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Sandhill Crane

Giving Voice to the Sandhill Cranes: Place-based Arguments against Keystone XL

By Wrexie Bardaglio, guest commentator

When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men…” ~ Aldo Leopold, on the Sandhill Crane, in “Marshland Elegy”

Dilbit – or diluted bitumen – is refined from the naturally-occurring tar sands deposits in Alberta, Canada. In March 2017, I applied to the Nebraska Public Service Commission for standing as an intervenor in the Commission’s consideration of TransCanada’s request for a permit to construct a pipeline transporting dilbit – a project referred to as the Keystone XL pipeline. Below are my reflections on the battle against the permitting process, and how FracTracker’s maps ensured the Sandhill Crane’s voice made it into public record.

A Pipeline’s History

The Keystone 1 pipeline carries the dilbit from Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, and ultimately to Port Arthur, Texas and export refineries along the Gulf Coast. The state of Montana had already approved the Keystone XL project, as had the state of South Dakota. The decision of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission was appealed, however, and has now worked its way to the South Dakota Supreme Court, where it is pending.

Resistance to TransCanada’s oil and gas infrastructure projects is not new. Beginning in 2010, some Nebraska farmers and ranchers joined forces with tribal nations in the Dakotas, who were also fighting TransCanada’s lack of proper tribal consultation regarding access through traditional treaty territory. The indigenous nations held certain retained rights as agreed in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty between the United States government and the nine tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. The tribes were also protesting TransCanada’s flaunting of the National Historic Preservation Act’s protections of Native American sacred sites and burial grounds. Further, although TransCanada was largely successful in securing the easements needed in Nebraska to construct the pipeline, there were local holdouts refusing to negotiate with the company. TransCanada’s subsequent attempts to exercise eminent domain resulted in a number of lawsuits.

In January of 2015, then-President Barack Obama denied the international permit TransCanada needed. While that denial was celebrated by many, everyone also understood that a new president could well restore the international permit. Indeed, as one of his first actions in January 2017, the new Republican president signed an executive order granting the permit, and the struggle in Nebraska was reignited.

“What Waters Run Through My Veins…”

While I am a long-time resident of New York, I grew up in the Platte River Valley of South Central Nebraska, in a town where my family had and continues to have roots – even before Nebraska became a state. There was never a question in my mind that in this particular permitting process I would request status as an intervenor; for me, the matter of the Keystone XL Pipeline went far beyond the legal and political and energy policy questions that were raised and were about to be considered. It was about who I am, how I was raised, what I was taught, what waters run through my veins as surely as blood, and who my own spirit animals are, the Sandhill Cranes.

wrexie_3yrs

Bardaglio (age 3) and her father, along the banks of the Platte River

When we were growing up, our father told us over and over and over about why Nebraska was so green. The Ogallala Aquifer, he said, was deep and vast, and while eight states partially sat atop this ancient natural cistern, nearly all of Nebraska floated on this body. Nebraska was green, its fields stretching to the horizon, because, as our father explained, the snow runoff from the Rockies that flowed into our state and was used eleven times over was cleansed in water-bearing sand and gravel on its way to the Missouri on our eastern boundary, thence to the Mississippi, and finally to the Gulf.

I grew up understanding that the Ogallala Aquifer was a unique treasure, the largest freshwater aquifer in the world, the lifeblood for Nebraska’s agriculture and U.S. agriculture generally, and worthy of protection. I thought about the peril to the aquifer because of TransCanada’s plans, should there be a spill, and the additional threats an accident would potentially pose to Nebraska’s rivers, waterways and private wells.

2000px-ogallala_saturated_thickness_1997-sattk97-v2-svg

The Ogallala Aquifer

Knowing that climate change is real, terrifying, and accelerating, I recognized that a warming world would increasingly depend on this aquifer in the nation’s midsection for life itself.

Migration of the Sandhill Cranes

As I thought about how I would fight the KXL, another narrative took shape rising out of my concern for the aquifer. Growing up in the South Central Platte River Valley, I – and I daresay most everyone who lives there – have been captivated by the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes, plying the skies known as the Central Flyway. As sure as early spring comes, so do the birds. It may still be bitterly cold, but these birds know that it is time to fly. And so they do – the forward scouts appearing in winter grey skies, soon followed by some 500,000 – 600,000 thousand of them, darkening the skies, their cries deafening and their gorgeous archaeopteryx silhouettes coming in wave after wave like flying Roman Legions.

branch-bird-sky-sunrise-sunset-morning-dawn-flock-dusk-birds-cranes-water-bird-bird-migration-migratory-birds-atmospheric-phenomenon-animal-migration-crane-like-bird-529634

To this day, no matter where I am, the first thing in my sinews and bones when winter begins to give way is the certainty that the birds are coming, I feel them; they are back. They are roosting on the sandbars in the braided river that is the Platte and gleaning in the stubbled fields abutting it… they are home.

According to The Nature Conservancy:

Scientists estimate that at least one-third of the entire North American population of Sandhill Cranes breed in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska…

Scientists estimate that approximately 80 percent of all Sandhill Cranes in North America use a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska’s Platte River during spring migration. From March to April, more than 500,000 birds spend time in the area preparing for the long journey north to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. During migration, the birds may fly as much as 400 miles in one day.

Sandhill Cranes rely on open freshwater wetlands for most of their lifecycle. Degradation of these kinds of wetland habitats is among the most pressing threats to the survival of Sandhill Cranes. (Emphasis added)

Giving Sandhill Cranes a Voice

But how could I make the point about the threat TransCanada posed to the migratory habitat of the Sandhill Cranes (and endangered Whooping Cranes, pelicans, and hummingbirds among the other thermal riders who also migrate with them)? Books, scientific papers, lectures – all the words in the world – cannot describe this ancient rite, this mysterious primal navigation of the unique pathway focusing on this slim stretch of river, when viewed from a global perspective a fragile skein in a fragile web in a biosphere in peril.

In my head I called it a river of birds in the grassland of sky. And I am so grateful to my friend, Karen Edelstein at FracTracker Alliance, for her willingness to help map and illustrate the magnificence of the migration flyway in the context of the three proposed options for the KXL pipeline.

flyway_map

Karen prepared two maps for me, but my favorite is the one above.

It shows an ancient, near-primordial, near-mystical event. Guided by rudders and instinct we can barely comprehend, in concert with earth’s intrinsic and exquisitely-designed balance, and as certain as a sunrise, a sunset or a moon rise, these oldest of crane species find their ways through the heavens. They hew to certainties that eclipse the greed of multinational corporations like TransCanada, who barely even pay lip service to the integrity of anything over which they can’t exert dominion. To say they don’t respect the inherent rights of species other than our own, or to ecological communities that don’t directly include us, is an understatement, and a damning comment on their values.

I was prepared for pushback on these maps from TransCanada. And in truth, the company was successful in an in limine motion to have certain exhibits and parts of my testimony stricken from the official record of the proceedings.

But not the maps.

In fact, too many other intervenors to count, as well as several of the lawyers involved in the proceedings commented to me on the beauty and accuracy of the maps. And not only are they now a part of the permanent record of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, should there be an appeal (which all of us expect), on both sides of the issue, there is a very good possibility they will be incorporated into the formal testimonies by the lawyers as the matter moves through the appeals process.

Taking Action, Speaking Out

Ordinary citizens must figure out how to confront the near-impenetrable stranglehold of multi-national corporations whose wealth is predicated on the continuance of fossil fuels as the primary sources of energy. We have had to become more educated, more activist, and more determined to fight the destruction that is now assured if we fail to slow down the impacts of climate change and shift the aggregate will of nations towards renewable energy.

Many activists do not realize that they can formally intervene at the state level in pipeline and infrastructure permitting processes. In doing so, the voice of the educated citizen is amplified and becomes a threat to these corporations whose business models didn’t account for systematic and informed resistance in public agencies’ heretofore pro forma proceedings. The publicly-available documents and filings from corporations can be important tools for “speaking truth to power” when paired with the creative tools born of necessity by the environmental movement.

