Lycoming Watershed Digital Atlas

Water at Risk


A Digital Atlas Exploring the Impacts of Natural Gas Development in

the Lycoming Creek Watershed of Pennsylvania

Introduction


Coursing through lush valleys of the Allegheny Plateau, Lycoming Creek flows over 37 miles to its confluence with the West Branch Susquehanna River in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The 272-square-mile watershed includes idyllic tributaries like Pleasant Stream and Trout Run, names reflecting the intrinsic beauty and bounty of the area. Rock Run in Loyalsock State Forest by some accounts is, “one of the most beautiful streams in all of Pennsylvania.” 

The mightier Pine Creek to the west perhaps carries greater notoriety, as does the enchanting Loyalsock to the east. But make no judgement about Lycoming Creek’s smaller stature. Forest covers 81% of the basin and only one percent is developed, with the rest of the land used for agriculture. Through the heart of this rugged terrain, a picturesque waterway beckons anglers and other revelers of the wilds.   

The Lenape people called the watershed home before European occupation. They knew the creek as Legani-hanne, meaning “sandy or gravelly stream.” The native residents and those who displaced them used it as a means of transportation, whether traveling by canoe or walking the Sheshequin Path that runs north and east along the shores.  

Lumber fueled the regional economy of the 19th century, and Lycoming’s forests fell. By rail and by water, saw logs were sent to Williamsport for milling. Wood-powered wealth gave rise to the city’s “Millionaire’s Row,” but prosperity apexed in the early 20th century. Today, the Williamsport area is home to nearly 30,000 people, down from a peak of around 45,000 in 1950. Comparatively, about 20,000 persons live within the Lycoming Creek watershed. 

These days, Williamsport buzzes with breweries, bookstores, and the vitality of an urban hub. The Little League World Series still comes to town every summer, ushering memories of simpler, quieter times. 

Nearby, the serene creek surges with life, including the Eastern hellbenderNorth America’s largest amphibian. But the same water can turn tempestuous and destructive. Notable floods in 1972, 1996, 2011, and 2016 caused loss of life and property damage. As climate change intensifies, heavy downpours and rapid snowmelt exacerbate flood risks. 

Unconventional drilling brought new threats to the area: congested truck traffic, exorbitant consumptive water use, myriad air pollution sources, extensive land clearing, and ecological disturbance; and, the dangers of spills, leaks, and water contamination. 

This report explores these impacts, underscoring the heavy footprint of extractionand related activitieson public and private lands throughout the Lycoming Creek watershed.

A wealth of public lands & recreational opportunities

The Lycoming Creek watershed provides ample opportunities for nature-based recreation. While there are no state parks in the watershed, a 507-acre (0.8 square miles) portion of the Tioga State Forest occupies the northern boundary of the watershed in Tioga County. Further south lies 45,022 acres (71.1 square miles) of the Loyalsock State Forest. This includes 332 acres (0.52 square miles) of the Devil’s Elbow Natural Area, a site known for its many wetlands—home to carnivorous sundew and pitcher plants—waters that feed the stunning Rock Run. 

The McIntyre Wild Area covers a 7,226 acre (11.3 square mile) expanse of the Loyalsock State Forest, situated entirely in the Lycoming Creek watershed. It includes spectacular waterfalls on streams that feed the aforementioned Rock Run, a tributary known for its vibrant trout population.



Recreational Opportunities in the Lycoming Creek Watershed

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To the west of Lycoming Creek and State Route 14 is Bodine Mountain, another sweeping feature of the Loyalsock State Forest. Bodine Mountain is a north-to-south ridge rising over 1,300 feet above the Lycoming Creek valley.

In addition to state forests, the watershed contains 238 acres of State Game Land 335 at the northern boundary, and 2,430 acres (3.8 square miles) of State Game Land 133, situated southeast of Bodine Mountain. These conserved lands are designated to protect wildlifea goal that seems at odds with current oil and gas leasing practices.



Fishing and enjoying mountain streams


Pennsylvania has two separate designations for streams with excellent water quality: exceptional value (EV) and high quality (HQ). The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) explains that the quality of HQ streams can be lowered, “if a discharge is the result of necessary social or economic development, the water quality criteria are met, and all existing uses of the stream are protected.” The water quality of EV streams cannot be lowered.  

Sadly, there are no streams in the beautiful Lycoming Creek watershed with an EV designation, however deserving. On the other hand, 412 miles of streams in its drainage are designated as HQ, representing 76% of the watershed’s 542 total stream miles, according to the state’s official designated use inventory. Statewide, 3,838 out of 86,473 miles (4.4%) of inventoried streams are categorized as EV, while 58,748 miles (67.9%) are HQ, making the Lycoming Creek watershed below average for the former, and above average for the latter.

Prior to industrialization, native brook trout populations were widespread in small, forested streams across Pennsylvania. While many streams are now stocked with several species of trout, the combination of pollution and deforestation has decimated the areas where trout—especially native brook trout—thrive in sustainable wild populations. Suitable streams are designated as Class A trout streams, and they are rare, accounting for just 3,037 miles, or 3.5% of streams across the Commonwealth. The Lycoming Creek watershed contains slightly fewer Class A streams than is typical, with 17.5 miles, representing just 3.2% of all streams in the drainage. Nevertheless, it remains an important respite for trout species and the anglers who seek them.

Split estates and the Clarence Moore lands


Hundreds of thousands of acres of Pennsylvania state forest are under lease agreements for fracked gas extraction, diminishing outdoor experiences and posing ongoing environmental threats. In those situations, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) clearly controls the surface and the gas that lies beneath. However, in some areas of the state forest, private interests claim mineral ownership, even in gaseous form—a situation called “split estate.” Loyalsock State Forest contains about 25,000 split estate acres, known as the Clarence Moore Lands.

In the Lycoming Creek watershed, most of the Clarence Moore lands lie east of US Highway 15, occupying areas that drain into Rock Run and Pleasant Stream, including some of the area’s few remaining Class A wild trout waters. Another section of the Clarence Moore lands extends west of Highway 15, on Bodine Mountain’s eastern flank. In their current state, the lands provide invaluable ecological services and—coupled with the Loyalsock Creek to the east—comprise critical source waters for two major watersheds.

Gas drilling requires a significant amount of infrastructure, including multiacre well pads, miles of gathering pipelines, retention ponds, waste processing facilities, and compressor and metering stations. Allowing surface disturbance in the Clarence Moore lands could have lasting, devastating consequences.

Nearly a decade ago, the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation approached DCNR with extensive plans for dozens of fracked gas wells and all the disruptive destruction that accompanies them in a large swatch of the Loyalsock State Forest and the Clarence Moore lands. Over the years, the Clarence Moore players have changed significantly. Southwestern Energy scored a stake, while Anadarko sold their interest to Alta Resources, a privately-held company scheduled for purchase by EQT, the nation’s largest fracked gas company. While the operators play their game of musical chairs, the situation remains a serious threat to some of the few remaining portions of the region that haven’t been spoiled with industrial gas drilling.

Ironically, modern horizontal drilling enables access to Clarence Moore’s reserves from miles away—from well pads on private land. There is no need—nor social license—to expunge the forest for future generations for short-lived, selfish gain. Organizations near and far, led by the Responsible Drilling Alliance and Save PA Forests Coalition, have rallied tirelessly to save this land from development, a truly special place deserving permanent protection.




Figure 2. The Clarence Moore Lands are a complicated split estate situation in the Loyalsock State Forest, including parts of the Lycoming, Loyalsock, and Schrader Creek watersheds.


Unique wetland biomes


Countless wetlands feed Lycoming Creek’s headwaters, providing a unique opportunity to observe aquatic flora and fauna beneath the forested canopy of Penn’s Woods. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) explains their importance, as well as their precarious state:



“Wetlands provide a multitude of ecological, economic and social benefits. They provide habitat for fish, wildlife and plantsmany of which have a commercial or recreational valuerecharge groundwater, reduce flooding, provide clean drinking water, offer food and fiber, and support cultural and recreational activities. Unfortunately, over half of America’s wetlands have been lost since 1780, and wetland losses continue today. This highlights the urgent need for geospatial information on wetland extent, type, and change.”



The geospatial data referred to above is the National Wetland Inventory (NWI), which seeks to document all the wetlands in the United States, based primarily in aerial imagery. According to NWI data, there are 3,136 acres (4.9 square miles) of wetlands in the Lycoming Creek watershed. However, further field research is necessary to properly identify wetland boundaries, particularly in the case of ephemeral wetlands, for example, where the presence of aquatic plants help determine boundaries. All of this suggests that while there is every reason to believe the USFWS’ claim that over half of the nation’s wetlands have been lost since around the time of the Revolutionary War, it is believed the NWI discounts the total acreage.

A University of Vermont team developed another model for calculating wetlands, based primarily on, “2006-2008 leaf-off LiDAR data, 2005-2008 leaf-off orthoimagery, 2013 high-resolution land-cover data, and moderate-resolution predictive wetlands maps, incorporating topography, hydrological flow potential, and climate data.” This model calculates 6,943 wetlands acres (10.8 square miles) in the Lycoming Creek drainage, more than double the NWI’s estimated acreage.



Trails


Five trails traverse the Lycoming Creek watershed, crossing 152 miles total. This includes nearly 44 miles of the Loyalsock State Forest Cross-Country Ski Trail system south and east of the McIntyre Wild Area, suitable for hiking, biking, equestrian pursuits, and of course, cross-country skiing. The watershed also contains 33 miles of Bicycle PA Route J, which runs along Lycoming Creek from the confluence with the West Branch Susquehanna River on the southern end, all the way to the wetland border that feeds Lycoming Creek and neighboring Towanda Creek to the northeast. The watershed’s most popular trail may be the famous Old Loggers Path, a coveted backpacking route that meanders nearly 23 miles. The Hawkeye Cross-Country Ski Trail—frequented by hikers, bikers, and skiers—loops over seven miles in the northeastern corner of the watershed. Yet another watershed trail is the Lycoming Creek Bikeway, a mostly straight five-mile stretch from Hepburnville to the West Branch Susquehanna River.



Figure 3. Rock Run in Loyalsock State Forest’s McIntyre Wild Area. Photo by Ann Pinca.



Figure 4. A flyfisher casts in Lycoming Creek right beside Sheshequin Campground in Trout Run. Photo by Rebecca Johnson.



Figure 5. This wetland lies just beyond the northeastern boundary of the Lycoming Creek watershed and is similar to those feeding the headwaters of Rock Run near Devil’s Elbow Natural Area in Loyalsock State Forest. Photo by Shannon Smith.

Fracking comes to the Lycoming

The commercial oil and gas industry got its start in Pennsylvania in 1859 with the famous Drake Well, followed by a frenzy of drilling in the central and western portions of the state. The DEP has records of over 185,000 conventional oil and gas wells throughout the Commonwealth, and—because the industry preceded permitting requirements by almost a century—yearly estimates range between 480,000 and 760,000 conventional wells have punctured Pennsylvania’s surface. 

The Lycoming Creek watershed was further east than most of the conventional oil and gas pools, so it has seen very little conventional drilling. Of the 185,000 known well locations, only 25 (0.01%) are within the watershed. Of those, 11 (44%) have a status of “proposed but never materialized,” or “operator reported not drilled.” Eight wells (32%) are plugged, four (16%) have active status, one (four percent) is considered being in a regulatory inactive period, and one (four percent) is on the DEP’s orphan list—awaiting funding to be plugged properly.



Fracking boom


While drillers had long known about the Marcellus Shale, it wasn’t until 2004 that drilling in the formation became a profitable enterprise, through the combination of industrial-scale hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Soon thereafter, the Lycoming Creek watershed was no longer on the periphery of oil and gas exploration, but part of a densely drilled cluster of new unconventional wells in northeastern Pennsylvania.  



Fracking in the Lycoming Creek Watershed

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The first unconventional well in the Lycoming Creek watershed was permitted by Range Resources at the Bobst Mountain Hunting Club on May 31, 2007, and drilling started less than two months later.

In the years that followed, 592 unconventional wells have been proposed for the watershed, 586 (99%) of which received permits, with 384 (65%) drilled as of June 28, 2021. Some wells had a short life, with 41 (10.6%) already plugged—a figure slightly higher than the statewide average of 8.7%. Fifteen operators have been active in the watershed.

As with the rest of Pennsylvania, the total number of drilled wells peaked in 2012, with 100 wells drilled that year. In the past seven years, the highest annual total was only one-fourth of that, with 25 wells drilled in 2019. However, these trends do not foretell an end to drilling in the region. The reduced number of wells drilled is offset by drilling each well more intensively, using five times as much water per well for hydraulic fracturing. 

Gas production has flooded markets, reducing gas prices and profit margins. At the very start of the Marcellus boom in October 2005, gas prices were $13.42 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs), but have fluctuated between $1.75 and $4.00 per million BTUs in recent years. Many of the 202 wells permitted but not drilled in the watershed are located on existing well pads and can easily be drilled and brought into production as market forces dictate. For these reasons, the area is unlikely to see an end to drilling, pipeline construction, truck convoys—and all the other ancillary activities—any time soon.




Figure 6. Active fracking operation in May 2021 on ARD Operating’s COP Tract 551 A well pad, originally planned by Anadarko E&P in 2014. Photo by Ted Auch.



Figure 7. This video was taken at the same site as Figure 6, capturing ARD Operating’s well pad and the incessant noise it makes during hydraulic fracturing activities. Video footage captured by Brook Lenker.



Figure 8. Permitting, drilling, and plugging summary of unconventional wells in the Lycoming Creek watershed by year. Data through June 28, 2021.


Figure 9. Proposed unconventional wells by current operators in the Lycoming Creek watershed. Data through June 28, 2021.  Note that wells that were proposed but not drilled are still associated with the original operator, which are not always still active in the watershed. 



Figure 10. FracTracker’s partners at LightHawk provided aerial assistance to fly our photographer over the Lycoming Creek watershed. This video offers a glimpse at the oil and gas industry’s expansion in the watershed, juxtaposed with houses, farms, forests, wetlands, and numerous waterways. FracTracker’s Ted Auch captured still images while LightHawk pilot David Hartnichek gathered video footage, captured May 2021.

TimeSlider of Bodine Mountain

On the right, we see imagery from June 2021, with a substantial number of well pads, impoundments, compressors, pipelines, and access roads. Imagery on the left is from June 2014, with significantly less infrastructure. Users can zoom, pan, and choose different dates to explore the impacts of the industry over time.


Violations


In the Lycoming Creek watershed, unconventional wells and the well pads they operate on have been issued 634 violations between 2008 and June 28, 2021. This works out to 1.65 violations per drilled well, considerably above the statewide average of 1.3 violations per well.  

 Most of the violations (545, or 86%) are considered to negatively impact environmental health and safety, with the remaining 89 (14%) assessed for administrative infractions. However, the distinction between the two categories is murky at best. For example, the most common administrative violation is, “pits and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances,” an infraction documented 18 times in the watershed—presenting obvious hazards to health, safety, and the environment. 

Altogether, there are 66 different violation codes cited within the watershed. The ten most frequent are seen in Figure 11.

For these 634 violations, the DEP has collected fines totaling $2,460,700 from four operators. Range Resources leads the way with $1,461,000 in fines, followed by Seneca Resources with $600,000, East Resources with $380,700, and Chief Oil & Gas with $19,000. For comparison, the average cost of drilling a single well in the Marcellus Shale is $8.3 million, according to 2017 financial data from a major operator in the region. At this rate, while assuming no inflation, the watershed will have to suffer 2,138 violations before the DEP’s penalties equal the cost of drilling and fracking one well.

