: good, clean and fair food for all. Our chapter promotes and supports over 70 farmers, orchardists, ranchers, agricultural businesses and winemakers of the North Fork Valley – all of which depend on good and clean water, air and soil. With its industrial footprint and potential damage to landscape, air, water, soil and human health, extraction industries have no place in the future of the North Fork Valley. We can build a new economy around clean food, outdoor recreation, healthy lifestyle and small nonthreatening businesses.
Agricultural land is much more valuable in the long-run than the short-term gains promised from oil and gas extraction… As farmers we are attuned to crop, soil, and water conditions especially as a result of weather. If it’s too hot, too dry, too wet, too cold then there is no food. Natural gas extraction is an undeniable factor in changing climate and is incompatible with the practice of sustainable agriculture.
References and More Information
FracTracker Alliance raised awareness of this issue in 2015 when it mapped the proximity of organic farms to oil and gas wells. In that mapping analysis, it was discovered that 11% of organic farms are within ½ mile of oil and gas development. Did you know that less than 1% of agricultural lands in the United States are used to grow crops without chemicals, and that 42% of those organic farms produce food for human consumption?
Organic Farms Near Drilling Activity in the U.S.
This research prompted the question of what about the other 99% of agricultural lands used to grow crops and raise livestock utilizing chemicals and other conventional methods in the United States. The majority of dairy, grains, beef, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and animal feed for livestock are produced on conventional farms. Where are they located, and do we know how they are being impacted by oil and gas development?
The majority of the US population lives in urban centers and is disconnected from the American farm, including how and where food is produced. People trust their farmer, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that they trust their supply chain, and to the extent that the farmers trust their water supply and soils. If the majority of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water and soil are not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, this research questions how people can trust that their food is safe to consume. If we are to maintain our food independence and health, not only do consumers need to understand that the food supply is at risk in order to exercise their rights to protect it at the local, state, and federal levels, but policymakers need to be informed with this data to make better decisions around oil and gas development regulations and development proposals that impact our foodsheds.
- 2015 Colorado Oil and Gas Toxic Release Tracker, Center for Western Priorities
- COMPENDIUM OF SCIENTIFIC, MEDICAL, AND MEDIA FINDINGS DEMONSTRATING RISKS AND HARMS OF FRACKING (UNCONVENTIONAL GAS AND OIL EXTRACTION), Fourth Edition, Physicians for Social Responsibility, November 17, 2016; Colborn T, Kwiatkowski C, Schultz K, Bachran M., Natural gas operations from a public health perspective, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 2011 17(5):1039-1056; Fracking Fumes: Air Pollution from Hydraulic Fracturing Threatens Public Health and Communities, NRDC Issue Brief, December 2014
- 49 CFR §192
- Brady, William J., Hydraulic Fracturing Regulation in the United States: The Laissez-Faire Approach of the Federal Government and Varying State Regulations, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 14 2012
- National Organic Program Standards, 7 CFR Part 205. Organic Foods Production Act, 7 U.S.C. Ch. 94
- Molly C. McLaughlin, Thomas Borch,, and Jens Blotevogel, Spills of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals on Agricultural Topsoil: Biodegradation, Sorption, and Co-contaminant Interactions, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2016, 50, 6071−6078
- AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network, November 2016.
- Matthew Heberger and Kristina Donnelly, OIL, FOOD, AND WATER: Challenges and Opportunities for California Agriculture, Pacific Institute, December 2015.
- Issues with Alaskan agricultural data include incomplete reporting and large degrees of uncertainty in the data relative to the Lower 48.
In this forest fragmentation analysis, FracTracker looked at existing vegetation height in the northern portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin. The vegetation height data is available from LANDFIRE, a resource used by multiple federal agencies to assess wildfire potential by categorizing the vegetation growth in 30 by 30 meter pixels into different categories. In the portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Basin where we looked, there were 29 total categories based on vegetation height. For ease of analysis, we have consolidated those into eight categories, including roads, developed land, forest, herbs, shrubs, crops, mines and quarries, and open water.
We compared the ratio of the total number of each pixel type to the type that was found at vertical and horizontal wells in the region. In this experiment, we hypothesized that we would see evidence of deforestation in the areas where oil and gas development is present. Per our correspondence with LANDFIRE staff, the vegetation height data represents a timeframe of about 2014, so in this analysis, we focused on active wells that were drilled prior to that date. We found that the pixels on which the horizontal wells were located had a significantly different profile type than the overall pixel distribution, whereas conventional wells had a more modest departure from the general characteristics of the region.
In Figure 1, we see that the land cover profile where vertical wells (n=6,198) are present is largely similar to the overall distribution of pixels for the entire study area (n=40,897,818). While these wells are more than six times more likely to be on areas classified as mines, quarries, or barren, it is surprising that the impact is not even more pronounced. In terms of forested land, there is essentially no change from the background, with both at about 73%. However, the profile for horizontal wells (n=3,787) is only 51% forested, as well as being four times more likely than the background to be categorized as herbs, which are defined in this dataset as having a vegetation height of around one meter.
Why Aren’t the Impacts Even More Pronounced?
While the impacts are significant, particularly for horizontal wells, it is a bit surprising that evidence of deforestation isn’t even more striking. We know, for example, that unconventional wells are usually drilled in multi-well pads that frequently exceed five acres of cleared land, so why aren’t these always classified as mines, quarries, and barren land, for example? There are several factors that can help to explain this discrepancy.
First, it must be noted that at 900 square meters, each pixel represents almost a quarter of acre, so the extent of these pixels will not always match with the area of disturbance. And in many cases, the infrastructure for older vertical wells is completely covered by the forest canopy, so that neither well pad nor access road is visible from satellite imagery.
