Our thoughts and opinions about gas extraction and related topics

What’s the Big Deal with FracTracker’s Snaphots?


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

A picture might be worth a thousand words for most purposes, but when you are talking about spatial data, pictures are sometimes the only way to explain things. This goes well beyond the simple question of where things are, and into the realm of how things relate to one another. Fundamentally, what makes the snapshots on FracTracker’s DataTool so important is their ability to answer questions that users have about the oil and gas industry, and to share those results with everyone else.

So what kinds of questions can be answered with a FracTracker snapshot?

Comparative Analysis
Are the ozone monitoring stations going to detect Marcellus Shale activity? Marcellus Shale Wells and Ozone Monitoring Stations [link removed]

Finding Locations
Have there been any oil and gas violations near where I live? Pennsylvania DEP violations by well type [link removed]

Multiple Datasets
What is the extent of the Marcellus Shale gas industry when you cross state lines? Marcellus Shale: Drilled sites in PA and Approved Permits in WV [link removed]

Satellite Imagery
What does a full brine pit look like? Full Pit Near Evans City, PA [link removed]

How accurate are the location data on FracTracker? Well Site Closeup Near Evans City, PA [link removed]

Understanding Impacts
It seems like there is gas drilling activity everywhere. Are some locations more affected by the industry than others? Total Violations by County, Utah [link removed]

Is there a Link between Earthquakes and Shale Gas Drilling?


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, CHEC, GSPH; DrPH Student, GSPH

While we don’t typically post about earthquakes on FracTracker’s blog, as public health professionals, we should be prepared for such incidents. Apparently, various towns have reported unusual seismic activity near shale gas drilling operations. For example, Residents in Guy, Arkansas are experiencing “swarms” of earthquakes – sometimes at rates of three to four a minute. While this isn’t the first time in history that the town, which sits in the middle of a tectonic plate in the Fayetteville Shale, has had an earthquake, residents cite the natural gas industry as the cause. (The deputy director of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission sees circumstantial evidence related to the deep well injection that is occurring there, as well.) The true trigger of these minor earthquakes is the focus of researchers from the University of Memphis and the Arkansas Geological Survey.

A quick Internet search shows that similar speculations about the link between the natural gas industry and earthquakes have been voiced in West Virginia, Texas, and several other states experiencing an influx of deep well injection (a liquid waste disposal system). Is there really a connection between the two? Do the geologic formations that make shale gas drilling possible have higher rates of earthquakes naturally? (Probably not in PA based on the hazard map produced by the USGS.)

The map below from the DataTool shows all of the shale gas plays in the continental U.S. By clicking on the “i” in the gray toolbar and then on a pink region, you can inspect each play. Just click “view” when the pop-up box appears to learn more.
[map removed]

Presently, we do not have drilling data from the Fayetteville Shale on FracTracker. If any person / organization has already obtained this information and would like to share it, we invite you to upload it onto FracTracker’s DataTool (Registration is required on our site, but at least it is free.)

Here is a quick list of articles from Google Scholar about induced seismicity if you’re interested, and a really interesting documentary website about people who live and work in shale gas plays across the U.S.

FracTracker Visualizes Violations of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act by Congressional District


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

By: C. D. Volz, DrPH, MPH

John Dawes of the Environmental Integrity Project put up a very useful dataset onto FracTracker’s DataTool showing the geographical location of congressional districts. I have visualized this dataset along with locations of violations of the PA Oil and Gas Act across the state. One can get further information on each congressional district and the violations in them by clicking on the “i” button and then on the map to see details. Some of these violations are especially serious and include brine and wastewater entering the surface waters of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These pollution events can certainly have an effect on downstream municipal water sources-individually and collectively.

Denver, CO – Final Days of the APHA Conference


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, Center for Healthy Environments & Communities (CHEC) of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH), & DrPH Student, GSPH

During the final days of the APHA Conference and my trip to Colorado, I spent a lot of time working on the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s (GSPH) upcoming conference on the potential public health effects of shale gas extraction (registration has closed).

I also spent time learning more about how people in CO and surrounding states view shale gas drilling, especially the perspectives of public health professionals attending the conference.

