Ohio continues to increase fracked gas production, facilitated by access to freshwater and lax radioactive waste disposal requirements.
Map: Ohio Quarterly Utica Oil and Gas Production along with Quarterly Wastewater Disposal
A little under a year ago, FracTracker released a map and associated analysis, “A Disturbing Tale of Diminishing Returns in Ohio,” with respect to Utica oil and gas production, highlighting the increasing volume of waste injected in wastewater disposal wells, and trends in lateral length in fracked wells from 2010 to 2018. In this article, I’ll provide an update on Ohio’s Utica oil and gas production in 2018 and 2019, the demands on freshwater, and waste disposal. After looking at the data, I recommend that we holistically price our water resources and the ways in which we dispose of the industry’s radioactive waste in order to minimize negative externalities.
Recently, I’ve been inspired by the works of Colin Woodward and Marvin Harris, who outline the struggle between liberty and the common good. They relate this to the role that commodities and increasing resource intensity play in maintaining or enhancing living standards. This quote from Harris’s “Cannibals and Kings” struck me as the 122 words that most effectively illustrate the impacts of the fracking boom that started more than a decade ago in Central Appalachia:
“Regardless of its immediate cause, intensification is always counterproductive. In the absence of technological change, it leads inevitably to the depletion of the environment and the lowering of the efficiency of production since the increased effort sooner or later must be applied to more remote, less reliable, and less bountiful animals, plants, soils, minerals, and sources of energy. Declining efficiency in turn leads to low living standards – precisely the opposite of the desired result. But this process does not simply end with everybody getting less food, shelter, and other necessities in return for more work. As living standards decline, successful cultures invent new and more efficient means of production which sooner or later again lead to the depletion of the natural environment.” From Chapter 1, page 5 of Marvin Harris’ “Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures, 1977
In reflecting on Harris’s quote as it pertains to fracking, I thought it was high time I updated several of our most critical data sets. The maps and data I present here speak to intensification and the fact that the industry is increasingly leaning on cheap water withdrawals, landscape impacts, and waste disposal methods to avoid addressing their increasingly gluttonous ways. To this point, the relationship between intensification and resource utilization is not just the purview of activists, academics, and journalists anymore; industry collaborators like IHS Markit admitting as much in their latest analysis pointing to the fact that oil and gas operators “will have to drill substantially more wells just to maintain current production levels and even more to grow production”. Insert Red Queen Hypothesis analogy here!
Oil and Gas Production in Ohio
The four updated data sets presented here are: 1) oil, gas, and wastewater production, 2) surface and groundwater withdrawal rates for the fracking industry, 3) freshwater usage by individual Ohio fracked wells, and 3) wastewater disposal well (also referred to as Class II injection wells) rates.
Below are the most important developments from these data updates as it pertains to intensification and what we can expect to see in the future, with or without the ethane cracker plants being trumpeted throughout Appalachia.
From a production standpoint, total oil production has increased by 30%, while natural gas production has increased by 50% year over year between the last time we updated this data and Q2-2019 (Table 1).
According to the data we’ve compiled, the rate of growth for wastewater production has exceeded oil and is nearly equal to natural gas at 48% from 2017 to 2018. On average the 2,398 fracked wells we have compiled data for are producing 27% more wastewater per well now than they did at the end of 2017.
|Oil (million barrels)||Gas (million Mcf)||Brine (million barrels)||Oil (million barrels)||Gas (million Mcf)||Brine (million barrels)|
Table 1. Summary statistics for 2,398 fracked wells in Ohio from a production perspective from 2017 to Q2 2019.
The increasing amount of resources and number of wells necessary to achieve marginal increases in oil and gas production is a critical factor to considered when assessing industry viability and other long-term implications. As an example, in Ohio’s Utica Shale, we see that total production is increasing, but as IHS Markit admits, this is only possibly by increasing the total number of producing wells at a faster rate. As is evidenced in Figure 1, somewhere around the Winter of 2017-2018, the production rate per well began to flatline and since then it has begun to decrease.
Water demands for oil and gas production in Ohio
Since last we updated the industry’s water withdrawal rates, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has begun to report groundwater rates in addition to surface water. The former now account for nine sites in seven counties, but amount to a fraction of reported withdrawals to date (around 00.01% per year in 2017 and 2018). The more disturbing developments with respect to intensification are:
1) Since we last updated this data, 59 new withdrawal sites have come online. There are currently 569 sites in total in ODNR’s database. This amounts to a nearly 12% increase in the total number of sites since 2017. With this additional inventory, the average withdrawal rate across all sites has increased by 13% (Table 2).
2) Since 2010, the demand for freshwater to be used in fracking has increased by 15.6% or 693 million gallons per year (Figure 2).
3) We expect to see an inflection point when water production will increase to accommodate the petrochemical buildout with cracker plants in Dilles Bottom, OH; Beaver County, PA; and elsewhere. In 2018 alone, the oil and gas industry pulled 4.69 billion gallons of water from the Ohio River Valley. Since 2010, the industry has permanently removed 22.96 billion gallons of freshwater from the Ohio River Valley. It would take the entire population of Ohio five years to use the 2018 rate in their homes.
As we and others have mentioned in the past, this trend is largely due to the bargain basement price at which we sell water to the oil and gas sector throughout Appalachia. To increase their nominal production returns, companies construct longer laterals with orders of magnitude more water, sand, and chemicals. At this rate, the fracking industry’s freshwater demand will have doubled to around 8.8-.9.5 billion gallons per year by around 2023. Figure 3 demonstrates that average fracked lateral length continues to increase to the tune of +15.7-21.2% (+1,564-2,107 feet) per quarter per lateral. This trend alone is more than 2.5 times the rate of growth in oil production and roughly 24% greater than the rate of growth in natural gas production (See Table 1).
4. The verdict is even more concerning than it was a couple years ago with respect to water demand increasing by 30% per quarter per well or an average of 4.73 million gallons (Figure 4). The last time we did this analysis >1.5 years ago demand was rising by 25% per quarter or 3.84 million gallons. At that point I wouldn’t have guessed that this exponential rate of water demand would have increased but that is exactly what has happened. Very immediate conversations must start taking place in Columbus and at the region’s primary distributor of freshwater, The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD), as to why this is happening and how to push back against the unsustainable trend.
|Maximum (billion gallons)||1.059||1.661|
|Sum (billion gallons)||18.267||22.957|
|Mean (billion gallons)||0.358||0.404|
Table 2. Summary of fracking water demands throughout Ohio in 2017 when we last updated this data as well as how those rates changed in 2018.
When it comes to fracking wastewater disposal, the picture is equally disturbing. Average disposal rates across Ohio’s 220+ wastewater disposal wells increased by 12.1% between Q3-2018 and Q3-2019 (Table 3). Interestingly, this change nearly identically mirrors the change in water withdrawals during the same period. What goes down– freshwater – eventually comes back up.
Across all of Ohio’s wastewater disposal wells, total volumes increased by nearly 22% between 2018 and the second half of 2019. However, the more disturbing trend is the increasing focus on the top 20 most active wastewater disposal wells, which saw an annual increase of 17-18%. These wells account for nearly 50% of all waste and the concern here is that many of the pending wastewater disposal well permits are located on these sites, within close proximity, and/or are proposed by the same operators that operate the top 20.
When we plot cumulative and average disposal rates per well, we see a continued exponential increase. If we look back at the last time, we conducted this analysis, the only positive we see in the data is that at that time, average rates of disposal per well were set to double by the Fall of 2020. However, that trend has tapered off slightly — rates are now set to double by 2022.
Each wastewater disposal well is seeing demand for its services increase by 2.42 to 2.94 million gallons of wastewater per quarter (Figure 5). Put another way, Ohio’s wastewater disposal wells are rapidly approaching their capacity, if they haven’t already. Hence why the oil and gas industry has been frantically submitting proposals for additional waste disposal wells. If these wells materialize, it means that Ohio will continue to be relied on as the primary waste receptacle for the fracking industry throughout Appalachia.
|——————-All Wells——————-||——————-Top 20——————-|
|To Q3-2018||To Q3-2019||% Change||To Q3-2018||To Q3-2019||% Change|
|Number of Wells||223||243||+9.0||——-||——-||——-|
Table 3. Summary Statistics for Ohio’s Wastewater Disposal Wells (millions of barrels (MMbbl)).
