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

 

By Emma Vieregge, FracTracker Summer 2020 Environmental and Health Fellow

Overview

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

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

Mental health, green spaces, and a changing landscape

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Study design

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

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

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

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

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

Main findings and emergent themes

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

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

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

 

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

 

Impacts to outdoor recreation activities

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

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

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

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

 

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

View map fullscreen

Mental health impacts

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

Sentimental value and emotional distress

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

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

Feelings of powerlessness and social tension

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

Survey results

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

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

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

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

Conclusion and future directions

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

 

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

 

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

 

By Emma Vieregge, FracTracker Summer 2020 Environmental and Health Fellow

 

Acknowledgements

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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Foreign Trade Zone Sign Feature

Industry Targets Peaceful Protest via “Critical Infrastructure” Legislation

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator and Shannon Smith, Manager of Communications & Development

The oil and gas industry continues to use rhetoric focusing on national security and energy independence in order to advocate for legislation to criminalize climate activists. Backlash against protestors and environmental stewards has only increased since the onset of COVID-19, suggesting that industry proponents are exploiting this public health crisis to further their own dangerous and controversial policies.[1]

Industry actors contributing to the wave of anti-protest bills include American Petroleum Institute (API), IHS Markit, The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), and most effectively, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), by way of its primary financial backer, Koch Industries (Fang, 2014, Shelor, 2017).

ALEC is the source of the model legislation “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” of 2017, intended to make it a felony to “impede,” “inhibit,” “impair,” or “interrupt” critical infrastructure operation and/or construction. Close approximations – if not exact replicas – of this legislative template have been passed in 11 hydrocarbon rich and/or pathway states, and 8 more are being debated in 4 additional states.

The “critical infrastructure” designation in ALEC’s “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” is extremely broad, including over 70 pieces of infrastructure, from wastewater treatment and well pads, to ports and pipelines. However, along with the 259 Foreign Trade Zones (FTZ) (Figures 1 and 4) supervised by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), security is of such importance because over 50% of this infrastructure is related to oil and gas. According to our analysis, there are more than 8,000 unique pieces of infrastructure that fall under this designation, with over 10% in the Marcellus/Utica states of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. See Figure 1 for the number of FTZ per state.

Regarding FTZ, the US Department of Homeland Security doesn’t attempt to hide their genuine nature, boldly proclaiming them “… the United States’ version of what are known internationally as free-trade zones … to serve adequately ‘the public interest’.” If there remains any confusion as to who these zones are geared toward, the US Department of Commerce’s International Administration (ITA) makes the link between FTZ and the fossil fuel industry explicit in its FTZ FAQ page, stating “The largest industry currently using zone procedures is the petroleum refining industry.” (Figure 2)

 

Figure 1. Number of Foreign-Trade Zones (FTZ) by state as of June 2020.

Figure 2. Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zones 87 in Lake Charles, LA, 115-117 in and around Port Arthur, TX, and 122 in Corpus Christi, TX. (click on the images to enlarge)

 

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zone 87 in Lake Charles, Louisiana

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zone 87 in Lake Charles, Louisiana

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zones 115-117 in and around Port Arthur, Texas

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zones 115-117 in and around Port Arthur, Texas

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zone 122 in Corpus Christi, Texas

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zone 122 in Corpus Christi, Texas

 

Much of the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries’ efforts stem from the mass resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Native American tribes and environmental groups spent months protesting the environmentally risky $3.78 billion dollar project, which began production in June 2017, after Donald Trump signed an executive order to expedite construction during his first week in office. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe also sued the US government in a campaign effort to protect their tribal lands. The world watched as Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company building the pipeline, destroyed Native artifacts and sacred sites, and as police deployed tear gas and sprayed protesters with water in temperatures below freezing.

ETP’s bottom line and reputation were damaged during the fight against DAPL. Besides increasingly militarized law enforcement, the oil and gas industry has retaliated by criminalizing similar types of protests against fossil fuel infrastructure. However, the tireless work of Native Americans and environmental advocates has resulted in a recent victory in March 2020, when a federal judge ordered a halt to the pipeline’s production and an extensive new environmental review of DAPL.

Just days ago, on July 6, 2020, a federal judge ruled that DAPL must shut down until further environmental review can assess potential hazards to the landscape and water quality of the Tribe’s water source. This is certainly a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other environmental defenders, but the decision is subject to appeal.

Since the DAPL conflict began, the industry has been hastily coordinating state-level legislation in anticipation of resistance to other notable national gas transmission pipelines, more locally concerning projects like Class II Oil and Gas Waste Injection Wells, and miles of gas gathering pipelines that transport increasing streams of waste – as well as oil and gas – to coastal processing sites.