Clearly, operators are not cowed by receiving violations, nor do they look at the occasional fine as anything more than the cost of doing business. It seems that in practice, the DEP’s regulatory role is chronicling the industry’s misdeeds, instead of protecting the environment and the people who live among the hundreds of wells in the area.



Figure 11. The ten most frequent violations for unconventional wells and well pads in the Lycoming Creek watershed through June 28, 2021.

Fracking’s aquatic impacts


The DEP maintains a statewide list of water resource sites. In the Lycoming Creek watershed, 76 out of 128 (59%) listed water resource facilities are associated with oil and gas activity, including 13 surface water withdrawal sites and 63 interconnections—large impoundments where water is collected and stored for future use. As excessive as these figures are, the state’s water resources data is incomplete. By examining aerial imagery, FracTracker found six impoundments adjacent to oil and gas operations that were not listed in the inventory. The DEP was aware of these facilities and provided data upon request. Multiacre lined impoundments can be identified from such imagery, but the inventory might be missing smaller withdrawal sites occluded from view by the tree canopy.



Lycoming Creek Watershed Water Usage

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Overall, 259 wells reported using between 891,900 and 33,193,599 gallons of water as a base for their fracking chemical cocktail. 


These numbers only represent the water consumed for hydraulic fracturing and don’t include any water used for pipeline hydrostatic testing, dust suppression on dirt and gravel roads, or any other purpose. For example, the voluminous 33,193,599 gallons used to frack Alta Resources’ Mac North B-3H well pad represents only a fraction of its permitted capacity for fracking operations.


Figure 12. A lined impoundment that does not appear on DEP’s Water Resources inventory. Photo by Karen Edelstein.

FracFocus

The unconventional oil and gas industry dominates water extraction, distribution, and use throughout the watershed. The amount of water used per fracked well has increased dramatically over the years, according to data from the industry’s frack fluid registry, FracFocus.  

However, the registry is riddled with some obvious data inaccuracies—perhaps stemming from the fact that the registry is self-reported by the various operators.

For example, there are 272 well reports with latitude and longitude coordinates placing them inside the Lycoming Creek watershed, excluding wells where operators left the water usage field blank. There are some problematic data points with those remaining. 

Five wells reported a negative number of gallons used to stimulate wells, including four from Seneca Resources’ Gamble K well pad—with quantities ranging from -214.7 million to -1.18 billion gallons of water—and one well from EXCO Resources’ Emig Unit well pad that registered -859.0 million gallons. At the other end of the spectrum, eight wells reported water consumption over 100 million gallons, including four from Rockdale Marcellus’ Cochran well pad, two from Seneca Resources’ Gamble K well pad, and two from EXCO Resources’ Emig Unit well pad.  

As water consumption data of these 13 wells is obviously erroneous, they were excluded from the following analysis. 

These withdrawal allowances are truly staggering. 

Based on observations of consumptive use permit signs across the watershed, these water withdrawal limits are typical. Taking the 7.62 billion gallons per well pad average from Figure 15, this equates to about 716 billion gallons of permitted water consumption for the 94 well pads in the watershed that have at least one well with an active, regulatory inactive, or plugged well status. Given the average household consumes about 300 gallons of water per day—and that Pennsylvania has just over 5 million householdsthis volume is nearly equal to the entire residential consumption of the state for 628 days. If this is applied to each of the 125 proposed well pads, that figure rises to about 953 billion gallons, or a little less than the full capacity of Florida’s vast Lake Okeechobee.



Groundwater contamination


Contamination from spills and leaks can affect more than just surface water. In 2014, 75 water wells in Lycoming County—which includes most of the Lycoming Creek watershed—were tested for various contaminants by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS). Six wells with the highest methane concentrations were further analyzed for their ratio of chloride to bromide, with half of that smaller subset showing water chemistry indicative of mixing with oilfield brine. Although the study posited that it could be mixing deep in the aquifer, it did not mention the frenzied drilling in the region at the time of sampling.

Stemming from thousands of complaints across the Marcellus Shale region, there are 378 private water supplies where DEP determined the loss of water quality or quantity was because of oil and gas activities. The public isn’t provided with the exact location of these fouled wells due to privacy concerns of impacted residents, but it is known that 18 incidents occurred in municipalities wholly or partially within the Lycoming Creek watershed. 

According to Pennsylvania’s Act 13—an instrumental law governing various aspects of unconventional drilling in the state—oil and gas operators are presumed responsible for water wells negatively affected within 12 months and 2,500 feet of operations. Of course, the actual spread of a pollution plume depends on the characteristics of the aquifer itself, rather than definitions from Act 13, so it is possible that wells further than 2,500 feet from an incident could be negatively impacted—potentially years after the leak or spill occurred. 

Of the 18 determination letters issued by DEP, one occurred in Fox Township in Sullivan County, six in Liberty Township in Tioga County, and two in Union Township. In Lycoming County, Eldred Township received three, Hepburn Township got one, Jackson Township received two, and McNett Township got two.  

As previously mentioned, DEP also tracks violations of various state oil and gas regulations. The vast majority of incidents in the Lycoming Creek watershed resulted in an impact to surface or groundwater. Of the 634 total citations associated with unconventional wells and well pads: 41 (six percent) related to erosion and sedimentation concerns, which could harm aquatic life; 379 (60%) citations were for spills, leaks, or pollution discharges that degraded surface or groundwater; and 41 (six percent) were for other water issues. The remaining 173 (27%) violations were for various other shortcomings—most issued for improper handling of waste materials. Depending on what happened in the field to merit these violations, many of these incidents may also have had an impact on Pennsylvania’s waters.

Water is a defining characteristic for any watershed. From the expansive wetlands uphill to the brisk trout streams around Rock Run and the McIntyre Wild Area, down to the steep ravines of the Lycoming Creek, water makes this area special. In the rush to accommodate the thirsty and pollutive oil and gas industry, the state has allowed vast portions of the region to be spoiled. 


Figure 13. Water consumption per well in the Lycoming Creek watershed has increased nearly five-fold in less than a decade, from 3,679,467 gallons in 2011 to 17,512,356 gallons in 2020, according to FracFocus data downloaded April 28, 2021.



Figure 14. Water consumption postings for six ARD (Alta Resources Development) well pads. Of the five visible signs, water consumption was permitted at 3 to 4 million gallons per pad, per day, for over five years. Photo by Erica Jackson.



Figure 15. The five visible signs in Figure 14 show that well pads are permitted to withdraw over 38.1 billion gallons of water, or an average of 7.62 billion gallons per well pad.

Waste

When fossil fuel companies portray fracked gas as “clean,” they better hope the public doesn’t notice the enormous stream of liquid and solid waste. In the Lycoming Creek watershed, operators reported 9,064,377 barrels (380.7 million gallons) of liquid waste and 416,248 tons of solid waste were generated in the drainage between January 2011 and April 2021.

As a point of comparison, this volume of liquid waste—from 362 wells in the watershed—is equal to about 577 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or an acre of land covered in toxic waste 1,168 feet deep. In terms of solid waste, disposal of drill cuttings and other substances equals the garbage left behind after 8,672 Kenny Chesney concertslike having about 2.3 concerts every day. This estimation is based on 330 wells reporting solid waste generation in the watershed.



Lycoming Creek Waste

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Problems with oil & gas waste


To compare chemical-laden flowback fluid and radioactive brines to pool water based on volume alone does little to communicate the dangers of liquid waste—just as comparing drill cuttings and filter socks to beer cans and food wrappers is insufficient.

Oil and gas waste is much more harmful to human health and the environment than normal household refuse. 

Flowback fluid includes a portion of the liquid injected into a wellbore during hydraulic fracturing. As presented in the Water section, the volume of water injected into each well averaged over 17.5 million gallons in 2020. The industry’s chemical registry site FracFocus estimates that between one-half percent and two percent of the injected volumes are composed of various chemical additives. To get an accurate estimate of the volumes of these chemicals, it is necessary to add the water volume and the non-water volume together, then calculate the above range. Unfortunately, only 18 out of the 259 wells in the watershed that provide believable water volumes also provide non-water volumes.

Approximately 25% of these chemical additives could cause cancer, according to recent studies—while others may inflict skin or respiratory damage.

What is now the Marcellus Shale formation was an ancient, shallow seabed around 384 million years ago in the Middle Devonian epoch. As this sea dried out, organic content concentrated, which would eventually be the source of hydrocarbon gasses. Other components saturated with this organic matter—including barium, benzene, chloride, radium, thallium, and more. These contaminants resurface with the oil and gas, either dissolved or suspended in fluid waste called brine. Brine will continue to rise to the surface in significant quantities during a well’s operating lifespan.

Drill cuttings comprise most of the solid waste from oil and gas sites in Pennsylvania. As with brine, these cuttings contain concentrations of the same toxic and radioactive chemicals. Whether used onsite or sent to landfills, these cuttings are problematic when precipitation causes contaminants to leach, posing risks to aquifers and surface waters. Traditionally, landfill leachate is taken to water treatment facilities. However, these facilities are ill-equipped to handle oil and gas waste and cannot effectively remove the contaminant load.


What happens to the waste?


In 2019, FracTracker analyzed and mapped the destination of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas waste from 2011 through 2018 in a project with Earthworks. Most waste stays in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, but this still requires thousands of heavy tankers travelling tens or even hundreds of miles to reach their destinations. The industry ships some waste as far as Texas, Utah, and Idaho, despite enormous transportation costs. The project underscored Pennsylvania’s incapacity to deal with this noxious and problematic waste stream.

This waste is handled in various ways, with about 54% reused at other fracking sites, 30% sent to residual waste processing facilities, and ten percent disposed in injection wells. Most of the remaining six percent is sent to surface impoundments—but it is not clear what happens to the waste from there.

For solid waste, 56% goes to landfills, 34% is reused at well pads, and eight percent goes to residual waste processing facilities—with the rest handled by other methods.

There is record of 124 waste facilities in the Lycoming Creek watershed, including 121 well pads, one landfill, one residual waste processing facility, and one temporary storage site, pending future reuse or disposal.

The Clean Earth facility—a landfill and drilling mud processing facility—has taken 157,457 tons of solid oil and gas waste and 315 barrels of liquid waste from 2013 to 2016. Between 2012 and 2013, the facility operated as Clean Streams, LLC, and accepted 10,610 additional tons of solid waste and 513,894 barrels of liquid waste. At the watershed’s northern border in Tioga County is Rockdale Marcellus’ Harer Beneficial Reuse facility. Beech Resources proposed an additional facility in currently forested land across US Highway 15 from the Clean Earth facilities.


Figure 16. Estimated chemical components of fracking fluid for the 18 wells in the Lycoming Creek watershed that provide non-water volumes. The minimum estimate is 965,434 gallons, based on 0.5% chemical concentrations, while the maximum estimate is 3,861,737 gallons, based on two percent concentrations.



Figure 17. Disposition method of liquid waste from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania in 2020, based on DEP waste reports. The total liquid waste volume was 61,832,431 barrels, or about 2.6 billion gallons.



Figure 18. Disposition of solid waste from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania in 2020. Total statewide mass was 1,397,678 tons.


Mountains of waste

As drilling continues in the Lycoming Creek watershed and nearby, enormous waste streams will continue to be a conundrum. Even reused material might contaminate the land, streams, and groundwater, and harm human health. As wells are fracked with ever-increasing volumes of fluid, they will return ever-increasing volumes of waste, requiring more and more resources to process.



To see more footage & photos from this project:





Field Day Description

On a sunny and brisk Thursday in May 2021, a group of 11 FracTracker staff members and volunteers gathered in the Lycoming watershed outside Williamsport to find and document unconventional oil and gas activities and infrastructure.

This field day was in part informed by insights from members of the Responsible Drilling Alliance, a regional organization, and the knowledge and experiences of Peter Petokas, a biology and environmental science professor at Lycoming College who has explored and kept tabs on the area’s hellbender habitats for years.

FracTracker’s Matt Kelso used DEP data to develop maps illustrating various infrastructure, including 384 drilled wells on 96 different pads, nine compressor and metering stations, and 67 water facilities related to oil and gas extractionincluding 12 surface water withdrawal sites and 55 storage reservoirs. He then divided an area of about 272 square miles into five sections, and at least two participants explored each section. 

Using Matt’s maps, FracTracker’s mobile app, cameras, decibel and distance measuring apps, and other tools, the group visited and documented various infrastructure—while observing significant truck traffic and other evidence of the industry’s pervasiveness. As the groups navigated rural back roads and small state highways, many were struck by the juxtaposition of a bucolic landscape of rolling hills, green forests, and peaceful farmland with imposing, pollutive, and sometimes noisy and smelly fracking sites.

Additional fieldwork was conducted with assistance from Earthworks’ staff and their FLIR technology, as well as aerial photography and videography captured by FracTracker’s Ted Auch—with flying assistance from partners at LightHawk.

FracTracker then used the geolocated photos, video, and site-specific descriptionscoupled with variable datasets, research, and other literatureto compile this Story Atlas, an educational tool for concerned residents of the Lycoming Creek watershed, and an insightful resource for others living near fracking activity. 

The mobile app reports from this reconnaissanceand from locations across the U.S.are visible on the FracTracker mobile app, available for download on your iOS or Android device, or by visiting the web app at https://app.fractracker.org/.



Figure 19. The field day volunteers gathered before exploring the Lycoming Creek watershed. Photo by Shannon Smith, FracTracker Alliance.



Figure 20. This FLIR footage was recorded by Earthworks at NFG Midstream Trout Run LLC’s Hagerman gas processing and metering facility in Trout Run, Pennsylvania in June 2021. This recording captures visible air pollution from combustion and fugitive emissions at the facility.

Lycoming Creek Photo Map

View Full Size Map | Updated 3/1/2021 | Data Tutorial


Local insights

Much has changed in the Lycoming watershed since unconventional oil and gas exploration ramped up over the last 15 years—in terms of ecological deterioration, as well as the deterioration of locals’ attitudes toward the industry.

At first welcomed by many as a chance for financial gain through mineral rights leasing, some community members—especially those whose families have lived in the area for generations—watched their land drastically degenerated and their sovereign land rights eclipsed by industrial encroachment they did not foresee.

Between 2011 and 2018, unconventional oil and gas drilling—notably, hydraulic fracturing—transformed sections of forest and farmland into comparatively gritty industrial zones. 

“They were assured that, after the drilling phase was completed, they would hardly know the wells were there. They were also told that they had to decide quickly, and that everyone around them had already leased. A local anti-drilling advocacy group tried to warn them, but many locals distrusted environmentalists.”

As author and professor Colin Jerolmack references in his recent article for The New Republic, some landowners who willingly leased their mineral rights to oil and gas companies now view the industry’s activities with consternation. Incessant noise, traffic congestion, and foul odors have tarnished the once peaceful countryside. Even more disconcerting for property owners, the industry often operates however they please, with little consultation or consent—making some feel that they have lost their decision-making power and agency.

This disaffection potentially makes room for environmentalists to find common ground with those who embraced the industry, couched not in anti-fracking sentiments—and not necessarily in the essential need to mitigate the climate crisis—but in their shared love for the land.

