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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Petrochemical development in the Houston, Texas area

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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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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