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National Energy and Petrochemical Map

FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!

View Full Size Map | Updated 4/13/21 | Data Tutorial

4/13/2021 Update

This map has been updated since this blog post was originally published, and therefore statistics and figures below may no longer correspond with the map

The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:

         For oil and gas wells, view FracTracker’s state maps. 

This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?

Key Takeaways

  • Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants.
  • The state generating the largest amount of solar energy is California, while wind energy is Texas. The state with the greatest relative solar energy is not technically a state – it’s D.C., where 18% of electricity generation is from solar, closely followed by Nevada at 17%. Iowa leads the country in relative wind energy production, at 45%.
  • The state generating the most amount of energy from both natural gas and coal is Texas. Relatively, West Virginia has the greatest reliance on coal for electricity (85%), and Rhode Island has the greatest percentage of natural gas (92%).
  • With 28% of total U.S. energy consumption for transportation, many of the refineries, crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, and terminals on this map are dedicated towards gasoline, diesel, and other fuel production.
  • Petrochemical production, which is expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, takes the form of chemical plants, ethylene crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines on this map, largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast.

Electricity generation

The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?

National Map of Power plants

Power plants by energy source. Data from EIA.

In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.

In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).

National Energy Sources Pie Chart

Figure 1. Electricity generation by source in the United States, 2019. Data from EIA.

This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.Fracking's astronomical decline rates - after one year, a well may be producing less than one-fifth of the oil and gas it produced its first year. To keep up with production, operators must pump exponentially more water, chemicals, and sand, or just drill a new well.

The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”

The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.

This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.

In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.

How does your state generate electricity?
Legend

Figure 2. Electricity generation state-wide by source, 2019. Data from EIA.

One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others.  The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Transportation

In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.

Map of transportation infrastructure

Transportation Fuel Infrastructure. Data from EIA.

The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.

The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses.  Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.

China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.

In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a  “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.

We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.

Petrochemicals

Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.

This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.

Map of Petrochemical Infrastructure

Petrochemical infrastructure. Data from EIA.

Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.

Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.

The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.

As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.

Petrochemical infrastructure

Petrochemical development off the coast of Texas, November 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.

“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”

Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.

Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)

In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”

What will this map look like in the next 30 years?

A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”

Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could  zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?

Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.

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Oil and Gas Wastes are Radioactive – and Lack Regulatory Oversight

Highlighting the maps of radioactive oil and gas exploration and production wastes created in collaboration with the Western Organization of Research Councils

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Scott Skokos, Western Organization of Research Councils

Oil and gas waste can be radioactive, but it is not considered “hazardous,” at least according to the federal government. In this article, we summarize several of the hazardous risks resulting from the current federal policy that fails to regulate this massive waste stream, and the gaps left by states. Of the six states mapped in this assessment, only the state of Montana has initiated any type of rule-making process to manage the waste.

When it comes to unconventional oil and gas waste streams:

Nobody can say how much of any type of waste is being produced, what it is, and where it’s ending up. – Nadia Steinzor, Earthworks

To address some of these gaps, FracTracker Alliance has been working with the Western Organization of Resources Councils (WORC) to map out exactly where radioactive oil and wastes are being dumped, stored, and injected into the ground for disposal. The work is an extension to WORC’s comprehensive No Time to Waste report.

Why is accurate waste data so hard to come by? The Earthworks report, Wasting Away explains that the U.S. EPA intentionally exempted oil and gas exploration and production wastes from the federal regulations known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) despite concluding that such wastes “contain a wide variety of hazardous constituents.” As a result, there is very little waste tracking and reporting of oil and gas waste data nationally.

State Waste Management Maps

Some data is available at the state level, so we at FracTracker have compiled, cleaned, and mapped what little data we could find.