Using the Pennsylvania natural gas data merged with the Ohio wastewater data, we were able to put a finer point on how much wastewater would be produced with a 100,000 barrel ethane cracker like the one PTT Global Chemical has proposed for Dilles Bottom, Ohio. The following are our best estimate calculations assuming 1 barrel of condensate is 20-40% ethane. These calculations required that we take some liberties with the merge of the ratio of gas to wastewater in Ohio with the ratio of gas to condensate in Pennsylvania:
- For 2,064 producing Ohio fracked wells, the ratio of gas to wastewater is 64.76 thousand cubic feet (Mcf) of gas produced per barrel of wastewater.
- Assuming 40% ethane, the ratio of gas to condensate in Washington County, PA wells for the first half of 2019 was 320.08 Mcf of gas per barrel of ethane condensate. For 100,000 barrels of ethane needed per cracker per day, that would result in 494,285 barrels (20.76 million gallons) of brine per day.
- Assuming 20% ethane, the ratio of gas to condensate in Washington County, PA wells for the first half of 2019 was 640.15 Mcf per barrel of ethane condensate = For 100,000 barrels of ethane needed per cracker per day that would result in 988,571 barrels/41.52 million gallons of wastewater per day.
But wait, here is the real stunner:
- The 40% assumption result is 3.81 times the daily rates of wastewater taken in by our current inventory of wastewater disposal wells and 5.37 times the daily rates of brine taken in by the top 20 wells (Note: the top 20 wastewater disposal wells account for 71% of all wastewater waste taken in by all of the state’s disposal wells).
- The 20% assumption result is 7.62 times the daily rates of wastewater taken in by our current inventory of wastewater disposal wells and 10.74 times the daily rates of wastewater taken in by the top 20 wells.
Therefore, we estimate the fracked wells supplying the proposed PTTGC ethane cracker will generate between 20.76 million and 41.52 million gallons of wastewater per day. That is 3.8 to 7.6 times the amount of wastewater currently received by Ohio’s wastewater disposal wells.
What does this means in terms of truck traffic? We can assume that at least 80% of the trucks that transport wastewater are the short/baby bottle trucks which haul 110 barrels per trip. This means that our wastewater estimates would require between 4,493 and 8,987 truck trips per day, respectively. The pressures this amount of traffic will put on Appalachian roads and communities will be hard to measure and given the current state of state and federal politics and/or oversight it will be even harder to measure the impact inevitable spills and accidents will have on the region’s waterways.
There is no reason to believe these trends will not persist and become more intractable as the industry increasingly leans on cheap waste disposal and water as a crutch. The fracking industry will continue to present shareholders with the illusion of a robust business model, even in the face of rapid resource depletion and precipitous production declines on a per well basis.
I am going to go out on a limb and guess that unless we more holistically price our water resources and the ways in which we dispose of the industry’s radioactive waste, there will be no other supply-side signal that we could send that would cause the oil and gas industry to change its ways. Until we reach that point, we will continue to compile data sets like the ones described above and included in the map below, because as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant!”
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison
 Colin Woodward’s “American Character: A history of the epic struggle between individual liberty and the common good” is a must read on the topic of resource utilization and expropriation.
 In Ohio the major purveyor of water for the fracking industry is the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MCWD) and as we’ve pointed out in the past they sell water for roughly $4.50 to $6.50 per thousand gallons. Meanwhile across The Ohio River the average price of water for fracking industry in West Virginia in the nine primary counties where fracking occurs is roughly $8.38 per thousand gallons.
Quarterly oil, gas, brine, and days in production for 2,390+ Unconventional Utica/Point Pleasant Wells in Ohio from 2010 to Q2-2019
Ohio Hydraulic Fracturing Freshwater and Groundwater Withdrawals from 2010 to 2018
Lateral length (Feet) for 3,200+ Fracked Utica/Point Pleasant Wells in Ohio up to and including wells permitted in December, 2019
Freshwater Use for 2,700+ Unconventional Wells in Ohio from Q3-2011 to Q3-2019
Quarterly Volume Disposal (Barrels) for 220+ Ohio Class II Salt Water Disposal Wells from 2010 to Q4-2019
Despite the ever-increasing heaps of violations and drilling waste, Pennsylvania’s fracked wells continue to produce an excess supply of gas, driving prices down. To cut their losses, the oil and gas industry is turning towards increased exports and petrochemical production. Continuing to expand fracking in Pennsylvania will only increase risks to the public and to the climate, all for what may amount to another boom and bust cycle that is largely unprofitable to investors.
Let’s take a look at gas production, waste, newly drilled wells, and violations in Pennsylvania in the past year to understand just how precarious the fracking industry is.
Fracked hydrocarbon production continues to rise in Pennsylvania, resulting in an increase in waste production, violations, greenhouse gas emissions, and public health concerns. There are three types of hydrocarbons produced from wells in Pennsylvania: gas, condensate, and oil. Gas is composed mostly of methane, the most basic of the hydrocarbons, but in some parts of Pennsylvania, there can be significant quantities of ethane, propane, and other so-called “natural gas liquids” (NGLs) mixed in. Each of these NGLs are actually gaseous at atmospheric conditions, but operators try to separate these with a combination of pressure and low temperatures, converting them to a liquid phase. Some of these NGLs can be separated on-site, and this is typically referred to as condensate. Fracked wells in Pennsylvania also produce a relatively tiny amount of oil.
For those of you wondering why we are looking at the November, 2018 through October, 2019 time frame, this is simply a reflection of the available data. In this 12-month period, 9,858 fracked Pennsylvania wells, classified as “unconventional,” reported producing 6.68 trillion cubic feet of gas (Tcf), 4.89 million barrels of condensate, and just over 70,000 barrels of oil.
By means of comparison, Pennsylvania consumed about 1.46 Tcf of gas across all sectors in 2018, of which just 253 billion cubic feet (Bcf) was used in the homes of Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million residents. In fact, the amount of gas produced in Pennsylvania exceeds residential consumption in the entire United States by almost 1.7 Tcf. However, less than 17% of all gas consumed in Pennsylvania is for residential use, with nearly 28% being used for industrial purposes (including petrochemical development), and more than 35% used to generate electricity.
While gas production has expansive hotspots in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state, the liquid production comes from a much more limited geography. Eighty percent of all condensate production came from Washington County, while 87% of all fracked oil came from wells in Mercer County.
Because the definition of condensate has been somewhat controversial in the past (while the oil export ban was still in effect), I asked the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the definition, and was told that if hydrocarbons come out of the well as a liquid, they should be reported as oil. If they are gaseous but condense to a liquid at standard temperature and pressure (60 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure 14.7 PSIA) on-site, then it is to be reported as condensate. Any NGLs that remain gaseous but are removed from the gas supply further downstream are reported as gas in this report. For this reason, it is not really possible to use the production report to find specific amounts of NGLs produced in the state, but it certainly exceeds condensate production by an appreciable margin.
Hydrocarbons aren’t the only thing that come out of the ground when operators drill and frack wells in Pennsylvania. Drillers also report a staggering amount of waste products, including more than 65 million barrels (2.7 billion gallons) of liquid waste and 1.2 million tons of solid waste in the 12-month period.
Waste facilities have significant issues such as inducing earthquakes, toxic leachate, and radioactive sediments in streambeds.
|Waste Type||Liquid Waste (Barrels)||Solid Waste (Tons)|
|Drilling Fluid Waste||1,439,338||11,378|
|Other Oil & Gas Wastes||2,236,750||6,387|
|Soil Contaminated by Oil & Gas Related Spills||25,505|
|Spent Lubricant Waste||1,104|
|Synthetic Liner Materials||21,051|
|Unused Fracturing Fluid Waste||7,077||1,593|
|Waste Water Treatment Sludge||35,151|
Figure 2. Oil and gas waste generated by fracked wells as reported by drillers from November 1, 2018 through October 31, 2019. Data from ref: PA DEP.
Some of the waste is probably best described as sludge, and several of the categories allow for reporting in barrels or tons. Almost all of the waste was in the well bore at one time or another, although there are some site-related materials that need to be disposed of, including filter socks which separate liquid and solid waste, soils contaminated by spills, spent lubricant, liners, and unused frack fluid waste.
