Health & Environmental Effects of Fracking

The Health & Environmental Effects of Fracking

As unconventional oil and natural gas extraction operations have expanded throughout the United States over the past decade, the harmful health and environmental effects of fracking have become increasingly apparent and are supported by a steadily growing number of scientific studies and reports. Although some uncertainties remain around the exact exposure pathways, it is clear that issues associated with fracking negatively impact public health and the surrounding environment.

Health Effects

Holding oil and gas companies accountable for the environmental health effects of unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD), or “fracking,” has been challenging in the US because current regulations do not require drilling operators to disclose exactly what chemicals are used. However, many of the chemicals used for fracking have been identified and come with serious health consequences. The primary known compounds of concern include BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) and associated pollutants such as tropospheric ozone and hydrogen sulfide. BTEX chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans, and can lead to other serious health problems including damage to the nervous, respiratory, and immune system. While some of these BTEX chemicals can occur naturally in groundwater sources, spills and transport of these chemicals used during fracking can be a major source of groundwater contamination. 

Exposure to pollution caused from fracking activity can lead to many negative short-term and long-lasting health effects. Reported health effects from short-term exposures to these pollutants include headaches, coughing, nausea, nose bleeds, skin and eye irritation, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Recent studies have also found an association between pregnant women living in close proximity to fracking sites and low-birth weights and heart defects. Additionally, a recent study conducted in the rural area of Eagle Ford, Texas found that pregnant women living within five kilometers (or about three miles) of fracking operations that regularly engaged in “flaring,” or the burning of excess natural gas, were 50% more likely to have a preterm birth than those without exposure. 


Figure 1. Summary of known health impacts associated with unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD).

Exposure to radioactive materials is also a serious concern. During the fracking process as  high-pressured water and chemicals fracture the rock formations, naturally occurring radioactive elements like radium are also drawn out of the rocks in addition to oil and natural gas. As the oil and natural gas are extracted from the ground, the radioactive material primarily comes back as a component of brine, a byproduct of the extraction process. The brine is then hauled to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the ground. Exposure to radioactivity can lead to adverse health effects such as nausea, headaches, skin irritation, fatigue, and cancer. 

With fracking also comes construction, excessive truck traffic, noise, and light pollution. This has led to a rise in mental health effects including stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as sleep disruptions. 

A 2020 report published by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General contains numerous testimonials from those impacted by fracking, as well as grand jury findings on environmental crimes among shale gas operations. 

How can I be exposed?

Exposure to the hazardous materials used in fracking can occur through many pathways including breathing polluted air, drinking, bathing or cooking with contaminated water, or eating food grown in contaminated soil. Especially vulnerable populations to the harmful chemicals used in fracking include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with preexisting health conditions.

Considerations Around Scientific Certainty

While it is clear that fracking adversely impacts our health, there is still some uncertainty surrounding the exact exposure pathways and the extent that fracking can be associated with certain health effects. A compendium published in 2019 reviewed over 1,500 scientific studies and reports about the risks of fracking, and revealed that 90% found evidence of harm. Although there have been various reports of suspected pediatric cancer clusters in heavily fracked regions, there are minimal longitudinal scientific studies about the correlation between fracking and cancer. The primary reason for this is because the time between the initial exposure to a cancer-causing substance and a cancer diagnosis can take decades. Because fracking in the Marcellus Shale region is a relatively new development, this is an area of research health scientists should focus on in the coming years. While we know that drilling operations use cancer-causing chemicals, more studies are needed to understand the public’s exposure to this pollution and the extent of excess morbidity connected to fracking. 

Methane and Air & Water Quality Concerns

Figure 2. FracTracker’s photo album of air and water quality concerns

Environmental Effects

Air Quality

Fracking has caused detrimental impacts on local air quality, especially for those living within 3-5 miles of UOGD operations. Diesel emissions from truck traffic and heavy machinery used in the preparation, drilling, and production of natural gas release large amounts of toxins and particulate matter (PM). These small particles can infiltrate deeply into the respiratory system, elevating the risk for asthma attacks and cardiopulmonary disease. Other toxins released during UOGD operations include hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a toxic gas that may be present in oil and gas formations. Hydrogen sulfide can cause extensive damage to the central nervous system. BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) chemicals and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are also released during fracking operations, and have been known to cause leukemia; liver damage; eye, nose and throat irritation; and headaches. While oil and gas workers use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from these harmful toxins, residents in surrounding communities are exposed to these hazardous conditions without protection. 

Regional air quality concerns from UOGD include tropospheric ozone, or ‘smog’. VOCs and other chemicals emitted from fracking can react with sunlight to form smog.  While ozone high in the atmosphere provides valuable protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays, ozone at ground level is hazardous for human health. Ozone may cause a range of respiratory effects like shortness of breath, reduced lung function, aggravated asthma and chronic respiratory disease symptoms. 

Expanding beyond local and regional impacts, fracking and UOGD has global implications. With increasing emissions from truck traffic, construction, and high rates of methane leaks, fracking emissions will continue to worsen the climate change crisis. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 86 times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide (on a weight basis) over a 20 year period. Fracking wells can leak 40-60% more methane than conventional natural gas wells, and recent studies have indicated that emissions are significantly higher than previously thought. 

Unhealthy air quality also presents occupational exposures to oil and gas workers through frac sand mining. Frac sand, or silica, is used to hold open the fractures in the rock formations so the oil and gas can be released during the drilling process. Silica dust is extremely small in diameter and can easily be inhaled, making its way to the lower respiratory tract. Silica is classified as a human lung carcinogen, and when inhaled may lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, respiratory failure, and lung cancer. 

Water Quality

 Many states allow this brine to be reused on roads for dust control and de-icing. Regulations vary from state to state, but many areas do not require any level of pretreatment before reuse.  

Not only does fracking affect water quality, but it also depletes the quantity of available fresh water. Water use per fracking well has increased dramatically in recent years, with each well consuming over 14.3 million gallons of water on average. For more information about increasing fracking water use, click here

A summary of other water contamination pathways can be found on page 13 of Earthworks’ Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Waste Report (2019). 


In addition to air and water contamination, UOGD operations can also harm soil quality. Harmful chemicals including BTEX chemicals and heavy metals like mercury and lead have contaminated agricultural areas near fracking operations.  Exposure can occur from eating produce grown on contaminated soil, or by consuming animals that consumed contaminated feed. These contaminants can also alter the pH and nutrient availability of the soil, resulting in decreased crop production and economic losses. Children are also at high risk of exposure to contaminated soil due to their frequent hand to mouth behavior. Lastly, the practice of frac sand mining can make land reclamation nearly impossible, leaving irreparable damage to the landscape.

Toledo Refining Co Refinery in Toledo, OH, July 2019

Figure 3. Toledo Refining Company Refinery in Toledo, OH, July 2019. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

Report Your Environmental and Health Concerns

If you think that your health or environment have been negatively impacted by fracking operations, contact:

  • For an emergency requiring immediate local police, fire, or emergency medical services, always call 911 first
  • To report a spill or other emergency in PA, contact the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP): 1-800-541-2050 or report to your regional office. In Southwestern PA, call 412-442-4000.
  • PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) Environmental Complaint Line (PA only): 1-888-723-3721 or online. (To find your state environmental or health agency, click here.)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Violations form online.
  • Join the Environmental Health Project Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry & Resource Network here

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Pipeline Regulations & Impact Assessments, a Primer

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

Pipelines are categorized by what they carry — natural gas, oil, or natural gas liquids (NGLs) — and where they go — interstate or intrastate. The regulatory system is complicated. This primer is a quick guide to the agencies that may be involved in Falcon’s permit reviews.

