Data driven discussions about gas extraction and related topics.

Underground Gas Storage map by Drew Michanowicz

Underground Gas Storage Wells – An Invisible Risk in the Natural Gas Supply Chain

The largest accidental release of methane in U.S. history began October 23, 2015 with the blowout of an underground natural gas storage well in Aliso Canyon about 20 miles west of Los Angeles. By the time the well was plugged 112 days later, more than 5.0 billion cubic feet of methane and other pollutants had been released to the atmosphere. It was a disaster for the climate, the environment, California’s energy supply, and the more than 11,000 people that were forced to evacuate.

A new study from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health – Center for Health and the Global Environment shows that more than one in five of the almost 15,000 active underground gas storage (UGS) wells in the US could be vulnerable to serious leaks due to obsolete well designs – similar in design to the well that failed at the Aliso Canyon storage facility.

Published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the study presents a national baseline assessment of underground storage wells in the U.S. and indicates the need for a better understanding of the risks associated with the obsolescence of aging storage wells. The study also highlights the widespread nature of certain age-related risk factors, but indicates that some of the highest priority wells may be located in PA, OH, NY, and WV.

The study shows that the average construction year of largely unregulated active UGS wells in the US is 1963, with potentially obsolete wells that were not originally designed for storage operating in 160 facilities across 19 states. Some of the wells were constructed over 100 years ago – a time period that precedes many modern well containment systems such cement isolation and the use of multiple casings. Some of the oldest active UGS wells were not designed for two-way flow of gas, and therefore may not exhibit sufficient material-grade or redundant precautionary systems to prevent containment loss, as was evident at Aliso Canyon.

An Interview with the Author

Sam, Matt, and Kyle of FracTracker caught up with lead author and former FracTracker colleague, Dr. Drew Michanowicz, now with the Center for Health and Global Environment within the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health to find out more about their study.

When we spoke with Drew, he began the interview by posing the first question to us:

Did you know that about 15% of the natural gas produced in the US is injected back into the ground each year?

While we had all heard of underground gas storage before, we had to admit that we never thought of the process like that before. In other words, some of the natural gas in the US is being produced twice from two different reservoirs before being consumed. And because many of these storage systems utilized depleted oil and gas reservoirs, many of the same pre- and post-conditioning processes, such as dehydrating and compressing, are necessary to bring the gas to market.

The following questions and answers from Drew expand upon the study’s findings:

Q: What prompted you and your colleagues to investigate this topic?

A: After the Aliso Canyon incident, we became interested in the question: ‘Is Aliso Canyon Unique?’ Interestingly, there were plenty of early warning signs at that facility that corrosion issues on very old repurposed wells were becoming a significant issue. Almost a year before the well blowout, Southern California gas went on record in front of California’s Public Utility Commission stating that they needed a rate increase to implement a necessary integrity management plan for their wells, and to be able to move beyond operating in a reactive mode. That unfortunately prophetic document really got us interested in better understanding why their infrastructure was in the state it was in. And like any major accident like this, a logical next step is to assess the prevalence of hazardous conditions elsewhere in the system, in the hope to prevent the next one.

From our research, it appears that a very large portion of the UGS sector may be facing similar obsolescence issues compared to Aliso, such as decades-old wells not originally designed for two-way flow. Our work here, however, is a simplified assessment that focused only on passive barriers or the fixed structures such as the steel pipes likely present in a well. Much more work is needed to fully understand the active-type safety measures in place such as safety valves, tubing/packers, and overall integrity management plans – all important factors for manage risks.

Q: We see that your team developed a well-level database of over 14,000 active UGS wells across 29 states. Because data-collation is a big part of our work here, can you describe that data collection process?

A: Very early on we also realized that underground gas storage was exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program – similar to exemption with hydraulic fracturing and the Energy Policy Act of 2015, AKA the Halliburton Loophole. This meant in part that very little aggregate well data was available from the Federal Government or by third-party aggregators like FracTracker and DrillingInfo. Reminiscent of my former extreme data-paucity days at FracTracker, we knew we needed to build a database basically from scratch to effectively perform a hazard assessment that incorporated a spatial component.

We began by gathering what data we could from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which gave us good detail at the field or facility level, but the fields were generalized to a county centroid. So to fully evaluate these infrastructure, we needed to figure out how to join the facility-level data to the well data for each state. We relied on NETL’s Energy Data eXchange to identify state-level wellbore data providers where applicable. Once we collected all of the state data, we created a decision-tree framework to join the individual wells to the EIA field names in order to produce a functional geodatabase. Because we had to manage data from so many sources, we had to devote quite a bit of effort to data QA/QC, and that is reflected in the methods and results of the paper. For example, some of our fields and wells had to be joined via visual inspection of company system maps, because of missing identifier information.

Q: We see that some of the oldest repurposed wells you mapped are located in PA, OH, NY, and WV. Was that a surprise to you?

A: That was a surprise considering this story started for us in California, and even more surprising was that some are more than 100 years old. Now, a bit of caution here is warranted when thinking about the age of any engineered system. On the one hand, something that functions for a very long time is an indication that the system was very well suited for its task, and likely has been very well taken care of – think of an antique automobile like a fully functional 1916 Model T Ford, for example. On the other hand, age and construction year relates to the integrity of an engineered system through two processes by:

  1. providing information to how long a system has been exposed to natural degradation processes such as corrosion, and stresses from thermal and abrasive cycles; and by
  2. proxying for knowledge and regulatory safety standards at the time of construction which informs the design, materials, technologies likely used.

To go back to the car example, while an old classic car may still be operational, it may not have certain safety features like antilock brakes, airbags, or safety belts, and generally will not be able to go as fast as a modern car. Therefore, a gas storage well’s integrity is at least indirectly related to its construction year when considering the multitude of technological and safety improvements have occurred over the years. This is how we have been thinking about well integrity from a 5,000 foot perspective. Needless to say, more research is needed to understand the causal effect of age on well integrity.

Q: So if we understand you correctly, these older wells can be maintained with sufficient management practices, but there may be inherent safety features missing on these older wells that don’t adhere to todays’ standards?

A: That’s right. So what we can say about some of these aging wells is that some will not reflect certain modern fail-safe engineering such as sufficient casing design strength and multiple casings or barriers along the full length. And these are permanent structural elements vestigial to the well’s original design, and therefore cannot be undone or redesigned away. In other words, it makes much more sense to drill a new well with new materials than attempt to significantly alter an old well. And the gas storage wells built today are designed with redundant fail-safe systems including multiple barriers and real-time pressure sensors.

But back to my earlier point about lack of federal regulations to set a minimum safety standard – because of that, there is also much uncertainty surrounding how many of these facilities have been dealing with safety and risk management. That is a future direction of this work – to really try to fill in some of regulatory gaps between states and the impending Federal guidelines and identify some best practices to help inform policy makers specifically at the state level.

Drew put together a map to highlight where some of these active storage wells are in PA, OH, NY, and WV:

Underground Gas Storage map

This area map of PA, WV, OH, and NY displays where active underground natural gas storage operations are located. The small white points represent active storage wells that have a completion, SPUD, or permit date that occurs after the field was designated for storage indicating that these wells are more likely to have been designed for storage operations. The green points are active storage wells that predate storage operations, indicating that these wells may not have been designed for storage.

There are 121 storage fields connected to at least 6,624 active gas storage wells across these four states. A portion of wells in this region were not included in this final count because they did not contain sufficient status or date information. Pennsylvania has the most individual storage fields of any state with 47, while Ohio boasts the most active storage wells of any state in the country with 3,318 across its 22 active fields. Of the 6,624 active UGS wells across these four states, 1,753 predate storage designation indicating that these wells were likely not originally designed for storage. These ‘repurposed’ wells have a median age of 84 years, with 210 wells constructed over 100 years ago (red points). The 100 year cutoff is not arbitrary, as the year 1917 marks the advent of cement zonal isolation techniques, indicating that these wells may be of the highest priority in terms of design deficiencies related to well integrity, and they are primarily located across the four states pictured above.

Top Counties with Obsolete1/Repurposed2 Wells

  1. Westmoreland, PA (86/93)
  2. Ashland, OH (50/217)
  3. Richland, OH (31/99)
  4. Greene, PA (25/76)
  5. Hocking, OH (18/99)

1Obsolete wells are repurposed wells constructed before 1916
2Repurposed wells predate the storage facility

Additional Notes

The well that failed at Aliso Canyon was originally drilled in 1954 for oil production. In 1972, it was repurposed for underground gas storage, which entails both production and injection cycles in a single well. The problem seems to be that because it was not originally constructed to store natural gas, only a single steel pipe separated the flow of gas and the outside rock formation. That meant the well’s passive structural integrity was vulnerable to a single point-of-failure along a portion of its casing. When part of the subsurface well casing failed, there were no redundancies or safety valves in place to prevent or minimize the blow out.