The map above shows horizontal and vertical wells in a portion of Centre County, Pennsylvania, an area within our study region. Note that many of the vertical wells, represented by purple dots, appear to be in areas that are heavily forested, whereas all of the horizontal wells (yellow dots) are on a defined well pad in the lower right part of the frame. Panning around to other portions of Centre County, we find that vertical wells are often in a visible clearing, but are frequently near the edge, so that the chances of the 30 by 30 meter pixel that they fall into is much more likely to be whatever it would have been if the well pad were not there.
We must also consider that this dataset has some limitations. First of all, it was built to be a tool for wildfire management, not as a means to measure deforestation. Secondly, there are often impacts that are captured by the tool that were not exactly on the well site. For this reason, it would make sense to evaluate the area around the well pad in future versions of the analysis.
In Figure 2, we see a number of light grey areas –representing quarries, strip mines, and gravel pits –with an O&G well just off to the side. Such wells did not get classified as being on deforested land in this analysis.
And finally, after clarifying the LANDFIRE metadata with US Forest Service personnel involved in the project, we learned that while the map does represent vegetation cover circa 2014, it is actually build on satellite data collected in 2001, which has subsequently been updated with a detailed algorithm. However, the project is just beginning a reboot of the project, using imagery from 2015 and 2016. This should lead to much more accurate analyses in the future.
Why Forest Fragmentation Matters
The clearing of forests for well pads, pipelines, access roads, and other O&G infrastructure that has happened to date in the Susquehanna Basin is only a small fraction of the planned development. The industry operates at full capacity, there could be tens of thousands of new unconventional wells drilled on thousands of well pads in the region through 2030, according to estimates by the Nature Conservancy. They have also calculated an average of 1.65 miles of gathering lines from the well pad to existing midstream infrastructure. With a typical right-of-way being 100 feet wide, these gathering lines would require clearing 20 acres. It isn’t unusual for the total disturbance for a single well pad and the associated access road to exceed ten acres, making the total disturbance about 30 acres per well pad. Based on the vegetation distribution of the region, we can expect that 22 of these acres, on average, are currently forested land. Taking all of these factors into consideration, a total disturbance of 100,000 to 200,000 acres in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin due to oil and gas extraction, processing, and transmission may well be a conservative estimate, depending on energy choices we make in the coming years.
This forest fragmentation has a number of deleterious effects on the environment. First, many invasive plant species, such as bush honeysuckle and Japanese knotweed, tend to thrive in recently disturbed open areas, where competing native plants have been removed. The practice also threatens numerous animal species that thrive far from the forest’s edge, including a variety of native song birds. The disturbed lands create significant runoff into nearby rivers and streams, which can have an impact on aquatic life. And the cumulative release of carbon into the atmosphere is staggering – consider that the average acre of forest in the United States contains 158,000 pounds of organic carbon per acre. As the area is 73% forested, the total cumulative impact could result in taking 5.8 to 11.6 million tons of organic carbon out of forested storage. Much of this carbon will find its way into the atmosphere, along with the hydrocarbons that are purposefully being extracted from drilling operations.
Guest article by Becca Pollard
Eighty years ago, Southeastern Ohio was a wasteland of barren, eroding hills. During the 18th and 19th centuries this once heavily forested area in the Appalachian foothills had been clear cut and mined beyond recognition. When the Great Depression struck, lowering crop prices made farming unprofitable in the area, and 40% of the population moved away.
In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a public work relief program that employed men aged 18-25 to do manual labor related to conservation and development of natural resources such as planting trees, constructing trails, roads, and lodges, fighting wildfires, and controlling erosion. The following year, Ohio’s legislature agreed to allow the federal government to purchase land in the state for the purpose of establishing a national forest. The Forest Service was tasked with restoring the land for what is now called Wayne National Forest (WNF). A tree nursery was established near Chillicothe, and with the help of the CCC and volunteers, including members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, garden clubs, and school children, reforestation began.
Photos Credit: US Forest Service
An Area on the Mend
Today, WNF comprises three units that span 12 Ohio counties in the Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau. The hills are covered in biologically diverse mixed mesophytic forest, which includes approximately 120 species of trees and provides habitat for at least 45 species of mammals, 158 species of birds, 28 species of reptiles, 29 species of amphibians, and 87 species of fish. The US Forest Service estimates that 240,000 people visit this ecological wonder annually, according to Forest Recreation Program Manager, Chad Wilberger, in Nelsonville, Ohio. The restoration of barren public land to its current state is a great achievement. If it continues to be protected, Wayne could one day resemble the old growth forest that thrived here before the arrival of European settlers.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), however, has recently decided to lease up to 40,000 acres of Wayne to gas and oil companies for horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The first auction took place last December resulting in the lease of 700 acres. A second auction this March leased another 1,200 acres. Nearly all of this land lies within the 60,000 acre Marietta Unit of the forest. This brings Oil & Gas Expressions of Interest (EOI) acreage to roughly 7.5% of all WNF owned parcels in this unit.
Wayne National Forest and Adjacent Existing Oil and Gas Infrastructure
Below is a map of the Wayne National Forest, along with parcels owned by WNF (shown in gray) and those that might be subject to unconventional oil and gas development (gray parcels outlined with dashes). We also include existing unconventional oil and gas infrastructure near the park. Explore the map below, or click here to view the map fullscreen.
Not new, not old
Gas and oil development is not new to the Wayne. Since the passage of The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the US Forest Service’s land management plan for WNF has included conventional drilling, and derricks are a common sight on both public and private land in southeastern Ohio.