Regulating Pipelines

The siting of natural gas pipelines crossing state or country boundaries is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Meanwhile, determination of the location of natural gas routes that do not cross such boundaries are not jurisdictional to FERC, instead determined by the owner pipeline company. Hazardous liquids and NGL pipelines are not regulated for siting by FERC regardless of their location and destination. However, FERC does have authority over determining rates and terms of service in these cases. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gets involved when pipelines cross navigable waters such as large rivers and state Environmental Protection Agencies.

Pipeline design, operation, and safety regulations are established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), but these regulations may vary state-by-state as long as minimal federal standards are met by the pipeline project. Notably, PHMSA’s oversight of safety issues does not determine where a pipeline is constructed as this is regulated by the different agencies mentioned above – nor are PHMSA’s safety considerations reviewed simultaneously in siting determinations done by other agencies.

An excerpt from the U.S. Army Corps’ EIS of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline

These federal agencies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) investigating how the pipeline pertains to things like the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, as well as state and local laws. The image above, for instance, is a caption from the Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise, a natural gas pipeline.

An EIS is based on surveying and background research conducted by the company proposing the project, then submitted to agencies as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). An EIS can exceed hundreds of pages and can go through many drafts as companies are asked to refine their EIA in order to qualify for approval.

An excerpt from the PA DEP’s review of water crossings for the Mariner East 2 pipeline

Pipeline proposals are also evaluated by state and local agencies. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the PA DEP is responsible for assessing how to minimize pipeline impacts. The DEP’s mission is to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. The PA Fish and Boat Commission oversees the avoidance or relocation of protected species. Local township zoning codes can also apply, such as to where facilities are sited near zoned residential areas or drinking reservoirs, but these can be overruled by decisions made at the federal level, especially when eminent domain is granted to the project.

Regulating the Falcon

For the Falcon pipeline, an interstate pipeline that will transport ethane (an NGL), FERC will likely have authority over determining rates and terms of service, but not siting. Construction permitting will be left state agencies and PHMSA will retain its federal authority with the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) acting as PHMSA’s state agent to ensure the project complies with federal safety standards and to investigate violations. The Army Corps will almost certainly be involved given that the Falcon will cross the Ohio River. As far as we know, the Falcon will not have eminent domain status because it supplies a private facility and, thus, does not qualify as a public utility project.

Questioning Impact Assessments

The contents of EIAs vary, but are generally organized along the lines of the thematic categories that we have created for assessing the Falcon data, as seen above. However, there is also much that EISs fail to adequately address. The Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise is a good example. The final EIS resulting from the operators EIA includes considerations for socioeconomic impacts, such effects on employment and environmental justice, as seen in the excerpt below. But potential negative impact in these areas are not necessarily linked to laws requiring special accommodations. For instance, federal regulations mandate achieving environmental justice by “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” of projects subject to NEPA’s EIS requirement. However, there are no laws that outline thresholds of unacceptable impact that would disallow a project to proceed.

An excerpt from the Atlantic Sunrise EIS addressing environmental justice concerns

Furthermore, the narratives of EIAs are almost always written by the companies proposing the project, using sources of data that better support their claims of minimal or positive impact. This is again seen in the Atlantic Sunrise EIS, where several studies are cited on how pipelines have no affect on property values or mortgages, with no mention of other studies that contradict such findings. Other factors that may be important when considering pipeline projects, such as concerns for sustainability, climate change, or a community’s social well-being, are noticeably absent.

Complicating matters, some pipeline operators have been successful in skirting comprehensive EIAs. This was seen in the case of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Despite being the largest pipeline project in Pennsylvania’s history, a NEPA review was never conducted for ME2.

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Related Articles

By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance

Pipeline build out - Photo by Sierra Shamer - Oil and gas pipeline

Pipeline Construction: Step by Step

Pipeline Construction: Step by Step Guide

The current natural gas pipeline boom gives many homeowners a first row seat to the process of pipeline construction. The rush to move natural gas to markets places pipelines too close to homes, with construction taking place in backyards, farms, pastures, and right at the mailboxes of residents throughout the country. This page walks you through the process of a natural gas pipeline currently being constructed.

Getting started: After all federal and state level permits are approved and easement agreements or eminent domain condemnations completed, the process of pipeline construction can begin. Crews flag the boundaries of all locations where construction activities will take place. The flags mark the extent of the temporary construction zone surrounding the pipeline right-of-way (ROW), as well as the staging and storage areas. The width of the right-of-way is determined based on the diameter of the pipe (8 – 42 inches), with widths ranging from 80 – 125. While existing roads are used when possible, temporary access roads are also constructed to create direct paths from staging areas to the pipeline ROW.

Pipeline under construction in Maryland – Photo by Sierra Shamer, 2016

Pipeline build out - Photo by Sierra Shamer - Oil and gas pipeline

Step 1: Construction Staging Areas & Storage Yards

In order to construct a pipeline, staging areas and storage yards are cleared, strategically located along the planned right-of-way. These areas are used to stockpile pipe and to store fuel tanks, sand bags, silt fencing, stakes, and equipment parts. They provide parking for construction equipment, employee trucks, and locations for office trailers.

Staging areas are cleared and covered in rough stone gravel, often reinforced with large wood timber matting. These areas can be located in fields, pasture, or forested land and can impact streams and wetlands. Often, these areas require the construction of access roads to and from paved roads, and to and from the areas to the pipeline ROW.

Hoover over or click on the images below to explore each stage in Step 1:

Step 2: Clear Cutting the ROW

After the equipment is accessible in the staging area, work will begin to clear cut the pipeline right-of-way. Landowners have the option of selling the timber themselves, or allowing the company responsibility for its sale or disposal. Large trees are stockpiled or hauled off, while the branches and tree tops are placed into piles and burned. A stump grinder then removes the remaining tree stumps in the ROW.

Step 3: Excavating the Trench

The trench for the pipeline is dug after the ROW is cleared of trees. As seen in several of the photos below, the hillsides are so steep that trench diggers are lowered and secured to larger bulldozers with a tether line. If rocks ledges are encountered, track hoes with jack hammers are brought in to create the trench. Sandbags are placed within the trench to restrict water flow and to support the pipe.

Step 4: Pipe Transport, Stringing, & Assembly

When the trench is completed, pre-coated segments of pipe, usually 40 ft in length, are transported from stockpiles in the staging area to the right-of-way. Pipes are laid above ground beside the trench, or within the trench on top of supportive sandbags in steep terrain. Certain pipe sections are bent using a pipe bending tool to allow the pipeline to follow the planned route and the terrain. The pipe sections will then be welded together, sand blasted, and the weld joints coated with epoxy to prevent corrosion. Finally, the weld joints are inspected with x-ray to ensure their quality. Connected lengths of pipe can then be lowered into the trench.

Step 5: Obstacles: Roads & Streams

Pipelines cross existing roads, highways, streams, rivers and wetlands. Typically, pipelines are constructed underneath these obstacles by either boring for shallow depth or using horizontal directional drilling (HDD) for deeper placement. Other obstacles include abandoned mines, karst topography, and densely populated areas. Each obstacles requires a unique method and order of operations.

Step 6: Testing & Restoration

After the pipe is inspected, the trench is filled in. Before completing the project, the pipeline integrity must be verified using hydrostatic testing. Pipeline companies receive permits to withdraw millions of gallons of water from streams and rivers along the pipeline path. This water is sent through the pipeline and the pressure is increased to above the maximum operational level. If the pipeline remains intact during this test, it is deemed operational. After this, the surface of the ROW is seeded and fertilized, and above-ground markers are placed along the pipeline path.