State-specific maps have been created for Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming – see below:

ND Radioactive Waste mapNorth Dakota – View map fullscreen

co-radioactive-featureColorado – View map fullscreen

Sources of Radioactivity

When we hear about “radioactive waste” associated with the energy industry, nuclear power stations and fission reactors are usually what come to mind. But, as the EPA explains, fracking has transformed the nature of the oil and gas waste stream. Components of fracking waste differ from conventional oil and gas exploration and production wastes in a number of ways:

  • In general, the waste stream has additional hazardous components, and that transformation includes increased radioactivity.
  • Fracking has allowed for more intrusive drilling, penetrating deep sedimentary formations using millions of gallons of fluid.
  • Drilling deeper produces more drill cuttings.
  • The process of hydraulic fracking introduces millions more gallons of fluid into the ground that then return to the surface. These returns are ultimately contaminated and require disposal.
  • The formations targeted for unconventional development are mostly ancient seabeds still filled with salty “brines” known as “formation waters.”
  • In addition to the hazardous chemicals in the fracking fluid pumped into the wells for fracking, these unconventional formations contain larger amounts of heavy metals, carcinogens and other toxics. This also includes more radioisotopes such as Uranium, Thorium, Radium, Potassium-40, Lead-210, and Polonium-210 than the conventional formations that have supplied the majority of oil and gas prior to the shale boom.

A variety of waste products make up the waste stream of oil and gas development, and each is enhanced with naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). This waste stream must be treated and disposed of properly. All the oil and gas equipment – such as production equipment, processing equipment, produced water handing equipment, and waste management equipment – also need to be considered as sources of radioactive exposure.

Figure 1 below explains where the waste from fracking goes after it leaves the well pad.

Radioactive Oil and Gas Pathway Life Cycle

Figure 1. Breakdown of the radioactive oil and gas waste life-cycle

Three facets of the waste stream particularly enhanced with NORMs by fracking include scales, produced waters, and sludges.

A. Scales

When injected into the ground, fracking fluid mixes with formation waters, dissolving metals, radioisotopes and other inorganic compounds. Additionally the fracking liquids are often supplemented with strong acids to reduce “scaling” from precipitate build up (to prevent clogging up the well). Regardless, each oil well generates approximately 100 tons of radioactive scale annually. As each oil and gas reservoir is drained, the amount of scale increases. The EPA reports that lead-210 and polonium-210 are commonly found in scales along with their decay product radon at concentrations estimated to be anywhere from 480 picocuries per gram (pCi/g) to 400,000 pCi/g). Scale can be disposed of as a solid waste, or dissolved using “scale inhibitors.” These radioactive elements then end up in the liquid waste portion of the waste stream, known as produced waters.

B. Produced Waters

In California, strong acids are used to further dissolve formations to stimulate additional oil production. Acidic liquids are able to dissolve more inorganic elements and compounds such as radioisotopes. While uranium and thorium are not soluble in water, their radioactive decay products such as radium dissolve in the brines. The brines return to the surface as “produced water.” As the oil and gas in the formation are removed, much of what is pumped to the surface is formation water.

Consequently, declining oil and gas fields generate more produced water. The ratio of produced water to oil in conventional well was approximately 10 barrels of produced water per barrel of oil. According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), more than 18 billion barrels of waste fluids from oil and gas production are generated annually in the United States. There are several options for managing the liquid waste stream. The waste could be treated using waste treatment facilities, reinjected into other wells to enhance production (a cheaper option), or injected for disposal. Before disposal of the liquid portion, all the solids in the solution must be removed, resulting in a “sludge.”

C. Sludges

The U.S. EPA reports that conventional oil production alone produces 230,000 million tons – or five million ft3 (141 cubic meters) – of TENORM sludge each year. Unconventional processes produce much more sludge waste than conventional processes. The average concentration of radium in sludges is estimated to be 75 pCi/g, while the concentration of lead-210 can be over 27,000 pCi/g. Sludges present a high risk to the environment and a higher risk of exposure for people and other receptors in those environments because sludges are typically very water soluble.

Federal Exemptions

According to the EPA, “because the extraction process concentrates the naturally occurring radionuclides and exposes them to the surface environment and human contact, these wastes are classified as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (TENORM).” Despite the conclusions that oil and gas TENORM pose a risk to the environment and humans, the EPA exempts oil and gas exploration and production wastes from the definition of “hazardous” under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) law. In fact, most wastes from all of the U.S. fossil fuel energy industry, including coal-burning and natural gas, are exempt from the disposal standards that hazardous waste normally requires.

The Center for Public Integrity calls this radioactive waste stream “orphan waste,” because no single government agency is fully managing it.