Interestingly, my conversations and observations revealed something entirely different than I expected. A “Blue Bear” in the window, you could say (photo left). The conference attendees I spoke with did not seem nearly as concerned as many people I converse with here within the Marcellus Shale play. Perhaps this is because shale gas drilling (in the form we are seeing in the Marcellus right now) started earlier in the western and southwestern states, and the shale plays are much smaller in other parts of the country. (Don’t worry. I openly acknowledge that I have a bit of a sampling bias in assessing how often Marcellus concerns crop up during conversation around me. Try sitting at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner table with me.)

Being as unbiased as I could, it seemed that local professionals in Colorado view shale gas drilling as a “necessary evil.” They figure, if it is going to happen, they should know the most intimate details. As a result, some of the researchers and groups in those portions of the U.S. are actively involving industry in their research and outreach efforts. Perhaps this is an approach Marcellus-based organizations should take. I wonder how often it is already occurring in our region, and I would love your feedback about this inquiry.

As a I said, some researchers are working with gas drilling companies to address their academic research needs. Below is a quick summary of a presentation by Roxana Witter, MD, MSPH that utilized industry and community input. I won’t go into the dirty details because Dr. Witter, Jim Rada, and John Adgate, PhD will be presenting the entire results of their work at GSPH’s conference this Friday. You can read the abstract of Dr. Witter’s APHA presentation here: Use of Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to Help Inform Decision Making Regarding Natural Gas Drilling Permits in Colorado.

Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment

In a study by Roxana Witter, MD, MSPH; Jim Rada, BS, REHS; Kaylan Stinson, MSPH; Kenneth Scott, MPH; John Adgate, PhD; and Lee Newman, MD, MA (don’t you just love all of those credentials?) – a health impact assessment was conducted in Battlement Mesa, Garfield County, CO.  During the APHA conference, Dr. Witter reported that the study area previously experienced what is called a “boom and bust” of natural gas drilling. In case you are interested, the tendency for this industry to follow a “boom and bust” cycle is discussed in the following article: “Energy Boomtowns & Natural Gas” PDF. Recent interest by a drilling company triggered the request of an HIA to help guide land use decision making.

In 2005, Jim Rada began conducting ambient (outside) air monitoring for particulates and other contaminants. At this time, Rada educated citizens and also encouraged dialogues between the industry and citizens. The formal health assessment began in 2009. In addition to their own epidemiological (health-by-numbers) investigations, the researchers held stakeholder meetings with citizens, state agencies, and industry to gather their input and perspectives. The researchers were able to release a draft of the HIA in September 2010, where it was open for public comment until recently (this week, I believe). Look for the final HIA soon. Essentially, the draft HIA shows that quality of health was not significantly affected, but the community felt some impacts:

  • Increase in violent crimes
  • Chlamydia cases doubled (a sexually transmitted bacterial infection)
  • School enrollment increased

The researchers also conducted a Health Risk Assessment to identify potential problems down the road. They looked a eight (8) major areas of concern based on the stakeholder meetings: air quality, water quality, traffic, noise, economic conditions, social conditions, health infrastructure, and accidents/malfunction.

Of those, the researchers identified four key areas of concern based on available data (shown in descending order below) that pose the highest risk of producing negative health impacts:

  1. Air quality
  2. Traffic
  3. Water quality
  4. Community wellness (defined by looking at “crime rates, mental health, substance abuse and suicide, occurrence of sexually transmitted infection,  and enrollment in K-12 education”)

Like I said, Dr. Witter and her colleagues will go into more detail about this on Friday. I would hate to be a complete spoiler. Just in case you missed the cutoff for registration for that conference, no fear, the video of the conference will be posted on this blog and on the conference website.

And finally, I discussed some of my impressions about CO and a lot about FracTracker’s DataTool (now archived) during an interview on Penn State’s Sustainability Now radio show. It aired live on Friday, November 11th from 4-5 pm (while I was visiting Breckenridge) on The Lion 90.7 fm.

Third blog post out of three. Read the first and second.

Revise West Virginia Environmental Policy to Properly Characterize Ozone Air Pollution


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

Ozone is Produced by Reactions of Organic Compounds Released During Marcellus Shale Gas Extraction Activities with Sunlight and Oxides of Nitrogen

By: Conrad Dan Volz, DrPH, MPH – CHEC Director and Principal Investigator
Story Inspired by FracTracker work of Kathleen Tyner

I was searching over new snapshots on the FracTracker database and noticed one done by Kathleen Tyner. Her snapshot (below) shows Marcellus Wells drilled in West Virginia overlaid with locations of ozone monitoring devices placed by WV DEP personnel for monitoring this criteria air pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

[image removed]
Analysis of this snapshot reveals only 6 monitoring locations within the vast geographic area of West Virginia where Marcellus Shale gas extraction operations exist.