Additional Infrastructure

While the majority of a pipeline is underground, there are several types of supporting infrastructure that are constructed during a pipeline project. Compressor stations, facilities that maintain the pressure level within the pipeline, are built to support new pipeline projects, or existing stations are upgraded. Additionally, valve stations are built above the right-of-way along the pipeline, allowing operators to shut off sections of the line for maintenance or in an emergency. Metering stations are built along the length of pipelines, providing a measure of the flow of gas throughout the line.

To ensure pipeline integrity, welds must be x-rayed and the pipe hydro-tested. This process involves pumping in clean water, pressured above the expected MAOP — maximum average operating pressure. Then, all water is removed and “pigs” are inserted into the pipe to clean it out. When the pigs eventually exit the far end of the pipe clean, then the line will be filled with dry air. Air compressors pump up the air, and the air is run thru a drier. The air will be sampled and tested for moisture content. When those parameters get low enough, the complete pipeline is filled with nitrogen to absorb more of the remaining moisture. Only then is the pipeline ready to transport natural gas.

26" oil/gas pipeline being installed in Maryland, 2016

An Introduction to Oil and Gas Pipelines

By: Wendy Fan, FracTracker Alliance Intern

North America consists of a vast network of inter- and intrastate pipelines that serve a vital role in transporting water, hazardous liquids, and raw materials. There is an estimated 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the nation, and it delivers trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of tons of liquid petroleum products each year. Because the pipeline network fuels the nation’s daily functions and livelihoods by delivering resources used for energy purposes, it is crucial to shed light on this transportation system. This article briefly discusses oil and gas pipelines, what they are, why they exist, their potential health and environmental impacts, proposed projects, and who oversees them.

What are pipelines, and what are they used for?

Oil and Gas Pipelines in ND

Pipelines in North Dakota. Photo credit: Kathryn Hilton

The pipeline network in the U.S. is a transportation system used to move goods and materials. Pipelines transport a variety of products such as sewage and water. However, the most common products transported are for energy purposes, which include natural gas, biofuels, and liquid petroleum. Pipelines exist throughout the country, and they vary by the goods transported, the size of the pipes, and the material used to make pipes.

While some pipelines are built above ground, the majority of pipelines in the U.S. are buried underground. Because oil and gas pipelines are well concealed from the public, most individuals are unaware of the existence of the vast network of pipelines.

Extent of U.S. Pipeline System

The United States has the most miles of pipelines than any other country, with 1,984,321 km (1,232,999 miles) in natural gas transport and 240,711 km (149,570 miles) in petroleum products. The country with the second most miles of pipelines is Russia with 163,872 km (101,825 miles), and then Canada with 100,000 km (62,137 miles).

Types of Oil and Gas Pipelines

There are two main categories of pipelines used to transport energy products: petroleum pipelines and natural gas pipelines.

  1. Petroleum pipelines transport crude oil or natural gas liquids, and there are three main types of petroleum pipelines involved in this process: gathering systems, crude oil pipeline systems, and refined products pipelines systems. The gathering pipeline systems gather the crude oil or natural gas liquid from the production wells. It is then transported with the crude oil pipeline system to a refinery. Once the petroleum is refined into products such as gasoline or kerosene, it is transported via the refined products pipeline systems to storage or distribution stations.
  2. Natural gas pipelines transport natural gas from stationary facilities such as gas wells or import/export facilities, and deliver to a variety of locations, such as homes or directly to other export facilities. This process also involves three different types of pipelines: gathering systems, transmission systems, and distribution systems. Similar to the petroleum gathering systems, the natural gas gathering pipeline system gathers the raw material from production wells. It is then transported with large lines of transmission pipelines that move natural gas from facilities to ports, refiners, and cities across the country. Lastly, the distribution systems consist of a network that distributes the product to homes and businesses. The two types of distribution systems are the main distribution line, which are larger lines that move products close to cities, and the service distribution lines, which are smaller lines that connect main lines into homes and businesses.

Right-of-Way (ROW)

Before pursuing plans to build new pipelines, a ROW needs to be secured from private and public landowners, which pipeline companies usually will pay for. ROW are easements that must be agreed and signed upon by both the landowner and pipeline company, and permits pipeline operators to go forth with installing and maintaining pipelines on that land. Pipeline operators can obtain ROW by purchasing the property or through a court-ordered procedure. ROW can be permanent or temporary acquisitions, and needs approval from FERC.

Regulatory Oversight

Depending on the type of pipeline, what it is transferring, what it is made of, and where it runs, there are various federal or state agencies that have jurisdiction over its regulatory affairs.

A. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)

Interstate pipelines, those that either physically cross state boundaries or carry product that will cross state boundaries, are all permitted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The FERC is an independent organization within the U.S. Department of Energy that permits interstate electricity and natural gas infrastructure. The FERC’s authority lies within various acts of energy legislation, beginning with the Natural Gas Act of 1938 to the more recent Energy Policy Act of 2005. The U.S. President appoints its four commissioners. Other agencies such as the Dept. of Transportation, regional authorities such as the River Basin Commissions, and the Army Corps of Engineers may also be involved. FERC approves the location, construction, operation, and abandonment of interstate pipelines. They do not have jurisdiction over the siting of intrastate natural gas pipelines nor hazardous liquids.

B. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA)

Under the U.S. Department of Transportation, the PHMSA oversees, develops, and enforces regulations to ensure the safe and environmentally sound pipeline transportation system. There are two offices within the PHMSA that fulfill these goals. The Office of Hazardous Materials Safety develops regulations and standards for classifying, handling, and packaging hazardous materials. The Office of Pipeline Safety develops regulations and risk management approaches to assure safe pipeline transportation, and ensures safety in the design, construction, operation and maintenance, and spill response of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipeline transportation. Below are some regulations enforced by PHMSA:

1. Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 or Pipeline Safety Act 2011

This act reauthorizes PHMSA to continue with the examination and improvement of the pipeline safety regulations. It allows PHMSA to:

  • Provide the regulatory certainty necessary for pipeline owners and operators to plan infrastructure investments and create jobs
  • Improve pipeline transportation by strengthening enforcement of current laws and improving existing laws where necessary
  • Ensure a balanced regulatory approach to improving safety that applies cost-benefit principles
  • Protect and preserve Congressional authority by ensuring certain key rule-makings are not finalized until Congress has an opportunity to act

2. Federal Pipeline Safety Regulations: Public Awareness Programs

  • Enforced by PHMSA, the Public Awareness Program mandates that pipeline companies and operators to develop and implement public awareness programs that follow guidance provided by the American Petroleum Institute.
  • Under this regulation, pipeline operators must provide the public with information on how to recognize, respond, and report to pipeline emergencies.

3. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968

  • This act authorizes the Department of Transportation to regulate pipeline transportation of flammable, toxic, or corrosive natural gas, or other gases, as well as transportation and storage of liquefied natural gas.

The PHMSA also designed an interactive national pipeline mapping system for the public to access and utilize. However, the map can only be viewed one county at a time, it does not include distribution or gathering lines, and when you zoom in too far, the pipelines disappear. In fact, the site warns that the map should not be used to determine accurate locations of pipelines, stating that the locations can be incorrect by up to 500 ft. PHMSA argues that these restrictions exist in the interest of national security.

C. United States Army Corps of Engineers

Permits must be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if a pipeline is to be constructed through navigable bodies of water, including wetlands. State environmental regulatory agencies, such as PA’s Department of Environmental Protection, are also involved in the approval process of pipeline construction through waterways and wetlands.

