Posts

destroyed home following pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA

Unnatural Disasters

Guest blog by Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group

Roughly half of the homes in America use gas for providing heat, hot water or powering appliances. If you use gas in your home, you know that leaks are bad – they waste money, they pollute the air, and, if exposed to a spark, they could spell disaster.

Our homes, however, are only the end point of a vast production and transportation system that brings gas through a network of pipelines all the way from the wellhead to our kitchens. There are opportunities for wasteful and often dangerous leaks all along the way – leaks that threaten the public’s health and safety and contribute to climate change.

How frequent are gas leaks?

Between January 2010 and November 2018, there were a reported 1,888 incidents that involved a serious injury, fatality or major financial loss related to gas leaks in the production, transmission and distribution system, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. These incidents caused 86 deaths, 487 injuries and over $1 billion in costs.

When gas lines leak, rupture, or are otherwise damaged, the gas released can explode, sometimes right in our own backyards. Roughly one in seven of the incidents referenced above – 260 in total – involved an explosion.

In September 2018, for example, a series of explosions in three Massachusetts communities caused one death, numerous injuries and the destruction of as many as 80 homes. And there are many more stories like it from communities across the U.S. From the 2010 pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people and destroyed almost 40 homes to the 2014 disaster in New York City that destroyed two five-story buildings and killed eight people, these events serve as a powerful reminder of the danger posed by gas.

The financial and environmental costs

Gas leaks are also a sheer waste of resources. While some gas is released deliberately in the gas production process, large amounts are released unintentionally due to malfunctioning equipment, corrosion and natural causes like flooding. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 123,692 million cubic feet of gas were lost in 2017 alone, enough to power over 1 million homes for an entire year. That amount is likely an underestimate. On top of the major leaks reported to the government agency in charge of pipeline safety, many of our cities’ aging gas systems are riddled with smaller leaks, making it tricky to quantify just how much gas is lost from leaks in our nation’s gas system.

Leaks also threaten the stability of our climate because they release large amounts of methane, the main component of gas and a potent greenhouse gas. Gas is not the “cleaner” alternative to coal that the industry often makes it out to be. The amount of methane released during production and distribution is enough to reduce or even negate its greenhouse gas advantage over coal. The total estimated methane emissions from U.S. gas systems have roughly the same global warming impact over a 20-year period as all the carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal plants in 2015 – and methane emissions are likely higher than this amount, which is self-reported by the industry.

In most states, there is no strong incentive for gas companies to reduce the amount of leaked gas because they can still charge customers for it through “purchased gas adjustment clauses.” These costs to consumers are far from trivial. Between 2001 and 2011, Americans paid at least $20 billion for gas that never made it to their homes.

These and other dangers of gas leaks are described in a recent fact sheet by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. At a time when climate change is focusing attention on our energy system, it is critical that communities understand the full range of problems with gas – including the ever-present risk of leaks in the extensive network of infrastructure that brings gas from the well to our homes.

The alternative

We should not be using a fuel that endangers the public’s safety and threatens the stability of our climate. Luckily, we don’t have to. Switching to electric home heating and hot water systems and appliances powered by renewable energy would allow us to move toward eliminating carbon emissions from homes. Electric heat pumps are twice as efficient as gas systems in providing heat and hot water, making them a viable and commonsense replacement. Similarly, as the cost of wind and solar keep falling, they will continue to undercut gas prices in many regions.

It’s time to move beyond gas and create a cleaner, safer energy system.

By Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group, a non-profit think tank part of The Public Interest Network. She is based in Denver, Colorado.

Feature image at top of page shows San Bruno, California, following the 2010 pipeline explosion

Map of pipeline incidents across the US

Pipeline Incidents Continue to Impact Residents

Pipelines play a major role in the oil and gas extraction industry, allowing for the transport of hydrocarbons from well sites to a variety of infrastructure, including processing plants, petrochemical facilities, power generation plants, and ultimately consumers. There are more than 2.7 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines in the United States, or more than 11 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

With all of this infrastructure in place, pipelines are inevitably routed close to homes, schools, and other culturally or ecologically important locations. But how safe are pipelines, really? While they are typically buried underground and out of sight, many residents are concerned about the constant passage of volatile materials through these pipes in close proximity to these areas, with persistent but often unstated possibility that something might go wrong some day.

Safety talking points

In an attempt to assuage these fears, industry representatives and regulators tend to throw around variants of the word “safe” quite a bit:

Pipelines are the safest and most reliable means of transporting the nation’s energy products.
— Keith Coyle, Marcellus Shale Coalition

Although pipelines exist in all fifty states, most of us are unaware that this vast network even exists. This is due to the strong safety record of pipelines and the fact that most of them are located underground. Installing pipelines underground protects them from damage and helps protect our communities as well.
— Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

Pipelines are an extremely safe way to transport energy across the country.
Pipeline 101

Knowing how important pipelines are to everyday living is a big reason why we as pipeline operators strive to keep them safe. Pipelines themselves are one of the safest ways to transport energy with a barrel of crude oil or petroleum product reaching its destination safely by pipeline 99.999% of the time.
American Petroleum Institute

But are pipelines really safe?

Given these talking points, the general public can be excused for being under the impression that pipelines are no big deal. However, PHMSA keeps records on pipeline incidents in the US, and the cumulative impact of these events is staggering. These incidents are broken into three separate reports:

  1. Gas Distribution (lines that take gas to residents and other consumers),
  2. Gas Transmission & Gathering (collectively bringing gas from well sites to processing facilities and distant markets), and
  3. Hazardous Liquids (including crude oil, refined petroleum products, and natural gas liquids).

Below in Table 1 is a summary of pipeline incident data from 2010 through mid-November of this year. Of note: Some details from recent events are still pending, and are therefore not yet reflected in these reports.

Table 1: Summary of pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018

Report Incidents Injuries Fatalities Evacuees Fires Explosions Damages ($)
Gas Distribution 934 473 92 18,467 576 226 381,705,567
Gas Transmission & Gathering 1,069 99 24 8,614 121 51 1,107,988,837
Hazardous Liquids 3,509 24 10 2,471 111 14 2,606,014,109
Totals 5,512 596 126 29,552 808 291 4,095,708,513

Based on this data, on average each day in the US 1.7 pipeline incidents are reported (a number in line with our previous analyses), requiring 9 people to be evacuated, and causing almost $1.3 million in property damage. A pipeline catches fire every 4 days and results in an explosion every 11 days. These incidents result in an injury every 5 days, on average, and a fatality every 26 days.

Data shortcomings

While the PHMSA datasets are extremely thorough, they do have some limitations. Unfortunately, in some cases, these limitations tend to minimize our understanding of the true impacts. A notable recent example is a series of explosions and fires on September 13, 2018 in the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts. Cumulatively, these incidents resulted in the death of a young man and the injuries to 25 other people. There were 60-80 structure fires, according to early reports, as gas distribution lines became over-pressurized.