Fortunately, the EPA has acknowledged that federal regulations are currently inadequate, though this is nothing new. A U.S. EPA report from the 1980’s reported as much, and gave explicit recommendations to address the issue. For 30 years nothing happened! Then in August, 2015, a coalition of environmental groups (including the Environmental Integrity ProjectNatural Resources Defense CouncilEarthworksResponsible Drilling AllianceWest Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice) filed a lawsuit against the EPA, and has since reached a settlement.

Just last month (January 10, 2017) the U.S. EPA agreed to review federal regulations of oil and gas waste – a process they were meant to do every 3 years for the last 30 years. The EPA has until March 15, 2019, to determine whether or not regulatory changes are warranted for “wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil, natural gas, or geothermal energy.” With the recent freeze on all U.S. EPA grants, however, it is not clear whether these regulations will receive the review they need.

State Regulations

Regulation of this waste stream is left up to the states, but most states do not require operators to manage the radioactivity in oil and gas wastes, either. Because of the federal RCRA exemptions most state policies ignore the radioactive issue altogether. Operators are free to dispose of the waste at any landfill facility, unless the landfill tells them otherwise. For detailed analyses of state policies, see pages 10-45 of the No Time to Waste report. FracTracker has also covered these issues in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Another issue that screams for federal consideration of this waste stream is that states do not have the authority to determine whether or not the wastes can cross their borders. States also do not have the jurisdiction to decide whether or not facilities in their state can accept waste from across state lines. That determination is reserved for federal jurisdiction, and there are not any federal laws regulating such wastes. In fact, these wastes are strategically exempt from federal regulation for just these reasons.

Why can’t the waste be treated?

This type of industrial waste actually cannot be treated, at least not entirely. Unlike organic pollutants that can be broken down, inorganic constituents of the waste cannot be simply disintegrated out of existence. Inorganic components include heavy metals like arsenic and bromides, as well as radioactive isotopes of radium, lead, and uranium. Such elements will continue to emit radiation for hundreds-to-thousands of years. The best option available is to find a location to “isolate” and dispose of these wastes – a sacrifice zone.

Current management practices do their best to separate the liquid portions from the solid portions, but that’s about it. Each portion can then be disposed independently of each other. Liquids are injected into the ground, which is the cheapest option where it is available. If enough of the dissolved components (heavy metals, salts, and radioisotopes) can be removed, wastewaters are discharged into surface waters. The compounds and elements that are removed from the liquid waste stream are hyper-concentrated in the solid portion of the waste, described as “sludge” in the graphic above. This hazardous material can be disposed of in municipal or solid waste landfills if the state regulators do not require the radioactivity or toxicity of this material to be a consideration for disposal. There are not federal requirements, so unless there is a specific state policy regarding the disposal, it can end up almost anywhere with little oversight. These chemicals do not magically disappear. They never disappear.

Risks

There are multiple pathways for contamination from facilities that are not qualified to manage radioactive and hazardous wastes. At least seven different environmental pathways provide potential risks for human exposure. They include:

  1. Radon inhalation,
  2. External gamma exposure,
  3. Groundwater ingestion,
  4. Surface water ingestion,
  5. Dust inhalation,
  6. Food ingestion, and
  7. Skin beta exposure from particles containing the radioisotopes.

According to the EPA, the low-level radioactive materials in drilling waste present a definitive risk to those exposed. High risk examples include dust suppression and leaching. If dust is not continuously suppressed, radioactive materials in dust pose a risk to people at these facilities or those receptors or secondary pathways located downwind of the facilities. Radioactive leachate entering surface waters and groundwaters is also a significant threat. A major consideration is that radioactive waste can last in these landfills far longer than the engineered lifespans of landfills, particularly those that are not designed to retain hazardous wastes.

Cases of Contamination

North Dakota

In North Dakota, the epicenter of the Bakken Oil Fields, regulators were not ready for the massive waste streams that came from the fast growing oil fields. This  allowed thousands of wastewater disposal wells be drilled to dispose of salty wastewater without much oversight, and no places in state for companies to dispose of radioactive solid waste. Many of the wastewater disposal wells were drilled haphazardly, and as a result many contaminated surrounding farmland with wastewater. With regard to radioactive solid waste, the state until recently had a de facto ban on solid radioactive waste disposal due to their radioactivity limit being 5 picocuries per gram. The result of this de facto ban made it so companies either had to make one of two decisions: 1. Haul their radioactive solid waste above the limit out of state to facilities in Idaho or Colorado; or 2. Risk getting caught illegally dumping waste in municipal landfills or just plain illegal dumping in roadsides, buildings, or farmland.

