Forest fragmentation in PA

Forest Fragmentation and O&G Development in PA’s Susquehanna Basin

In this forest fragmentation analysis, FracTracker looked at existing vegetation height in the northern portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin. The vegetation height data is available from LANDFIRE, a resource used by multiple federal agencies to assess wildfire potential by categorizing the vegetation growth in 30 by 30 meter pixels into different categories. In the portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Basin where we looked, there were 29 total categories based on vegetation height. For ease of analysis, we have consolidated those into eight categories, including roads, developed land, forest, herbs, shrubs, crops, mines and quarries, and open water.

Methods

We compared the ratio of the total number of each pixel type to the type that was found at vertical and horizontal wells in the region. In this experiment, we hypothesized that we would see evidence of deforestation in the areas where oil and gas development is present. Per our correspondence with LANDFIRE staff, the vegetation height data represents a timeframe of about 2014, so in this analysis, we focused on active wells that were drilled prior to that date. We found that the pixels on which the horizontal wells were located had a significantly different profile type than the overall pixel distribution, whereas conventional wells had a more modest departure from the general characteristics of the region.

Figure 1 - Vegetation profile of the northern portion of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River Basin. The area is highly impacted by O&G development, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.

Figure 1 – Vegetation profile of the northern portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin. The area is highly impacted by O&G development, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.

In Figure 1, we see that the land cover profile where vertical wells (n=6,198) are present is largely similar to the overall distribution of pixels for the entire study area (n=40,897,818). While these wells are more than six times more likely to be on areas classified as mines, quarries, or barren, it is surprising that the impact is not even more pronounced. In terms of forested land, there is essentially no change from the background, with both at about 73%. However, the profile for horizontal wells (n=3,787) is only 51% forested, as well as being four times more likely than the background to be categorized as herbs, which are defined in this dataset as having a vegetation height of around one meter.

Why Aren’t the Impacts Even More Pronounced?

While the impacts are significant, particularly for horizontal wells, it is a bit surprising that evidence of deforestation isn’t even more striking. We know, for example, that unconventional wells are usually drilled in multi-well pads that frequently exceed five acres of cleared land, so why aren’t these always classified as mines, quarries, and barren land, for example? There are several factors that can help to explain this discrepancy.

First, it must be noted that at 900 square meters, each pixel represents almost a quarter of acre, so the extent of these pixels will not always match with the area of disturbance. And in many cases, the infrastructure for older vertical wells is completely covered by the forest canopy, so that neither well pad nor access road is visible from satellite imagery.


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

The map above shows horizontal and vertical wells in a portion of Centre County, Pennsylvania, an area within our study region. Note that many of the vertical wells, represented by purple dots, appear to be in areas that are heavily forested, whereas all of the horizontal wells (yellow dots) are on a defined well pad in the lower right part of the frame. Panning around to other portions of Centre County, we find that vertical wells are often in a visible clearing, but are frequently near the edge, so that the chances of the 30 by 30 meter pixel that they fall into is much more likely to be whatever it would have been if the well pad were not there.

We must also consider that this dataset has some limitations. First of all, it was built to be a tool for wildfire management, not as a means to measure deforestation. Secondly, there are often impacts that are captured by the tool that were not exactly on the well site. For this reason, it would make sense to evaluate the area around the well pad in future versions of the analysis.

Figure 2 - A close up of a group of wells in the study area. Note that the disturbed land (light grey) does not always correspond exactly with the well locations.

Figure 2 – A close up of a group of wells in the study area. Note that the disturbed land (light grey) does not always correspond exactly with the well locations.

In Figure 2, we see a number of light grey areas –representing quarries, strip mines, and gravel pits –with an O&G well just off to the side. Such wells did not get classified as being on deforested land in this analysis.

And finally, after clarifying the LANDFIRE metadata with US Forest Service personnel involved in the project, we learned that while the map does represent vegetation cover circa 2014, it is actually build on satellite data collected in 2001, which has subsequently been updated with a detailed algorithm. However, the project is just beginning a reboot of the project, using imagery from 2015 and 2016. This should lead to much more accurate analyses in the future.

Why Forest Fragmentation Matters

The clearing of forests for well pads, pipelines, access roads, and other O&G infrastructure that has happened to date in the Susquehanna Basin is only a small fraction of the planned development. The industry operates at full capacity, there could be tens of thousands of new unconventional wells drilled on thousands of well pads in the region through 2030, according to estimates by the Nature Conservancy. They have also calculated an average of 1.65 miles of gathering lines from the well pad to existing midstream infrastructure. With a typical right-of-way being 100 feet wide, these gathering lines would require clearing 20 acres. It isn’t unusual for the total disturbance for a single well pad and the associated access road to exceed ten acres, making the total disturbance about 30 acres per well pad. Based on the vegetation distribution of the region, we can expect that 22 of these acres, on average, are currently forested land. Taking all of these factors into consideration, a total disturbance of 100,000 to 200,000 acres in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin due to oil and gas extraction, processing, and transmission may well be a conservative estimate, depending on energy choices we make in the coming years.

This forest fragmentation has a number of deleterious effects on the environment. First, many invasive plant species, such as bush honeysuckle and Japanese knotweed, tend to thrive in recently disturbed open areas, where competing native plants have been removed. The practice also threatens numerous animal species that thrive far from the forest’s edge, including a variety of native song birds. The disturbed lands create significant runoff into nearby rivers and streams, which can have an impact on aquatic life. And the cumulative release of carbon into the atmosphere is staggering – consider that the average acre of forest in the United States contains 158,000 pounds of organic carbon per acre. As the area is 73% forested, the total cumulative impact could result in taking 5.8 to 11.6 million tons of organic carbon out of forested storage. Much of this carbon will find its way into the atmosphere, along with the hydrocarbons that are purposefully being extracted from drilling operations.

Northern Access Project - pipeline map

Northern Access Project: Exporting PA’s Marcellus Gas Northward

In March 2015, the National Fuel Gas Supply Corporation and Empire Pipeline Company filed a joint application with the Federal Energy Resource Commission (FERC) to construct a new natural gas pipeline and related infrastructure, known collectively as the Northern Access Project (NAPL). The pricetag on the project is $455 million, and is funded through international, as well as local, financial institutions. The Public Accountability Initiative recently produced a report detailing the funding for this pipeline project, entitled “The Power Behind the Pipeline“.

The proposed Northern Access Project consists of a 97-mile-long, 24” pipe that would carry Marcellus Shale gas from Sergeant Township (McKean County), PA, to the Porterville Compressor Station in the Town of Elma (Erie County), NY. Nearly 69% of the proposed main pipeline will be co-located in existing pipeline and power line rights-of-way, according to FERC. The agency says this will streamline the project and reduce the need to rely on eminent domain to most efficiently route the project.

A $42 million, 15,400 horsepower Hinsdale Compressor Station along the proposed pipeline route was completed in 2015. In addition to the pipeline itself, the proposed project includes:

  • Additional 5,350 HP compression at the existing Porterville Compressor Station, a ten-fold increase of the capacity of that station
  • A new 22,214 HP compressor station in Pendleton (Niagara County), NY
  • Two miles of pipeline in Pendleton (Niagara County), NY
  • A new natural gas dehydration facility in Wheatfield (Niagara County), NY
  • An interconnection with the Tennessee Gas Pipeline in Wales (Erie County), NY, as well as tie-ins in McKean, Allegany, and Cattaraugus counties
  • A metering, regulation and delivery station in Erie County
  • Mainline block valves in McKean, Allegany, Cattaraugus and Erie counties; and
  • Access roads and contractor/staging yards in McKean, Allegany, Cattaraugus and Erie counties

Map of Proposed Northern Access Project


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The above map shows the proposed pipeline (green) and related infrastructure (bright pink). The pale yellow and pink lines on the map are the existing pipelines that the Northern Access Project would tie into. Click here to explore the map fullscreen.

Project Purpose

National Fuel maintains that the goal of the proposed project would be to supply multiple markets in Western New York State and the Midwest. The project would also supply gas for export to Canada via the Empire Pipeline system, and New York and New England through the Tennessee Gas Pipeline 200 Line. The company anticipates that the project would be completed by late 2017 or early 2018. Proponents are hoping that NAPL will keep fuel prices low, raise tax revenues, and create jobs.

Push-back against this project has been widespread from citizens and environmental groups, including Sierra Club and RiverKeeper. This is despite an environmental assessment ruling in July 2016 that FERC saw no negative environmental impacts of the project. FERC granted a stamp of approval for the project on February 4, 2017.

Concerns about the Proposed Pipeline

The Bufffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper, asserts that the project presents multiple threats to environmental health of the Upper Lake Erie and Niagara River Watersheds. In their letter to FERC, they disagreed with the Commission’s negative declaration that the project would result in “no significant impact to the environment.” The pipeline construction will require crossings of 77 intermittent and 60 perennial streams, 19 of which are classified by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) as protected trout streams. Twenty-eight of the intermittent streams impacted also flow into these protected streams. Resulting water quality deterioration associated with bank destabilization, increased turbidity, erosion, thermal destabilization of streams, and habitat loss is likely to impact sensitive native brook trout and salamanders. Riverkeeper found that National Fuel’s plan on how to minimize impacts to hundreds of wetlands surround the project area was insufficient. FERC’s Environmental Assessment of the project indicated that approximately 1,800 acres of vegetation would affected by the project.