The preliminary PHMSA report lists all of these Massachusetts fires as a single event, so it is counted as one fire and one explosion in Table 1. As of the November 14 download of the data, property damage has not been calculated, and is listed as $0. The number of evacuees in the report also stands at zero. This serves as a reminder that analysis of the oil and gas industry can only be as good as the available data, and relying on operators to accurately self-report the full extent of the impacts is a somewhat dubious practice.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This map shows pipeline incidents in the US from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018. Source: PHMSA. One record without coordinates was discarded, and 10 records had missing decimal points or negative (-) signs added to the longitude values. A few obvious errors remain, such as a 2012 incident near Winnipeg that should be in Texas, but we are not in a position to guess at the correct latitude and longitude values for each of the 5,512 incidents.

Another recent incident occurred in Center Township, a small community in Beaver County, Pennsylvania near Aliquippa on September 10, 2018. According to the PHMSA Gas Transmission & Gathering report, this incident on the brand new Revolution gathering line caused over $7 million in damage, destroying a house and multiple vehicles, and required 49 people to evacuate. The incident was indicated as a fire, but not an explosion. However, reporting by local media station WPXI quoted this description from a neighbor:

A major explosion, I thought it was a plane crash honestly. My wife and I jumped out of bed and it was just like a light. It looked like daylight. It was a ball of flame like I’ve never seen before.

From the standpoint of the data, this error is not particularly egregious. On the other hand, it does serve to falsely represent the overall safety of the system, at least if we consider explosions to be more hazardous than fires.

Big picture findings

Comparing the three reports against one another, we can see that the majority of incidents (64%) and damages (also 64%) are caused by hazardous liquids pipelines, even though the liquids account for less than 8% of the total mileage of the network. In all of the other categories, however, gas distribution lines account for more than half of the cumulative damage, including injuries (79%), deaths (73%), evacuees (62%), fires (71%), and explosions (78%). This is perhaps due to the vast network (more than 2.2 million miles) of gas distribution mains and service lines, as well as their nature of taking these hazardous products directly into populated areas. Comparatively, transmission and hazardous liquids lines ostensibly attempt to avoid those locations.

Is the age of the pipeline a factor in incidents?

Among the available attributes in the incident datasets is a field indicating the year the pipeline was installed. While this data point is not always completed, there is enough of a sample size to look for trends in the data. We determined the age of the pipe by subtracting the year the pipe was installed from the year of the incident, eliminating nonsensical values that were created when the pipeline age was not provided. In the following section, we will look at two tables for each of the three reports. The first table shows the cause of the failure compared to the average age, and the second breaks down results by the content that the pipe was carrying. We’ll also include a histogram of the pipe age, so we can get a sense of how representative the average age actually is within the sample.

A. Gas distribution

Each table shows some fluctuation in the average age of pipeline incidents depending on other variables, although the variation in the product contained in the pipe (Table 3) are minor, and may be due to relatively small sample sizes in some of the categories. When examining the nature of the failure in relation to the age of the pipe (Table 2), it does make sense that incidents involving corrosion would be more likely to afflict older pipelines, (although again, the number of incidents in this category is relatively small). On average, distribution pipeline incidents occur on pipes that are 33 years old.

When we look at the histogram (Figure 1) for the overall distribution of the age of the pipeline, we see that those in the first bin, representing routes under 10 years of age, are actually the most frequent. In fact, the overall trend, excepting those in the 40 t0 50 year old bin, is that the older the pipeline, the fewer the number of incidents. This may reflect the massive scale of pipeline construction in recent decades, or perhaps pipeline safety protocol has regressed over time.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 1. Age of pipeline histogram for gas distribution line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

B. Gas Transmission & Gathering

Transmission & Gathering line incidents occur on pipelines routes that are, on average, five years older than their distribution counterparts. Corrosion, natural force damage, and material failures on pipes and welds occur on pipelines with an average age above the overall mean, while excavation and “other outside force” incidents tend to occur on newer pipes (Table 4). The latter category would include things like being struck by vehicles, damaged in wildfires, or vandalism. The contents of the pipe does not seem to have any significant correlation with the age of the pipe when we take sample size into consideration (Table 5).

The histogram (Figure 2) for the age of pipes on transmission & gathering line incidents below shows a more normal distribution, with the noticeable exception of the first bin (0 to 10 years old) ranking second in frequency to the fifth bin (40 to 50 years old).

It is worth mentioning that, “PHMSA estimates that only about 5% of gas gathering pipelines are currently subject to PHMSA pipeline safety regulations.” My correspondence with the agency verified that the remainder is not factored into their pipeline mileage or incident reports in any fashion. Therefore, we should not consider the PHMSA data to completely represent the extent of the gathering line network or incidents that occur on those routes.

Pipeline incidents chart

Figure 2. Age of pipeline histogram for transmission & gathering line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

C. Hazardous Liquids

The average incident on hazardous liquid lines occurs on pipelines that are 27 years old, which is 6 years younger than for distribution incidents, and 11 years younger than their transmission & gathering counterparts. This appears to be heavily skewed by the equipment failure and incorrect operation categories, both of which occur on pipes averaging 15 years old, and both with substantial numbers of incidents. On the other hand, excavation damage, corrosion, and material/weld failures tend to occur on pipes that are at least 40 years old (Table 6).

In terms of content, pipelines carrying carbon dioxide happen on pipes that average just 11 years old, although there are not enough of these incidents to account for the overall departure from the other two datasets (Table 7).

The overall shape of the histogram (Figure 3) is similar to that of transmission & gathering line incidents, except that the first bin (0 to 10 years old) is by far the most frequent, with more than 3 and a half times as many incidents as the next closest bin (4o to 50 years old). Operators of new hazardous liquid routes are failing at an alarming rate. In descending order, these incidents are blamed on equipment failure (61%), incorrect operation (21%), and corrosion (7%), followed by smaller amounts in other categories. The data indicate that pipelines installed in previous decades were not subject to this degree of failure.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 3. Age of pipeline histogram for hazardous liquid line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

Conclusions

When evaluating quotes, like those listed above, that portray pipelines as a safe way of transporting hydrocarbons, it’s worth taking a closer look at what they are saying.

Are pipelines the safest way of transporting our nation’s energy products? This presupposes that our energy must be met with liquid or gaseous fossil fuels. Certainly, crude shipments by rail and other modes of transport are also concerning, but movements of solar panels and wind turbines are far less risky.

Does the industry have the “strong safety record” that PHMSA proclaims? Here, we have to grapple with the fact that the word “safety” is inherently subjective, and the agency’s own data could certainly argue that the industry is falling short of reasonable safety benchmarks.

And what about the claim that barrels of oil or petroleum products reach their destination “99.999% of the time? First, it’s worth noting that this claim excludes gas pipelines, which account for 92% of the pipelines, even before considering that PHMSA only has records on about 5% of gas gathering lines in their pipeline mileage calculations. But more to the point, while a 99.999% success rate sounds fantastic, in this context, it isn’t good enough, as this means that one barrel in every 100,000 will spill.