 

The following “critical infrastructure” bills have already been enacted:

STATE BILL TITLE DATE PASSED
West Virginia HB 4615 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES 3/25/20
South Dakota SB 151 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR PIPELINES AND OTHER INFRASTRUCTURE 3/18/20
Kentucky HB 44 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR PIPELINES AND OTHER INFRASTRUCTURE 3/16/20
Wisconsin AB 426 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES 11/21/19
Missouri HB 355 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES 7/11/19
Texas HB 3557 NEW CRIMINAL AND CIVIL PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS AROUND CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE 6/14/19
Tennessee SB 264 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES 5/10/19
Indiana SB 471 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE 5/6/19
North Dakota HB 2044 HEIGHTENED PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE 4/10/19
Louisiana HB 727 HEIGHTENED PENALTIES FOR PROTESTING NEAR A PIPELINE 5/30/18
Oklahoma HB 1123 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE 5/3/17

 

There are an additional eight bills proposed and under consideration in these six states:

STATE PENDING TITLE DATE PROPOSED
Louisiana HB 197 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE 2/24/20
Minnesota HF 3668 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES 2/24/20
Mississippi HB 1243 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE 2/19/20
Alabama SB 45 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES 2/4/20
Minnesota HF 2966 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR OIL AND GAS PIPELINES 1/31/20
Minnesota SF 2011 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES 3/4/19
Ohio SB 33 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE 2/12/19
Illinois HB 1633 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE 1/31/19

 

Desperate Backlash Against Peaceful Protest

Activists and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are framing their opposition to such legislation as an attempt to stave off the worst Orwellian instincts of our elected officials, whether they are in Columbus or Mar-a-Lago. On the other hand, industry and prosecutors are framing these protests as terroristic acts that threaten national security, which is why sentencing comes with a felony conviction and up to ten years in prison. The view of the FBI’s deputy assistant director and top official in charge of domestic terrorism John Lewis is that, “In recent years, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front have become the most active, criminal extremist elements in the United States … the FBI’s investigation of animal rights extremists and ecoterrorism matters is our highest domestic terrorism investigative priority.”

It shocked many when last week, two protesters in the petrochemical-laden “Cancer Alley” region of Louisiana were arrested and charged under the state’s felony “terrorist” law. Their crime? Placing boxes of nurdles – plastic pellets that are the building blocks of many single-use plastic products – on the doorsteps of fossil fuel lobbyists’ homes. To make matters more ridiculous, the nurdles were illegally dumped by the petrochemical company Formosa Plastics.[2] This is outrageous indeed, but is the sort of legally-sanctioned oppression that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been successfully advocating for years.

American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) stated in a letter of support for ALEC’s legislative efforts:

“In recent years, there has been a growing and disturbing trend of individuals and organizations attempting to disrupt the operation of critical infrastructure in the energy, manufacturing, telecommunications, and transportation industries. Energy infrastructure is often targeted by environmental activists to raise awareness of climate change and other perceived environmental challenges. These activities, however, expose individuals, communities, and the environment to unacceptable levels of risk, and can cause millions of dollars in damage … As the private sector continues to expand and maintain the infrastructure necessary to safely and reliably deliver energy and other services to hundreds of millions of Americans, policymakers should continue to consider how they can help discourage acts of sabotage … Finally, it will also hold organizations both criminally and vicariously liable for conspiring with individuals who willfully trespass or damage critical infrastructure sites.”

Those organizations deemed ‘criminally and vicariously liable’ would in some states face fines an order of magnitude greater than the actual individual, which would cripple margin-thin environmental groups around the country, and could amount to $100,000 to $1,000,000. The AFPM’s senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs Derrick Morgan referred to these vicarious organizations as “inspiring … organizations who have ill intent, want to encourage folks to damage property and endanger lives …”

Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association (OKOGA) wrote in a fear-mongering letter to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin that such legislation was necessary to “protect all Oklahomans from risk of losing efficient and affordable access to critical services needed to power our daily lives.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of this legislation is that it could, according to the testimony and additional concerns of ACLU of Ohio’s Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels, equate “‘impeding’ and ‘inhibiting’ the ‘operations’ of a critical infrastructure site” with acts as innocuous as Letters to the Editor, labor strikes or protests, attending and submitting testimony at hearings, or simply voicing your concern or objections to the validity of industry claims and its proposals with emails, faxes, phone calls, or a peaceful protest outside critical infrastructure that raises the concern of site security. Mr. Daniels noted in his additional written testimony that the latter, “may prove inconvenient to the site’s staff, under SB 250 they would be an F3 [Third Degree Felony], and that is without someone even stepping foot on or near the property, as physical presence is not required to be guilty of criminal mischief, as found in/defined in Sec. 2907.07(A)(7) of the bill.”

RISE St. James

Figure 3. A rally held by the Louisiana-based nonprofit RISE St. James.