Environmental Health and Safety Risks

Although pipeline transportation of natural gas and petroleum is considered safer and cheaper than ground transportation, pipeline failures, failing infrastructure, human error, and natural disasters can result in major pipeline disasters. As such, previous incidents have been shown to cause detrimental effects to the environment and the public’s safety.

A. Land Use and Forest Fragmentation

Columbia Pipeline

Construction staging area and the right-of-way of Columbia’s 26″ Pipeline. Photo credit: Sierra Shamer

In order to bury pipelines underground, an extensive amount of forest and land is cleared out to meet the pipe’s size capacity. States, such as Pennsylvania, that consist of rich ecosystem due to their abundance of forests, are at critical risk of diminishing habitats for plant species, and are at risk of the eradication of certain animal species. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) aimed to quantify the amount of land disturbance in Bradford and Washington counties in PA as a result of oil and gas activity including pipeline implementation. The USGS report concluded that pipeline construction was one of the highest sources of increasing forest patch numbers. Bradford County, PA had an increase of 306 patches, in which 235 were attributable to pipeline construction. Washington County increased by 1,000 patches, in which half was attributable to pipeline construction.

B. Compressor Stations

Compressor stations play an important role in processing and transporting the materials that pass through the pipeline. However, compressor stations present significant environmental health hazards. Even when the process of drilling and fracking is completed, compressor stations remain in the area to keep the gas in pipelines continually flowing. The stationary nature of this air pollution source means that a combination of pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), formaldehyde, and greenhouse gases are continually being released into the atmosphere. These pollutants are known to produce deleterious health impacts to the respiratory system, nervous system, or lung damage. In addition to pollutants emitted, the noise level generated by compressor stations can reach up to 100 decibels. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports hearing loss can occur by listening to sounds at or above 85 decibels over an extended period of time.

C. Erosion and Sedimentation

Heavy rainfall or storms can lead to excessive soil disruption, in turn increasing opportunities for erosion and sedimentation to occur. Erosion can uncover pipelines buried underground, and rainfall of more than 5 inches (13 cm) can move or erode berms, and also disrupt mounds of soil used to protect against flooding. Soil erosion increases underground pipelines’ vulnerability to damage from scouring or washouts, and damage from debris, vehicles, or boats.

D. Eminent Domain

Eminent domain allows state or federal government bodies to exercise their power to take private property from residents or citizens for public use and development. In some cases, private companies have exercised power to seize land for their own profit. Owners of the property are then given a compensation in exchange for their land. However, landowners may end up spending more than they receive. In order to receive compensation, owners must hire their own appraiser and lawyer, and they are also not usually compensated for the full value of the land. Furthermore, property values decrease once pipelines are established on their land, making it more difficult to sell their home in the future.

E. Spills and Leaks

Poorly maintained and faulty pipelines that transport liquefied natural gas or crude oil may pose high health and environmental risks should the fluids spill or leak into the soil. Crude oil can contain more than 1,000 chemicals that are known carcinogen to humans, such as benzene. The release of the potentially toxic chemical or oil can infiltrate into the soil, exposing communities to fumes in the atmosphere as well as contaminating groundwater and surface water. Not only are the incidents costly to control and clean up, the chemical or oil spills can also have long lasting impacts to the environment and the public. A ruptured pipeline that leaked 33,000 gallons of crude oil in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2010 exposed residents in a nearby community to chemical fumes, causing them to experience drowsiness and lethargy. After being commissioned in 2010, the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline had reported 35 leaks and spills in its first year alone. In April 2016, the Keystone pipeline leaked 17,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. Older pipelines are more likely to leak than newer ones, so this issue will only increase as pipeline infrastructure ages.

Natural gas pipelines have also been shown to leak methane, a major component in natural gas, at levels that far exceed what is estimated. Not only does methane contribute to climate change, it puts surrounding communities at risk of gas explosions, and exposes them to dangerously high levels of methane in the air they breathe.

F. Explosions

Pipeline sign Texas 2016

Pipeline warning sign in Texas. Photo credit: Ecologic Institute US

Explosions are also common with faulty pipelines that leak natural gas. Unlike oil or liquid spills, which generally spread and infiltrate into the soil, gas leaks can explode due to the hydrocarbon’s volatility. A recent pipeline explosion in Westmoreland County, PA, for example, caused a man to incur severe burns, as well as caused dozens of homes to be evacuated. Another pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California resulted in 8 people dead, 6 missing, and 58 injured. Thirty-eight homes were also destroyed and 70 others were damaged. This explosion exposed the haphazard system of record keeping for the tens of thousands of miles of gas pipelines, shoddy construction, and inspection practices.

Upcoming Proposed Projects

An estimated 4,600 miles of new interstate pipelines will be completed by 2018. Below are just a few major projects that are currently being proposed or are in the process of obtaining a permit.

A. Atlantic Sunrise Expansion Project

This pipeline will include 194 miles throughout the state of Pennsylvania. It will be constructed to cut through portions of 10 different PA counties, including Columbia, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Clinton, and Lycoming. This project will require a 125-foot ROW, and will traverse through 52 areas designed as “protected land” in Pennsylvania. This proposed project is still in review by FERC – a decision is expected late 2016 or early 2017.

B. NEXUS Gas Transmission

Spectra Energy (Houston), DTE Energy (Detroit), and Enbridge Inc. (Canada) are partnering to build a $2 billion gas line that would travel from eastern Ohio to Michigan to Ontario. Already applied with FERC and will start construction early 2017. It proposed a 255-mile pipeline and will be 36-inch wide line.

C. Mariner East 2 Pipeline

This pipeline will expand the existing pipeline’s capacity from 70,000 barrels a day to 345,000. It has plans to deliver propane, butane, ethane, and other natural gas liquids across state to Delaware, Berks, and Lebanon counties in PA. Currently, the construction is delayed due to push back and permits acquisition.

D. Northeast Energy Direct (NED) Project

This project was intended to expand an existing pipeline by 420 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania and passing through New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Recently in April 2016, Kinder Morgan decided to suspend further development of this proposed pipeline.

E. Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline had initial plans to establish 550 miles of pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, and to cut through dozens of Chesapeake headwater streams, two national forests, and across Appalachian Trail. Their permit to construct this pipeline was denied by the US Forest Service on January 2016; thus, delaying the project at the moment.

F. Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) Project

With approval by FERC, Spectra Energy has begun 37 miles of pipeline construction through New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The pipeline location is particularly worrisome because it is critically close to the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Ruptures or leaks from the pipeline can threaten the public’s safety, and even result in a power plant meltdown. Spectra Energy has also submitted two additional proposals: the Atlantic Bridge and Access Northeast. Both projects will expand the Algonquin pipeline to reach New England, and both are still in the approval process with FERC.

G. Constitution Pipeline

The Constitution pipeline had initially planned to include 124 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania to Schoharie County, New York, and was denied by NY State in April 2016.

To view the routes of proposed pipelines, visit FracTracker’s North American Pipeline and Oil and Gas Infrastructure Proposals map.

North America Proposed Oil and Gas Pipelines Map

Preview of North America proposed pipelines map. Click to view fullscreen.

Further Questions

Please email us at if there are any unanswered questions you would like us to answer or include.

Update: this article was edited on June 21, 2016 due to reader feedback and suggestions. 