For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline has a daily capacity of 470,000 barrels per day (bpd). In an average year, we can expect 1,715 barrels (72,030 gallons) to fail to reach its destination, and indeed, there are numerous spills reported in the course of routine operation on the route. The 590,000 bpd Keystone pipeline leaked 9,700 barrels (407,400 gallons) late last year in South Dakota, or what we might expect from four and a half years of normal operation, given the o.001% failure rate. In all, PHMSA’s hazardous liquid report lists 712,763 barrels (29.9 million gallons) were unintentionally released, while an additional 328,074 barrels (13.8 million gallons) were intentionally released in this time period. Of this, 284,887 barrels (12 million gallons) were recovered, meaning 755,950 barrels (31.7 million gallons) were not.

Beyond that, we must wonder whether the recent spate of pipeline incidents in new routes is a trend that can be corrected. Between the three reports, 1,283 out of the 3,853 (32%) incidents occurred in pipelines that were 10 years old or younger (where the year the pipeline’s age is known). A large number of these incidents are unforced errors, due to poor quality equipment or operator error.

One wonders why regulators are allowing such shoddy workmanship to repeatedly occur on their watch.


By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

Waiting on Answers - XTO incident image two weeks later

Waiting on Answers Weeks after a Well Explosion in Belmont County Ohio

Mar 7 Update: The well has finally been capped.

On February 15, 2018, officials evacuated residents after XTO Energy’s Schnegg gas well near Captina Creek exploded in the Powhatan Point area of Belmont County, Ohio. More than two weeks later, the well’s subsequent blowout has yet to be capped, and people want to know why. Here is what we know based on various reports, our Ohio oil and gas map, and our own fly-by on March 5th.

March 19th Update: This is footage of the Powhatan Point XTO Well Pad Explosion Footage from Ohio State Highway Patrol’s helicopter camera the day after the incident:


Powhatan Point XTO well pad explosion footage from Ohio State Highway Patrol

Cause of the Explosion

The well pad hosts three wells, one large Utica formation well, and two smaller ones. XTO’s representative stated that the large Utica well was being brought into production when the explosion occurred. The shut-off valves for the other two wells were immediately triggered, but the explosion caused a crane to fall on one of those wells. The representative claims that no gas escaped that well or the unaffected well.

Observers reported hearing a natural gas hiss and rumbling, as well as seeing smoke. The Powhatan Point Fire Chief reported that originally there was no fire, but that one later developed on the well pad. To make matters worse, reports later indicated that responders are/were dealing with emergency flooding on site, as well.

As of today, the Utica well that initially exploded is still releasing raw gas.

Site of the Feb 15th explosion on the XTO pad

Map of drilling operations in southeast Ohio, with the Feb 15, 2018 explosion on XTO Energy’s Schnegg gas well pad marked with a star. View dynamic map

Public Health and Safety

No injuries were reported after the incident. First responders from all over the country are said to have been called in, though the mitigation team is not allowed to work at night for safety reasons.

The evacuation zone is for any non-responders within a 1-mile radius of the site, which is located on Cat’s Run Road near State Route 148. Thirty (30) homes were originally evacuated within the 1-mile zone according to news reports, but recently residents within the outer half-mile of the zone were cleared to return – though some have elected to stay away until the issue is resolved completely. As of March 1, four homes within ½ mile of the well pad remain off limits.

The EPA conducted a number of site assessments right after the incident, including air and water monitoring. See here and here for their initial reports from February 17th and 20th, respectively. (Many thanks to the Ohio Environmental Council for sharing those documents.)

Much of the site’s damaged equipment has been removed. Access roads to the pad have been reinforced. A bridge was recently delivered to be installed over Cats Run Creek, so as to create an additional entrance and exit from the site, speaking to the challenges faced in drilling in rural areas. A portion of the crane that fell on the adjacent wellhead has been removed, and workers are continuing their efforts in removing the rest of the crane.


The above video by Earthworks is optical gas imaging that makes visible what is normally invisible pollution from XTO’s Powhatan Point well disaster. The video was taken on March 3, 2018, almost 3 weeks after the accident that started the uncontrolled release. Learn more about Earthworks’ video and what FLIR videos show.

An early estimate for the rate of raw gas being released from this well is 100 million cubic feet/day – more than the daily rate of the infamous Aliso Canyon natural gas leak in 2015/16. Unfortunately, little public information has been provided about why the well has yet to be capped or how much gas has been released to date.

Bird’s Eye View

On February 26, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted around the incident’s location. The TFR was supposed to lapse during the afternoon of March 5, however, due to complications at the site the TFR was extended to the evening of March 8. On March 5, we did a flyover outside of the temporary flight restriction zone, where we managed to capture a photo of the ongoing release through a valley cut. Many thanks to LightHawk and pilot Dave Warner for the lift.

Photo of the XTO Energy well site and its current emissions after the explosion two weeks ago. Many are still waiting on answers as to why the well has yet to be capped.

XTO Energy well site and ongoing emissions after the explosion over two weeks ago. Many are still waiting on answers as to why the well has yet to be capped. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, March 5, 2018. Aerial support provided by LightHawk

Additional resources

Per the Wheeling Intelligencer – Any local residents who may have been impacted by this incident are encouraged to call XTO’s claims phone number at 855-351-6573 or visit XTO’s community response command center at the Powhatan Point Volunteer Fire Department, located at 104 Mellott St. or call the fire department at 740-312-5058.

Sources:

Heavy equipment moves debris from the site of a house explosion April 17 in Firestone, Colo., which killed two people. (David Kelly / For The Times)

Risks from Colorado’s Natural Gas Storage and Transmission Systems

Given recent concerns about underground natural gas storage wells (UGS), FracTracker mapped UGS wells and fields in Colorado, as well as midstream transmission pipelines of natural gas that transport the gas from well sites to facilities for processing. Results show that 6,673 Colorado residents in 2,607 households live within a 2.5 mile evacuation radius of a UGS well. Additionally, the UGS fields with the largest number of “single-point-of-failure” high-risk storage wells are also the two fields in Colorado nearest communities.

Worst Case Scenario

A house exploding from a natural gas leak sounds straight out of a 19th century period drama, but this tragedy just recently occurred in Firestone, Colorado. How could this happen in 2017? We have seen pictures and read reports of blowouts and explosions at well sites, and know of the fight against big oil and natural gas pipelines across the country. At the same time we take for granted the natural gas range that heats our food to feed our families. The risk of harm is seemingly far removed from our stove tops, although it may be much closer to home than we think – There are documented occupational hazards and compartmentalized risks in moving natural gas off site.

Natural gas is an explosive substance, yet the collection of the gas from well sites remains largely industry-regulated. Unfortunately, it has become clear that production states like Colorado are not able to provide oversight, much less know where small pipelines are even located. This is particularly dangerous, since the natural gas in its native state is ordorless, colorless, and tasteless. Flowing in the pipelines between well sites and processing stations, natural gas does not contain the mercaptan that gives commercial natural gas its tell-tale odor. In fact, much of the natural gas or “product” is merely lost to the atmosphere, or much worse, can collect in closed spaces and reach explosive levels. This means that high, potentially explosive levels of methane may go undetected until far too late.