Fracking (unconventional drilling), however, has a far greater impact, requiring clear cutting of large areas of land for the construction of concrete well pads, and the use of millions of gallons of water that will become contaminated during the process and then transported by truck to injection wells. Accidents can be catastrophic for workers and nearby residents, and fracking and waste water disposal have been linked to earthquakes in Ohio.
In 2012, BLM updated its WNF Land and Resource Management Plan to allow fracking in the forest without conducting new impact studies.
What is at risk?
The Marietta Unit of the WNF is located in Monroe, Perry, and Washington counties in Southeastern Ohio along the Ohio River. Within its boundary are a wealth of trails used for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, and mountain biking, campgrounds, and waterways ideal for kayaking and fishing. Both the highest and lowest points in the Wayne lie in this unit, as does the Irish Run Natural Bridge. The area is also known for its exceptional wildflowers, as shown in the photos below.
One popular recreation area, Lamping Homestead, lies directly within an oil and gas Expression Of Interest (EOI) parcel #3040602400 (See Map Above), one of the areas under consideration for lease. In the 1800s, it was the site of the Lamping family’s farm, but today all that remains of the settlers is a small cemetery with an iron gate atop a hill overlooking a small lake. Six campsites are situated around the western side of the lake, and two intersecting hiking loops rise into the wooded hills to the east. On the western side of the parking lot is a covered picnic area. A creek flows out of the lake and into Clear Fork, a tributary of the Little Muskingum River, across the road from the parking lot.
Both the lake and stream are popular boating and fishing areas. Lamping is an excellent spot for wildlife viewing. The lake, the creeks that flow in and out of it, and the surrounding wooded hills support an impressive variety of plant and animal species. During the day, visitors might spot ducks, geese, great blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, summer tanagers, red spotted newts, box turtles, northern water snakes, garter snakes, deer, rabbits, and muskrats. At night, they could be greeted by a cacophony of voices from frogs, owls, and coyotes.
Species of trees, plants, and fungus are also numerous. In winter, stands of white pine pop out against the bare branches of oak, hickory, maple, buckeye, and other deciduous trees. In spring, eye-catching splotches of blooming dogwood and redbud contrast against the many shades of green. But hikers who pull their gaze away from the brightly colored canopy and look down are rewarded with an abundance of wildflowers and the butterflies they attract, as well as many varieties of mushrooms and fungus, including such edible varieties as morels, wood ear, and dryad’s saddle.
It is unclear how much surface disturbance would occur on public land if this parcel were to be fracked, but even if the well pad and pipelines were constructed on private land adjacent to the forest, in order to drill under the forest, the public land and its inhabitants and visitors would certainly be impacted.
There is no question that noise and air pollution from traffic and construction would be disruptive both to wildlife and to human visitors. Explore various photos of the oil and gas industry in the gallery below:
The extraction process requires 2 million to 6 million gallons of fresh water each time a well is fracked. The rate at which hydraulic fracturing’s water demand is increasing on a per-well basis here in Ohio reached an exponential state around Q4-2013 and Q1-2014 and continues to rise at a rate of 3.1 million gallons per well per year (Figure 1).
In Ohio, oil and gas companies are allowed to pull this water directly from streams and rivers at no cost. All this is possible, despite the fact that after its use it is so contaminated that it must be disposed of via injection wells and is permanently removed from the water cycle. The industry is already pulling water from streams in the Marietta Unit of the WNF for use in fracking on private land. Fracking public land simply means water withdrawals will occur on a much larger scale.
Ohio and West Virginia Shale Water Demand and Injection Waste Disposal
This map shows Utica wells weighted by water demand and disposal (and/or production). It also depicts water, sand, and chemical usage as well as injection waste and oil production. Explore the map below, or click here to view map fullscreen.
Inevitable methane leaks, in addition to contributing to climate change, affect humans and wildlife in their immediate vicinity, causing headaches and nausea and even killing trees and plants.
In addition to the anticipated harm that fracking inflicts upon a natural area, there is also a risk of accidents with potentially devastating consequences. Residents of Monroe County have already seen a few in recent years from fracking on private land. In 2014, a well pad fire in the village of Clarington resulted in a chemical spill that contaminated nearby Opossum Creek, killing 70,000 fish. The same year a large gas leak 15 miles south in the village of Sardis resulted in the evacuation of all homes within half mile radius.
Recent studies have shown that extraction wells, in addition to injection wells, can cause earthquakes. Unsurprisingly, Monroe County has seen a spike in seismic activity with the increase in fracking activity in the area. The most recent incident was a 3.0 magnitude earthquake in the forest less than five miles from Lamping Homestead in April of this year.
Supporters of Wayne National Forest
Many people have repeatedly spoken out against BLM’s plan, submitting a petition with more than 100,000 signatures, and protesting outside Wayne National Forest Headquarters and Athens Ranger Station in Nelsonville. They have even organized voters to call and write letters to Regional Forester Kathleen Atkinson and legislators, including Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, and Governor John Kasich. BLM has not budged on its decision, unfortunately, insisting that leasing this land for fracking, and associated infrastructure buildout, will have “no significant impact.”
This May, the Center for Biological Diversity, Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Sierra Club, and Heartwood, a regional organization focused on protecting forests, filed a lawsuit against BLM, aiming to void BLM leases and halt all fracking operations within the national forest.
Concerned citizens continue to organize raise awareness as they await the outcome of the suit.
