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New Method for Locating Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells is Tested in New York State

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).

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

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.

Figure 2a. Oil and Gas Well Detected at 40m AGL showing LiDAR Total Horizontal Derivative of the site.

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 nromanz1@binghamton.edu.

 

The Mountaineer State: Where Politics, a Fossil Fuel Legacy, and Fracking Converge

Introduction

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.

Ohio Power’s Mitchell (Foreground) and Kammer (Background) Coal Power Plants, Marshall County, Combined Capacity 2,345 MegaWatts. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk

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.”

Murray Energy’s Consolidation Coal Mine, Marshall County

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”[1] 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. [2]  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.”

Cravat Coal Mine Slurry Pond, Marshall County, West Virginia

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!

Conservation Economy's Pattern Map

Conservation Economy’s Pattern Map

The Map

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:

  1.  annual production data for 880 mines between 2001 and 2017 and
  2.  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.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

[1] 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.”

[2] 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.

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison

Abandoned Wells in Pennsylvania: We’re Not Doing Enough

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.

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

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:

 

Fig 1. A Collapsed Well Opening – A Physical Hazard (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

Fig. 2. Well Spouting Acid Water. Well later plugged by DEP (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

Fig. 3. Oil Seepage (photo credit:(photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

 

Fig. 4. Abandoned Well and Storage Tank (photo credit: Friends of Oil Creek State Park)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

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.

Permitting New Oil and Gas Wells Under the Newsom Administration

California regulators approve surge in well permits

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 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

Analysis

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


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Findings

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

Conclusions

Be sure to also read the Consumer Watchdog report on FracTracker’s permit data!

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

July 12, 2019 Update

Governor Gavin Newsom has reacted swiftly to the report by Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker regarding findings of conflicts of interest within DOGGR and the quickening rate of well permitting, by firing California’s top oil and gas regulator Ken Harris.

Newsom’s chief of staff Ann O’Leary also requested other changes to California’s Department of Conservation. O’Leary stated:
“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.”
FracTracker supports the governor’s decision and hopes that new leadership acts in the best interests of Californians while moving the state towards 100% renewable energy.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Pennsylvanians Demand a Response to Rare Cancer Cases, Other Health Impacts

New research on fracking health impacts, combined with unusually high rates of pediatric cancer, sound alarm bells in Pennsylvania

FracTracker isn’t the only one digging deeper into the health impacts of fracking in the past few months. Last week, the Better Path Coalition organized a meeting at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to share new research with government officials, the press, and the public. These groundbreaking reports highlight the increasing body of evidence showing fracking’s adverse health and climate impacts.

Following the presentations on emerging research, Ned Ketyer, M.D., F.A.A.P, discussed the highly concerning proliferation of rare pediatric cancer cases in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Dr. Ketyer drew data from a report released last month by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which uncovered an unusually high number of childhood cancer diagnoses in southwestern Pennsylvania over the last decade. In just four counties (Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland), there were 27 people diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, between 2008 and 2018. Six of the 27 people diagnosed were from the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County, where there are currently 10 students district-wide with other types of cancers.

The expected number of Ewing sarcoma diagnoses over this time period and for the population count of southwestern Pennsylvania would be 0.75 cases per year, or roughly eight cases over the course of a decade. The higher number of rare childhood cancers was the subject of a recent community meeting held by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), where residents called on the state to further investigate the issue and take immediate action to eliminate any potential environmental causes. For more of EHP’s resources on this topic, click here.

Cancer in the Marcellus

The Pennsylvania Department of Health investigated three of these cases in Washington County and found that they did not meet the criteria definition of a cancer cluster. Still, the unusually high number of rare cancers over a small geography is cause for alarm and reason to suspect an environmental cause.

This four-county area has a legacy of environmental health hazards associated with coal mining activities and is home to a 40-year old uranium disposal site that sits in close proximity to the Canon-McMillan High School. But with the increase in cancer diagnoses over the past decade, many are looking towards fracking in the Marcellus Shale, the more recent environmental hazard to develop in the region, as a contributing cause.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is a hot spot for fracking activity. In these four counties, there are 3,169 active, producing unconventional gas wells. There are also the infrastructure and activity associated with unconventional development: compressor stations, processing stations (including Pennsylvania’s largest cryogenic plant), disposal sites for radioactive waste, and heavy truck traffic.

The environmental and health risks of these facilities were the focus of the presentations and discussions with Pennsylvania leaders last week.

A map of unconventional gas production in southwest Pennsylvania. Click on the image to open the map.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Call for action

At the culmination of the Harrisburg meeting, participants delivered a letter to Governor Wolf’s office, calling for an investigation into the causes of these childhood cancer cases. Signed by over 900 environmental organizations and individuals, the letter also asks for a suspension of new shale gas permitting until the Department of Health can determine that there is no link between drilling and the cancer outcomes.

Governor Wolf’s response to Karen Feridun, the organizer of this campaign, was a disappointing dismissal of this public health crisis. Stating that the environmental regulations his office has implemented “protect Pennsylvanians from negative environmental and health impacts,” Governor Wolf went on to say that his office “will continue to monitor and study cancer incidents in this area, especially as more data becomes available,” but did not agree to suspend new permitting.

Wolf’s decision to continue with status quo permitting while waiting for more data to become available is unacceptable, and will lead to more Pennsylvanians suffering from the industry’s health impacts.