Another big ecological concern in the punctured watershed centers on the fragile Eastern hellbender populations. Five conservation groups filed a lawsuit on July 1, 2021, challenging a 2019 decision to deny the amphibian protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

“The hellbender is an ancient species that deserves better protections,” said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit. “The hellbender reminds us that we all live downstream. As the upstream tributaries are disturbed and polluted, the hellbender disappears. And the same pollution flows downstream to our populated areas, threatening the use and enjoyment of our rivers. We need to pay attention to what happens to the hellbender.”

Once widespread across 15 states, Eastern hellbenders have been eliminated from most of their historic range and continue to face many threats, including low water flow and poor water quality, increasing water pollution, deforestation, residential development, mining—and of course—oil and gas development. 

Peter Petokas has been studying Eastern hellbender populations in the Lycoming watershed for 16 years. He is very concerned for the future of the species in the watershed, which holds one of the richest populations in Pennsylvania, concentrated in one of the few remaining streams with optimal water quality. Even so, a drought in 2020 left the area’s waterways with very low flows, which constrains the hellbender’s habitat and stresses the population. Because they lack protection under endangered species status, agencies may be remiss to implement enhanced regulations on discharges and withdrawals in the basin. Petokas remains hopeful that the pending lawsuit against the US Fish & Wildlife Service will restart an assessment for federal endangered/threatened species protection.

“If there’s ever a spill of anything, it’s the end, it would wipe out one of the best hellbender populations in Pennsylvania,” Petokas said.

Besides concerns about low water levels, the watershed is losing tree cover along streams to invasive insects and erosion. Riparian species like ash, sycamore, and river birches provide shade and keep the water cool enough for hellbenders to thrive. 


Figure 21. A pipeline path cuts through forest in McNett Township, Lycoming County. Photo by Shannon Smith.

What does the future hold?

“An ecological threshold is the tipping point at which incremental changes or disturbances cause drastic or disproportionate results … When you remove land past the ecological threshold, a species no longer has the options to tolerate the disturbance. Beyond this point, the losses become disproportionately large.” [i]

In addition to creating new stressors on aquatic life, natural gas development in the Lycoming Creek watershed—particularly land use changes—affect bird communities. The area contains nesting habitat for many species or is an important stopover during seasonal migrations. Forest interior birds, like the cerulean warbler, are most vulnerable. They need pristine habitat.

A watch list of birds threatened by gas development in northeastern Pennsylvania features several warblers, thrushes, vireos, and woodpeckers. Nearly half of the birds are on a conservation priority list, underscoring that fracking jeopardizes species already at risk. All bird species on the watch list are known to nest in or visit the Lycoming Creek watershed.

The noise, noxious fumes, and land clearing correspondent with fracked gas takes a toll on human communities, too. 

A loud and obtrusive competitor has complicated access to unfettered public forests. This troublesome tenant strains local resourcesand relationships. Rural qualities erode like the overburdened roads.

According to Colin Jerolmack—when writing about this very place in Up to Heaven and Down to Hellone’s decision to lease, “… alienates others’ rights to liberty and property.” [ii] This paradigm, “prevents many community stakeholders from having a say in decisions even though they absorb the externalities.” [iii]

The externalities here and in other gas and oilfields are consequential for the entire global community. “It seems increasingly apparent that to prevent catastrophic global warming, society must decarbonize rapidly,” [iv] says Jerolmack. 

Burning more methane will not get us to that goal. Words of wisdom flow from native sources: 

“At the height of battles over strip mining for coal, back in the 70s, it seemed unimaginable that we would knowingly make the same mistakes again with potential for doing such harm,” says Tim Palmer, former Lycoming County resident and author of Twilight of the Hemlocks and Beeches, “but here we are with another fossil-fuel industry leaving its mark that may last for generations on our land, waters, and communities.”  

“Fight like hell to mitigate the harm … while trying to stop the industry’s spread,” [v] says Ralph Kisberg, an activist from Williamsport. People are making a difference, from afar and closer to home, and Kisberg is optimistic. “I doubt I’ll live to see a clean energy world, but maybe a clean energy U.S. economy…” [vi]

Clean and restorative, like the promise of a cool mountain stream.


Figure 22. Miner’s Run, a stream in the Lycoming Creek watershed. Photo by Tim Palmer.

THANKS TO…



Thank you to all the inspiring and persistent environmental stewards who have contributed to the creation of this digital atlas:


Project funding provided by:


SOURCES

Ohio & Fracking Waste: The Case for Better Waste Management

Insights on Ohio’s massive fracking waste gap, Class II injection well activity, and fracking waste related legislation

Trends in fracking waste coming to New York State from Pennsylvania

Over the past decade, New York State has seen a steep decline in the quantity of waste products from the fracking industry sent to its landfills for disposal. Explore FracTracker’s 2020 updated data.

Pennsylvania’s Waste Disposal Wells – A Tale of Two Datasets

 

VIEW MAP & DATA

Overview

Access to reliable data is crucial to our understanding of risky fracking waste disposal, and in turn, our ability to protect public health. But when it comes to oil and gas liquid waste disposal wells in Pennsylvania, despite monitoring by two separate agencies, we are left with an incomplete and inaccurate account.


If we were to emulate the Charles Dickens classic, this article might begin, “It was the best of datasets, it was the worst of datasets.” Unfortunately, even that would be too generous when it comes to describing available data around oil and gas liquid waste disposal wells in Pennsylvania. To fully understand the legacy and current state of these wells, it is necessary to query the two agencies that have a role in overseeing them, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Given the relatively small inventory of these wells compared to other oil and gas producing states, the problems with the two datasets are enormous. Before jumping into these issues, however, it would be useful to review the nature of these wells, why there are two regulatory agencies involved, and why there are so few of them in Pennsylvania in the first place, relatively speaking.

Disposal Wells Categories

To further our industrial exploits of the planet, humans have found it useful to inject all kinds of things into the earth. In the United States, this ultimately falls under the jurisdiction of EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program, and the point of injection is known as an injection well. Altogether, there are six classes of injection wells, with those related to oil and gas operations falling into Class II.

There are three categories of Class II injection wells, including waste disposal, enhanced recovery, and hydrocarbon storage. There is also an infamous exemption known as the “Haliburton Loophole,” which has allowed oil and gas companies to inject millions of gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid into oil and gas wells in order to stimulate production without any federal oversight at all.

When most people speak of “injection wells” in an oil and gas context, they are usually referring to waste disposal wells, and this is our focus here. This well type is also referred to as Class II-D (disposal) and salt water disposal wells (SWD). This latter term is used by a majority of state regulators, so we will use that abbreviation here, even though considering this type of toxic and radioactive fluid “salt water” is surely one of the industry’s most egregious euphemisms.

Dealing with Dangerous Fluids

There are two main types of liquid waste that are disposed of at SWD injection wells. As always, these waste types have a number of different names to keep everyone on their toes but for the sake of simplicity will call them “flowback” and “brine,” and both are problematic materials to handle. Additionally, the very act of industrial-scale fluid injection presents problems in its own right.

As mentioned above, when operators pump a toxic stew of water, sand, and chemicals into a well to stimulate oil and gas production, that mixture is known as hydraulic fracturing fluid, or fracking fluid. Some of these chemicals are so secretive that even the operators of the well don’t know what is included in the mix, let alone nearby residents or first responders in the event of an incident.

Between 10% and 100% of this fluid will return to the surface, and is then known as flowback fluid, becoming a waste stream. In Pennsylvania, the average amount of fracking fluid injected into production wells exceeds 10 million gallons in recent years according to data from the industry’s self-reporting registry known as FracFocus. With more than 12,000 of these wells drilled statewide, disposing of this waste stream becomes an enormous concern.

In addition to flowback fluid, there are pockets of ancient fluids encountered by the drilling and fracking processes that return to surface as well. These solutions are commonly referred to as brine due to their extremely high salt content, although this is not the type of fluid that you’d want to baste a Thanksgiving turkey with. Total salt concentrations can reach up to 343 grams per liter, roughly ten times the salt concentration of sea water. These brines include but are not limited to the familiar sodium chloride that we use to season our food, but include other components as well, including significant bromide and radium concentrations.

When Pennsylvania experimented with our public health by authorizing disposal of these fracking brines in municipal plants designed to treat sewer sludge, the bromides in that drilling waste stream became problematic as they interacted with disinfectants to cause a cancerous class of chemicals known as trihalomethanes. This ended the practice of surface “treatment” from these sites into streams in 2011, and along the way caused many water authorities to switch from chlorine to chloramine disinfectant processes. This, in turn, may have exacerbated lead exposure issues in the region, as the water disinfected with chloramine often eats away at the calcium scale deposits covering lead pipes and solder in the region’s older homes.

 

Radium-226 Decay Chain. Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology

Figure 1. Radium-226 Decay Chain. Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology

 

Marcellus and Utica wastewater are also very high in a radioactive isotope of radium known as Ra-226, which has a half-life of 1600 years. After that amount of time, half of the present radium will have emitted an alpha particle, which can cause mutations in strands of DNA when introduced inside the body, through contaminated drinking water, for example. After the hazardous expulsion of the alpha particle, the result become radon gas, which is estimated to cause 20,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States. Further down the decay chain is Polonium 210, which was infamously used in the assassination of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

None of this should be injected into formations beneath people’s homes, near drinking water supplies, streams, or really anywhere that we aren’t comfortable sacrificing for the next few thousand years.

 

Earthquakes in California and Oklahoma by year

Figure 2. Earthquakes in California and Oklahoma by year. Source: United States Geological Survey

 

On top of all the problems with the water chemistry of both produced water and brine, the very act of injecting these fluids into the ground has triggered a large number of earthquakes in areas with frequent or large volumes of waste injection. This human-caused phenomenon is known as induced seismicity. The most well-known example of this is the previously stable state of Oklahoma which surged to have more magnitude 3.0+ earthquakes than California for a number of years during a drilling boom in that region. The largest of these was the magnitude 5.8 Pawnee earthquake in 2016.

 

Figure 3. PA Earthquakes and Potential Causes: 1/2000 – 2/2021, Magnitude 2.0 or Greater. Most earthquakes in the eastern portion of the state are associated with Quaternary faults. In the western portion, the causes are less straightforward, and include zipper fracking, mine blasting or collapse, and faults that are more ancient and deeper than the Quaternary faults, many of which remain unmapped. As the use of SWD wells increases, seismic activity may increase as well.

 

Manmade earthquakes are not limited to Oklahoma. For example, there were approximately 130 seismic events in one year period in the Youngstown, Ohio area due to SWD activity, including one measuring 4.0 on the last day of 2011. Over the years, the regulatory reaction to induced earthquakes seems to walking along the slippery slope from “that can’t happen” to “that can’t happen here” to “they’re all small earthquakes” to “we can mitigate the impact,” despite all evidence to the contrary.

Two Regulators

So who gets to be in charge of this dumpster fire? As mentioned above, this is ultimately under the umbrella of EPA’s Underground Injection Control program. However, they have a complicated arrangement with the various states defining who has primary enforcement authority for this type of well.

In Pennsylvania, such wells must obtain a permit from EPA before obtaining a second permit from DEP. In a 2017 hearing in Plum Borough, Allegheny County, furious residents concerned with a variety of issues with a proposed SWD well were told that in Pennsylvania, EPA could only consider whether or not the well would violate the 1972 Clean Water Act when considering the permit, and that the correct audience for everything else would be DEP. Both permits for this well that is near and undear to me were ultimately issued, and operations are expected to begin in the next month if Governor Wolf does not instruct the DEP to reconsider their permit.

There is some precedent for overturning such a permit. In March of 2020, DEP yanked a permit for a SWD well in Grant Township, Indiana County, suddenly respecting a home-rule charter law that the agency had previously sued the Township over.

Without the prospect of royalties or impact fees, no community wants these wells and regulators know that they are nothing but problems. However, the reality is that the regulators oversee an industry that produces a tsunami of this toxic waste – more than 61.8 million barrels of it from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania in 2020 according to self-reported data, which is almost 2.6 billion gallons of the stuff, or slightly more than the capacity of Beaverdam Run Reservoir in Cambria County, a 382 acre lake with an average depth of 20 feet.

Unsuitable Geography

Nationally, injection wells are quite common, with over 740,000 such wells in the EPA inventory for 2018 and Class II (O&G) wells represent about a quarter of this figure. Of these Class II injection wells, roughly 20% are for fluid disposal, giving us an estimated 37,000 SWD wells nationwide. This number is expected to go up, as more than three-quarters of the 8,600 permits issued in 2018 were for oil and gas purposes.

However, in Pennsylvania, there have been quite few of these, compared to other states. The primary reason for this is its geology, which has largely been considered unsuitable for this type of activity. For example, a 2009 industry analysis states:

“The disposal of flowback and produced water is an evolving process in the Appalachians. The volumes of water that are being produced as flowback water are likely to require a number of options for disposal that may include municipal or industrial water treatment facilities (primarily in Pennsylvania), Class II injection wells [SWDs], and on-site recycling for use in subsequent fracturing jobs. In most shale gas plays, underground injection has historically been preferred. In the Marcellus play, this option is expected to be limited, as there are few areas where suitable injection zones are available.”

I discussed this topic in a phone call with an official from EPA, who largely confirmed this point of view, but preferred the phrase, “the geology is complicated” instead of the word “unsuitable.” When the UIC program was established from the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, there were only seven such wells in operation, and according to EPA’s data, there were still just 11 active SWD wells in the Commonwealth but with more on the way. I was cautioned that the geology wasn’t the only reason, however. Neighboring Ohio had hundreds of these wells, many of which are clustered close to the border with Pennsylvania. The two states have different primacy and permitting arrangements, which is a factor as well.

I have not come across sources mentioning why Pennsylvania’s geology was so unsuitable – or complicated, if we are being generous. However, there are numerous widespread issues that could be a factor, including voids created by karst and legacy coal mines, and formations that might have otherwise trapped gasses and fluids being punctured with up to 760,000 mostly unplugged oil and gas wells and more than one million drinking water wells.

Even when these fluids have been pumped deep underground, they are not necessarily out of sight and out of mind. For example, an abandoned well in Noble County Ohio suddenly began spewing gas field brine just a few weeks ago, resulting in a fish kill in a nearby stream. The incident is believed to be related to SWD wells in the general vicinity even though the closest of these is miles away from the toxic geyser. The waste fluids injected beneath the surface will exploit any pathway available through crumbling or porous rocks to alleviate the pressure built up from the injection process. These fluids don’t care whether the target is an old gas well, mine void, or drinking water aquifer.

Of course, we could ask the question in reverse, and ask what makes the injection of oil and gas fluids suitable in other locations, and the aggregated evidence would lead us to “nothing” as our answer. Nothing, other than the fact that drilling and fracking produces billions of gallons of liquid waste, and that it has to go somewhere.

 

See FracTracker’s map showing the proximity of karst formations, coal mines and nearby streams that the state designates as either high quality or exceptional value.

 

Although EPA play a major role in permitting and regulating SWD wells in Pennsylvania, they do not publish data related to these wells on their website. FracTracker started hearing rumors about a spate of new SWD permits all over the state that were not accounted for in DEP data. As it turns out, many of these turned out to be other oil and gas wastewater processing facilities, and the public’s confusion about these is completely understandable because these facilities lacked the proper public notice process. These facilities are concerning in their own right – and residents of Pennsylvania should look here to see if one of these 49 facilities are in their neighborhoods – but these are not disposal wells.

To clear up the confusion, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to EPA for a spreadsheet of their Class II injection wells in Pennsylvania. This was apparently an onerous task that would require more than ten hours of labor on their behalf. When I mentioned that I was mostly interested in disposal wells, that sped the process up considerably.