Becca Pollard is Freelance Journalist and Co-founder of Keep Wayne Wild
Click on the links below to download the data used to create this article’s maps:
- Wayne National Forest Oil & Gas Expressions Of Interest (EOI) Parcels, April, 2017
- All Wayne National Forest Owned Parcels, April, 2017
- Wayne National Forest’s Marietta Unit Landcover
- Ohio’s Hydraulic Fracturing Producing Wells 2011 to Q3-2016
- Freshwater demand across 1,500 of Ohio’s Hydraulic Fracturing Wells
Corn Ethanol and Fracking – Similarities Abound
Even though it is a biofuel and not a fossil fuel, in this post we discuss the ways in which the corn ethanol production industry is similar to the fracking industry. For those who may not be familiar, biofuel refers to a category of fuels derived directly from living matter. These may include:
- Direct combustion of woody biomass and crop residues, which we recently mapped and outlined,
- Ethanol1 produced directly from the fermentation of sugarcanes or indirectly by way of the intermediate step of producing sugars from corn or switchgrass cellulose,
- Biodiesel from oil crops such as soybeans, oil palm, jatropha, and canola or cooking oil waste,2 and
- Anaerobic methane digestion of natural gas from manures or human waste.
Speaking about biofuels in 2006, J. Hill et al. said:
To be a viable substitute for a fossil fuel, an alternative fuel should not only have superior environmental benefits over the fossil fuel it displaces, be economically competitive with it, and be producible in sufficient quantities to make a meaningful impact on energy demands, but it should also provide a net energy gain over the energy sources used to produce it.
Out of all available biofuels it is ethanol that accounts for a lion’s share of North American biofuel production (See US Renewables Map Below). This trend is largely because most Americans put the E-10 blends in their tanks (10% ethanol).3 Additionally, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for ethanol production to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022, which would essentially double the current capacity (17.9 billion gallons) and require the equivalent of an additional 260 refineries to come online by then (Table 1, bottom).
US Facilities Generating Energy from Biomass and Waste along with Ethanol Refineries and Wind Farms
But more to the point… the language, tax regimes, and potential costs of both ethanol production and fracking are remarkably similar. (As evidenced by the quotes scattered throughout this piece.) Interestingly, some of the similarities are due to the fact that “Big Ag” and “Big Oil” are coupled, growing more so every year:
The shale revolution has resulted in declining natural gas and oil prices, which benefit farms with the greatest diesel, gasoline, and natural gas shares of total expenses, such as rice, cotton, and wheat farms. However, domestic fertilizer prices have not substantially fallen despite the large decrease in the U.S. natural gas price (natural gas accounts for about 75-85 percent of fertilizer production costs). This is due to the relatively high cost of shipping natural gas, which has resulted in regionalized natural gas markets, as compared with the more globalized fertilizer market. (USDA, 2016)
Ethanol’s Recent History
For background, below is a timeline of important events and publications related to ethanol regulation in the U.S. in the last four decades:
- Energy Research Advisory Board (ERAB) 1980, Gasohol
- ERAB, 1981, “Biomass Energy”
- Office of Energy, 1986, Fuel Ethanol and Agriculture: An Economic Assessment
- Clean Air Act 1990 Amendments (1990 CAAA) ethanol Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) exceptions
- Congressional Research Service, 1994, Alcohol Fuels Tax Incentives and EPA’s Renewable Oxygenate Requirement
- The Biomass Research and Development Act of 2000 (Title III of the Agricultural Risk Protection Act)
- US Department of Energy (DOE), 2002, “Roadmap for biomass technologies in the United States. Biomass Technical Advisory Committee”, Found here and here
- USDA, 2002, Ethanol Cost-of-Production Survey
- US Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), 2003, Crop residue removal for biomass energy production: Effects on soils and recommendations
- US Department of Energy, 2003, Biomass program multi-year technical plan
- The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program is implemented as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and extended in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007
- US DOE, 2005, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
- US Energy Independence and Security Act, 2007
- USDA, 2007, U.S. Ethanol Expansion Driving Changes Throughout the Agricultural Sector
- USDA, 2007, Growing global demands for soy for edible oil, livestock feed, and biodiesel are also contributing to high soy prices (no file found on USDA site anymore)
- Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2011, Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation
- 2014 Farm Bill authorized the “Biomass Crop Assistance Porgram” (aka, The 2014 Agricultural Act)
Benefits of Biofuels
[Bill] Clinton justified the ethanol mandate by declaring that it would provide “thousands of new jobs for the future” and that “this policy is good for our environment, our public health, and our nation’s farmers—and that’s good for America.” EPA administrator Carol Browner claimed that “it is important to our efforts to diversify energy resources and promote energy independence.” – James Bovard citing Peter Stone’s “The Big Harvest,” National Journal, July 30, 1994.
Of the 270 ethanol refineries we had sufficient data for, we estimate these facilities employ 235,624 people or 873 per facility and payout roughly $6.18-6.80 billion in wages each year, at an average of $22.9-25.2 million per refinery. These employees spend roughly 423,000 hours at the plant or at associated operations earning between $14.63 and $16.10 per hour including benefits. Those figures amount to 74-83% of the average US income. In all fairness, these wages are 13-26% times higher than the farming, fishing, and forestry sectors in states like Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa, which alone account for 33% of US ethanol refining.
Additional benefits of ethanol refineries include the nearly 179 million tons of CO2 left in the field as stover each year, which amounts to 654,532 tons per refinery. Put another way – these amounts are equivalent to the annual emissions of 10.7 million and 39,194 Americans, respectively.
Finally, what would a discussion of ethanol refineries be without an estimate of how much gasoline is produced? It turns out that the 280 refineries (for which we have accurate estimates of capacity) produce an average of 71.93 million gallons per year and 20.1 billion gallons in total. That figure represents 14.3% of US gasoline demand.
Costs of Biofuels
Biofuel expansions such as those listed in the timeline above and those eluded to by the likes of the IPCC have several issues associated with them. One of which is what Pimentel et al. considered an insufficient – and to those of us in the fracking NGO community, familiar sounding – “breadth of relevant expertise and perspectives… to pronounce fairly and roundely on this many-sided issue.”