  • More information related to the Aliso Canyon incident and this study is available here.
  • More info on the Center for Health and the Global Environment can be found here.
Ethanol and fracking

North American Ethanol’s Land, Water, Nutrient, and Waste Impact

Corn Ethanol and Fracking – Similarities Abound

Even though it is a biofuel and not a fossil fuel, in this post we discuss the ways in which the corn ethanol production industry is similar to the fracking industry. For those who may not be familiar, biofuel refers to a category of fuels derived directly from living matter. These may include:

  1. Direct combustion of woody biomass and crop residues, which we recently mapped and outlined,
  2. Ethanol1 produced directly from the fermentation of sugarcanes or indirectly by way of the intermediate step of producing sugars from corn or switchgrass cellulose,
  3. Biodiesel from oil crops such as soybeans, oil palm, jatropha, and canola or cooking oil waste,2 and
  4. Anaerobic methane digestion of natural gas from manures or human waste.

Speaking about biofuels in 2006, J. Hill et al. said:

To be a viable substitute for a fossil fuel, an alternative fuel should not only have superior environmental benefits over the fossil fuel it displaces, be economically competitive with it, and be producible in sufficient quantities to make a meaningful impact on energy demands, but it should also provide a net energy gain over the energy sources used to produce it.

Out of all available biofuels it is ethanol that accounts for a lion’s share of North American biofuel production (See US Renewables Map Below). This trend is largely because most Americans put the E-10 blends in their tanks (10% ethanol).3 Additionally, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for ethanol production to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022, which would essentially double the current capacity (17.9 billion gallons) and require the equivalent of an additional 260 refineries to come online by then (Table 1, bottom).

US Facilities Generating Energy from Biomass and Waste along with Ethanol Refineries and Wind Farms


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

But more to the point… the language, tax regimes, and potential costs of both ethanol production and fracking are remarkably similar. (As evidenced by the quotes scattered throughout this piece.) Interestingly, some of the similarities are due to the fact that “Big Ag” and “Big Oil” are coupled, growing more so every year:

The shale revolution has resulted in declining natural gas and oil prices, which benefit farms with the greatest diesel, gasoline, and natural gas shares of total expenses, such as rice, cotton, and wheat farms. However, domestic fertilizer prices have not substantially fallen despite the large decrease in the U.S. natural gas price (natural gas accounts for about 75-85 percent of fertilizer production costs). This is due to the relatively high cost of shipping natural gas, which has resulted in regionalized natural gas markets, as compared with the more globalized fertilizer market. (USDA, 2016)

Ethanol’s Recent History

For background, below is a timeline of important events and publications related to ethanol regulation in the U.S. in the last four decades: 

Benefits of Biofuels

[Bill] Clinton justified the ethanol mandate by declaring that it would provide “thousands of new jobs for the future” and that “this policy is good for our environment, our public health, and our nation’s farmers—and that’s good for America.” EPA administrator Carol Browner claimed that “it is important to our efforts to diversify energy resources and promote energy independence.” – James Bovard citing Peter Stone’s “The Big Harvest,” National Journal, July 30, 1994.

Of the 270 ethanol refineries we had sufficient data for, we estimate these facilities employ 235,624 people or 873 per facility and payout roughly $6.18-6.80 billion in wages each year, at an average of $22.9-25.2 million per refinery. These employees spend roughly 423,000 hours at the plant or at associated operations earning between $14.63 and $16.10 per hour including benefits. Those figures amount to 74-83% of the average US income. In all fairness, these wages are 13-26% times higher than the farming, fishing, and forestry sectors in states like Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa, which alone account for 33% of US ethanol refining.

Additional benefits of ethanol refineries include the nearly 179 million tons of CO2 left in the field as stover each year, which amounts to 654,532 tons per refinery. Put another way – these amounts are equivalent to the annual emissions of 10.7 million and 39,194 Americans, respectively.

Finally, what would a discussion of ethanol refineries be without an estimate of how much gasoline is produced? It turns out that the 280 refineries (for which we have accurate estimates of capacity) produce an average of 71.93 million gallons per year and 20.1 billion gallons in total. That figure represents 14.3% of US gasoline demand.

Costs of Biofuels

Direct Costs

Biofuel expansions such as those listed in the timeline above and those eluded to by the likes of the IPCC have several issues associated with them. One of which is what Pimentel et al. considered an insufficient – and to those of us in the fracking NGO community, familiar sounding – “breadth of relevant expertise and perspectives… to pronounce fairly and roundely on this many-sided issue.”

The above acts and reports in the timeline prompted many American farmers to double down on corn at the expense of soybeans, which caused Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC); the global soy market skyrocketed. This, in turn, prompted the clearing and/or burning of large swaths of the Amazonian rainforests and tropical savannas in Brazil, the world’s second-leading soy producer. More recently, large swaths of Indonesia and Malaysia’s equally biodiverse peatland forests have been replaced by palm oil plantations (Table 2 and Figure 3, bottom). In the latter countries, forest displacement is increasing by 2.7-5.3% per year, which is roughly equal to the the rate of land-use change associated with hydraulic fracturing here in the US4 (Figure 1).


Figures 1A and 1B. Palm Oil Production in A) Indonesia and B) Malaysia between 1960 and 2016.

There is an increasing amount of connectivity between disparate regions of the world with respect to energy consumption, extraction, and generation. These connections also affect how we define renewable or sustainable:

In a globalized world, the impacts of local decisions about crop preferences can have far reaching implications. As illustrated by an apparent “corn connection” to Amazonian deforestation, the environmental benefits of corn-based biofuel might be considerably reduced when its full and indirect costs are considered. (Science, 2007)

These authors pointed to the fact that biofuel expectations and/or mandates fail to account for costs associated with atmospheric – and leaching – emissions of carbon, nitrogen, phophorus, etc. during the conversion of lands, including diverse rainforests, peatlands, savannas, and grasslands, to monocultures. Also overlooked were:

  • The ethical concerns associated with growing malnourishment from India to the United States,
  • The fact that 10-60%5 more fossil fuel derived energy is required to produce a unit of corn ethanol than is actually contained within this very biofuel, and
  • The tremendous “Global land and water grabbing” occuring in the name of natural resource security, commodification, and biofuel generation.

Sacrificing long-term ecological/food security in the name of short-term energy security has caused individuals and governments to focus on taking land out of food production and putting it into biofuels.

The rationale for ethanol subsidies has continually changed to meet shifting political winds. In the late 1970s ethanol was championed as a way to achieve energy independence. In the early 1980s ethanol was portrayed as salvation for struggling corn farmers. From the mid and late 1980s onward, ethanol has been justified as saving the environment. However, none of those claims can withstand serious examination. (James Bovard, 1995)

This is instead of going the more environmentally friendly route of growing biofuel feedstocks on degraded or abandoned lands. An example of such an endeavor is the voluntary US Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has stabilized at roughly 45-57 thousand square miles of enrolled land since 1990, even though the average payout per acre has continued to climb (Figure 2).

The Average Subsidy to Farmers Per Acre of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1986 and 2015.

Figure 2. The Average Subsidy to Farmers Per Acre of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1986 and 2015.

The primary goals of the CRP program are to provide an acceptable “floor” for commodity prices, reduce soil erosion, enhance wildlife habitat, ecosystem services, biodiversity, and improve water quality on highly erodible, degraded, or flood proned croplands. Interestingly CRP acreage has declined by 27% since a high of 56 thousand square miles prior to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 being passed. Researchers have pointed to the fact that corn ethanol production on CRP lands would create a carbon debt that would take 48 years to repay vs. a 93 year payback period for ethanol on Central US Grasslands.

To quote Fred Magdoff in The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels:

Alternative fuel sources are attractive because they can be developed and used without questioning the very workings of the economic system — just substitute a more “sustainable,” “ecologically sound,” and “renewable” energy for the more polluting, expensive, and finite amounts of oil. People are hoping for magic bullets to “solve” the problem so that capitalist societies can continue along their wasteful growth and consumption patterns with the least disruption. Although prices of fuels may come down somewhat — with dips in the business cycle, higher rates of production, or a burst in the speculative bubble in the futures market for oil — they will most likely remain at historically high levels as the reserves of easily recovered fuel relative to annual usage continues to decline.

Indirect Costs: Ethanol, Fertilizers, and the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

This is the Midwest vs. the Middle East. It’s corn farmers vs. the oil companies. – Dwaney Andreas in Big Stink on the Farm by David Greising

Sixty-nine percent6 of North America’s ethanol refineries are within the Mississippi River Basin (MRB). These refineries collectively rely on corn that receives 1.9-5.1 million tons of nitrogen each year, with a current value of $1.06-2.91 billion dollars or 9,570-26,161 tons of nitrogen per refinery per year (i.e. $5.42-14.81 million per refinery per year). These figures account for 27-73% of all nitrogen fertilizer used in the MRB each year. More importantly, the corn acreage receiving this nitrogen leaches roughly 0.81-657 thousand tons of it directly into the MRB. Such a process amounts to 5-44% of all nitrogen discharged into the Gulf of Mexico each year and 1.7-13.8 million tons of algae responsible for the Gulf’s growing Dead Zone.