Ultimately, I received a portion of the data fields that I had asked for.

Asked For Received
Well Name Yes
Well API Number Yes
Class II Category (disposal, recovery, storage) No
Date application received No
Application status (e.g., pending, complete) Yes
Application result (e.g., approved, rejected) No
Application result date (date of EPA’s decision) No
Well status (e.g., active, plugged) Yes
Well county name Yes
Well municipality name No
Well latitude Yes
Well longitude Yes

Table 1 – Summary of fields requested and received in FracTracker’s FOIA submission with EPA.

 

I started to compare the EPA dataset to DEP’s SWD well dataset, which is a part of its conventional well inventory. Each source had 23 records. We were off to a good start, but this data victory turned out to be limited in scope as the discrepancies between the two datasets continued to grow. Inconsistencies between the two datasets are as follows:

County DEP API DEP Well Name EPA API Match EPA Name Match Notes
Allegheny 003-21223 SEDAT 3A Y Y
Armstrong 005-21675 HARRY L DANDO 1 Y Y
Beaver 007-20027 COLUMBIA GAS OF PENNA INC CGPA5 Y Y
Bedford 009-20039 KENNETH A DIEHL D1 N N Not on EPA List
Cambria 021-20018 THE PEOPLES NATURAL GAS CO 4627X N N Not on EPA list
Clearfield 033-27255 FRANK & SUSAN ZELMAN 1 N Y DEP / EPA API Number mismatch
033-27257 POVLIK 1 N Y No EPA API No.
033-00053 IRVIN A-19 FMLY FEE A 19 Y Y
033-22059 SPENCER LAND CO 2 Y Y
Elk 047-23835 FEE SENECA RESOURCES WARRANT 3771 38268 Y Y
047-23885 FEE SENECA RESOURCES WARRANT 3771 38282 N Y DEP / EPA API Number mismatch
Erie 049-24388 NORBERT CROSS 2 Y Y
049-20109 HAMMERMILL PLT 1 N N Not on EPA List
049-00013 HAMMERMILL 3 N N Not on EPA List
049-00012 HAMMERMILL 1 N N Not on EPA List
Greene N N Not on DEP list. EPA Permit PAS2D210BGRE – no API to match
Indiana 063-31807 MARJORIE C YANITY 1025 Y Y
063-20246 T H YUCKENBERG 1 Y Y
Somerset 111-20059 W SHANKSVILLE SALT WATER DISP 1 Y N
111-20006 MORRIS H CRITCHFIELD 1 Y N
Potter 105-20473 H A HEINRICK RW-55 CA Y Category Anomaly – Not on DEP SWD list – does appear as Plugged OG Well (consistent w/ EPA status notes)
Venango 121-44484 LATSHAW 9 Y Y
Warren 123-39874 BITTINGER 4 N Y API Mismatch (But does match Bittinger #1) Lat/Long match site name
123-33914 JOSEPH BITTINGER 1 N Y API Mismatch (But does match Bittinger #4) Lat matches site name, Long slightly off
123-33944 JOSEPH BITTINGER 2 Y Y
123-33945 JOSEPH BITTINGER 3 CA Y Category Anomaly – Not on DEP SWD list – does appear as “Injection”
123-34843 SMITH/RAS UNIT 1 CA Y Category Anomaly – Not on DEP SWD list – does appear as “Observation”
123-22665 LEROY STODDARD & FRANK COFFA 1 WELL N N Not on DEP list of all wells.  Does appear on eFACTS. No location data

Table 2 – Discrepancies between EPA and DEP data for SWD wells in PA.

 

Altogether, there was at least one data discrepancy on 17 out of 28 wells (61%) on the combined inventories, and this is allowing for significantly different formatting of the well’s name. The DEP list contained five records that were not on the EPA dataset at all, four records where the well’s API number did not match, three instances where the DEP well type was different from EPA’s listing, two wells with matching API numbers but different well names, two wells that were missing the API number on the EPA list, and one well that was on the EPA list that I have not been able to find in any of DEP’s inventories.  These last two wells could not be mapped due to the lack of location data.

It isn’t always possible to know which dataset is erroneous, but the EPA list has several obvious omissions and one instance where the API number and well name are in the wrong columns. The quality of DEP data has improved over the years and appear to have some data controls in place to avoid some of these basic errors. For that reason, I suspect that most of the problems stem from the EPA dataset, and I have used DEP coordinates to map these wells.

Waste Disposal Wells in Pennsylvania

This map contains numerous layers that explore the current state of Class II-D Salt Water Disposal (SWD) injection wells for oil and gas waste in Pennsylvania. View the map “Details” tab below in the top left corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data.

View Full Sized Map | Updated 2/21 

 

The Take Away

In the early 1970s, it was recognized that industrial injection of oil and gas waste underground could lead to risks to human health and the environment, so several major protective laws were put in place, including the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, and the Pennsylvania’s 1971 Environmental Rights Amendment. Decades later, it feels like the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Environmental Protection Agency don’t take their regulatory responsibilities very seriously when it comes to oil and gas liquid waste disposal wells. While the state does have fewer of this type of well than other states, there are five that are currently under construction, according to the EPA dataset. Many of these, like the Sedat 3A well in Allegheny County, have come after significant community opposition, and many of the residents’ concerns have not been addressed by either agency.

There will undoubtedly be more of these disposal wells proposed in the near future. Residents would do well to hassle their municipalities to update their ordinances for this type of well if they happen to live in a place where such ordinances are possible. Solicitors should be instructed to regularly scour the Pennsylvania Bulletin and be in contact with EPA for the earliest possible notification of a proposed site, so that there is time to respond within the comment periods.

Additionally, the sloppiness of the datasets calls all sorts of questions into play regarding the co-regulation of these wells. In the case of an incident, it’s not even clear that both agencies have the information on hand to even locate the site in the field. Meanwhile, a 61% error rate between the sites name, API number, and status does not inspire confidence that agencies are keeping a close eye on these facilities, to say the least.

Above all, we must all realize that it isn’t safe to assume that someone will let us know when these types of facilities are proposed. Regulators have shown us through their actions that they are thinking far more about the billions of gallons of waste that needs to be disposed of than of the well-being of dozens or even hundreds of neighbors near each toxic dump site.

References & Where to Learn More

Data supporting this article, as well as the static map in Figure 3, can be found here.

FracTracker Pennsylvania articles, maps, and imagery: https://www.fractracker.org/map/us/pennsylvania/

Topics in this Article

Infrastructure | Waste

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Utica and Marcellus shale plays in the Appalachian Basin map

Fracking Waste in the Appalachian Basin – A Story Map

 

The production of fracking waste in the Appalachian Basin puts public health and safety at risk.

 

Fracking produces more than just oil and gas — billions of gallons of highly toxic waste are also created in the process. Regulatory loopholes have led to limited oversight into how this waste is tracked and treated, putting public health and safety at risk.

The maps below explore issues related to fracking waste from the Marcellus and Utica Shale regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and West Virginia.

We suggest viewing this map fullscreen (click the link to do so)

View the map fullscreen

 

This mapping platform is an evolving tool based on available data — yet the opaqueness of the fracking industry limits our ability to map and analyze the full scope of the problem of fracking waste in the Appalachian Basin.

Unfortunately, even after sifting through thousands of data points, we’re left with many outstanding questions — what are the chemical components of the waste created? Where is it all sent? Where are its byproducts sent? What facilities are being planned and proposed? How much illegal dumping occurs?

The production of fracking waste in the Appalachian Basin will continue to create environmental and public health threats for decades after the industry leaves the region. Wells can continue to generate wastewater for years and contaminated equipment sent to landfills will leach toxins into the environment. Furthermore, with the industry’s history of failing to restore land after it has been used for oil and gas operations, we can expect abandoned fracking sites to become an increasing source of pollution in the Appalachian Basin in the coming decades. It’s imperative that the public have access to accurate and detailed data on fracking waste to protect the health of workers and residents.

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

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Incinerators: Dinosaurs in the world of energy generation

 

In this article, we’ll take a look at the current trend in “re-branding” incineration as a viable option to deal with the mountains of garbage generated by our society. Incineration can produce energy for electricity, but can the costs—both economically, and ecologically—justify the benefits? What are the alternatives?

Changes in our waste stream

In today’s world of consumerism and production, waste disposal is a chronic problem facing most communities worldwide. Lack of attention to recycling and composting, as well as ubiquitous dependence on plastics, synthetics, and poorly-constructed or single-use goods has created a waste crisis in the United States. So much of the waste that we create could be recycled or composted, however, taking extraordinary levels of pressure off our landfills. According to estimates in 2017 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 30 percent of municipal solid waste is made up of organic matter like food waste, wood, and yard trimmings, almost all of which could be composted. Paper, glass, and metals – also recyclable – make up nearly 40 percent of the residential waste stream. Recycling plastic, a material which comprises 13% of the waste stream, has largely been a failed endeavor thus far.

Why say NO to incinerators?

  • They are bad for the environment, producing toxic chlorinated byproducts like dioxins. Incineration often converts toxic municipal waste into other forms, some of which are even more toxic than their precursors.
  • They often consume more energy than they produce and are not profitable to run.
  • They add CO2 to the atmosphere.
  • They promote the false narrative that we can “get something” from our trash
  • They detract from the conversation about actual renewable energy sources like wind power, solar power, and geothermal energy that will stop the acceleration of climate chaos.

Figure 1: A breakdown of the 267.78 million tons of municipal waste that were generated in the US in 2017. Source: figure developed by FracTracker Alliance, based on 2017 EPA data. Source: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials

Nevertheless, of the approximately 400 million tons of plastic produced annually around the world, only about 10% of it is recycled. The rest winds up in the waste stream or as microfragments (or microplastics) in our oceans, freshwater lakes, and streams.

Figure 2: Increase in global plastics production, 1950-2015, Source: Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7), e1700782. Available at: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782 Referenced in https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution

According to an EPA fact sheet, by 2017, municipal solid waste generation increased three-fold compared with 1960. In 1960, that number was 88.1 million tons. By 2017, this number had risen to nearly 267.8 million tons. Over that same period, per-capita waste generation rose from 2.68 pounds per person per day, to 4.38 pounds per person per day, as our culture became more wed to disposable items.

The EPA provides a robust “facts and figures” breakdown of waste generation and disposal here.  In 2017, 42.53 million tons of US waste was shipped to landfills, which are under increasing pressure to expand and receive larger and larger loads from surrounding area, and, in some cases, hundreds of miles away.

How are Americans doing in reducing waste?

On average, in 2017, Americans recycled and composted 35.2% of our individual waste generation rate of 4.51 pounds per person per day.  While this is a notable jump from decades earlier, much of the gain appears to be in the development of municipal yard waste composting programs. Although the benefits of recycling are abundantly clear, in today’s culture, according to a PEW Research Center report published in 2016, just under 30% of Americans live in communities where recycling is strongly encouraged. An EPA estimate for 2014 noted that the recycling rate that year was only 34.6%, nationwide, with the highest compliance rate at 89.5% for corrugated boxes.

Figure 3. Percent of Americans who report recycling and re-use behaviors in their communities, via Pew Research center
Historically, incineration – or burning solid waste – has been one method for disposing of waste. And in 2017, this was the fate of 34 million tons—or nearly 13%– of all municipal waste generated in the United States. Nearly a quarter of this waste consisted of containers and packaging—much of that made from plastic.  The quantity of packaging materials in the combusted waste stream has jumped from only 150,000 tons in 1970 to 7.86 million tons in 2017.  Plastic, in its many forms, made up 16.4% of all incinerated materials, according to the EPA’s estimates in 2017.

Figure 4: A breakdown of the 34.03 tons of municipal waste incinerated for energy in the US in 2017

What is driving the abundance of throw-away plastics in our waste stream?

Sadly, the answer is this: The oil and gas industry produces copious amounts of ethane, which is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction. Plastics are an “added value” component of the cycle of fossil fuel extraction. FracTracker has reported extensively on the controversial development of ethane “cracker” plants, which chemically change this extraction waste product into feedstock for the production of polypropylene plastic nuggets. These nuggets, or “nurdles,” are the building blocks for everything from fleece sportswear, to lumber, to packaging materials. The harmful impacts from plastics manufacturing on air and water quality, as well as on human and environmental health, are nothing short of stunning.

FracTracker has reported extensively on this issue. For further background reading, explore:

A report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance and the Center for Environmental Integrity in 2019 found that plastic production and incineration in 2019 contributed greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 189 new 500-megawatt coal power plants. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2050, these emissions could rise to the equivalent to the emissions released by more than 615 coal-fired power plants.

Figure 5: Projected carbon dioxide equivalencies in plastics emissions, 2019-2050. Source: Plastic and Climate https://www.ciel.org/plasticandclimate/

Just another way of putting fossil fuels into our atmosphere

Incineration is now strongly critiqued as a dangerous solution to waste disposal as more synthetic and heavily processed materials derived from fossils fuels have entered the waste stream. Filters and other scrubbers that are designed to remove toxins and particulates from incineration smoke are anything but fail-safe. Furthermore, the fly-ash and bottom ash that are produced by incineration only concentrate hazardous compounds even further, posing additional conundrums for disposal.

Incineration as a means of waste disposal, in some states is considered a “renewable energy” source when electricity is generated as a by-product. Opponents of incineration and the so-called “waste-to-energy” process see it as a dangerous route for toxins to get into our lungs, and into the food stream. In fact, Energy Justice Network sees incineration as:

… the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste – far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy – far more polluting than coal burning.

Municipal waste incineration: bad environmentally, economically, ethically

Waste incineration has been one solution for disposing of trash for millennia. And now, aided by technology, and fueled by a crisis to dispose of ever-increasing trash our society generates, waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration facilities are a component in how we produce electricity.

But what is a common characteristic of the communities in which WTEs are sited? According to a 2019 report by the Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School, 79% of all municipal solid waste incinerators are located in communities of color and low-income communities.  Incinerators are not only highly problematic environmentally and economically. They present direct and dire environmental justice threats.

Waste-to-Energy facilities in the US, existing and proposed

Click here to view this map full-screen

Activate the Layers List button to turn on Environmental Justice data on air pollutants and cancer occurrences across the United States.  We have also included real-time air monitoring data in the interactive map because one of the health impacts of incineration includes respiratory illnesses. These air monitoring stations measure ambient particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the atmosphere, which can be a helpful metric.

What are the true costs of incineration?

These trash incinerators capture energy released from the process of burning materials, and turn it into electricity. But what are the costs? Proponents of incineration say it is a sensible way to reclaim or recovery energy that would otherwise be lost to landfill disposal. The US EIA also points out that burning waste reduces the volume of waste products by up to 87%.

The down-side of incineration of municipal waste, however, is proportionally much greater, with a panoply of health effects documented by the National Institutes for Health, and others.

Dioxins (shown in Figures 6-11) are some of the most dangerous byproducts of trash incineration. They make up a group of highly persistent organic pollutants that take a long time to degrade in the environment and are prone to bioaccumulation up the food chain.

Dioxins are known to cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine and immune systems, and lead to reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins are some of the most dangerous compounds produced from incineration. Compared with the air pollution from coal-burning power plants, dioxin concentrations produced from incineration may be up to 28 times as high.