The above acts and reports in the timeline prompted many American farmers to double down on corn at the expense of soybeans, which caused Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC); the global soy market skyrocketed. This, in turn, prompted the clearing and/or burning of large swaths of the Amazonian rainforests and tropical savannas in Brazil, the world’s second-leading soy producer. More recently, large swaths of Indonesia and Malaysia’s equally biodiverse peatland forests have been replaced by palm oil plantations (Table 2 and Figure 3, bottom). In the latter countries, forest displacement is increasing by 2.7-5.3% per year, which is roughly equal to the the rate of land-use change associated with hydraulic fracturing here in the US4 (Figure 1).
Figures 1A and 1B. Palm Oil Production in A) Indonesia and B) Malaysia between 1960 and 2016.
There is an increasing amount of connectivity between disparate regions of the world with respect to energy consumption, extraction, and generation. These connections also affect how we define renewable or sustainable:
In a globalized world, the impacts of local decisions about crop preferences can have far reaching implications. As illustrated by an apparent “corn connection” to Amazonian deforestation, the environmental benefits of corn-based biofuel might be considerably reduced when its full and indirect costs are considered. (Science, 2007)
These authors pointed to the fact that biofuel expectations and/or mandates fail to account for costs associated with atmospheric – and leaching – emissions of carbon, nitrogen, phophorus, etc. during the conversion of lands, including diverse rainforests, peatlands, savannas, and grasslands, to monocultures. Also overlooked were:
- The ethical concerns associated with growing malnourishment from India to the United States,
- The fact that 10-60%5 more fossil fuel derived energy is required to produce a unit of corn ethanol than is actually contained within this very biofuel, and
- The tremendous “Global land and water grabbing” occuring in the name of natural resource security, commodification, and biofuel generation.
Sacrificing long-term ecological/food security in the name of short-term energy security has caused individuals and governments to focus on taking land out of food production and putting it into biofuels.
The rationale for ethanol subsidies has continually changed to meet shifting political winds. In the late 1970s ethanol was championed as a way to achieve energy independence. In the early 1980s ethanol was portrayed as salvation for struggling corn farmers. From the mid and late 1980s onward, ethanol has been justified as saving the environment. However, none of those claims can withstand serious examination. (James Bovard, 1995)
This is instead of going the more environmentally friendly route of growing biofuel feedstocks on degraded or abandoned lands. An example of such an endeavor is the voluntary US Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has stabilized at roughly 45-57 thousand square miles of enrolled land since 1990, even though the average payout per acre has continued to climb (Figure 2).
The primary goals of the CRP program are to provide an acceptable “floor” for commodity prices, reduce soil erosion, enhance wildlife habitat, ecosystem services, biodiversity, and improve water quality on highly erodible, degraded, or flood proned croplands. Interestingly CRP acreage has declined by 27% since a high of 56 thousand square miles prior to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 being passed. Researchers have pointed to the fact that corn ethanol production on CRP lands would create a carbon debt that would take 48 years to repay vs. a 93 year payback period for ethanol on Central US Grasslands.
To quote Fred Magdoff in The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels:
Alternative fuel sources are attractive because they can be developed and used without questioning the very workings of the economic system — just substitute a more “sustainable,” “ecologically sound,” and “renewable” energy for the more polluting, expensive, and finite amounts of oil. People are hoping for magic bullets to “solve” the problem so that capitalist societies can continue along their wasteful growth and consumption patterns with the least disruption. Although prices of fuels may come down somewhat — with dips in the business cycle, higher rates of production, or a burst in the speculative bubble in the futures market for oil — they will most likely remain at historically high levels as the reserves of easily recovered fuel relative to annual usage continues to decline.
Indirect Costs: Ethanol, Fertilizers, and the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone
This is the Midwest vs. the Middle East. It’s corn farmers vs. the oil companies. – Dwaney Andreas in Big Stink on the Farm by David Greising
Sixty-nine percent6 of North America’s ethanol refineries are within the Mississippi River Basin (MRB). These refineries collectively rely on corn that receives 1.9-5.1 million tons of nitrogen each year, with a current value of $1.06-2.91 billion dollars or 9,570-26,161 tons of nitrogen per refinery per year (i.e. $5.42-14.81 million per refinery per year). These figures account for 27-73% of all nitrogen fertilizer used in the MRB each year. More importantly, the corn acreage receiving this nitrogen leaches roughly 0.81-657 thousand tons of it directly into the MRB. Such a process amounts to 5-44% of all nitrogen discharged into the Gulf of Mexico each year and 1.7-13.8 million tons of algae responsible for the Gulf’s growing Dead Zone.
Leaching of this nitrogen is analogous to flushing $45.7-371.6 million dollars worth of precious capital down the drain. Put another way, these dollar figures translate into anywhere between 55% and an astonishing 4.53 times Direct Costs to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries of the Dead Zone itself.
These same refineries rely on corn acreage that also receives 0.53-2.61 million tons of phosphorus each year with a current value of 0.34-1.66 billion dollars. Each refinery has a phosphrous footprint in the range of 2,700 to 13,334 tons per year (i.e., $1.72-8.47 million). We estimate that 25,399-185,201 tons of this fertilizer phosphorus is leached into the the MRB, which is equivalent to 19% or as much as 1.42 times all the phosphorous dischared into the Gulf of Mexico per year. Such a process means $16.13-117.60 million is lost per year.
Together, the nitrogen and phosphorus leached from acreage allocated to corn ethanol have a current value that is between 75% and nearly 6 times the value lost every year to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries.