Where does all of this waste go? We worked with Earthworks earlier this year to take a deep dive into the data, focusing on these facilities that receive waste from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas wells. While the majority of the waste is dealt with in-state, a significant quantity crosses state lines to landfills and injection wells in neighboring states, and sometimes as far away as Idaho.
Please see the report, Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Waste for more details.
Oil and gas operators have started the drilling process for 616 fracking wells in 2019, which appear on the Pennsylvania DEP spud report. This is less than one third of the 2011 peak of 1,956 fracked wells, and 2019 is the fifth consecutive year with fewer than 1,000 wells drilled. This has the effect of making industry projections relying on 1,500 or more drilled wells per year seem rather dubious.
Oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania fall under the jurisdiction of three different regional offices. By looking at Figure 2, it becomes apparent that the North Central Regional Office (blue line) was a huge driver of the 2009 to 2014 drilling boom, before falling back to a similar drilling rate of the Southwest Regional Office.
The slowdown in drilling for gas in recent years is related to the lack of demand for the product. In turn, this drives prices down, a phenomenon that industry refers to as a “price glut.” The situation it is forcing major players in the regions such as Range Resources to reduce their holdings in Appalachia, and some, such as Chevron, are pulling out entirely.
Disturbingly, 2019 was the fifth straight year that the number of violations issued by DEP will exceed the total number of wells drilled.
Violations related to unconventional drilling are a bit unwieldy to summarize. The 13,833 incidents reported in Pennsylvania fall into 359 different categories, representing the specific regulations in which the drilling operator fell short of expectations. The industry likes to dismiss many of these as being administrative matters, and indeed, the DEP does categorize the violations as either “Administrative” or “Environmental, Health & Safety”. However, 9,998 (72%) of the violations through December 3, 2019, are in the latter category, and even some of the ones that are categorized as administrative seem like they ought to be in environmental, health, and safety. For example, let’s look at the 15 most frequent infractions:
|SWMA301 – Failure to properly store, transport, process or dispose of a residual waste.||767||Environmental Health & Safety|
|CSL 402(b) – POTENTIAL POLLUTION – Conducting an activity regulated by a permit issued pursuant to Section 402 of The Clean Streams Law to prevent the potential of pollution to waters of the Commonwealth without a permit or contrary to a permit issued under that authority by the Department.||613||Environmental Health & Safety|
|102.4 – Failure to minimize accelerated erosion, implement E&S plan, maintain E&S controls. Failure to stabilize site until total site restoration under OGA Sec 206(c)(d)||595||Environmental Health & Safety|
|SWMA 301 – MANAGEMENT OF RESIDUAL WASTE – Person operated a residual waste processing or disposal facility without obtaining a permit for such facility from DEP. Person stored, transported, processed, or disposed of residual waste inconsistent with or unauthorized by the rules and regulations of DEP.||540||Environmental Health & Safety|
|601.101 – O&G Act 223-General. Used only when a specific O&G Act code cannot be used||469||Administrative|
|402CSL – Failure to adopt pollution prevention measures required or prescribed by DEP by handling materials that create a danger of pollution.||362||Environmental Health & Safety|
|78.54* – Failure to properly control or dispose of industrial or residual waste to prevent pollution of the waters of the Commonwealth.||339||Environmental Health & Safety|
|401 CSL – Discharge of pollutional material to waters of Commonwealth.||299||Environmental Health & Safety|
|102.4(b)1 – EROSION AND SEDIMENT CONTROL REQUIREMENTS – Person conducting earth disturbance activity failed to implement and maintain E & S BMPs to minimize the potential for accelerated erosion and sedimentation.||285||Environmental Health & Safety|
|102.5(m)4 – PERMIT REQUIREMENTS – GENERAL PERMITS – Person failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the E & S Control General Permit.||283||Environmental Health & Safety|
|78.56(1) – Pit and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances.||256||Administrative|
|78a53 – EROSION AND SEDIMENT CONTROL AND STORMWATER MANAGEMENT – Person proposing or conducting earth disturbance activities associated with oil and gas operations failed to comply with 25 Pa. Code § 102.||247||Environmental Health & Safety|
|102.11(a)1 – GENERAL REQUIREMENTS – BMP AND DESIGN STANDARDS – Person failed to design, implement and maintain E & S BMPs to minimize the potential for accelerated erosion and sedimentation to protect, maintain, reclaim and restore water quality and existing and designated uses.||235||Environmental Health & Safety|
|CSL 401 – PROHIBITION AGAINST OTHER POLLUTIONS – Discharged substance of any kind or character resulting in pollution of Waters of the Commonwealth.||235||Environmental Health & Safety|
|OGA3216(C) – WELL SITE RESTORATIONS – PITS, DRILLING SUPPLIES AND EQUIPMENT – Failure to fill all pits used to contain produced fluids or industrial wastes and remove unnecessary drilling supplies/equipment not needed for production within 9 months from completion of drilling of well.||206||Environmental Health & Safety|
Figure 5. Top 15 most frequently cited violations for unconventional drilling operations in Pennsylvania through December 3, 2019. Data from ref: DEP.
Of the 15 most common categories, only two are considered administrative violations. One of these is a general code, where we don’t know what happened to warrant the infraction without reading the written narrative that accompanies the data, and is therefore impossible to categorize. The only other administrative violation in the top 15 categories reads, “78.56(1) – Pit and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances,” which certainly sounds like it would have some real-world implications beyond administrative concerns.
Check out our Pennsylvania Shale Viewer map to see if there are violations at wells near you.
Bloated With Gas, Fraught With Trouble
To address the excess supply of gas, companies have tried to export the gas and liquids to other markets through pipelines. Those efforts have been fraught with trouble as well. Residents are reluctant to put up with an endless barrage of new pipelines, yielding their land and putting their safety at risk for an industry that can’t seem to move the product safely. The Revolution pipeline explosion hasn’t helped that perception, nor have all of the sinkholes and hundreds of leaky “inadvertent returns” along the path of the Mariner East pipeline system. In a sense, the industry’s best case scenario is to call these failures incompetence, because otherwise they would be forced to admit that the 2.5 million miles of hydrocarbon pipelines in the United States are inherently risky, prone to failure any time and any place.
In addition to increasing the transportation and export of natural gas to new markets, private companies and elected officials are collaborating to attract foreign investors to fund a massive petrochemical expansion in the Ohio River Valley. The planned petrochemical plants intend to capitalize on the cheap feedstock of natural gas.
Pennsylvania’s high content of NGLs is a selling point by the industry, because they have an added value when compared to gas. While all of these hydrocarbons can burn and produce energy in a similar manner, operators are required to remove most of them to get the energy content of the gas into an acceptable range for gas transmission lines. Because of this, enormous facilities have to be built to separate these NGLs, while even larger facilities are constructed to consume it all. Shell’s Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex ethane cracker being built in Beaver County, PA is scheduled to make 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene per year, mostly for plastics.
This comes at a time when communities around the country and the world are enacting new regulations to rein in plastic pollution, which our descendants are going to finding on the beach for thousands of years, even if everyone on the planet were to stop using single-use plastics today. Of course, none of these bans or taxes are currently permitted in Pennsylvania, but adding 1.6 million metric tons per year to our current supply is unnecessary, and indeed, it is only the beginning for the region. A similar facility, known as the PTT Global Chemical cracker appears to be moving forward in Eastern Ohio, and ExxonMobil appears to be thinking about building one in the region as well. Industry analysts think the region produces enough NGLs to support five of these ethane crackers.
Despite all of these problems, the oil and gas industry still plans to fill the Ohio River Valley with new petrochemical plants, gas processing plants, and storage facilities in the hopes that someday, somebody may want what they’ve taken from the ground.
Here’s hoping that 2020 is a safer and healthier year than 2019 was. But there is no need to leave it up to chance. Together, we have the power to change things, if we all demand that our voices are heard. As a start, consider contacting your elected officials to let them know that renewing Pennsylvania’s blocking of municipal bans and taxes on plastic bags is unacceptable.