The Governor’s response is even more disheartening as it follows his recent support for a full ban on fracking activity in the Delaware River Basin (including eastern Pennsylvania). The Governor’s support for the ban is an acknowledgement of the industry’s risks, and leaves us frustrated that the southwestern part of the state is not receiving equal protection.

When is enough evidence enough?

The continued permitting of unconventional wells disregards the scientific evidence of drilling’s harms discussed in Harrisburg.

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D, of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, discussed the results of the sixth edition of “The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking.” The Compendium outlines the health risks of fracking infrastructure from almost 1,500 peer-reviewed studies and governmental reports. Notably, the report outlines the inherent dangers of fracking and finds that regulations are incapable of protecting public health from the industry.

Erica Jackson discussed FracTracker Alliance’s recently published Categorical Review of Health Reports. This literature review analyzed 142 publications and reports on the health impacts of fracking, and found that 89% contained evidence of an adverse health outcome or health risk associated with proximity to unconventional oil and gas development.

Brian Schwartz, M.D., M.S., the Director of Geisinger Health Institute at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, presented epidemiological studies linking unconventional development to increased radon concentrations on homes and health impacts including adverse birth outcomes, mental health disorders, and asthma exacerbations.

Lorne Stockman, Senior Research Analyst with Oil Change International, discussed  “Burning the Gas ‘Bridge Fuel’ Myth,” a new report that further solidifies the irrationality of continued oil and gas development based on its climate impacts. The report shows that greenhouse gas emissions from fracking exceed climate goals, and how perpetuating the myth of natural gas as a “bridge” to renewables locks in emissions for decades.

A welcome ray of hope, this report also proves that renewables are an economically viable replacement to coal and gas, costing less than fossil fuels to build and operate in most markets. Furthermore, renewables combined with increasingly competitive battery storage ensures grid reliability.

“Burden of proof always belongs to the industry”

Among the inundation of data, statistics, and studies, Dr. Steingraber offered a sobering reminder of the purpose behind the meeting:

“Public health is about real people. When we collect data on public health problems, behind every data point, behind every black dot floating on a white mathematical space on a graph captured in a study, there are human lives behind those data points. And when those points each represent the life of a child or a teenager, what the dots represent is terror, unimaginable suffering, followed by death, or terror, unimaginable suffering, followed by a life of trauma, pathology reports, bone scans, medical bills, side effects, and uncertainty that all together are known as cancer survival.”

An adolescent cancer survivor herself, Dr. Steingraber clearly articulated the ethical responsibility our elected officials have to hold industry accountable for its impacts:

“Burden of proof always belongs to the industry, and benefit of the doubt always belongs to the child. It’s wrong to treat children like lab rats and experiment on them until the body count becomes so high that it reaches all the levels of statistical significance that tells you that we have a real problem here.”

The evidence is in – we know enough to justify an end to fracking based on its health and climate impacts. It’s time for Pennsylvania’s industry and leaders to stop experimenting with residents’ health and take immediate action to prevent more suffering.

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance

Production and Location Trends in PA: A Moving Target

The FracTracker Alliance tends to look mostly at the impacts of drilling, from violations affecting surface and ground water to forest fragmentation to neighbors breathing diesel exhaust near disposal wells.  We also try to give residents tools to help predict where future activity will occur, but as this article details, such predictive tools can do little more than trail moving targets. To that end, we have taken a look into areas where gas production is high for unconventional wells in the state, which are likely sites of future development.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Production Report is self-reported by the various operators active in the state. Unconventional wells generate a large quantity of natural gas, measured in thousands of cubic feet (Mcf), as well as limited amounts of oil and condensate, both of which are measured in 42 gallon barrels. In this analysis, we are only considering the gas production.


Click here for full screen map. 

In the map above, you can click on any well to learn more about the production values, along with a variety of other information including the well’s formation and age.  The age was calculated by counting days from the spud date to the end of the report cycle, March 31, 2019.

 

Top Average Gas Production by County – April 2018 to March 2019

CountyProducing Wells Avg. Production (Mcf) Production Rank Avg. Age of Producing WellsAge Rank
Wyoming 2511,269,15615 Yr / 10 Mo / 4 Days12
Sullivan1281,087,86825 Yr / 2 Mo/ 24 Days8
Allegheny1171,075,01834 yr/ 2 Mo / 7 Days2
Susquehanna1,4291,066,73445 Yr / 6 Mo / 22 Days10
Greene1,131796,75555 yr / 10 Mo / 28 Days13
Figure 1 – This table shows the top five counties in Pennsylvania for per-well unconventional gas production. The final column shows the county ranking for the average age of wells, from youngest to oldest

We can also see this data summarized by county, where average production and age values are available on a county by county basis (see Figure 1). Hydrocarbon wells are known to decrease production steeply over time, a phenomenon known as the decline curve, so it is not surprising to see a relatively young inventory of wells represented in the list of top five counties with per-well gas production. Age is not the only factor in production values, however, as certain geographies simply contain more accessible gas resources than others.

 

Figure 2 – 12 month gas production and age of well. Production is usually much higher during the earliest phases of the well’s production life.  This does not include wells that have been plugged or taken out of production.  Click on image for full-sized view.

In Figure 2, we look at the production of all unconventional wells in the state, expecting to see the highest production in younger wells. This mostly appears to be the case, but as mentioned above, there are also hot and cold spots with respect to production. A notable variable in this consideration is producing formation.