Indirect Costs: Fertilizer and Herbicide Costs and Leaching
The 270 ethanol refineries we have quality production data for are relying on corn that receives 367,772 tons of herbicide and insecticide each year, with a current value of $6.67 billion dollars or 1,362 tons of chemical preventitive per refinery per year (i.e. $24.7 million per refinery per year). More importantly the corn acreage receiving these inputs leaches roughly 15.8-128.7 thousand tons of it directly into surrounding watersheds and underlying aquifers. Leaching of these inputs is analogous to flushing $287 million to $2.3 billion dollars down the drain.
During the recent Trump administration EPA, USDA, DOE administrator hearings, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was cited as critical to American energy independence by a bipartisan group of 23 senators. Among these were Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Chuck Grassley, who co-wrote a letter to new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt demanding that the RFS remains robust and expands when possible. In the words of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp – and long-time ethanol supporter – straight from the heart of the Bakken Shale Revolution in North Dakota:
The RFS has worked well for North Dakota farmers, and I’m fighting to defend it. As we’re doing today in this letter, I’ll keep pushing in the U.S. Senate for the robust RFS [and Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs)] we need to support a thriving biofuels industry and stand up for biofuels workers. Biofuels create good-paying jobs in North Dakota and help support our state’s farmers, who rely on this important market – particularly when commodity prices are challenging.
Furthermore, the entire Iowa congressional delegation including the aforementioned Sen. Grassley joined newly minted USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue when he told the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association:
You have nothing to worry about. Did you hear what he said during the campaign? Renewable energy, ethanol, is here to stay, and we’re going to work for new technologies to be more efficient.
How this advocacy will play out and how the ethanol industry will respond (i.e., increase productivity per refinery or expand the number of refineries) is anybody’s guess. However, it sounds like the same language, lobbying, and advertising will continue to be used by the Ethanol and Unconventional Oil and Gas industries. Additional parallels are sure to follow with specific respect to water, waste, and land-use.
Furthermore, as both industries continue their ramp up in research and development, we can expect to see productivity per laborer to continue on an exponential path. The response in DC – and statehouses across the upper Midwest and Great Plains – will likely be further deregulation, as well.
From a societal perspective, an increase in ethanol production/grain diversion away from people’s plates has lead to a chicken-and-egg positive feedback loop, whereby our farmers continue to increase total and per-acre corn production with less and less people. In rural areas, mining and agriculture have been the primary employment sectors. A further mechanization of both will likely amplify issues related to education, drug dependence, and flight to urban centers (Figures 4A and B).
We still don’t know exactly how efficient ethanol refineries are relative to Greenhouse Gas Emissions per barrel of oil. By merging the above data with facility-level CO2 emissions from the EPA Facility Level Information on Greenhouse gases Tool (FLIGHT) database we were able to match nearly 200 of the US ethanol refineries with their respective GHG emissions levels back to 2010. These facilities emit roughly:
- 195,116 tons of CO2 per year, per facility,
- A total of 36.97 million tons per year (i.e., 2.11 million Americans worth of emissions), and
- 22,265 tons of CO2 per barrel of ethanol produced.
Emissions from ethanol will increase to 74.35 million tons in 2022 if the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007’s prescriptions run their course. Such an upward trend would be equivalent to the GHG emissions of somewhere between that of Seattle and Detroit.
What was once a singles match between Frackers and Sheikhs may turn into an Australian Doubles match with the Ethanol Lobby and Farm Bureau joining the fray. This ‘game’ will only further stress the food, energy, and water (FEW) nexus from California to the Great Lakes and northern Appalachia.
We are on a thinner margin of food security, just as we are on a thinner margin of oil security… The [World] Bank implicitly questions whether it is wise to divert half of the world’s increased output of maize and wheat over the next decade into biofuels to meet government “mandates.” – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Telegraph
Will long-term agricultural security be sacrificed in the name of short-term energy independence?
Figures 4A and 4B. A) Number of Laborers in the US Mining, Oil and Gas, Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting sector and B) US Corn Production Metrics Per Farm Laborer between 1947 and 2015.
Table 1. Summary of our Corn Ethanol Production, Land-Use, and Water Demand analysis
|Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year||17,847,616,000|
|Bushels of Corn Needed||6,374,148,571|
|Percent of US Production||44.73%|
|Land Needed||104,372,023 acres|
|“”||163,081 square miles|
|Percent of Contiguous US Land||5.51%|
|Percent of US Agricultural Land||11.28%|
|Gallons of Water Needed||49.76 trillion (i.e. 3.55 million swimming pools)|
|Gallons of Water Per Gallon of Oil||2,788|
|Average and Total Site/Industry Capacity|
|Average Corn Ethanol Production Per Existing or Under Construction Facility (n = 257)||69,717,250|
|Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year||17,847,616,000|
|Difference Between 2022 Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 36 Billion Gallon Mandate||18,152,384,000|
|# of New Refineries Necessary to Get to 2022 Levels||260|
|Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory||1.7|
|IEA 2009 World Energy Outlook 250-620% Increase Predictions for 2030|
|# of New Refineries Necessary||640|
|Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory||150.00|
|# of New Refineries Necessary||1,587|
|Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory||520.00|
Table 2. Global Population Growth and Corn and Soybean Productivity Trends.
|+1.13%||Global Population Growth Trend|
|Corn (Bushels Per Acre)|
|+1.15% Per Year||United States|
|+1.20% Per Year||Global|
|Soybean (Tons Per Acre)|
|+0.9% Per Year||United States|
|+1.5% Per Year||Brazil|
|Palm Oil (Tons)|
|+5.1% Per Year||Indonesia|
|+2.7% Per Year||Malaysia|
References and Footnotes
- Ethanol as defined in the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Corporation Franchise Tax 5733.46 means “fermentation ethyl alcohol derived from agricultural products, including potatoes, cereal, grains, cheese whey, and sugar beets; forest products; or other renewable resources, including residue and waste generated from the production, processing, and marketing of agricultural products, forest products, and other renewable resources that meet all of the specifications in the American society for testing and materials (ASTM) specification D 4806-88 and is denatured as specified in Parts 20 and 21 of Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations.”