Several groups have also taken issue with the proposed project’s plan to use the “dry crossing” method of traversing waterways. Only three crossings will be accomplished using horizontal directional drilling under the stream bed — a method that would largely protect the pipes from dynamic movement of the stream during floods. The rest will be “trenched” less than 5 feet below the stream bed. Opponents of the project point out that NYSDEC, federal guidelines, and even industry itself discourage pipe trenching, because during times of high stream flow, stream scour may expose the pipes to rocks, trees, and other objects. This may lead to the pipes leaking, or even rupturing, impacting both the natural environment, and, potentially, the drinking water supply.

A December 2016 editorial to The Buffalo News addressed the impacts that the proposed Northern Access Project could have to the Cattaraugus Creek Basin Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for 20,000 residents in surrounding Cattaraugus, Erie, and Wyoming counties in New York. In particular, because the aquifer is shallow, and even at the surface in some locations, it is particularly vulnerable to contamination. The editorial took issue with the absence of measures in the Environmental Assessment that could have explored how to protect the aquifer.

Other concerns include light and noise pollution, in addition to well-documented impacts on climate change, created by fugitive methane leakage from pipelines and compressors.

NYSDEC has held three public hearings about the project already: February 7th at Saint Bonaventure University (Allegany, NY), February 8th at Iroquois High School (Elma, NY), February 9th at Niagara County Community College (Sanborn, NY). The hearing at Saint Bonaventure was attended by nearly 250 people.

While FERC approved the project on February 4, 2017, the project still requires approvals from NYSDEC – including a Section 401 Water Quality Certification. These decisions have recently been pushed back from March 1 to April 7.

Proponents for the project – particularly the pipefitting industry – have emphasized that it would create up to 1,700 jobs during the construction period, and suggested that because of the experience level of the construction workforce, there would be no negative impacts on the streams. Other speakers emphasized National Fuel’s commitment to safety and environmental compliance.

Seneca Nation President Todd Gates expressed his concerns about the gas pipeline’s impacts on Cattaraugus Creek, which flows through Seneca Nation land (Cattaraugus Indian Reservation), and is downstream from several tributaries traversed by the proposed pipeline. In addition, closer to the southern border of New York State, the proposed pipeline cuts across tributaries to the Allegheny River, which flows through the Allegany Indian Reservation. One of New York State’s primary aquifers lies beneath the reservation. The closest that the proposed pipeline itself would pass about 12 miles from Seneca Nation Territory, so National Fuel was not required contact the residents there.

Concerns about Wheatfield dehydration facility & Pendleton compressor station

According to The Buffalo News, National Fuel has purchased 20 acres of land from the Tonawanda Sportsmen’s Club. The company is building two compressors on this property, totaling 22,000 HP, to move gas through two miles of pipeline that are also part of the proposed project, but 23 miles north of the primary stretch of newly constructed pipeline. Less than six miles east of the Pendleton compressor stations, a dehydration facility is also proposed. The purpose of this facility is to remove water vapor from the natural gas, in accordance with Canadian low-moisture standards. According to some reports from a National Fuel representative, the dehydration facility would run only a few days a year, but this claim, has not been officially confirmed.

Residents of both Pendleton and Wheatfield have rallied to express their concerns about both components of the project, citing potential impacts on public health, safety, and the environment relating to air and water quality.

Northern Access Project Next Steps

The deadline for public comment submission is 5 pm on February 24, 2017 — less than two weeks away. To file a comment, you can either email NYS DEC directly To Michael Higgins at NFGNA2016Project@dec.ny.gov, or send comments by mail to NYS DEC, Attn. Michael Higgins, Project Manager, 625 Broadway, 4th Floor, Albany, NY 12233.

 

Note: this article originally stated that the Porterville Compressor Station would double its capacity as a result of the NAPL project. In fact, the capacity increase would be ten-fold, from 600 hp to about 6000 hp. We regret this error.


by Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Mariner East Technical Difficulties map

Remaining Questions on Mariner East Technical Deficiencies

In the summer of 2015, Sunoco Logistics submitted applications to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to build its massive Mariner East 2 pipeline. The ME 2 pipeline would have the capacity to transport 275,000 barrels a day of propane, ethane, butane, and other hydrocarbons from the shale fields of Western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook export terminal, located on the Delaware River.

Sunoco’s applications were to satisfy the state’s Chapter 105 (water obstruction and encroachment) and Chapter 102 (erosion/sediment control and earth disturbance) permitting requirements. The DEP responded to Sunoco’s application, issuing 20 deficiency letters totaling more than 550 pages. Sunoco resubmitted their application in the summer of 2016 and the DEP again rejected many of its plans to disturb streams, ponds, and wetlands. In December, Sunoco resubmitted its revised application for a third time, hoping for final approval.

FracTracker Alliance first wrote about ME 2’s risks to watershed in August 2016, following Sunoco’s second application. Readers who want a general overview of the issues may find that article worth reading. In this new article, we dig deeper into the subject. Along with its December application, Sunoco also supplied the DEP with revised GIS files illustrating ME 2’s new route and documents summarizing its impacts to nearby water bodies. We have created a new map utilizing newly available data and provide contextual analysis valuable in determining how Sunoco responds to the DEP’s review of its prior rejected applications.

Detailed Mapping of Water Body Impacts

At the end of December, the DEP finally released Sunoco’s GIS files detailing water bodies that will be impacted by ME 2, as well as Sunoco’s data tables outlining alternative methods that might mitigate certain impacts. Our map (below) combines these new datasets to show the locations where ME 2’s route has changed since Sunoco’s initial application, presumably in response to the DEP’s technical deficiency letter.

Also on this map are water bodies: 1) implicated in ME 2’s environmental impact assessment, 2) determined by the DEP as likely impacted by construction, and 3) identified by Sunoco as having viable construction alternatives to mitigate impacts.

Mariner East 2 Technical Deficiencies Map


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

By viewing the map fullscreen and zooming in, one can click on a water feature to reveal its data tables (see below example). These tables contain information on the water body’s flow regime, the extent of permanent and temporary impacts, alternative crossing methods that could be used, and what benefits might come from those alternate methods. Also in the tables are a number of designations such as:

  • USGS Fish and Wildlife wetland classification (see guide). Most common are PEM (palustrine emergent wetland), PSS (palustrine scrub-shrub wetland), PFO (palustrine forested wetland), and PuB (palustrine unconsolidated bottom – i.e. ponds).
  • PA DEP stream designation (see guide). Most common are WWF (warm water fishes), CWF (cold water fishes), HQ (high quality), and EV (exceptional value).
  • PA Fish and Boat Commission classifications (see guide). Most common are ATW (approved trout water), STS (stocked trout stream), Class A (class A water), and WTS (wilderness trout stream).

An example water body data table that can be found on the map:
me2-zoom-screenshot2

Our analysis of this new data reveals the number of water crossings in question is significantly higher than what we estimated in August: now totaling 1,222 streams, 34 ponds, and 708 wetlands crossings. This increase is primarily due to Sunoco’s data also containing information on ephemeral and intermittent waters that are not typically accounted for in USGS data (all that was available at the time of our prior analysis).

Defining Impacts

The DEP’s Chapter 105 Joint Permit Application Instructions break down “impacts” into two broad categories: permanent and temporary. These are primarily used to assess environmental impact fees, but are also valuable in determining what parameters Sunoco will be held to during and after ME 2’s construction.

Permanent impacts: are “areas affected by a water obstruction or encroachment that consist of both direct and indirect impacts that result from the placement or construction of a water obstruction or encroachment and include areas necessary for the operation and maintenance of the water obstruction or encroachment located in, along or across, or projecting into a watercourse, floodway or body of water.”

Permanent impacts are calculated using the pipeline’s 50-foot permanent right-of-way. For streams, all bed and banks are to be restored to pre-construction conditions. For ponds and wetlands, permanent impacts are assumed to remain even if the area is considered restored.

Temporary impacts: are “areas affected during the construction of a water obstruction or encroachment that consists of both direct and indirect impacts located in, along or across, or projecting into a watercourse, floodway or body of water that are restored upon completion of construction.” Temporary impacts consist of areas such as temporary workspaces and access roads.

The below table lists the total impacted acres broken down by county. Of interest here is that more than 175 acres would be permanently impacted — equivalent to 134 football fields — with an additional 82 acres temporarily impacted.

Table 1. Impacted Acres by County

County Permanent Impacts (acres) Temporary Impacts (acre)
Allegheny 1.85 0.39
Berks 11.14 4.88
Blair 11.70 6.72
Cambria 20.21 8.48
Chester 10.30 3.92
Cumberland 24.06 7.61
Dauphin 8.12 6.55
Delaware 5.05 3.33
Huntingdon 18.75 8.04
Indiana 11.42 4.73
Juniata 5.25 3.02
Lancaster 4.65 1.66
Lebanon 6.48 2.53
Perry 5.58 2.63
Washington 9.37 2.94
Westmoreland 17.72 12.36
York 3.46 2.16
Total 175.12 81.93

Viable Options to Reduce Impacts

Example of an open cut wet crossing

An open cut wet crossing (image source)

Pipeline companies cross water bodies using a variety of methods depending on their classification. The DEP maintains three general categories for water crossings: minor (in streams less than or equal to 10 feet wide at the water’s edge at the time of construction), intermediate (perennial stream crossings greater than 10 feet wide but less than 100 feet wide at the water’s edge at the time of construction), and major (crossings of more than 100 feet at the water’s edge at the time of construction).