Technology is value-neutral, but as I learned – as did many others in the Keystone XL Pipeline fight – in skilled hands it becomes a weapon in the struggle for the greater good.

I will be forever grateful for FracTracker, and will be interested to see how others use this tool in the fights that are sure to come.

EXCELSIOR!

For more background on the natural history of Sandhill Cranes, please view this video produced by The Crane Trust.


Wrexie Bardaglio is a Nebraska native living in Covert, New York. She worked for ten years for a member of Congress as a legislative assistant with a focus on Indian affairs and for a DC law firm as legislative specialist in Indian affairs. She left politics to open a bookstore in suburban Baltimore. She has been active in the Keystone XL fights in Nebraska and South Dakota and in fracking and gas infrastructure fights in New York.

This article’s feature image of a Sandhill Crane is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

FracTracker Alliance makes hundreds of maps, analyses, and photos available for free to frontline communities, grassroots groups, NGO’s, and many other organizations concerned about the industry to use in their oil and gas campaigns. To address an issue, you need to be able to see it.

However, we rely on funders and donations – and couldn’t do all of this without your help!

Northeast Ohio Class II injection wells taken via FracTracker's mobile app, May 2015

What are aquifer exemptions? Permitted exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act

We’d like to give our readers a bit of background on aquifer exemptions, because we’re going to be covering this topic in a few upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned!

Liquid Waste Disposal

Drilling for oil and gas produces both liquid and solid waste that must be disposed of. The liquid waste from this industry is considered a “Class II waste” according to the US EPA. Aquifers are places underground capable of holding or transmitting groundwater. To dispose of Class II waste, operators are granted aquifer exemptions, by the EPA based on the state’s recommendations. The term “exemption,” specifically, refers to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which protects underground sources of drinking water (USDWs).

Therefore, these exemptions grant oil and gas operators the right to contaminate groundwaters, albeit many of the groundwater formations used for disposal in Class II wells are very deep.

Learn more about disposal well classes and aquifer exemptions on this story map by the US EPA

Aquifer Exemption Criteria

There are several qualifiers for a USDW to be granted exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Aquifer exemptions are granted for underground formations that are not currently used as a source of drinking water and meet one of the following criteria:

  • The formation contains commercially producible minerals or hydrocarbons;
  • The formation is so deep that recovery of water for drinking water purposes is economically or technologically impractical; or,
  • The formation is so contaminated that it would be economically or technologically impractical to render the water fit for human consumption.
  • In some states, aquifer exemptions are not approved for formations with Total Dissolved Solids (TDS*) equal to or less than 3,000 mg/l TDS.

If an underground formation qualifies for an exemption, it does not mean that groundwater cannot be used for drinking water, just that it is not currently a source of drinking water. The most precarious criteria requirement, therefore, is the determination that a USDW is simply not “economically viable” or it is “technologically impractical,” meaning that the cost of drilling a groundwater well to the depth of the aquifer (under the condition of the current need for water) may make the investment impractical. In the near future, this water may be needed and highly valued, however.

TDS = Total dissolved solids are inorganic salts (e.g. calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, bicarbonates, chlorides, and sulfates), as well as some organic matter, dissolved in water.

The Lay of the Land

Below, we have put together a map of aquifer exemptions in the U.S. Click on the dots and shaded areas to learn more about a particular aquifer.

Map of all aquifer exemptions in the U.S.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Indian Creek - Part of Bears Ears National Monument

Nationally treasured federal lands face threats by oil, gas, and other extractive uses

Should public, federal lands be opened up even further for extracting minerals, oil, and gas for private ventures? FracTracker’s Karen Edelstein discusses the past, present, and potential future of many of America’s cherished natural resources and wonders.

The United States is blessed with some of the most diverse natural landscapes in the world. Through foresight of great leaders over the decades, starting in 1906 — Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Benjamin Harrison, and Jimmy Carter – to name just a few — well over a half billion acres of wilderness have been set aside as national parks, refuges, monuments, and roadless areas. Some of the most famous of these protected areas include the Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Grand Tetons National Parks. In all, the federal government owns 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land that the United States comprises. These federal lands are administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM): 248.3 million acres, the US Forest Service: 192.9 million acres, US Fish and Wildlife Service: 89.1 million acres, and National Park Service: 78.9 million acres. In addition, the US Department of Defense administers 11.4 million acres.

Why are federal lands at risk?

While most people assume that federal wild lands are forever protected from development and commercial exploitation, quite the opposite is true. For most of the past century, federal lands have hunted, fished, logged and grazed by private individuals and enterprises. In addition, and in the cross-hairs of discussion here, is the practice of leasing lands to industrial interests for the purpose of extracting minerals, oil, and gas from these public lands.

Provisions for land conservation and restrictions on oil and gas extraction, in particular, became more stringent since the inception of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. However, environmentalists have watched in horror as the current administration in Washington has gutted the EPA, and installed climate change-deniers and corporate executives in high levels of office throughout a range of federal agencies. Notable is the appointment of Ryan Zinke as US Secretary of the Interior. Zinke, a former businessman, has a long record of opposing environmental viewpoints around extraction of oil, coal, and gas and cutting regulations. The League of Conservation Voters gives his voting record a lifetime score of 4 percent on environmental issues. As recently as this week, Joel Clement–one of Zinke’s senior advisors–resigned his post, citing, Zinke’s poor leadership, wasting of tax-payer dollars, and denial of climate change science.

Early in his tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Zinke initiated a review of 27 national monuments, a move that environmentalists feared could lead to the unraveling of protections on millions of acres of federal land, and also relaxed regulations on oil and gas exploration in those areas. Public comment on the plans to review these national monuments was intense; when the public comment period closed on July 10, 2017, the Interior Department had received over 2.4 million comments, the vast majority of which supported keeping the existing boundaries and restrictions as they are.

Federal lands under threat by Trump Administration


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The above map shows which sites are under consideration for oil, gas, or coal extraction, or face boundary reduction of up to 88%. Click here to view this map full-screen with a legend, zoom in and click on areas of interest, etc.

Who should be allowed to use these resources?

Ranchers, loggers, and recreational hunters and anglers felt that the 1906 Antiquities Act had been over-interpreted, and therefore advocated for Zinke’s proposal. (The Act was the first U.S. law to provide protection for any general kind of cultural or natural resource.)

However, environmental advocates such as the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and others were adamantly opposed to opening up federal lands resources for extraction, citing the need for environmental protection, public access, and, importantly, concerns that the lands would be more easily transferred to state, local, or private interests. Environmentalists also argue that the revenue generated by tourism at these pristine sites would far exceed that generated by extractive resource activities. Attorneys and staff from NPCA and NRDC argued legislation in effect since the 1970s requires role for Congress in changing the boundaries of existing monuments. The President or his cabinet do not have that sole authority.

The Wilderness Society estimates that already, 90% of the land in the US West, owned by the Bureau of Land Management, is open for oil and gas leasing, while only 10% is set aside for other uses (Figure 2). According to information from Sourcewatch, in 2013, these lands included 12 National Monuments, Parks, Recreation Areas, and Preserves that had active drilling, and another 31 that might see possible drilling in the future.

Source: The Wilderness Society

Figure 2. Percent of land already available for oil and gas leasing in the West. Source: The Wilderness Society

What Zinke has Proposed

True to expectation, in August of 2017, Zinke issued a recommendation to shrink the boundaries of several national monuments to allow coal mining and other “traditional uses” — which appear to include large-scale timbering, as well as potentially oil and gas drilling. Sites include Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah (encompassing more than 3.2 million acres in lands considered sacred to Dine/Navajo people), Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon, and Gold Butte in Nevada. According to Zinke’s report, Grand Staircase-Escalante contains “an estimated several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits”. Zinke lifted Obama-era restrictions on coal leasing on federal lands this past March, 2017. However, just last week, a federal judge ruled that the current Administration’s efforts to suspend methane emission restrictions from pipelines crossing public lands were illegal. These are merely a few of the Obama-era environmental protections that Zinke is attempting to gut.