This connection, when enshrined into law, will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and assembly, and will stop protests or thoughtful lines of questioning before they even start. As the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) put it in their request for residents to ask the governor to veto the now-enacted HB 4615, such a bill is unnecessary, duplicative, deceitful, un-American, unconstitutional, and “will further crowd our jails and prisons.”

To combat such industry-friendly legislation that erodes local government control in Ohio, lawmakers like State Senator Nikki Antonio are introducing resolutions like SR 221, which would, “abolish corporate personhood and money-as-speech doctrine” made law by the Supreme Court of the United States’ rulings in Citizens United v. FEC and Buckley v. Valeo. After all, the overarching impact of ALEC’s efforts and those described below furthers privatized, short-term profit and socialized, long-term costs, and amplifies the incredibly corrosive Citizen’s United decision a little over a decade ago.

 

Further Criminalization of Protest, Protections for Law Enforcement

Simultaneously, there is an effort to criminalize protest activities through “riot boosting acts,” increased civil liability and decreased police liability, trespassing penalties, and new sanctions for protestors who conceal their identities (by wearing a face mask, for example).

 

The following bills have already been enacted:

STATE BILL TITLE DATE PASSED
South Dakota SB 189 EXPANDED CIVIL LIABILITY FOR PROTESTERS AND PROTEST FUNDERS 3/27/19
West Virginia HB 4618 ELIMINATING POLICE LIABILITY FOR DEATHS WHILE DISPERSING RIOTS AND UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLIES 3/10/18
North Dakota HB 1426 HEIGHTENED PENALTIES FOR RIOT OFFENCES 2/23/17
North Dakota HB 1293 EXPANDED SCOPE OF CRIMINAL TRESPASS 2/23/17
North Dakota HB 1304 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY 2/23/17

 

In addition, the following bills have been proposed and are under consideration:

STATE PENDING TITLE DATE PROPOSED
Rhode Island H 7543 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY 2/12/20
Oregon HB 4126 HARSH PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY 1/28/20
Tennessee SB 1750 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY 1/21/20
Ohio HB 362 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY 10/8/19
Pennsylvania SB 887 NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR “CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE” 10/7/19
Massachusetts HB 1588 PROHIBITION ON MASKED DEMONSTRATIONS 1/17/19

 

All the while, the Bundy clan of Utah pillage – and at times – hold our public lands hostage, and white male Michiganders enter the state capital in Lansing armed for Armageddon, because they feel that COVID-19 is a hoax. We imagine that it isn’t these types of folks that West Virginia State Representatives John Shott and Roger Hanshaw had in mind when they wrote and eventually successfully passed HB 4618, which eliminated police liability for deaths while dispersing riots and unlawful assemblies.

Contrarily, South Dakota’s SB 189, or “Riot Boosting Act,” was blocked by the likes of US District Judge Lawrence L. Piersol, who wrote:

“Imagine that if these riot boosting statutes were applied to the protests that took place in Birmingham, Alabama, what might be the result? … Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference could have been liable under an identical riot boosting law.”

 

 

Dangerous Work

FracTracker collaborated with Crude Accountability on a report documenting increasing reprisals against environmental activists in the US and Eurasia. Read the Report.

 

A Wave of Anti-Protest Laws in the COVID-19 Era

Despite Judge Piersol’s ruling, South Dakota (SB 151) joined Kentucky (HB 44) and West Virginia (HB 4615) in passing some form of ALEC’s bill since the COVID-19 epidemic took hold of the US. This is classic disaster capitalism. As former Barack Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste, and what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Foreign-Trade Zone Sign

Figure 4. Photo of US Treasury Department signage outlining the warning associated with BP’s Whiting, IN, oil refinery designated a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ). Photo by Ted Auch July 15th, 2015

In all fairness to Mr. Emanuel, he was referring to the Obama administration’s support for the post-2008 bipartisan Wall Street bailout. However, it is critical that we acknowledge the push for critical infrastructure legislation has been most assuredly bipartisan, with Democratic Governors in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Wisconsin signing into law their versions on March 16th of this year, in May of 2018, and in November of 2019, respectively.

According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 11 states have passed some version of ALEC’s bill, with the first uncoincidentally being a series of three bills signed in February of 2017 by North Dakota Governor Burgum, targeting “Heightened Penalties for Riot Offences” (HB 1426), “Expanded Scope of Criminal Trespass” (HB 1293), and “New Penalties for Protestors Who Conceal Their Identity” (HB 1304), with at least one member of ALEC’s stable of elected officials, Rep. Kim Koppelman, proudly displaying his affiliation in his biography on the North Dakota Legislative Branch’s website. Mr. Koppelman, along with Rep. Todd Porter out of Mandan, also cosponsored two of these bills.