Minor and intermediate crossings often employ rudimentary trenching along “open cut” crossings where the water is either temporarily diverted (wet crossing) or allowed to flow during construction (wet crossing). After the cuts, the company attempts to repair damage done in the process of trenching.

In more sensitive places, such as in exceptional value streams, wetlands, and always in major crossings, a company uses conventional boring to tunnel under a water feature. When boring over long distances, such as under a lake or river, a company turns to Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD), a more engineered form of boring. An example of HDD boring is seen below (image source):

hdd_crossing_example

We were surprised by the number of water crossings identified by Sunoco as having options to minimize impact. As the table below shows, more than 44% (869) of Sunoco’s crossings have an alternate method identified in the resubmitted applications. In most of these instances, the intended crossing method is either trenching through open cuts or dry crossings. The majority of identified alternatives would reduce impacts simply by altering the trenching route. 53 of the 869 were shown to have feasible conditions for conventional or HDD boring, but Sunoco categorized all of these as impracticable options despite their environmental benefits.

Table 2. Number of Crossings With and Without Viable Alternate Methods

Crossings Assessed but Unimpacted Impacted with No Alternative Impacted with Alternatives Total
Streams 313 925 297 1,535
Ponds 66 3 31 100
Wetlands 963 167 541 1,671
  1,342 1,095 869 3,306

Absorbing the Costs of Environmental Impacts

If executed, these alternative methods would decrease the length of crossings, limit right-of-way encroachments, prevent land fragmentation, and significantly reduce risks to larger water bodies. More likely, Sunoco will pay the impact fees associated with the less complicated crossing methods. We’ve summarized these fees (found in Sunoco’s resubmitted application) in the table below. In total, Sunoco would pay roughly $1.8 million in exchange for nearly 2,000 water body crossings – a fraction of the project’s $2.5 billion estimated cost:

Table 3. Impact Fees for Sunoco’s Preferred Crossings

County Permanent Impacts area (fees) Temporary Impact area (fees) Admin Fees Total Fees
Allegheny $15,200 $1,600 $1,750 $18,550
Berks $89,600 $19,600 $1,750 $110,950
Blair $94,400 $27,200 $1,750 $123,350
Cambria $162,400 $34,000 $1,750 $198,150
Chester $83,200 $16,000 $1,750 $100,950
Cumberland $192,800 $30,800 $1,750 $225,350
Dauphin $65,600 $26,400 $1,750 $93,750
Delaware $40,800 $13,600 $1,750 $56,150
Huntingdon $150,400 $32,400 $1,750 $184,550
Indiana $92,000 $19,200 $1,750 $112,950
Juniata $42,400 $12,400 $1,750 $56,550
Lancaster $37,600 $6,800 $1,750 $46,150
Lebanon $52,000 $10,400 $1,750 $64,150
Perry $44,800 $10,800 $1,750 $57,350
Washington $75,200 $12,000 $1,750 $88,950
Westmoreland $142,400 $50,000 $1,750 $194,150
York $28,000 $8,800 $1,750 $38,550
$1,408,800 $332,000 $29,750 $1,770,550

Conclusion

This week, acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell met with residents who voiced frustration that the agency failed to provide an additional public comment period following Sunoco’s application resubmission. Nevertheless, the DEP is expected to greenlight Sunoco’s plans any day now, adding another to the list of recent pipeline approvals in the region. Sunoco needs its permits now in order to begin clearing trees prior to endangered species bat nesting season, which begins in April.

Meanwhile, communities along the pipeline’s path are preparing for the sudden wave of disruption that may ensue. Some have threatened lawsuits, arguing that the resubmitted application still contains many deficiencies including missing wetlands and private drinking wells that must be accounted for. Indeed, the map and data presented in this article confirms that there is still a lot that the general public does not know about ME 2 – in particular, the extent of water impacts the DEP seems willing to accept and the range of options at Sunoco’s disposal that might mitigate those impacts if it were forced to do so.

Finally, it is encouraging to see that the DEP is becoming more transparent in sharing datasets, compared to other pipeline projects. However, this data is complex and not easily understood without sufficient technical expertise. We are discouraged to think that it is unlikely the public will learn about additional changes to the construction plan until after permits are issued. In order for data to be useful, it must be made available throughout the process, not at the end stages of planning, and done so in a way that it becomes integrated into the agency’s public participation responsibilities.


by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement

Shell Ethane Cracker

A Formula for Disaster: Calculating Risk at the Ethane Cracker

by Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow
map & analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement
in partnership with the Environmental Integrity Project

On January 18, 2016, Potter Township Supervisors approved conditional use permits for Shell Chemical Appalachia’s proposed ethane cracker facility in Beaver County, PA. A type of petrochemical facility, an ethane cracker uses energy and the by-products of so-called natural gas to make ethylene, a building block of plastics. FracTracker Alliance has produced informative articles on the jobs numbers touted by the industry, and the considerable negative air impacts of the proposed facility. In the first in a series of new articles, we look at the potential hazards of ethane cracker plants in order to begin calculating the risk of a disaster in Beaver County.

As those who stand to be affected by — or make crucial decisions on — the ethane cracker contemplate the potential risks and promised rewards of this massive project, they should also carefully consider what could go wrong. In addition to the serious environmental and human health effects, which might only reveal themselves over time, what acute events, emergencies, and disasters could potentially occur? What is the disaster risk, the potential for “losses, in lives, health status, livelihoods, assets and services,” of this massive petrochemical facility?

Known Ethane Cracker Risks

A well-accepted formula in disaster studies for determining risk, cited by, among others, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), is Disaster Risk = (Hazard x Vulnerability)/Capacity, as defined in the diagram below. In this article, we consider the first of these factors: hazard. Future articles will examine the remaining factors of vulnerability and capacity that are specific to this location and its population.

disaster-risk-infographic-websize

Applied to Shell’s self-described “world-scale petrochemical project,” it is challenging to quantify the first of these inputs, hazard. Not only would a facility of this size be unprecedented in this region, but Shell has closely controlled the “public” information on the proposed facility. What compounds the uncertainty much further is the fact that the proposed massive cracker plant is a welcome mat for further development in the area—for a complex network of pipelines and infrastructure to support the plant and its related facilities, and for a long-term commitment to continued gas extraction in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays.

williams-geismar-explosion-websize

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, Williams Geismar Case Study, No. 2013-03-I-LA, October 2016.

We can use what we do know about the hazards presented by ethane crackers and nearby existing vulnerabilities to establish some lower limit of risk. Large petrochemical facilities of this type are known to produce sizable unplanned releases of carcinogenic benzene and other toxic pollutants during “plant upsets,” a term that refers to a “shut down because of a mechanical problem, power outage or some other unplanned event.” A sampling of actual emergency events at other ethane crackers also includes fires and explosions, evacuations, injuries, and deaths.

For instance, a ruptured boiler at the Williams Company ethane cracker plant in Geismar, Louisiana, led to an explosion and fire in 2013. The event resulted in the unplanned and unpermitted release of at least 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air, including ethylene, propylene, benzene, 1-3 butadiene, and other volatile organic chemicals, as well as the release of pollutants through the discharge of untreated fire waters, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. According to the Times-Picayune, “workers scrambl(ed) over gates to get out of the plant.” The event required the evacuation of 300 workers, injured 167, and resulted in two deaths.

The community’s emergency response involved deployment of hundreds of personnel and extensive resources, including 20 ambulances, four rescue helicopters, and buses to move the injured to multiple area hospitals. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board chalked up the incident to poor “process safety culture” at the plant and “gaps in a key industry standard by the American Petroleum Institute (API).” The accident shut the plant down for a year and a half.

Potential Risks & Shell’s Mixed Messages

Shell has done little to define the potential for emergencies at the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker plant, at least in materials made available to the public. Shell has revealed that general hazards include “fire, explosion, traffic accidents, leaks and equipment failures.”

However, we located numerous versions of Shell’s handout and found one notable difference among them—the brochure distributed to community members at a December 2016 public hearing held by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) excluded the word “explosion” from the list of “potential safety concerns.” The difference is seen in comparing the two documents.

Figure #1 below: Excerpt of online version of a handout for Beaver County, dated May 2015, with “explosion” included in list of “potential safety concerns.” (Other Shell-produced safety documents, like the one included as an exhibit in the conditional use permit application on file with the township, and Shell’s webpage for the project, also include “explosion” in the list of hazards.)

Figure #2 below: Excerpt of handout, dated November 2016 and provided to the community at December 15, 2016 meeting, with the word “explosion” no longer included.