Midwest/Great Plains US Ethanol Refineries and Crop Residue Production

Leaching of this nitrogen is analogous to flushing $45.7-371.6 million dollars worth of precious capital down the drain. Put another way, these dollar figures translate into anywhere between 55% and an astonishing 4.53 times Direct Costs to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries of the Dead Zone itself.

These same refineries rely on corn acreage that also receives 0.53-2.61 million tons of phosphorus each year with a current value of 0.34-1.66 billion dollars. Each refinery has a phosphrous footprint in the range of 2,700 to 13,334 tons per year (i.e., $1.72-8.47 million). We estimate that 25,399-185,201 tons of this fertilizer phosphorus is leached into the the MRB, which is equivalent to 19% or as much as 1.42 times all the phosphorous dischared into the Gulf of Mexico per year. Such a process means $16.13-117.60 million is lost per year.

Together, the nitrogen and phosphorus leached from acreage allocated to corn ethanol have a current value that is between 75% and nearly 6 times the value lost every year to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries.

Indirect Costs: Fertilizer and Herbicide Costs and Leaching

The 270 ethanol refineries we have quality production data for are relying on corn that receives 367,772 tons of herbicide and insecticide each year, with a current value of $6.67 billion dollars or 1,362 tons of chemical preventitive per refinery per year (i.e. $24.7 million per refinery per year). More importantly the corn acreage receiving these inputs leaches roughly 15.8-128.7 thousand tons of it directly into surrounding watersheds and underlying aquifers. Leaching of these inputs is analogous to flushing $287 million to $2.3 billion dollars down the drain.

What’s Next?

During the recent Trump administration EPA, USDA, DOE administrator hearings, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was cited as critical to American energy independence by a bipartisan group of 23 senators. Among these were Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Chuck Grassley, who co-wrote a letter to new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt demanding that the RFS remains robust and expands when possible. In the words of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp – and long-time ethanol supporter – straight from the heart of the Bakken Shale Revolution in North Dakota:

The RFS has worked well for North Dakota farmers, and I’m fighting to defend it. As we’re doing today in this letter, I’ll keep pushing in the U.S. Senate for the robust RFS [and Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs)] we need to support a thriving biofuels industry and stand up for biofuels workers. Biofuels create good-paying jobs in North Dakota and help support our state’s farmers, who rely on this important market – particularly when commodity prices are challenging.

Furthermore, the entire Iowa congressional delegation including the aforementioned Sen. Grassley joined newly minted USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue when he told the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association:

You have nothing to worry about. Did you hear what he said during the campaign? Renewable energy, ethanol, is here to stay, and we’re going to work for new technologies to be more efficient.

How this advocacy will play out and how the ethanol industry will respond (i.e., increase productivity per refinery or expand the number of refineries) is anybody’s guess. However, it sounds like the same language, lobbying, and advertising will continue to be used by the Ethanol and Unconventional Oil and Gas industries. Additional parallels are sure to follow with specific respect to water, waste, and land-use.

Furthermore, as both industries continue their ramp up in research and development, we can expect to see productivity per laborer to continue on an exponential path. The response in DC – and statehouses across the upper Midwest and Great Plains – will likely be further deregulation, as well.

From a societal perspective, an increase in ethanol production/grain diversion away from people’s plates has lead to a chicken-and-egg positive feedback loop, whereby our farmers continue to increase total and per-acre corn production with less and less people. In rural areas, mining and agriculture have been the primary employment sectors. A further mechanization of both will likely amplify issues related to education, drug dependence, and flight to urban centers (Figures 4A and B).

We still don’t know exactly how efficient ethanol refineries are relative to Greenhouse Gas Emissions per barrel of oil. By merging the above data with facility-level CO2 emissions from the EPA Facility Level Information on Greenhouse gases Tool (FLIGHT) database we were able to match nearly 200 of the US ethanol refineries with their respective GHG emissions levels back to 2010. These facilities emit roughly:

  • 195,116 tons of CO2 per year, per facility,
  • A total of 36.97 million tons per year (i.e., 2.11 million Americans worth of emissions), and
  • 22,265 tons of CO2 per barrel of ethanol produced.

Emissions from ethanol will increase to 74.35 million tons in 2022 if the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007’s prescriptions run their course. Such an upward trend would be equivalent to the GHG emissions of somewhere between that of Seattle and Detroit.

What was once a singles match between Frackers and Sheikhs may turn into an Australian Doubles match with the Ethanol Lobby and Farm Bureau joining the fray. This ‘game’ will only further stress the food, energy, and water (FEW) nexus from California to the Great Lakes and northern Appalachia.

We are on a thinner margin of food security, just as we are on a thinner margin of oil security… The [World] Bank implicitly questions whether it is wise to divert half of the world’s increased output of maize and wheat over the next decade into biofuels to meet government “mandates.” – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Telegraph

Will long-term agricultural security be sacrificed in the name of short-term energy independence?

US and Global Corn Production and Acreage between 1866 and 2015.

Figure 3. US and Global Corn Production and Acreage between 1866 and 2015.

Figures 4A and 4B. A) Number of Laborers in the US Mining, Oil and Gas, Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting sector and B) US Corn Production Metrics Per Farm Laborer between 1947 and 2015.

Ethanol Tables

Table 1. Summary of our Corn Ethanol Production, Land-Use, and Water Demand analysis

Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year 17,847,616,000
Bushels of Corn Needed 6,374,148,571
Percent of US Production 44.73%
Land Needed 104,372,023 acres
“” 163,081 square miles
Percent of Contiguous US Land 5.51%
Percent of US Agricultural Land 11.28%
Gallons of Water Needed 49.76 trillion (i.e. 3.55 million swimming pools)
Gallons of Water Per Gallon of Oil 2,788
Average and Total Site/Industry Capacity
Average Corn Ethanol Production Per Existing or Under Construction Facility (n = 257) 69,717,250
Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year 17,847,616,000
Difference Between 2022 Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 36 Billion Gallon Mandate 18,152,384,000
# of New Refineries Necessary to Get to 2022 Levels 260
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 1.7
IEA 2009 World Energy Outlook 250-620% Increase Predictions for 2030
250% 44,619,040,000
# of New Refineries Necessary 640
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 150.00
620% 110,655,219,200
# of New Refineries Necessary 1,587
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 520.00

Table 2. Global Population Growth and Corn and Soybean Productivity Trends.

Percent Change Metric
+1.13% Global Population Growth Trend
Corn (Bushels Per Acre)
+1.15% Per Year United States
+1.20% Per Year Global
Soybean (Tons Per Acre)
+0.9% Per Year United States
+1.5% Per Year Brazil
Palm Oil (Tons)
+5.1% Per Year Indonesia
+2.7% Per Year Malaysia

References and Footnotes

  1. Ethanol as defined in the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Corporation Franchise Tax 5733.46 means “fermentation ethyl alcohol derived from agricultural products, including potatoes, cereal, grains, cheese whey, and sugar beets; forest products; or other renewable resources, including residue and waste generated from the production, processing, and marketing of agricultural products, forest products, and other renewable resources that meet all of the specifications in the American society for testing and materials (ASTM) specification D 4806-88 and is denatured as specified in Parts 20 and 21 of Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations.”
  2. A) Pyrolysis is included in the biofuel category and involves the anaerobic decay of cellulose rich feedstocks such as switchgrass at high temperatures producing synthetic diesel or syngas, and
    B) According to many researchers biofuels made from waste biomass or crops grown on degraded and abandoned lands with warm-season prairie grasses and legumes incur little or no carbon debt and provide “immediate and sustained Greenhouse Gas (GHG) advantages” by rehabilitating soil health and capturing, rather than emitting by way of increased fertilizer use, various forms of nitrogen including N2O, NO3, and NO2.
  3. According to Fred Magdoff, the ethanol complex is lobbying for “more automobile engines capable of using E-85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) for which there are currently 2,710 fueling stations across the country although 56% of them are in just nine states: 1) Wisconsin (117), 2) Missouri (107), 3) Minnesota (335), 4) Michigan (174), 5) Indiana (172), 6) Illinois (221),  7) Iowa (193), 8) Texas (99), and 9) Ohio (97). Some states are mandating a mixture greater than 10 percent. Ethanol can’t be shipped together with gasoline in pipelines because it separates from the mixture when moisture is present, so it must be trucked to where it will be mixed with gasoline.” The E-85 blend comes with its own costs including higher emissions of CO, VOC, PM10, SOx, and NOx than gasoline.
  4. McClaugherty, C., Auch, W. Genshock, E. and H. Buzulencia. (2017). Landscape impacts of infrastructure associated with Utica shale oil and gas extraction in eastern Ohio, Ecological Society of America, 100th Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, August, 2015.
  5. Hill et al. recently indicated “Ethanol yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas biodiesel yields 93% more.”
  6. An additional 9-10 refineries or 73% of all ethanol refineries are within 25 miles of the Mississippi River Basin.

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo, left: Oil and gas well pad, Ohio. Photo by Ted Auch.
Cover photo, right: A typical ethanol plant in West Burlington, Iowa. Photo by Steven Vaughn.


Data Downloads

Click on the links below to download the datasets used to create the maps in this article.