- A) Pyrolysis is included in the biofuel category and involves the anaerobic decay of cellulose rich feedstocks such as switchgrass at high temperatures producing synthetic diesel or syngas, and
B) According to many researchers biofuels made from waste biomass or crops grown on degraded and abandoned lands with warm-season prairie grasses and legumes incur little or no carbon debt and provide “immediate and sustained Greenhouse Gas (GHG) advantages” by rehabilitating soil health and capturing, rather than emitting by way of increased fertilizer use, various forms of nitrogen including N2O, NO3–, and NO2–.
- According to Fred Magdoff, the ethanol complex is lobbying for “more automobile engines capable of using E-85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) for which there are currently 2,710 fueling stations across the country although 56% of them are in just nine states: 1) Wisconsin (117), 2) Missouri (107), 3) Minnesota (335), 4) Michigan (174), 5) Indiana (172), 6) Illinois (221), 7) Iowa (193), 8) Texas (99), and 9) Ohio (97). Some states are mandating a mixture greater than 10 percent. Ethanol can’t be shipped together with gasoline in pipelines because it separates from the mixture when moisture is present, so it must be trucked to where it will be mixed with gasoline.” The E-85 blend comes with its own costs including higher emissions of CO, VOC, PM10, SOx, and NOx than gasoline.
- McClaugherty, C., Auch, W. Genshock, E. and H. Buzulencia. (2017). Landscape impacts of infrastructure associated with Utica shale oil and gas extraction in eastern Ohio, Ecological Society of America, 100th Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, August, 2015.
- Hill et al. recently indicated “Ethanol yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas biodiesel yields 93% more.”
- An additional 9-10 refineries or 73% of all ethanol refineries are within 25 miles of the Mississippi River Basin.
By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Click on the links below to download the datasets used to create the maps in this article.
A dairy farmer in Wisconsin reflects upon a new industry in town: frac sand mining, how it is perceived, and where the industry is headed.
By Paul Jereczek
Jereczek Homestead Dairy, Dodge, Wisconsin
In 4th grade, every Wisconsin student learns about their state. Topics pertaining to Wisconsin’s economy, geography, and history along with ethnicity and traditions are introduced and explored. State facts and anecdotes are discussed and naturally memorized. The one that stood out to me the most was how Wisconsin became known as the “Badger State.”
The origin of the badger nickname is from mining. The 4th grade story I remember was that miners were too busy to build houses so they moved into abandoned mineshafts and/or dug their own burrows. These men became known as “badgers.” The 4th grade version of myself thought that was real impressive. I pictured strong, hard working men fiercely toiling away in the earth like mythical creatures, helping make Wisconsin what it is today.
It made for a great story.
Back to Reality
The reality and documentation of the times suggests something different. Most miners lived in cabins or other structures above ground. There most certainly were a few outliers on the fringe of mining society who burrowed their own holes or lived in abandoned underground mines, but the adult version of myself has a hard time imagining that the term used to describe such men – badgers – was used as a compliment.
Either way, the result is the same. Word spread and eventually Wisconsin became known as the Badger State. The state may be known worldwide for its cheese and agriculture, but there was mining in Wisconsin long before the first dairy cow. While the state was earning its nickname, mining was a prominent reason for the early success of the region.
Dairy Farming in WI
Our farm is in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin – a driftless area – meaning the land was not covered by glaciers during the last ice age. The terrain is hilly and uneven, with tree-topped bluffs and hills overlooking valleys. The valleys, ranging from deep and narrow to wide and shallow, bump and flow into each other. Over the years, our farm has received its fair share of breaker rock, crushed rock, and gravel from the prevalent rock quarries. Sandstone deposits are huge and close to the surface. As a kid, there was a ledge in the cow pasture, where I hunted through chunks of sandstone for fossils.
As with everything else in the world, dairy farming continues to change. Most barns sit derelict and hold only memories of cows as they fade into the landscape. Small farms that clung to the valley walls have been sold to bigger operations, sit vacant, or have been built over. A lot of once prime farmland has been converted into houses with ridiculously large lawns. In 1990, Wisconsin had over 34,000 licensed dairy herds. Now there are just over 9,000.
We are the last dairy farm in our valley. Parallel to the trend, my childhood herd of 40 cows has turned to 200, which is about an average-sized herd. Margins are tighter than ever. Consistent help is hard to find. Milk prices are a terrible rollercoaster ride – it seems to take forever for them to go up, but when they fall, it’s fast and sickening. In the dairy business world, survival is a measure of success.
Frac Sand Mining Perceptions
The term frac sand is relatively new to me. I always assumed sand was sand and had given the word sand a negative connotation. Sand’s large particles don’t hold moisture or nutrients well, so sandy fields tend to perform poorly. But what if that sand has value for something else? What if there is a market for this sand much like a market for corn or soybeans?
Farmers tend to be resourceful. Every asset is scrutinized and employed to the fullest. Every acre is pushed. But what about what may lie beneath the soil? Sand mining has been going on in Wisconsin for well over a hundred years, but the recent surge in fracking has created an enormous demand for frac sand – and there are many people and companies set to take advantage of the boom.