Clearing land for shale gas pipeline in PA

A Push For Pipelines

By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison

For anyone who even casually follows Marcellus and Utica shale gas exploration and production, such as in the active gas fields of West Virginia or Southwestern PA or Ohio, we know there are many concerns surrounding the natural gas production process. These issues range from air pollution, water consumption and contamination, to waste disposal. We know that, after all well the pad drilling and construction traffic are done, we must also have pipelines to get the gas to compressor stations, processing plants, and to markets in the Eastern United States (and likely Europe and Asia in the near future). Gas companies in Wetzel County, WV, and in neighboring tri-state counties, are convinced that building pipelines – really big pipelines – will be the silver bullet to achieving some semblance of stability and profitability.

Problems With Proposed Pipelines

One of the new, very large diameter (42”) proposed gas pipelines getting attention in the press is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will originate in the village of Mobley in eastern Wetzel County, WV and extend Southeast, through national forests and over the Appalachian Mountains into the state of Virginia. Even if the residents of Wetzel County and other natural gas fields are guinea pigs for experiments with hydraulic fracturing, we know how to build pipelines, don’t we? The equipment, knowledge, and skill sets needed for pipeline construction is readily available and commonly understood compared to high pressure horizontal drilling with large volumes of slick water. So, what could go wrong?

I can answer that question first hand from my hayfield in Wetzel County. Almost two years ago, EQT wanted to survey my property for a similar proposed pipeline – this one 30” in diameter, called the Ohio Valley Connector (OVC). The application for this project has now been filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The below map shows a section of the OVC as proposed almost two years ago. The red outlined area is my property. The yellow line shows one proposed pathway of the 30” pipeline that would cross our land. Multiple routes were being explored at first. Were this version approved, it would have gone right through my hayfield and under our stream.

A section of the OVC as proposed almost two years ago.

A section of the OVC as proposed almost two years ago. The red outlined area is my property. The yellow line shows one proposed pathway of the 30” pipeline that would cross our land.

Pipeline opponents express concern about habitat fragmentation, the crossing of pristine streams and rivers, erosion and sedimentation issues, spills, gas leaks, and possible explosions. These are all very valid concerns. But the potential for other logistical errors in the building process – from very simple to potentially serious ones – are also worth consideration. In this article I will use my recent personal experience as a detailed and documented example of how a professionally surveyed location on my property contained an error of almost one mile – over 4,000 feet – as part of a pipeline construction planning project. Yes, you read that right.

Part I: How Did We Get To This Point

Before we get to my story, I should review my first contact with EQT on this issue. In February of 2014, an EQT land agent asked me for permission to walk my property for preliminary evaluation of a route that would send their 30” high-pressure pipe through our land, from south to north.

It is important to keep in mind that almost every landowner in Wetzel County has been contacted by mail, phone or in person, by land agents promising cash with a verbal assurance that all will be well. The goal is to get a landowner’s signature on a loosely worded “right of way” (RoW) lease contract, with terms favorable to the gas company, and move on. Unfortunately, pipeline lease offers cannot be ignored. Not objecting or not questioning can sometime leave the landowner with fewer choices later. This is because many of the bigger interstate transmission lines are being proposed as FERC lines. When final approval is granted by FERC, these pipelines will have the legal power of eminent domain, where the property owner is forced to comply. Just filing a FERC application does not grant eminent domain in West Virginia, as it seems to in Virginia, but the potential for eminent domain gives land agents power over landowners.

I was not ready to give them surveying permission (to drive stakes or other permanent markers). Since a natural gas pipeline would affect all my neighbors, however, I agreed to allow a preliminary walk through my property and to hang surveyor ribbons in exchange for answering my questions about the project. For instance, one of my biggest concerns was the potential for significant habitat fragmentation, splitting up the forest and endangering wildlife habitat.

There are many questions residents should consider when approached by land agent. A list of these questions can be found in the appendix below.

I never did get answers to most of my questions in the few e-mail exchanges and phone conversations with EQT. I never saw the surveyors either. They simply came and left their telltale colored ribbons. Later, at a public meeting an EQT representative said the closest they would run the pipe to any residence would be 37.5 feet. That number is correct. I asked twice. They said they had the right to run a pipeline that close to a residence but would do their best not to. The 37.5 feet is just one half of the permanent RoW of 75 feet, which was also only part of a 125 foot RoW requested for construction. A few months later, a very short e-mail said that the final pipeline route had changed and they would not be on my property. For a time we would enjoy some peace and quiet.

A Word On Surveyors

Most folks can relate to the work and responsibility of bookkeepers or Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). They measure and keep track of money. And their balance sheets and ledgers actually have to, well, BALANCE. Think of Surveyors as the CPAs of the land world. When they go up a big hill and down the other side, the keep track of every inch — they will not tolerate losing a few inches here and there. They truly are professionals, measuring and documenting everything with precision. Most of the surveyors I have spoken with are courteous and respectful. They are a credit to their profession. They are aware of the eminent domain threat and their surveying success depends on treating landowners with respect. They are good at what they do. However, as this article will show, their professional success and precision depends on whether or not they are given the correct route to survey.

Part II: Surveyor Stakes and Flags

Over the next year we enjoyed peace and quiet with no more surveyors’ intrusions. However, in my regular travels throughout the natural gas fields here, countless signs of surveyor activity were visible. Even with the temporary slowdown in drilling, the proposed pipeline installations kept these surveyors busy. Assorted types of stakes and ribbons and markings are impossible to miss along our roads. I usually notice many of the newer surveyor’s flags and the normal wooden stakes used to mark out future well pads, access roads, compressor stations, and more recently pipelines. Given that survey markings are never taken down when no longer needed, the old ones sometimes hide the new ones.

It can be difficult keeping track of all of them and hard at first to identify why they are there. Even if sometimes I am not sure what a stake and flag might indicate, when one shows up very unexpectedly in what is essentially my front yard, it is impossible to not see it. That is what happened in August of 2015. Despite being unable to get our hay cut due to excessive rain the previous month, the colored flags were highly visible. Below shows one of the stakes with surveyor’s tape, and the hay driven down where the surveyors had parked their trucks in my field alongside my access road.

A surveyor stake alongside my access road.

A surveyor stake alongside my access road.

To call it trespassing might not be legally defensible yet. The stakes were, after all, near a public roadway – but the pins and stakes and flags were on my property. Incidents like this, whether intentional or accidental, are what have given the natural gas companies a reputation as bad neighbors. There were surveyors’ stakes and flags at two different locations, my hay was driven down, and I had no idea what all this meant given that I had no communication from anyone at EQT in over 18 months. I consider myself fortunate that the surveyors did not stray into wooded areas where trees might have been cut. It’s been known to happen.

Below shows the two sets of wooden stakes, roughly 70-80 feet apart, with flags and capped steel rebar pins. Both stakes were near the road’s gravel lane, which is a public right of way. Nevertheless, the stakes were clearly on my property. The markings on one side of the stake identify the latitude, longitude, and the elevation above sea level of the point. The other side of the stake identified it as locating the OVC pipeline (seen here as “OVC 6C):

These identifying numbers are unique to this pin which is used to denote a specific type of location called a “control point.” Control points are usually located off to the side of the center-line of the pipeline:

A control point, located off to the side of the center-line of the pipeline.

A control point, located off to the side of the center-line of the pipeline.

It seemed that somehow, without informing me or asking permission to be on my land, EQT had changed their mind on the OVC route and were again planning to run a pipeline through my property. If this was intentional, both EQT and I had a problem. If this was some kind of mistake, then only EQT would have a problem. Either way I could not fathom how this happened. Trespassing, real or perceived, is always a sensitive topic. This is especially true since, when I had initially allowed the surveyor to be on my property, I had not given permission for surveying. Given concerns about eminent domain, I wanted answers quickly. I documented all this with detailed pictures in preparation for contacting EQT representatives in Pittsburgh, PA, with my complaints.