Mapping Flow Lines

As a result of the house explosion in Firestone on April 17th CO regulators are now requiring oil and gas operators to report the location of their collection flow pipelines, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Map of Gathering Pipeline “Flowlines”


View map fullscreen

The locations of the collection of pipeline “flowlines”, like the uncapped pipeline that caused the house explosion in Firestone, have been mapped by FracTracker Alliance (above). The dataset is not complete, as not all operators complied with the reporting deadline set by the COGCC. For residents living in the midst of Colorado’s oil and gas production zones, addresses can be typed into the search bar in the upper left corner of the map. Users can see if their homes are located near or on top of these pipelines. The original mapping was done by Inside Energy’s Jordan Wirfs-Brock.

Underground Storage

When natural gas is mixed with mercaptan and ready for market, operators and utility companies store the product in UGS fields. (EDIT – Research shows that in most cases natural gas in UGS fields is not yet mixed with mercaptan. Therefore leaks may go undetected more easily. Aliso Canyon was a unique case where the gas was being stored AFTER being mixed with mercaptan. Odorization is not legally required until gas moves across state lines in an interstate pipeline or is piped into transmission lines for commercial distribution.) In August 2016, a natural gas storage well at the SoCal Gas Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field failed causing the largest methane leak in U.S. history. The Porter Ranch community experienced health impacts including nosebleeds, migraines, respiratory and other such symptoms. Thousands of residents were evacuated. While Aliso Canyon was the largest leak, it was by no means a unique case.

FracTracker has mapped the underground natural gas storage facilities in Colorado, and the wells that service the facilities. As can be seen below, there are 10 storage fields in Colorado, and an 11th one is planned. All the fields used for storage in Colorado are previously depleted oil and gas production fields. The majority of storage wells used to be production wells. All sites are shown in the map below (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Map of Natural Gas Underground Storage Facilities


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Impacted Populations

Our analysis of Colorado natural gas storage facilities shows that 6,673 Colorado residents living in 2,607 households live within a 2.5 mile evacuation radius of a UGS well. The majority of those Coloradans (5,422) live in Morgan County, with 2,438 in or near the city of Fort Morgan. The city of Fort Morgan is surrounded by the Young Gas Storage Facility with a working capacity of 5,790,049 MCF and Colorado Interstate Gas Company with a working capacity of 8,496,000 MCF.

By comparison, the failure in Aliso Canyon leaked up to 5,659,000 MCF. A leak at either of these facilities could, therefore, result in a similar or larger release.

UGS Well Risk Assessment

A FracTracker co-founder and colleague at Harvard University recently completed a risk assessment of underground natural gas storage wells across the U.S. The analysis identified the storage wells shown in the map above (Figure 1) and defined a number of “design deficiencies” in wells, including “single-point-of-failure” designs that make the wells vulnerable to leaks and failures. Results showed that 2,715 of the total 14,138 active UGS wells across the country were constructed using similar techniques as the Aliso Canyon failed well.

Applying this assessment to the wells in Colorado, FracTracker finds the following:

  • There are a total of 357 UGS wells in Colorado.
  • 220 of which are currently active.
  • Of those 220 UGS wells, they were all drilled between 1949 and 1970.
  • 43 of the UGS wells are repurposed production wells.
  • 40 of those repurposed wells are the highest risk single barrier wells.

Specifically focusing on the UGS fields surrounding the city of Fort Morgan:

  • 21 single barrier wells are located in the Flank field 2.5 miles North of the city.
  • 13 single barrier wells are located in the Fort Morgan field 2.5 miles South of the city.

We originally asked how something as terrible as Firestone could have occurred. Collectively we all want to believe this was an isolated incident. Sadly, the data suggest the risk is higher than originally thought: The fields with the largest number of “single-point-of-failure” high-risk UGS wells are also the two fields in Colorado nearest communities. While the incident in Firestone is certainly heartbreaking, we hope regulators and operators can use the information in this analysis to avoid future catastrophes.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Feature Image: Heavy equipment moves debris from the site of a house explosion April 17, 2017 in Firestone, Colorado, which killed two people. (David Kelly / For The Times)

CA Crude Oil by Rail Shipments and Railway Accidents

CA Crude Oil by Rail Shipments and Railway Accidents

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Incidents in California involving oil-by-rail cars increased from 3 in 2011 to 25 in 2013. There were 24 incidents within the first 6 months of 2014, and oil spills from rail cars increased from 98 in 2010 to 182 in 2013.1 With such an increase in oil train incidents, we have to ask what the state is doing to protect public safety.

CA Crude Oil by Rail – The Status Quo

California is currently far behind states like New Hampshire and Minnesota that have taken more control over in-state hazards, and have passed laws aimed at forcing rail and pipeline companies to abide by more rigorous emergency response measures instead of relying on the federal government and undertaking state-level spill response plans. These state movements are in response to the existing federal oversight, which critics cite as inadequate.2

State environmental health officials have acknowledged the dangers of a derailment, but have downplayed the risk – comparing the hazard of an incident to be similar to ethanol or gasoline, based on volatility. They do not believe oil train derailments are as hazardous as other materials transported by rail such as chlorine or ammonia. The bigger concern, though, is the huge volume of Bakken crude oil that is being shipped by rail. A recent report by the State of California Interagency Rail Safety Working group acknowledged this and identified key vulnerabilities along CA rail lines; Destinations of the crude trains in CA are the Bay Area via the Feather River or Donner Pass, Bakersfield via the Tehachapi Pass, and Los Angeles via the same route. These routes pass through the state’s most densely populated areas, as well as through some of the state’s most sensitive ecological areas, and each route has at least one high hazard area for derailments. Other issues identified include the impact of earthquakes on trains and rail lines and a shortage of emergency response capacity.

At-Risk Populations

A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council used census data to identify at risk-populations for communities living near the rail lines that can be used for transporting shipments. The analysis identified a total of nearly four million people in the Bay Area and the Central Valley alone that live within 1 mile (the U.S. DOT isolation zone for a crude tanker fire) of a crude shipment rail line. The authors go on to provide the following recommendations to prevent crude oil train accidents:

  1. Remove Defective, Dangerous Tankers from Crude by Rail Service
  2. Impose Safer Speed Limits
  3. Reroute Around Sensitive Areas
  4. Provide Emergency Responder Resources
  5. Make Additional operational Safety and Oversight Improvements
  6. Exercise Local Government Powers4

Crude Oil Shipment Trends

Support of these recommendations is most important as more crude shipments in CA are on the horizon. A recent permit application by the Phillips 66 oil company included a proposal to use Amtrak passenger lines to transport Bakken crude through the San Francisco Bay Area. A review of the proposal by Hinman Consulting Engineers found that over the next 30 years, there is an approximate 28% risk of derailment in the heavily populated stretches of Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Santa Clara, San Jose and others. This estimate is assuming there is no increase in shipping volumes. The damage of an accident was estimated by the researchers, and the analysis showed that approximately 47,000 households and $22 billion in improved property value lay within the projected blast zone, 1000 feet from the railway. A projection of the damage from a single accident estimated that an average of 117 households along with $244 million in property value could be destroyed. Hinman also stated that “this figure does not include loss of revenue, environmental cleanup costs, loss of human life, or other societal costs.”5 A proposal by Valero Refining Co. plans to ship 100 crude oil tank cars a day through downtown Sacramento and downtown Davis to Benicia.