Related Legislation in Need of Immediate Attention

In Columbus, Ohio, there are several pieces of legislation being pushed in concert with ALEC-led efforts. These include the recently submitted HB 362, that would “create the crime of masked intimidation.” Phil Plummer and George F. Lang sponsor the bill, with the latter being the same official who introduced HB 625, a decidedly anti-local control bill that would preempt communities from banning plastic bags. Most of the general public and some of the country’s largest supermarket chains have identified plastic bag bans as a logical next step as they wrestle with their role in the now universally understood crimes plastics have foisted on our oceans and shores. As Cleveland Scene’s Sam Allard wrote, “bill mills” and their willing collaborators in states like Ohio cause such geographies to march “boldly, with sigils flying in the opposite direction” of progress, and a more renewable and diversified energy future.

With respect to Plummer and Lang’s HB 362, two things must be pointed out:

1) It is eerily similar to North Dakota’s HB 1304 that created new penalties for protestors who conceal their identity, and

2) The North Dakota bill was conveniently signed into law by Governor Burgum on February 23rd, 2017, who had set the day prior as the “deadline for the remaining [DAPL] protesters to leave an encampment on federal land near the area of the pipeline company’s construction site.”

So, when elected officials as far away as Columbus copy and paste legislation passed in the aftermath of the DAPL resistance efforts, it is clear the message they are conveying, and the audience(s) they are trying to intimidate.

Plummer and Lang’s HB 362 would add a section to the state’s “Offenses Against the Public Peace,” Chapter 2917, that would in part read:

No person shall wear a mask or disguise in order to purposely do any of the following:

(A) Obstruct the execution of the law;

(B) Intimidate, hinder, or interrupt a person in the performance of the person’s legal duty; or

(C) Prevent a person from exercising the rights granted to them by the Constitution or the laws of this state.

 

Whoever violates this proposed section is guilty of masked intimidation. Masked intimidation is a first degree misdemeanor. It was critical for the DAPL protestors to protect their faces during tear gas and pepper spray barrages, from county sheriffs and private security contractors alike.

At the present moment, masks are one of the few things standing between COVID-19 and even more death. Given these realities, it is stunning that our elected officials have the time and/or interest in pushing bills such as HB 362 under the thin veil of law and order.

But judging by what one West Virginia resident and former oil and gas industry draftsman,[3] wrote to us recently, elected officials do not really have much to lose, given how little most people think of them:

“Honestly, it doesn’t seem to matter what we do. The only success most of us have had is in possibly slowing the process down and adding to the cost that the companies incur. But then again, the increase in costs probably just gets passed down to the consumers. One of the biggest drawbacks in my County is that most, if not all, of the elected officials are pro drilling. Many of them have profited from it.”

The oil, gas, and petrochemical industries are revealing their weakness by scrambling to pass repressive legislation to counteract activists. But social movements around the world are determined to address interrelated social and environmental issues before climate chaos renders our planet unlivable, particularly for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. We hope that by shining a light on these bills, more people will become outraged enough to join the fight against antidemocratic legislation.

This is Part I of a two-part series on concerning legislation related to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Part II focuses on bills that would weaken environmental regulations in Ohio, Michigan, and South Dakota.

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator and Shannon Smith, Manager of Communications & Development

[1] See Naomi Klein’s concept of the Shock Doctrine for similar trends.

[2] The community-based environmental organization RISE St. James has been working tirelessly to prevent Formosa Plastics from building one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the US in their Parish. Sharon Lavigne is a leading member of RISE St. James, and is an honored recipient of the 2019 Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship. Read more on Sharon’s work with RISE St. James here.

[3] This individual lives in Central West Virginia, and formerly monitored Oil & Gas company assets in primarily WV, PA, NY, VA, MD & OH, as well as the Gulf Coast. Towards the end of this individual’s career, they provided mapping support for the smart pigging program, call before you dig, and the pipeline integrity program.

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Systematic Racism in Kern County Oil and Gas Permitting Ordinance

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

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

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

 

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

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Ordinance

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

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

Permitting Summary

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

 

Breakdown of permit types issued by California Geologic Energy Management Division

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

  • 2015

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

  • 2016

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

    2016

  • 2017 - 2020

    Proportion of Kern permits begin to increase once again

  • 2020

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

    2020

 

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

 

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

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

 

Environmental Justice Mapping

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

Demographics

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

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

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

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

 

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

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

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North Brooklyn Pipeline demographics map

New Yorkers mount resistance against North Brooklyn Pipeline

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

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

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

National Grid Depot in Brooklyn, NY

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

 

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

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

Impacts on the community, resistance to the pipeline

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

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

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

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

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

Project Status

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

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

Generalized map of Brooklyn neighborhoods

Generalized map of Brooklyn neighborhoods. Source: Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

Bald Eagle flying

Happy Earth Day

What difficult times. The pandemic is beyond our common experience. Deadly and pervasive, it afflicts our physical wellbeing and our economy. The virus exposes and exploits the inequities in society, with harsh, disproportionate burdens on those most marginalized. The suffering sickens us to the core.