Part III: What Happened & How?

I think it is safe to say that, in light of my well-known activism in documenting all things Marcellus, I am not your average surface owner. I have over 10,000 photographs of Marcellus operations in Wetzel County and I document every aspect of it. Frequently this leads to contacting many state agencies and gas operators directly about problems. I knew which gas company was responsible and I also knew exactly who in Pittsburgh to contact. To their credit, the person I contacted at EQT, immediately responded and it took most of the day to track down what had happen. The short story was that it was all a simple mistake—a 4,300 foot long mistake—but still just a mistake. The long story follows.

The EQT representative assured me that someone would be out to remove their stakes, flags and the steel pins. I told them that they needed to be prompt and that I would not alter or move their property and locating points. The next day, when I got home, the stakes with flags were gone. Just a small bare patch of dirt remained near the white plastic fencepost I had placed to mark the location. However, since I am a cultivated skeptic—adhering to the old Russian proverb made famous by President Reagan, “Trust but Verify”—I grabbed a garden trowel, dug around a bit, and clink, clink. The steel pin had just been driven deeper to look good, just waiting for my tiller to locate someday. I profusely re-painted the pin, photographed it, and proceeded to send another somewhat harsh e-mail to EQT. The pin was removed the next day.

After all the stakes, ribbons, and steel pins were removed, EQT provided further insights into what had transpired. Multiple pipeline routes were being evaluated by EQT in the area. Gas companies always consider a wide range of constraints to pipeline construction such as road and stream crossings, available access roads, permission and cooperation of the many landowners, steepness of terrain, etc. At a certain point in their evaluation, a final route was chosen. But for unknown reasons the surveyor crew was given the old, now abanoned, route on which to establish their control points. The magnitiude of the error can be seen on the map below. The bright blue line is the original path of the OVC pipeline through my property and the red line shows where the FERC filed pipeline route will go. A new control point has now been established near the highway where the pipeline was meant to cross.

The FERC filed OVC pipeline route vs. the accidentally surveyed route.

The FERC filed OVC pipeline route vs. the accidentally surveyed route.


Part IV: Lessons To Be Learned

Given the likely impact of many proposed large-diameter, very long, pipelines being planned, it seems useful to examine how these errors can happen. What can we learn from my personal experience with the hundreds of miles of new pipelines constructed in Wetzel County over the past eight years? First, it is important to ask whether or not similar problems are likely to happen elsewhere, or if this was this just an isolated incident. Can we realistically expect better planning on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will run for over 300 miles? Can the residents and landowners living along these pipeline RoWs expect more responsible construction and management practices?

In general, many of the pipeline projects with which landowners, such as those in Wetzel County, are familiar with fall into the unregulated, gathering line category. They might be anywhere from six inches in diameter up to sixteen inches. As we review their track record, we have seen every imaginable problem, both during construction and after they were put into operation. We have had gas leaks and condensate spills, hillside mud slips, broken pipes, erosion and sedimentation both during construction and afterwards.

Now for some apparently contradictory assumptions—I am convinced that, for the most part, truck drivers, pipeliners, equipment operators, drilling and fracturing crews, well tenders and service personnel at well sites, all do the best job they can. If they are given the proper tools and materials, accurate directions with trained and experienced supervision, the support resources and the time to do a good job, then they will complete their tasks consistently and proudly. A majority of employees in these positions are dedicated, trained, competent, and hard working. Of course, there are no perfect contractors out there. These guys are human too. And on the midnight shift, we all get tired. In the context of this story, some pipeline contractors are better and more professional than others, some are more experienced, and some have done the larger pipelines. Therefore, despite best intentions, significant errors and accidents will still occur.

The Inherent Contradictions

It seems to me that the fragile link in natural gas production and pipeline projects is simply the weakness of any large organization’s inherent business model. Every organization needs to constantly focus on what I refer to as the “four C’s—Command and Control, then Coordination and Communication—if they are to be at all successful. It is a challenge to manage these on a daily basis even when everyone is in the same big building, working for the same company, speaking the same language. This might be in a university, or a large medical complex, or an industrial manufacturing plant.

But the four C’s are nearly impossible to manage due to the simple fact that the organizational structure of the natural gas industry depends completely on hundreds of sub-contractors. And those companies, in turn, depend on a sprawling and transient, expanding and collapsing, network of hundreds of other diverse and divergent independent contractors. For example, on any given well pad, during the drilling or fracturing process, there might be a few “company” men on site. Those few guys actually work for the gas company in whose name the operating permit is drawn. Everyone else is working for another company, on site temporarily until they are ready to move on, and their loyalty is elsewhere.

In the best of situations, it is next to impossible to get the right piece of information to the right person at just the right time. Effective coordination among company men and contractors is also next to impossible. I have seen this, and listened in, when the drilling company is using one CB radio channel and the nearby pipeline company is using some private business band radio to talk to “their people.” In that case, the pipeline contractors could not talk to the well pad—and it did not matter to them. In other cases, the pilot vehicle drivers will unilaterally decide to use another CB radio channel and not tell everyone. I have also watched while a massive drill rig relocation was significantly delayed simply because a nearby new gas processing plant was simultaneously running at least a hundred dump trucks with gravel on the same narrow roadway. Constant communication is a basic requirement for traffic coordination, but next to impossible to do properly and consistently when these practices are so prevalent.

These examples illustrate how companies are often unable to coordinate their operations. Now, if you can, just try to picture this abysmal lack of command and control, and minimal communication and coordination, in the context of building a 300-mile length of pipeline. The larger the pipeline diameter, and the greater the overall length of the pipeline, the more contractors will be needed. With more contractors and sub-contractors, the more coordination and communication are essential. A FERC permit cannot fix this, nor would having a dozen FERC permits. Unfortunately, I do not envision the four Cs improving anytime soon in the natural gas industry. It seems to be the nature of the beast. If, as I know from personal experience, a major gas company can arrange to locate a surveyed control point 4,300 feet from where it should have been, then good luck with a 300 mile pipeline. Even with well-intentioned, trained employees, massive problems are still sure to come.

The FERC approvals for these pipelines might not be a done deal, but I would not bet against them. So vigilance and preparation will still be of the essence. Citizen groups must be prepared to observe, monitor, and document these projects as they unfold. If massive pipelines like the MVP and OVC are ever built, they should become the most photographed, measured, scrutinized, and documented public works projects since the aqueducts first delivered water to ancient Rome. For the sake of protecting the people and environment of Wetzel County and similar communities, I hope this is the case.

By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles.

Appendix: Questions to Ask When Approached by a Land Agent (Landsman)

These questions can be modified to suit your location. The abbreviation “Gas Corp.” is used below to reference a typical natural gas company or a pipeline subsidiary to a natural gas company.  These subsidiaries are frequently called Midstream Companies. Midstream companies build and manage the pipelines, gas processing, and some compressor stations on behalf of natural gas companies.