Responses by CA Regulators and Railroads

To plan for this increase in rail traffic, Sacramento passed a shipping charge to prevent and manage spills that will result in $11 million in 2015. Another bill has been introduced to impose a second shipping fee on oil companies to train and equip first responders to deal with major spills and fires on railroad lines. An additional bill was also authored requiring rail carriers to communicate more closely with state emergency officials about crude oil rail movements.6

The map below shows where spills and train accidents have occurred in CA since 2011. When zoomed out the map shows areas with higher incidence rates of accidents, but when zoomed to a higher resolution the map differentiates the accidents by year.7

CA Crude Oil by Rail and Railroad Accidents

View Full Screen

In the map above, a hot spot analysis shows the frequency of railroad accidents, such as derailments. Areas with the highest incidence rates are shown in yellow. The actual locations and descriptions with dates of these accidents can be seen by zooming in using the plus (+) button in the top left corner of the map, and clicking on a diamond symbol. Shown in red and green are the BNSF and other railroad lines used for the transportation of crude by rail.

BNSF Route

Figure taken from BNSF’s U.S. DOT disclosure to the state of California for emergency preparedness.9

From what little data has been released, it is clear that BNSF railway intends to ship two Bakken crude trains per week carrying more than one million gallons of crude through the CA counties of Butte, Contra Costa, Lassen, Modoc, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Yuba.8 The same information from Union Pacific Railroad has not been made public by the state of CA. The route shown in the figure to the right has been mapped in the FracTracker Alliance’s California Crude Shipment Routes and Railroad Accidents map above. From the map, you can see that there have been numerous accidents already on this BNSF rail line, particularly near Stockton and in the heavily populated North Bay Area.

References

  1. California Office of Emergency Services. 5/6/14. Historical HazMat Spill Notifications. Accessed 3/8/15.
  2. Douglas E. 6/16/14. 2 States Beef Up Oil-by-Rail and Pipeline Safety After String of Accidents. Inside Climate News. Accessed 3/9/15.
  3. Interagency Rail Safety Working Group. 6/10/14. Oil by Rail Safety in California. California Office of Emergency Services.
  4. Bailey D. 6/2014. It Could Happen Here: The Exploding Threat of Crude by Rail in California. Natural Resources Defense Council. Accessed 3/10/15.
  5. Reis E & Coughlin A. 6/6/2014. New Proposed Oil Transportation Calls for Rational, Risk-Based Mitigation Approach. Hinman Consulting Engineers. Accessed 3/11/15
  6. Bizjak T. 6/16/14. California to impose fee on crude oil rail shipments; funds to be used for spill prevention, cleanup. The Sacramento Bee. Accessed 3/10/15.
  7. U.S. DOT. 5/7/2014. Emergency Order. Docket No. DOT-OST-2014-0067. Accessed 3/10/15.
  8. California Public Utilities Commission. 2015. Railroad Safety and Operations. Accessed 3/8/15.
  9. U.S. DOT. 9/30/14. Re: U.S. Department of Transportation Emergency Order Docket Number DOT-OST-2014-0067 (Issued May 7, 2014). Accessed 3/10/15.

In-depth Review of the Statoil Well Pad Fire

Commentary on Shale Gas Operations: First in a Series of Articles
By Bill Hughes, Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Statoil Well Pad Fire: June 28-29, 2014

The early riser residents along Long Ridge Road in Monroe County are among the first in Ohio to see the sun coming up over the West Virginia hills.  It rose about 6:00 am on the morning of June 28th.  Everyone assumed that this would be a normal Saturday morning.  Well, at least as normal as it had been for the better part of two years since the site preparation and drilling started.

For those residents on Long Ridge who were not early risers, the blaring sirens, the smell of acrid smoke, and the presence of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles shortly after 9:00 am must surely have made them wonder if they were in the midst of a nightmare. A quick glance outside toward the Statoil Eisenbarth well pad and they would have seen this view:

Statoil 1

Figure 1. View from the southeast, as the fire spread on Sat. June 28th

The image in Fig. 1 would be enough to make most folks feel somewhat panicky and consider evacuating the neighborhood. That is exactly what soon happened – definitely not the start of a normal Saturday morning.

Adjusting to the New Normal

The traffic in the area had been a problem ever since site preparation started on the nearby well pad. The State expected the drillers to keep up the road. Crews also provided lead escort vehicles to help the many big trucks negotiate the narrow road way and to clear the residential traffic. Access to the well site required trucks to climb a two-mile hill up to the ridge top.

Statoil 2

Fig. 2. Neighbors’ views of the fire

Until June 28th, most folks had become accustomed to the extra noise, diesel fumes, and congestion and delays that always come with any shale gas well exploration and development in the Marcellus shale gas active area. Most of the neighbors had gotten used to the new normal and reluctantly tolerated it. Even that was about to change, dramatically.  As the sun got higher in the eastern sky over WV, around 9:00 AM, suddenly the sky started to turn dark. Very dark. Sirens wailed. Red trucks started a frenzied rush down Long Ridge from all directions. There was a fire on the well pad. Soon it became a very large, all consuming fire.  Smoke, fire, bitter fumes, and no one seemed to know yet exactly what had happened, and what was likely to happen soon.

This gas well location, called the Eisenbarth pad, recently changed operators. In January 2013, the well pad property and its existing well and equipment were bought out by Statoil, a company based in Norway.  Statoil had since drilled seven more wells, and even more were planned.  The original single well was in production.  Now in late spring and early summer of 2014 the new wells were to be “fracked.”  That means they were ready to be hydraulically fractured, a procedure that follows the completion of the drilling process.

Statoil hired as their fracturing sub-contractor Halliburton. All of the fracturing pump trucks, sand kings, Sand Castles, and control equipment were owned and operated by Halliburton.  The fracturing process had been ongoing for some weeks when the fire started. The eastern Ohio neighbors now watched ~$25 million worth of equipment go up in smoke and flames (Fig. 2). The billowing smoke was visible for over 10 miles.

Industrial accidents are not rare in the Ohio Valley

Many of the residents nearby had worked in the coal mining industry, aluminum plants, chemical plants, or the coal fired power plant that were up and down the Ohio River. Many had since retired and had their own industrial accident stories to tell. These were frequently private stories, however, which mostly just their co-workers knew about. In an industrial plant, the common four walls and a roof kept the dangerous processes confined and enabled a trained response to the accidents. The traditional, industrial workplace had well-proven, customized workplace safety standards.  Professional maintenance personnel were always nearby.  In stark contrast, unconventional gas well pads located in our rural communities are very different. They are put in our hayfields, near our homes, in our pastures and just down the road. You cannot hide a community accident like this.

Sept 2014 Update: Video of the fire, Copyright Ed Wade, Jr.

Print Media Coverage of the Fire

Within days, many newspapers were covering the well pad fire story. The two nearby weekly newspapers, one in Monroe County, Ohio and the other in Wetzel County, West Virginia both had detailed, long articles the following week.