Zinke has proposed decreasing the size of Bears Ears National Monument from the current 1.35 million acres to a mere 160,000, a reduction of 88%. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of thirty Native American tribes, condemned the recommendation as a “slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country.” The Navajo Nation intends to sue the President’s administration if this reduction at Bears Ears is enacted.

Bears Ears National Monument, designated by President Barack Obama, contains tens of thousands of cultural artifacts, and is facing not only a threat of boundary shrinkage, but also a relaxing use restrictions within the Monument area. The current President has referred to Obama’s designation of the monument as “an egregious abuse of power.” Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated by President Bill Clinton, and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was designated by Clinton and expanded by President Obama.

The recommendation details were not made public in August, however, and only came to light in September through a leaked memo, published in The Washington Post. In the memo, Secretary Zinke noted that the existing boundaries were “arbitrary or likely politically motivated or boundaries could not be supported by science or reasons of resource management.” The memo goes on to say that “[i]t appears that certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining and timber production rather than to protect specific objects.” In addition, Zinke is advocating for the modification for commercial fishing uses of two marine national monuments: the Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll.

Lacking Specificity

According to the Washingon Post, Zinke:

… plans to leave six designations in place: Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients; Idaho’s Craters of the Moon; Washington’s Hanford Reach; Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant; Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks; and California’s Sand to Snow.

Perplexingly, the report is silent on 11 of the 27 monuments named in the initial proposal. One of which is the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — over 725,000 square miles of ocean — in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The report also requests tribal co-management of “cultural resources”  at Bears Ears, Rio Grande del Norte, and Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks. While one could imagine that greater involvement of indigenous people in the federal government’s management of the sacred landscapes to be a potentially positive improvement, the report is silent on the details. More information on tribal co-management and other options can be gleaned from a series of position papers written by the Property and Environment Research Center.

Of other note: Zinke is also suggesting the establishment of three new national monuments, including the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area in Montana, a sacred site of the Blackfeet Nation. Badger-Two Medicine was the site of a more than 30-year battle to retire 32,000 acres of oil and gas leases. The tribe prevailed, and the leases were canceled in November, 2016.

With potential lawsuits pending about boundary changes, galvanized push-back from environmental and tribal interests on resource management definitions for the targeted monuments, and general unpredictability on policy details and staffing in Washington, the trajectory of how this story will play out remains uncertain. FracTracker will continue to monitor for updates, and provide additional links in this story as they unfold.

Check out National Geographic’s bird’s eye view of these protected areas for a stunning montage, descriptions, and more maps of the monuments under consideration.


Federal Lands Map Data Sources

National Monuments under consideration for change by Secretary Zinke:
Accessed from ArcGIS Online by FracTracker Alliance, 28 August 2017. Data apparently from federal sources, such as BLM, NPS, etc. Dataset developed by Kira Minehart, GIS intern with Natural Resources Defense Council.0=not currently targeted for policy or boundary change1= targeted for expanded resource use, such as logging, fishing, etc. 2=targeted for shrinkage of borders, and expanded resource use.

National Park Service lands with current or potential oil and gas drilling:
Downloaded by FracTracker Alliance on 9 November 2016, from National Park Service.  Drilling information from here. List of sites threatened by oil and gas drilling from here (23 January 2013).

Badger-Two Medicine potential Monument:
Shapefile downloaded from USGS by FracTracker Alliance on 28 August 2017. This map layer consists of federally owned or administered lands of the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For the most part, only areas of 320 acres or more are included; some smaller areas deemed to be important or significant are also included. There may be private inholdings within the boundaries of Federal lands in this map layer. Some established Federal lands which are larger than 320 acres are not included in this map layer, because their boundaries were not available from the owning or administering agency. Complete metadata available here.


By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship

2017 Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship Recipients

Award to be presented to three environmental stewards addressing oil and gas impacts at reception held in Pittsburgh, PA, November 18th

WASHINGTON, DC – October 5, 2017 – Three community advocates were recently selected by a panel of judges to receive the 2017 Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship, presented this year by Americans Against Fracking, Earthworks, FracTracker Alliance, Halt the Harm Network, and Stop the Frack Attack – sponsored by the 11th Hour Project. Award recipients were chosen because of their steadfast determination to highlight and address the impacts of the oil and gas industry in communities across the United States. The 2017 Community Sentinel Award winners are:

  • Ranjana Bhandari – Arlington, Texas
  • Frank Finan – Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania
  • Ray Kemble – Montrose, Pennsylvania

This year’s recipients, nominated by their peers, have lead campaigns to prevent wastewater injection wells from being permitted near drinking water reservoirs; documented fugitive air emissions using their own personal FLIR cameras; and fought cancer and legal attacks from oil and gas companies simultaneously.

These awardees truly represent the heart of local heroes working tirelessly to safeguard their communities from fracking and its collateral impacts, while at the same time encouraging a national transition to safer, renewable forms of energy…

… remarked Brook Lenker, Executive Director of FracTracker Alliance, the organizer of the award partnership.

Recipients were selected by a committee of community defense leaders: Bill Hughes of Wetzel County Action Group, West Virginia; Pat Popple of Save the Hills Alliance, Wisconsin; Sierra Shamer of Shalefield Organizing Committee, Pennsylvania; Dante Swinton of Energy Justice, Maryland; and Niki Wong of Redeemer Community Partnership, California.

The three recipients will each be awarded $1,000 for their efforts and recognized at an evening reception at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Saturday, November 18, 2017 during the People vs. Oil and Gas Infrastructure Summit.

Learn more about the third annual Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship, or purchase tickets to the reception for $40 (includes award ceremony and reception, heavy hors d’oeuvres, and a drink).

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About FracTracker Alliance

FracTracker Alliance is a national organization with regional offices in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Washington DC, and California. The organization’s mission is to study, map, and communicate the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation. Learn more at fractracker.org.

Right to a healthy home - Photo credit: Leann Leiter

The Right to a Healthy Home

Reframing Fracking in Our Communities

Imagine that tonight you head home to cook dinner. But, standing at your kitchen sink, you find that your tap water is suddenly running a funny color or gives off a bad smell. So instead of cooking, you order a pizza and decide to work outside in your garden. Just as you’re getting your hands dirty, however, you hear the roar of the compressor station that you see from your yard as its “blows off” some substance. Going back inside, and closing your windows to keep out the foul air, you think of the tap water and decide a shower is out of the question. Imagine that you resign yourself to just going to bed early – only to be kept awake by the bright and unnatural glow of gas being flared at the nearby wellhead.

Scenarios just like these can and do happen when hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, encroaches upon residential areas.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we described how the many aspects of fracking can destroy a healthy home environment and argued for a frame that focuses on those impacts. A frame is a way of contextualizing, communicating about, and understanding an issue.

This article brings in the idea of rights, and lists several declared rights that fracking violates. Returning to the topic of framing, we then challenge the fracking-friendly frame, by calling into question three common ways of talking about fracking that ignore the rights of those impacted.

In short, the push to support fracking often ignores the rights of people living near it.

Healthy Homes for Human Flourishing

First, let’s explore why a having healthy home matters.

Everyone has a basic need for a safe, healthy place to live. The World Health Organization identifies the social determinants of health (SDH) as the “conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” Applied to healthy homes, these SDH include access to clean air and safe drinking water, and protection from intrusion and disaster. Health is not merely the absence of disease. Health can mean the ability to function, to live one’s life,[1] to flourish.

Human flourishing demands a healthy home environment. Picture again the scenario at the beginning of this article. Would you be able to care for yourself and your family members, to meet your basic needs, or to lead a satisfying life if your home didn’t seem like a safe place to live?

Using Rights to Make the Case

Many people who live near drilling often ask themselves that very question. These include people like Pam Judy, with a compressor station less than 800 feet from her house, who questions the long term effects of breathing in the 16 chemicals detected in air test conducted by the PA Department of Environmental Protection.

Greene County, PA resident Pam Judy and the compressor station near her home in Gas Rush Stories, part 5: A Neighbor from Kirsi Jansa on Vimeo.