 

Additional hints about risks are peppered throughout the voluminous permit applications submitted by Shell to the PA DEP and Potter Township, such as references to mitigating acts of terror against the plant, strategies for reducing water contamination, and the possibility of unplanned upsets. But the sheer volume of these documents, coupled with their limited accessibility challenge the public’s ability to digest this information. The conditional use permit application submitted by Shell indicates the existence of an Emergency Response Plan for the construction phase, but the submission is marked as confidential.

Per Pennsylvania law, and as set forth in PA DEP guidelines, Shell must submit a Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency Plan (PPC Plan) at an unspecified point prior to operation. But at that likely too-late stage, who would hear objections to the identified hazards, when construction of the plant is already a done deal? Even then, can we trust that the plan outlined by that document is a solid and executable one?

Shell’s defense of the Beaver County plant is quick to point out differences between other plants and the one to come, making the case that technical advances will result in safety improvements. But it is noteworthy that the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board attributes failures at the Williams Geismar plant, in part, to “the ineffective implementation of…process safety management programs… as well as weaknesses in Williams’ written programs themselves.” The Geismar explosion demonstrates some of the tangible hazards that communities experience in living near ethane cracker plants. It is worth noting that the proposed Beaver County facility will have about 2½ times more ethylene processing capacity than the Geismar plant had at the time of the 2013 explosion.

Opening the Floodgates

In an effort to expand our understanding of risk associated with the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker and the extent of related developments promised by industry leaders, FracTracker Alliance has constructed the below map. It shows the site of the Shell facility and nearby land marked by Beaver County as “abandoned” or “unused.” These land parcels are potential targets for future build-out of associated facilities. Two “emergency planning zones” are indicated—a radius of 2 miles and a radius of 5 miles from the perimeter of Shell’s site. These projections are based upon FracTracker’s discussions with officials at the Saint Charles Parish Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, who are responsible for emergency planning procedures in Norco, Louisiana, the site of another Shell ethane cracker facility. The emergency zones are also noted in the 2015 Saint Charles Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Also shown on the map is an estimated route of the Falcon pipeline system Shell intends to build, which will bring ethane from the shale gas fields of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Note that this is an estimated route based on images shown in Shell’s announcement of the project. Finally, our map includes resources and sites of vulnerability, including schools, fire stations, and hospitals. The importance of these sites will be discussed in the next article of this series.

Ethane Cracker Hazards Map


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

While the site of the Shell cracker is worth attending to, it would be a mistake to limit assessments of disaster risk to the site of the facility alone. Shell’s proposed plant is but one component in a larger plan to expand ethane-based processing and use in the region, with the potential to rival the Gulf Coast as a major U.S. petrochemical hub. An upcoming conference on petrochemical construction in the region, scheduled for June 2017 in Pittsburgh, shows the industry’s commitment to further development. These associated facilities (from plants producing fertilizers to plastics) would utilize their own mix of chemicals, and their potential interactions would produce additional, unforeseen hazards. Ultimately, a cumulative impact assessment is needed, and should take into account these promised facilities as well as existing resources and vulnerabilities. The below Google Earth window gives a sense of what this regional build-out might look like.

What might an ethane cracker and related petrochemical facilities look like in Beaver County? For an idea of the potential build-out, take a tour of Norco, Louisiana, which includes Shell-owned petrochemical facilities.

Final Calculations

As discussed in the introduction, “hazard,” “vulnerability,” and “capacity” are the elements of the formula that, in turn, exacerbate or mitigate disaster risk. While much of this article has focused on drastic “hazards,” such as disastrous explosions or unplanned chemical releases, these should not overshadow the more commonplace public health threats associated with petrochemical facilities, such as detrimental impact on air quality and the psychological harm of living under the looming threat of something going wrong.

The second and third articles in this series will dig deeper into “vulnerability” and “capacity.” These terms remind us of the needs and strengths of the community in question, but also that there is a community in question.

Formulas, terminology, and calculations should not obscure the fact that people’s lives are in the balance. The public should not be satisfied with preliminary and incomplete risk assessments when major documents that should detail the disaster implications of the ethane cracker are not yet available, as well as when the full scale of future build-out in the area remains an unknown.

Much gratitude to Lisa Graves-Marcucci and Lisa Hallowell of the Environmental Integrity Project for their expertise and feedback on this article.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws. 

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

“Taking” Wildlife in PA, OH, WV

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

 

In an apparent move to step around compliance with comprehensive regulations outlined in the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a coalition of nine oil and gas corporations has filed a draft plan entitled the Oil & Gas Coalition Multi-State Habitat Conservation Plan (O&G HCP). The proposed plan, which would relax regulations on five species of bats, is unprecedented in scope in the eastern United States, both temporally and spatially. If approved, it would be in effect for 50 years, and cover oil and gas operations throughout the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—covering over 110,000 square miles. The oil and gas companies see the plan as a means of “streamlining” the permit processes associated with oil and gas exploration, production, and maintenance activities. Others outside of industry may wonder whether the requested permit is a broad over-reach of an existing loophole in the ESA.

Habitat fragmentation, air, and noise pollution that comes with oil and gas extraction and fossil fuel delivery activities have the potential to incidentally injure or kill bat species in the three-State plan area that are currently protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. In essence, the requested “incidental take permit”, or ITP, would acknowledge that these companies would not be held to the same comprehensive regulations that are designed to safeguard the environment, particularly the flora and fauna at most risk to extirpation. Rather, they would simply be asked to insure that their impacts are “minimized and mitigated to the maximum extent practicable.”

Section 10(a)(2)(B) of the ESA contains provisions for issuing an ITP to a non-Federal entity for the take of endangered and threatened species, provided the following criteria are met:

  • The taking will be incidental
  • The applicant will, to the maximum extent practicable, minimize and mitigate the impact of such taking
  • The applicant will develop an HCP and ensure that adequate funding for the plan will be provided
  • The taking will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery of the species in the wild
  • The applicant will carry out any other measures that the Secretary may require as being necessary or appropriate for the purposes of the HCP

What activities would be involved?

n_long-eared_bat

The Northern Long-eared Bat is a federally-listed threatened species, also included in the ITP

The proposed plan, which would seek to exempt both upstream development activities (oil & gas wells) and midstream development activities (pipelines). Upstream activities include the creation of access roads, staging areas, seismic operations, land clearing, explosives; the development and construction of well fields, including drilling, well pad construction, disposal wells, water impoundments, communication towers; and other operations, including gas flaring and soil disturbance; and decommissioning and reclamation activities, including more land moving and excavation.

Midstream activities include the construction of gathering, transmission, and distribution pipeline, including land grading and stream construction, construction of compressor stations, meter stations, electric substations, storage facilities, and processing plants, and installation of roads, culverts, and ditches, to name just a few.

Companies involved in the proposed “Conservation Plan” represent the major players in fossil fuel extraction, refinement, and delivery in the region, and include:

  • Antero Resources Corporation
  • Ascent Resources, LLC
  • Chesapeake Energy Corporation
  • EnLink Midstream L.P.
  • EQT Corporation
  • MarkWest Energy Partners, L.P., MPLX L.P., and Marathon Petroleum Corporation (all part of same corporate enterprise)
  • Rice Energy, Inc.
  • Southwestern Energy Company
  • The Williams Companies, Inc.

Focal species of the request

Populations of federally endangered Indiana Bats could be impacted by the proposed Incidental Take Permit (ITP)

Populations of federally-endangered Indiana Bats could be impacted by the proposed Incidental Take Permit (ITP)

The five species listed in the ITP include the Indiana Bat (a federally-listed endangered species) and Northern Long-eared Bat (a federally-listed threatened species), the Eastern Small-footed Bat (a threatened species protected under Pennsylvania’s Game and Wildlife Code), as well as the Little Brown Bat and Tri-colored Bat. Populations of all five species are already under dire threats due to white-nose syndrome, a devastating disease that, since 2008, has killed an estimated 5.7 million bats in North America. In some cases, entire local populations have succumbed to this deadly disease. Because bats already have a naturally low birthrate, bat populations that do survive this epidemic will be slow to rebound. Only recently, wildlife biologists have begun to see hope for a treatment in a beneficial bacterium that may save affected bats. However, production and deployment details of this treatment are still under development. Best summarized in a recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

This [ITP] would be a huge deal because we are dealing with species in a precipitous decline,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit conservation organization headquartered in Tucson, Ariz. “I don’t see how it could be biologically defensible. Even without the drilling and energy development we don’t know if these species will survive.

In 2012, Bat Conservation International produced a report for Delaware Riverkeeper, entitled Impacts of Shale Gas Development on Bat Populations in the Northeastern United States. The report focuses on landscape scale impacts that range from water quality threats, to disruption of winter hibernacula, the locations where bats hibernate during the winter, en masse. In addition, because bats have strong site fidelity to roosting trees or groups of trees, forest clearing for pipelines, well pads or other facilities may disproportionately impact local populations.

The below map, developed by FracTracker Alliance, shows the population ranges of all five bat species, as well as the current areas impacted by existing development by the oil and gas industry through well sites, pipelines, and other facilities.