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology, FracTracker Alliance
FracTracker’s Great Lakes Program Coordinator Ted Auch explores the risks and damages brought on by fracking in Ohio’s Captina Creek Watershed
The Captina Creek Watershed straddles the counties of Belmont and Monroe in Southeastern Ohio and feeds into the Ohio River. It is the highest quality watershed in all of Ohio and a great examples of what the Ohio River Valley’s tributaries once looked, smelled, and sounded like. Sadly, today it is caught in the cross-hairs of the oil and gas industry by way of drilling, massive amounts of water demands, pipeline construction, and fracking waste production, transport, and disposal. The images and footage presented in the story map below are testament to the risks and damage inherent to fracking in the Captina Creek watershed and to this industry at large. Data included herein includes gas gathering and interstate transmission pipelines like the Rover, NEXUS, and Utopia (Figure 1), along with Class II wastewater injection wells, compressor stations, unconventional laterals, and freshwater withdrawal sites and volumes.
The image at the top of the page captures my motivation for taking a deeper dive into this watershed. Having spent 13+ years living in Vermont and hiking throughout The Green and Adirondack Mountains, I fell in love with the two most prominent tree species in this photo: Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) and Northern Hemlock (Tsuga candadensis). This feeling of being at home was reason enough to be thankful for Captina Creek in my eyes. Seeing this region under pressure from the oil and gas industry really hit me in my botanical soul. We remain positive with regards to the area’s future, but protective action against fracking in the Captina Creek Watershed is needed immediately!
Fracking in the Captina Creek Watershed: A Story Map
Guest Blog by Josh Eisenfeld, Director of Marketing with Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services
Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services looks maps the origin of their intake calls and reflects on their geographic distribution as it relates to areas with heavy environmental burdens.
Over the last five years, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services has worked in Ohio and Pennsylvania to promote environmental justice by providing legal services at income-based rates. Our service area has a long history of extraction, from timbering, conventional drilling for oil, multiple forms of mining, and unconventional drilling for natural gas. Because of our proximity to these resources, we also have a long history of industrial manufacturing, which can be evidenced by the many oil refineries, steel production facilities, power plants, cement factories, factory farms, and chemical production facilities. Fair Shake offers counsel and representation in environmental law with accessible, sliding scale fees, and we receive a continuous stream of phone calls from those on the front lines. We were curious to see if our intake calls correlated with geographic areas with heavy environmental burdens in order to allocate our limited resources to those regions most efficiently.
With the help of Ted Auch from FracTracker Alliance we collected zip codes from nearly 600 of intake calls received by Fair Shake and placed them on the map below.
In general, our intakes in Pennsylvania mirror the Marcellus Shale formation. Over the last decade and a half, technical advancements in drilling have transformed the Marcellus Shale formation from a nonproducing region to the largest producing natural gas formation by volume in the world. Entering 2005, only 13 “unconventional” wells had been drilled in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania, where today there are roughly 12,000 wells according to FracTracker’s PA Shale Viewer Map. Reduced regulations for unconventional drilling and infrastructure have facilitated this rush for production, resulting in an influx of compressor stations, gathering lines, pump stations, processing plants, wastewater impoundments, wastewater treatment facilities, wastewater injection wells, and more.
We believe that this map indicates that these 12,000 wells place a significant burden on residents living within this region. Speaking broadly, reduced regulation has left loopholes in major environmental laws that have to get justice when their rights have been violated and, even more concerning, when harm has occurred.
One of the most prominent manifestations of this burden is the contamination of private drinking water sources near drilling and wastewater sites. Our region’s history of extraction and industrial enterprise and the pollution associated with these industries makes it extremely difficult to prove, in court, that drilling activity is the sole cause of damage to private wells. The fact is that our groundwater (and therefore private drinking wells) has been contaminated over and over again. Polluters use this to their advantage, leaning on the uncertainty of what caused the contaminants in question to get there. Simply put, water contamination is not a question of whether contaminants exist (they do) it’s a question of how can you prove that it was a given industry when there are many other possible culprits.
One thing we do know is that the number of reports for well contamination has increased in conjunction with the increase in drilling activity. The graph below, created by FracTracker and The Public Herald, shows the correlation of wells drilled, complaints to the Department of Environmental Protection, and complaints specifically about water.
Upon closer examination of the intake map, we saw a higher density of cases in more populated areas of Allegheny County, which actually has very little fracking activity (less than 170 drilled wells). But Allegheny is also one of the most polluted counties in America. The American Lung Association gave the county all F’s on its air quality and ranked it as 7th worst air quality in the nation according to the association’s state of the air. Allegheny County is also home to two of the most polluted rivers in our country: the Monongahela and the Ohio. Over a century of industrial activity and coal mining have impaired the water but most recently sewer overflows from the city of Pittsburgh have sent dangerous levels of raw sewage into the surrounding waterways.
The population density combined with the very poor air and water quality could be the explanation for the anomaly. Furthermore, Allegheny County is also where our Pittsburgh office is located, which is perhaps the reason that we see so many cases in this region and not in other regions of high population density such as Philadelphia, Harrisburg, or Scranton.
When we started this project, we thought we would discover a correlation between intakes and regions with the heaviest environmental burdens. This could allow us to allocate our limited resources to those regions most efficiently. Unfortunately, the problem is not so simple.
As evidenced by the intake map, resource extraction in Ohio and Pennsylvania is spread over a very large area. That is troubling because the bigger the problem geographically the harder it becomes to deal with. We need to devote far more resources to protecting individuals who face spills, emissions, erosion, impacts to wetland, etc. By speaking more openly about how pervasive these environmental risks are, and how that risk plays into the bigger picture of the climate emergency, we hope we can incite folks to give their time, effort, and resources to defending their health and environment.
By Josh Eisenfeld, Marketing Director at Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services
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Guest blog by Natalia N. Romanzo, graduate student, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY
Innovations in geospatial remote sensing technology developed by a research team at Binghamton University’s Geophysics and Remote Sensing Laboratory allow for improved detection of unplugged oil and gas wells. Implementing this technology would allow responsible agencies to more efficiently locate, and then plug, the 30,000+ undocumented oil and gas wells in New York State. Plugging these wells would help residents to assess risks of any wells on or near their property, improve air quality, and keep New York State on track to reaching its greenhouse gas emissions targets.
Dangers of Unplugged Orphan Oil and Gas Wells
In 2018, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that nationwide, there were 3.11 million abandoned oil and gas wells. Sixty-nine percent — or 2.15 million — of these wells are not even plugged. Many were drilled prior to the existence of state regulatory programs, subsequently abandoned by their original owners or operators over a century ago, and then left unplugged or poorly plugged. State and federal regulators are in the process of plugging these wells, but the process is slow; many are still unplugged today.
Unplugged or incorrectly plugged wells can leak methane into drinking water and the atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, methane in the atmosphere is more than 80 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, and, as such, becomes a driving mechanism of global warming. Methane has come under scrutiny by climate scientists and other concerned with the relationship between unconventional gas drilling (“fracking”) and the climate crisis.
Anthropogenic methane is the cause of a quarter of today’s global warming, and the oil and gas industry is a leading source of these emissions. Every year, oil and gas companies release an estimated 75 million metric tons of methane globally, an amount of gas sufficient to provide electricity for all of Africa twice over. Unplugged wells are often high emitters contributing to this energy waste. A study of almost 140 wells in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Ohio found that more than 40% of unplugged wells leak methane, compared to less than 1% of plugged wells.
Unplugged, incorrectly plugged, as well as active wells can all leak methane. Methane-leaking wells are especially problematic when their locations are undocumented or unknown. Until they are located, undocumented wells that remain unplugged can continue to emit methane into the atmosphere and into drinking water. For example, in Pennsylvania, methane was detected in water samples at average concentrations six times higher in homes less than one kilometer from oil and gas wells. The potential negative impact of unplugged orphan oil and gas wells makes this a pressing environmental concern.
Of the more than 3 million problematic oil and gas wells nationwide, over 35,000 unplugged oil and gas wells may exist in New York State alone. Unplugged or improperly plugged wells that leak methane can pose direct threats to New York State residents, especially for people living nearby to these wells. Many New York State residents are unaware that they have an unplugged well on their property, and could be at risk of potential exposure to uncontrolled releases of gas or fluids from unplugged orphan wells. In one case in Rushville, New York, two dozen unplugged wells emitted methane at explosive levels. An unplugged well in Rome, New York discharged brine to the land surface for decade at a rate of 5 gallons per minute, killing an acre of wetland vegetation. If these wells had been located and assessed, property owners would be better informed and safer.