Simply reading or watching the stories of those directly impacted by gas development makes a moving argument for the right to a healthy home environment – and that argument also has a lot of backing. Researchers[2] have made a powerful case that fracking can and has violated human rights, by impacting the health for those downwind or downstream and by denying civil liberties to those pushed aside or silenced during the debate. These same researchers showed specifically that fracking has violated the rights to privacy, family, home, and protection of property.

Various governments and non-governmental organizations around the world have likewise called out human rights violations due to fracking. Other human rights declarations are relevant here, too. Fracking’s impacts are incompatible with the rights to health and to housing. Here’s a sampling:

side-by-side-rights-table

This sampling of precedents includes statements and declarations by the United Nations and the Organization of American States. It shows that when it comes to human rights and fracking, a strong case has already been made by respected international organizations.

Challenging the fracking-friendly frame

A rights-based perspective, informed by precedents like those above, gives us a strong platform from which to examine and counter arguments that support or promote fracking. We can call those pro-fracking arguments a “fracking-friendly” frame.

A fracking-friendly frame denies or minimizes the human impacts. We can hear elements of the fracking-friendly frame underlying industry promises and political talking points, and witness how they leach into common dialogue between citizens.

Element #1: “Economic impacts”- but only the positives

An “economic impacts ” emphasis tends to focus on narrowly-defined economic benefits , while excluding other real, negative economic drawbacks , like the latter half of boom & bust cycles. Consider this infographic of the “economic impacts” of an Appalachian petrochemical hub scenario–an industry reliant upon the cheap and abundant fracked natural gas of the region. The document offers projected estimates for industry profits and employment levels potentially generated by the five ethane crackers planned for the region. But this document – and its focus on economics – says nothing about the negative consequences to the community. Due to air emissions from these facilities, health costs from fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) could amount to between $120 and $270 million each year, without even factoring in the additional impacts of ozone or toxics. A focus on economic impacts also says nothing about  the incalculable value of lives – and quality of life – lost, which could amount to between 14 and 32 additional deaths annually, plus increased asthma, heart attacks, and bronchitis.[3]

Element #2: “Choice”

A false assumption of choice is built into the fracking-friendly frame. This element assumes that people have a choice–if they don’t like the drilling next door, they can just move. Yet, as well water becomes degraded and countryside views become dominated by unprecedented industrial development, selling a home can be a difficult proposition. As one researcher summed it up,

the various forms of land damage from fracking often result in decreased property values, making resale and farming difficult , and also making it harder to acquire mortgages and insurance. Properties adjoining drilling sites are often simply unsellable, as no one wants to live with the noise, the bad air, and the possibility of water pollution.[4]

Others confirm this fallout to home values. A recent report assessing 16 other studies on how UOGD affects home prices points to significant potential decreases in housing values for those on well water (up to -$33,000) and those without ownership of their mineral rights (up to -$60,000). These unfortunate realities belie the idea of choice.

drilling-rig-home-town-of-mcdonald

pipeline-path-among-homes-washington-county

On left, a white fracking rig at the far left of the image sits near a cabin overlooking the town of McDonald, PA. On right, a pipeline cut descends a hillside and into a residential development outside of Houston, PA. Photo credit: Leann Leiter.

In interviews conducted with women living in close quarters to drilling activity, three health care professionals[5] discovered the sense of powerlessness experienced they felt. One woman contemplated moving away from the region in spite of opposition from her husband and her own attachment to her home. In my own interaction with affected families, many express powerful feelings about relocation like sadness about leaving land owned for generations, or an eagerness to escape a home that no longer feels safe. Many express a sense of injustice for being forced to make such painful choices.

Element #3: “Sacrifice of the few for the good of the many”

Another underlying assumption of a fracking-friendly frame is that of “sacrifice of the few for the good of the many.” It declares that a “few” people will have to live near fracking and bear the unfortunate consequences, so many others can have cheap oil and gas. The belief bubbles up among the public, such as in this comment collected during a survey[6] of people living in the Marcellus shale gas region:

Energy has to come from somewhere. The needs of the many may outweigh the inconvenience of the few who live near the exploration efforts. This is not an ideal situation for all residents, but it is the reality.

This person’s statement shows acceptance of the assumption that energy for all requires unevenly shared sacrifice, and indicates a drastic underestimation of the populations impacted. It also indicates a misperception of the impacts, which unfortunately go far beyond mere “inconvenience” for many residents.

We can break down these assumptions by questioning how many people make sacrifices in the name of gas extraction. An interactive map by FracTracker shows that over 12 million Americans live within a risky ½ mile of oil and gas facilities (including both fracking wells and other types). Mounting research indicates health threats for distances of ½ mile or greater. That meaning this ever-growing number of Americans have increased rates of asthma and prenatal harms, with the most vulnerable – the young, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions – at the highest risk. The 12 million figure, already a conservative estimate, would be significantly higher if factoring in other oil and gas infrastructure like pipelines or frac sand mining operations, each of which carry their own risks.

Populations in US near activity oil and gas drilling activity in 2016

Populations in US near activity oil and gas drilling activity in 2016. Click to explore the interactive map.

We can also question the nature of their sacrifice. In terms of health, research has shown correlations between how close women live to fracking operations and certain birth defects and noise-induced sleep disturbance and cardiovascular disease, as just a few examples. Facilities like well pads also come with risks to public safety, such as the Monroe County, Ohio well pad fire that burned unknown chemicals for five days near homes and resulted in 70,000 fish killed in a creek that flows to the Ohio River. Other fracking infrastructure likewise poses potential dangers from the 2.5 million miles of gas pipeline and additional 200,000 for hazardous liquids including  crude oil that crisscross the United States. Between 2010 and 2016 the US experienced 230 reported pipeline explosions, 635 fires, over 20,000 people evacuated, 470 injured, and 100 lives lost.

emergency-contacts-sign-at-pipeline-road-crossing

The view of nearby homes from a pipeline right-of-way, along with list of emergency contacts in case of incident. Safety precautions like these remind us of the potentially injurious nature of gas infrastructure. They also highlight the level of sacrifice being demanded of households near the hazard. Photo credit: Leann Leiter.

Building social support

These elements of a fracking-friendly frame function to isolate those who are experiencing negative effects in their own homes by minimizing, even denying, the impacts they are experiencing. Researchers in extractive regions have observed the power of this isolation. In some rural areas, isolation may be supported in part by cultural norms, such as an Appalachian appreciation for “minding one’s own business.” In at least one fracking-affected community, this widely-accepted norm hampers sharing among neighbors, prompting one resident’s complaint that “we’re all fighting like individuals.”[7] In a study of a community being driven from their homes by coal mining and power generation, another set of extractive, industrial activities, one participant lamented:

I think one of the problems of the mining and the industry is, they play on the basic everyday person’s lack of resources. There’s no social support for displacement, none whatsoever.[8]

A healthy homes frame, focused on universally shared human rights, powerfully counters the isolation. It reminds those who are suffering or have concerns about the changes to their home environment that they are not alone; others around the world are experiencing similar impacts to their households. Adopting this frame for understanding fracking is a show of support, one that acknowledges their plight.

Nearly everyone values and desires a healthy home, regardless of whether that home is an apartment, a nursing home, a cabin, or a mobile home. This frame extends beyond geographical, economical, and cultural barriers. It encourages social support from those currently removed from shale plays and the hydraulic fracturing used in extracting their resources. It empowers action, with the home front as a site of resistance, by articulating the range of rights being violated.

Focusing on what we’re fighting for

Re-centering the problems of fracking as they impact the right to a healthy home makes sense to those of us witnessing the degradation of the places people need in order to live and flourish. A rights-based approach focuses on what we’re fighting for, rather than giving extra airtime to the already-powerful frame we must fight against.

  • If you need assistance protecting your rights from planned fracking, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network offers a guide for communities and their local leaders to defending environmental rights at the municipal level.
  • For those already impacted, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services provides “sliding scale” legal help to people in the Appalachian basin.
  • For communities at any stage of gas development, Environmental Health Project has created a Where to Turn for Help directory full of sources for air testing services, community organizing, health information, tracking and reporting fracking development and violations, and much more.