View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

 

To learn more details about the extensive oil and gas development in each of the impacted states, follow these links:

  • Oil and gas threat map for Pennsylvania. Currently, there are ~104,000 oil and gas wells, compressors, and other related facilities here.
  •  Oil and gas threat map for Ohio. Currently, there are ~90,000 oil and gas wells, compressors, and other related facilities here.
  • Oil and gas threat map for West Virginia. Currently, there are ~16,000 oil and gas wells, compressors, and other related facilities here.

Public input options

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced in the Federal Register in late November 2016 its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) and hold five public scoping sessions about the permit, as well as an informational webinar.  In keeping with the parameters of an environmental impact statement, USFWS is particularly interested in input and information about:

  • Aspects of the human environment that warrant examination such as baseline information that could inform the analyses.
  • Information concerning the range, distribution, population size, and population trends concerning the covered species in the plan area.
  • Additional biological information concerning the covered species or other federally listed species that occur in the plan area.
  • Direct, indirect, and/or cumulative impacts that implementation of the proposed action (i.e., covered activities) will have on the covered species or other federally listed species.
  • Information about measures that can be implemented to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts to the covered species.
  • Other possible alternatives to the proposed action that the Service should consider.
  • Whether there are connected, similar, or reasonably foreseeable cumulative actions (i.e., current or planned activities) and their potential impacts on covered species or other federally listed species in the plan area.
  • The presence of archaeological sites, buildings and structures, historic events, sacred and traditional areas, and other historic preservation concerns within the plan area that are required to be considered in project planning by the National Historic Preservation Act.
  • Any other environmental issues that should be considered with regard to the proposed HCP and potential permit issuance.

The public comment period ends on December 27, 2016. Links to more information about locations of the public hearings, as well as instructions about how to sign up for the December 20, 2016 informational webinar can be found at this website. In addition, you can electronically submit comments about the “conservation plan” by following this link.

The Dakota Access Pipeline: An Uncertain Future

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Eliza Czolowski, Program Associate, PSE Healthy Energy

 

Since April 2016, demonstrators in North Dakota have been protesting a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) being built by Dakota Access LLC, a construction subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LP. The proposed pipeline passes just 1.5 miles north of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Lands, where it is planned to cross Lake Oahe, the largest Army Corps of Engineers reservoir created on the Missouri River. The tribe argues that the project will not only threaten their environmental and economic well-being, but will also cut through land that is sacred.

Given how quickly circumstances have changed on the ground, we have received numerous requests to post an overview on the issue. This article examines the technical aspects of the DAPL proposal and details the current status of protests at Standing Rock. It includes a discussion of what the Army Corps’ recent denial of DAPL’s permits means for the project as well as looks towards the impacts of incoming Trump administration. We have also created the below map to contextualize DAPL and protest activities that have occurred at Standing Rock.

Standing Rock Protest Map


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Background

DAPL is a $3.78 billion dollar project that was initially slated for completion on January 1, 2017. The DAPL is a joint venture of Phillips 66, Sunoco Logistics, and other smaller fossil fuel companies including Marathon Petroleum Corporation, and Enbridge Energy Partners. Numerous banks and investment firms are supporting the project and financing the related infrastructure growth, including Citi Bank, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC, PNC, Community Trust, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, ING, Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, SunTrust, Us Bank, UBS, Compass and others.

Its route travels from Northwestern North Dakota, south of Bismarck, and crosses the waterway made up of the Missouri River and Lake Oahe just upriver of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Area. From North Dakota the pipeline continues 1,172 miles to an oil tank farm in Pakota, Illinois. DAPL would carry 470,000 barrels per day (75,000 m3/d) of Bakken crude oil with a maximum capacity up to 570,000 barrels per day. That’s the CO2 equivalent of 30 average sized coal fired power plants.

As documented by the NY Times map, in addition to the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, the pipeline crosses 22 other waterways that also require the pipeline to be drilled deep under these bodies of water. But Standing Rock portion is the only section disputed and as of yet unfinished. Now the pipeline project, known by the protesters as “the black snake,” is over 95% complete, despite having no official easement to cross the body of water created by the Missouri River and Lake Oahe. The easement is required for any domestic pipeline to cross a major waterway and because the land on either side of the Army Corps Lake Oahe project is managed by the Army Corps (shown in the protest map). An easement would allow Dakota Access LLC to drill a tunnel for the pipeline under the federally owned lands, including the lake and river.

Safety & Environmental Racism

Proponents of the project tout the opinion that pipelines are the safest method of moving oil large distances. Trucking oil in tankers on highways has the highest accident and spill rates, whereas moving oil by railways presents a major explosive hazard when incidents do occur. Pipeline spills are therefore considered the “safe” alternative. On November 11, Kelcy Warren was interviewed on CBS News, claiming Dakota Access, LLC takes every precaution to reduce leaks and that the likelihood of a leak is highly unlikely. The problem with comparing the risk for each of these transportation methods is that rates of incidence are the only comparison. The resulting hazard and impact is ignored. When pipelines rupture, they present a much larger hazard than trucks and trains. Large volumes of spilled oil result in much greater water and soil contamination.

We know that pipelines do rupture, and quite often. An analysis by the U.S. DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2012 shows that there have been 201 major incidents (with volumes over 1,000 gallons) related to liquid leaks in the U.S. over the last ten years that were reported to the Department of Transportation. The “average” pipeline therefore has a 57% probability of experiencing a major leak, with consequences over the $1 million range, in a ten-year period. FracTracker’s recent analysis of PHMSA data shows the systemic issue of pipeline spills: there have been 4,215 pipeline spill incidents just since 2010 resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion! The recent (December 12) spill of 176,000 gallons of crude oil into a stream just 150 miles from the Standing Rock protest site highlights the Tribes’ concerns.

A previously proposed route for the DAPL would have put Bismarck—a city that is 92% white—just downriver of its Missouri River crossing. This initial route was rejected due to its potential threat to Bismarck’s water supply, according to the Army Corps. In addition to being located upriver of Bismarck’s water intake, the route would have been 11 miles longer and would have passed through “wellhead source water protection” areas that are avoided to protect municipal water supply wells. Passing through this “high consequence area” would have required further actions and additional safety measures on the part of Dakota Access LLC. The route would also have been more difficult to stay at least 500 feet away from homes, as required by the North Dakota Public Service Commission. The route was changed and pushed as close to Sioux County as possible, the location of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Protests: The Water Protectors

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has taken an active stance against Bakken Oil Development in the past. In 2007, the Reservation passed a resolution to prevent any oil and gas development or pipelines on the Tribal Lands. However, deep concerns about the safety of DAPL led protesters to begin demonstrations at Standing Rock in April, 2016. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe then sued the Army Corps in July, after the pipeline was granted most of the final permits over objections of three other federal agencies. Construction of it, they say, will “destroy our burial sites, prayer sites and culturally significant artifacts.” A timeline of The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s litigation addressing DAPL through this period can be found on the EARTHJUSTICE website.

Photo by Derrick Broze

Photo by Derrick Broze/cc

In August, a group organized on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation called ReZpect Our Water brought a petition to the Army Corps in Washington, D.C. stating that DAPL interferes with their ancestral land and water rights. The Tribe sued for an injunction citing the endangerment of water and soil, cultural resources, and the improper use of eminent domain. The suit argued that the pipeline presents a risk to Sioux Tribe communities who live near or downstream of the pipeline. The Missouri River is the main water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. In September, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota finally made headlines.

Federal Injunction

On September 9, District Judge James Boasberg denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribes preliminary injunction request to prevent the Army Corps from granting the easement. The Judge ordered Dakota Access to stop work only on the section of pipeline nearest the Missouri river until the Army Corps granted the crossing easement. The excavation of Standing Rock burial grounds and other sacred sites, where direct action demonstrators were clashing with Dakota Access security and guard dogs, was allowed to continue. Later that same day, a joint statement was released by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army:

“We request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

In the map above the 20-mile buffer zone is shown in light green. Regardless of the request from the three federal agencies to pause construction, Dakota Access’s parent company Energy Transfer Partners LP ignored requests to voluntarily halt construction. Dakota Access LLC has also disregarded the instructions of the federal judge. The Army Corps declared Dakota Access LLC would not receive the easement required to cross the waterway until after 2016, but that has not stopped the company from pushing forward without the necessary permits. The pipeline has been built across all of Cannonball Ranch right up to Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, which can be seen in the map above and in drone footage taken November 2, 2016 showing the well pad for the drill rig has been built.

On November 4 the Army Corps requested Dakota Access LLC voluntarily halt construction for 30 days; then on November 8 (Election Day), Dakota Access ignored the request and announced they would begin horizontally drilling under the waterway within weeks. On November 14 Dakota Access filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps arguing that permits are not legally required. Later that day, the Army Corps responded with a statement that said any construction on or under Corps land bordering Lake Oahe cannot occur because the Army has not made a final decision on whether to grant an easement. In the issued statement, Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy said “in light of the history of the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossession of lands [and] the importance of Lake Oahe to the Tribe,” the Standing Rock Sioux tribe would be consulted to help develop a timetable for future construction plans. The Army Corps has since denied the easement entirely.