Hope is an essential nutrient manifesting in different, often unassuming, forms. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day, while dampened by our current troubles, reminds us of the tenacity and resiliency of the human spirit.

A small idea, sparked in 1970, blossomed into a global observance. People mobilized by the thousands to testify to the defilement of the planet and to demand bold action. In the story map below, take a tour through 50 years of technology, protest, economics, and policy that shaped the country’s energy landscape. Witness the power of people bringing dramatic changes to our energy system, despite forces working to preserve the status quo.

The 50th occurrence of Earth Day presents a ripe opportunity to honor the dedication and sacrifice of those who help keep our lights on and celebrate the bravery of those fighting to build an energy system that ensures environmental and economic justice for all.

Physical gathering is a bad idea but intellectually, virtually, we can elevate the dialogue and plant good seeds, literal and figurative, to accelerate restoration and cool our climate. The constraints of COVID-19 reveal the virtue of simplicity, the conservation bounty of taking the slower road, where every milepost matters.

Plug in however, wherever you can. Look for local chances to engage. Check out the Earth Day Network for digital events near and far or plan your own action.

Make a statement, take a stand, and write the future.

Wishful thinking? Maybe, but as a wise-old band once sang, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

 

Explore the Story Map

Explore this story map full screen

California well pad

California Setback Analyses Summary

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

California Population Counts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

California oil and gas well setback analysis

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

 

 

Los Angeles 2500ft Setback Analysis

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

 

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

 

Well Counts – Updated Data

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

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

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

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

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

Production

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

Low Income Communities

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

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

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

Kern County AB345 Wells and Medium Income

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

 

Bakersfield Kern County California AB345 Wells and Median Income

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

Schools and Environmental Justice

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

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

Permits

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

Conclusion

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

References

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

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

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COVID-19 and the oil & gas industry

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

Health Impacts of COVID-19 and Oil & Gas 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persistent Negative Returns 

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

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

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

 

Plummeting Prices

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

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

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

Corporate welfare vs. public health and safety

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

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

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

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

Grasping at straws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Show’s Over for Oil & Gas 

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

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

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

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

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

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Front Range Health Tracking Project

Is fracking impacting your air quality?

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Front Range Citizen Science Health Tracking Project

Fracking is increasing at an alarming rate in Colorado, raising concerns about possible negative health outcomes. While mapping and air monitoring can contribute valuable data on this topic, there is an information gap when it comes to understanding the true human impact of fracking in the Front Range. To fill this gap, FracTracker Alliance is launching the Front Range Citizen Science Health Tracking Project in partnership with several community groups.

Residents can contribute valuable data about the fracking industry and its impacts from their phone anytime and anywhere. We’ll compare these reports with real-time air quality measurements to gain an in-depth look at the way fracking is affecting Coloradans.

Check back soon for dates and locations of our in-person meetings 

Why Participate?

As a participant, you will join hundreds of other residents in collecting data that will be compared with real-time air quality measurements. You’ll also receive information on threats to your air quality and tips on how to protect your health throughout the length of this year-long project.

Make an important contribution to all Coloradans who breathe air and get involved!

Sign up if you’d like to get involved or stay up to date on the project:

FracTracker – The Mobile App

The oil and gas industry – from its wells to pipelines to refineries – has a variety of ways of impacting the communities and environment that surround its infrastructure. We want to help you document it! 


App Features


  • Check the Oil & Gas Map

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

  • Activity Feed

    View recent reports from other app users

  • Submit a Report

    Submit reports & photos about nearby activity & issues you witness

  • Impacted Senses

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

  • Activity Feed

    Mobile App Newsfeed
  • Wells, Pipelines, & Reports

  • Intuitive Reporting

  • Industry Selection

  • Senses Impacted

  • User Profile


Download on the App Store

Android App on Google Play

Explore the FracTracker App from your laptop

The FracTracker web app is another way to explore the scope and impacts of oil and gas development. Just like the mobile app, this tool contains an activity feed of user reports and a map of these reports. Watch a short video tutorial of the web app.

Este recurso está disponible en español.