  1. Detailed US Ethanol water, land, chemical fertilizer, and herbicide demand
  2. Estimates of North American Ethanol Refinery’s water and land-use demand
PA Oil & Gas Fines feature image

Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Fines Analysis

In March 2017, FracTracker Alliance conducted a review of the available Pennsylvania oil and gas fine data released publicly by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to identify trends in industry-related fines over time and by particular operators. In total, the DEP has assessed nearly $36 million in fines to oil and gas extraction and pipeline operators since January 1, 2000. Such fines are associated with over 42,000 violations issued1 by DEP in that time frame, covering 204,000 known oil and gas locations,2 as well as 91,000 miles of pipelines3 within the Commonwealth.

Understanding the Data Structure

The amount of money that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) fines oil and gas (O&G) operations is included in the DEP’s compliance report published on their website. Even though fines data are made available, they are not necessarily straight-forward, and caution must be taken not to over-estimate the total number of assessed fines.

Records of fines are associated with enforcement identification codes on the compliance report. A single fine is often applied to numerous violations, and the full amount of the fine is listed on every record in this subset. Therefore, the total dollar amount of fines assessed to O&G companies appears overstated. For example, if a $400,000 fine were assessed to settle a group of 10 violations, that figure will appear on the report 10 times, for an apparent aggregate of $4,000,000 in fines. To get an accurate representation of fines assessed, we need to isolate fines associated with particular enforcement ID numbers, which are used administratively to resolve the fines.

This process is further complicated by the fact that, on occasion, such enforcement ID numbers are associated with more than one operator. This issue could result from a change in the well’s operator (or a change of the operator’s name), a group of wells in close proximity that are run by different operators, or it might point to an energy extraction company and a midstream company sharing responsibility for an incident. Sometimes, the second operator listed under an enforcement ID is in fact “not assigned.” The result is that we cannot first summarize by operator and then aggregate those subtotals without overstating the total amount of the assessed fines. In all, 62 of the enforcement ID numbers apply to more than one operator, but this figure amounts to less than one percent of the nearly 15,000 distinct enforcement ID numbers issued by DEP.

Conventional & Unconventional Violations & Fines

Oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania are categorized as either conventional or unconventional, with the latter category intended to represent the modern, industrial-scaled operations that are commonly referred to as “fracking wells.” Contrastingly, conventional wells are supposed to be the more traditional O&G wells that have been present in Pennsylvania since 1859. The actual definition of these wells leaves some blurring of this distinction, however, as almost all O&G wells now drilled in Pennsylvania are stimulated with hydraulic fracturing to some degree, and some of the conventional wells are even drilled horizontally – just not into formations that are technically defined as unconventional. For the most part, however, unconventional remains a useful distinction indicating the significant scale of operations.

Table 1. Summary of oil and gas wells, violations, and fines in Pennsylvania

Category Conventional Unconventional (blank) Total
Wells 193,655 10,291 0 203,946
Violations 27,223 6,126 9,026 42,375
Fines $7,000,203 $13,689,032 $21,563,722 $35,949,495*
Fines per Violation 257 2,235 2,389 848
Fines per Well 36 1330  – 176.27
Violations per Well 0.14 0.60  – 0.21
Wells per Violation 7.11 1.68  – 4.81
* The total fine amount issued is not a summary of the three preceding categories, as some of the fines appear in multiple categories

Ninety-five (95)% of the state’s 204,000 O&G wells are classified as conventional, so it should not be surprising to see that this category of wells accounts for a majority of violations issued by the department. However, fines associated with these violations are less frequent, and often less harsh; the $7 million in fines for this category accounts for only 19% of the total assessed penalties. In contrast, the total penalties that have been assessed to unconventional wells in the state are nearly twice that of conventional wells, despite accounting for just 5% of the state’s well inventory

On the 54,412 records on the compliance report, 10,518 (19%) do not indicate whether or not it is an unconventional well. The list of operators includes some well-known conventional and unconventional drilling operators, and hundreds of names of individuals or organizations where O&G drilling is not their primary mode of business (such as municipal authorities and funeral homes). This category also contains violations for midstream operations, such as pipelines and compressor stations. Altogether, 3,795 operators have entries that were not categorized as either conventional or unconventional on the compliance report, and 124 of these operators were issued fines. One additional complication is that some of the violations and fines that fall into this category are cross-referenced in the conventional and unconventional categories, as well.

The resulting impact of these factors is that the blank category obscures the trends for violations and fines in the other two categories. While tempting to reclassify well data in this category as either conventional or unconventional, this would be a tall task due to the sheer number of records involved, and would likely result in a significant amount of errors. Therefore, the FracTracker Alliance has decided to present the data as is, along with an understanding of the complexities involved.

Most Heavily Fined Operators

Despite the numerous caveats listed above, we can get a clear look at the aggregated fines issued to the various O&G operators in the state by constructing our queries carefully. Table 2 shows the top 12 recipients of O&G-related fines assessed by DEP since 2000. Ten of these companies are on the extraction side of the business, and the total number of well permits issued4 to these companies since 2000 are included on the table. By looking at the permits instead of the drilled wells, we discover the operator that was originally associated with the drilling location, whereas the report of drilled wells associates the current operator associated with the site, or most recent operator in the event that the location is plugged and abandoned.

Stonehenge Appalachia and Williams Field Services operate in the midstream sector. Combining the various business name iterations and subsidiaries would be an enormous task, which we did not undertake here, with the exception of those near the top of the list. This includes Vantage Energy Appalachia, which was combined with records from Vantage Energy Appalachia II, and the compliance history of Rice Energy is the sum of three subsidiaries, the drilling company Rice Drilling B, and two pipeline companies, Rice Midstream Holdings and Rice Poseidon Midstream.

Table 2. Top 12 operators that have been assessed oil and gas-related fines by DEP since 2000

Operator Total Fines Conventional Permits Unconventional Permits Violations Fines / Violation Fines / Permit
Range Resources Appalachia LLC $5,717,994 2,104 2,206 819 $6,982 $1,327
Chesapeake Appalachia LLC $3,120,123 18 3,072 754 $4,138 $1,010
Rice Energy* $2,336,552 442 165 $14,161 $5,286
Alpha Shale Res LP $1,681,725 3 62 31 $54,249 $25,873
Stonehenge Appalachia LLC $1,500,000  – 294 $5,102
Cabot Oil & Gas Corp $1,407,275 19 902 726 $1,938 $1,528
CNX Gas Co LLC $1,274,330 1,613 677 387 $3,293 $556
WPX Energy Appalachia LLC $1,232,500 347 159 $7,752 $3,552
Chevron Appalachia LLC $1,077,553 2 604 113 $9,536 $1,778
Vantage Energy Appalachia LLC** $1,059,766 3 300 35 $30,279 $3,498
Williams Field Services Co, LLC $872,404  – 158 $5,522
XTO Energy Inc $739,712 1,962 461 383 $1,931 305
* Fines for Rice Energy here represent the sum of three subsidiaries, the drilling company Rice Drilling B, and two pipeline companies, Rice Midstream Holdings and Rice Poseidon Midstream.

** Fines for Vantage Energy Appalachia were combined with records from Vantage Energy Appalachia II.

Predictably, many of the entries on this list are among the most active drillers in the state, including Range Resources and Chesapeake Appalachia. However, Alpha Shale Resources has the dubious distinction of leading the pack with the highest amount of fines per violation, as well as the highest amount of fines per permit. Fitting in with the theme, the story here is complicated by the fact that Alpha had a joint venture with Rice, before selling them their stake in a group of wells and midstream operations that were fined $3.5 million by DEP.5 On this compliance report, the fines from this incident are split between the two companies.

Fines Issued Over Time

It is worth taking a look at how O&G related fines have varied over time, as well (Figure 1, shown in millions of dollars). Numerous factors could contribute to changes in trends, such as the number of available DEP inspectors,6 the amount of attention being paid to the industry in the media, differing compliance strategies employed by various political administrations, or changes in practices in the field, which could in turn be impacted by significant fines issued in the past.

PA Oil & Gas Fines Analysis chart

Figure 1. O&G Fines Issued by DEP, 2000 through 2016

The notable spike in fines issued from 2010 to 2012 corresponds with the peak of unconventional drilling in the state – 4,908 of these industrial scaled wells were drilled during those three years, amounting to 48% of all unconventional wells in PA. In contrast, only 504 unconventional wells were drilled in 2016, or around a quarter of the total for 2011. In this context, the reduction in fines since the early part of the decade seems reasonable.

The association with the number of unconventional wells falls apart a bit in the years 2013 to 2014, however. These two years saw an average of 1,293 unconventional wells drilled, but the fines issued amounted to only 35% of the 2011 total.

Considerable strides have been made in the public accessibility of oil and gas data available from the PA DEP since FracTracker started requesting and reviewing this information in 2009. Still, there are many gaps in the datasets, such as geolocation details for 10 of the 20 largest fines issued by the department. FracTracker hopes external analyses like this one will help to close such gaps and identify operators who, too, need to improve their compliance records.