Violence Against Protesters

Law enforcement has used physical violence to disrupt demonstrations on public lands and to prevent direct action activities as protesters aim to shut down construction on private land held by Energy Transfer Partners LP. Since September 4, law enforcement agencies led by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department have maintained jurisdiction over the protests. Officers from other counties and states have also been brought in to assist. Morton County and the State of North Dakota do not have the jurisdiction to evict protesters from the camps located on Army Corps land. Well over 500 activists have been arrested.

The majority of clashes with law enforcement have occurred on the roadways exiting the Army Corps lands, or at the access points to the privately owned Cannonball Ranch (shown on the map). Morton County has spent more than $8 million keeping direct action protesters from shutting down excavation and construction activities along the path of the pipeline. Meanwhile, the state of North Dakota has spent over $10 million on additional law enforcement officials to provide assistance to Morton County.

DAPL protests from in-depth documentations at: https://vimeo.com/189249968

DAPL protests from video by UnicornRiot/cc

The first violent confrontation occurred on September 3 after Dakota Access bulldozed an area of Cannonball Ranch identified by the Tribe as a sacred site hosting burial grounds. At that time, the site was actively being contested in court and rulings still had not been made. The Tribe was seeking a restraining order, known as a “preliminary injunction” to protect their cultural heritage. Direct action demonstrators put themselves in the way of bulldozers to stop the destructive construction. In response, Dakota Access LLC security personnel assaulted protesters with pepper spray and attack dogs. The encounter was documented by Democracy Now reporter Amy Goodman.

October 27, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department reinforced with 300 police from neighboring counties and states, raided the frontline camp site making mass arrests. In response, demonstrators reinforced a blockade of the 1806 bridge, shown in the map above. The most violent clash was witnessed on public lands on November 20, 2016 at this bridge, which demarcates Army Corps land. The Police forces’ use of “non-lethal” bean bag rounds, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, water hoses, LRAD, and explosive flash grenades on peaceful demonstrators has been criticized by many groups. Fire hoses were used on protesters in freezing conditions resulting in dozens of demonstrators needing treatment for hypothermia. In total 300 people were injured according to a release from the standing rock medic and healer council.

Most recently, the Army Corps has targeted the Standing Rock Demonstration by determining that it is no longer safe to stay at the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps located on Army Corps property. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has frequently blasted the Army Corps for not removing the protesters.

As of December 5th, federal authorities consider the protesters to be trespassing on federal lands, leaving protesters vulnerable to various citations and possible arrest. The Army Corps has also said that emergency services may no longer be provided in the evacuation area. The Army Corps has jurisdiction on Army Corps lands, and only federal authorities can remove the protesters from federal lands. There are now more than 5,000 activists demonstrating at Standing Rock, and an additional 2,000 U.S. veterans joined the protest this past week for an action of solidarity. Nevertheless, U.S. authorities have said that there are no plans to forcibly remove activists, despite telling them to leave.

Victory and an Uncertain Future

Perhaps as a result of this mass outcry, the Army Corps announced on December 4th—only a day before trespassing claims would be imposed—that Dakota Access LLC’s permit application to cross under the Missouri River and Lake Oahe had been denied. Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, announced:

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do…The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”

To determine alternate routes, the Army Corps has announced it will undertake an environmental impact statement which could take years to complete. While this is a major victory for the “water protectors” demonstrating at Standing Rock, it is not a complete victory. Following the Army Corps’ announcement, the two main pipeline investors, Energy Transfer Partners LP and Sunoco Logistics, responded that they:

“…are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.”

In fact, prior to the Army Corps denying the easement, numerous democrats in congress called for President Obama to shut down the pipeline. While President Obama has not heeded these calls to shut down the project entirely, he also has not given the green light for the project either. Instead the President stated that the situation needed to be handled carefully and urged the Army Corps to consider rerouting the pipeline. “We’re monitoring this closely and I think, as a general rule, my view is that there’s a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans…. I think right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline,” the President said.

trump keystone

The Corps decision to conduct a lengthy environmental impact statement is encouraging but, ultimately, the Trump administration may have the final say on the DAPL easement. President-elect Trump has voiced support for the easement in the past, and on December 5th, just one day following the Army Corps’ decision, Trump spokesman Jason Miller commented:

“That’s something we support construction of, and we will review the full situation in the White House and make an appropriate determination at that time.”

Energy Transfer Partners LP CEO Kelcy Warren donated $103,000 to the Trump campaign and the President-elect has investments in Energy Transfer Partners LP totaling up to $1 million according to campaign financial disclosures. President-elect Trump has made it clear that pipeline projects, specifically the Keystone Access Pipeline rejected by President Obama, will be allowed to move forward along with additional fossil fuel extraction projects.

If the construction company, Dakota Access LLC, continues building the pipeline they are liable to be fined. It is not yet clear whether Dakota Access LLC will “eat” the fine to continue building and drilling, or whether the Army Corps will forcefully stop DAPL. Analysts say the expense of changing the route, such as to the south of the tribal lands, would make the economics of the pipeline a total loss. It is cheaper for Dakota Access LLC to continue to fight the protest despite overwhelming disapproval of the project.

Meanwhile, protestors have refused to leave Standing Rock in fear that the Army Corp will reverse its decision and allow DAPL to proceed, despite requests by the chairman of the Sioux Tribe that demonstrators go home. Many are hopeful that, by stalling the project past January 1st—the deadline by which Energy Transfer Partners LP promised oil companies it would complete construction—the possibility exists that contracts will expire and DAPL loses support from investors.

Other Mapping Resources

This web map shows the current construction progress of the pipeline.

The New York Times website is hosting a map focusing on the many water crossings of the pipeline route.

The Guardian has a static map on their website similar to our interactive map.

Header photograph by Joe Brusky/flickr/cc

Mariner East 2: At-Risk Schools and Populations

by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement
with technical assistance from Seth Kovnant

 

In September, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rejected a number of permits for wetland crossings and sedimentation control that were required for Sunoco Pipeline’s proposed “Mariner East 2” pipeline. According to Sunoco, the proposed Mariner East 2 is a $2.5 billion, 350-mile-long pipeline that would be one of the largest pipeline construction projects in Pennsylvania’s history.

If built, Mariner East 2 could transport up to 450,000 barrels (18,900,000 gallons) per day of propane, ethane, butane, and other liquefied hydrocarbons from the shale fields of western Pennsylvania to export terminals in Marcus Hook, located just outside Philadelphia. A second proposed pipeline, if constructed, could carry an additional 250,000 barrels (10,500,000 gallons) per day of these same materials. Sunoco submitted revised permit applications to PADEP on Tuesday, December 6th.

The industry often refers to ethane, propane and butane collectively as “natural gas liquids.” They are classified by the federal government as “hazardous, highly volatile liquids,” but that terminology is also misleading. These materials, which have not been transported through densely populated southeast Pennsylvania previously, are liquid only at very high pressure or extremely cold temperatures. At the normal atmospheric conditions experienced outside the pipeline, these materials volatilize into gas which is colorless; odorless; an asphyxiation hazard; heavier than air; and extremely flammable of explosive. This gas can travel downhill and downwind for long distances while remaining combustible. It can collect (and remain for long periods of time) in low-lying areas; and things as ordinary as a cell phone, a doorbell or a light switch are capable of providing an ignition source.

Many who have followed the proposed Mariner East 2 project note that, while much has been written about the likely environmental impacts, insufficient investigation has been conducted into safety risks to those who live, work and attend schools in the proposed pipeline’s path. We address these risks in this article, and, in doing so, emphasize the importance of regulatory agencies allowing public comments on the project’s resubmitted permit applications.

The Inherent Risks of Artificially Liquified Gas

Resident of Pennsylvania do not need to look far for examples of how pipeline accidents pose serious risk. For instance, the 2015 explosion of the Enterprise ATEX (Appalachia to Texas) pipeline near Follansbee, WV, provides a depiction of what a Mariner East 2 pipeline failure could look like. This 20-inch diameter pipeline carrying liquid ethane is similar in many ways to the proposed Mariner East 2. When it ruptured in rural West Virginia, close to the Pennsylvania border, it caused damage in an area that extended 2,000 feet—about ½ square mile—from the place where the pipeline failed.

In another recent instance, the Spectra Energy Texas Eastern methane natural gas pipeline ruptured in Salem, PA, this April as a result of corroded welding. The explosion, seen above (photo by PA NPR State Impact), completely destroyed a house 200ft. away. Another house, 800ft. away, sustained major damage and its owner received 3rd degree burns. These incidents are not unique. FracTracker’s recent analysis found that there have been 4,215 pipeline incidents nation-wide since 2010, resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion (“incident” is an industry term meaning “a pipeline failure or inadvertent release of its contents.” It does not necessarily connote “a minor event”).

Calculating Immediate Ignition Impact Zones

It is difficult to predict the blast radius for materials like ethane, propane and butane. Methane, while highly flammable or explosive, is lighter than air and so tends to disperse upon release into the atmosphere. Highly volatile liquids like ethane, propane and butane, on the other hand, tend to concentrate close to the ground and to spread laterally downwind. A large, dispersed vapor cloud of these materials may quickly spread great distances, even under very light wind conditions. A worst-case scenario would by highly variable since gas migration and dispersion is dependent on topography, leak characteristics, and atmospheric conditions. In this scenario, unignited gas would be allowed to migrate as an unignited vapor cloud for a couple miles before finding an ignition source that causes an explosion that encompasses the entire covered area tracing back to the leak source. Ordinary devices like light switches or cell phones can serve as an ignition source for the entire vapor cloud. One subject matter expert recently testified before a Municipal Zoning Hearing board that damage could be expected at a distance of three miles from the source of a large scale release.