In addition to directly harming New York State residents and contributing to climate change, unplugged orphan wells also impact New York State’s ability to reach its 2030 emissions targets. New York State recently set ambitious statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets through the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act to lower emissions by 85% by 2050. However, New York State has only reduced emissions 8% from 1990-2015 levels. If New York State is to reach its emissions targets, it must continue and improve its efforts to locate, assess, and ultimately plug all its orphan oil and gas wells.
Inaccurate Records and Inefficient Detection Methods
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is responsible for task of mitigating and preventing damage caused by oil and gas wells. Unfortunately, flaws in record keeping have made it difficult to locate undocumented wells. The DEC began record keeping of oil and gas wells in 1983 and took on regulatory authority over wells drilled in the state after 1983. There are strict rules and regulations for plugging wells drilled after 1983, and wells drilled prior to 1983 must comply with applicable regulations. Nevertheless, many older wells are still unaccounted for. In their external review in 1994, staff estimated that 61,000 wells had been developed prior to 1983. However, the agency only has records on about 30,000 of them. Because accurate records do not exist for old wells, it is difficult to monitor, and even locate, them.
Click here for a full-screen view of FracTracker Alliance’s map of all known wells in New York State (data current as of October 2018, to be updated soon).
Despite inaccurate records, the DEC does try to locate, assess, and plug old wells using maps created by drilling companies in the late 1800s. A section of one such map can be seen in Figure 1. This map shows proposed oil and gas drilling sites in Cattaraugus County, New York in the late 1800s. It has been georeferenced using ArcGIS mapping software to assign present day coordinates to hand drawn features.
Figure 1. Georeferenced Lease Map, Cattaraugus County, New York
Unfortunately, these maps are not entirely reliable. Some wells may be incorrectly documented on a map as drilled when, in fact, they were merely proposed but never drilled; some wells may have been drilled but never marked on a map. Other wells may have been both marked on a map and drilled, but due to inaccurate survey technologies of the past, the location on the ground is incorrect. As a result, DEC staff are left searching on foot for wells that may or may not be there. Working with limited equipment, in dense brush, and over uneven terrain make the task of finding the abandoned wells even more problematic.
These traditional methods of detection, which include referencing lease maps and searching for wells in the field, are not only time consuming, but are also costly. Using traditional methods of well detection, between 1988 and 2009, the United States Bureau of Land Management spent $3.8 million and only successfully reclaimed 295 well sites. It is clear that on both the federal and state levels, traditional well detecting methods are expensive, cumbersome, and inefficient.
Drones Pave the Way for Oil and Gas Well Detection
Recent improvements in geospatial remote sensing technology have opened opportunities for more efficient well detection. Previously, the battery life of drones and the weight of magnetometers prevented the two technologies from being used together to locate oil and gas wells. Furthermore, because drones must be flown high enough to clear vegetative canopies, methane sensors attached to drones are too far away from the source to accurately detect the location of the well. Due to these technological barriers, the DEC and other environmental departments and agencies have had to rely on inefficient, traditional methods of well detection described above.
At Binghamton University’s Geophysics and Remote Sensing Laboratory, a research team headed by Professors Timothy de Smet and Alex Nikulin, along with graduate student Natalia Romanzo, and undergraduate students Samantha Wong, Judy Li, and Ethan Penner, is taking on the task of developing a more efficient method to locate oil and gas wells. The Binghamton University research team deployed drones equipped with magnetometers to demonstrate that a high-resolution, low-altitude magnetic survey can successfully locate unmarked well sites.
Oil and gas wells have a characteristic magnetic signal that is generated by vertical metal piping fixed in the ground, making them identifiable in a magnetic survey.
The magnetic signal generated by a well is shown in red in Figure 2b. At 40 meters above ground level (AGL), tree canopies are cleared, while the magnetic anomaly of the well is distinguishable. This drone-based magnetometer method has shown promising results.
Figure 2b. Magnetic Anomaly of an Oil and Gas Well Detected at 40m AGL, showing total magnetic intensity of the site.
To further test remote sensing techniques, the Binghamton University research team worked with Charles Dietrich and Nathan Graber from the NYS DEC to compare the efficiency of different survey methods. Currently, researchers are conducting fieldwork to compare the efficiency of traditional methods of well detection, well detection via a magnetic ground survey, and well detection via a drone-based magnetic survey. This research is showing that using drones equipped with magnetometers is a more efficient way to survey a wide area where wells may be present.
Remote sensing techniques can allow the DEC to more efficiently locate, and then plug, the 30,000+ undocumented oil and gas wells in New York State. Using this new method of well detection, the DEC will be able to inform residents who have unplugged wells on their property, assess the risks of the wells, and plug harmful wells. Residents with wells on or near their property will benefit directly. In addition, and more broadly, New Yorkers will enjoy improved air quality while New York State will be more on track to reaching its emissions targets.
FracTracker thanks Natalia Romanzo for her guest blog contribution. We feel that this technology holds promise for communities impacted by drilling across the nation.
For answers to specific questions about the project, you can email Natalia directly at email@example.com.
The Mountaineer State is one of the most stunningly beautiful states in all the United States, despite its complicated and unique relationship with fossil fuels dating back to the West Virginia Coal Wars of 1912 to 1921. This relationship has compromised the state’s distinctive ecosystems and its social cohesion. Instead of remediating or preventing the impacts of fossil fuels, the state’s elected officials have exploited them for political and monetary gain. Understanding this history and the potential next steps in the march of the fossil fuel industry will help those who continue to fight for an alternative future for West Virginia. At the same time, it is critical that we identify legislation that would perpetuate fossil fuel dependence, the individuals who are behind said legislation, and the current extent of the fossil fuel industry, especially considering the developing Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub (ASTH) that is supported by the elected officials in in D.C. and Charleston.
Impeding Fossil Fuel Developments Threaten West Virginia Once Again
West Virginia has a rich, complicated, and occasionally violent history with coal mining and now is at the vanguard of the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) revolution. It also happens to sit at the heart of what Appalachian governors, senators, and even land-grant universities are touting is the panacea for all that ails the region: the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub (ASTH), a key part of the Ohio River Valley petrochemical build out. This puts West Virginia in a peculiar position, with one foot longingly in the past with coal mining and one moving forward with investments in fracking and now the ASTH.
On the one hand, there is local optimism about King Coal’s return, stoked by Donald Trump and industry friends like Robert Murray. A closer look reveals they are sending decidedly different messages to Appalachian coal miners and their families, with the former stating repeatedly that he would bring coal back, and the latter agreeing but offering the caveat that “Trump can’t bring jobs back . . . [because] many of those jobs were lost to technology rather than regulation.”
This is not to suggest that there are hard feelings between Trump and Murray; a Document Investigations publication reveals an invitation from Murray Energy to host a Trump fundraiser on July 24, 2019 in Wheeling, West Virginia at WesBanco Arena with a cover charge of $150.00 made payable to Trump Victory, Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee’s joint presidential campaign fundraising. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (who is uncoincidentally a leading booster of the ASTH) indicated he would be in attendance. Additionally, Murray in his rescheduling letter to the West Virginia governor indicated, “Present with us will be Governors Mike DeWine of Ohio, Jim Justice of West Virginia, and Matt Bevins of Kentucky; Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Rob Portman of these states; and Congressman Bill Johnson and Dave McKinley and the House Speaker and Senate President form the two states.”
Declining Jobs, Increasing Automation
After at least seventeen years of 5% declines in net coal production, and 3% increases in hiring, the coal mining industry in West Virginia had had enough. Starting in 2012, they turned the tide on labor by leaning into the automation revolution and in the process, mine labor has declined by 8% per year since then. Automation and an increasing reliance on more blunt methods of mining, including strip-mining and/or Mountaintop Removal, have allowed the mining industry to increase productivity per labor hour by 5.8% to 6.3% per year since 2012, according to data compiled by US Department of Labor’s Office of Mine Safety and Health Administration. All of these savings translate into Mergers And Acquisitions as well as hefty profits for the likes of Murray, private equity and large institutional investors that have no interest in the welfare of Appalachia, its people, and the constant undertone of labor vs. capital throughout the region.