West Virginia is characterized by some of the highest elevation peaks and ridges in the Appalachian range, an area where weather inversions can be frequent and can hold air pollutants in valley areas for days if not weeks. If ozone and other air contaminants are trapped in these valleys, over time concentrations of these pollutants can build up without being cleared by prevailing winds. Without proper placement of ozone monitors (and other types of monitors for other criteria pollutants generated) in these characteristic areas no one will be able to pickup ozone concentrations in air. Ozone is formed by the reaction of organic chemicals volatilized into air from Marcellus Shale gas extraction activities, including:

  • drilling,
  • diesel exhaust [truck traffic and running compressors],
  • wastewater impoundments,
  • condenser stations,
  • pipeline leaks,
  • cryogenic plants,
  • compressor stations,
  • mercaptan injection stations,
  • chemical plants – existing oxides of nitrogen from coal powered electrical generation facilities and other industrial operations (see the figure below), and
  • sunlight.

Additionally, over large geographic areas of the state there are very few ozone monitors shown which could pick up ground level ozone as it is advectively transported by wind over large areas of the state.

Ozone is a criteria air pollutant that has been associated with a variety of health problems, including:

  • airway irritation,
  • coughing,
  • pain when taking a deep breath,
  • wheezing and breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities,
  • inflammation, which is much like a sunburn on the skin,
  • aggravation of asthma,
  • increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis, and
  • permanent lung damage with repeated exposures.

Given the importance of ozone to human health outcomes and its ability to also affect plants, it is vital to understand ozone concentrations and exposure over space and time.

West Virginia’s Environmental Policies

The State of West Virginia needs to reevaluate its environmental policies in light of the explosion of activity in the Marcellus gas fields. Significant funding should be provided to state environmental enforcement agencies to perform research into:

  1. Where ozone effects might be pronounced due to topographic variation;
  2. Understanding where ozone monitors should be placed to be able to predict ozone exposure reliably for each sub-regions populations (especially children); and
  3. Determining the number of additional ozone air monitoring stations for proper statistical analysis and spatial modeling.

Additionally, the placement of Marcellus Shale wells is ongoing and accelerating. Since over the next 25 years it is reasonable to assume that there could be up to 100,000 Marcellus shale wells in West Virginia – as well as additional associated infrastructure including stripping and refining stations, compressor stations and pipelines – the State of West Virginia needs to set aside significant funding to ensure that ozone monitoring is ongoing. This funding should also ensure that data generated are analyzed and communicated to the public using proper and accurate risk communication language with numerous outlets so all citizens are informed of this air hazard regularly. Finally, since the Marcellus Shale gas industry will be moving throughout the state over time – developing wells and infrastructure as needed -any state program needs to have enough flexibility to move with the industry. Better yet, the state should require planning documents from industry. This can allow it to predict where the industry will move next so that baseline, pre-extraction air levels of ozone and other air contaminants generated in this process can be compared to the levels generated post-production

Locations of NOx Sources in the States of West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania by Tonnage. NOx is a precursor contaminant that can react with organic compounds volatilized from Marcellus Shale gas extraction activities to produce ozone. Note large sources of NOx as you move down the Ohio and West Virginia border, in Northern West Virginia, and on the Pennsylvania border.

Forced Pooling vs. Organic Farming

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH); and Doctorate of Public Health (DrPH) Student, GSPH


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

Shale gas drilling involves injecting large amounts of high-pressured water and various chemicals into the shale layer to release the natural gas trapped there.

Although there are some obvious economic benefits to producing energy in our own country, how will shale gas drilling and forced pooling affect farmers who are applying for or trying to keep their organic farm certifications? Do the communities burdened with gas drilling truly ‘reap’ the rewards?

Organic Certification for Farms

Organic farming means that farmers must avoid using most synthetic chemicals when producing their crops, such as synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, sewage, organisms that have been genetically modified, or exposing food to high doses of radiation. No synthetic chemicals could have been used on the farmland for a few years. Organic farmers are subject to periodic inspections, as well. (For more information about the benefits and costs associated with eating organic food, check out this website.)