  1. Please provide a Plain English translation of your landowner initial contract.
  2. What will Gas Corp. be allowed to do, and not allowed to do, short term and long term?
  3. What will Gas Corp. be required to do, and not required to do?
  4. What is the absolute minimum distance this pipeline will be placed away from any dwelling anywhere along its entire length?
  5. What restrictions will there be on the my land after you put in the pipelines?
  6. Who will be overseeing and enforcing any environmental restrictions (erosion and sedimentation, slips, stream crossings, etc.)?
  7.  Who will be responsible for my access road upkeep?
  8. Who will be responsible for long term slips and settlements of surface?
  9. When would this construction begin?
  10. When would all work be completed?
  11. Who would be responsible for long term stability of my land?
  12. Will the pipeline contractor(s) be bound to any of our agreements?
  13. Who are the pipeline contractor(s)?
  14. What will be transported in the pipeline?
  15. Will there be more than one pipe buried?
  16. How wide is the temporary work RoW?
  17. How wide is the permanent RoW?
  18. How deep will the pipeline(s) be buried?
  19. What size pipe will it be; what wall  thickness?
  20. How often will the welds on the individual pipe segments be inspected?
  21. Will there be any above ground pipeline components left visible?
  22. Where will the pipe(s) originate and where will they be going to?
  23. What will the average operating pressure be?
  24. What will the absolute maximum pressure ever be?
  25. At this pressure and diameter, what is the PIR—Potential Impact Radius?
  26. Will all pipeline and excavating and laying equipment be brought in clean and totally free from any invasive species?
  27. How will the disturbed soil be reclaimed?
  28. Will all top soil be kept separate and replaced after pipeline is buried?
  29. Also, After all the above is settled, how much will I be paid per linear foot of pipeline?

Surveyor Symbols & Signs – A Guide

The following guide is a simplified description of a variety of markings that are used by land surveyors. Throughout an active shale gas field, the first signs of pending expansions are the simple markings of stakes, flags, and pins. Many months or even years before the chain saw fells the first tree or the first dozer blade cuts the dirt at a well pad location, the surveyors have “marked the target” on behalf of their corporate tactical command staff.

The three most commonly used markings are the simple stakes, flags and pins. These surveyor symbols are common to any construction project and guarantee that everything gets put in the right place. In an active gas field, these marking tools are used for all aspects of exploration and production:

  • access roads to well pads,
  • widening the traveled portion of the roadway,
  • well locations,
  • ponds and impoundment locations,
  • temporary water pipeline paths,
  • surface disturbance limits,
  • compressor stations,
  • gas processing sites, and
  • rights-of-way for roads and pipelines.

Quite frequently these simple markings are undecipherable by themselves, especially by non-professionals. One cannot just know what is happening, what is likely to occur, or how concerned one should be. Context and additional information are usually needed. Sometimes the simple colors and combinations of colored tapes might only make sense in conjunction with similar markings nearby. Sometimes public notices in the newspaper and regulatory permits must be used to decipher what is planned.

For an example, the proposed 30″ diameter EQT pipeline called the Ohio Valley Connector seems to be regularly marked using a combination of blue and white (see figure 10 below) surveyors tape to mark the actual pipeline location, then green and white (see figure 4 below) to mark all the proposed access roads along the routes that will be used to get pipe trucks and excavation equipment into the right of way. These access roads might be public roadways or cut across private leased property.

Common surveyor symbols & signs (click on images to zoom in)

Surveyor flags and tape: Sometime the flags or streamers are just attached to trees, fence posts, or put on a stake to make them visible above the weeds. There might be no markings on the stake, or only simple generic markings. This could just mean that this is the correct road and turn here. It could also signal a proposed or approximate location for some future work.

Simple surveyor’s flags or tape

Simple surveyor’s flags or tape

Surveyor flags and tapes: These are a selection of typical surveyor tapes, also called flags or ribbons. Many other specialty color combinations are available to the professional surveyor.

A selection of surveyor tapes

Stakes with simple markings: Flags with some type of identification (it might be names or numbers). This one was used for a proposed well pad access road location. There are no dimensions given on these.

Stake with simple markings

Stakes with simple flags and basic identification: The stakes shown here all indicate an access route to be used for equipment and trucks to get to a proposed pipeline right of way. The “H310″ is the EQT name for the 30” OVC pipeline.

Stakes indicating an access route

Control points: These three stakes are identifying a control point that is outside the limits of disturbance (LoD). These markings surround a pin to be used for reference.

Control point stakes

Controls points: This stake is also identifying a control point location. All control points will have some type of driven metal rod, usually with a plastic cap identifying the surveyor. Frequently there are three stakes with extra flags or tape. They are always set off to the side of the intended work area. They are not to be disturbed.

Control point stake and pin

Control points: Another set of three stakes marking a Control Point location. It is common to see triple stakes with elaborate, multiple flags. Even if only two stakes are present, there always will be a driven steel pin and identifying cap.

Control point stakes and pin

Control points: This shows a close-up of the identifying cap on a metal driven steel pin. Control point locations are not meant to be disturbed as they are for future and repeated reference. They might give the latitude and longitude on the stake plus the altitude above sea level.

Control point pin and cap

Control points: This is another, older control point location. This represents a typical arrangement where the stakes somewhat try to protect the metal pin from a bulldozer blade by warning its operator.

Control point pin protection

Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” here means the limits of disturbance. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. The stakes shown here indicates that this is the outside limit of where the contractor will be disturbing the original contour of the surface soil.

Limit of disturbance stakes

Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” means the limits of disturbance of the proposed pipeline right of way. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. This could also be used for the outside edge of well pads or access roads or pond locations.

Limit of disturbance ROW stakes

Pipelines: Stakes with flags and “center line” markings are usually for pipelines. Here you see the symbol for center line: a capital letter “C” imposed on the letter “L”.

Pipelines center line

Pipelines: Again you see the capital letter “C” super imposed on top of the letter “L” used frequently for pipe line center lines, but can also be used for proposed access roads.

Pipelines center line

Pipelines: As shown here, “C” and “L” center line flags can also be used for future well pad access roads.

Road access center line

Precise location markings: Stakes like this will usually have a steel pin also associated with it. This stake gives the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the site.

Precise location stake

Permanent property lines: You may also find markings, like this one inch steel rod with an alum cap, that denote permanent property lines and corners of property.

Permanent property rod

Permanent property lines: Another kind of permanent property line or corner marker is the “boundary survey monument.” This is likely an aluminum cap on top of a one inch diameter steel bar.

Boundary survey monument

Sand Mining Quotes

Impact Testimonials

The most difficult thing for the frac-sand industry will be to reclaim mined properties to meet their end use stated in their reclamation plans which are required under Wisconsin Statues. Most of the hills that are being mined have extremely shallow topsoil as well as limited sub-soil… In the reclamation trial that Chippewa County Land Conservation Department has put together they are proceeding with a few inches of topsoil over about a foot of sub-soil according to the preliminary plans. Part of the site will incorporate fines from the washing process, part will have dairy manure, part both of them and part will have neither amendment. In addition due to the source of a large part of the materials-forested hillsides-it is expected to have a rather low pH, fertility issues, and poor moisture holding ability. It is the opinion of many of us that the end result will be a very poor stand of grass with some woody plants of very poor quality and little value on the whole for wildlife. Some areas may be reclaimed as crop land, however it is our opinion that substantial inputs such as commercial fertilizer as well as irrigation will be required in most if not all cases in order to produce an average crop. In addition we fear that due to the loosely consolidated nature of the profile and nearness of the mine floor to the water table (3-5 feet in some cases) there will be a substantial risk of groundwater contamination from pesticides and fertilizers in these cases.

I often wonder what it was like before the boom, before fortunes were built on castles of sand and resultant moonscapes stretched as far as the eye could see. In the past few years alone, the nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has become a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, Illinois. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate and threaten thewellbeing of our people and rural ecosystem.

There are numerous questions regarding frac-sand mining about which we do not yet have adequate scientific data but we are slowly, but too slowly, in the process of getting them.