The Mountaineer State: Where Politics, a Fossil Fuel Legacy, and Fracking Converge

Introduction

The Mountaineer State is one of the most stunningly beautiful states in all the United States, despite its complicated and unique relationship with fossil fuels dating back to the West Virginia Coal Wars of 1912 to 1921. This relationship has compromised the state’s distinctive ecosystems and its social cohesion. Instead of remediating or preventing the impacts of fossil fuels, the state’s elected officials have exploited them for political and monetary gain.  Understanding this history and the potential next steps in the march of the fossil fuel industry will help those who continue to fight for an alternative future for West Virginia.  At the same time, it is critical that we identify legislation that would perpetuate fossil fuel dependence, the individuals who are behind said legislation, and the current extent of the fossil fuel industry, especially considering the developing Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub (ASTH) that is supported by the elected officials in in D.C. and Charleston.

Ohio Power’s Mitchell (Foreground) and Kammer (Background) Coal Power Plants, Marshall County, Combined Capacity 2,345 MegaWatts. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk

Impeding Fossil Fuel Developments Threaten West Virginia Once Again

West Virginia has a rich, complicated, and occasionally violent history with coal mining and now is at the vanguard of the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) revolution. It also happens to sit at the heart of what Appalachian governors, senators, and even land-grant universities are touting is the panacea for all that ails the region: the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub (ASTH), a key part of the Ohio River Valley petrochemical build out. This puts West Virginia in a peculiar position, with one foot longingly in the past with coal mining and one moving forward with investments in fracking and now the ASTH.

On the one hand, there is local optimism about King Coal’s return, stoked by Donald Trump and industry friends like Robert Murray. A closer look reveals they are sending decidedly different messages to Appalachian coal miners and their families, with the former stating repeatedly that he would bring coal back, and the latter agreeing but offering the caveat that “Trump can’t bring jobs back . . . [because] many of those jobs were lost to technology rather than regulation.”

Murray Energy’s Consolidation Coal Mine, Marshall County

This is not to suggest that there are hard feelings between Trump and Murray; a Document Investigations publication reveals an invitation from Murray Energy to host a Trump fundraiser on July 24, 2019 in Wheeling, West Virginia at WesBanco Arena with a cover charge of $150.00 made payable to Trump Victory, Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee’s joint presidential campaign fundraising. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (who is uncoincidentally a leading booster of the ASTH) indicated he would be in attendance. Additionally, Murray in his rescheduling letter to the West Virginia governor indicated, “Present with us will be Governors Mike DeWine of Ohio, Jim Justice of West Virginia, and Matt Bevins of Kentucky; Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Rob Portman of these states; and Congressman Bill Johnson and Dave McKinley and the House Speaker and Senate President form the two states.”

Declining Jobs, Increasing Automation

After at least seventeen years of 5% declines in net coal production, and 3% increases in hiring, the coal mining industry in West Virginia had had enough. Starting in 2012, they turned the tide on labor by leaning into the automation revolution and in the process, mine labor has declined by 8% per year since then. Automation and an increasing reliance on more blunt methods of mining, including strip-mining and/or Mountaintop Removal, have allowed the mining industry to increase productivity per labor hour by 5.8% to 6.3% per year since 2012, according to data compiled by US Department of Labor’s Office of Mine Safety and Health Administration. All of these savings translate into Mergers And Acquisitions as well as hefty profits for the likes of Murray, private equity and large institutional investors that have no interest in the welfare of Appalachia, its people, and the constant undertone of labor vs. capital throughout the region.

Even with all the corporate, state, and federal subsidies we have still had a rash of bankruptcies in the last three months. Most recently, Revelation Energy and its affiliate Blackjewel, experts in “Vulture Capitalism,” filed for Chapter 11 on July 1st of this year causing countless bounced paychecks among their 1,700 employees across Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

So while King Coal continues to paint federal regulations as excessively burdensome and the primary impediment to their expansion, it is clear that the enemy of coal miners is not regulations, but rather automation and the urgent attempt to squeeze every last drop of profitability out of a dying industry.  even as coal production nationally declines by nearly double digits annually, a signal that the end is near, mining companies are able to continue generating reliable profits thanks to automation and artificial intelligence. This might be why private equity climate change denying titans like Stephen Schwarzman are investing so heavily in the likes of MIT’s School of Artificial Intelligence. The growing discrepancy between coal production and coal jobs was pointed out in a recent Columbia University report on the failure of states, counties, and communities to prepare themselves for the day when their status as “company towns”[1] will switch from a point of pride to a curse. The Columbia researchers pointed out that:

“Employment in the coal mining industry declined by over 50 percent in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky between 2011 and 2016. State-level impacts mask even more severe effects at local levels. In Mingo County, West Virginia, coal mining employed over 1,400 people at the end of 2011. By the end of 2016, that number had fallen below 500. Countywide, employment fell from 8,513 to 4,878 over this period  . . . suggesting there could be important labor market spillovers from mining to the broader economy.”