Since 93% (8,730 out of 9,404) of unconventional wells reporting gas production are in the Marcellus Shale Formation, the traditional hot spots in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state heavily skew the overall totals in terms of both production and number of wells.  Other formations of note include the Onodaga Limestone (137 wells, 1.5% of total), Burket Member (117 wells, 1.2%), Genesee Formation (104 wells, 1.1%), and the Utica Shale (99 wells, 1.1%) (Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Unconventional gas production over 12 months, showing formation. Click on image for full-sized view.

Drillers have been exploring some of these formations for decades. In fact, the oldest producing well that is currently classified as unconventional was 13,435 days old as of March 31, which works out to 36 years, 9 months, and 12 days.

However, this is fairly rare – only 384 (4%) of the 9,404 producing wells were more than 10 years old. 5,981 wells (64%) are between 5 and 10 years old, with the remaining 3,039 wells (32%) younger than 5 years old.

This does not take into account wells of any age that have been plugged or otherwise taken out of production.

Age of Pennsylvania’s active wells

< 5 years old
5-10 years old
> 10 years old

 

Utica Shale

The Utica Shale is worth a special mention here for a couple of reasons.  First, we must acknowledge its prominence in neighboring Ohio, which has 2,160 permitted Utica wells to go with just 40 permitted Marcellus wells, the prevalence of the two plays seems to invert just as one passes over the state line. And yet, the most productive Utica wells are near the border with New York, not Ohio.

In fact, each of the top 11 producing Utica wells during the 12 month period were located in Tioga County.  It’s worth noting that these are all between one and two years old, which would have given the wells time to be drilled, fracked, and brought into production, while still being in the prime of their production life. Compared to the Marcellus, sample size quickly becomes an issue when analyzing the Utica in Pennsylvania (Figure 4).

Figure 4 – Producing Utica wells in Pennsylvania. Note that the cluster of heavily producing wells in Tioga and Potter Counties near the New York border are mostly young wells where higher production would be expected.  Click on image for full sized view.

Second, portions of the Utica are known for their wet gas content, meaning that the gas has significant quantities of natural gas liquids (NGLs) including ethane, propane, and butane, which are gaseous at ambient temperatures but typically condensed into liquid form by oil and gas companies.  These are used for specialized fuels and petrochemical feedstocks, and are therefore more valuable than the methane in natural gas.

The production report does not capture the amount of NGLs in the gas, but a map from the Energy Information Administration shows the entire play, noting that the composition is dryer on the eastern portions of the play. In fact, a wet gas composition along the Ohio border might help to explain continued interest in what are otherwise well below average gas production results for Pennsylvania.

A Moving Target

It is difficult to predict where the industry will focus its attention in the coming months and years, but taking a look at production and formation data can give us a few clues.  Obviously, operators who found a particularly productive pocket of hydrocarbons are likely to keep drilling more holes in the ground in those areas until production is no longer profitable. Therefore, impacts to water, air, and nearby residents can be expected to continue in heavily drilled areas largely because the production level makes it attractive for drillers.

On the other hand, we should not assume that areas that are currently not productive are off the table for future consideration, either. Different formations are productive in different geographies, so a sweet spot for the Marcellus might be a dud in the Utica, or vice versa.

Finally, when comparing production, we must always take the age of the well into consideration, as all oil and gas wells can be expected to start off with a short period of very high production, followed by years of ever-diminishing returns throughout the expected 10 to 11 year lifecycle of the well. Because of this, what seems like a hotspot now may look below average in a similar analysis in three to four years, particularly in formations with relatively light drilling activity. This means that the top list of production by well could change over time, so be sure to check back in with FracTracker to see how events unfold.

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

 

Who Pays? Health and Economic Impacts of Fracking in Pennsylvania

Since the advent of unconventional shale gas drilling, some effects have been immediate, some have emerged over time, and some are just becoming apparent. Two reports recently published by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network advance our understanding of the breadth of the impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania. The first report, written by FracTracker, reviews research on the ways fracking impacts the health of Pennsylvanians. The second report by ECONorthwest calculates the economic costs of the industry.

“Fracking is heavily impacting Pennsylvania in multiple ways but the burden is not being fairly and openly calculated. These reports reveal the health effects and economic costs of fracking and the astounding burdens people and communities are carrying,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

Learn what the latest science and analysis tells us about the costs of fracking, who is paying now, and what the future price is forecasted to be.

Access the full reports here:

 

Health Impact Report

“Categorical Review of Health Reports on Unconventional Oil and Gas Development; Impacts in Pennsylvania,”  FracTracker Alliance, 2019 Issue Paper

Economic Impact Report

“The Economic Costs of Fracking in Pennsylvania,” ECONorthwest, 2019 Issue Paper

 

From the Experts

“The FracTracker Alliance conducted a review of the literature studying the impact of unconventional oil and gas on health. Findings of this review show a dramatic increase in the breadth and volume of literature published since 2016, with 89% of the literature reporting that drilling proximity has human health effects. Pennsylvanian communities were the most studied sample populations with 49% of reviewed journal articles focused on Marcellus Shale development. These studies showed health impacts including cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms were correlated with living near unconventional oil and gas development for Pennsylvania and other frontline communities.”