What will the soils on the reclaimed sites support?

In Chippewa County alone, there are 285 sand and gravel pits historically providing material for local construction industry. Despite the fact that Wis. Statutes NR 135 requires reclamation of all sites, only 2 sites in the County have been reclaimed in the past 18 years. None two sites are capable of supporting the growing of food.   They grow trees and some cover grass, but that is all. General scientific research says that the reclaimed soils lose up to 75% of their agricultural productivity. Most of these gravel pits acre in the glacial outwash area of Chippewa County. However, the picture is worse when it comes to the bedrock sandstone geology from which frac sand is extracted and processed. These mines are required to stay 5 feet above the water table because of the potential for leaching lead and iron into the groundwater if one goes below the water table.   In that case, the loss of fertility, microbial habitat, arability, infiltration and retention of water, and other soil properties would require heavy use of chemicals to produce anything and that is prohibited because of the inevitable contamination of the groundwater being so close to the table without any real buffering capacity in the soil to prevent the contamination. I serve on an advisory board of the Chippewa County Land Conservation Department which has entered into a partnership study with the University of Wisconsin River Falls Department of Soil Science and two frac-sand companies to study reclaimed soil characteristics. When that is completed in a year or soil, we will know more—but I believe the results will not be good.

We do not now know what the total projected loss of currently arable farmland to frac sand mining will be over a period of just the next 20 years. We have no estimate of the cost and the loss of thousands of sustainable agricultural acres in our water rich region when the “breadbasket” in the central plains states is going to disappear due in part to climate change but more importantly to the irrigation – pumping of the remaining 25% left of the Ogallala aquifer (a confined acquirer that does not get replenished by average rainfall) in the next 25-40 years. Right now we are paying farmers not to plant arable land, but I suspect that we not be the practice when we fall show of sustainable would for a growing national and world population.

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

For Persevere Post

Explore a Fracking Operation – Virtually

Explore a Fracking Operation – Virtually

Modern oil and gas extraction no longer involves just a well, pump, and tank. The process can be so overwhelmingly complex that in lieu of taking a tour in person, it helps to explore each stage through photos. On this page you will find a virtual guide to the process of unconventional oil and gas extraction, as shown through the eyes of our Community Liaison, Bill Hughes. Eventually we will add a section on frac sand mining and transport, as well as other ancillary sectors.

Scroll down this page to explore the 14 key processes by section. Use the right & left arrows in each section to advance the images.

  1. Introduction
  2. Site Prep
  3. Drilling overview
  4. Well Casing & Cementing
  5. Completions & Hydraulic Fracturing
  6. Storage & Impoundments
  7. Hydraulic Fracturing Pumps & Mixers
  1. Sand Cans, Kings, & Castles
  2. Fracturing Chemicals, Trucks, & Totes
  3. After Production: Flaring, Well Heads, Storage Tanks
  4. Production Separators
  5. Multipurpose Equipment
  6. Pipelines & Compressors
  7. Waste Disposal

1. Introduction

2. Site Prep

3. Drilling Overview

4. Well Casing & Cementing

5. Completions & Hydraulic Fracturing

6. Storage & Impoundments

7. Hydraulic Fracturing Pumps & Mixers

8. Sand Cans, Kings, & Castles

9. Fracturing Chemicals, Trucks, & Totes

10. After Production: Flaring, Well Heads, Storage Tanks

11. Production Separators

12. Multipurpose Equipment

13. Pipelines & Compressors

14. Waste Disposal

Tour of Visible Air Emissions

The Process


Directional drilling refers to turning the well to follow the path of the shale layer


The Marcellus is just one shale layer from which drillers are attempting to extract oil and natural gas.


The fracturing of the shale in this part of the drilling process is where the term “fracking” originated


A lot of water (~5 million gallons) is required to hydraulically fracture the wells


Components that return to the surface may be stored in lined pits or closed containers (preferably)


The depth that wells may be drilled varies significantly from region to region

The graphic above created by ProPublica visually explains the process of hydraulic fracturing.

Process In Summary:

After a company determines that a locality has enough resources to explore, leases are purchased from mineral rights owners (where applicable), permits are issued by the state, and the well pad and access roads are constructed. Unconventional O&G drilling then proceeds in two major phases: directional drilling and well stimulation.

Directional Drilling

  1. The process begins by drilling to the bottom of a fresh water aquifer
  2. The drill is then retracted and pulls the loose rocks and sediment to the surface to be discarded (i.e., drilling muds).
  3. Surface casing (steel piping) is inserted into the bore hole to protect freshwater aquifers by creating a physical barrier between the aquifer and drilling materials. This casing also serves as a foundation for the blowout preventer – a safety device that connects the rig to the wellbore. Cement is then pumped through the casing and out through the opening at the bottom of the casing. The cement is forced up between the casing and the hole, sealing off the wellbore from the fresh water.
  4. Drilling continues vertically, creating a well approximately 6,000 feet (~1,828 m) deep. The depth of the well will vary by region and formation. In the Marcellus Shale the well is then drilled horizontally an average of 10,000 more feet (~3,048 meters).
  5. When the target length is achieved, “production casing” is inserted throughout the length of the wellbore.
  6. The drilling process is now complete and well stimulation can begin.

Well Stimulation

  1. A perforating gun is sent into the horizontal portion of the well, where an electrical current originating from the surface sets off a charge that shoots small holes through the casing and cement.
  2. In the case of hydraulic fracturing, large volumes of fresh water (~6 million gallons1), fracking fluid/chemicals, and sand are then pumped into the well to fracture the shale formation and release the hydrocarbons stored tightly within the rock. In some formations, such as the Monterey Shale in California, acidizing is the preferred stimulation technique. Ohio wells use between 9,600-15,600 gallons of HCl; WV, 5,100-7,700 gallons. Millions of gallons of freshwater, 4,300+ tons of sand or proppant, and thousands of gallons of frac(k) fluid are then pumped into the ground at extremely high pressures in order to fracture the shale and release natural gas and/or oil2.
  3. Natural gas and oil can then flow up the well to the surface, along with “flowback fluid” – consisting of varying proportions of the injected fluids, and other liquids from the shale layer such as salt-saturated water, drilling muds, or brine.
  4. These fluids are pumped into a waiting pool (impoundment) or in closed storage tanks where the liquid waste will be either recycled and used at another site or disposed of according to regulatory standards specific to the state in which they are disposed.
  5. Disposal usually involves the injection of waste into Class II Disposal wells, processing at wastewater treatment facilities, or solidification and surface disposal at licensed waste landfill facilities.

More Information about the Process

Further information about the process of oil and gas extraction as we know it today, as well as the agency’s environmental and health research, can be found on the EPA website.

Where is drilling occurring?

It is difficult to ascertain where unconventional oil and gas extraction is occurring unless one explores oil and gas extraction data state-by-state (and even then it’s not always completely clear). In an attempt to visualize where all of the active (and for the most part, unconventional) wells are in the United States, in 2016 FracTracker analyzed data from 2014-15 to identify active oil and gas wells. We approximate that there are 1.2 million facilities currently operating in the United States. Click the map for more information:

Populations in US near activity oil and gas drilling activity in 2016


  1. Water usage by the shale gas industry is increasing 237-317 and 342-522 thousand gallons per quarter per well in Ohio and West Virginia, respectively. Currently, unconventional wells in these two states are using 7.7 and 8.1 million gallons per well.
  2. According to FracTracker analysis of 505 Ohio Utica wells average production to date has been primarily natural gas to the tune of 157 million kWh Vs 29 kWh from oil.