The history of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania is intertwined with that of resource extraction. Many visitors to the area may be unaware that Pittsburgh’s iconic Mount Washington was originally named “Coal Hill,” due to accessible outcroppings of the Pittsburgh coal seam. These and other deposits were already discovered by the time a young George Washington visited on a diplomatic mission, unsuccessfully inviting the French to abandon the disputed region in the build up to the French and Indian War.
The U.S. petroleum industry got its start in Pennsylvania a little more than a century later, when the Drake Well was the first commercial oil well drilled in the country. At its peak in the late 19th Century, Pennsylvania wells were producing one third of the world’s oil. Oil and gas took their place alongside coal in fueling industrial development locally and nationally.
In the early days of oil and gas development there was little to no regulation. It was not uncommon to find wells in the backyards of small urban parcels as additional hydrocarbon deposits were discovered. This was also at a time when pollution ran unchecked. Concerns for public health and the environment that took root in actions like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were not yet present. While the region’s air and water quality is significantly improved from those days, it still lags behind other similar sized metropolitan regions throughout the country, in part due to the legacy of extraction-dependent industries like power plants and steel manufacturing.
Derricks in Versailles Borough, circa 1920, from the book 1894-1994 Memories Versailles Borough Centennial. Image source: PowerSource.
Newer “unconventional” oil and gas wells now drilled into the Marcellus and other shale formations have slowly encroached upon Allegheny County, with 88 of these wells drilled since December 2008. In comparison, surrounding areas have seen substantially more development—Butler County to the north now has 472 wells; Washington County to the southwest has 1,391. A major difference between historical wells and newer unconventional wells is their scale. Unconventional well pads are major, temporary industrial sites that can exceed five acres in size. Drilling on these sites can also go on for months with multiple wells being hydraulically fractured on a single pad. Millions of gallons of water need to be trucked in, and millions of gallons of waste must be discarded. Flaring of gasses is often required at drill sites, which can produce noise and light pollution for nearby residents. Learn more about this process here.
Do these risks outweigh potential economic benefits? There are a variety of perspectives on the matter, but many feel that a new fossil fuel energy boom runs counter to the progress that the region has made in recent decades. While in most places regulations are now significantly more robust than they were in the early days of the oil and gas industry, drilling operators often fail to adhere to those standards; as of March 4, 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had issued 5,681 violations at unconventional wells—nearly three out of five drilled wells (9,663 total) have had citable problems of one sort or another.
Mapping Leases in Allegheny County
Regardless of one’s perspective on oil and gas development, we believe it is important for communities to be able to make informed decisions about their future. Municipalities may wish to identify areas where drilling would be particularly burdensome for their residents and limit development through zoning ordinances. Others may wish to enter into dialogue with drilling companies before expensive permitting processes commence. Proactive planning can be difficult with existing tools, however. The PA DEP does publish locations of permitted and drilled wells, but these do not always predict future development. Meanwhile, information that could be used for planning can be largely inaccessible to those without the resources to do exhaustive legal research.
One such missing dataset is a comprehensive list of land parcels leased or contracted to oil and gas companies for future development. Until today.
FracTracker’s Allegheny County Lease Mapping Project goes beyond a simple list. It is an interactive tool for municipalities, land trusts, and community leaders to utilize when considering their relationships with the oil and gas industry. The project is also intended to assist individuals. For instance, people looking to purchase property may want to take proximity to oil and gas development into consideration alongside other factors like school districts and tax rates. While some may argue that the oil and gas extraction is in a period of dormancy, or even retraction, in Allegheny County, it is important to remember that the industry is cyclical in nature. We believe the Allegheny County Lease Mapping Project will assist a range of stakeholders in their long-term strategic planning efforts.
It is important to note that, although we captured the majority of records to date, there are other oil and gas records that we were not able to capture. Entries on the Allegheny County’s Department of Real Estate Office website after 2010 no longer list the parcel IDs necessary for mapping. We found some creative work arounds to this problem, but there may be other more recent leased parcels not shown on the map individuals may wish to investigate.
Click the lease map to open the system and explore the data.
Legal Disclaimer: The FracTracker Alliance has collected the information in this lease records database and produced the resulting maps for informational purposes only. FracTracker cannot provide any assurance that the information provided in this lease records database or the resulting maps is accurate, reliable, or up-to-date. In addition, the information in this lease records database and the resulting maps should not be considered an assessment of property rights nor should anyone consider the content within this database and the resulting maps as legal advice. If you have questions about property rights or the legal status of property or a person’s property rights, you should consult an attorney. As such, FracTracker is not responsible for errors contained in the maps or lease records database, nor is FracTracker in any way responsible for the use of the information provided in this lease records database.
FracTracker has created a number of resources to help users navigate the Allegheny Lease Mapping Project. These include a user’s guide, data summaries, a breakdown of our methods, and some details on what can be found in oil and gas records. We also welcome opportunities to demonstrate the project in public and private presentations. Please contact the FracTracker Pittsburgh office for details and to make arrangements.
This guide is intended to help users of the Allegheny Lease Mapping System to navigate its features. The interface we’ve developed offers a variety of functions that allow one to do things like filter parcels shown on the map and see information for individual parcels. Other options include toggles for different basemaps, well permits, and drilled wells.
There is much we can learn from the data obtained in the course of this project. This page includes our first round of analysis including the number of different record types by year and the distribution of affected parcels by municipality, school district, and zoning type. Also on this page is a master file of all records in the lease mapping system for public download.
Oil and gas agreements can be complicated and difficult to understand. To simplify the many record types stored in the lease mapping system, FracTracker has created a guide that explains the purpose and function of each record type. Examples of different records are also available here.
FracTracker believes it is important to be transparent about our methods. This page details how we obtained and made sense of oil and gas data available in the lease mapping system. This methods page explains how we obtained, scraped, and cleaned the data for mapping.
Lease Map Project Acknowledgements
This project would not have been possible without the help of the following organizations:
West Arete (development team) – West Arete is a custom software development company based out of State College, PA that creates top-notch web applications, eCommerce sites, and mobile apps.
Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services (legal advice) – Fair Shake provides legal representation for modest means clients, gives community education presentations, and teaches young lawyers how to do the same.
Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (release event hosts) – Founded in 1945, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts is a non-profit community arts campus. The Center is where the community can create, see, support and learn about visual arts.
The Heinz Endowments (project funder) – The Heinz Endowments’ mission is to help our region thrive as a whole community – economically, ecologically, educationally and culturally – while advancing the state of knowledge and practice in the fields in which we work.