References & Footnotes

  1. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) Oil and Gas (O&G) Compliance Database.
  2. PA DEP O&G Spud Database. Note: Starting date 1/1/1800 captures unknown spud (wells drilled) dates.
  3. Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA) Pipeline Data Mart Reports.
  4. PA DEP Permits Issued Database.
  5. State Impact PA. (2016). Rice Energy fined $3.5 million for wellsite and pipeline violations.
  6. PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. (2017). Fracking Failures 2017, Oil and Gas Industry Environmental Violations in Pennsylvania.

Oil & Gas Fines White Paper

This analysis is also available for download in a printer-friendly, white paper format:


Cover Photo by Pete Stern, Loyalsock, PA

34 states with active drilling activity in US map

34 states have active oil & gas activity in U.S. based on 2016 analysis

Each year, FracTracker Alliance compiles a national well file to try to assess how many wells have been drilled in the U.S. We do this by extracting data from the various state regulatory agencies that oversee drilling in oil and gas producing states. We’re a little late posting the results of our 2016 analysis, but here it is.

Based on data from 2014-2015, 34 states * saw drilling activity, amounting to approximately 1.2 million facilities across the U.S. – from active production wells, to natural gas compressor stations, to processing plants.

The process we used to count these wells and related facilities for the 2016 analysis changed a bit this time around, which obviously impacts the total number of wells in the dataset. 2016’s compilation was created in consultation with Earthworks, for the purpose of informing the Oil and Gas Threat Map project. The scope was more restrictive than previous editions (see our 2014 and 2015 analyses), focusing only on wells that we were reasonably confident were actively producing oil and gas wells, thus excluding wells with inactive or uncertain statuses, as well salt water disposal (SWD) and other Class II injection (INJ) well types.

There are facilities included in this dataset that we don’t normally tally, as well (See Table 1 below). Earthworks was able to determine the latitude and longitude coordinates of a number of compressors and other processing plants, which are included in the dataset below and final map.

In all, the facility counts are reduced from about 1.7 million in 2015 to about 1.2 million in 2016, but this is more a reflection of the definition than substantial changes in the active well inventory in the U.S. You can explore this information by state, and additional results of this project, using Earthworks’ Threats Maps. Additionally, the national well file is available to download below.

You’ll notice that we don’t refer to the wells in this analysis as “fracked” wells. The primary reason for not using such terminology is because no one common definition exists across those states for what constitutes a hydraulically fractured well. In PA, for example, such wells are considered “unconventional” because drilling occurs in an unconventional formation and usually involves some sort of well stimulation. Contrastingly, in CA, often drillers use “acidizing” not fracking – a similar process that breaks up the ground using acidic injected fluids instead of the high pressure seen in traditional fracking. As such, we included all active oil and gas production instead of trying to limit the analysis to just wells that have been stimulated. We will likely continue to use this process until a federal or national definition of what constitutes a “fracked” well is determined.

Table 1. Facilities by State and Type

State Count of Facilities by Type Grand Total
Compressor Processor Well
AK 7 3,356 3,363
AL 17 7,016 7,033
AR 231 8 13,789 14,028
AZ 40 40
CA 7 21 92,737 92,765
CO 426 49 50,881 51,356
FL 2 102 104
ID 6 6
IL 5 48,748 48,753
IN 7,374 7,374
KS 9 90,526 90,535
KY 5 11,769 11,774
LA 6,486 94 2,555 9,135
MI 19 16,525 16,544
MO 2 687 689
MS 6 4,556 4,562
MT 5 9,768 9,773
ND 19 13,024 13,043
NE 1 16,202 16,203
NM 902 37 57,839 58,778
NV 176 176
NY 12,244 12,244
OH 29 10 90,288 90,327
OK 856 96 29,042 29,994
OR 56 56
PA 452 11 103,680 104,143
SD 408 408
TN 15,956 15,956
TX 758 315 397,776 398,849
UT 18 20,608 20,626
VA 9,888 9,888
WI 1 1
WV 20 16,118 16,138
WY 325 48 38,538 38,911
Grand Total 10,472 825 1,182,278 1,193,575
* NC facilities are not included because the state did not respond to multiple requests for the data. This exclusion likely does not significantly affect the total number of wells in the table, as historically NC only had 2 oil and gas wells.

Hypothetical Impacts of Unconventional Drilling In Allegheny County

With tens of thousands of wells scattered across the countryside, Southwestern Pennsylvania is no stranger to oil and gas development. New, industrial scale extraction methods are already well entrenched, with over 3,600 of these unconventional wells drilled so far in that part of the state, mostly from the well known Marcellus Shale formation.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is also home to the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area, a seven county region with over 2.3 million people. Just over half of this population is in Allegheny County, where unconventional drilling has become more common in recent years, along with all of its associated impacts. In the following interactive story map, the FracTracker Alliance takes a look at current impacts in more urban and suburban environments, plus projects what future impacts could look like, based on leasing activity.

hypothetical impacts map

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

Oil and gas production on public lands

Interactive maps show nearness of oil and gas wells to communities in 5 states

As an American, you are part owner of 640 million acres of our nation’s shared public lands managed by the federal government. And chances are, you’ve enjoyed a few of these lands on family picnics, weekend hikes or summer camping trips. But did you know that some of your lands may also be leading to toxic air pollution and poor health for you or your neighbors, especially in 5 western states that have high oil and gas drilling activity?

A set of new interactive maps created by FracTracker, The Wilderness Society, and partner groups show the threatened populations who live within a half mile of  federal oil and gas wells – people who may be breathing in toxic pollution on a regular basis.

Altogether, air pollution from oil and gas development on public lands threatens at least 73,900 people in the 5 western states we examined. The states, all of which are heavy oil and gas leasing areas, include ColoradoNew MexicoNorth DakotaUtah and Wyoming.

Close up of threat map in Colorado

Figure 1. Close up of threat map in Colorado

In each state, the data show populations living near heavy concentrations of wells. For example just northeast of Denver, Colorado, in the heavily populated Weld County, at least 11,000 people are threatened by oil and gas development on public lands (Figure 1).

Western cities, like Farmington, New Mexico; Gillette, Wyoming; and Grand Junction, Colorado are at highest risk of exposure from air pollution. In New Mexico, especially, concentrated oil and gas activity disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and minorities. Many wells can be found near population centers, neighborhoods and even schools.

Colorado: Wells concentrated on Western Slope, Front Range

Note: The threatened population in states are a conservative estimate. It is likely that the numbers affected by air pollution are higher.

In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to try to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations through comprehensive regulations that included inspections of oil and gas operations and an upgrade in oil and gas infrastructure technology. Colorado’s new regulations are already showing both environmental and financial benefits.

But nearly 16,000 people – the majority living in the northwestern and northeastern part of the state – are still threatened by pollution from oil and gas on public lands.

Many of the people whose health is endangered from pollution are concentrated in the fossil-fuel rich area of the Western Slope, near Grand Junction. In that area, three counties make up 65% of the total area in Colorado threatened by oil and gas development.

In Weld County, just northeast of Denver, more than 11,000 residents are threatened by air pollution from oil and gas production on federal lands. But what’s even more alarming is that five schools are within a half mile radius of wells, putting children at risk on a daily basis of breathing in toxins that are known to increase asthma attacks. Recent studies have shown children miss 500,000 days of school nationally each year due to smog related to oil and gas production.

State regulations in Colorado have helped improve air quality, reduce methane emissions and promote worker care and safety in the past two years, but federal regulations expected by the end of 2016 will have a broader impact by regulating pollution from all states.

New Mexico: Pollution seen from space threatens 50,000 people

With more than 30,000 wells covering 4.6 million acres, New Mexico is one of the top states for oil and gas wells on public lands. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure in the Four Corners region are so great, they have formed a methane hot spot that has been extensively studied by NASA and is clearly visible from space.

Nearly 50,000 people in northwestern New Mexico – 40% of the population in San Juan County – live within a half mile of a well. 

Dangerous emissions from those wells in San Juan County disproportionately affect minorities and disadvantaged populations, with about 20% Hispanic, almost 40% Native American, and over 20% living in poverty.

Another hot spot of oil and activity is in southeastern New Mexico stretching from the lands surrounding Roswell to the southern border with Texas. Wells in this region also cover the lands outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, potentially affecting the air quality and visibility for park visitors. Although less densely populated, another 4,000 people in two counties – with around 50% of the population Hispanic – are threatened by toxic air pollution.

Wyoming: Oil and gas emissions add to coal mining pollution

Pollution from oil and gas development in Wyoming, which has about as many wells as New Mexico, is focused in the Powder River Basin. This region in the northeast of the state provides 40% of the coal produced in the United States.

Oil and gas pollution threatens approximately 4,000 people in this region where scarred landscapes and polluted waterways are also prevalent from coal mining. 

With the Obama administration’s current pause on federal coal leasing and a review of the federal coal program underway, stopping pollution from oil and gas on public lands in Wyoming would be a major step in achieving climate goals and preserving the health of local communities.