Kyle Ferrar, FracTracker Alliance Western Program Coordinator

 

Rig and house. Westwood Lake Park. Photo by J Williams, 2013.

“Fracking wells have an extensive presence across Pennsylvania’s landscape – 20 percent of residents live within 2 miles of a well. This is close enough to cause adverse health outcomes. Collectively we found annual costs of current fracking activity over $1 billion, with cumulative costs given continued fracking activity over the next 20 years of over $50 billion in net present value for the effects that we can monetize. The regional economic benefits also seem to be less than stated, as the long-term benefits for local economies are quite low, and can disrupt more sustainable and beneficial economic trajectories that might not be available after a community has embraced fracking.”

Mark Buckley, Senior Economist at the natural resource practice at
ECONorthwest

 

These reports on the health effects and economic impacts of unconventional oil and natural gas development yield disheartening results. There are risks of extremely serious health issues for families in impacted areas, and the long term economic returns for communities are negative.

Arming ourselves with knowledge is an important first step towards the renewable energy transformation that is so clearly needed. The stakes are too high to allow the oil and natural gas industries to dictate the physical, social, and economic health of Pennsylvanians.

Release: The 2019 You Are Here map launches, showing New York’s hurdles to climate leadership

For Immediate Release

Contact: Lee Ziesche, lee@saneenergyproject.org, 954-415-6282

Interactive Map Shows Expansion of Fracked Gas Infrastructure in New York State

And showcases powerful community resistance to it

New York, NY – A little over a year after 55 New Yorkers were arrested outside of Governor Cuomo’s door calling on him to be a true climate leader and halt the expansion of fracked gas infrastructure in New York State, grassroots advocates Sane Energy Project re-launched the You Are Here (YAH) map, an interactive map that shows an expanding system of fracked infrastructure approved by the Governor.

“When Governor Cuomo announced New York’s climate goals in early 2019, it’s clear there is no room for more extractive energy, like fossil fuels.” said Kim Fraczek, Director of Sane Energy Project, “Yet, I look at the You Are Here Map, and I see a web of fracked gas pipelines and power plants trapping communities, poisoning our water, and contributing to climate change.”

Sane Energy originally launched the YAH map in 2014 on the eve of the historic People’s Climate March, and since then, has been working with communities that resist fracked gas infrastructure to update the map and tell their stories.

“If you read the paper, you might think Governor Cuomo is a climate leader, but one look at the YAH Map and you know that isn’t true. Communities across the state are living with the risks of Governor Cuomo’s unprecedented buildout of fracked gas infrastructure,” said Courtney Williams, a mother of two young children living within 400 feet of the AIM fracked gas pipeline. “The Governor has done nothing to address the risks posed by the “Algonquin” Pipeline running under Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. That is the center of a bullseye that puts 20 million people in danger.”

Fracked gas infrastructure poses many of the same health risks as fracking and the YAH map exposes a major hypocrisy when it comes to Governor Cuomo’s environmental credentials. The Governor has promised a Green New Deal for New York, but climate science has found the expansion of fracking and fracked gas infrastructure is increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“The YAH map has been an invaluable organizing tool. The mothers I work with see the map and instantly understand how they are connected across geography and they feel less alone. This solidarity among mothers is how we build our power ,” said Lisa Marshall who began organizing with Mothers Out Front to oppose the expansion of the Dominion fracked gas pipeline in the Southern Tier and a compressor station built near her home in Horseheads, New York. “One look at the map and it’s obvious that Governor Cuomo hasn’t done enough to preserve a livable climate for our children.”

“Community resistance beat fracking and the Constitution Pipeline in our area,” said Kate O’Donnell  of Concerned Citizens of Oneonta and Compressor Free Franklin. “Yet smaller, lesser known infrastructure like bomb trucks and a proposed gas decompressor station and 25 % increase in gas supply still threaten our communities.”

The YAH map was built in partnership with FracTracker, a non-profit that shares maps, images, data, and analysis related to the oil and gas industry hoping that a better informed public will be able to make better informed decisions regarding the world’s energy future.

“It has been a privilege to collaborate with Sane Energy Project to bring our different expertise to visualizing the extent of the destruction from the fossil fuel industry. We look forward to moving these detrimental projects to the WINS layer, as communities organize together to take control of their energy future. Only then, can we see a true expansion of renewable energy and sustainable communities,” said Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator at Fractracker Alliance.

Throughout May and June Sane Energy Project and 350.org will be traveling across the state on the ‘Sit, Stand Sing’ tour to communities featured on the map to hold trainings on nonviolent direct action and building organizing skills that connect together the communities of resistance.

“Resistance to fracking infrastructure always starts with small, volunteer led community groups,” said Lee Ziesche, Sane Energy Community Engagement Coordinator. “When these fracked gas projects come to town they’re up against one of the most powerful industries in the world. The You Are Here Map and ‘Sit, Stand Sing’ tour will connect these fights and help build the power we need to stop the harm and make a just transition to community owned renewable energy.”

Secret Chemicals Report Cover - Rig

New report finds widespread use of proprietary fracking chemicals in PA

Keystone Secrets: Records Show Widespread Use of Secret Fracking Chemicals is a Looming Risk for Delaware River Basin, Pennsylvania Communities

A report released today by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) found that between 2013 and 2017, drilling companies injected at least one hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) chemical with an identity kept hidden from the public into more than 2,500 unconventional natural gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania. The report, KeyStone Secrets, found companies injected secret fracking chemicals 13,632 times into 2,515 wells in total (explore map below).