2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin

2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzofuran

3,3′,4,4′,5,5′-Hexachlorobiphenyl

Figures 6-11: Dioxin chemical structures via US EPA. Source: https://www.epa.gov/dioxin/learn-about-dioxin
 

Federal EPA regulations between 2000 and 2005 resulted in the closure of nearly 200 high dioxin emitting plants. Currently, there are fewer than 100 waste-to-energy incinerators operating in the United States, all of which are required to operate with high-tech equipment that reduces dioxins to 1% of what used to be emitted. Nevertheless, even with these add-ons, incinerators still produce 28 times the amount of dioxin per BTU when compared with power plants that burn coal.

Even with pollution controls required of trash incinerators since 2005, compared with coal-burning energy generation, incineration still releases 6.4 times as much of the notoriously toxic pollutant mercury to produce the equivalent amount of energy.

Energy Justice Network, furthermore, notes that incineration is the most expensive means of managing waste… as well as making energy. This price tag includes high costs to build incinerators, as well as staff and maintain them — exceeding operation and maintenance costs of coal by a factor of 11, and nuclear by a factor of 4.2.

Figure 12. Costs of incineration per ton are nearly twice that of landfilling. Source: National Solid Waste Management Association 2005 Tip Fee Survey, p. 3.
Energy Justice Network and others have pointed out that the amount of energy recovered and/or saved from recycling or composting is up to five times that which would be provided through incineration.

Figure 13. Estimated power plant capital and operating costs. Source: Energy Justice Network

The myth that incineration is a form of “renewable energy”

Waste is a “renewable” resource only to the extent that humans will continue to generate waste. In general, the definition of “renewable” refers to non-fossil fuel based energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower, and biomass. Synthetic materials like plastics, derived from oil and gas, however, are not. Although not created from fossil fuels, biologically-derived products are not technically “renewable” either.

ZeroWasteEurope argues that:

Biogenic materials you find in the residual waste stream, such as food, paper, card and natural textiles, are derived from intensive agriculture – monoculture forests, cotton fields and other “green deserts”. The ecosystems from which these materials are derived could not survive in the absence of human intervention, and of energy inputs from fossil sources. It is, therefore, more than debatable whether such materials should be referred to as renewable.

Although incineration may reduce waste volumes by up to 90%, the resulting waste-products are problematic. “Fly-ash,” which is composed of the light-weight byproducts, may be reused in concrete and wallboard. “Bottom ash” however, the more coarse fraction of incineration—about 10% overall—concentrates toxins like heavy metals. Bottom-ash is disposed of in landfills or sometimes incorporated into structural fill and aggregate road-base material.

How common is the practice of using trash to fuel power plants?

Trash incineration accounts for a fraction of the power produced in the United States. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, just under 13% of electricity generated in the US comes from burning of municipal solid waste, in fewer than 65 waste-to-energy plants nation-wide. Nevertheless, operational waste-to-incineration plants are found throughout the United States, with a concentration east of the Mississippi.

According to EnergyJustice.net’s count of waste incinerators in the US and Canada, currently, there are:

    • 88 operating
    • 41 proposed
    • 0 expanding
    • 207 closed or defeated

Figure 14. Locations of waste incinerators that are already shut down. Source: EnergyJustice.net)
Precise numbers of these incinerators are difficult to ascertain, however. Recent estimates from the federal government put the number of current waste-to-energy facilities at slightly fewer: EPA currently says there are 75 of these incinerators in the United States. And in their database, updated July 2020, the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), lists 63 power plants that are fueled by municipal solid waste. Of these 63 plants, 40—or 66%—are in the northeast United States.

Regardless, advocates of clean energy, waste reduction, and sustainability argue that trash incinerators, despite improvements in pollution reduction over earlier times and the potential for at least some electric generation, are the least effective option for waste disposal that exists. The trend towards plant closure across the United States would support that assertion.

Let’s take a look at the dirty details on WTE facilities in three states in the Northeastern US.

Review of WTE plants in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey

A. New York State

In NYS, there are currently 11 waste-to-energy facilities that are operational, and two that are proposed. Here’s a look at some of them:

The largest waste-to-energy facility in New York State, Covanta Hempstead Company (Nassau County), was built in 1989. It is a 72 MW generating plant, and considered by Covanta to be the “cornerstone of the town’s integrated waste service plan.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ECHO database, this plant has no violations listed. Oddly enough, even after drawing public attention in 2009 about the risks associated with particulate fall-out from the plant, the facility has not been inspected in the past 5 years.

Other WTE facilities in New York State include the Wheelabrator plant located in Peekskill (51 MW), Covanta Energy of Niagara in Niagara Falls (32 MW), Convanta Onondaga in Jamesville (39 MW), Huntington Resource Recovery in Suffolk County (24.3 MW), and the Babylon Resource Recovery Facility also in Suffolk County (16.8 MW). Five additional plants scattered throughout the state in Oswego, Dutchess, Suffolk, Tioga, and Washington Counties, are smaller than 15 MW each. Of those, two closed and one proposal was defeated.

B. Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, six WTE facilities are currently operating. Two have been closed, and six defeated.

C. New Jersey

And in New Jersey, there are currently four operating WTE facilities. Essex County Resource Recovery Facility, is New Jersey’s largest WTE facility. It opened in 1990, houses three burners, and produces 93 MW total.

Union County Resource Recovery Facility, which opened in 1994, operates three burners, producing 73 MW total. Covanta Camden Energy Recovery Center opened in 1991. It has 13 burners, producing a total of 46 MW. Wheelabrator Gloucester LP (Westville, NJ) opened in 1990. The two burners there produce 21 MW of power. Covanta Warren Energy is the oldest and smallest WTE facility in New Jersey. It produced 14 MW of energy and opened in 1988. Operations are currently shut down, but this closure may not be permanent.

Throw-aways, burn-aways, take-aways

Looming large above the arguments about appropriate siting, environmental justice, financial gain, and energy prices, is a bigger question:

How can we continue to live on this planet at our current rates of consumption, and the resultant waste generation?

The issue here is not so much about the sources of our heat and electricity in the future, but rather “How MUST we change our habits now to ensure a future on a livable planet?”

Professor Paul Connett (emeritus, St. Lawrence University), is a specialist in the build-up of dioxins in food chains, and the problems, dangers, and alternatives to incineration. He is a vocal advocate for a “Zero Waste” approach to consumption, and suggests that every community embrace these principles as ways to guide a reduction of our waste footprint on the planet. The fewer resources that are used, the less waste is produced, mitigating the extensive costs brought on by our consumptive lifestyles. Waste-to-energy incineration facilities are just a symptom of our excessively consumptive society.

Dr. Connett suggests these simple but powerful methods to drastically reduce the amount of materials that we dispose — whether by incineration, landfill, or out the car window on a back-road, anywhere in the world:

    • Source separation
    • Recycling
    • Door-to-door collection
    • Composting
    • Building Reuse, Repair and Community centers
    • Implementing waste reduction Initiatives
    • Building Residual Separation and Research centers
    • Better industrial design
    • Economic incentives
    • Interim landfill for non-recyclables and biological stabilization of other organic materials

Connett’s Zero Waste charge to industry is this: “If we can’t reuse, recycle, or compost it, industry shouldn’t be making it.” Reducing our waste reduces our energy footprint on the planet.

In a similar vein, FracTracker has written about the potential for managing waste through a circular economics model, which has been successfully implemented by the city of Freiburg, Germany. A circular economic model incorporates recycling, reuse, and repair to loop “waste” back into the system. A circular model focuses on designing products that last and can be repaired or re-introduced back into a natural ecosystem.
 

This is an important vision to embrace. Every day. Everywhere.

Recommended resources

Figure 17: Illustration of common waste streams from “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/)

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator


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New York State Closes the Fracking Waste Loophole

Overview

On August 3, 2020, New Yorkers rejoiced in Governor Cuomo’s signing of legislation to protect the Empire State from Pennsylvania’s fracking waste. Although New York State has banned high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” within its borders, a fracking waste loophole allowed numerous landfills to received both solid and liquid waste products from drilling operations just south of its border, according to records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP).

What has been at stake

A regulatory loophole in New York State’s laws exempted drilling waste from scrutiny as hazardous materials. Therefore, solid and liquid wastes from drilling operations — including many constituents which are considered secret or “proprietary” — were sent to landfills, and in some cases, spread on roads and walkways in the state. Municipalities were provided with very little understanding of the risks those materials might be posing to air and water quality in and around landfills. Until the signing of this legislation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has considered road-spreading of waste brine from both conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells that was spread on roads a “BUD,” or a beneficial use determination.

Nevertheless, research has shown that produced water from fracking operations can contain tens to thousands of times the allowable drinking water concentration limit of radium, strontium, barium, lead, arsenic, and other elements. Human health impacts of all phases of drilling operations were explored in a recent paper by Wollin et al. (May 2020).

Water that flows to the surface from oil and gas wells, so-called ‘produced water’, represents a mixture of flow-back, the injected frac fluid returning to the surface, and the reservoir water present in natural oil and gas deposits. Among numerous hazardous compounds, produced water may contain bromide, arsenic, strontium, mercury, barium, radioactive isotopes and organic compounds, particularly benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX). The sewage outflow, even from specialized treatment plants, may still contain critical concentrations of barium, strontium and arsenic. Evidence suggests that the quality of groundwater and surface water may be compromised by disposal of produced water.

Carcinogenic and radioactive wastes that are brought to the surface with both conventional and unconventional drilling technologies can have toxic impacts on human health and the natural environment, impacting the endocrine, nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, as well as air and water quality. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 75 percent of the chemicals used in fracking are associated with harm to human organs, while 25 percent are tied to cancer and other genetic mutations.

How could this be allowed?

Although the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)—passed in 1976—specifically safeguards human and environmental health, an amendment to the Act in 1980 exempted from regulation all waste from oil and gas exploration, development, and production. Despite close to 40 years of federal oversight of pollution created by countless industries, oil and gas operations have been subject to far more lax regulations. And although states can pass their own regulations to supplement the federal rule-making, this had not occurred in New York State.

The lead-up to the legislation

The recent legislation to close the fracking loophole in New York State was sponsored in 2019 by Senator Rachel May and Assemblyman Steve Engelbright. Lawmakers had been deadlocked on the issue since 2011, but through much hard work, political and public will, and a favorable complement of elected officials, after the bills finally passed both the New York State Senate and Assembly, they could move to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk, where they were signed into law in early August, 2020. According to EarthWorks, all oil and gas waste will be

  • Subject to laboratory analysis to determine whether it has the characteristics of hazardous waste (i.e., ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity)
  • Subject wastes to clearer, stronger management regulations like processing, tracking and marking of loads, recordkeeping with a manifest system, reporting to DEC, and specific requirements for clean up in the case of a spill

In addition, the law ensures that waste is disposed of only at facilities equipped to safely handle it.

Now, even wastes like brine from conventional drilling operations must undergo laboratory analysis to determine whether they have characteristics consistent with hazardous materials.

Here’s a look back at our history of accepting fracking waste from Pennsylvania into New York State.

Visualizing a long history of oil and gas waste coming to New York State from Pennsylvania

FracTracker has annually mapped the flow of drilling waste from Pennsylvania to New York State.

To view the map a full screen, click here

 

Since 2011, nearly 29,000 barrels of fracking liquid waste (drilling fluids, fracturing fluids, produced waters, etc.), along with close to 645,000 tons of solid waste (drill cuttings—some of it radioactive, sludge, contaminated soils, etc.) from Pennsylvania drilling operations have been disposed of in New York State. For more references on radioactivity in drilling materials, explore this resource. Drilling waste reports available from 2010 through the present show a steady decline in waste sent to New York State, beginning in 2011. Nonetheless, New York’s landfills have received as much as 11,548 barrels of drilling waste, and 214,168 tons of solid waste in a given year.

PA DEP’s records are far from complete prior to 2016, however, with disposal destinations unknown for close to 2/3 of liquid waste (see yellow portions of the bar chart in Figure 1) generated between 2012 and 2015.

 

Figure 1. Pennsylvania’s liquid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, 2010-2019

 

In more recent years, waste products were accounted for more accurately, as well as shipped to injection wells in Ohio.

On a relatively smaller scale, one can also see how West Virginia’s acceptance of Pennsylvania’s fracking waste has skyrocketed in 2018 and 2019, particularly in comparison to states other than Pennsylvania and Ohio (Figure 2).

 

Figure 2. Pennsylvania’s liquid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state (excluding Pennsylvania and Ohio), 2010-2019

 

In general, records indicate more solid waste disposal occurring within Pennsylvania over time, with Ohio accepting varying quantities from year to year, and New York State steadily receiving less over time (Figure 3).

 

Figure 3. Pennsylvania’s solid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, 2010-2019

 

Now that the regulatory loophole has been closed, these numbers should drop to near zero. Data about waste coming from Pennsylvania to New York in the first half of 2020 support that assertion (Figures 4 and 5).

 

Figure 4. Pennsylvania’s liquid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, January-May 2020

 

Figure 5. Pennsylvania’s solid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, January-May 2020

In conclusion

FracTracker applauds New York State for closing the fracking waste loophole and in doing so, continuing to set high standards to protect its residents from the human and environmental impacts created by oil and gas extraction. We hope that other states will follow suit, and develop their own stringent standards to protect human and environmental health, in particular where federal legislation like RCRA has fallen woefully short.

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Feature photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial support by Lighthawk

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Fig. 1. Appalachia Midstream SVC LLC , Cherry Compressor Station in Cherry, Sullivan County, PA. (FLIR camera footage by Earthworks, July 2020)

An Introduction to the Loyalsock Creek Watershed


Nestled in Pennsylvania’s scenic Endless Mountains region, the Loyalsock Creek flows 64 miles from its headwaters in Wyoming County near the Sullivan County line, to a peaceful confluence with the West Branch Susquehanna River at Montoursville, east of Williamsport in Lycoming County. The lively, clear water drains 495 square miles, journeying through thick forests of the Allegheny Plateau over a landscape prized for rugged outdoor recreation, bucolic wooded respites, and quaint villages. 

Local place names reflect the Munsee-Lenape, Susquehannock, and Iroquois peoples who called the area home at the time of early colonial settlement. The name Loyalsock stems from the native word Lawi-sahquick, meaning “middle creek.” 

A favorite for angling, swimming, and whitewater paddling, the waterway supports a notorious resident – the aquatic eastern hellbender, the largest salamander in North America. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) crowned the Loyalsock “River of the Year,” a program honoring the state’s premier rivers and streams and encouraging their stewardship.



Fig 2. Loyalsock Watershed Overview Map. (FracTracker Alliance, July 2020)

A Wealth of Public Lands and Recreational Opportunity

Public Lands

Nearly one third of the Loyalsock watershed consists of state-owned public lands, including the 780-acre Worlds End State Park; 37,519 acres of state game lands; and, 65,939 acres of the Loyalsock State Forest. The State Forest encompasses two Natural Areas, Tamarack Run (201 acres) and Kettle Creek Gorge (774 acres), as well as a 1935-acre portion of Kettle Creek Wild Area.

Worlds End State Park was originally purchased by the state in 1929 in an attempt to allow the area to recover from clear-cutting. The land was significantly improved due to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. There is some uncertainty about the historical name of the region, and as a result, the park was renamed Whirl’s End in 1936, but reverted to Worlds End in 1943. 

The area is a deep gorge cut by water rushing over millions of years through the Loyalsock Creek, over sedimentary formations known as the Sullivan Highlands. The gorge reaches 800 feet deep in some locations, where the fossilized remnants of 350-million-year-old lungfish burrows can be found.