Whether or not you feel the direct impacts of fracking, we are all connected to this extensive process. Fracking’s commodity products – energy and plastics – are part of all of our lives; it’s climate-altering effect diminishes all of our futures. More importantly, we all have a crucial role to play. Here is how you can get further involved:

  • Communicate with your lawmakers – share with them this article series or your own take on fracking, and ask what frame they are using when they make decisions on this and other dangerous modes of energy extraction.
  • Join Halt the Harm Network to get connected to people, groups and events “working to fight the harms of oil and gas development.”
  • Follow @EnvironmentalHealthProject on Facebook and @EHPinfo on Twitter, and participate in the evolving discussion!

Bringing rights into the conversation on fracking challenges the fracking-friendly frame, and promotes instead protection for those in fracked households.


Special thanks to the many individuals and families who shared the experiences that informed this article series. 

References:

  1. Resick, L. K., Knestrick, J. M., Counts, M. M., & Pizzuto, L. K. (2013). The meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of the environment. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences , 3 (3), 290-296.
  2. Short, D., Elliot, J., Norder, K., Lloyd-Davies, E., & Morley, J. (2015). Extreme energy, ‘fracking’ and human rights: a new field for human rights impact assessments? , The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:6, 697-736, DOI:10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219
  3. John Graham, Senior Scientist at Clean Air Task Force, personal communication, June 9, 2017. Health impacts modeling completed using EPA Co-Benefits and Risk Assessment (COBRA) Screening Tool, using estimated PM 2.5 air emissions for permitted Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County, PA and four additional facilities planned in Ohio and West Virginia.
  4. Richard Heinberg cited in Short, D., Elliot, J., Norder, K., Lloyd-Davies, E., & Morley, J. (2015). Extreme energy, ‘fracking’ and human rights: a new field for human rights impact assessments? , The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:6, 697-736, DOI:10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219
  5. Resick, L. K., Knestrick, J. M., Counts, M. M., & Pizzuto, L. K. (2013). The meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of the environment. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences , 3 (3), 290-296.
  6. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures. Routledge.
  7. Resick, L. K., Knestrick, J. M., Counts, M. M., & Pizzuto, L. K. (2013). The meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of the environment. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences , 3 (3), 290-296.
  8. Connor et al., p. 54. Linda Connor, Glenn Albrecht, Nick Higginbotham, Sonia Freeman, and Wayne Smith. (2004). Environmental Change and Human Health in Upper Hunter Communities of New South Wales, Australia. EcoHealth 1 (Suppl.2), ,47-58. DOI: 10.1007/s10393-004-0053-2

By Leann Leiter, Fellow with the Environmental Health Project and FracTracker Alliance

Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship

Nominations being accepted for 2017 Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship

The impact of the oil and gas industry is visible in almost every community across the United States. As such, the thousands of volunteers working in their communities and cherished places to observe, measure, document, report, address, and limit impacts caused by activities of the oil and gas industry are invaluable. Their actions and advocacy make a tremendous difference in the collective fight to prevent environmental and public health harms from extraction and encourage a national transition to safer, renewable forms of energy.

To honor these environmental stewards, in November 2017 the Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship will again be awarded to three individuals whose noble actions exemplify the transformative power of caring, committed, and engaged people.

Each awardee will receive $1,000 to perpetuate their efforts and will be recognized at an evening reception in Pittsburgh, PA on November 18, 2017 hosted by FracTracker Alliance and Stop the Frack Attack. Travel to and from the reception (and associated costs) will be supported for the award recipient and a guest.

Sept 1 Update

Submissions are currently being reviewed.

Want to learn more about community sentinels? Hear from last year’s award recipients – Alma Hasse, Alex Lotorto, & Vera Scroggins: Podcast Interviews

Timeline

  • August 1: Nomination period opens
  • September 1: Nomination period closes and judging begins
  • September 22: Winners notified
  • November 18: Award ceremony and reception

If you have any questions about the award or the award ceremony to be held on November 18th, please contact FracTracker: info@fractracker.org.


Award Presenters

2017 Community Sentinel award presenters

Award Sponsor

11th Hour Logo - Community Sentinel award sponsor

 

It's not too late to donate to FracTracker and help us continue our mapping work

It’s not too late to donate to FracTracker Alliance

Our planet needs your help and so does FracTracker so we can keep helping the planet. Forgive our circular logic, but you are invaluable in keeping us in motion.

Our first, formal annual fund campaign launched in September 2016 and has received over $15,000 in donations. While that is 30% of our goal, every dollar matters and demonstrates the worth you see in what we do.

We haven’t changed the world in the past 10 months, but we have made a difference. Our maps and insights have powered campaigns on renewable energy and made data on the threats of oil and gas-related air pollution just a click away. From the impacts of pipelines to degradation from sand mines, we keep digitizing and analyzing to show the harms in formats that communicate the dirty truth about fossil fuels.

We don’t ask often, but we do need to ask. As our fiscal year comes to a close, will you donate to FracTracker Alliance? If you’ve never given to us before, we welcome your consideration. If you’re a prior donor, we appreciate your past support and hope you’ll contemplate an equal or greater contribution.

The challenges don’t cease, and neither will we. Our new mobile app ushers in broad opportunities to document the effects of extraction. An unprecedented wave of oil and gas infrastructure demands our attention. More organizations and communities seek to partner and benefit from our data and insights. Some recent testimonials attest to our worth:

Thanks for all that you do, it’s so important and much appreciated.
– Harvey S., Berkeley, CA

Best group of experts to work with… 
– Kim F., New York, NY

The research and tools that FracTracker produces and supports are truly unique.
– Prarthana G., Washington, DC

Your work at the FracTracker Alliance is first-rate… you empowered and inspired those in attendance.
– Doug S., Pittsburgh, PA

If you feel like they do, please consider a gift. Donors of $250 or more receive the oh-so-cool hybrid light – solar lantern, flashlight, and mobile device charger all in one. View the entirety of our donations page for a variety of ways you can provide financial support to FracTracker Alliance.

With your help, we’ll continue to illuminate the truth and elevate the imperative of a sustainable energy future. It’s not too late! Thank you for your interest in our work.

Cheers,
Brook Lenker
Executive Director
FracTracker Alliance

US Farms and Agricultural Production near Drilling

Health vs. Power – Risking America’s Food for Energy

Over 50% of land in the United States is dedicated to agriculture. Oil and gas development, particularly hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” is taking place near many of these farms.

Farms feed us, and unfortunately they are not protected from the impacts of fracking. Even if drilling can be done responsibly, accidents happen. In Colorado, for example, two spills occur on average per day, 15% of which result in water contamination. [1] Risking our food supply is not only a risk to our health – it’s a risk to national security.

Food Independence

Rocky Mountain Apple Orchard by Celia Roberts

Rocky Mountain apple orchard. Photo by Celia Roberts

Domestic oil and gas production has been promoted by the industry as a means to provide the U.S. with energy independence. The argument goes something like this: “We need to be a net exporter of energy so as to reduce our reliance on foreign countries for these resources, especially countries in the Middle East.” This ignores the point that for energy security we might want to keep rather than export fossil fuels.

However, energy independence and food independence are inextricably linked.

Considering that the basic human needs are clean water, food, shelter, and safety — along with energy — we need to think about self-reliance; we can’t be dependent on foreign countries for our food. The U.S. is currently a net exporter of agricultural products, and California produces 50% of the food consumed in the U.S. But what would happen if our foodsheds became contaminated?

Drilling Proximity – Why the concern?

Front Range, Colorado Working Landscape At Risk of Unconventional Oil & Gas Drilling by Rita Clagget

Front Range, Colorado working landscape at risk of unconventional oil & gas drilling. Photo by Rita Clagget

Over 58% of US agricultural market value and 74% of US farms – both conventional and organic – operate within shale basins, active shale plays, and the primary frac sand geologies.