Forced Pooling

Currently, PA is one of the only remaining states in the U.S. where active natural gas drilling is occurring that has not enacted any kind of severance tax on the industry. Keep in mind, however, that while a severance tax is being considered in Harrisburg, the natural gas industry is lobbying to have forced pooling tied to any severance tax legislation. (The likelihood of either proposal being passed before a new term begins is highly unlikely at this point, however.)

Forced pooling would require people to enter into lease agreements in an area where the majority of other lease-owners have leased to a natural gas drilling company. This would be advantageous to the industry because it makes leasing more orderly and allows them to more easily access areas where the mineral rights have been fragmented. While this could reduce the environmental footprint of drilling in some ways, it could be incredibly problematic for organic farmers whether they own their mineral rights or not. At least without forced pooling, organic farmers have more of a choice about whether they will lease their mineral rights.

The Predicament

The problem, therein, is that any violation on the part of industry that pollutes the land, air, or soil on or near a farm – especially an organic farm – could have serious repercussions for the farmer and the farm’s economic viability.

PA Wastewater spills by county
Frac pond and lining

And when you add in the forced pooling concept, the problem becomes more complex.

Does a spill or blowout on the farm destroy the organic certification, and if so for how long? Who is responsible for the economic hardships of such an incident? What are the public health implications of consuming food that has been contaminated either with the chemicals used to fracture the shale or the constituents of the wastewater that returns to the surface and is held in large ponds? (Wastewater can contain heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, total dissolved solids, and is high in salinity.) For example, the Department of Agriculture quarantined several PA cattle in July that came into contact with one of the holding ponds in order to reduce the risk of those chemicals being passed along through the food chain.

I acknowledge that there can be benefits to drilling for farmers in this blog post. However, from our experience, many farmers are only being educated by the industry about the benefits to leasing. E.g. “You can have your cake and eat it, too.” But as our one friend put it, “What are the odds that the cake cannot be eaten?”

To find an organic farm near you, visit this site. If you have geo-located data showing where organic farms are located, add it to the DataTool or contact us at malone@fractracker.org so that we can load the dataset for you.

Prezi Presentation – Origins and Purpose of FracTracker


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

Are you interested in knowing why we at CHEC started this hairbrained project with the Foundation for PA Watersheds and Rhiza Labs to develop FracTracker? Check out the presentation below to learn more:

If you’re having trouble viewing the presentation, click play at the bottom of the screen twice. Prezi will move you from one “slide” to the next. And if you’re still having trouble, visit Prezi to learn more.

Is a Severance Tax in the Future for Pennsylvania?

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist and DrPH student, Center for Healthy Environments & Communities (CHEC), University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

Last week the PA House of Representatives voted in support of a severance tax of 39 cents for every thousand cubic feet of natural gas extracted. This proposed bill now awaits its fate in the Senate. Governor Edward Rendell recently sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to move forward on the bill.

“A week ago the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to impose a severance tax on natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. Since that time, in spite of the expressed commitment made by the you in the fiscal code, your comments, and those made by your staff, do not offer a shred of evidence that you have any intention of living up to this commitment you made to put the severance tax to a vote in the Senate before you adjourn the session.” Read more.

Industry representatives have stated that the proposed tax is too high and would hinder the extraction process in the Commonwealth. Supporters of this tax, however, feel it is necessary to counter the costs to local infrastructure and protect the environment and public health.

A Look Back at the Clearfield Blowout – Public Health Preparedness Considerations


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

Clearfield Blowout, June 2010
Photo credit: PA DEP

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – CHEC Communications Specialist and DrPH Student, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health

It came at a conspicuous time; on June 3, 2010 a Marcellus gas well blew out in Clearfield County, PA – less than two months after the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf (and before that spill was capped).

Luckily, the Clearfield blowout did not kill or injure workers or spill five million gallons into the ocean, but it does raise significant public health preparedness and environmental health questions.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) released a report stating that untrained EOG Resources personnel and improper control of the well were the cause of the blowout that released wastewater and methane gas into the atmosphere for 16 hours. EOG also failed to notify the DEP about the incident until several hours after it began.

The Clearfield well site in question is located in the center of PA off of I-80 (see map below).
[image removed]
Figure 1. The red square indicates multiple violations that occurred in one geographic location, the Clearfield blowout. Click on “i” to learn more about each square (record). (The map used to be private and visible on the DataTool only to members of CHEC, but it can now be seen by anyone.)