Current amenities include 70 tent camping sites, 19 cabins, as well as group camping options accommodating up to 90 campers. A small swimming area on Loyalsock Creek is open in the summer months, and the Creek is also used for boating and fishing.

The Tamarack Run Natural Area protects one of the few enclaves of the tamarack tree, a species of larch common in Canada, but relatively rare as far south as the Loyalsock watershed. 

The Kettle Creek Gorge Natural Area follows the path of Falls Run, which as the name suggests, contains numerous majestic waterfalls, including Angel Falls, which drops around 70 feet. The Natural Area is buffered by the Kettle Creek Wild Area. Kettle Creek is a Class A Wild Trout stream, meaning that natural populations of trout are sufficient in quantity and size to support fishing activities.


Fig. 3. A view of Loyalsock Creek from the High Rock Trail in Worlds End State Park. (Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance, August 2019)


Fig. 4. Tubing on Loyalsock Creek. (Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance, August 2019)

Relaxing on the Water

The Loyalsock watershed contains 909 miles of streams, with more than 395 miles (43%) classified as high quality (358 miles) or exceptional value (37 miles). The watershed contains 10,573 acres of wetlands, including 4,844 acres of forested wetlands, 3,261 acres of riverine wetlands, 1,013 acres of freshwater ponds, 761 acres of lakes, and 694 acres of emergent wetlands.

Another popular recreation spot within the Loyalsock watershed is Rose Valley Lake, a 389-acre artificial reservoir managed by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The lake contains a variety of fish, including bigmouth bass, bluegill, and walleye. Boating is restricted to electric motors and unpowered craft, making the area an idyllic getaway.

Trails

There are 238 miles of trails in the watershed, accommodating a variety of uses, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiles. Some notable examples include: 

  • over 90 miles of snowmobile trails in the Loyalsock State Forest and Worlds End State Park; 
  • most of the 64-mile-long Loyalsock Trail, showcasing numerous waterfalls; 
  • the Double Run Ski Trail, providing cross-country opportunities in the Loyalsock State Forest; 
  • and the 19-mile Loyalsock State Forest Bridle Trail for equestrian pursuits.

The Loyalsock Watershed also contains the entirety of state Game Lands #134 and #298, as well as parts of six others, including Game Lands #12, #13, #36, #57, #66, and #133. Not only hunting locations, these tracts preserve habitat for important bird and mammal species, provide opportunities for birding, and offer a variety of outdoor education resources.



Commercial Opportunities

There are also privately-owned recreational opportunities in the region. A portion of the historic Eagles Mere Country Club has provided golf and other activities for over 100 years. Eagles Mere Lake, just south of the watershed boundary, provides recreation opportunities for members of the privately-held Eagles Mere Association. At the south of the lake is the regionally-famous Eagles Mere Tobaggan Slide, where riders race down a specialized track at speeds up to 45 miles per hour, when winters are cold enough for sufficient ice conditions – a fleeting situation due to climate change. 

A few miles to the east of Eagles Mere lies a cluster of lakes that surround the borough of Laporte, in Sullivan County. The largest of these lakes is Lake Mokoma, administered by the Lake Mokoma Association. Participation in the Association is limited to those who own residences or vacation homes in Sullivan County.

Loyalsock State Forest Trail

Fig. 5. Hiking trail in the Loyalsock State Forest. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)

Fig. 6. An interactive map of recreation opportunities in the Loyalsock Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, July 2020)

View map fullscreen


Note: Wetland data presented are from the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI), which is a geographically comprehensive dataset compiled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service from aerial photographs, but not a complete or accurate depiction of regulated wetlands for site-specific purposes.  A relatively newer wetland mapping dataset for Pennsylvania appears to identify more areas of potential wetlands than NWI.  Nevertheless, the NWI and other available map sources generally underestimate actual wetland coverage in Pennsylvania.  Accurate wetland mapping requires the application of technical criteria in the field to identify the site-specific vegetation, soil, and hydrology indicators that define regulated wetlands (25 Pa. Code 105.451).  

Stream data presented are from the Pennsylvania DEP Designated Use listing (25 Pa. Code 93.9), which is based on the National Hydrography Dataset.  Some streams have updated designations of their existing water uses as depicted on other DEP datasets.  Available electronic datasets and topographic maps do not display all permanent or intermittent streams included as Regulated Waters of the Commonwealth (25 Pa. Code 105.1).  It is possible to map additional streams with the help of existing photo-based digital elevation models, although use of that technique was beyond the scope of this informational project.  Such streams would add significantly to the total mileage, but they have not yet been acknowledged by the Pennsylvania DEP, and therefore are not included in the DEP’s inventories of high quality, exceptional value, or other streams.

The datasets used in this map collection can be found by following the links in the Details section of each map, found near the top-left corner of the page.

Fracking comes to the Loyalsock

Figures 7-9. Aerial imagery of unconventional oil and gas infrastructure in the Loyalsock State Forest. (Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from Lighthawk. June, 2020)

On November 17, 2009, Inflection Energy began drilling the Ultimate Warrior I well in Upper Fairfield Township, Lycoming County. In quick succession came Pennsylvania General Energy, Chesapeake Appalachia, Chief Oil & Gas, Anadarko E&P, Alta Resources (ARD), and Southwestern Production (SWN), all of which drilled a well by the end of 2010. It was a veritable invasion on the watershed, one that ushered in a dramatic change from a mostly agrarian landscape, to one with heavy industrial presence.

Residents have to deal with constant construction of well pads, pipelines, compressor stations, and staging grounds. Since each drilled well requires thousands of truck trips, enormous traffic jams are common, with each idling engine spewing diesel exhaust into the once clean air. The noise of drilling and fracking continues into the night, and bright flaring of gasses at wells and other facilities disrupts sleep schedules, and may contribute to serious health issues as well.

Fig. 10. An interactive map of the impacts of the unconventional oil and gas industry to the Loyalsock Creek Watershed. Note: Pipelines may be only partially depicted due to data limitations. (FracTracker Alliance, 2020)

View map fullscreen

Fracking is a nuisance and a risk in the best of times, but the Marcellus boom in the Loyalsock watershed has been notably problematic. The most frequent violations in the watershed are casing and cementing infractions, for which the “operator conducted casing and cementing activities that failed to prevent migration of gas or other fluids into sources of fresh groundwater.” This particular violation has been reported 47 times in the watershed, although there are dozens of additional casing and cementing issues that are similarly worded (see appendix). Erosion and sediment violations have also been commonplace, and these can have significant impacts on stream system health.

Improperly contained waste pits have leached toxic waste into the ground. A truck with drilling mud containing 103,000 milligrams per liter of chlorides – about five times more than ocean water – was driving down the road with an open valve, spewing fluids over a wide area. Some spills sent plumes of pollution directly into streams.

  • Fig. 11. Diesel truck traffic carrying fracking equipment in the Loyalsock watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)

  • Fig. 12. Diesel exhaust spewing from fracking equipment. (Barb Jarmoska)

    Diesel exhaust spewing from fracking equipment. Photo by Barb Jarmoska.
  • Fig. 13. Fracking is a heavily industrial activity. Many of these sites in the Loyalsock Creek watershed are immediately adjacent to homes. (Barb Jarmoska)

    Fracking is a heavily industrial activity. Many of these sites in the Loyalsock Creek watershed are immediately adjacent to homes. Photo by Barb Jarmoska.
  • Fig. 14. Open pits used to be permitted for temporary storage of oil and gas waste. Here, the liner is not properly covering the bottom-right corner, sludge is piled up past the liner in the top-right corner, and temporary fencing is failing in numerous locations. (Barb Jarmoska)

    Open pits used to be permitted for temporary storage of oil and gas waste. Here, the liner is not properly covering the bottom-right corner, sludge is piled up past the liner in the top-right corner, and temporary fencing is failing in numerous locations. Photo by Barb Jarmoska.

In short, it has been a mess. Altogether, there have been 631 violations issued for 317 unconventional wells drilled in the Loyalsock, an average of two violations per well. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issues violations on pipelines as well, but we are unable to match pipeline violations to a specific location, so there is no way to know which ones occurred in the Loyalsock watershed. 

We also know that pipeline construction is a process filled with mishaps. Specifically, there is a technique for drilling a pipeline segment underneath existing obstacles – such as streams and roads – known as horizontal directional drilling (HDD). These HDD sites frequently bleed large quantities of drilling mud into the ground or surface water. When these leaks surface, these spills are known euphemistically as “inadvertent returns.” Sometimes, the same phenomenon occurs but the fluid drains instead to an underground cavity, referred to as “loss of circulation.” We do not have data on either category for pipelines in the Loyalsock watershed. However, the DEP has published inadvertent returns for the Mariner East II route to the south, and when combining spills impacting the water and ground, these occur at a rate of about two spills for every three miles of installed pipe. Many of these releases are measured in thousands of gallons. 

Unfortunately, drilling and all related activity continue in the Loyalsock Creek watershed. As the industry has proven incapable of conducting these activities in an unsullied manner that is protective of the environment and the health of nearby residents, we can expect the litany of errors to continue to grow.

A Brief Timeline of Infractions

In 2016, a major incident was reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a federal agency under the Department of Transportation (DOT). On October 21, a Sunoco pipeline ruptured, spilling 55,000 gallons of gasoline into Wallis Run, a tributary of Loyalsock Creek. The eight-inch pipeline burst when high winds and heavy floods triggered mudslides, sweeping away at least two homes and leaving flooded roads impassable. Water suppliers and national and state agencies advised locals to conserve water, and the DEP and water supplier American Water shut down intake valves until they had measured contamination levels in three water supplies serving thousands of people downstream, including populations in Lewisburg, Milton, and Gamble Township. 

Limited access to the area delayed identifying the source of the rupture, though Sunoco shut off the pipeline that runs from Reading to Buffalo, NY. When waters receded, Sunoco officials replaced the broken pipe, which they said was broken by debris from a washed out bridge ten feet upstream. The pipeline was buried five feet below the creek, but heavy rains exposed it. 

Agency authorities later found that heavy rains had flushed out much of the pollution, though they recorded the highest levels in the Loyalsock Creek. While this is obviously a weather-related event, local residents questioned the placement of a hazardous liquids pipeline crossing at such a volatile location, noting that the same pipeline had been exposed, (although not breached), just five years earlier.

Sunoco tops the list of U.S. crude oil spills. Sunoco and their subsidiaries reported 527 hazardous liquids pipeline incidents between 2002 and 2017, incidents that released over 87,000 barrels of hazardous liquids, according to Greenpeace USA and Waterkeeper Alliances’ 2018 report on Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) & Sunoco’s History of Pipeline Spills. Sunoco and its subsidiary ETP are developing the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Mariner East pipeline, and the Permian Express pipeline, sites that have already seen construction errors causing leaks and spills.

The area suffered another heavy spill in 2017, when a well operated by Colorado-based Inflection Energy leaked over 63,000 gallons of natural gas drilling waste into a Loyalsock Creek tributary. The spill occurred when waste was being transferred from one container to another, a neglect of the contracted worker who had fallen asleep. DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the waste – called “flowback” – was filtered and treated, but this brine can contain chemicals, metals, salts, and other inorganic materials that can pollute soil and groundwater. Carol Parenzan, at the time serving as Middle Susquehanna’s Riverkeeper, said many residents are supplied by well water, and were not alerted of the spill until a local began investigating and calling local and state authorities.

Chesapeake Manning July 2020 Earthworks

Fig. 16. At the Chesapeake Appalachia LLC Manning Well Site and Lambert Farms Well Site, the emissions sources appear to be engines or combustion devices. (FLIR camera footage by Earthworks, July 2020)

One of Earthworks’ trained and certified thermographers visited the Loyalsock watershed and surrounding area in mid-July with a FLIR optical gas imaging (OGI) camera. This industry standard tool can make visible pollutants that are typically invisible to the human eye, but that still pose significant risks to health and the environment–including 20 volatile organic compounds, such as the carcinogens benzene and toluene, and methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Oil and gas air pollution isn’t isolated to the Loyalsock watershed, and Earthworks has gathered optical gas imaging evidence of leaks and other air emissions on more PA public lands–like the Allegheny National Forest and the Pine Creek watershed area.


To see more photos and videos FracTracker collected in the Loyalsock Watershed, visit our Flickr album.

Water – a precious resource

Water is the lifeblood of the Loyalsock watershed, as it is in any basin. However, in the Loyalsock, water is of particular importance. As we have seen, recreation opportunities in the area are defined by water, including fantastic fishing streams and lakes, meandering trails passing many waterfalls, various boating sites, and inviting swimming holes. For one reason or others, most visitors come to the Loyalsock to enjoy these natural aquatic locations.

Perhaps the most important water assets are underground aquifers. The majority of the watershed is rural, and private wells for potable household water are typical. Even the municipal water supply for the Borough of Montoursville is fed by groundwater, including five wells and an artesian spring.

Contamination

For a region so dependent on surface water for tourism, commercial activities, and groundwater for drinking supplies, the arrival of fracking is a significant concern. Unfortunately, spills and other violations are common at well pads and related infrastructure, with over 631 violations in the watershed since 2010. 

Even pipelines that are not yet operational can have impacts on the waterways in the Loyalsock Creek watershed. In September 2012, for example, a “significant amount” of sediment and mud spilled into the Loyalsock Creek during the construction of Central New York Oil and Gas’ Marc I pipeline project. Such incidents introduce silt and clay into waterways, fine sediments that have the potential to deplete aquatic fauna. These types of episodes have received considerably more attention since this event, and it turns out that they are quite common during pipeline construction. For example, the Mariner East pipeline has had hundreds of these so-called inadvertent returns, many of which directly affected the waters of the Commonwealth. 

Trucks withdrawing water for drilling-related activities at the Forksville Heritage Freshwater Station, operated by Chief Oil & Gas. Photo from FracTracker mobile app report.

Fig. 17. Trucks withdrawing water for drilling-related activities at the Forksville Heritage Freshwater Station, operated by Chief Oil & Gas. Photo from FracTracker mobile app report.

Average water use per well in the Loyalsock Watershed

Fig. 18. The average amount of water used per well in the Loyalsock Watershed has increased over time. In recent years, several wells exceeded 30 million gallons (FracTracker Alliance, 2020).

In addition to contamination concerns, unconventional oil and gas wells are extremely thirsty operations. FracTracker has analyzed wells in the watershed using the industry’s chemical registry site FracFocus. Of the 274 wells in the watershed reporting to FracFocus between January 2011 and April 2020, 38 did not include a value for total water usage. These wells were all fracked on or before September 13, 2012, when the registry was still in its early phase and its use was not well standardized. Two wells fracked in 2018 by Pennsylvania General Energy had very low water consumption figures, with one reporting 2,100 gallons, and the other reporting 6,636 gallons. These two reports appear to be erroneous, and so these wells were removed from our analysis.

Of the remaining 234 wells in the data repository, one reported using less than one million gallons, although it came close, with 925,606 gallons. Another 63 wells used between one and five million gallons, 137 wells used between five and ten million gallons, 25 wells used between ten and 20 million gallons, and eight used more than 20 million gallons. The average consumption was 7,739,542 gallons, while the maximum value was for Alta Resources’ Alden Evans A 2H well, which used 34,024,513 gallons of water.

The well’s operator has a tremendous impact on the total amount of water usage reported on FracFocus in the Loyalsock watershed. 

However, it is worth noting that time factors into this analysis. None of the three companies averaging less than five million gallons of water per well – including Anadarko, Atlas, and Southwestern – have records after 2014, and water consumption has increased dramatically since then. Still, Alta’s average of nearly 24.7 million gallons per well stands out, with more than twice the amount of water consumed per well, compared to the next highest user. 