Why is this so important? Why be concerned? Here are just a few reasons:

  1. People can be exposed to the compounds involved with oil and gas extraction through spills, emissions, and other processes. The top five health impacts associated with these chemicals are: respiratory, nervous system, birth defects, and reproductive problems, blood disorders, and cancer.[2]
  2. Rural gas gathering pipelines are unregulated; operators have no obligation to publicly report about incremental failures along the pipeline that may contaminate soil and water as long as they don’t require evacuations.[3]
  3. Oil and gas operators are exempt from certain provisions of several environmental laws designed to protect public health and safety, including the Safe Water Drinking Act, The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. These exemptions, in a way, permit oil and gas operators to contaminate water supplies with chemicals from their operations, in particular hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced wastewater.[4]
  4. The gold standard of clean, chemical-free food is the USDA National Organic Program Standards, as governed by the Organic Foods Production Act. Unfortunately, organic certification does not require testing for oil and gas chemicals in water being used in organic production. The organic standard is satisfied as long as state, water, and food safety agencies deem the water safe. To our knowledge these agencies do not test for oil and gas chemicals.[5]
  5. Based on available data spills occur regularly. Recent research has identified that the mixture of chemicals from fracking fluid and produced wastewater interact in a way that can lead to soil accumulation of these chemicals. Potentially, then, the chemicals may be absorbed by plants.[6] Fifteen chemicals often used in fracking have been identified as toxic, persistent and fast-traveling.[7] Some farms – such as those in Southern California – are being irrigated with produced water from oil and gas operations. Additionally, every single farm in the San Jaoquin Valley is within eight miles of oil and gas operations.[8]
  6. There is significant Competition for water between natural gas production and agriculture. This includes growing commodity crops for energy, such as ethanol. Natural gas operations result in removing water quantity available for agriculture, and changing the water quality, which affects the agricultural product. In drought stricken areas, water scarcity is already an issue. In addition, extreme heat as a result of climate change is putting more stress on farmers operating in already depleted watersheds. Layered on all of this is the growing realization that precipitation regimes are gradually – and in many places dramatically – transitioning from many smaller and more predictable events to fewer, more intense, and less predictable rain and snow events which is are harder for the landscape to capture, process, and store for agricultural and/or other uses.
  7. Operating costs: Farmers are already operating under razor- thin margins, with the cost of inputs continually increasing and the resilience of the soils and watersheds they rely upon coming into question with unconventional oil and gas’ expansion across the Midwest and Great Plains.

Public Lands

Over 45% of lands in the Western United States are owned by the federal government. Opening up public lands—by the Bureau of Land Management, United State Forest Service in particular—is controversial on multiple levels. As it relates to food security and independence, the issue often missed is that many headwaters to prime farmland reside on federal lands, along with the majority of cattle grazing.

There isn’t enough private land in the West for oil and gas operators to reach their production goals. They have to drill on public lands in order to scale up production and develop an export market for domestic natural gas. This means that public lands, taxpayer funded public lands, could potentially be used to irreparably harm prime agricultural and grazing lands (foodsheds). More alarming, is that the Trump Administration is focused on unfettered development, extraction and distribution of natural gas resources, including opening up public lands to oil and gas leasing and gutting regulations that protect us from pollution and public health risks.

The map we have developed shows that many of the largest farms in the West are surrounded by public lands. Sixty-percent of Colorado farms are surrounded by public lands, which are within shale basins or active shale plays.  Four of the top natural gas producing counties in Colorado are also four of the top agricultural producing counties: Weld, Mesa, Montezuma, and LaPlata counties. The third, fifth, sixth, eighth and tenth agricultural producing counties in the State are surrounded by public lands within shale basins, respectively,: Larimer, Delta, El Paso, Montrose and Douglas counties. The 6,325 farms in these counties represent 17% of all Colorado farms, and 29% (nearly half) of Colorado at-risk farms for being surrounded by public lands and within shale basins.

Colorado: Public lands surround majority of farms.

Colorado: Public lands surround majority of farms.

Colorado: zoom into 3 of top agricultural producing and natural gas producing counties in Colorado, illustrating how they are surrounded by public lands.

Colorado: Map zoomed into 3 of top agricultural producing and natural gas producing counties in Colorado, illustrating how they are surrounded by public lands.

food-table

These farms, headwaters, and public lands need to be protected if we are to maintain food independence and security. Producing potentially contaminated food is neither food independence, nor food security.

Policy Implications

Why should policy makers and health insurers care? Chronic and terminal illnesses are on the rise. Healthcare costs have nowhere to go but up as long as the environment we live in, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe continue to be polluted at such a large scale. Attempts to reduce healthcare costs by insuring all Americans will have no impact if they are all sick. The insurance model only works when there are more healthy people in the pool than unhealthy people.

Mapping Conventional & Organic U.S. Farms

Below is an interactive map showing agricultural production in the U.S. You can use the map to zoom in at the county level to understand better the type of agricultural production taking place, as well as the value of the agricultural products at the county level.

U.S. Conventional and Organic Farms and Their Productivity Near Shale Plays and Basins


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This map excludes Alaska for a variety of reasons[9]. We include over 180 unique data points for each county across five categories: 1) Crops and Plants, 2) Economics, 3) Farms, 4) Livestock and Animals, and 5) Operators. We then break these major categories into 20 subcategories.

Table 1. Subcategories Utilized in the “US Shale Plays and Basins Along with Agricultural Productivity By County” map above

Categories Subcategories
Crops and Plants Field Crops Harvested
Fruits, Tree Nuts, Berries, Nursery and Greenhouse
Hay and Forage Crops Harvested
Seed Crops Harvested
Vegetables and Melons Harvested
Economics Buildings, Machinery and Equipment on Operation
Farm Production Expenses
Farm-Related Income and Direct Sales
Farms by Value of Sales
Market Value of Agricultural Products Sold
Farms Agricultural Chemicals Used
Farms
Farms by Size
Farms by Type of Organization
Land in Farms and Land Use
Livestock and Animals Livestock, Poultry, and Other Animals
Operators Characteristics of Farm Operators
Hired Farm Labor
Primary Occupation of Operator
Tenure of Farm Operators and Farm Operations

Analysis Results

In total, there are 589,922 and 1,369,961 farms in US Shale Plays and Basins, respectively, averaging between 589 and 646 acres in size and spread across 2,146 counties (Figure 1). These farm counties produce roughly $87.31- 218.32 billion in agricultural products each year with the highest value per-acre being the Monterey and Monterey-Temblor Formations of Southern California, the Niobrara Formation in North Central Colorado, Eastern Barnett in North Central Texas, the Antrim in Michigan, and the Northern Appalachian Shale Basins of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio (Figures 2a/2b). Roughly 52% of all agricultural revenue generated in US Shale Play counties comes from livestock, poultry, and derivative products vs. a national average of 44% (Figure 3).

Put another way, the value of US Shale Basin agricultural infrastructure would rank as the 9th largest economy worldwide, between Italy and Brazil.

Family-owned farms are at the greatest risk. While corporations tend to own larger acreage farms, only 8.2% of US farms are owned by corporations. This figure is nearly halved in US Shale Plays, with 4.5% of farms owned by corporations, or 95% owned by families or individuals.


Figures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 above show the number of farms near drilling, as well as variations in the value of agricultural products produced in those regions.

Risk vs. Benefits in CO

Oil and gas activity is regulated on a somewhat patchwork basis, but generally it is overseen at the state level subject to federal laws. New York and Maryland are the only two states that ban fracking, while communities around the country have invoked zoning laws to ban fracking or impose moratoriums on a smaller scale. However, in Colorado, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over oil and gas regulation in the State. There, fracking bans imposed by local communities, with a large number of farms, have been found to be unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Weld County is Colorado’s leading producer of cattle, grain, and sugar beets. Weld is the richest agricultural county in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, the fourth richest overall nationally, and the largest natural gas producer in CO. Compare this to the North Fork Valley on the Western Slope of CO, which is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the state, one of two viticultural (wine making) areas in the state, and has a reputation for being a farm-to-table hub. Delta County, in which the North Fork Valley is located, is known for its sustainable agriculture initiatives. Uniquely, Delta County is one of the few agricultural areas in the country so far untouched by the fracking boom – but that could all change. The Bureau of Land Management is considering opening 95% of BLM lands and minerals within and surrounding Delta County to oil and gas leasing.