Fracking in unconventional formations has significantly increased oil and gas extraction, making Pennsylvania the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer. The process has also sparked concerns about pollution and health effects, especially related to unidentified fracking chemicals. In response, Pennsylvania and 28 other states have enacted rules that require some public disclosure of these chemicals. However, most if not all of these rules have exceptions that allow companies to withhold chemical identities as trade secrets.

This report by Massachusetts-based Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), with analysis of fracking chemical disclosure data by FracTracker Alliance, illustrates that drilling companies have used these exceptions extensively.

Records obtained by PFPI from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that non-disclosure of fracking chemical identities may leave people unknowingly exposed to harmful substances. Between 2003 and 2014, the EPA identified health concerns for 109 of 126 new chemicals proposed for use in oil and gas drilling and fracking. The manufacturers submitted information about the chemicals for review under a program that requires EPA to screen and regulate new chemicals for health and environmental impacts before they are used commercially.

Despite concerns by EPA scientists about the chemicals’ health effects, EPA approved most of the 109 chemicals for use, and 62 were later used in or likely used in oil and gas wells.  Manufacturers took advantage of trade secret protections that are permitted by federal law to conceal 41 of the 62 chemicals’ identities.  It is possible that some of these chemicals declared secret at the federal level are some of the same chemicals being used under trade secret protection in Pennsylvania.Keystone Secrets map

Explore dynamic map full screen

Mapping of secret fracking chemical injection sites (above) show that use is heaviest in southwest Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh and in northeast Pennsylvania near the Delaware River Basin, tracking areas of intensive drilling.

The use of secret chemicals in Pennsylvania’s oil and gas wells is likely even higher than detailed in this report because of exemptions in Pennsylvania law, including:

  • No disclosure requirements for the chemicals used in drilling oil and gas wells – the portion of the oil and gas extraction process that precedes fracking;
  • No requirement that fracking chemicals for so-called “conventional” oil and gas wells be reported to an easily searchable electronic database; and
  • A reporting exemption for chemical manufacturers who are not required to disclose trade secret chemical identities even to emergency responders cleaning up a leak or spill.

In the coming months, the Delaware River Basin Commission is expected to consider a ban on fracking in the basin – fracking that would be most likely to occur in unconventional gas wells in Pennsylvania’s portion of the four-state area. There is currently a de facto moratorium on fracking in the basin that provides drinking water for New York City and Philadelphia – among other cities. The commission is also expected to consider whether to allow related activities inside the basin, including the treatment and discharge into waterways of fracking wastewater from outside the basin. Any fracking or discharges of wastewater would be likely to include some of the secret fracking chemicals discussed in this report.

People have a right to know the identities of chemicals used in oil and gas operations so that citizens, first responders, regulators, and scientists can determine the chemicals’ risks and act to protect health and the environment. Learn more about the proprietary fracking chemicals used in PA by reading the full report:


Report Author: Dusty Horwitt, Partnership for Policy Integrity

Partnership for Policy Integrity Logo

Documenting Fracking Impacts: A Yearlong Tour from a Bird’s-Eye-View

“The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)

I always tell people that you can’t really understand or appreciate the enormity, heterogeneity, and complexity of the unconventional oil and gas industry’s impact unless you look at the landscape from the cockpit of a Cessna 172. This bird’s-eye-view allows you to see the grandeur and nuance of all things beautiful and humbling. Conversely, and unfortunately more to the point of what I’ve seen in the last year, a Cessna allows one to really absorb the extent, degree, and intensity of all things destructive.

I’ve had the opportunity to hop on board the planes of some amazing pilots like Dave Warner, a forester formerly of Shanks, West Virginia (Note: More on our harrowing West Virginia flight with Dave later!!), Tim Jacobson Esq. out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, northern Illinois retired commodity and tree farmer Doug Harford, and Target corporate jet pilot Fred Muskol out of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

Since joining FracTracker I’ve been fortunate to have completed nearly a dozen of these “morning flights” as I like to call them, and five of those have taken place since August 2017. I’m going to take the next few paragraphs to share what I’ve found in my own words and by way of some of the photos I think really capture how hydraulic fracturing, and all of its tentacles, has impacted the landscape.

The following is by no means an empirical illustration. I’m increasingly aware, however, that often times tables, charts, and graphs fail to capture much of the scale and scope of fossil fuel’s impact. Photos, if properly georeferenced and curated, are as robust a source of data as a spreadsheet or shapefile, both of which are the traditional coins of the realm here at FracTracker.

West Central Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines

August 2, 2017

Figure 1. Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota silica sand mines, processing facilities, and related operations

It was nearly a year ago today that I met Bloomer, Wisconsin dairy farmer Ken Schmitt at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (KEAU) and soon thereafter jumped into Tim Jacobson’s Cessna 172 to get a bird’s-eye-view of the region’s many frac sand mines and their impacts (Figure 1). These sites are spread out over a 12-county region known as West Central Wisconsin (WCW). Ken hadn’t been up to see these mines since October of 2016 and was eager to see how they had “progressed,” knowing what he did about their impact on his neck of the woods in northern Chippewa County.