In 2014, a massive illegal dumping site was discovered in Noonan, ND when North Dakota regulators found a gas station full of radioactive waste and filter socks (the socks used to filter out solid waste from wastewater, which contain high levels of radioactivity). Following the Noonan, ND incident North Dakota regulators and politicians began discussions regarding the need for new regulations to address radioactive solid waste.

In 2015, North Dakota moved to create rules for the disposal of solid radioactive waste. Its new regulations increase the radioactivity limit from 5 picocuries per gram to 50 picocuries per gram, and sets up new requirements for the permitting of waste facilities accepting radioactive waste and the disposal of radioactive waste in the waste facilities. Dakota Resource Council, a member group of WORC, challenged the rules in the courts, arguing the rules are not protective enough and that the agency responsible for the rules pushed through the rules without following the proper procedures. Currently the rules are not in effect until the litigation is settled.

Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, the hotbed of activity for Marcellus Shale gas extraction, the regulatory body was ill equipped and uninformed for dealing with the new massive waste stream when it first arrived on scene. Through 2013, the majority of wastewater was disposed of in commercial and municipal wastewater treatment facilities that discharge to surface waters. Numerous facilities engaged in this practice without amending their federal discharge permits to include this new waste stream.

Waste treatment facilities in Pennsylvania tried to make the waste streams less innocuous by diluting the concentrations of these hazardous pollutants. They did this by mixing the fracking wastes with other waste streams, including industrial discharges and municipal waste. Other specialized facilities also tried to remove these dissolved inorganic elements and filter them from the discharge stream.

As a result of site assessments by yours-truly and additional academic research, these facilities realized that such hazardous compounds do not simply dilute into receiving waters such as the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. Instead, they partition (settle) into sediments where they are hyper-concentrated. As a result of the lawsuits that followed the research, entire river bottoms in Pennsylvania had to be entirely dug up, removed, and disposed of in hazardous waste landfills.

Action Plans Needed

Massive amounts of solid and liquid wastes are still generated during drilling exploration and production from the Marcellus Shale. There is so much waste, operators don’t know what to do with it. In Pennsylvania, there is not much they can do with it, but it is not just Pennsylvania. Throughout the Ohio River Valley, operators struggle to dispose of this incredibly large waste stream.

Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania have all learned that this waste should not be allowed to be discharged to surface waters even after treatment. So it goes to other states – those without production or the regulatory framework to manage the wastes. Like every phase of production in the oil and gas industry, operators (drillers) shop around for the lowest disposal costs. In Estill County, Kentucky, the State Energy and Environment Department just recently cited the disposal company Advance Disposal Services Blue Ridge Landfill for illegally dumping hydraulic fracturing waste. The waste had traveled from West Virginia Marcellus wells, and ended up at an ignorant or willfully negligent waste facility.

In summary, there is inadequate federal oversight of potentially hazardous waste coming from the oil and gas industry, and there are serious regulatory gaps within and between states. Data management practices, too, are lacking. How then, is the public health community supposed to assess the risk that the waste stream poses to people? Obviously, a more thorough action plan is needed to address this issue.


Feature image: Drill cuttings being prepared to be hauled away from the well pad. Photo by Bill Hughes, OVEC

North Dakota Bakken Gas Flares

Gas Flaring and Venting: Data Availability and New Methods for Oversight

By Samir Lakhani, GIS Intern, FracTracker Alliance

In the hazy world of gas flaring and venting, finding worthwhile data often leads one to a dead end. Although the Energy Information Administration (EIA) holds the authority to require active oil/gas companies to disclose this data, they choose not to. EIA will not proceed with such actions because, “…assessing the volume of natural gas vented and flared would add significant reporting burdens to natural gas producers causing them substantial investments.” Additionally, the EIA is not confident that oil/gas producing companies have the capability to accurately estimate their own emissions from venting or flaring activities.

Piece-Meal

Some states do voluntarily submit their estimates, but only 8 of the nation’s 32 oil and gas producing states submit their data. This makes attempts for national estimates incomplete and inaccurate. State officials have repeatedly complained that the EIA has provided them with insufficient guidelines as to how the data should be submitted, and in what format. It appears the only way that concerned parties are able to monitor this practice is with satellite imagery from the sky, to literally watch flaring as it occurs.

