Western States: Please Abandon the PLSS!

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

Increasingly, the FracTracker Alliance is asked about oil and gas extraction on a national scale. To that end, we are in the process of developing a national dataset of oil and gas wells. Since the data is curated at the state level, it is a challenge to get consistent data formatting from state to state. However, most states at least have the decency to release their location data in decimal degree (DD), that familiar format of latitude and longitude values where users of the data don’t need to calculate the location using three different columns of degrees, minutes, and seconds (DMS).

For example, a DMS point of 45°12’16.4″N, 95°55’12.5″W could be written more tidily in DD as 45.204556, -96.920139. Two numbers, one discrete place on the globe (a random point in rural South Dakota, as it turns out).

Here is how that same location is properly designated using the Public Land Survey System:  “NW 14 T120N R51W Fifth Principal”

Public Land Survey System.  Image from National Atlas

Fig. 1 Public Land Survey System. Source: National Atlas

In English, that is the northwest quarter of Section 14, Township 120 North, Range 51 West Fifth Principal. If we wanted to, the quarter section could itself be split into four quarters, and each of those units could be split again, resulting in, for example the SE quarter of the NE quarter of the NW quarter of section 14, Township 120 North, Range 51 West Fifth Principal (See Fig. 1).

To the uninitiated, the PLSS is a needlessly complex system of describing locations in the American West that was devised by Thomas Jefferson to grid out the wild American frontier.  As such, it is not altogether surprising that it became the legal definition of place in many western states.

What is surprising is that the system is still in use, at least to the exclusion of other systems.  Many states release oil and gas data with multiple geographic systems, including the PLSS, State Plane, UTM, and decimal degrees.  This is an acceptable approach, as it caters to cartographers using technology ranging from the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries.

Accuracy Issues

My issue with the PLSS isn’t just that it is annoying. PLSS data are readily available, after all. Differing formats of the various data attributes can be worked out. However, there is inherently an accuracy issue with a system that uses a predefined area to define a point location. If you wanted to use it to describe an area such as a well pad, it is entirely possible that a typical drilling site might straddle four different sections, let alone quarter-quarter-quarter (QQQ) sections. For that matter, well pads could easily span multiple township and range designations, as well.

PLSS sections in New Mexico

Fig. 2 PLSS sections in New Mexico

Statewide shapefiles that are as detailed as sections are quite large, and are the most detailed data that most data sources offer. This means that the best we can usually do with well data published in PLSS is draw the well at the centroid, or geographical center-point of the section, which in theory is one square mile. Given that the hypotenuse of a square mile block is 1.44 miles, the distance from the centroid to any of the corners is 0.72 miles, or about 3,800 feet, which is the potential error for mapping using PLSS section centroids. While that lack of accuracy is unsatisfying for the FracTracker Alliance, the whole system is a potential nightmare for first responders, in an industry where serious things can go wrong.

In some states, the entire land areas were never even gridded out. New Mexico, for example, has Native American reservations and extensive lands grants that were issued when the region was under Spanish and Mexican control (Fig. 2).

On top of all of that, those square mile sections are not always square. These sections are based on field surveys that were mostly conducted in the 19th century. Walking straight lines in rough terrain isn’t actually all that easy, and in many cases, areas with ferrous deposits in the soil can interfere with the functionality of a magnetic compass.  If we take a closer look at the New Mexico sections map (Fig. 3 below), we can see that error is significant.

Moving Forward

Areas in green show PLSS Sections in North-Central New Mexico.  Areas in white were not gridded out as a part of the survey.

Fig. 3 Areas in green show PLSS Sections in North-Central New Mexico. Areas in white were not gridded out as a part of the survey.

Luckily, we live in an age where technology makes Thomas Jefferson’s valiant attempt at a coordinate system obsolete.  Decimal degree is a format that is well understood by GPS devices, Google Maps, sophisticated GIS software, and for the most part, the general public.  For mapping purposes, decimal degree is so easy to use and so widely established that other systems, especially the PLSS, come across as needlessly opaque.