Ken is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, and – befitting a dairy farmer – he is also one of the most conservative and analytical folks I’ve ever met. However, that morning it was clear that his patience with county administrators and the frac sand mining industry had long since run out. He was tired of broken promises, their clear and ubiquitous bullying tactics, and a general sense that his livelihood and the farm he was hoping to leave his kids were at risk due to sand mining’s complete capture of WCW’s residents and administrators.

Meanwhile Mr. Jacobson Esq. was intimately familiar with some of the legal tools residents were using to fight the spread of sand mining in the WCW. This is something he referred to as “anticipatory nuisance” lawsuits, which he and his colleagues were pursuing on behalf of several landowners against OmniTrax’s (f/k/a Terracor) “sand mine, wet and dry processing, a conveyor system to a rail load out with manifest yard” proposal in Jackson County, Wisconsin. I, too, have worked with Tim to inform some of his legal work with respect to the nuisance stories and incidents I’ve documented in my travels, as well as research into the effects of sand mining across Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Explore details from our sand mining tour by clicking on the images below:

Our flight lasted nearly 2.5 hours and stretched out over 4,522 square miles. It included nearly 20 sand mines – and related infrastructure – in the counties of Jackson, Wood, Clark, Eau Claire, Monroe, Trempealeau, and Buffalo. What we saw was a sizeable expansion of the mining complex in the region since the last time I flew the area – nearly four years earlier on October 8, 2013. The number and size of mines that had popped up since that trip were far greater than any of us had expected.

This expansion paralleled the relative – and total –increase in demand for “proppant” from the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) all across the country (Figure 2).

Figure 1. A map of the likely destination for Wisconsin’s frac sand mines silica sand based on an analysis of Superior Silica Sand’s 2015 SEC 10Ks.

Figure 2. A map of the likely destination for Wisconsin’s frac sand mines silica sand based on an analysis of Superior Silica Sand’s 2015 SEC 10Ks.

West Virginia Panhandle & Southeastern Ohio

January 26, 2018

On the morning of January 26th, I woke up on the west side of Cleveland thinking there was very little chance we were going to get up in the air for our flight with SouthWings’ pilot Dave Warner due to inclement weather. There was a part of me that was optimistic, however, so I decided to make the three hour drive down to the Marshall County Airport (KMPG) in Moundsville, West Virginia from Cleveland in the hopes that the “cold rain and snow” we’d been receiving was purely lake effect stuff and the West Virginia panhandle had not been in the path of the same cold front.

Marshall County, West Virginia Airport (KMPG) staff clearing the runway for our flight with SouthWings pilot Dave Warner, 1/26/2018

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Moundsville airport I was wrong, and the runway was pretty slick around 8:00 a.m. However, the airport’s staff worked diligently to de-ice and plow the runway and by the time Dave Warner arrived from southern West Virginia conditions were ideal. The goal of this flight was two-fold:

  1. Photograph some of the large-scale high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) infrastructure in the West Virginia counties of Doddridge, Wetzel, and Marshall owned and operated by MarkWest, and
  2. Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant was doing a story on natural gas gathering pipeline’s impact on waterways, and more specifically the Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). She was looking to see the impacted landscape from the air.

Both of these goals were achieved efficiently and safely, with the resulting Allegheny Front piece receiving significant interest across multiple public radio and television platforms including PRI’s Living On Earth.

Explore details from our WV / OH tour by clicking on the images below:

On my return drive home that afternoon the one new thing that really resonated with me was the fact that hydraulic fracturing or fracking has come to be defined by 4-5 acre well pads across Appalachian, Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. This is a myth, however, expertly perpetuated by the oil and gas industry and their talking shops. Fracking’s extreme volatility and quick declines in rates of return necessitate that this latest fossil fuel iteration install large pieces of infrastructure like compressor stations and cracking facilities. This all is to ensure timely movement of product from supply to demand and to optimize the “value added” products the global markets demand and plastics industry uses as their primary feedstocks. This large infrastructure was never mentioned at the outset of the shale revolution, and I would imagine if it had been there would be far more resistance.

The one old thing the trip reinforced was the omnipresence and sinuosity of natural gas gathering lines across extremely steep and forested Appalachian geographies. How these pipelines will hold up and what their hasty construction is doing to terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, not to mention humanity, is anyone’s guess; the data is just so darn bad.

Southeastern Ohio

March 5, 2018 – aka, The XTO Powhatan Point Well Pad Explosion Flight

FAA’s Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) notification

Around 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 15, 2018, an explosion occurred at XTO’s Schnegg frack pad “as the company worked to frack a fourth well” in Powhatan Point, Belmont County, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 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.

We were antsy to see what we could see, so we caught an emergency flight with Dave Warner, only this time under the LightHawk umbrella. We left on the morning of March 5th out of the all too familiar[1] Carroll County-Tolson Airport (KTSO). Although we couldn’t get close to the site, there was a holler valley to the northwest of the pad that allowed us to capture a photo of the ongoing releases. Additionally, within several weeks we obtained by FOIA the raw Ohio State Trooper monitoring footage from their helicopter and posted this footage to our YouTube channel, where it has received 4,787 views since March 19, 2018. This type of web traffic is atypical for anything that doesn’t include kittens, the Kardashians, or the Kardashians’ kittens.