Even with all the corporate, state, and federal subsidies we have still had a rash of bankruptcies in the last three months. Most recently, Revelation Energy and its affiliate Blackjewel, experts in “Vulture Capitalism,” filed for Chapter 11 on July 1st of this year causing countless bounced paychecks among their 1,700 employees across Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
So while King Coal continues to paint federal regulations as excessively burdensome and the primary impediment to their expansion, it is clear that the enemy of coal miners is not regulations, but rather automation and the urgent attempt to squeeze every last drop of profitability out of a dying industry. even as coal production nationally declines by nearly double digits annually, a signal that the end is near, mining companies are able to continue generating reliable profits thanks to automation and artificial intelligence. This might be why private equity climate change denying titans like Stephen Schwarzman are investing so heavily in the likes of MIT’s School of Artificial Intelligence. The growing discrepancy between coal production and coal jobs was pointed out in a recent Columbia University report on the failure of states, counties, and communities to prepare themselves for the day when their status as “company towns” will switch from a point of pride to a curse. The Columbia researchers pointed out that:
“Employment in the coal mining industry declined by over 50 percent in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky between 2011 and 2016. State-level impacts mask even more severe effects at local levels. In Mingo County, West Virginia, coal mining employed over 1,400 people at the end of 2011. By the end of 2016, that number had fallen below 500. Countywide, employment fell from 8,513 to 4,878 over this period . . . suggesting there could be important labor market spillovers from mining to the broader economy.”
A Bloody History Haunts West Virginia’s Coal Fields
The last time West Virginia experienced “important labor market spillovers” was during the West Virginia Coal Wars of 1912 to 1921. West Virginia University Press, in summarizing the book “Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880-1922” by David Alan Corbin, describes this violent moment in the state’s history:
“Between 1880 and 1922, the coal fields of southern West Virginia witnessed two bloody and protracted strikes, the formation of two competing unions, and the largest armed conflict in American labor history – a week-long battle between 20,000 coal miners and 5,000 state police, deputy sheriffs, and mine guards. These events resulted in an untold number of deaths, indictments of over 550 coal miners for insurrection and treason, and four declarations of martial law. Corbin argues that these violent events were collective and militant acts of aggression interconnected and conditioned by decades of oppression. His study goes a long way toward breaking down the old stereotypes of Appalachian and coal-mining culture”
The Coal Wars culminated in the August 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in United States history which resulted in a deadly standoff between 10,000 armed coal miners and 3,000 strikebreakers called the Logan Defenders. The battle resulted in a casualty range of 20 to 100 as well as the treason conviction of some 22+ United Mine Workers of America members. This crushed the union, and the larger effect was a chill throughout Appalachia for more than a decade.
A similar chill is beginning to percolate as part of the fear around resistance or questioning of the ASTH and its myriad tentacles. This chill is coupled with a growing ambivalence and resignation to the most recent colonization of the Ohio River Valley by yet another iteration of the fossil fuel industrial complex.
How Can Appalachia Escape the Tight Grip of the Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex?
The state’s historical labor strife is worth mentioning to emphasize that Appalachia has been thrown under the “natural resource curse” bus before, and it has not responded kindly (see documentary “Harlan County USA” directed by Barbara Kopple). This might be why industry stakeholders fund the likes of the Koch Brothers-backed American Legislative Executive Council in efforts to pass dubiously titled “critical infrastructure” bills that they’ve written in states including the ASTH states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia.  It also might be why West Virginia Senator Manchin is trying to separate himself from his prior optimism about the supposed $84 billion China would invest in ASTH related projects across the state and his willingness to compromise the safety of his own constituents for the sake of profiteering state-backed firms in China, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand.
It won’t be long before we start to hear echoes of Florence Reece’s 1931 labor resistance anthem “Which Side Are You On?” echoing out from every peak and holler in West Virginia in reference to Manchin and Justice. Their milquetoast response to questioning around the viability of the ASTH prompted the West Virginia Gazette editorial page to write:
“So far, the entire project, which was hailed as the salvation of West Virginia’s economy at the time, looks like nothing but smoke and confetti. There’s been no movement and the Justice administration rarely mentions it unless asked. The reply has typically been a guarded ‘it’s happening’ and not much else. It’s time for state government to level with the people of West Virginia on what exactly is happening here. Not only did the announcement raise false hopes, but the question of national security is valid and important. We urge the governor or someone in his administration to give an official update on the project.”
In the interim, West Virginia’s elected officials continue to prop up coal as the Mountaineer State’s salvation. But the gig will be up eventually. It appears that there are two ways to exit this zero-sum relationship with the fossil fuel industry according to the neoliberal economic model we espouse here in the United States: 1) A Glide Path strategy that will allow West Virginia to methodically transition to a more diversified economy, or 2) an extremely painful Jump Condition type transition over a much shorter period of time that will likely last no more than a couple of years and leave West Virginians very angry and looking for someone to blame.
Those of us that accept climate change as fact, advocate for the Green New Deals of the world, and work towards a renewable energy future can easily dismiss either pathway’s impacts on Appalachia with the mantra, “Hey, they [Appalachia] made their bed now they have to lie in it!” However, this would be counter to the social contract narrative we have created for this country and would be incredibly hypocritical given that the primary steroid that fueled American Exceptionalism/Capitalism was cheap and abundant domestic fossil fuels. As Kim Kelly of Teen Vogue so perfectly put it in laying out her very personal connections to the struggle between the need to pay bills and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel reliant jobs: “Make no mistake: The coal miner and pipeline worker know about the environmental costs of their labor, but when faced with the choice of feeding their kids or putting down their tools in the name of saving the planet, the pressures of capitalism tend to win; their choice is made for them.”
Americans rationalize our dependence on fossil fuels on one hand, while simultaneously hectoring those who work tirelessly to get the stuff out of the ground and invest in the companies that employ them by way of 401Ks or other investment vehicles. This hypocrisy is not lost on Appalachia nor should it be. Climate advocates should work with states like West Virginia to transition to a more just future that does not include a doubling down on fossil fuels by way of the ASTH and fracking. If not, the social and political divisions in this country will pale in comparison to what will likely result from a piecemeal and confrontational transition away from the fossil fuel industrial complex that we’ve been told we can’t live without.
Furthermore, we can’t address these issues without acknowledging the selective interventionist policy our government has deployed in the name of “nation building” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Folks like John Perkins, Naomi Klein, and Joseph Stiglitz have demonstrated that our interventionist policy is just a poor cover for the true modus operandi which would be resource control from Saudi Arabia to the most recent example being the effort by the Trump administration to foment opposition to Venezuelan leader Nicholas Maduro. If the latter example isn’t primarily about oil than why do the bi-partisan sanctions include exceptions to allow Chevron, Halliburton, and Schlumberger to continue to operate in Venezuela?
A Path Forward
The Green New Deal is a first step in establishing a path forward for the decarbonization of the US economy and it correctly includes calls for a transition that “would ensure protections for coal miners and other impacted fossil fuel workers.” While mostly nebulous and aspirational at this point, the Green New Deal offers much needed hope and guidance towards a future where economic growth is decoupled from CO2 emissions. Yet, it will have to address the underlying issues associated with economic inequality and the fact that states like West Virginia will have to be involved in the decision-making process rather than having the Green New Deal foisted on them. Otherwise, the Mountaineer State’s politicians in D.C. and Charleston will continue to get away with toying with their constituents’ hopes and dreams with proclamations that the ASTH and rumored infrastructure proposals will provide salvation. In reality, the ASTH is just another corporatist stunt to optimize shareholder return on the backs of Appalachians. This tension was summarized beautifully and succinctly by United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith who told Reuters, “We’ve heard words like ‘just transition’ before, but what does that really mean? Our members are worried about putting food on the table.”
As Joel Magnuson wrote in his revolutionary text “Mindful Economics”:
“ . . . the need to maximize profits for a relatively small section of the U.S. population has shaped the development of America’s most powerful institutions . . . the need for higher profits and endless growth has intensified environmental destruction, resource depletion, instability, social and political inequality, and even global warming. These problems have become systemic and solutions therefore require long-term systemic change . . . [and the development of] alternative institutions. As these alternatives evolve and grow, they will place the U.S. economy on a path to a new system. Systemic change will come about gradually by the will of people who purposefully steer the development of the economic institutions in their communities in a positive and healthy direction. To this end Mindful Economics lays a foundation for building new alternatives that are democratic, locally-based and ecologically sustainable. Such alternatives are not only viable, they can be found all across the United States. Through a network of alternative institutions, people can begin to build alternatives to capitalism and provide hope for future generations.”