The federal government’s “potential impact radius” (PIR) formula, used for natural gas (methane) isn’t directly applicable because of differences in the characteristics of the material. It may however be possible to quantify an Immediate Ignition Impact Zone. This represents the explosion radius that could occur if ignition occurs BEFORE the gas is able to migrate.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) provides instructions for calculating the PIR of a methane natural gas pipeline. The PIR estimates the range within which a potential failure could have significant impact on people or property. The PIR is established using the combustion energy and pipeline-specific fuel mass of methane to determine a blast radius: PIR = 0.69*sqrt(p*d^2). Where: PIR = Potential Impact Radius (in feet), p = maximum allowable operating pressure (in pounds per square inch), d = nominal pipeline diameter (in inches), and 0.69 is a constant applicable to natural gas

The Texas Eastern pipeline can use the PIR equation as-is since it carries methane natural gas. However, since Mariner East 2 is primarily carrying ethane, propane, and butane NGLs, the equation must be altered. Ethane, propane, butane, and methane have very similar combustion energies (about 50-55 MJ/kg). Therefore, the PIR equation can be updated for each NGL based on the mass density of the flow material as follows: PIR = 0.69*sqrt(r*p*d^2). Where: r = the density ratio of hydrocarbons with similar combustion energy to methane natural gas. At 1,440 psi, methane remains a gas with a mass density 5 times less than liquid ethane at the same pressure:

ME2 PIR table 1

The methane density relationships for ethane, propane, and butane can be used to calculate an immediate-ignition blast radius for each hydrocarbon product. The below table shows the results assuming a Mariner East 2-sized 20-inch diameter pipe operating at Mariner East 2’s 1,440psi maximum operating pressure:

ME2 PIR table 2

Using these assumptions, the blast radius can be derived as a function of pressure for each hydrocarbon for the same 20in. diameter pipe:

ME2 Immediate Ignition Blast Radius

ME2 Immediate Ignition Blast Radius

Note the sharp increase in blast radius for each natural gas liquid product. The pressure at which this sharp increase occurs corresponds with the critical pressure where each product transitions to a liquid state and becomes significantly denser, and in turn, contains more explosive power. These products will always be operated above their respective critical pressures when in transport, meaning their blast radius will be relatively constant, regardless of operating pressure.

Averaging the “Immediate Ignition Blast Radius” for ethane, propane, and butane gives us a 1,300 ft (about 0.25 mile) potential impact radius. However, we must recognize that this buffer represents a best case scenario in the event of a major pipeline accident.

Additional information on these calculations can be found in the Delaware County-based Middletown Coalition for Community Safety’s written testimony to the Pennsylvania Legistlature.

Living near the Mariner East 2

FracTracker has created a new map of the Mariner East 2 pipeline using a highly-detailed GIS shapefile recently supplied by the DEP. On this map, we identify a 0.5 mile radius “buffer” from Mariner East 2’s proposed route. We then located all public and private schools, environmental justice census tracts, and estimated number of people who live within this buffer in order to get a clearer picture of the pipeline’s hidden risks.

Proposed Mariner East 2  and At-Risk Schools and Populations

View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

 

Populations at Risk

In order to estimate the number of people who live within this 0.5 mile radius, we first identified census blocks that intersect the hazardous buffer. Second, we calculated the percentage of that census block’s area that lies within the buffer. Finally, we used the ratio to determine the percentage of the block’s population that lies within the buffer. In total, there are an estimated 105,419 people living within the proposed Mariner East 2’s 0.5 mile radius impact zone. The totals for each of the 17 counties in Mariner East 2’s trajectory can be found in the interactive map. The top five counties with the greatest number of at-risk residents are:

  1. Chester County (31,632 residents in zone)
  2. Delaware County (17,791 residents in zone)
  3. Westmoreland County (11,183 residents in zone)
  4. Cumberland County (10,498 residents in zone)
  5. Berks County (7,644 residents in zone)

Environmental Justice Areas

Environmental justice designations are defined by the DEP as any census tract where 20% or more of the population lives in poverty and/or 30% or more of the population identifies as a minority. These numbers are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, last updated in 2010, and by the federal poverty guidelines. Mariner East 2 crosses through four environmental justice areas:

  • Census Tract 4064.02, Delaware County
  • Census Tract 125, Cambria County
  • Census Tract 8026, Westmoreland County
  • Census Tract 8028, Westmoreland County

DEP policies promise enhanced public participation opportunities in environmental justice communities during permitting processes for large development projects. No additional public participation opportunities were provided to these communities. Furthermore, no public hearings were held whatsoever in Cambria County and Delaware County. The hearing held in Westmoreland County took place in Youngwood, nine miles away from Jeanette. Pipelines are not specified on the “trigger list” that determines what permits receive additional scrutiny, however the policy does allow for “opt-in permits” if the DEP believes they warrant special consideration. One would assume that a proposed pipeline project with the potential to affect the safety of tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians qualifies for additional attention.

At-Risk Schools

One of the most concerning aspects of our findings is the astounding number of schools in the path of Mariner East 2. Based on data obtained from the U.S. Department of Education on the locations of schools in Pennsylvania, a shocking 23 public (common core) schools and 17 private schools were found within Mariner East 2’s 0.5 mile impact zone. In one instance, a school was discovered to be only 7 feet away from the pipeline’s intended path. Students and staff at these schools have virtually no chance to exercise their only possible response to a large scale release of highly volatile liquids, which is immediate on-foot evacuation.

me2-middletown-high

Middletown High School in Dauphin County in close proximity to ME2

One reason for the high number of at-risk schools is that Mariner East 2 is proposed to roughly follow the same right of way as an older pipeline built in the 1930s (now marketed by Sunoco as “Mariner East 1.”). A great deal of development has occurred since that time, including many new neighborhoods, businesses and public buildings. It is worth noting that the U.S. Department of Education’s data represents the center point of schools. In many cases, we found playgrounds and other school facilities were much closer to Mariner East 2, as can be seen in the above photograph. Also of note is the high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs at these schools, suggesting that many are located in disproportionately poorer communities.

 

Conclusion

Now that PADEP has received revised permit applications from Sunoco, presumably addressing September’s long list of technical deficiencies, the agency will soon make a decision as to whether or not additional public participation is required before approving the project. Given the findings in our analysis, it should be clear that the public must have an extended opportunity to review and comment on the proposed Mariner East 2. In fact, public participation was extremely helpful to DEP in the initial review process, providing technical and contextual information.

It is, furthermore, imperative that investigations into the potential impacts of Mariner East 2 extend to assess the safety of nearby residents and students, particularly in marginalized communities. Thus far, no indication has been made by the DEP that this will be the case. However, the Pennsylvania Sierra Club has established a petition for residents to voice their desire for a public comment period and additional hearings.

Seth Kovnat is the chief structural engineer for an aerospace engineering firm in Southeastern PA, and regularly consults with regard to the proposed Mariner East 2 pipeline. In November, Seth’s expertise in structural engineering and his extensive knowledge of piping and hazardous materials under pressure were instrumental in providing testimony at a Pennsylvania Senate and House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee discussion during the Pennsylvania Pipeline Infrastructure Citizens Panel. Seth serves on the board of Middletown Coalition for Community Safety and is a member of the Mariner East 2 Safety Advisory Committee for Middletown Township, PA. He is committed to demonstrating diligence in gathering, truth sourcing, and evaluating technical information in pipeline safety matters in order to provide data driven information-sharing on a community level.

NOTE: This article was modified on 12/9/16 at 4pm to provide additional clarification on how the 1,300ft PIR was calculated.

Updated Pipeline Incident Analysis

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

As massive new pipeline projects continue to generate news, the existing midstream infrastructure that’s hidden beneath our feet continues to be problematic on a daily basis. Since 2010, there have been 4,215 pipeline incidents resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion.

Chart 1: Cumulative impacts pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016. Operators are required to submit incident reports within 30 days.

Figure 1: Cumulative impacts pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016. Operators are required to submit incident reports within 30 days.

In our previous analyses, pipeline incidents occurred at a rate of 1.6 per day nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Rates exceeding 1.9 incidents per day in 2014 and 2015 have brought the average rate up to 1.7 incidents per day. Incidents have been a bit less frequent in 2016, coming in at a rate of 1.43 incidents per day, or 1.59 if we roll results back to October 4th in order to capture all incidents that are reported within the mandatory 30 day window.

Chart 1: Pipeline incidents per day for years between 2010 and 2016. Incidents after October 4, 2016 may not be included in these figures.

Figure 2: Pipeline incidents per day for years between 2010 and 2016. Incidents after October 4, 2016 may not be included in these figures.