A Bloody History Haunts West Virginia’s Coal Fields

The last time West Virginia experienced “important labor market spillovers” was during the West Virginia Coal Wars of 1912 to 1921. West Virginia University Press, in summarizing the book “Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880-1922” by David Alan Corbin, describes this violent moment in the state’s history:

“Between 1880 and 1922, the coal fields of southern West Virginia witnessed two bloody and protracted strikes, the formation of two competing unions, and the largest armed conflict in American labor history – a week-long battle between 20,000 coal miners and 5,000 state police, deputy sheriffs, and mine guards. These events resulted in an untold number of deaths, indictments of over 550 coal miners for insurrection and treason, and four declarations of martial law. Corbin argues that these violent events were collective and militant acts of aggression interconnected and conditioned by decades of oppression. His study goes a long way toward breaking down the old stereotypes of Appalachian and coal-mining culture”

The Coal Wars culminated in the August 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in United States history which resulted in a deadly standoff between 10,000 armed coal miners and 3,000 strikebreakers called the Logan Defenders. The battle resulted in a casualty range of 20 to 100 as well as the treason conviction of some 22+ United Mine Workers of America members. This crushed the union, and the larger effect was a chill throughout Appalachia for more than a decade.

A similar chill is beginning to percolate as part of the fear around resistance or questioning of the ASTH and its myriad tentacles. This chill is coupled with a growing ambivalence and resignation to the most recent colonization of the Ohio River Valley by yet another iteration of the fossil fuel industrial complex.

How Can Appalachia Escape the Tight Grip of the Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex?

The state’s historical labor strife is worth mentioning to emphasize that Appalachia has been thrown under the “natural resource curse” bus before, and it has not responded kindly (see documentary “Harlan County USA” directed by Barbara Kopple). This might be why industry stakeholders fund the likes of the Koch Brothers-backed American Legislative Executive Council in efforts to pass dubiously titled “critical infrastructure” bills that they’ve written in states including the ASTH states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia. [2]  It also might be why West Virginia Senator Manchin is trying to separate himself from his prior optimism about the supposed $84 billion China would invest in ASTH related projects across the state and his willingness to compromise the safety of his own constituents for the sake of profiteering state-backed firms in China, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand.

It won’t be long before we start to hear echoes of Florence Reece’s 1931 labor resistance anthem “Which Side Are You On?” echoing out from every peak and holler in West Virginia in reference to Manchin and Justice.  Their milquetoast response to questioning around the viability of the ASTH prompted the West Virginia Gazette editorial page to write:

“So far, the entire project, which was hailed as the salvation of West Virginia’s economy at the time, looks like nothing but smoke and confetti. There’s been no movement and the Justice administration rarely mentions it unless asked. The reply has typically been a guarded ‘it’s happening’ and not much else. It’s time for state government to level with the people of West Virginia on what exactly is happening here. Not only did the announcement raise false hopes, but the question of national security is valid and important. We urge the governor or someone in his administration to give an official update on the project.”

In the interim, West Virginia’s elected officials continue to prop up coal as the Mountaineer State’s salvation. But the gig will be up eventually. It appears that there are two ways to exit this zero-sum relationship with the fossil fuel industry according to the neoliberal economic model we espouse here in the United States: 1) A Glide Path strategy that will allow West Virginia to methodically transition to a more diversified economy, or 2) an extremely painful Jump Condition type transition over a much shorter period of time that will likely last no more than a couple of years and leave West Virginians very angry and looking for someone to blame.

Those of us that accept climate change as fact, advocate for the Green New Deals of the world, and work towards a renewable energy future can easily dismiss either pathway’s impacts on Appalachia with the mantra, “Hey, they [Appalachia] made their bed now they have to lie in it!” However, this would be counter to the social contract narrative we have created for this country and would be incredibly hypocritical given that the primary steroid that fueled American Exceptionalism/Capitalism was cheap and abundant domestic fossil fuels. As Kim Kelly of Teen Vogue so perfectly put it in laying out her very personal connections to the struggle between the need to pay bills and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel reliant jobs: “Make no mistake: The coal miner and pipeline worker know about the environmental costs of their labor, but when faced with the choice of feeding their kids or putting down their tools in the name of saving the planet, the pressures of capitalism tend to win; their choice is made for them.”

Cravat Coal Mine Slurry Pond, Marshall County, West Virginia

Americans rationalize our dependence on fossil fuels on one hand, while simultaneously hectoring those who work tirelessly to get the stuff out of the ground and invest in the companies that employ them by way of 401Ks or other investment vehicles. This hypocrisy is not lost on Appalachia nor should it be. Climate advocates should work with states like West Virginia to transition to a more just future that does not include a doubling down on fossil fuels by way of the ASTH and fracking. If not, the social and political divisions in this country will pale in comparison to what will likely result from a piecemeal and confrontational transition away from the fossil fuel industrial complex that we’ve been told we can’t live without.