Statoil 3

Fig. 3. View from the east as the fire started

The Monroe County Beacon on July 2, 2014 said that the fire spread quickly from the small original fire which was totally surrounded within the tangled complex of equipment and high pressure piping.  Early Saturday morning, the first responder would likely have seen a rather small somewhat localized fire as shown in Fig. 2. The photo to the right (Fig. 3) is the view from the east, where the access road is on Long Ridge road. This point is the only access into the Statoil well pad. The view below, showing some still intact tanker trucks in the foreground, is looking west toward the well location. Pay attention to the couple of trucks still visible.

The Monroe County emergency director said it was his understanding that the fire began with a ruptured hydraulic hose. The fluid then ignited on a hot surface. He said, “…by 9:10 AM the fire had spread to other pumps on the location and was spreading rapidly over the well pad.”   Emergency responders needed water now, lots of it. There is only one narrow public road to the site at the top of a very long, steep hill and only one narrow entrance to the densely congested equipment on the pad.  Many Volunteer Fire Departments from both Ohio and West Virginia responded.  A series of tanker trucks began to haul as much water to the site as possible.  The combined efforts of all the fire departments were at best able to control or contain but not extinguish the powerful, intensely hot and growing blaze.  The Volunteer firemen did all they could. The EMS director and Statoil were very grateful for the service of the Volunteer Fire Departments. There was a major loss of most equipment, but none of the 45-50 workers on site were injured.

Statoil 4

Fig. 4. Well pad entrance

The article from the Wetzel Chronicle also praised the coordinated effort of all the many fire departments. At first they attempted to fight the fire, and then prudently focused on just trying to limit the damage and hoping it did not spread to the well heads and off the well pad itself. The New Martinsville fire chief also said that,  “… the abundance of chemicals and explosives on the site, made attempts to halt the fire challenging, if not nearly impossible… Numerous plans to attack the fire were thwarted each time by the fires and numerous explosions…”  The intense heat ignited anything nearby that was at all combustible. There was not much choice but to let the fire burn out.

Eventually the view at the well pad entrance as seen from the east (Fig. 3) would soon look like the overhead view (Fig. 5). This aerial imagery shows what little remained after the fire was out – just some aluminum scrap melted into the decking is left of the original, white Hydrochloric Acid tanker truck. Everything near it is has almost vaporized.

Statoil 5

Figure 5. Post-fire equipment identification

Efforts to Limit the Fire

Statoil 6

Fig. 6. Protected white trailer

An excellent example of VFD’s successfully limiting the spread of the fire and controlling the extreme heat can be seen in the photo to the right (Fig. 6). This white storage trailer sure seems to be a most favored, protected, special and valuable container. It was.

It was filled with some particularly dangerous inventory. The first EPA report explains it thus:

A water curtain was maintained, using pump lines on site, to prevent the fire from spreading to a trailer containing 1,100 pounds of SP Breaker (an oxidizer), 200 pounds of soda ash and compressed gas cylinders of oxygen (3-2000 lb.), acetylene (2-2000 lb.), propane (6-20 lb.), among miscellaneous aerosol cans.

Statoil 7

Fig. 7. Post-fire pad layout

Yes, this trailer got special treatment, as it should. It contained some hazardous material.  It was also at the far southwest corner of the well pad with minimal combustibles near it.  That was also the closest corner to the nearby holding pond, which early on might have held fresh water. Now the holding pond is surely very contaminated from flowback and runoff.

The trailer location can be seen in the picture to the right in the red box (Fig. 7), which also shows the complete well pad and surrounding area. However, in comparison to the one white storage trailer, the remainder of the well pad did not fare so well. It was all toast, and very burned toast at that.

Columbus Dispatch and the Fish Kill

Besides the two local newspapers, and Wheeling Jesuit researchers, the Columbus Dispatch also covered the story and provided more details on the 3- to 5-mile long fish kill in the stream below the well pad. Additional facts were added by the two EPA reports:

Those reports list in some detail many of the chemicals, explosives, and radiological components on the well pad.  Reader note: Get out your chemical dictionary, or fire up your Google search. A few excerpts from the first EPA report are provided below.

…Materials present on the Pad included but was not limited to: diesel fuel, hydraulic oil, motor oil, hydrochloric acid, cesium-137 sources, hydrotreated light petroleum distillates, terpenes, terpenoids, isoproponal, ethylene glycol, paraffinic solvents, sodium persulfate, tributyl tetradecyl phosphonium chloride and proprietary components… The fire and explosion that occurred on the Eisenbarth Well Pad involved more than 25,000 gallons of various products that were staged and/or in use on the site… uncontained run-off was exiting the site and entering an unnamed tributary of Opossum Creek to the south and west and flowback water from the Eisenbarth Well #7 was spilling onto the well pad.

Reader Warning:  If you found the above list overly alarming, you might choose to skip the next equally disturbing list. Especially since you now know that this all eventually flowed into our Ohio River.

The EPA report continues with more specific chemical products involved in the fire:

Initial reports identified the following products were involved and lost in the fire: ~250 gallons of hydrochloric acid (28%), ~7,040 gallons of GasPerm 1000 (terpenes, terpenoids, isopropanol, citrus extract, proprietary components), ~330 gallons of LCA-1 (paraffinic solvents), ~ 1900 gallons of LGC-36 UC (hydrotreated light petroleum distillate, guar gum), ~1000 gallons of BC-140 (monoethanolamine borate, ethylene glycol), ~3300 gallons of BE-9 (tributyl tetradecyl phosphonium chloride), ~30,000 gallons of WG-36 (polysaccharide gel), ~1,000 gallons of FR-66 (hydrotreated light petroleum distillate), ~9000 gallons of diesel fuel, ~300 gallons of motor and hydraulic oil.

Even more details of the incident and the on-site chemicals are given in the required Statoil 30-day report (PDF).

The EPA reports detail the “sheet” flow of unrestricted contaminated liquids off of the well pad during and after the fire. They refer to the west and south sides. The below Google Earth-based map (Fig. 8) shows the approximate flow from the well pad. The two unnamed tributaries join to form Opossum Creek, which then flows into the Ohio River four miles away.

Statoil 8

Figure 8. Map showing path of unrestricted flow off of the Statoil well pad due to a lack of berm

After describing some of the known chemicals on the well pad, the EPA report discusses the construction of a new berm, and where the liquid components flowed. Below is a selection of many excerpts strung together, from many days, taken directly from the EPA reports:

…unknown quantities of products on the well pad left the Site and entered an unnamed tributary of Opossum Creek that ultimately discharges to the Ohio River. Runoff left the pad at various locations via sheet flow….Initial inspections in the early hours of June 29, 2014 of Opossum Creek approximately 3.5 miles downstream of the site identified dead fish in the creek…. Equipment was mobilized to begin constructing an earthen berm to contain runoff and to flood the pad to extinguish remaining fires…. Once fires were extinguished, construction of a berm near the pad was begun to contain spilled liquids and future runoff from the well pad… Statoil continued construction of the containment berm currently 80% complete. (6-30-14)… Assessment of chemicals remaining on the well pad was completed. The earthen berm around the pad was completed,  (7-2-14)… ODNR Division of Wildlife completed their in stream assessment of the fish kill and reported an estimated 70,000 dead fish from an approximately 5 mile stretch extending from the unnamed tributary just west of the Eisenbarth Well Pad to Opossum Creek just before its confluence with the Ohio River… Fish collection was completed. In total, 11,116 dead fish were collected (20 different species), 3,519 crustaceans, 7 frogs and 20 salamanders.