Altogether, the wells on the FracFocus registry in the Loyalsock watershed consumed over 1.8 billion gallons of water, enough water to supply nearly 36,000 households for a year, assuming an average of 138 gallons per household, per day. This is a real need in the United States, as a 2019 report by DigDeep and US Water Alliance estimated that there were twmillion people in the U.S. without running water in their homes.

Operator Average Gallons per Well
Alta Resources 24,658,871
Anadarko Petroleum Corporation 3,320,469
Atlas Energy, L.P. 4,926,427
Chesapeake Operating, Inc. 6,572,047
Chief Oil & Gas 8,537,475
Inflection Energy (PA) LLC 7,716,069
Pennsylvania General Energy 11,680,249
Seneca Resources Corporation 8,410,013
Southwestern Energy 2,355,864

Fig. 19. Total amount of water usage reported by oil and gas operators in the Loyalsock watershed. (FracFocus, 2020)

Fig. 20. An interactive map of oil and gas related water sites in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, 2020)

View map fullscreen

A Waste-Filled Proposition

Between January 2011 and April 2020, two conventional wells and 297 unconventional wells combined to produce 7,017,102 barrels (294.7 million gallons) of liquid waste, and 340,856 tons (681.7 million pounds) of solid waste.

Liquid oil and gas waste produced in the Loyalsock Creek watershed, in barrels. Note that 2020 includes data from January to March only.

Fig. 21. Liquid oil and gas waste produced in the Loyalsock Creek watershed, in barrels. Note that 2020 includes data from January to April only. (FracTracker Alliance, July 2020)

Solid oil and gas waste produced in the Loyalsock Creek watershed, in tons. Note that 2020 includes data from January to March only.

Fig. 22. Solid oil and gas waste produced in the Loyalsock Creek watershed, in tons. Note that 2020 includes data from January to April only. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)

For sake of comparison, this amount of liquid waste could fill the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool more than 43 times, while the solid waste from this modest-sized watershed exceeds the weight of three Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

This averages out to 23,469 barrels (985,680 gallons) and 1,140 tons (2,279,973 pounds) per well drilled in the basin, and most of these wells are active and continue to produce waste. Many of these wells have generated waste quantities in great excess of these averages.

Unlike gas production, which tends to drop off precipitously after the first year, liquid waste production remains at an elevated level for years. For example, the Brooks Family A-201H well, the well reporting the largest quantity of liquid waste in the basin, produced 1,499 barrels in 2017, 28,847 barrels in 2018, 35,143 barrels in 2019, and 23,829 barrels in the first four months of 2020. The volumes from this well increase substantially each year. 

For all wells in the watershed reporting liquid waste between 2018 and 2019, waste totals decreased by almost 42%. While a significant decrease, these 237 wells still generated 829,267 barrels (34.8 million gallons) of waste in 2019, and some have been generating waste since at least 2011. Wells will continue to produce waste until they are permanently plugged, but unfortunately, there are plans for more drilling in the watershed. There are 17 active status wells that have been permitted and not yet drilled. Important to remember is that fracking waste is often radioactive, and laden with salt, chemicals, and other contaminants, making it a hazardous product to transport, treat, or dispose. 

Cumulative liquid waste totals produced by oil and gas wells in Loyalsock Creek watershed between January 2011 and April 2020.

Fig. 23. Cumulative liquid waste totals produced by oil and gas wells in Loyalsock Creek watershed between January 2011 and April 2020. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)

Fig. 24. An interactive map of oil and gas waste generated in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed between January 2011 and May 2020. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)

View map fullscreen

Documentation Field Day

On a sunny Friday in June 2020, a group of 18 FracTracker staff members and volunteers gathered in the Loyalsock watershed to document activities and infrastructure related to unconventional oil and gas activities. FracTracker’s Matt Kelso used a variety of data from the DEP to prepare maps depicting an array of infrastructure, including 317 drilled wells on 110 different pads, five compressor stations, a compressed natural gas truck terminal, and 24 water facilities related to oil and gas extraction – including five surface water withdrawal sites and 19 storage reservoirs. He then divided an area of about 496 square miles into five sections, and at least two participants were assigned to explore each section. 

Using the FracTracker mobile app, cameras, and other documentation tools, the group was able to verify the location of 91 infrastructure sites, including well pads, compressor stations, pipelines, water withdrawal sites and reservoirs, as well as significant truck traffic. As they made their way over the rural back roads, many participants were struck by the juxtaposition of a breathtaking landscape and peaceful farmlands with imposing, polluting fracking sites.

The day was also documented by Rachel McDevitt from StateImpact Pennsylvania, a reporting project of NPR member stations, as well as the filmmakers Justin Grubb, Alex Goatz, and Michael Clark from Running Wild Media

With the geolocated photos and site descriptions documented on this day, FracTracker was able to compile this story atlas to serve as an educational tool for concerned residents of the Loyalsock. 

You can find these reports and many more by downloading the FracTracker app on your iOS or Android device, or by going to the web app at https://app.fractracker.org/.

  • Fig. 25. FracTracker’s Executive Director Brook Lenker addresses the gathering of volunteers, media members, and FracTracker staff at Canfield Island Heritage Trail Park on documentation day. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)

    Loyalsock watershed fractracker app expedition
  • Fig. 26 FracTracker’s Matt Kelso explains the maps he made of different sections in the Loyalsock Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)

  • Fig. 27 Running Wild Media’s filmmaker captures the introduction to the documentation day by FracTracker staff. These filmmakers tagged along for additions to a film about the eastern hellbender, to be released in spring 2021. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)

  • Fig. 28. A compressor station is seen across a field of wildflowers, somewhere in the Loyalsock Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)

  • Fig. 29. Volunteers stand outside gated infrastructure in the watershed on the documentation field day. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)

  • Fig. 30. A pipeline path cutting through forest in the Loyalsock watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)

  • Fig. 31. Grass has grown to cover a pipeline path traversing a hillside in the Loyalsock. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)

Click on various elements in te map to see visualizations such as videos, FLIR camera footage, gifs, and photos.


Fig. 32. An interactive map of community-led documentation of oil and gas related impacts in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, 2020)

View map fullscreen

Local Insights

Barb Jarmoska is a lifelong environmental and social justice activist with property adjacent to the Loyalsock State Forest that has been in her family for five generations. She has witnessed a dramatic and devastating transformation of the pristine area surrounding her home as the fracking industry moved into what they consider the Marcellus Sacrifice Zone.

This is Barb’s account, in her own words:


“For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple,” wrote poet Mary Oliver. I understand those words, they are part of my lifetime of lived experience in the Loyalsock watershed. 

I am a retired special-ed teacher and a business owner – a mother and a grandmother – and someone who treasures and reveres the rapidly dwindling wild places in Penns Woods.

Where my front yard ends, the Loyalsock State Forest (LSF) begins. Access to my property is via a no-outlet gravel road that dead-ends in the Forest. 

In 1933, my grandfather bought 20 acres with an old cabin and barn bordering what is now the LSF. 

As a child, I didn’t miss indoor plumbing or air conditioning in that cabin beside the Loyalsock Creek where we spent our summers. I now live on the land year-round, in a home I built in 2007, before I had ever heard the words Marcellus Shale. I have indoor plumbing now, but still no desire for air conditioning, preferring to rely on open windows and big shade trees. 

The memories my family has made on this land are priceless, and my grandchildren are the fifth generation to run in the meadow, swim and fish in the creek, climb the trees, and play in the nearby woods of the PA Wilds. In our increasingly transient society, roots this deep are precious and rare. 

My appalled, angry, and admittedly frightened response to the gas industry invasion of the Loyalsock watershed began in 2010, when a parade of trucks spewing diesel fumes rumbled up the no-outlet road I live on, enroute to leased COP tracts in the LSF. 

That dirt trail that we loved to hike was the first thing to go. Dump trucks carrying fist-sized gravel and heavy equipment transformed the forest trail into a road – gated off and posted with trespass warnings carrying severe penalties. In my neighborhood, as in so many places in the watershed, land that legally belongs to the citizens now carries grim warnings of the consequences of trespassing. 

When the drilling and fracking equipment passed my driveway, the ground shook. Oftentimes, I had to wait 15 or 20 minutes just to leave – or come home. There was a flag car pretty much permanently blocking my driveway for a while. I also walked out for the mail one day and found a porta-potty had been set up on my land. No one thought to ask permission. They just put it on my property – a few yards from my mailbox. 

Life in my Loyalsock watershed neighborhood has forever changed at the hands of industry permitted to remove millions of gallons of water for fracking from the Loyalsock – the beautiful Creek that carries the designation “Exceptional Value”. Named PA’s River of the Year in 2018, the Loyalsock Creek begins in the endless mountain region of the PA Wilds, and travels 64 miles on its way to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

The beloved Loyalsock Creek provides recreation for hundreds of fishermen, kayakers, inner-tubers, swimmers, and summer cabin dwellers – offering clear water that to this day supports abundant fish, amphibians, birds, and wildlife – clear water the gas industry now pumps out by the millions of gallons, to be mixed with toxic chemicals and forced at great pressure through boreholes a mile deep and miles long, to release methane trapped in the Marcellus Shale. 

In 2018, about two miles from my home, an estimated 55,000 gallons of “produced water” spilled from a well pad ironically named TLC. This toxic fluid ran downhill into a tributary and directly into the Loyalsock Creek. On its approximately two-mile path, the chemicals flooded a little tributary that runs through a rural neighborhood where children play in the water. Frightened residents gathered to question DEP about the safety of their private drinking water wells, and they expressed concern over the tadpoles and frogs, and in the deeper, shady pools – native trout they were used to seeing. 

Pennsylvania lawmakers could obey the Constitution, protect the watershed, and choose a way forward that leads to a future of renewable energy and well-paying green jobs for Pennsylvania citizens, as well as the promise of a brighter future for our children and grandchildren. 

Time is running out.

I look at my grandchildren and believe that such a shift of consciousness and political will is truly their last, great hope. 

Keep It Wild

-By Barb Jarmoska

What Does the Future Hold?

On its own, climate change brings with it a wave of new and/or intensified challenges to PA’s state forests, parks, and natural areas. Flooding and erosion, insect-borne illnesses, invasive species, and changes to plant and animal life are ongoing issues the state’s natural resource managers have to consider as the climate changes. These interactive stressors will continue to disrupt ecosystem function, processes, and services; result in the loss of biodiversity and shifts in forest compositions; and negatively impact industries and communities reliant on Penns Woods.

Over the past 110 years, PA’s average temperature has increased nearly two degrees Fahrenheit, and the Commonwealth has also seen a gradual uptick in annual precipitation, but a decline in and shorter span of snow cover. As ranges shift, the state will see the distribution and abundance of native plants and animals change, a pattern that will continue to accelerate. 

Penns Woods are home to over 100 species of trees. Oak/hickory forests contain primarily oaks, maples, and hickories, with an understory of rhododendrons and blueberry bushes. Northern hardwood forests are composed of black cherry, maples, American beech, and birch, with understories of ferns, striped maple and beech brush. But the composition of PA’s forests are changing. Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute compared colonial-era data to recent U.S. Forest Service data, and found that maples have increased by as much as 20%, but beeches, oaks and chestnuts – important foliage for wildlife – have declined. The presence of pine trees has been more volatile, seeing increases in some areas, and decreases in others.

Overall, PA’s forests are becoming more unsustainable, conditions compounded by misaligned harvesting, suburban sprawl, insect infestations, and disease. These impacts trickle down to the wildlife that call Penns Woods home. PA’s Natural Heritage Program has begun to compile this Environmental Review List, to identify threatened and endangered species, species of special concern, and rare and significant ecological features. 

One of the most notable among these is North America’s largest salamander, the eastern hellbender, designated PA’s official amphibian in April 2019. This salamander is a great indicator of clean and well-oxygenated water, as it requires fast-flowing, freshwater habitat with large rock deposits to thrive. Originally dispersed across the Appalachians from Georgia to New York, the eastern hellbender’s population has suffered greatly from the impacts of pollution, erosion and sedimentation, dams, and amphibious fungal disease. 

These salamanders can reach lengths up to two feet, and live for as long as 50 years, so their presence is a key indicator of long-term stream and riparian health. Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has monitored their habitats throughout PA since 2007. Though named the state’s official amphibian, this title does not incorporate its special protection.



Fig. 33. An aerial view of the Loyalsock Creek. (Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, June 2020)



In its recent Loyalsock State Forest Resource Management Plan (SFRMP), PA DCNR states that “Natural gas development…especially at the scale seen in the modern shale-gas era, can affect a variety of forest resources, uses, and values, such as:

• recreational opportunities,

• the forest’s wild character and scenic beauty, and

• plant and wildlife habitat.”

Despite extensive areas marred by well pads and other fracking infrastructure, the Loyalsock watershed retains resplendent beauty and pastoral character. Natural resources have endured spills, leaks, habitat fragmentation, deforestation, and increases in impervious buildout related to the gas industry. While a global pandemic and cascading company debts have diminished extraction activities, the region remains vulnerable to future attempts to drill more — on both private and public lands.

Indicative of the omnipresent threats, Pennsylvania General Energy Company, LLC (PGE) intends to develop a substantial pipeline corridor across the Loyalsock Valley. According to PA DEP public records, the project includes the construction of the Shawnee Pipeline, with over 15,000 linear feet of an existing eight-inch diameter gas pipeline to be replaced with a 16-inch pipeline. It will be supplemented by the Shawnee Pipeline Phase 2, encompassing an additional 189 linear feet of gas pipeline.

Arranged to accompany the pipelines is a temporary waterline to extend from planned pump stations on both sides of the Loyalsock Creek, to a proposed impoundment site within Loyalsock State Forest.

The company envisions cofferdams and trenches to cross the Loyalsock Creek. Other streams and wetlands will also be traversed, further degrading and endangering these vulnerable resources. Visible scarring from the pipeline cut is a major concern adding to the diminishment of the valley’s lush, green slopes. Methods exist to minimize the visibility of such development, but no one knows if PGE will follow those practices, or if regulators will require this of them. Some believe the project portends more fracking — with ceaseless demands for more water, and endless production of noxious waste and climate-killing emissions.

Only a few miles northeast of the watershed, New Fortress Energy is constructing a 260-acre complex near Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, to convert fracked gas into liquified natural gas, or LNG. The LNG will be dangerously transported by truck and rail to a planned export facility in Gibbstown, New Jersey, to send these private exploits overseas. A local group, Protect Northern PA, has formed to encourage a more sustainable path forward for the area, one that values people and the planet. The New Fortress Energy plant, if completed, would create inertia for extended extraction across the Marcellus Shale. 

But hope abides in the Loyalsock. Hikers flock to enchanted trails, revelers rejoice on graveled shores. The place exudes an invisible elixir called stewardship, rippling through the air, nourishing receptive hearts and minds. Brandished for free, it shares this necessary ethos, seeking more followers. 