Trempealeau County has zoning and planning ordinances to protect its industries and way of life. These aggressive ordinances allow more citizen input than other county’s ordinances. Public hearings are required, and orderly processes are enforced. With the economics involved with frac sand mining, citizens got educated very quickly. Much like abortion or immigration, frac sand has become a polarizing subject. Strong emotions built up by personal ideologies have pushed this topic to a boiling point. The for and against groups trade barbs without much convincing being done on either side. Frac sand mining editorials are common in local papers with those against appearing to be the most vocal and emotional.
New Player, New Approach
One such editorial detailed the approach a sand company took to obtaining a property. A local farmer had a sand mine company representative approach him with an oversized check written out to him for a sizable amount of money for his land. It was as though the sand rep was taking a page out of the Publishers Clearing House’s playbook. The farmer turned down the check. The sand rep left and returned a short time later with a significantly larger offer. The farmer was equally surprised and insulted. He found out later a few neighbors turned down similar proposals.
So what’s the deal with such a brazen approach? Intentions from this company may well have been good. Many people believed the sand mines were a win-win opportunity. Companies were selling hype – there was no way for anything but success. Extreme optimism. Sand mines were going to increase the tax base, fund schools and roads. Concerns were minimized, and residents were told what they wanted to hear. Such talk produced plenty of skeptics.
Environmental Costs of Frac Sand Mining
With both dairying and fracking, there is an environmental cost. Whether you milk 10, 100, or 1,000 cows – there are environmental pressures. With sand mining, the environmental effects are well documented. It is important, if not just practical, to measure these with the fiscal rewards. And where does this money go and who benefits the most? But, most importantly, who must deal with the consequences?
The risks of sand mines can be mitigated if proper regulations are taken seriously. With the extra scrutiny, a magnifying glass was placed over the sand mines, and what was found only proved the skeptics right. Trapping or pooling storm water seemed to be a learning process for sand mine companies; reported in 2012, every operating sand mine in Trempealeau County had storm water runoff violations. In 2014, over half of the sand mines in all of Wisconsin had violated environmental regulations imposed by the Department of Natural Resources. Add to this loss of surrounding property values, damage to roads, and a damper on quality of life – and you’ll create a substantial amount of public backlash.
Regulations Have Their Place
As was mentioned earlier, mining Is not new to the state. There are many multi-generational mining companies who have the experience, tradition, and financial network to abide by current standards and environmental regulations. Nobody likes to be told what to do. No industry is out there begging for more regulations. Often, the rules are in place to protect – not hinder – those that use environmentally safe and humane practices. Dairying has its own unique regulations – some are good, some not so much, and some downright stupid. Yet, overall it can be argued that these regulations protect the industry and the environment.
One heated topic in the dairy industry involves the sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk. It is illegal for any dairy in the state to sell raw milk. I have been drinking raw milk straight from the bulk tank since before I can remember. Our whole family did. Now, I still drink it and so do all my children from the age of a year and a half on up. None of us has ever had trouble with it. However, I am in complete agreement that the sale of raw milk should be illegal. All it takes is for one child to get terribly sick (which most certainly would happen) and for that kid lying on a hospital bed being blasted by every news network in the nation. These images create strong negative emotions that reverberate throughout society. The potential costs far outweigh the economic benefits from such a sale. Sure, some people are upset, but the greater good is maintained by taking away a risky practice.
The same principle works for mining. Rules and regulations get negative press and reaction, but who stands to lose the most from environmental catastrophes related to mining – the company in business 90-some years or the startup mining ventures trying to capture lightning in a bottle? Some companies have built years of trust and compatibility and support for their local communities. These are businesses that will remain after the sand rush has fizzled.
Booms and Busts, Ups and Downs
The frac sand industry is going through the same economic cycle as the dairy industry. The sand companies are getting better at what they do and increase their production capacity. Like milk, sand is a commodity. As the price of sand decreased, production increased to maintain profits. The dairy industry does the same thing, by expanding and improving efficiency to get more milk to catch those dollars slipping away. However, when the market is flush with milk or bombed with sand, they’re just doing more damage to themselves. This is a simplified take on the industry, as there are many global factors that come into play, but the overall pattern tends to remain. As the dairy industry can attest, this fluctuating cycle is not sustainable for all producers.
Worse yet for the sand industry, this cycle has occurred in hyper speed. At first, just the small mines cut production. Outcompeted by larger operations, production at smaller mines was no longer profitable. Soon, the larger mines cut production due to the weakening demand. Many mines in the permit or early production phases never got started. Unlike the dairy industry, there was no rollercoaster effect because prices have yet to return to prior levels. The bubble, it seems, had popped.
With any kind of new mine developed comes the environmental impacts. Yet, I find the fervent negative reaction to such practices directly related to the end result. Fracking. Fracking isn’t magic. They’re not just mixing water with this sand and forcing oil and gas out of the ground. Harmful chemicals are being added to the mix. Worst yet, the quantity and potency of such chemicals is kept secret, closely guarded from the public. Harmful chemicals are being legally pumped into the ground. All the short-term gains will have long-term consequences. This is where I believe a significant backlash for new mines comes from. The end result. Can you imagine what the public’s perception of dairy farms would be if milk was mixed with chemicals and pumped into the ground?
The Future of Dairy Farming in Wisconsin
The 2016 presidential election has breathed some life into the frac sand industry. The new president promises to cut regulations interfering with business, and thus far has kept those promises. The environment will not be a detriment to his goals. Sand companies are returning with ads in the local papers, looking for qualified applicants and offering great salaries. In contrast, the dairy industry is stuck in a rollercoaster spiral. Milk prices have been too low for far too long. The dairy dispersal continues with some very good cows being sold and very good dairymen and women calling it quits. Naturally, some land will be sold. To what end remains to be seen. But it is a safe bet, the frac sand mining ride has not ended.