Ecotrust’s Conservation Economy website offers a road map for how Appalachia can move towards an alternative future that “integrates Social, Natural, and Economic Capital” (see the pattern map below). Appalachia has been stripped of much of its economic capital but it still has a bountiful supply of social and natural capital!
We constructed a map that illustrates West Virginia’s past, present, and future dependence on fossil fuels. The map shows 16,864 oil, gas, and coal parcels as well as those that are rumored to be of interest to the fossil fuel industrial complex in the near future. The parcels average 164 acres in size and amount to 2,770,310 acres or 4,329 square miles. These parcels amount to 17.9% of West Virginia but are largely concentrated in the counties of Boone, Kanawha, Logan, Wyoming, McDowell, Mingo, and Fayette.
Also included in this map are:
- annual production data for 880 mines between 2001 and 2017 and
- annual oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquid (NGL) production for 3,689 unconventional wells between 2002 and 2018.
A sizeable portion of the parcel query we conducted, especially the rumored ones, occurred as a result of insight from Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) community organizer Alex Cole and his extensive network of contacts along the Ohio River Valley.
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison
 If you aren’t familiar with this term I would refer you to Columbia University’s data for Boone County, West Virginia: “The numbers suggest that about a third of Boone County’s revenues directly depended on coal in the form of property taxes on coal mines and severance taxes. In 2015, 21 percent of Boone County’s labor force and 17 percent of its total personal income were tied to coal. Coal property (including both the mineral deposit and industrial equipment) amounted to 57 percent of Boone County’s total property valuation. Property taxes on all property generated about half of Boone County’s general fund budget, which means that property taxes just on coal brought in around 30 percent of the county’s general fund. Property taxes on coal also funded about $14.2 million of the $60.3 million school budget (24 percent). In total, coal-related property taxes generated approximately $21 million for Boone County’s schools, the county government, and specific services.”
 ALEC finalized their “Model Policy” in December, 2017, and gave it the ultimate Orwellian title of “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” Many elected officials throughout the fossil fuel network’s Heartland have introduced this legislation nearly verbatim, including Ohio State Senator Frank Hoagland’s S.B. 33, which represents much of Ohio’s Ohio River Valley, where the ASTH would have its most pronounced impacts.
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By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern
Fracking in Pennsylvania: The History
When driving through Pennsylvania, you can see what an impact oil and gas has had on the state. Towns like Oil City and Petrolia speak to the oil and gas industry’s long standing history here. In more recent history, Pennsylvania has been a prime fracking location because of the presence of the Marcellus shale formation that covers over half of the state. With more unconventional oil and gas exploration came impacts to communities, who were denied their right to “clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment” as defined by the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Hydraulically fractured wells are often no longer profitable after just one stimulation, after which they are abandoned. Improperly abandoned wells wreak havoc on our communities and our environment. The number of improperly abandoned wells has been increasing over time as companies go bankrupt transfer wells to other companies. These wells can easily go undetected because they are often buried underground, leaving no traces at the surface level.
These unplugged abandoned wells are underneath our homes, our schools, and in our own backyards, negatively impacting our health and the environment.
FracTracker’s West Coast Coordinator Kyle Ferrar shows how abandoned wells are hiding all around us in his investigation of downtown Los Angeles. He used an infrared camera to visualize the plumes of methane and other volatile organic compounds spewing out of abandoned wells in the middle of streets.
Dangers of unplugged abandoned wells
The plugging process consists of filling the well with cement, ensuring that nothing leaks from the well into the surrounding ecosystem. Without that measure in place, the chemical-water solution used to frack the underlying shale, as well as any oil or natural gas still left in the well, can very easily seep into nearby aquifers or into close by waterways. Wells that are not plugged or are not plugged properly leak into nearby aquifers, releasing methane and other volatile organic compounds are continually released from the well into the atmosphere as well. This leakage into the atmosphere and ground water can have disastrous effects on our ecosystem and health.
Abandoned wells are also a dangerous threat because many of their locations are unknown. These wells can ruin the structural integrity of buildings and homes that are unknowingly built on top of them. The methane leaking out of the well is colorless and odorless, meaning that it can easily build-up in homes or elsewhere and cause explosions.
Bankruptcy and Bonds
When an oil and gas company drills a well, they are responsible for making sure that it is plugged properly at the end of the well’s life. This is the case even if the company goes bankrupt. To do this, Pennsylvania government requires that the company put up a bond that is set aside to plug the well properly. This ensures that if the company does go bankrupt, the necessary funds are already set aside to plug the well. Normally, this bond takes the shape of a blanket bond amount of $25,000 which is intended to cover the total expenses that would be incurred in plugging all of the wells a company has in the state. Depending on the number of wells a company possesses, this could mean very little actually being set aside for each individual well.
A shallow well can cost between $8,000 to $10,000 plus, and up to $50,000 or more depending on how difficult it is to plug. In the case of Pennsylvania’s top oil and gas holder Diversified Gas & Oil PLC and its recently acquired. Company Alliance Petroleum Corp, this bond sets aside just $2 per well. With most other companies holding no more than 5,700 wells, this sets aside $4.40 per well. Where the bond amounts fall short in accounting for the cost to plug the hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells across the state, the rest of the cost falls at the feet of taxpayers.
The New Contract
The state government has started to recognize the severity of the situation as they are confronted with a mountain of costs in plugging these wells. To start to mitigate this, the government has recently settled with Diversified Gas & Oil. The company has been ordered to properly plug 1,058 abandoned wells. To do this they have signed on to a $7 million bond with $20,000 to $30,000 bonds for each additional abandoned or non-producing well that is acquired.
Although it is a great start to ensure that these two major companies have the proper bonding amount moving forward, this does not apply to all companies, whose likelihood of going bankrupt puts a lot of financial pressure on Pennsylvanian citizens. Also, these 1,058 wells are only the tip of the iceberg, with the DEP estimating that there are between 100,000 and 560,000 total abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, many of which still have unknown locations.
In the 2017 Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Report, it is stated that: “Currently, more abandoned wells are being added to the state’s inventory than are being addressed through permanent plugging through state-issued contracts. Since 2015, DEP has been able to fund the plugging of oil and gas wells only in emergency situations and/or when residents must be temporarily evacuated from their homes due to imminent threats that legacy wells pose when well integrity is compromised.” They continue on by stating that, considering the historic operating costs and acknowledging the sheer number of wells, properly addressing es the abandoned wells will cost between $150 million and $3.7 billion. The $150 million is an estimation based on the scenario that no more historic legacy wells are discovered, and the $3.7 billion is based on if 200,000 more are found, a more likely scenario.
The funding to cover the costs of plugging these abandoned wells comes from surcharges of $150 and $200 established by the 1984 Oil and Gas Act for each oil well permit and gas well permit. The DEP has received fewer permits in recent years meaning that there are very little funds to resolve this issue. This means that eventually this public health and environmental burden will have to fall at the feet of the taxpayers.
This makes the state’s step in the right direction look more like a tip toe. With no real, substantial plans to locate and address the large amount of wells across the state, the government is putting their people at risk because these abandoned wells are not harmless.
Washington County Case study
Washington County can be used as a window into the abandoned well crisis in Pennsylvania. This county sits in the middle of the Marcellus Shale formation, making it a key site for unconventional oil and gas development. According to the DEP, there are 215 abandoned, orphaned wells in Washington county, but realistically we know that there are likely many more than that.
The Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA) has derived a dataset from historical sources to determine the possible locations of other abandoned wells. These historical documents include the WPA, Ksheet, and Hsheet collections. This data set highlights over 6,000 locations where an abandoned oil and gas well could be located.
This is a testament to how many of these wells exist without our knowledge. If this difference in DEP records and possible wells is this great in Washington County, then we face the enormous potential problem of tens of thousands of additional abandoned wells that need to be resolved. The effects of these wells are real and they must be identified quickly.
These are some of the physical effects of abandoned wells:
Pennsylvania is facing a mountain of an issue with decades of work ahead. The state must act quickly to ensure the health and protection of our people and our environment, which entails taking active steps to secure an adequate budget to resolve this issue. To start, the state should identify where all of the wells are, set up a financial plan that puts the cost of the plugging process for these wells back onto the oil and gas companies, and begin to take active measures to plug the wells quickly and efficiently.