Protecting Food Supplies

Oil and gas extraction is taking place on both private and public lands across the country. Prime and unique agricultural lands need to be protected from these industrial activities if we are to maintain food independence and ensure a healthy food supply. As demonstrated by the map above, agricultural communities in active shale plays may already in trouble. To prevent further damages on day-to-day food staples, it is imperative to increase awareness about this consequential issue.

How can people trust that the food they eat is safe to consume? Families trust farmers, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that the food supply chain is regulated and maintained. If most of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water/soil is not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, that supply chain is at risk. The secure production of our food – via clean air, water, and soil – is tantamount to lasting food independence.

Farming Testimonials

I am the leader of Slow Food Western Slope, which functions as a chapter of Slow Food USA. We envision a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet: good, clean and fair food for all. Our chapter promotes and supports over 70 farmers, orchardists, ranchers, agricultural businesses and winemakers of the North Fork Valley – all of which depend on good and clean water, air and soil. With its industrial footprint and potential damage to landscape, air, water, soil and human health, extraction industries have no place in the future of the North Fork Valley. We can build a new economy around clean food, outdoor recreation, healthy lifestyle and small nonthreatening businesses.

Jim BrettSlow Food Western Slope

Agricultural land is much more valuable in the long-run than the short-term gains promised from oil and gas extraction… As farmers we are attuned to crop, soil, and water conditions especially as a result of weather. If it’s too hot, too dry, too wet, too cold then there is no food. Natural gas extraction is an undeniable factor in changing climate and is incompatible with the practice of sustainable agriculture.

Mark WaltermireOwner of Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss, CO

References and More Information

FracTracker Alliance raised awareness of this issue in 2015 when it mapped the proximity of organic farms to oil and gas wells. In that mapping analysis, it was discovered that 11% of organic farms are within ½ mile of oil and gas development. Did you know that less than 1% of agricultural lands in the United States are used to grow crops without chemicals, and that 42% of those organic farms produce food for human consumption?

Organic Farms Near Drilling Activity in the U.S.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This research prompted the question of what about the other 99% of agricultural lands used to grow crops and raise livestock utilizing chemicals and other conventional methods in the United States. The majority of dairy, grains, beef, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and animal feed for livestock are produced on conventional farms. Where are they located, and do we know how they are being impacted by oil and gas development?

The majority of the US population lives in urban centers and is disconnected from the American farm, including how and where food is produced. People trust their farmer, food brands, school and office cafeterias, and restaurants to the extent that they trust their supply chain, and to the extent that the farmers trust their water supply and soils. If the majority of the food produced in the U.S. is within active shale plays, and the water and soil are not being tested for oil and gas chemicals, this research questions how people can trust that their food is safe to consume. If we are to maintain our food independence and health, not only do consumers need to understand that the food supply is at risk in order to exercise their rights to protect it at the local, state, and federal levels, but policymakers need to be informed with this data to make better decisions around oil and gas development regulations and development proposals that impact our foodsheds.

References/Footnotes:

  1. 2015 Colorado Oil and Gas Toxic Release Tracker, Center for Western Priorities
  2. COMPENDIUM OF SCIENTIFIC, MEDICAL, AND MEDIA FINDINGS DEMONSTRATING RISKS AND HARMS OF FRACKING (UNCONVENTIONAL GAS AND OIL EXTRACTION), Fourth Edition, Physicians for Social Responsibility, November 17, 2016; Colborn T, Kwiatkowski C, Schultz K, Bachran M., Natural gas operations from a public health perspective, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 2011 17(5):1039-1056; Fracking Fumes: Air Pollution from Hydraulic Fracturing Threatens Public Health and Communities, NRDC Issue Brief, December 2014
  3. 49 CFR §192
  4. Brady, William J., Hydraulic Fracturing Regulation in the United States: The Laissez-Faire Approach of the Federal Government and Varying State Regulations, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 14 2012
  5. National Organic Program Standards, 7 CFR Part 205. Organic Foods Production Act, 7 U.S.C. Ch. 94
  6. Molly C. McLaughlin, Thomas Borch,, and Jens Blotevogel, Spills of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals on Agricultural Topsoil: Biodegradation, Sorption, and Co-contaminant Interactions, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2016, 50, 6071−6078
  7. AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network, November 2016.
  8. Matthew Heberger and Kristina Donnelly, OIL, FOOD, AND WATER: Challenges and Opportunities for California Agriculture, Pacific Institute, December 2015.
  9. Issues with Alaskan agricultural data include incomplete reporting and large degrees of uncertainty in the data relative to the Lower 48.

By Natasha Léger, Interim Executive Director, Citizens for a Healthy Community and Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Director, FracTracker Alliance

Underground Gas Storage map by Drew Michanowicz

Underground Gas Storage Wells – An Invisible Risk in the Natural Gas Supply Chain

The largest accidental release of methane in U.S. history began October 23, 2015 with the blowout of an underground natural gas storage well in Aliso Canyon about 20 miles west of Los Angeles. By the time the well was plugged 112 days later, more than 5.0 billion cubic feet of methane and other pollutants had been released to the atmosphere. It was a disaster for the climate, the environment, California’s energy supply, and the more than 11,000 people that were forced to evacuate.

A new study from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health – Center for Health and the Global Environment shows that more than one in five of the almost 15,000 active underground gas storage (UGS) wells in the US could be vulnerable to serious leaks due to obsolete well designs – similar in design to the well that failed at the Aliso Canyon storage facility.

Published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the study presents a national baseline assessment of underground storage wells in the U.S. and indicates the need for a better understanding of the risks associated with the obsolescence of aging storage wells. The study also highlights the widespread nature of certain age-related risk factors, but indicates that some of the highest priority wells may be located in PA, OH, NY, and WV.

The study shows that the average construction year of largely unregulated active UGS wells in the US is 1963, with potentially obsolete wells that were not originally designed for storage operating in 160 facilities across 19 states. Some of the wells were constructed over 100 years ago – a time period that precedes many modern well containment systems such cement isolation and the use of multiple casings. Some of the oldest active UGS wells were not designed for two-way flow of gas, and therefore may not exhibit sufficient material-grade or redundant precautionary systems to prevent containment loss, as was evident at Aliso Canyon.

An Interview with the Author

Sam, Matt, and Kyle of FracTracker caught up with lead author and former FracTracker colleague, Dr. Drew Michanowicz, now with the Center for Health and Global Environment within the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health to find out more about their study.

When we spoke with Drew, he began the interview by posing the first question to us:

Did you know that about 15% of the natural gas produced in the US is injected back into the ground each year?

While we had all heard of underground gas storage before, we had to admit that we never thought of the process like that before. In other words, some of the natural gas in the US is being produced twice from two different reservoirs before being consumed. And because many of these storage systems utilized depleted oil and gas reservoirs, many of the same pre- and post-conditioning processes, such as dehydrating and compressing, are necessary to bring the gas to market.

The following questions and answers from Drew expand upon the study’s findings:

Q: What prompted you and your colleagues to investigate this topic?

A: After the Aliso Canyon incident, we became interested in the question: ‘Is Aliso Canyon Unique?’ Interestingly, there were plenty of early warning signs at that facility that corrosion issues on very old repurposed wells were becoming a significant issue. Almost a year before the well blowout, Southern California gas went on record in front of California’s Public Utility Commission stating that they needed a rate increase to implement a necessary integrity management plan for their wells, and to be able to move beyond operating in a reactive mode. That unfortunately prophetic document really got us interested in better understanding why their infrastructure was in the state it was in. And like any major accident like this, a logical next step is to assess the prevalence of hazardous conditions elsewhere in the system, in the hope to prevent the next one.

From our research, it appears that a very large portion of the UGS sector may be facing similar obsolescence issues compared to Aliso, such as decades-old wells not originally designed for two-way flow. Our work here, however, is a simplified assessment that focused only on passive barriers or the fixed structures such as the steel pipes likely present in a well. Much more work is needed to fully understand the active-type safety measures in place such as safety valves, tubing/packers, and overall integrity management plans – all important factors for manage risks.