These figures are the aggregation of three reports, namely natural gas transmission and gathering pipelines (828 incidents since 2010), natural gas distribution (736 incidents), and hazardous liquids (2,651 incidents). Not all of the hazardous liquids are petroleum related, but the vast majority are. 1,321 of the releases involved crude oil, and an additional 896 involved other liquid petroleum products, accounting for 84% of hazardous liquid incidents. The number could be higher, depending on the specific substances involved in the 399 highly volatile liquid (HVL) related incidents. The HVL category includes propane, butane, liquefied petroleum gases, ethylene, and propylene, as well as other volatile liquids that become gaseous at ambient conditions.

What is causing all of these pipeline incidents?

Figure 3: Cause of pipeline incidents for all reports received from January 1, 2010 through November 4, 2016.

Nonprofits, academics, and concerned citizens looking for accurate pipeline data will find that it is restricted, with the argument that releasing accurate pipeline data constitutes a threat to national security.  This makes little sense for several reasons. First, with over 2.4 million miles of pipelines, they are nearly omnipresent. Additionally, similar data access restrictions only apply to midstream infrastructure such as pipelines and compressor stations, whereas the locations for wells, refineries, and power plants are all publicly available, despite the presence of the same volatile hydrocarbons at these facilities. Additionally, pipelines are purposefully marked with surface placards to help prevent unintentionally impacting the infrastructure.

In fact, a quick look at the causes of pipeline incidents reveal that it it much more dangerous to not know where the pipelines are located. In the “Other Incident Cause” category (Figure 3) there are 152 incidents that were caused by unsuspecting motor vehicles. When this is combined with incidents resulting from excavation damage, we have 558 cases where “not knowing” about the pipeline’s location likely contributed to the failure. On the other hand, there are 14 incidents (only .003%) where the cause is identified as intentional. While even one case of tampering with pipeline infrastructure is unacceptable, PHMSA incident data indicate that obfuscated pipelines are 40 times more likely to cause a problem when compared to sabotage. Equipment failures and corrosion account for more than half of all incidents.

Where do these incidents occur?

PHMSA is not allowed to make accurate pipeline location data available for download, but such rules apparently do not apply to pipeline incidents. The following map shows the 4,215 pipeline releases since 2010, highlighting those that have resulted in injuries and fatalities.

Pipeline incidents in the US. Please zoom in to access specific incident data.  To see the legend and other tools, Please click here.

 

Pipeline Incidents by State for reports received 1/1/2010 through 11/4/2016.

Figure 4: Pipeline incidents by state for reports received 1/1/2010 through 11/4/2016.

While operators are required to submit the incident’s location as a part of their report to PHMSA, data entry errors are common in the dataset. The FracTracker Alliance has been able to identify and correct a few of the higher profile errors, such as the February 9, 2011 explosion in Allentown, PA, the report for which had mangled the latitude and longitude values so badly that the incident was rendered in Greenland. Other errors persist in the dataset, however. Since 2010, pipeline incidents have occurred in Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and 49 states (the exception being Vermont). Ten states have at least 100 incidents apiece during the past six years (see Figure 4), and more than a quarter of all pipeline incidents in that time frame have occurred in Texas.

Which operators are responsible?

Figure 5: This table shows the ten operators with the most reported incidents, along with the length of their pipeline network.

Figure 5: This table shows the ten operators with the most reported incidents, along with the length of their pipeline network.

Altogether, there are 521 pipeline operators with reported releases, although many of these are affiliated with one another in some fashion. For example, the top two results in Figure 5 are almost certainly both subsidiaries of Enterprise Products Partners, L.P.

The real outlier in Figure 5, in terms of incidents per 100 miles, is Kinder Morgan Liquid Terminals; LLC. However, this is one of ten or more companies that share the Kinder Morgan name when reporting pipeline inventories. When taken in aggregate, companies with the Kinder Morgan name accounted for 142 incidents over a reported 7,939 miles, for a rate of 1.8 incidents per 100 miles. It should be noted that this, along with all of the statistics in Figure 5, are entirely based on matching the operator name between the incident and inventory reports.  Kinder Morgan’s webpage boasts of 84,000 miles of pipelines in the US — there are numerous possible explanations for the discrepancy in pipeline length, including additional Kinder Morgan subsidiaries, as well as whether gathering lines that aren’t considered to be mains are on both lists.

The operators responsible for the most deaths from pipeline incidents since 2010 include Pacific Gas & Electric (15), Washington Gas Light (9), and Consolidated Edison Co. of New York (8). Of course, the greatest variable in whether or not a pipeline explosion kills people or not is whether or not the incident happens in a populated location. In the course of this analysis, there were 230 explosions and 635 fires over 2,500 days, meaning that there is pipeline explosion somewhere in the United States every 11 days, on average, and a fire every fourth day. The fact that only 65 of the incidents resulted in fatalities indicates that we have been rather lucky with incidents in the midstream sector.

The Mississippi Fracking Fight: Saving Forests, Woodpeckers, and the Climate

By Wendy Park, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity

 

If the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gets its way, large areas of Mississippi’s Bienville and Homochitto national forests will be opened up to destructive fracking. This would harm one of the last strongholds for the rare and beautiful red-cockaded woodpecker, create a new source of climate pollution, and fragment our public forests with roads, drilling pads and industrial equipment. That’s why we’re fighting back.

My colleagues and I at the Center for Biological Diversity believe that all species, great and small, must be preserved to ensure a healthy and diverse planet. Through science, law and media, we defend endangered animals and plants, and the land air, water, and climate they need. As an attorney with the Center’s Public Lands Program, I am helping to grow the “Keep It in the Ground” movement, calling on President Obama to halt new leases on federal lands for fracking, mining, and drilling that only benefit private corporations.

That step, which the president can take without congressional approval, would align U.S. energy policies with its climate goals and keep up to 450 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution from entering the atmosphere. Already leased federal fossil fuels will last far beyond the point when the world will exceed the carbon pollution limits set out in the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. That limit is expected to be exceeded in a little over four years. We simply cannot afford any more new leases.

Fracking Will Threaten Prime Woodpecker Habitat

In Mississippi, our concerns over the impact of fracking on the rare red-cockaded woodpecker and other species led us to administratively protest the proposed BLM auction of more than 4,200 acres of public land for oil and gas leases the Homochitto and Bienville national forests. The red-cockaded woodpecker is already in trouble. Loss of habitat and other pressures have shrunk its population to about 1% of its historic levels, or roughly 12,000 birds. In approving the auction of leases to oil and gas companies, BLM failed to meet its obligation to protect these and other species by relying on outdated forest plans, ignoring the impact of habitat fragmentation, not considering the effects of fracking on the woodpecker, and ignoring the potential greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas taken from these public lands. The public was also not adequately notified of BLM’s plans.

 

Mississippi National Forests, Potential BLM Oil & Gas Leasing Parcels, and Red Cockaded Woodpecker Sightings


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

Fracking Consequences Ignored

According to the National Forest Service’s 2014 Forest Plan Environmental Impact Statement, core populations of the red-cockaded woodpecker live in both the Bienville and Homochitto national forests, which provide some of the most important habitat for the species in the state. The Bienville district contains the state’s largest population of these birds and is largely untouched by oil and gas development. The current woodpecker population is far below the target set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan. A healthy and fully recovered population will require large areas of mature forest. But the destruction of habitat caused by clearing land for drilling pads, roads, and pipelines will fragment the forest, undermining the species’ survival and recovery.

red-cockaded_woodpecker_insertNew leasing will likely result in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. In their environmental reviews, BLM and the Forest Service entirely ignore the potential for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to be used in the Bienville and Homochitto national forests and their effects on the red-cockaded woodpecker. Fracking would have far worse environmental consequences than conventional drilling. Effects include increased pollution from larger rigs; risks of spills and contamination from transporting fracking chemicals and storing at the well pad; concentrated air pollution from housing multiple wells on a single well pad; greater waste generation; increased risks of endocrine disruption, birth defects, and cardiology hospitalization; and the risk of earthquakes caused by wastewater injection and the hydraulic fracturing process (as is evident in recent earthquakes in Oklahoma and other heavily fracked areas).

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Climate Change

Oil and gas development also results in significant greenhouse gas emissions from construction, operating fossil-fuel powered equipment during production, reclamation, transportation, processing and refining, and combustion of the extracted product. But BLM and the Forest Service have refused to analyze potential emissions or climate change effects from new leasing. Climate change is expected to worsen conditions for the woodpecker, compounding the harms of destructive drilling practices. Extreme weather events will become more frequent in the Southeast U.S. as temperatures rise. Hurricane Katrina resulted in significant losses of woodpecker habitat and birds in the Mississippi national forests. The Forest Service should be redoubling its efforts to restore and preserve habitat, but instead it is turning a blind eye to climate change threats.

At a time when world leaders are meeting in Morocco to discuss the climate crisis and scientists tell us we already have enough oil and gas fields operating to push us past dangerous warming thresholds, it’s deeply disturbing that the Obama administration continues to push for even more oil and gas leases on America’s public lands. The BLM’s refusal to acknowledge and analyze the effects of fracking on the climate, at-risk species, and their habitat, is not only inexcusable it is illegal. The science is clear: The best way to address catastrophic warming — and protect wildlife — is to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Photographs for this article were sourced from the U.S. Department of Agriculture fair-use photostream.