Many concerns and questions are associated with a blowout of this type:

  1. Not including the danger to workers from the initial blowout, what if the gas being released had ignited?
  2. What if the site had not been in the State Game Lands and been in a more populated or possibly urban area like Lawrenceville, a neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh?
  3. What if an explosion had occurred that caused the wastewater and gas to be released for much longer?
  4. How can emergency responders be better prepared to handle issues of this magnitude?
  5. How can communication channels be improved to reduce the amount of time between incident and proper response?

On the part of emergency responders, some progress is being made. CHEC continues to receive reports that more and more local first responders, including volunteer firefighters, are being trained in PA and WV to deal with potential accidents and blowouts on well sites. Additionally, the PA DEP has hired a team of responders throughout the state who are no more than five hours away from any drill pad.

Read the DEP’s full report on the Clearfield gas well blowout. [link removed]

Water Contamination Studies

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – CHEC Communications Specialist and BCHS Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public Health


This page has been archived. It is provided for historical reference only.

Water Contamination Potential

When the ‘new’ methods for gas extraction first appeared on the horizon in Pennsylvania, many citizens expressed concern that their water could become contaminated by the hydraulic fracturing process used to obtain natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. At the same time, the natural gas industry’s PR group, the Marcellus Shale coalition, claimed that “hydrofracking has [a] safe record and spurs [the] economy.” Preliminary research conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the U.S. EPA in Pavillion, Wyoming suggest that a portion of citizens’ concerns might be warranted. (To learn more, read the PDFs numbered 2, 3, and 4 at the end of this post.)

Some researchers believe that gas extraction cannot be done without negatively impacting water quality due to the likelihood of well casings leaking over time (Dusseault, 2000). See excerpt below:

The consequences of cement shrinkage are non-trivial: in North America, there are literally tens of thousands of abandoned, inactive, or active oil and gas wells, including gas storage wells, that currently leak gas to surface. Much of this enters the atmosphere directly, contributing slightly to greenhouse effects. Some of the gas enters shallow aquifers, where traces of sulfurous compounds can render the water nonpotable, or where the methane itself can generate unpleasant effects such as gas locking of household wells, or gas entering household systems to come out when taps are turned on. Methane from leaking wells is widely known in aquifers in Peace River and Lloydminster areas (Alberta), where there are anecdotes of the gas in kitchen tap water being ignited. Because of the nature of the mechanism, the problem is unlikely to attenuate, and the concentration of the gases in the shallow aquifers will increase with time. (Dusseault, 2000)

Updating PA’s 1989 Cement Regulations

In an attempt to reduce the risk that the increased drilling in PA would negatively impact groundwater and drinking water supplies, the PA Environmental Quality Board published its proposed rulemaking measures to update existing state requirements for many of the processes involved in natural gas drilling, including: casing and cementing the well, monitoring and inspections, and plugging of oil and gas wells. (A significant portion of the existing regulations in PA that dictate water supply replacement and how gas wells are constructed were created in 1989.)

Whether natural gas drilling – when done properly – can contaminate well water or the acquifer from which well water is obtained is a significant research question. Public health would suggest that this is an imperative issue considering the number of violations sited against companies drilling in Pennsylvania by the PA DEP. (See map below that shows Marcellus Shale wells drilled since 2007 and violations as of September 22, 2010. To view an individual record, click the “i” in the toolbar below the map and then click on the record about which you would like to obtain more information.)

[image removed]

The potential impacts that the natural gas industry could have on water quality and public health are some of the major reasons that the U.S. EPA is conducting a $1.9 million study on hydraulic fracturing, including a life-cycle analysis of the process. In order to better understand the relationship between drilling products and water resources, the EPA recently sent a letter to select hydraulic fracturing service providers that requests they release the constituents of their fracturing fluid, as well as specific information about other industry processes.

References and Additional Publications

  1. Dusseault MB. 2000. Why Oilwells Leak: Cement Behavior and Long-Term Consequences. Society of Petroleum Engineers Inc.
  2. ATSDR Health Consultation, Pavillion, WY – Evaluation of Contaminants in Private Residential Well Water
  3. EPA, Pavillion, WY – Expanded Site Evaluation – Analytical Results Report
  4. EPA, Pavillion, WY – Conceptual Site Model