Bird’s Eye View

The Bakken Shale Formation has received a considerable amount of attention. We’ve all seen the nighttime satellite images of North Dakota, where a normally quiet portion of the state light up like a bustling city. It is to be understood that not all the lights in this region are gas flares. Much of it is emergency lighting and temporary housing associated with drilling companies.

There are a few obvious issues with satellite surveillance. Firstly, it is difficult to monitor venting emissions from a bird’s eye perspective. Venting is the process by which unsought gas is purposely wafted from drill sites into the atmosphere. Venting is a much more environmentally costly decision compared to the ignited alternative, as pure natural gas is twenty times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. To monitor venting behavior, from up high, Infrared sensors must be used. Unfortunately, these emissions do not transmit well through the atmosphere. Proper detection must be made much closer to earth’s surface, perhaps from an airplane or on the ground. Secondly, flaring is almost impossible to detect during the day using satellites. One could equate it to attempting to see a flashlight’s beam when the sun is out. Lastly, when the time comes to churn out an estimate on how much gas is really being wasted—the statistics vary wildly.

Using SkyTruth’s satellite image, and GIS data retrieved from North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, it is now possible to pinpoint North Dakota’s most active gas flaring sites. Using this, more accurate estimates are now within reach. North Dakota gas drillers may flare their “associated” gas for up to one year. However, Officials at Mineral Management Service claim that it is not difficult to get an extension, due to economic hardship. There are always instances of gas/oil operators flaring or venting without authorization. In 2003, Shell paid a 49 million dollar settlement over an unnoticed gas flaring and venting operation that lasted several years. The beauty of satellite imagery and GIS detail is the observer’s ability to pinpoint flaring operations and by referencing the leases, evaluate whether or not such practices were authorized.

This map shows flaring activity in the Bakken Formation from January 1 through June 30, 2013. Please click the “Fullscreen” icon in the upper right hand corner to access the full set of map controls.

Regulation and Control

If flaring and venting are costly to the environment and result in a loss of company product (methane), you may ask why these practices are still conducted. Flaring and venting practices are cheaper than building the infrastructure necessary to harness this energy, unfortunately. To effectively collect this resource, a serious piping network is needed. It is as if a solar farm has been built in the desert, but there is no grid to take this power to homes. To lay down piping is an expensive endeavor, and it requires continuous repairs and on-site monitors. Even when North Dakota burns over 30% of their usable product, there is little initiative to invest in long term savings. A second method, called “green completions”, is becoming a more popular choice for oil and gas companies. A green completion is a portable refinery and condensate tank aimed to recover more than half of excess methane produced from drilling. Green completions are the best management practice of today, and the EPA wishes to implement green completion technology nationwide by 2015.

The best way to estimate gas flare and venting emissions is through submissions from gas/oil companies and to analyze the data using GIS applications. Concerned organizations and citizens should not have to rely on satellite services to watch over the towering infernos. There is new research coming out each day on adverse health effects from living in close proximity to a gas flare and vent. It releases a corrosive mixture of chemicals, and returns to the earth as acid rain. Please refer to this publication for a thorough assessment of possible health effects.

This issue is not limited to US borders only; flaring has wreaked havoc in South America, Russia, Africa, and the Middle-East. During the extraction of oil, gas may return to the surface. In many of these areas where oil drilling is prevalent, there are no well-developed gas markets and pipeline infrastructure, which makes venting and flaring a more attractive way to dispose of an unintentionally extracted resource. If the US were to make substantial changes to the way we monitor, regulate, and reduce gas flaring/venting, and accessibility to data, we would set the standard on an international level. Such policy changes include: carbon taxation, streamlining the leasing process (Many oil/gas officials despise the leasing applications for pipelines), installing flaring/venting meters and controls, and tax incentives (to flare and green complete, rather than vent).

All of these changes would tremendously reduce and regulate gas flaring in the US, but without accurate and comprehensive data these proposed policies are meaningless. Data is, and forever will be, the diving board on which policy and change is founded.


Special thanks to Paul Woods and Yolandita Franklin of Skytruth, for using VIIRS and IR technologies to compile the data for the above map.

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