The overall conclusion is clear. Large quantities of various chemicals, mixed with very large amounts of already contaminated water, when flooding a well pad that had no berms around it, resulted in a significant fish kill over several miles. After the fire Statoil then constructed a berm around the well pad. If there had been a pre-existing berm – just 12 inches high and level – around the well pad, it could have held over 600,000 gallons of runoff. That amount is twice the estimated quantity of water used to fight the fire.  (Note: my old 35 HP farm tractor and a single bottom plow can provide a 12-inch high mound of dirt in one pass.)

The significance for safe, potable drinking water, is that all the chemicals and petroleum products on the well pad either burned and went up in a toxic plume of black smoke, or were released in liquid form down into the well pad or flowed off of it. Since the original liner on the well pad also completely burned and there was no overall berm on the well pad, there was nothing to restrict the flow of polluted liquid. Therefore, it all seeped into the ground and/or ran off of the pad with the 300,000 gallons of water that was estimated to have been sprayed onto the burning equipment fire.

Follow Up Questions

Since this fire happened over 6 weeks ago, there have been many opportunities for nearby citizens and neighbors to meet and discuss their many concerns.  Many of the question have revolved around the overall lack of information about the process of shale gas fracturing, the equipment used, and the degree of risk that it all may present to our communities. These communities include the nearby residents, the travelling public, and all of the first responders. Unless someone has a well pad on or near their property and they are able to actively follow the process, it is usually difficult to find out the details of a specific gas operation. (We have even known of operators that have told landowners to get off of their own property both during drilling and fracturing operations and afterwards.)

Questions that follow incidents like this one typically look like this:

  1. Why was there no perimeter berm?
  2. Why could the fire not be put out quickly and easily? What all was lost? What did this site look like in the beginning?
  3. Why was there so much equipment onsite? Is this typical? What is it all called and how is it used?

1. Lack of Berm

The first and somewhat unanswered question concerns the absence of a simple containment berm around the completed well pad. Statoil must not have thought one would be very helpful, and/or the State of Ohio must not require them.

However, I had raised concern over this very topic more than a year ago from WV. In response, I received a letter in September 2013 from Statoil North America to the WVDEP. It provides some insight into Statoil thinking. Based on my interpretation of that letter, the official position of Statoil last year was that berms around the well pad do not help and are not needed. Given the recent fire, perhaps that position has changed. All we know for sure now is that at least their Eisenbarth well pad now does have a complete perimeter berm. We now have empirical proof, if any was ever needed, that in the presence of spills the absence of berms makes for greater and more expensive downstream problems.

2. An Obstinate Fire

Setting aside the berm problem, I will attempt to address the next set of questions: Why could the fire not be put out quickly and easily? What all was lost ? What did this site look like in the beginning?

The simplest way to start on such questions is to look at other hydraulic fracturing sites to identify what is there and why, and then to compare those with the charred remains on the Statoil Eisenbarth well pad in Monroe County.  Since Statoil’s contractor was Halliburton, it would help to look at their equipment when in process elsewhere.  In Figure 9 below is a clean, bright red and grey Halliburton fracking fleet.

Statoil 9

Figure 9. Example of Halliburton fracking fleet

It needs to be stated up front that I consider Halliburton to be among one of the more reputable, experienced, and dependable fracturing companies. We have seen way worse here in Wetzel County over the past seven years. Halliburton has good equipment and well-trained, safety-conscious employees. It seems to be a well-run operation. If so, then how did this massive fire happen? It simply seems that it is the nature of the beast; there are many inherent dangers to such operations. Plus there is an enormous amount of equipment on site, close coupled and stuffed into a small amount of real estate. Not to mention, the whole setup is temporary – with a lot of fuel and ignition sources. Therefore, many of the available engineered-in safeguards that would normally be installed in an industrial, fixed, permanent location, just cannot be incorporated on my neighbor’s hay field, creek bottom, or farmland.

The whole process has many risks, and many of them cannot be eliminated, just minimized. I do not think that anyone could have predicted a weak hydraulic hose. Some accidents are just that — unpreventable accidents. This is why we need to be very careful with how close we allow these sites in residential areas.

3. Serious Equipment

In Figure 10 below is a wide-angle composite photo of a Halliburton fracturing project in process. Given the shallow angle viewpoint, not all equipment is visible or numbered. The photo is still very representative of frac sites in general and equivalent to what can be seen in the scorched remains on the Statoil Eisenbarth site. The major qualification on the fracturing pumps above and the ones below, is that they are a newer generation of Halliburton dual fuel pumps. They can run on natural gas.

Statoil 10

Figure 10. Halliburton fracturing project in process

Just about everything seen in the above bright red and grey hardware can be seen in Figure 11’s charred leftovers on the Statoil site from July 5, 2014 below (six days after the fire). It is also all Halliburton equipment. The quantities and arrangement are different, but the equipment and process are the same. The numbers on the provided legend or chart should help identify the specific pieces of equipment. The newly constructed containment berm is also clearly visible here.

Statoil 11

Figure 11. Statoil site post-fire equipment identification

The above or a similar photo has been seen by many neighbors both in OH and WV. Hardly anyone can recognize what they are looking at. Even those people who are somewhat familiar with general hydraulic fracturing operations are puzzled. Nothing is obvious when viewing charred remains of burned iron, steel, and melted aluminum. All tires (over 400 of them) have been burned off the rims. Every bit of rubber, foam, composites, plastics and fiberglass truck cabs has been consumed – which is what made the black plume of smoke potentially so dangerous.

Statoil 12

Fig. 12. 16 fracturing pumps

Statoil 13

Fig. 13. 18-wheeler

What might not be so obvious is why the fire could not be extinguished.

If we look at a close-up of a small section of the well pad (Fig. 12) it is easy to see how crowded the well pad is during fracturing. The 16 fracturing pumps are all the size of a full-length 18-wheel tractor trailer (Fig. 13). Note the three fuel tanks.

The fire began between the blender-mixer trucks and the 16 hydraulic fracturing pumps. The blenders were between the fracturing pumps and the sand kings. Halliburton always keeps fire extinguishers available at every truck. They are put on the ground in front of every pump truck. Everyone knows where to find them. However, on any fracking project that location is also the most congested area. The fracturing pumps are usually parked no more than two feet apart. It is just enough room for an operator or maintenance fellow to get between them. With high pressure fluid spraying and the fire already started and now spreading, there is precious little room to maneuver or to work. It is a plumbing nightmare with the dozens of high pressure pipes connecting all the pumps together and then to a manifold. In those conditions, in the face of multiple fuel sources, then the many small explosions, prudence and self-preservation dictates a swift retreat.