Explore details from our Southeastern Ohio tour by clicking on the images below:

Much like our flight in January the most salient points I got out of Dave’s plane thinking about were:

  • Astonishment regarding the number of gas gathering lines and the fact that they seem to have been installed with very little-to-no reclamation forethought. They are also installed during a time of year when – even if hydroseed is applied – it won’t grow, leaving plenty of chances for predictable spring rains to cause major problems for streams and creeks, and
  • Amazement over the growing inventory of large processing infrastructure required by the HVHF industry. This insfrastructure includes the large Mark West and Blue Racer Midstream processing plants in Cadiz and Lewisville, Ohio, respectively, as well as Texas-based Momentum Midstream’s natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio along the Carroll and Harrison County borders. That complex is affectionately referred to by the company’s own spokesman as The Beast because of its sheer size.

It is a big plant, a very big plant and far bigger than other plants around here… What’s really amazing that we got it up and running in six months. No one believed that we could do that. – Momentum Midstream spokesman Eric Mize discussing their natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio, Ohio.

LaSalle County, Illinois

May 24 & 26, 2018

 Frac Sand Mines and The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands Buffalo Herd, Franklin Grove, Illinois

It was during the week of June 20, 2016 that I first visited the frac sand mine capital of the United States: LaSalle County, Illinois. Here is the land of giant silica sand mines owned by even larger multinationals like U.S. Silica, Unimin, and Fairmount Santrol.

Fast forward to the week of May 21st of this year, and I was back in the frac sand capital to interview several folks that live near these mines or have been advocating for a more responsible industry. I conducted a “morning flight” with several journalists and county officials from neighboring Ottawa County.

LaSalle County is an extremely interesting case study for anyone even remotely interested in the food, energy, and water (FEW) conversation that has begun to receive significant attention in the age of the “Shale Revolution.” (Such focus is largely thanks to the extreme amounts of water required during the fracking process.) While LaSalle County has never experienced even a single HVHF permit, it is home to much of the prized silica or “proppant” the HVHF industry prizes. La Salle receives this recognition due to its location above one of the finest sources of silica sand: the St. Peter Sandstone formation. This situation has prompted a significant expansion in the permitting of new silica sand mines and expansion of existing mines throughout the county – from small townships like North Utica and Oglesby to Troy Grove 7 miles north on East 8th Road.

Meanwhile, LaSalle County is home to some of the most productive soils in the United States, due largely to the carbon sequestration capabilities of the tallgrass prairies that once dominated the region. In any given year, the county ranks in the top 5 nationally based on the amount of soybean and corn produced on a per-acre basis. According to an analysis of the most recent USDA agricultural census, total agricultural value in LaSalle County exceeds $175 million or seven times the national average by county of roughly $23 million.

Needless to say, the short-term extraction of silica sands in the name of “energy independence” stands to have a profound impact on long-term “food security” in the U.S. and worldwide. Sadly, this conflict is similar to the one facing the aforementioned West Central Wisconsin, home to similarly productive soils. The cows that feed on the forage those soils produce some of the highest quality dairy anywhere. (As an aside: both regions are facing the realities of their disproportionate support for Donald Trump and the effects his trade war will have on their economies.)

LaSalle County is also home to the 2,630-acre Starved Rock State Park along the south bank of the Illinois River. Much of the park’s infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) back in the early 1900s. Starved Rock is home to 18 canyons featuring:

… vertical walls of moss-covered stone formed by glacial meltwater that slice dramatically through tree-covered sandstone bluffs. More than 13 miles of trails allow access to waterfalls, fed season runoff or natural springs, sandstone overhangs, and spectacular overlooks. Lush vegetation supports abundant wildlife, while oak, cedar and pine grow on drier, sandy bluff tops. – IL DNR

Starved Rock receives more than 2.5 million visitors annually, which is the most of any Illinois state park. However, it is completely surrounded by existing or proposed frac sand mines, including US Silica’s Covel Creek mine. US Silica even recently pitched an expansion to the doorstep of Starved Rock and future plans to nearly engulf the park’s perimeter. What such an expansion would do to the attractiveness of the park and its trickle down economic impact is debatable, but LaSalle County residents Paul Wheeler and photographer Michelle McCray took a stab at illustrating the value of the state park to residents for our audience back in August, 2016:


Our flight with LightHawk pilot and neighboring Mazon, Illinois retired farmer Doug Harford lifted off from Illinois Valley Regional Airport (KVYS) at around 9:00 a.m. local time on the morning of May 24th. We had perfect conditions for taking photos, with no clouds and a comfortable 70-75°F for the duration of a two-hour flight. We covered nearly 200 square miles and ten existing, abandoned, or permitted frac sand mines.

Explore details from our Illinois tour by clicking on the images below:

All passengers were struck by how large these mines were and how much several of the mines had expanded since the last time we all flew over them in June of 2016. The mines that had experienced the greatest rates of expansion were US Silica’s LaSalle Voss mine along Interstate 80 and the aforementioned Illinois River mine along with Fairmount Mineral’s major expansion, both in terms of infrastructure and actual mine footprint, in Wedron along the Fox River.

Figure 2. A map of the LaSalle County frac sand mines and associated St. Peter sandstone formation along with the city of Chicago for some geographic perspective.

Figure 3. A map of the LaSalle County frac sand mines and associated St. Peter sandstone formation, along with the city of Chicago for some geographic perspective.