Furthermore, we can’t address these issues without acknowledging the selective interventionist policy our government has deployed in the name of “nation building” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Folks like John Perkins, Naomi Klein, and Joseph Stiglitz have demonstrated that our interventionist policy is just a poor cover for the true modus operandi which would be resource control from Saudi Arabia to the most recent example being the effort by the Trump administration to foment opposition to Venezuelan leader Nicholas Maduro. If the latter example isn’t primarily about oil than why do the bi-partisan sanctions include exceptions to allow Chevron, Halliburton, and Schlumberger to continue to operate in Venezuela?

A Path Forward

The Green New Deal is a first step in establishing a path forward for the decarbonization of the US economy and it correctly includes calls for a transition that “would ensure protections for coal miners and other impacted fossil fuel workers.” While mostly nebulous and aspirational at this point, the Green New Deal offers much needed hope and guidance towards a future where economic growth is decoupled from CO2 emissions. Yet, it will have to address the underlying issues associated with economic inequality and the fact that states like West Virginia will have to be involved in the decision-making process rather than having the Green New Deal foisted on them. Otherwise, the Mountaineer State’s politicians in D.C. and Charleston will continue to get away with toying with their constituents’ hopes and dreams with proclamations that the ASTH and rumored infrastructure proposals will provide salvation. In reality, the ASTH is just another corporatist stunt to optimize shareholder return on the backs of Appalachians.  This tension was summarized beautifully and succinctly by United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith who told Reuters, “We’ve heard words like ‘just transition’ before, but what does that really mean? Our members are worried about putting food on the table.”

As Joel Magnuson wrote in his revolutionary text “Mindful Economics”:

“ . . . the need to maximize profits for a relatively small section of the U.S. population has shaped the development of America’s most powerful institutions . . . the need for higher profits and endless growth has intensified environmental destruction, resource depletion, instability, social and political inequality, and even global warming. These problems have become systemic and solutions therefore require long-term systemic change . . . [and the development of] alternative institutions. As these alternatives evolve and grow, they will place the U.S. economy on a path to a new system. Systemic change will come about gradually by the will of people who purposefully steer the development of the economic institutions in their communities in a positive and healthy direction. To this end Mindful Economics lays a foundation for building new alternatives that are democratic, locally-based and ecologically sustainable. Such alternatives are not only viable, they can be found all across the United States. Through a network of alternative institutions, people can begin to build alternatives to capitalism and provide hope for future generations.”

Ecotrust’s Conservation Economy website offers a road map for how Appalachia can move towards an alternative future that “integrates Social, Natural, and Economic Capital” (see the pattern map below).  Appalachia has been stripped of much of its economic capital but it still has a bountiful supply of social and natural capital!

Conservation Economy's Pattern Map

Conservation Economy’s Pattern Map

The Map

We constructed a map that illustrates West Virginia’s past, present, and future dependence on fossil fuels. The map shows 16,864 oil, gas, and coal parcels as well as those that are rumored to be of interest to the fossil fuel industrial complex in the near future. The parcels average 164 acres in size and amount to 2,770,310 acres or 4,329 square miles. These parcels amount to 17.9% of West Virginia but are largely concentrated in the counties of Boone, Kanawha, Logan, Wyoming, McDowell, Mingo, and Fayette.

Also included in this map are:

  1.  annual production data for 880 mines between 2001 and 2017 and
  2.  annual oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquid (NGL) production for 3,689 unconventional wells between 2002 and 2018.

A sizeable portion of the parcel query we conducted, especially the rumored ones, occurred as a result of insight from Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) community organizer Alex Cole and his extensive network of contacts along the Ohio River Valley.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

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

[1] If you aren’t familiar with this term I would refer you to Columbia University’s data for Boone County, West Virginia: “The numbers suggest that about a third of Boone County’s revenues directly depended on coal in the form of property taxes on coal mines and severance taxes. In 2015, 21 percent of Boone County’s labor force and 17 percent of its total personal income were tied to coal. Coal property (including both the mineral deposit and industrial equipment) amounted to 57 percent of Boone County’s total property valuation. Property taxes on all property generated about half of Boone County’s general fund budget, which means that property taxes just on coal brought in around 30 percent of the county’s general fund. Property taxes on coal also funded about $14.2 million of the $60.3 million school budget (24 percent). In total, coal-related property taxes generated approximately $21 million for Boone County’s schools, the county government, and specific services.”

[2] ALEC finalized their “Model Policy” in December, 2017, and gave it the ultimate Orwellian title of “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” Many elected officials throughout the fossil fuel network’s Heartland have introduced this legislation nearly verbatim, including Ohio State Senator Frank Hoagland’s S.B. 33, which represents much of Ohio’s Ohio River Valley, where the ASTH would have its most pronounced impacts.

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