To their credit, Halliburton employees knew when to retreat. No one was injured. We just burned up some trucks (and killed some fish). All the employees and all the first responders were able to go home safely, uninjured, to their families and friends. They survived a very dangerous situation to come back again in the service of their employer or their community. We wish them well.

Some Observations and Conclusions

  1. The hydraulic fracturing process is dangerous, even when done properly.
  2. Environmental and employee safeguards must be in place because “accidents will happen.”
  3. Setbacks from personal farm and residential buildings must be great enough to protect all.
  4. Setbacks from streams and creeks and rivers must be taken very seriously, especially when private or municipal water supply systems are downstream.
  5. Our communities must know what all chemicals are being used so that correct lab protocols are established ahead of time to test for contamination.

This now ends this first article addressing the Statoil Fire, its burned fracturing equipment, and the resulting water contamination. Later, I will show many examples of the quantity of equipment used on fracturing sites and why it is there. You patient readers thought this would never end. You now know more about Statoil, well pad fires, and fracturing hardware than you ever wanted to know. We will soon address the more generic questions of fracturing equipment.

Oil Transportation and Accidents by Rail

Lac-Mégantic train explosion on July 6, 2013.  Photo by TSB of Canada.

Lac-Mégantic train explosion on July 6, 2013. Photo by Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

On July 5, 2013, the lone engineer of a Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA) train arrived in Nantes, Quebec, set both the hand and air brakes, finished up his paperwork. He then left the train parked on the main line for the night, unattended atop a long grade. Five locomotives were pulling 72 tanker cars of oil, each containing 30,000 gallons of volatile crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation. During the night, the lead locomotive caught fire, so the emergency responders cut off the engine, as per protocol.  However, that action led to a loss of pressure of the air brakes.  The hand brakes (which were supposed to have been sufficient by themselves) failed, and the train began to run away. By the time it reached Lac-Mégantic early the next morning, the unattended cars were traveling 65 mph.  When the train reached the center of town, 63 tank cars derailed and many of those exploded, tragically killing 47 people in a blaze that took over two days to extinguish.

With that event came a heightened awareness of the risks of transporting volatile petroleum products by rail.  A derailment happened on a BNSF line near Casselton, North Dakota on December 30, 2013. This train was then struck by a train on an adjacent track, igniting another huge fireball, although this one was luckily just outside of town.  On April 30, 2014, a CSX train derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, setting the James River on fire, narrowly avoiding the dense downtown area of the city of 75,000 people.


North American petroleum transportation by rail. Click on the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner to access the full screen map with additional tools and description.

Regulators in the US and Canada are scrambling to keep up.  DOT-111 tank cars were involved in all of these incidents, and regulators seek to phase them out over the next two years. These cars account for 69% of the fleet of tank cars in the US, however, and up to 80% in Canada.  Replacing these cars will be a tough task in the midst of the oil booms in the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays, which have seen crude by rail shipments increase from less than 5,000 cars in 2006 to over 400,000 cars in 2013.

This article is the first of several reports by the FracTracker Alliance highlighting safety and environmental concerns about shipping petroleum and related products by rail. The impacts of the oil and gas extraction industry do not end at the wellhead, but are a part of a larger system of refineries, power plants, and terminals that span the continent.

Oil and Gas Explosions Are Fairly Common

On Monday morning, a man was killed by an explosion at an oil well in Bolivar, Ohio. The man is believed to have been an employee working on the site, but his identity won’t be released until it is confirmed with dental records.

This wasn’t big news in Pittsburgh, even though Bolivar is just a two hour drive from here. But why not? Is it because the incident was across state lines, or because tragedies of this sort are actually fairly routine? The answer, I think, is “both”.

In yesterday’s Pipeline, the Post-Gazette reported on a story of President Obama talking energy policy in Cincinnati. This is hardly comparable, because the words of the President are routinely discussed in national and international media. The same is not true of accidents, even those leading to fatalities, unless the number of victims or the amount of property damage is exceptionally high.

I’m not suggesting that every incident that leads to a fatality is necessarily deserving of nationwide coverage, but in some cases, the model of regional coverage can keep people from realizing that dangerous patterns exist.

As I was trying to research the incident, I kept finding more and more of them, some of which I was already aware of, some of which I was not. Here are a few examples from the past two years:

A gas explosion occurred in Northeast Philly in Jan. 2011. A firefighter moves a hose line at the scene. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer) (Joshua Mellman)

  • San Bruno, CA-September 9, 2010 A 30 inch pipeline exploded, killing eight, destroying 38 properties, and damaging many more. After checking several sources, I could not find a total number of injuries. The blast left a crater 167 feet long by 27 feet wide by 40 feet deep. PG&E blamed the 2010 blast on a strength test conducted on the pipe in 1956.  Reporters covering the story initially thought the fireball might have been due to a plane crash.
  • McKean County, PA-December 12, 2010 and February 28, 2011 In separate incidents, two houses with a few miles of each other exploded without warning. The Pennsylvania DEP suspected the methane migration was due to, abandoned wells in the area, the closest of which was drilled in 1881.
  • Philadelphia, PA-January 18, 2011 A Philadelphia Gas Works employee was killed and five others were injured in this blast. The workers were trying to repair a broken gas main when a furnace glow plug ignited vapors inside a building. (Photo right)
  • Allentown, PA-February 10, 2011 Five were killed and about a dozen more were injured in a giant blast and fire that destroyed eight properties and damaged 47 others. As of this February, investigators were not close to explaining the cause of the explosion.
  • Hanoverton, OH-February 10, 2011 On the same night as the deadly Allentown blast, there was a pipeline explosion in this Ohio town. One building was damaged, but nobody was hurt in the explosion and subsequent fire that could be seen for miles.
  • Avella, PA-March 25, 2011 Three workers were hospitalized when storage tanks exploded and caught fire when a volatile vapor was somehow ignited at this natural gas well site.
  • Glouster, OH-November 16, 2011 This pipeline explosion was so strong it was felt 12 miles away. Three houses and a barn were destroyed in the blast, and one woman was hospitalized, but there was no word of fatalities.
  • Springville, PA No injuries were reported at this compressor station blast in northeastern Pennsylvania, but it blew a hole in the roof of the facility and was felt a half mile away.
  • Norphlet, AR-May 21, 2012 Three workers were killed in this blast near El Dorado, Arkansas, which according to the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), was set off while doing “hot” work such as welding or cutting in an area with hazardous vapors.

    CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said, “This unfortunate tragedy in Arkansas involving the deaths of three workers is the kind of hot work accident that occurs much too frequently. The CSB has investigated too many of these accidents which can be prevented by carefully monitoring for flammable vapor before and during hot work.”

This list is by no means comprehensive. In fact, after the incident in Allentown, Carl Weimer of the organization Pipeline Safety Trust was quoted in the USA Today:

Transporting natural gas by pipeline is the safest way to move that energy. Still, every nine or 10 days on average someone ends up dead or in the hospital from these pipelines. More needs to be done for safety.

And of course, pipelines are only one part of the problem.