Thanks to…

Thank you to all of the inspiring and steadfast environmental stewards who have contributed to the creation of this digital atlas:

  • Dick Martin from PAForestCoalition.org;
  • Barb Jarmoska, Harvey M. Katz, and Ralph Kisberg from Responsible Drilling Alliance; 
  • Ann Pinca from Lebanon Pipeline Awareness; 
  • Paul V. Otruba and Victor Otruba from Environeers; 
  • Justin Grubb, Alex Goatz, and Michael Clark from Running Wild Media; 
  • and Rachel McDevitt from StateImpact
  • Leann Leiter from Earthworks 
  • Lighthawk 
  • Staff at FracTracker Alliance

Project funding provided by The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds

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

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

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

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

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

Fracking Energy Return on Investment 2012 – 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

The North Dakota Shale Viewer

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

View map fullscreen 

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

Water Demand Rises for Fracking

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Increasing Fracking Waste Production

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Earthworks ND Frack Waste Report

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

 

The Value of Our Water

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

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

Data Links

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

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

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

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Overhead view of injection well

The Hidden Inefficiencies and Environmental Costs of Fracking in Ohio

Ohio continues to increase fracked gas production, facilitated by access to freshwater and lax radioactive waste disposal requirements.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Map: Ohio Quarterly Utica Oil and Gas Production along with Quarterly Wastewater Disposal

Well Volumes

A little under a year ago, FracTracker released a map and associated analysis, “A Disturbing Tale of Diminishing Returns in Ohio,” with respect to Utica oil and gas production, highlighting the increasing volume of waste injected in wastewater disposal wells, and trends in lateral length in fracked wells from 2010 to 2018. In this article, I’ll provide an update on Ohio’s Utica oil and gas production in 2018 and 2019, the demands on freshwater, and waste disposal. After looking at the data, I recommend that we holistically price our water resources and the ways in which we dispose of the industry’s radioactive waste in order to minimize negative externalities.

Recently, I’ve been inspired by the works of Colin Woodward[1] and Marvin Harris, who outline the struggle between liberty and the common good. They relate this to the role that commodities and increasing resource intensity play in maintaining or enhancing living standards. This quote from Harris’s “Cannibals and Kings” struck me as the 122 words that most effectively illustrate the impacts of the fracking boom that started more than a decade ago in Central Appalachia:

“Regardless of its immediate cause, intensification is always counterproductive. In the absence of technological change, it leads inevitably to the depletion of the environment and the lowering of the efficiency of production since the increased effort sooner or later must be applied to more remote, less reliable, and less bountiful animals, plants, soils, minerals, and sources of energy. Declining efficiency in turn leads to low living standards – precisely the opposite of the desired result. But this process does not simply end with everybody getting less food, shelter, and other necessities in return for more work. As living standards decline, successful cultures invent new and more efficient means of production which sooner or later again lead to the depletion of the natural environment.” From Chapter 1, page 5 of Marvin Harris’ “Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures, 1977

In reflecting on Harris’s quote as it pertains to fracking, I thought it was high time I updated several of our most critical data sets. The maps and data I present here speak to intensification and the fact that the industry is increasingly leaning on cheap water withdrawals, landscape impacts, and waste disposal methods to avoid addressing their increasingly gluttonous ways. To this point, the relationship between intensification and resource utilization is not just the purview of activists, academics, and journalists anymore; industry collaborators like IHS Markit admitting as much in their latest analysis pointing to the fact that oil and gas operators “will have to drill substantially more wells just to maintain current production levels and even more to grow production”. Insert Red Queen Hypothesis analogy here!

Oil and Gas Production in Ohio

The four updated data sets presented here are: 1) oil, gas, and wastewater production, 2) surface and groundwater withdrawal rates for the fracking industry, 3) freshwater usage by individual Ohio fracked wells, and 3) wastewater disposal well (also referred to as Class II injection wells) rates.

Below are the most important developments from these data updates as it pertains to intensification and what we can expect to see in the future, with or without the ethane cracker plants being trumpeted throughout Appalachia.

From a production standpoint, total oil production has increased by 30%, while natural gas production has increased by 50% year over year between the last time we updated this data and Q2-2019 (Table 1).

According to the data we’ve compiled, the rate of growth for wastewater production has exceeded oil and is nearly equal to natural gas at 48% from 2017 to 2018.  On average the 2,398 fracked wells we have compiled data for are producing 27% more wastewater per well now than they did at the end of 2017.

————–2017————– ————–2019————–
Oil (million barrels) Gas (million Mcf) Brine (million barrels) Oil (million barrels) Gas (million Mcf) Brine (million barrels)
Max 0.51 12.92 0.23 0.62 17.57 0.32
Total 83.14 5,768.47 76.01 108.15 8,679.12 112.28
Mean 0.40 2.79 0.37 0.45 3.62 0.47

Table 1. Summary statistics for 2,398  fracked wells in Ohio from a production perspective from 2017 to Q2 2019.

 

Total fracked gas produced per quarter and average fracked gas produced per well in Ohio from 2013 to Q2-2019.

Figure 1. Total fracked gas produced per quarter and average fracked gas produced per well in Ohio from 2013 to Q2-2019.

The increasing amount of resources and number of wells necessary to achieve marginal increases in oil and gas production is a critical factor to considered when assessing industry viability and other long-term implications. As an example, in Ohio’s Utica Shale, we see that total production is increasing, but as IHS Markit admits, this is only possibly by increasing the total number of producing wells at a faster rate. As is evidenced in Figure 1, somewhere around the Winter of 2017-2018, the production rate per well began to flatline and since then it has begun to decrease.

Water demands for oil and gas production in Ohio

Since last we updated the industry’s water withdrawal rates, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has begun to report groundwater rates in addition to surface water. The former now account for nine sites in seven counties, but amount to a fraction of reported withdrawals to date (around 00.01% per year in 2017 and 2018). The more disturbing developments with respect to intensification are:

1) Since we last updated this data, 59 new withdrawal sites have come online. There are currently 569 sites in total in ODNR’s database. This amounts to a nearly 12% increase in the total number of sites since 2017. With this additional inventory, the average withdrawal rate across all sites has increased by 13% (Table 2).

2) Since 2010, the demand for freshwater to be used in fracking has increased by 15.6% or 693 million gallons per year (Figure 2).

3) We expect to see an inflection point when water production will increase to accommodate the petrochemical buildout with cracker plants in Dilles Bottom, OH; Beaver County, PA; and elsewhere. In 2018 alone, the oil and gas industry pulled 4.69 billion gallons of water from the Ohio River Valley. Since 2010, the industry has permanently removed 22.96 billion gallons of freshwater from the Ohio River Valley. It would take the entire population of Ohio five years to use the 2018 rate in their homes.[2]

As we and others have mentioned in the past, this trend is largely due to the bargain basement price at which we sell water to the oil and gas sector throughout Appalachia.[3] To increase their nominal production returns, companies construct longer laterals with orders of magnitude more water, sand, and chemicals.  At this rate, the fracking industry’s freshwater demand will have doubled to around 8.8-.9.5 billion gallons per year by around 2023.  Figure 3 demonstrates that average fracked lateral length continues to increase to the tune of +15.7-21.2% (+1,564-2,107 feet) per quarter per lateral. This trend alone is more than 2.5 times the rate of growth in oil production and roughly 24% greater than the rate of growth in natural gas production (See Table 1).

4. The verdict is even more concerning than it was a couple years ago with respect to water demand increasing by 30% per quarter per well or an average of 4.73 million gallons (Figure 4). The last time we did this analysis >1.5 years ago demand was rising by 25% per quarter or 3.84 million gallons. At that point I wouldn’t have guessed that this exponential rate of water demand would have increased but that is exactly what has happened. Very immediate conversations must start taking place in Columbus and at the region’s primary distributor of freshwater, The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD), as to why this is happening and how to push back against the unsustainable trend.

2017 2018
Sites 510 569
Maximum (billion gallons) 1.059 1.661
Sum (billion gallons) 18.267 22.957
Mean (billion gallons) 0.358 0.404

Table 2. Summary of fracking water demands throughout Ohio in 2017 when we last updated this data as well as how those rates changed in 2018.

Hydraulic fracturing freshwater demand in total across 560+ sites in Ohio from 2010 to 2018 (Million Gallons Per Year).

Figure 2. Hydraulic fracturing freshwater demand in total across 560+ sites in Ohio from 2010 to 2018 (million gallons per year).

Average lateral length for all of Ohio’s permitted hydraulically fractured laterals from from Q3-2010 to Q4-2019, along with average rates of growth from a linear and exponential standpoint (Feet).

Figure 3. Average lateral length for all of Ohio’s permitted hydraulically fractured laterals from from Q3-2010 to Q4-2019, along with average rates of growth from a linear and exponential standpoint (feet).

Average Freshwater Demand Per Unconventional Well in Ohio from Q3-2011 to Q3-2019 (Million Gallons).

Figure 4. Average Freshwater Demand Per Unconventional Well in Ohio from Q3-2011 to Q3-2019 (million gallons).

 

Waste Disposal

When it comes to fracking wastewater disposal, the picture is equally disturbing. Average disposal rates across Ohio’s 220+ wastewater disposal wells increased by 12.1% between Q3-2018 and Q3-2019 (Table 3). Interestingly, this change nearly identically mirrors the change in water withdrawals during the same period. What goes down– freshwater – eventually comes back up.

Across all of Ohio’s wastewater disposal wells, total volumes increased by nearly 22% between 2018 and the second half of 2019. However, the more disturbing trend is the increasing focus on the top 20 most active wastewater disposal wells, which saw  an annual increase of 17-18%. These wells account for nearly 50% of all waste and the concern here is that many of the pending wastewater disposal well permits are located on these sites, within close proximity, and/or are proposed by the same operators that operate the top 20.

When we plot cumulative and average disposal rates per well, we see a continued exponential increase. If we look back at the last time, we conducted this analysis, the only positive we see in the data is that at that time, average rates of disposal per well were set to double by the Fall of 2020. However, that trend has tapered off slightly — rates are now set to double by 2022.

Each wastewater disposal well is seeing demand for its services increase by 2.42 to 2.94 million gallons of wastewater per quarter (Figure 5). Put another way, Ohio’s wastewater disposal wells are rapidly approaching their capacity, if they haven’t already.  Hence why the oil and gas industry has been frantically submitting proposals for additional waste disposal wells. If these wells materialize, it means that Ohio will continue to be relied on as the primary waste receptacle for the fracking industry throughout Appalachia.

Variable ——————-All Wells——————- ——————-Top 20——————-
To Q3-2018 To Q3-2019 % Change To Q3-2018 To Q3-2019 % Change
Number of Wells 223 243 +9.0 ——- ——- ——-
Max (MMbbl) 1.12 1.20 +7.1 ——- ——- ——-
Sum (MMbbl) 203.19 247.05 +21.6 101.43 119.31 +17.6
Average (MMbbl) 0.91 1.02 +12.1 5.07 5.97 +17.8

Table 3. Summary Statistics for Ohio’s Wastewater Disposal Wells (millions of barrels (MMbbl)).

Average Fracking Waste Disposal across all of Ohio’s Class II Injection Wells and the cumulative amount of fracking waste disposed of in these wells from Q3-2010 to Q2-2019 (Million Barrels).

Figure 5. Average Fracking Waste Disposal across all of Ohio’s Wastewater Disposal Wells and the cumulative amount of fracking waste disposed of in these wells from Q3-2010 to Q2-2019 (million barrels).

Using the Pennsylvania natural gas data merged with the Ohio wastewater data, we were able to put a finer point on how much wastewater would be produced with a 100,000 barrel ethane cracker like the one PTT Global Chemical has proposed for Dilles Bottom, Ohio. The following are our best estimate calculations assuming 1 barrel of condensate is 20-40% ethane. These calculations required that we take some liberties with the merge of the ratio of gas to wastewater in Ohio with the ratio of gas to condensate in Pennsylvania:

  1. For 2,064 producing Ohio fracked wells, the ratio of gas to wastewater is 64.76 thousand cubic feet (Mcf) of gas produced per barrel of wastewater.
  2. Assuming 40% ethane, the ratio of gas to condensate in Washington County, PA wells for the first half of 2019 was 320.08 Mcf of gas per barrel of ethane condensate. For 100,000 barrels of ethane needed per cracker per day, that would result in 494,285 barrels (20.76 million gallons) of brine per day.
  3. Assuming 20% ethane, the ratio of gas to condensate in Washington County, PA wells for the first half of 2019 was 640.15 Mcf per barrel of ethane condensate = For 100,000 barrels of ethane needed per cracker per day that would result in 988,571 barrels/41.52 million gallons of wastewater per day.

But wait, here is the real stunner:

  1. The 40% assumption result is 3.81 times the daily rates of wastewater taken in by our current inventory of wastewater disposal wells and 5.37 times the daily rates of brine taken in by the top 20 wells (Note: the top 20 wastewater disposal wells account for 71% of all wastewater  waste taken in by all of the state’s disposal wells).
  2. The 20% assumption result is 7.62 times the daily rates of wastewater taken in by our current inventory of wastewater disposal wells and 10.74 times the daily rates of wastewater taken in by the top 20 wells.

Therefore, we estimate the fracked wells supplying the proposed PTTGC ethane cracker will generate between 20.76 million and 41.52 million gallons of wastewater per day. That is 3.8 to 7.6 times the amount of wastewater currently received by Ohio’s wastewater disposal wells.

What does this means in terms of truck traffic? We can assume that  at least 80% of the trucks that transport wastewater are the short/baby bottle trucks which haul 110 barrels per trip. This means that our wastewater estimates would require between 4,493 and 8,987 truck trips per day, respectively. The pressures this amount of traffic will put on Appalachian roads and communities will be hard to measure and given the current state of state and federal politics and/or oversight it will be even harder to measure the impact inevitable spills and accidents will have on the region’s waterways.

Conclusion

There is no reason to believe these trends will not persist and become more intractable as the industry increasingly leans on cheap waste disposal and water as a crutch. The fracking industry will continue to present shareholders with the illusion of a robust business model, even in the face of rapid resource depletion and precipitous production declines on a per well basis.

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that unless we more holistically price our water resources and the ways in which we dispose of the industry’s radioactive waste, there will be no other supply-side signal that we could send that would cause the oil and gas industry to change its ways. Until we reach that point, we will continue to compile data sets like the ones described above and included in the map below, because as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant!”

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

[1] Colin Woodward’s “American Character: A history of the epic struggle between individual liberty and the common good” is a must read on the topic of resource utilization and expropriation.

[2] https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/cir1441

[3] In Ohio the major purveyor of water for the fracking industry is the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MCWD) and as we’ve pointed out in the past they sell water for roughly $4.50 to $6.50 per thousand gallons. Meanwhile across The Ohio River the average price of water for fracking industry in West Virginia in the nine primary counties where fracking occurs is roughly $8.38 per thousand gallons.

Data Downloads

Quarterly oil, gas, brine, and days in production for 2,390+ Unconventional Utica/Point Pleasant Wells in Ohio from 2010 to Q2-2019

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Production_To_Q2_2019_WithExcel.zip

Ohio Hydraulic Fracturing Freshwater and Groundwater Withdrawals from 2010 to 2018

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/OH_WaterWithdrawals_2010_2018_WithExcel.zip

Lateral length (Feet) for 3,200+ Fracked Utica/Point Pleasant Wells in Ohio up to and including wells permitted in December, 2019

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/OH_Utica_December_2019_StatePlane_Laterals.zip

Freshwater Use for 2,700+ Unconventional Wells in Ohio from Q3-2011 to Q3-2019

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/OH_FracFocus_December_2019_WithExcel.zip

Quarterly Volume Disposal (Barrels) for 220+ Ohio Class II Salt Water Disposal Wells from 2010 to Q4-2019

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/OH_ClassII_Loc_Vols_10_Q4_2019_WithExcel.zi

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