Q: We see that your team developed a well-level database of over 14,000 active UGS wells across 29 states. Because data-collation is a big part of our work here, can you describe that data collection process?

A: Very early on we also realized that underground gas storage was exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program – similar to exemption with hydraulic fracturing and the Energy Policy Act of 2015, AKA the Halliburton Loophole. This meant in part that very little aggregate well data was available from the Federal Government or by third-party aggregators like FracTracker and DrillingInfo. Reminiscent of my former extreme data-paucity days at FracTracker, we knew we needed to build a database basically from scratch to effectively perform a hazard assessment that incorporated a spatial component.

We began by gathering what data we could from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which gave us good detail at the field or facility level, but the fields were generalized to a county centroid. So to fully evaluate these infrastructure, we needed to figure out how to join the facility-level data to the well data for each state. We relied on NETL’s Energy Data eXchange to identify state-level wellbore data providers where applicable. Once we collected all of the state data, we created a decision-tree framework to join the individual wells to the EIA field names in order to produce a functional geodatabase. Because we had to manage data from so many sources, we had to devote quite a bit of effort to data QA/QC, and that is reflected in the methods and results of the paper. For example, some of our fields and wells had to be joined via visual inspection of company system maps, because of missing identifier information.

Q: We see that some of the oldest repurposed wells you mapped are located in PA, OH, NY, and WV. Was that a surprise to you?

A: That was a surprise considering this story started for us in California, and even more surprising was that some are more than 100 years old. Now, a bit of caution here is warranted when thinking about the age of any engineered system. On the one hand, something that functions for a very long time is an indication that the system was very well suited for its task, and likely has been very well taken care of – think of an antique automobile like a fully functional 1916 Model T Ford, for example. On the other hand, age and construction year relates to the integrity of an engineered system through two processes by:

  1. providing information to how long a system has been exposed to natural degradation processes such as corrosion, and stresses from thermal and abrasive cycles; and by
  2. proxying for knowledge and regulatory safety standards at the time of construction which informs the design, materials, technologies likely used.

To go back to the car example, while an old classic car may still be operational, it may not have certain safety features like antilock brakes, airbags, or safety belts, and generally will not be able to go as fast as a modern car. Therefore, a gas storage well’s integrity is at least indirectly related to its construction year when considering the multitude of technological and safety improvements have occurred over the years. This is how we have been thinking about well integrity from a 5,000 foot perspective. Needless to say, more research is needed to understand the causal effect of age on well integrity.

Q: So if we understand you correctly, these older wells can be maintained with sufficient management practices, but there may be inherent safety features missing on these older wells that don’t adhere to todays’ standards?

A: That’s right. So what we can say about some of these aging wells is that some will not reflect certain modern fail-safe engineering such as sufficient casing design strength and multiple casings or barriers along the full length. And these are permanent structural elements vestigial to the well’s original design, and therefore cannot be undone or redesigned away. In other words, it makes much more sense to drill a new well with new materials than attempt to significantly alter an old well. And the gas storage wells built today are designed with redundant fail-safe systems including multiple barriers and real-time pressure sensors.

But back to my earlier point about lack of federal regulations to set a minimum safety standard – because of that, there is also much uncertainty surrounding how many of these facilities have been dealing with safety and risk management. That is a future direction of this work – to really try to fill in some of regulatory gaps between states and the impending Federal guidelines and identify some best practices to help inform policy makers specifically at the state level.

Drew put together a map to highlight where some of these active storage wells are in PA, OH, NY, and WV:

Underground Gas Storage map

This area map of PA, WV, OH, and NY displays where active underground natural gas storage operations are located. The small white points represent active storage wells that have a completion, SPUD, or permit date that occurs after the field was designated for storage indicating that these wells are more likely to have been designed for storage operations. The green points are active storage wells that predate storage operations, indicating that these wells may not have been designed for storage.

There are 121 storage fields connected to at least 6,624 active gas storage wells across these four states. A portion of wells in this region were not included in this final count because they did not contain sufficient status or date information. Pennsylvania has the most individual storage fields of any state with 47, while Ohio boasts the most active storage wells of any state in the country with 3,318 across its 22 active fields. Of the 6,624 active UGS wells across these four states, 1,753 predate storage designation indicating that these wells were likely not originally designed for storage. These ‘repurposed’ wells have a median age of 84 years, with 210 wells constructed over 100 years ago (red points). The 100 year cutoff is not arbitrary, as the year 1917 marks the advent of cement zonal isolation techniques, indicating that these wells may be of the highest priority in terms of design deficiencies related to well integrity, and they are primarily located across the four states pictured above.

Top Counties with Obsolete1/Repurposed2 Wells

  1. Westmoreland, PA (86/93)
  2. Ashland, OH (50/217)
  3. Richland, OH (31/99)
  4. Greene, PA (25/76)
  5. Hocking, OH (18/99)

1Obsolete wells are repurposed wells constructed before 1916
2Repurposed wells predate the storage facility

Additional Notes

The well that failed at Aliso Canyon was originally drilled in 1954 for oil production. In 1972, it was repurposed for underground gas storage, which entails both production and injection cycles in a single well. The problem seems to be that because it was not originally constructed to store natural gas, only a single steel pipe separated the flow of gas and the outside rock formation. That meant the well’s passive structural integrity was vulnerable to a single point-of-failure along a portion of its casing. When part of the subsurface well casing failed, there were no redundancies or safety valves in place to prevent or minimize the blow out.

  • More information related to the Aliso Canyon incident and this study is available here.
  • More info on the Center for Health and the Global Environment can be found here.
Mobile app update release feature image

FracTracker Mobile App Now Includes Activity Feed and Mapped Pipelines

Explore and Document Drilling Activity Near You with the FracTracker App

The oil and gas industry – from its wells to pipelines to refineries – has a variety of ways of impacting the communities and environment that surround its infrastructure. Given the scope of the industry, it’s almost impossible to see how oil and gas affects people and for them to share their experiences with others. Until today. FracTracker is excited to announce that we have completely rebuilt and significantly improved our frack-tracking mobile app. This app can serve as a documenting and tracking tool for reporters, residents, researchers, and groups concerned about oil and gas and its impacts.

Screenshots

Updated App Features

The free app, available for iPhone and Android users, still offers the ability to see drilling near you in the U.S. and add reports and photos about this activity onto a shared map. Based on feedback from many of our partners and readers, we have added and updated several features, as well.

  • Profile – Sign in to the app with an email address and password, with the option to add other information to your profile. This area is also where you can privately view your previous and pending reports.
  • Activity Feed – Shows the most recent submissions by app users. Scroll down to view older reports.
  • Save As Draft – Not ready to submit your report? Save it as a draft and return to submit it later.
  • Real-Time Submissions – We will no longer be curating incoming reports before they go live – so the activity feed and map show real-time submissions.
  • Flagging Tool – Mark a submission as inappropriate. A FracTracker moderator will review the report and take the appropriate action.
  • Indicate Senses Affected – Classify a report by the sense(s) impacted – e.g. Nearby drilling activity is loud, or an impoundment is causing noxious odors.
  • Pipelines Mapped – In addition to active wells and user reports, we have added national pipelines to the map. Please note that many of the pipeline locations are approximate because detailed, public pipeline data is lacking. Help us make this information more accurate by posting photos of pipelines near you.

Feedback Loops

Several organizations and community groups helped to test and improve the app during its redesign, including residents living amongst the oil and gas fields on the Front Range of Colorado and Southwest Pennsylvania, as well as with students at Drexel University.

When we redesigned our mobile app, we felt it was important to go into communities that are living amongst the oil and gas industry. Together, we identified what they needed most when reporting their concerns and potential impacts. The results are a very versatile app. People living around urban refinery hubs, as well as those living in rural extraction regions, will find this tool incredibly useful.

We’d love to hear your feedback about these changes once you have had a chance to explore the app’s updated features.

The app was developed by FracTracker Alliance in collaboration with Viable Industries, L.L.C.

Mobile App Contact

Kirk Jalbert, PhD, MFA
Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
FracTracker Alliance
jalbert@fractracker.org

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