This situation is not even analogous with the United States’ famous reluctance to embrace the metric system.  It takes some adjustment for people to start thinking in terms of kilograms and meters instead of pounds and feet. PLSS isn’t remotely intuitive as a coordinate system, even among those who use it all the time.  It’s time to abandon this as a way of conveying location.  I’d like to think that Thomas Jefferson, as a forward-thinking individual, would agree.

 

Severed rights and leased lands in PA state forests

Leases and Severed Rights in PA’s State Forests

A few years ago, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the agency responsible for state park and state forest lands throughout Pennsylvania, published maps on their website showing which state forest lands had been leased for the purpose of unconventional oil and gas exploration and development.  Not only has that page been taken down, but the data are also not among the hundreds of Pennsylvania-specific datasets available on the Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA), to which DCNR is a key contributor.

This data does still exist though, and it was provided to the FracTracker Alliance from DCNR upon request, along with data showing areas of the state forest where unconventional oil and gas rights are owned by the state, which is not always the case.  However, this fulfillment of our data request came with some strings attached:

  1. I understand that the accuracy of this data set and its boundaries cannot be guaranteed and should not be considered precise.
  2. I will not distribute raw data to other entities outside the scope of this request.
  3. I will annually provide the Bureau of Forestry with a status update of the project activities and findings.  If the project is abandoned, I will provide the Bureau of Forestry copies of the available information from the project.
  4. I will provide the Bureau of Forestry with copies of draft reports, articles, publications and so forth that result from this analysis.
  5. If requested, I agree to supply the Bureau of Forestry with copies of data analysis.
  6. I understand that the Bureau of Forestry or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is not relinquishing any rights or interests with this agreement.

Obviously, this ties our hands with regards to making the data available for download, either through the download section of our site, or through ArcGIS Online, but we feel as if the scope of our request was worded in such a way as to allow us  to produce a map of these layers, and make that available for public viewing.  Readers interested in obtaining similar data will have to contact DCNR directly, until the agency decides to release the data regarding Pennsylvania’s public lands without conditions.

We have combined this data with drilling data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, so that we can finally take a closer look at drilling on public lands in Pennsylvania, including an approximation of which wells are drilled on lands have been leased by the state, and which by third parties.  So with all appropriate disclaimers, here is that map:


Drilled unconventional wells in Pennsylvania and control of mineral rights on state forest land. To access full controls, such as legends, layer controls, and layer descriptions, please click the expanding arrows in the top-right corner of the map.

FracTracker Alliance’s *NEW* California Shale Viewer

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

The FracTracker Alliance has just recently opened a new office based out of Berkeley, California. As a first step in addressing the unique issues of oil and gas extraction in the Golden State, FracTracker has queried the data that is published by the state’s regulatory agencies, and has translated those datasets into various maps that highlight specific issues. As a first step in this process, FracTracker transcribed the well-site data that is publicly available from the California Department of Conservation’s (DOC) Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).

This first phase of analysis is presented in FracMapper on the California page, here. FracTracker has translated the entire DOGGR database into a map layer that can be viewed on the California Shale Viewer map, here. The California Shale Viewer will be continuously updated to map the expanding oil and gas development as it occurs. Featured map layers on the California Shale Viewer focus on hydraulic fracturing in the state of California. The hydraulic fracturing well-site data comes from two sources. First, the layer “CA Hydraulically Fractured Wells Identified by DOGGR” portrays the maps identified by regulatory agency as having been hydraulically fractured. The DOGGR is aware that their dataset is not complete in terms of identifying all wells that have been hydraulically fractured. The second source of data is from our friends at SkyTruth, and provided in the layer “CA Hydraulically Fractured Wells Identified by SkyTruth”. Using a crowd-source platform, SkyTruth has generated a dataset based on the information reported to FracFocus.org. FracFocus.org refuses to provide aggregated datasets of their well-site data. These hydraulically fractured well-sites can be viewed as a individual datasets in the California Shale Viewer, or as a combined layer in the map “California Hydraulically Fractured and Conventional Oil and Gas Wells” map, where you are also able to view the dataset of wells FracFocus identifies as hydraulically fractured, but DOGGR does not.

More information concerning the many different types of wells drilled in California and the status of these wells (whether they are planned, active, idle or plugged) can be found in the “Well Type” map and “Well Status” map, also available on the FracTracker California page.