Most of this expansion is due to three critical distinguishing characteristics about the industry in LaSalle County:

  • The processing and export infrastructure (i.e., east-west rail) is in place and allows for mining to take place at times when other sand mining regions are mothballed,
  • Due to the large aggregation of parcels for farming purposes, companies can lease or outright purchase large amounts of land from relatively few landowners, and
  • Only the largest firms are active in the region, and with economies of scale they are not subject to the same types of shocks that smaller firms are when the price of oil collapses (like it did between June 2015 and February 2016). This means that the conflict will only be amplified in the coming months and years as the frac sand mining industry looks to supersede agriculture as LaSalle County’s primary economic driver.

However, all is not lost in North Central Illinois. This hope was stoked during our sojourn – and my subsequent trip in person – up to see The Nature Conservancy’s 3,600 acre preserve in Franklin Grove on the border of Lee and Ogle counties. As someone who is working hard to establish a small plot of prairie grasses and associated wildflowers at my home outside Cleveland, I was hoping to see what an established prairie looks like from the air. My primary goal, however, was to see what a healthy herd of native bison looks like.[2] The Nachusa bison are unique in that they came:

… from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and…Unlike most other American bison, animals from the Wind Cave herd have no history of cross-breeding with cattle. Bison from Wind Cave are the species’ most genetically pure and diverse specimens.

We were fortunate during our flight to have spotted the heard at the western edge of the preserve in what volunteer naturalist, Betty Higby, later told me the staff calls Oak Island. While I am not a person of faith, seeing these behemoths roaming freely and doing what 20-30 million of their ancestors used to do across much of North America moved me in a way I was not prepared for. I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of awe and humility. How was I going to explain this beast’s former ubiquity and current novelty to my 5-year-old son, who shares a love of the North American Bison with me and would most certainly ask me what happened to this majestic creature?

Medina & Stark counties, Ohio NEXUS Pipeline flight

June 25, 2018

Ohio is currently home to 2,840 fracking permits, with 2,370 of these laterals having been drilled since September 2010. The growing concern around the fracking and petrochemicals conversation across much of the Midwest is the increasing number of FERC-permitted natural gas pipeline “proposals”[3] the industry is demanding it needs to maximize potential. Most residents in the path of these pipelines have strong objections to such development, citing the fact that imminent domain should not be invoked for corporate gain.

Much like all of the other patterns and processes we’ve documented and/or photographed at FracTracker, we felt that a flight over the latest FERC-approved pipeline – The NEXUS pipeline – would give us a better understanding of how this critical piece of infrastructure has altered the landscapes of Medina and Stark counties. Given the population density of these two northeastern Ohio counties, we also wanted to document the pipeline’s pathway with respect to urban and suburban centers.

Our flight on June 25th was delayed due to low clouds and last minute changes to the flight plan, but once we took off from Wadsworth Municipal Airport (3G3) with a local flight instructor it was clear that NEXUS is a pipeline that navigates a sinuous path in cities and townships like Green, Medina, Rittman, and Seville – coming dangerously close to thousands of homes and farms, as well as many schools and medical facilities.

Explore details from our NEXUS Pipeline tour by clicking on the images below:

Will this be the last FERC-approved pipeline to transverse Ohio in the name of “energy independence”? Will this pipeline and its brethren with names like the Utopia and ET Rover be monitored in real-time? If not, why? It is unfortunate, to say the least, that we so flippantly assume these pipelines are innocuous given their proximity to so many Ohioans. And, as if to add insult to injury, imminent domain is invoked. All this for a piece of oil and gas infrastructure that will profit companies on the global market, with only a fraction of the revenue returning to affected communities.

What’s Next?

I don’t know of a better way to understand the magnitude of these pipelines than flying over them at 1,000-1,500 feet, and I will continue to monitor and photograph oil and gas developments from the air with the assistance of amazing pilots like those affiliated with LightHawk and SouthWings.

To this end, I will be returning to West Central Wisconsin for yet another “morning flight” with the aforementioned La Crosse-area pilot and lawyer Tim Jacobson and frequent collaborator University of Wisconsin-Stout professor Tom Pearson.[4] Our flight plan will return us to the northern Wisconsin frac sand counties of Chippewa, Barron, Dunn, Eau Claire, and if we have time we’ll revisit the mines we photographed in August of last year. We’ve been told by Susan Bence, an environmental reporter out of Milwaukee Public Radio, that she is trying to convince the powers that be at NPR in Washington, DC that this is a story the entire country should hear about. Wish us luck!


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

Bird’s-Eye-View Endnotes

  1. The first of my morning fracking flights was out of this airport back in June, 2012 along with the other passenger on this flight Paul Feezel of Carroll Concerned Citizens and David Beach of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Green City Blue Lakes program.
  2. The Conservancy initially brought at least 30 bison of different ages and genders to Nachusa. The bison graze on approximately 1,500 acres of the prairie and the site currently supports more than 120 bison according to site volunteer naturalist Betty Higby.
  3. I put quotes around this word because in my travels across Ohio interviewing those in the path of these transmission pipelines it is clear that this is not the correct word because ‘proposals’ implies that these pipelines might not happen or are up for debate. Yet, neither could be further from the truth with most folks indicating that it was very clear very early in their interactions with FERC and the pipeline companies that there was never a chance that these pipelines were not going to happen with “imminent domain for private gain” being the common thread throughout my conversations.
  4. Tom is the author of a recently published book on the topic “When the Hills Are Gone.”

Supporting Documentation