California regulators halt well permitting after Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker reveal a surge in well permits under California Governor Newsom
October 24th, 2019 update:
There have been several exciting updates since FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog released a report on fracking and regulatory corruption under Governor Newsom’s administration, detailed in the article below.
On July 11th, 2019, immediately following the report’s release, Governor Newsom fired Ken Harris, head of California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).
“The Governor has long held concerns about fracking and its impacts on Californians and our environment, and knows that ultimately California and our global partners will need to transition away from oil and gas extraction. In the weeks ahead, our office will work with you to find new leadership of (the division) that share this point of view and can run the division accordingly.”
Two months later in September, it was announced that no new fracking permits had been approved in California since the report was issued. We’re thrilled to see this immediate cessation. Yet, while new fracking activity has halted, other forms of oil and gas development continue to threaten Californian’s health and natural resources.
FracTracker Alliance’s review of public records found that DOGGR issued approximately 1,200 permits for steam injection and other “enhanced recovery” techniques through September 2nd, a 60% increase from the 749 permits issued in the same period last year. Sources within DOGGR revealed that at least 40 illegal oil spills from wells were ongoing in Kern and Santa Barbara Counties.
A final development came on October 12th, when Governor Newsom signed a bill to prevent oil and gas development on state lands. As state lands often neighbor federal lands, this bill will play a role in protecting federal land from pipelines, wells, and other polluting infrastructure. Newsom also changed the name of DOGGR to the “Geologic Energy Management Division,” and modified its mission to include protecting public health and environmental quality.
We remain hopeful that Newsom will take a bold stance in leading California away from fossil fuels.
Original July 11th, 2019 FracTracker article:
FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog have uncovered new data showing an increase in oil and gas permitting by California regulators in 2019 compared to 2018, calling into question Governor Gavin Newsom’s climate commitment. Even more concerning, this investigation found that state regulators are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate.
FracTracker Alliance’s new report with Consumer Watchdog compares oil and gas permitting policies of the current Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration with that of former Governor Jerry Brown’s administration.
The former lieutenant governor to Brown, Governor Newsom has set out to make a name for himself. As part of stepping out of Brown’s shadow, Newsom has expressed support for a Just Transition away from fossil fuels. Governor Newsom’s 2020 budget plan includes environmental justice measures and an unprecedented investment to plan for this transition that includes investments in job training.
Yet five months into Governor Newsom’s first term, regulators are on track to allow companies to drill and “frack” more new oil and gas wells than Brown allowed in 2018. The question now is: will Governor Newsom actually take the next step that Brown could not, and prioritize the reduction of oil extraction in California?
In addition, the Consumer Watchdog report reveals that eight California regulators with the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate. FracTracker and Consumer Watchdog are calling for the the removal of DOGGR officials with conflicts of interest, and an immediate freeze on new well approval. Read the letter to Governor Newsom here.
Governor Brown’s Legacy
Around the world, Brown is recognized as a climate warrior. His support of solar energy technology and criticisms of the nuclear and fossil fuel industry was ultimately unique in the late 1970’s.
In 1980, during his second term as Governor and short presidential campaign, he decried that fellow democrat and incumbent President Jimmy Carter had made a “Faustian bargain” with the oil industry. Since then, he has continued to push for state controls on greenhouse gas emissions. To end his political career, Brown hosted an epic climate summit in San Francisco, California, which brought together climate leaders, politicians, and scientists from around the world.
While Brown championed the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, his policies in California were contradictory. While front-line communities called for setbacks from schools, playgrounds, hospitals and other sensitive receptors, Brown ignored these requests. Instead he sought to spur oil production in the state. Brown even used state funds to explore his private properties for oil and mineral resources that could be exploited for personal profit.
Brown’s terms in the Governor’s office show trends of increasing oil and gas production. The chart in Figure 1 shows that during his first term (1979-1983), California oil extraction grew towards a peak in production. Then in 2011 at the start of Brown’s second term (2011-2019), crude oil production again inflected and continued to increase through 2015, ending a 25-year period of relatively consistent reduction.
We are therefore interested in looking at existing data to understand if moving forward, Governor Newsom will continue Brown’s legacy of support for California oil production. We start by looking at the first half of 2019, the beginning of Governor Newsom’s term, to see if his administration will also allow the oil and gas industry to increase extraction in California.
Figure 1. Chart of California’s historic oil production, from the EIA
The FracTracker Alliance has collaborated with the non-profit Consumer Watchdog to review records of oil and gas well permits issued in 2018 and thus far into 2019.
Records of approved permits were obtained from the CA Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). Weekly summaries of approved permits for the 52 weeks of 2018 and the first 22 weeks of 2019 (January 1st-June 3rd) were compiled, cleaned, and analyzed. Notices of well stimulations were also included in this analysis. The data is mapped here in the Consumer Watchdog report, as well as in more detail below in the map in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Map of California’s Permits, 2018 and 2019
At FracTracker, we are known for more than simply mapping, so we have, of course, extracted all the information that we can from this data. The dataset of DOGGR permits included details on the type of permit as well as when, where, and who the permits were granted. With this information we were able to answer several questions.
Of particular note and worthy of prefacing the data analysis was the observation of the very low numbers of permits granted in the LA Basin and Southern California, as compared to the Central Valley and Central Coast of California.
First, what are the types of permits issued?
Regulators require operators to apply for permits for a number of activities at well sites. This dataset includes permits to drill wells, including re-drilling existing wells, permits to rework existing wells, and permits to “sidetrack”. Well stimulations using techniques such as hydraulic fracturing and acid fracturing also require permits, as outline in CA State Bill 4.
How many permits have regulators issued?
In 2018, DOGGR approved 4,368 permits, including 2,124 permits to drill wells. In 2019, DOGGR approved 2,366 permits from January 1 – June 3, including 1,212 permits to drill wells. At that rate, DOGGR will approve 5,607 total permits by the end of 2019, including 2,872 wells.
That is an increase of 28.3% for total permits and an increase of 35.3% for drilling oil and gas wells.
DOGGR also issued 222 permits for well stimulations in 2018. So far in 2019, DOGGR has issued 191 permits for well stimulations, an increase of 103.2%.
Who is applying for permits?
As shown in Table 1 below, the operators Chevron U.S.A. Inc., Aera Energy LLC ( a joint conglomerate of Shell Oil Company and ExxonMobil), and Berry Petroleum Company, LLC dominate the drilling permit counts for both 2018 and 2019.
Aera has obtained the most drilling permits thus far into 2019, while Chevron obtained the most permits in 2018, almost 100 more than Aera. In 2019, Chevron was issued almost 3 times the amount of rework permits as Aera, and both have outpaced Berry Petroleum.
Table 1. Permit Counts by Operator
Where are the permits being issued?
Data presented in Table 2 indicate which fields are being targeted for drilling and rework permits. While the 2019 data represents less than half the year, the number of drilling permits is almost equal to the total drilling permit count for 2018.
Majority players in the Midway-Sunset field are Berry Petroleum and Chevron. South Belridge is dominated by Aera Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Cymric field is mostly Chevron and Aera Energy; McKittrick is mostly Area Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Kern River field, which has by far the most reworks (most likely due to its massive size and age) is entirely Chevron.
Table 2. Permit Counts by Field
The details of this analysis show that DOGGR has allowed for a modest increase in permits for oil and gas wells in 2019. The increase in well stimulations in 2019 is estimated to be larger, at 103.2%.
There was the consideration that this could be a seasonal phenomenon since we extrapolated from data encompassing just less than the first half of the year. But upon reviewing data for several other years, that does not seem to be the case. The general trend was instead increasing numbers of permits as each year progresses, with smaller permit counts through the first half of the year.
Oil prices do not provide much explanation either. The chart in Figure 3 shows that crude prices were higher in 2018 than they have been for the vast majority of 2019. The increase in permits could be the result of oil and gas operators like Chevron and Aera anticipating a stricter regulatory climate under Governor Newsom. Operators may be securing as many permits as possible, while DOGGR is still liberally issuing them. This could be a consequence of the Governor’s recognition of the need for California to begin a managed decline of fossil fuel production and end oil drilling in California.
Could this be an early industry death rattle?
Figure 3. Crude prices in 2018 and 2019
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance