By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance
The understanding of fracking’s harms has grown dramatically in the last decade, especially since FracTracker’s formation in 2010. Across the country and around the world, environmental and human health impacts of oil and gas development have been well documented. Every day brings new cause for concern.
During this same period, scientific and public awareness about the consequences and causation of climate change has accelerated and we watch with trepidation as profound changes grip our planet. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have eclipsed 400 ppm. Temperature records are repeatedly broken. Weather extremes have become routine.
These tragic realities aren’t acceptable. Nationally and internationally, hundreds – if not thousands – of organizations are working on these issues and speaking out for transparency, accountability, and progress. Progress means informed populations, responsible policies, and an aggressive shift to renewable energy while embracing efficiency. Great things are happening. The future demands boldness.
FracTracker has always been a data-driven resource for all – to educate, empower, and catalyze positive change. The Alliance in our name underscores that we are an ally with the multitudes in that quest, but the weight of the times requires us to revisit our mission statement (below) and sharpen our message to better convey what we do and why we do it. A new logo and tagline reinforce our pronouncement.
FracTracker Alliance studies, maps, and communicates the risks of oil and gas development to protect the planet and support the renewable energy transformation.
So, welcome to the freshened words and appearance of the FracTracker Alliance. We’re the same trusted organization but striving to be bolder, to make a bigger difference for us all. The future is now.
If you have questions about these organizational changes, please email us at email@example.com, or call +1 202-630-6426.
The following guide is a simplified description of a variety of markings that are used by land surveyors. Throughout an active shale gas field, the first signs of pending expansions are the simple markings of stakes, flags, and pins. Many months or even years before the chain saw fells the first tree or the first dozer blade cuts the dirt at a well pad location, the surveyors have “marked the target” on behalf of their corporate tactical command staff.
The three most commonly used markings are the simple stakes, flags and pins. These surveyor symbols are common to any construction project and guarantee that everything gets put in the right place. In an active gas field, these marking tools are used for all aspects of exploration and production:
access roads to well pads,
widening the traveled portion of the roadway,
ponds and impoundment locations,
temporary water pipeline paths,
surface disturbance limits,
gas processing sites, and
rights-of-way for roads and pipelines.
Quite frequently these simple markings are undecipherable by themselves, especially by non-professionals. One cannot just know what is happening, what is likely to occur, or how concerned one should be. Context and additional information are usually needed. Sometimes the simple colors and combinations of colored tapes might only make sense in conjunction with similar markings nearby. Sometimes public notices in the newspaper and regulatory permits must be used to decipher what is planned.
For an example, the proposed 30″ diameter EQT pipeline called the Ohio Valley Connector seems to be regularly marked using a combination of blue and white (see figure 10 below) surveyors tape to mark the actual pipeline location, then green and white (see figure 4 below) to mark all the proposed access roads along the routes that will be used to get pipe trucks and excavation equipment into the right of way. These access roads might be public roadways or cut across private leased property.
Common surveyor symbols & signs (click on images to zoom in)
Surveyor flags and tape: Sometime the flags or streamers are just attached to trees, fence posts, or put on a stake to make them visible above the weeds. There might be no markings on the stake, or only simple generic markings. This could just mean that this is the correct road and turn here. It could also signal a proposed or approximate location for some future work.
Simple surveyor’s flags or tape
Surveyor flags and tapes: These are a selection of typical surveyor tapes, also called flags or ribbons. Many other specialty color combinations are available to the professional surveyor.
A selection of surveyor tapes
Stakes with simple markings: Flags with some type of identification (it might be names or numbers). This one was used for a proposed well pad access road location. There are no dimensions given on these.
Stake with simple markings
Stakes with simple flags and basic identification: The stakes shown here all indicate an access route to be used for equipment and trucks to get to a proposed pipeline right of way. The “H310″ is the EQT name for the 30” OVC pipeline.
Stakes indicating an access route
Control points: These three stakes are identifying a control point that is outside the limits of disturbance (LoD). These markings surround a pin to be used for reference.
Control point stakes
Controls points: This stake is also identifying a control point location. All control points will have some type of driven metal rod, usually with a plastic cap identifying the surveyor. Frequently there are three stakes with extra flags or tape. They are always set off to the side of the intended work area. They are not to be disturbed.
Control point stake and pin
Control points: Another set of three stakes marking a Control Point location. It is common to see triple stakes with elaborate, multiple flags. Even if only two stakes are present, there always will be a driven steel pin and identifying cap.
Control point stakes and pin
Control points: This shows a close-up of the identifying cap on a metal driven steel pin. Control point locations are not meant to be disturbed as they are for future and repeated reference. They might give the latitude and longitude on the stake plus the altitude above sea level.
Control point pin and cap
Control points: This is another, older control point location. This represents a typical arrangement where the stakes somewhat try to protect the metal pin from a bulldozer blade by warning its operator.
Control point pin protection
Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” here means the limits of disturbance. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. The stakes shown here indicates that this is the outside limit of where the contractor will be disturbing the original contour of the surface soil.
Limit of disturbance stakes
Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” means the limits of disturbance of the proposed pipeline right of way. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. This could also be used for the outside edge of well pads or access roads or pond locations.
Limit of disturbance ROW stakes
Pipelines: Stakes with flags and “center line” markings are usually for pipelines. Here you see the symbol for center line: a capital letter “C” imposed on the letter “L”.
Pipelines center line
Pipelines: Again you see the capital letter “C” super imposed on top of the letter “L” used frequently for pipe line center lines, but can also be used for proposed access roads.
Pipelines center line
Pipelines: As shown here, “C” and “L” center line flags can also be used for future well pad access roads.
Road access center line
Precise location markings: Stakes like this will usually have a steel pin also associated with it. This stake gives the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the site.
Precise location stake
Permanent property lines: You may also find markings, like this one inch steel rod with an alum cap, that denote permanent property lines and corners of property.
Permanent property rod
Permanent property lines: Another kind of permanent property line or corner marker is the “boundary survey monument.” This is likely an aluminum cap on top of a one inch diameter steel bar.
One of the many services that FracTracker offers is access to oil and gas photos. These have been contributed to our website by partners & FracTracker staff and can be used free of charge for non-commercial purposes. Please site the photographer if one is listed, however.
Over the last few months we have added additional oil and gas photos to the following location-based albums – and more photos and videos are coming soon! Click on the links below to explore:
Over the past few years, oil train traffic across the continent has increased rapidly with more than 500,000 rail cars moving oil in 2014 alone, according to the Association of American Railroads. The recent Lac-Mégantic, Quebec disaster and subsequent accidents illustrate the severity of this issue. There is a pressing need to determine true hazards facing our communities and to develop solutions to prevent further disasters. Across the United States and Canada, the issue of oil trains has quickly risen onto the agenda of community leaders, safety experts, researchers, and concerned citizens. There is much to discover and share about protecting people and vulnerable places from the various risks these trains pose. Oil Train Response 2015 provides two invaluable forums on this most pressing problem and provides information and insights for every audience.
November 13, 2015
Community Risks & Solutions Conference Presented by The Heinz Endowments
November 14 & 15, 2015
Activist Training Weekend Presented by ForestEthics
The one-day conference presented by The Heinz Endowments invites all interest groups to hear from experts about the scale and scope of this challenge, as well as updates on the current regulatory and legal frameworks; consider case studies about the actions/measures taken by various communities in response; and, participate in discussion sessions to explore solutions to better safeguard communities. Elected officials, regulators, and emergency response professionals from Pennsylvania and beyond are especially encouraged to attend to take advantage of this important learning and networking opportunity.
Training – November 14-15th
Saturday, Nov. 14th: Training 7:30 AM – 5:00 PM. Reception 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Sunday, Nov. 15th: Training 7:30 AM – 2:00 PM
A two-day training presented by ForestEthics will equip grassroots and NGO leaders from across the nation with better skills to take back to their communities, and provide critical opportunities for attendees to share winning strategies with each other. In the process of sharing, the conference will help to build both the oil train movement and support the broader environmental and social justice movements. Areas of strategic focus will include: organizing, communications, spokesperson training, data management for organizers, legal strategies, and crowd-sourced train tracking. It will also provide a structured forum for advocates fighting specific oil terminal proposals in places like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Albany to develop shared strategies and tactics and provide all participants with the skills, knowledge and contacts they will need to carry on this work once they return home.
Oil trains are a major environmental justice issue. The conference and training will speak directly to environmental justice concerns and be inclusive of communities of color, economically disadvantaged urban and rural regions, and communities already experiencing environmental inequities. To this end, need-based travel scholarships will be provided. We are committed to developing the agenda in close consultation with our allies and attendees so that it meets their needs.
In February 2014, the FracTracker Alliance produced our first version of a national well data file and map, showing over 1.1 million active oil and gas wells in the United States. We have now updated that data, with the total of wells up to 1,666,715 active wells accounted for.
Density by state of active oil and gas wells in the United States. Click here to access the legend, details, and full map controls. Zoom in to see summaries by county, and zoom in further to see individual well data. Texas contains state and county totals only, and North Carolina is not included in this map.
While 1.7 million wells is a substantial increase over last year’s total of 1.1 million, it is mostly attributable to differences in how we counted wells this time around, and should not be interpreted as a huge increase in activity over the past 15 months or so. Last year, we attempted to capture those wells that seemed to be producing oil and gas, or about ready to produce. This year, we took a more inclusive definition. Primarily, the additional half-million wells can be accounted for by including wells listed as dry holes, and the inclusion of more types of injection wells. Basically anything with an API number that was not described as permanently plugged was included this time around.
Data for North Carolina are not included, because they did not respond to three email inquiries about their oil and gas data. However, in last year’s national map aggregation, we were told that there were only two active wells in the state. Similarly, we do not have individual well data for Texas, and we use a published list of well counts by county in its place. Last year, we assumed that because there was a charge for the dataset, we would be unable to republish well data. In discussions with the Railroad Commission, we have learned that the data can in fact be republished. However, technical difficulties with their datasets persist, and data that we have purchased lacked location values, despite metadata suggesting that it would be included. So in short, we still don’t have Texas well data, even though it is technically available.