Utah: Air quality far below federal standards

Utah has almost 9,000 active wells on public lands. Oil and gas activity in Utah has created air quality below federal standards in one-third of Utah’s counties, heightening the risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Especially in the Uintah Basin in northeastern Utah – where the majority of oil and development occurs – a 2014 NOAA-led study found oil and gas activity can lead to high levels of ozone in the wintertime that exceed federal standards.

North Dakota: Dark skies threatened by oil and gas activity

The geology of western North Dakota includes the Bakken Formation, one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in the United States. As a result, high oil and gas production occurs on both private and public lands in the western part of the state.

Nearly 650 wells on public lands are clustered together here, directly impacting popular recreational lands like Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The 70,000-plus-acre park – named after our president who first visited in 1883 and fell in love with the incredible western landscape – is completely surrounded by high oil and gas activity. Although drilling is not allowed in the park, nearby private and public lands are filled with active wells, producing pollution, traffic and noise that can be experienced from the park. Due to its remote location, the park is known for its incredible night sky, but oil and gas development increases air and light pollution, threatening visibility of the Milky Way and other astronomical wonders.

You own public lands, but they may be hurting you

Pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands is only a part of a larger problem. Toxic emissions from oil and gas development on both public and private lands threaten 12.4 million people living within a half mile of wells, according to an oil and gas threat map created by FracTracker for a project by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force.

Now that we can see how many thousands of people are threatened by harmful emissions from our public lands, it is more important than ever that we finalize strong federal regulations that will help curb the main pollutant of natural gas – methane – from being leaked, vented, and flared from oil and gas infrastructure on public lands.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

We need to clean up our air now

With U.S. public lands accounting for 1/5 of the greenhouse gas footprint in the United States, we need better regulations to reduce polluting methane emissions from the 96,000 active oil and gas wells on public lands.

Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is finalizing federal regulations that are expected by the end of 2016. These regulations are expected to curb emissions from existing sources – wells already in production – that are a significant source of methane pollution on public lands. This is crucial, since by 2018, it is estimated that nearly 90% of methane emissions will come from sources that existed in 2011.

Federal regulations by the BLM should also help decrease the risk to communities living near oil and gas wells and helping cut methane emissions by 40 to 45% by 2025 to meet climate change reduction goals.

Final regulations from the Bureau of Land Management will also add to other regulations from the EPA and guidance from the Obama administration to modernize energy development on public lands for the benefit of the American people, landscapes and the climate. In the face of a changing climate, we need to continue to monitor fossil fuel development on public lands and continue to push the government towards better protections for land, air, wildlife and local communities.


By The Wilderness Society – The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.

Comparing Unconventional Drilling in Southwestern PA

By Matt Unger, GIS Intern, FracTracker Alliance

We recently received a request  for unconventional (fracking) drilling data in Southwestern Pennsylvania counties and municipalities. Specifically, the resident wanted to know the following information:

  1. Number of drilled wells in Southwestern PA counties, and in each municipality,
  2. How many wells are producing natural gas in each municipality, and
  3. The number of well violations reported there.

The following counties in Southwestern PA were studied (based on available electronic data): Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland.

The well production data was compiled from a production report found on the Pennsylvania DEP Office of Oil and Gas website. This report detailed production values from unconventional gas wells statewide from January 2014 – June 2014. The well violation data was compiled using the Pennsylvania DEP Office of Oil and Gas’s interactive Oil and Gas Compliance report. From here, a compliance report was created using the following criteria: All PA regions, counties, and municipalities, all well operators, unconventional wells only, and wells inspected from 1/1/2000 – 9/9/2014.

Drilling Data Trends

Once all of the data was compiled, we created a spreadsheet that included a ratio of violations/wells for each municipality and county. Below are a few observations that stood out to us, followed by possible explanations for what has been reported.

  • Slightly less than 1/3 of all wells drilled in the 11 counties selected for this analysis have committed some sort of violation (.31).
  • The ratio of violations to wells drilled in Somerset County is 1.38, by far the largest ratio discovered. This means than more than one violation has been cited for every well drilled in that area, but that does not mean that every well carries with it a violation. The second largest ratio would be Cambria County at 1.00.
  • If you break down the numbers and look at municipality trends, the largest violation/wells ratio by municipality is found in Stewart Township, Fayette County (9.00). There have been 18 reported violations in association with the 2 wells drilled in the area.
  • Of the 60 municipalities that recorded no violations, South Buffalo Township in Armstrong County has the most wells drilled with 20.
  • Across the 11 counties studied, Allegheny County has the lowest ratio of violation/wells (.007).
  • Violations were reported in Somerset Township, Somerset County. No wells were drilled in this area, however.
  • Violations were reported in Wayne Township, Greene County, yet no wells were reported to be drilled in the municipality.

Explaining Some Data Caveats

Why is Allegheny County seeing such a low violation/well ratio?

Across the 11 counties studied, Allegheny County has the lowest ratio of violation/wells (.007).

Allegheny is the most populated county studied in Southwestern PA. Oil and gas drillers in the county, therefore, have the largest audience watching them. This may be encouraging the drillers to be more cautious or follow rules and regulations more strictly. Another possible explanation is that inspectors may be more lenient when reporting violations in in Allegheny County. Additionally, drillers operating primarily in Allegheny County may be are more likely to or are more capable of drilling according to the regulations. A final possibility is that Allegheny County is one of the last counties in this region to be heavily drilled, perhaps allowing for more best practices to be implemented on site compared to well pads established early on.

Violations With No Wells?

Violations were reported in Somerset Township, Somerset County. No wells were drilled in this area, however. These violations could have occurred when constructing the well pad. If construction has stopped at this site since the violation, there would not have been any wells drilled. Additionally, there may be an error in the dataset as to the actual location (e.g. county) of the well pad.

Violations were reported in Wayne Township, Greene County, yet no wells were reported to be drilled in the municipality. The PA DEP has informed FracTracker that these violations were actually reported for a well pad located in Center Township, Greene County. The entry for Wayne Township was a recording error on their part. Our data has been updated to reflect the proper number of violations reported in Center Township, as well as the removal of any activity in Wayne Township.

Download the Spreadsheet

The spreadsheet we supplied to this resident can be downloaded as a compliance report.

Updated PA Map

Explore our map of PA unconventional wells and violations by clicking on the map below:

Last updated: September 19, 2014

 

Lac Mégantic Derailment, Québec in July 2013. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac-M%C3%A9gantic_derailment

Off the Rails: Risks of Crude Oil Transportation by Freight in NY State and Beyond

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Since 2011, North Dakota crude oil from the Bakken Shale Play has made its way to refineries on the east coast via freight trains. This means of oil transportation is becoming increasingly common, as plans for pipeline development have been falling short, but demand for more energy development continues to climb (see New York Times, April 12 , 2014). In addition to the Bakken crude, there are also currently proposals under consideration to ship crude by rail  from Alberta’s tar sands region, along these same routes through New York State.

Alarm about the danger of these “bomb trains” came sharply into public focus after the disaster in Lac Mégantic, Québec in July 2013 when a train carrying 72 carloads of the highly volatile Bakken oil derailed, setting off a massive series of explosions that leveled several blocks of the small town, killing 47 people (photo above). The crude from the Bakken is considerably lighter than that of other oil and gas deposits, making it more volatile than the crude that has been traditionally transported by rail.

Quantifying the Risk

As estimated by the National Transportation Safety Board, with deliveries at about 400,000 barrels a day headed to the Atlantic coast, about a 20-25% of this volume passes through the Port of Albany, NY. There were recent approvals for 3 billion gallons to be processed through Albany. The remainder of the crude is delivered to other ports in the US and Canada. Any oil travelling by rail through the Port of Albany would also pass through significant population centers, including Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, NY. Binghamton, NY is also bisected by commercial rail lines.

In the past year, the New York Times, as well as other media, have reported on the threat of disasters similar to what occurred in Québec last summer, as the freight cars pass through Albany. Not only is the oil itself volatile, safety oversight is extremely spotty. According to The Innovation Trail, “… a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office noted that the Federal Railroad Administration only examines 1-percent of the countries rail road infrastructure.”

RiverKeeper, in their recent report on the topic, notes:

Nationwide, shipping crude oil by rail has jumped six-fold since 2011, according to American Association of Railroads data, and rail shipments from the Bakken region have jumped exponentially since 2009.

This ad-hoc transportation system has repeatedly failed — and spectacularly.

The fires resulting from derailments of Bakken crude oil trains have caused fireballs and have burned so hot that emergency responders often can do nothing but wait—for days—to let the fires burn themselves out.

The Guardian has reported that a legacy of poor regulation and safety failures led to the disaster in Québec, leading to bankruptcy of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways (MMA), and numerous class action suits. Records show that MMA was particularly lax in maintaining their rail cars and providing training for their employees. Meanwhile,  in the US, critics of rail transport of volatile crude oil point to inadequate monitoring systems, training, and, importantly, prepared and available emergency response teams that would be able to respond to explosions or disasters anywhere along the route. The size of a explosion that could occur would easily overwhelm volunteer fire and EMT services in many small towns.

These same trains pass through other major cities in Western and Central New York, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica. Not only are the railroads in proximity to significant population centers, they are also close to scores of K-12 schools, endangering the wellbeing of thousands of children (Table 1). In fact, across New York State, 495 K-12 public schools, or 12% of the total in the state, are within a half-mile of major railways–the standard evacuation distance for accidents involving railcars filled with flammable liquids and gases, as recommended by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) in their Emergency Response Guidebook. The US DOT also recommends an isolation zone of 1600 meters (1.0 miles) around any railcars filled with those materials if they are on fire.

Map of NYS Rail Lines and K-12 Schools


Click on this interactive map or pan through the state to explore regions outside of Rochester, NY. For a full-screen view of this map, with a legend, click here.

Buffalo Rail Lines and Proximity to Schools

Fig. 1. Buffalo Rail Lines & Proximity to Schools

For example, on their way through the City of Buffalo crude-carrying freight trains pass within a half-mile of residences of more than 86,000 people, as well as 20 public schools and 4 private schools, and within a half-mile of homes of nearly 60,000 people, 15 public schools, and 5 private schools, on the way through Rochester. See Figures 1-5.

Our work stands in support of and extends the excellent analyses already focusing on the Port of Albany done this past summer by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Healthy Schools Network. (See their report, which looked at the north-south rail corridor in New York State that passes along the Hudson River, within close proximity to 75 K-12 schools).

Table 1. Summary of population statistics in proximity to railways for five New York State cities

City Population
(2010 US Census)

Within ½ Mile of  Freight Rail Way

% Population # K-12 public schools in city # K-12 private schools in city
Buffalo 261,310 33% 28 8
Rochester 214,989 27.4% 15 5
Syracuse 145,168 16% 4 1
Utica 62,230 28.5% 2 0
Binghamton 47,376 63.5% 6 0

Figures 2-5. Proximity maps for Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Binghamton, NY

Rochester, NY

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Learn more about Oil Transportation and Accidents by Rail

Here They Come Again! The Impacts of Oil and Gas Truck Traffic

Part of the FracTracker Truck Counts Project
By Mary Ellen Cassidy, Community Outreach Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

I was recently invited by a community member to visit his home. It sits in a valley that is surrounded by drilling pads, as well as compressors and processing stations. While walking down the road that passes directly in front of his home, several caravans of gas trucks roared past and continued far into the evening. Our discussion about the unexpected barrage of this new invasion of intense truck traffic was frequently interrupted by the noise of the diesel engines passing nearby. Along with the noise, truck headlights pierced through the windows of the home, and dust flew up from the nearby road onto his garden.

There are many stories like this about homes and families impacted by the increased truck traffic associated with fracking-related activities. FracTracker is currently working with some of these communities to document the intensity of gas and oil trucks travelling their roads. In response to these concerns we have a launched a pilot Truck Counts project to provide support, resources, and networking opportunities to communities struggling with high volume gas truck traffic.

Preliminary Results

Volunteers in PA, WV, OH and WI have already started to participate in the project, with some interesting results, photos, observations, and suggestions.

TruckCountsChart

To-date, truck counts have varied significantly, as to be expected. Some of the sites where we chose to count passing trucks were very close to drilling activity, and some were more remote. While developing the counting protocol, we often included large equipment and tanker trucks, as well as gas company personnel vehicles (as indicated by white pickup trucks and company logos on the side). While the data vary, the spikes in truck counts do tell the story of a bigger and broader issue – the influx of heavy equipment during certain stages of drilling can be a significant burden on the local community. In total, we counted 676 trucks over 13 sites The average number of trucks that passed by per hour was 44, with a high of 116 an hour, and a low of 5.

About the Project

FracTracker Truck Counts partners with communities to: help identify issues of concern related to high volume gas truck traffic; collect data, photos, videos and narratives related to gas truck traffic; and analyze and share results through shared database and mapping options.

What motivates volunteers to join us in our Truck Counts program? Community concerns include dust, diesel exhaust, spills, accidents, along with other health and safety issues, as well as the cost and inconvenience of deteriorating road conditions resulting from the increased weights and numbers of vehicles. So, what do we already know about the extent of the damages caused by heavy truck traffic?

Public Safety

Several studies have found that shale gas development is strongly linked to increased traffic accidents and that the increases cannot be attributed only to more trucks and people on the road.

Unlike gas truck traffic issues from past oil and gas booms, this recent shale gas boom impacts traffic and public safety in many different ways. The hydraulic fracturing process requires 2,300 to 4,000 truck trips per well, where older drilling techniques needed one-third to one-half as many trips. Another difference is the speed of development that often far outpaces the capacity of communities to build better roads, bridges, install more traffic signals or hire extra traffic officers. Some experts explain increased truck traffic related accidents by pointing to regulatory loopholes such as federal rules that govern how long truckers can stay on the road being less stringent for drivers in the oil and gas industry. Others note that out of state drivers in charge of large heavy duty loads are not always accustomed to the regional weather patterns or the winding, narrow and hilly country roads that they travel.

An Associated Press analysis of traffic deaths in six drilling states shows that in some counties, fatalities have more than quadrupled since 2004 when most other American roads have become much safer in that period (even with growing populations). Marvin Odum, who runs Royal Dutch Shell’s exploration operations in the Americas, said that deadly crashes are “recognized as one of the key risk areas of the business”. Along with the community, gas truck drivers themselves are at risk. According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, vehicle crashes are the single biggest cause of fatalities to oil and gas workers. The AP study finds that:

  •  In North Dakota drilling counties, the population has soared 43% over the last decade, while traffic fatalities increased 350%. Roads in those counties were nearly twice as deadly per mile driven than the rest of the state
  • From 2009-2013-
    • Traffic fatalities in West Virginia’s most heavily drilled counties…rose 42%. Traffic deaths in the rest of the state declined 8%.
    • In 21 Texas counties where drilling has recently expanded, deaths/100,000 people are up an average of 18 % while for the rest of Texas, they are down by 20%.
    • Traffic fatalities in Pennsylvania drilling counties rose 4%, while in the rest of the state they fell 19 %.
    • New Mexico’s traffic fatalities fell 29%, except in drilling counties, where they only fell 5%.

A separate analysis by Environment America using data from the Upper Great Plans Institute finds that – “While the expanding oil industry in North Dakota has produced many benefits, the expansion has also resulted in an increase in traffic, especially heavy truck traffic. This traffic has contributed to a number of crashes, some of which have resulted in serious injuries and fatalities.” In the Bakken Shale oil region of North Dakota, the number of highway crashes increased by 68% between 2006 and 2010, with the share of crashes involving heavy trucks also increasing over that period.”1

Truck accident and spill in WV. Wetzel County Action Group photo, copyright of Ed Wade, Jr.

Truck accident and spill in WV. Wetzel County Action Group photo, copyright of Ed Wade, Jr.

Public health concerns do not end with traffic accidents and fatalities. An additional cost of heavy gas truck traffic is the strain it places on emergency service personnel. A 2011 survey by State Impact Pennsylvania in eight counties found that:

Emergency services in heavily drilled counties face a troubling paradox: Even though their population has fallen in recent years, 911 call activity has spiked — by as high as 46 percent, in one case.” Along with the demands placed on emergency responders from the number of increased calls, it also takes extra time to locate the accidents since many calls are coming from transient drivers who “don’t know which road or township they are in.

In Bradford County, a heavily drilled area, increased traffic has delayed the response times of emergency vehicles. According to an article in The Daily Review, firefighters and emergency response teams are delayed due to the increased number of accidents, gas trucks breaking down, and gas trucks running out of fuel (some companies only allow refueling once a night).

Road Deterioration and Regional Costs

Roadway degradation from truck traffic. Wetzel County Action Group photo, copyright of Ed Wade, Jr.

Roadway degradation from truck traffic. Wetzel County Action Group photo, copyright of Ed Wade, Jr.

An additional cost often passed on to the impacted communities is infrastructure maintenance. In an article from Business Week, Lynne Irwin, director of Cornell University’s local roads program in Ithaca, New York, states, “Measures to ensure that roads are repaired don’t capture the full cost of damage, potentially leaving taxpayers with the bill.”

This Food and Water Watch Report calculated the financial burden imposed on rural counties by traffic accidents alone, estimating that if the heavy truck accident rate in fracked counties had matched those untouched by the boom, $28 million would have been saved.2

Garrett County is currently struggling with anticipating potential gas traffic and road costs. The Garrett County Shale Gas Advisory Committee uses recent studies from RESI ‘s New York and Pennsylvania data to project gas truck traffic for 6 wells/pad at 22,848 trips/pad and 91,392 total truck trips the first year with increasing numbers for the next 10 years. Like many counties, Garrett County also faces the issue that weights and road use are covered by State, not County code.  There is a possibility, however, that the County could determine best “routes” for the trucks. (This is a prime example of the need and benefit for truck counts.)

Although truck companies and contractors pay permit fees, often they are either insufficient to cover costs or are not accessible to impacted counties. The Texas Tribune reports, “The Senate unanimously passed a joint resolution which would ask voters to approve spending $5.7 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, including $2.9 billion for transportation debt. But little, if any, of that money is likely to go toward repairing roads in areas hit hardest by the drilling boom.”

Commenting on the argument that gas companies already pay their fair share for road damages they cause, George Neal posts calculations on the Damascus Citizens for Sustainability website that lead him to conclude that, although “the average truck pays around 27 times the fuel taxes an average car pays… according to the Texas Department of Transportation, they do 8,000 times the damage per mile driven and drive 8 times as far each year.”

The funds needed to fill the gap between the costs of road repairs and the amount actually paid by the oil and gas companies must come from somewhere. According to a draft report from the New York Department of Transportation looking at potential Marcellus Shale development costs, “The annual costs to undertake these transportation projects are estimated to range from $90 to $156 million for State roads and from $121-$222 million for local roads. There is no mechanism in place allowing State and local governments to absorb these additional transportation costs without major impacts to other programs and other municipalities in the State.”

Poor Air Quality

Caravan of trucks. Photo by Savanna Lenker, 2014.

Caravan of trucks. Photo by Savanna Lenker, 2014.

Along with public safety and infrastructure costs, increased truck traffic associated with unconventional oil and gas extraction is found to be a major contributor to public health costs due to elevated ozone and particulate matter levels from increased emissions of heavy truck traffic and the refining and processing activities required.

In addition to ozone and particulate matter in the air, chemicals used for extraction and development also pose a serious risk. A recent study in the journal of Human and Ecological Health Assessment found that 37% of the chemicals used in drilling operations are volatile and could become airborne. Of those chemicals, more than 89% can cause damage to the eyes, skin, sensory, organs, respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, or the liver, and 81% can cause harm to the brain and nervous system. Because these chemicals can vaporize, they can enter the body not only through inhalation, but also absorption through the skin.

The Union of Concerned Scientists note that air pollution from traffic may be worsened in North Dakota by the use of unpaved roads that incorporate gravel containing a fibrous mineral called erionite, which has properties similar to asbestos. Trucks driving over such gravel roads can release harmful dust plumes into the air, which could present health risks for workers and area residents

To address and solve these problems associated with heavy truck traffic, information is needed to assess both qualitatively and quantitatively the scope of the increased truck traffic and its impacts on communities. Collection and analysis of data, as well as community input, are needed to both understand the scope of the problem and to inform effective solutions.

Joining FracTracker’s Truck Counts

In response to community concerns about the impacts of increased truck traffic in their community, FracTracker has developed the Truck Count project to document the intensity of oil and gas traffic in your region, map heavy traffic locations, and offer networking opportunities for impacted communities.

Participation in FracTracker’s Truck Counts can provide grassroots organizations with a valuable opportunity to collect local data, engage volunteers, and educate stakeholders and the public. The data, pictures and narratives collected can be used to support concerned citizens’ efforts to reroute traffic from schools, playgrounds and other sensitive areas; to inform decision makers, public health researchers, and transportation agencies; to serve as a potential launching point for more detailed, targeted studies on public health and safety along with economic development analyses; to compare costs and benefits of oil and gas energy sources to the cost and benefits of energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy.

Also, by sharing your community’s counts and stories on FracTracker.org, you serve other communities by increasing the awareness of the impacts of oil and gas truck traffic nationwide.

FracTracker’s Truck Counts provides the following resources to conduct the counts:

  • information and education on gas and oil truck identification,
  • data sheets for easy counting, and
  • tips for selecting safe and accessible counting locations in your community.

We look forward to working with you and supporting your community. If you are interested in working on this important crowdsourcing project with us, please contact:

Mary Ellen Cassidy
Community Outreach Coordinator
Cassidy@Fractracker.org
304-312-2063


Endnotes and References

  1. In addition, a 2013 study from Resources for the Future found that shale gas development is linked to traffic accidents in Pennsylvania with a significant increase in the number of total accidents and accidents involving a heavy truck in counties with a relatively large degree of shale gas development as compared to counties with less (or no) development.
    The 2013 Food and Water Watch Report finds similar correlations. Shale gas drilling was associated with higher incidents of traffic accidents in Pennsylvania. This trend was strongest in counties with the highest density of fracking wells. The decrease in the average annual number of total vehicle crashes was 39% larger in unfracked rural counties than in heavily fracked counties. (analysis based on data from US Census Bureau, PA DEP and PennDOT).
    In a recent Karnes County, Texas analysis “Traffic accidents and fatalities have skyrocketed in the shale boom areas….with an increases of 1,000% in commercial motor vehicle accidents from 2008-2011.
    According to a 2013 Texas Public Threat Safety Report, “In the three Eagle Ford Shale counties where drilling is most active, the number of crashes involving commercial vehicles rose 470 percent between 2009 and 2011. In the 17 counties that make up the Permian Basin, fatal car crashes involving commercial vehicles have nearly tripled from 14 in 2010 to 41 in 2012.
    As a result of heavily using of publicly available infrastructure and services, fracking imposes both immediate and long-term costs on taxpayers. An Environment Texas study reveals that, “Trucks required to deliver water to a single fracking well cause as much damage to roads as 3.5 million car journeys, putting massive stress on roadways and bridges not constructed to handle such volumes of heavy traffic. Pennsylvania estimates that repairing roads affected by Marcellus Shale drilling would cost $265 million”.
  2. Researchers from the RAND Corporation and Carnegie Mellon University looked at the design life and reconstruction cost of roadways in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania. Their findings in Estimating the Consumptive Use Costs of Shale Natural Gas Extraction on Pennsylvania Roadways, note that local roads are generally designed to support passenger vehicles, not heavy trucks, and that “the useful life of a roadway is directly related to the frequency and weight of truck traffic using the roadway.” The study’s findings include:
    1. “The estimated road-reconstruction costs associated with a single horizontal well range from $13,000 to $23,000. However, Pennsylvania often negotiates with drilling companies to rebuild smaller roads that are visibly damaged, so the researchers’ conservative estimate of uncompensated roadway damage is $5,000 and $10,000 per well.
    2. While the per-well figure of $5,000-$10,000 appears small, the increasingly large number of wells being drilled means that substantial costs fall on the state: “Because there were more than 1,700 horizontal wells drilled [in Pennsylvania] in 2011, the statewide range of consumptive road costs for that year was between $8.5 and $39 million,” costs paid by state transportation authorities, and thus taxpayers.”
  3. The feature photo at the top of the page was taken by Savanna Lenker, 2014.

Statoil Eisenbarth Well Pad Fire – An Introduction

By Bill Hughes, Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance

Monroe County on the eastern border of the State of Ohio and Wetzel County in West Virginia are very much neighbors. They literally share a very deep connection, at least geologically and physically, as they are separated by a very long, deep, 1000-foot wide valley, filled by the Ohio River. A bridge connects the surface land and its residents.

But if you literally dig a little deeper, actually a lot deeper (as in 7,000 feet down), we are seamlessly joined by the Marcellus shale layer. Below this layer, we are joined by other black shale formations where the natural gas and some of its unwelcome neighbors live.

I live in Wetzel County. From where I am sitting I am surrounded by multiple shale gas operations – and have been for over seven years. I have Chesapeake to the north; EQT to the southeast; Stone Energy to the west; Statoil to the east; and HG Energy to the south. They all are primarily extracting gas from the Marcellus formation, but just a few miles to the north of here is a Utica formation well pad (situated below the Marcellus Shale layer). It is being fracked as I write this article.

Externalizing Business Costs

Setting aside the different political and regulatory differences that might exist when comparing WV & OH, the terrain, topography, and cultural history are very similar. The impact of shale gas extraction in a rural community seems to be the same everywhere it is happening, as well. We have all had traffic congestion, road accidents, problems with air and water quality, and waste disposal challenges. All of the drilling companies use fresh water from the Ohio River or its tributaries. WV gas producers take much of their brine and flowback fluids to injections wells in OH for disposal. The grateful OH drillers truck their waste products to our landfills here in Wetzel County and the operators seem pleased with the arrangement. Externalizing costs to our communities seems to be an accepted and tolerated business model.

About Statoil

Statoil is a large natural gas producer from Norway. They have wells both here in Wetzel, WV and in Monroe County, OH. On June 28 and 29 of 2014, a massive fire burned out of control on a Statoil well pad called Eisenbarth in Monroe County (map below), during a routine hydraulic fracturing operation. The size, impact, and cause of the Statoil Eisenbarth fire deserve a lot of attention. Since I have Statoil well pads near me, I am somewhat concerned. Therefore, I will be writing about this specific fire and some of the implications for all of us.

A Series of Incident Articles

This photo essay will be presented in two sections. The first will describe the fire along with some of the details and published reports. The second part will use the photos and information to help us all better understand what is meant when we simply make comments on “fracking.” Additionally, I will show which components are commonly present during the hydraulic fracturing process. Explore the in-depth look at this incident.

Location of the Eisenbarth Pad where the June 2014 Statoil Fire occurred

Location of the Statoil Eisenbarth fire that occurred in June 2014. Click to explore our Ohio Shale Viewer.