Wells by Type and Status
Each state is responsible for what their oil and gas data looks like, so a simple analysis of something as ostensibly straightforward as what type of well has been drilled can be surprisingly complicated when looking across state lines. Additionally, some states combine the well type and well status into a single data field, making comparisons even more opaque.
Top 10 of 371 published well types for wells in the United States.
Among all of the oil producing states, there are 371 different published well types. This data is “raw,” meaning that no effort has been made to combine similar entries, so “gas, oil” is counted separately from “GAS OIL,” and “Bad Data” has not been combined with “N/A,” either. Conforming data from different sources is an exercise that gets out of hand rather quickly, and utility over using the original published data is questionable, as well. We share this information, primarily to demonstrate the messy state of the data. Many states combine their well type and well status data into a single column, while others keep them separate. Unfortunately, the most frequent well type was blank, either because states did not publish well types, or they did not publish them for all of their wells.
There are no national standards for publishing oil and gas data – a serious barrier to data transparency and the most important takeaway from this exercise…
Wells by Location
Active oil and gas wells in 2015 by state. Except for Texas, all data were aggregated published well coordinates.
There are oil and gas wells in 35 of the 50 states (70%) in the United States, and 1,673 out of 3,144 (53%) of all county and county equivalent areas. The number of wells per state ranges from 57 in Maryland to 291,996 in Texas. There are 135 counties with a single well, while the highest count is in Kern County, California, host to 77,497 active wells.
With the exception of Texas, where the data are based on published lists of well county by county, the state and county well counts were determined by the location of the well coordinates. Because of this, any errors in the original well’s location data could lead to mistakes in the state and county summary files. Any wells that are offshore are not included, either. Altogether, there are about 6,000 wells (0.4%) are missing from the state and county files.
Wells by Operator
There are a staggering number of oil and gas operators in the United States. In a recent project with the National Resources Defense Council, we looked at violations across the few states that publish such data, and only for the 68 operators that were identified previously as having the largest lease acreage nationwide. Even for this task, we had to follow a spreadsheet of which companies were subsidiaries of others, and sometimes the inclusion of an entity like “Williams” on the list came down to a judgement call as to whether we had the correct company or not.
No such effort was undertaken for this analysis. So in Pennsylvania, wells drilled by the operator Exco Resources PA, Inc. are not included with those drilled by Exco Resources PA, Llc., even though they are presumably the same entity. It just isn’t feasible to systematically go through thousands of operators to determine which operators are owned by whom, so we left the data as is. Results, therefore, should be taken with a brine truck’s worth of salt.
Top 10 wells by operator in the US, excluding Texas. Unknown operators are highlighted in red.
Texas does publish wells by operator, but as with so much of their data, it’s just not worth the effort that it takes to process it. First, they process it into thirteen different files, then publish it in PDF format, requiring special software to convert the data to spreadsheet format. Suffice to say, there are thousands of operators of active oil and gas wells in the Lone Star State.
Not counting Texas, there are 39,693 different operators listed in the United States. However, many of those listed are some version of “we don’t know whose well this is.” Sorting the operators by the number of wells that they are listed as having, we see four of the top ten operators are in fact unknown, including the top three positions.
The state of oil and gas data in the United States is clearly in shambles. As long as there are no national standards for data transparency, we can expect this trend to continue. The data that we looked for in this file is what we consider to be bare bones: well name, well type, well status, slant (directional, vertical, or horizontal), operator, and location. In none of these categories can we say that we have a satisfactory sense of what is going on nationally.
Click on the above button to download the three sets of data we used to make the dynamic map (once you are zoomed in to a state level). The full dataset was broken into three parts due to the large file sizes.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/2015Update-Feature.jpg400900Matt Kelso, BAhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgMatt Kelso, BA2015-08-03 14:19:532020-03-12 14:04:591.7 Million Wells in the U.S. - A 2015 Update
Media outlets have been very focused recently on reporting oil train derailments and explosions. Additionally, the Keystone XL pipeline has hastened political debates and arguments for years by both political parties since its initial proposal in 2008 – and the May 19th pipeline oil spill in California isn’t helping matters. In the midst of all of this commotion, a million questions are being asked, yet no one can seem to reach a conclusion about what method of transporting oil is truly safest and economically feasible – or if we are just stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Some say the solution to this problem is transporting the volatile crude via pipelines, while others believe it is a matter of increasing regulations, standards, and compliance for transport by train. The answer is simply not simple.
In light of this, a few of the folks at FracTracker gathered some facts on pipelines vs oil trains to lay out this issue in a clearer fashion.
Let’s start with trains.
Due to the increasing demand of crude oil supply, there has been increasing activity in the transportation of crude oil by rail, which provides flexibility and quick transportation throughout the U.S. and its 115 refineries. Railroads are also willing to offer shippers shorter contracts than pipelines and other transportation methods, making them a more favorable method of crude oil transportation.
Oil trains, as well as pipelines, can pose a detrimental risk to communities and public health in the case of an explosion and/or spill. Danger Around the Bend describes in detail the dangers of transporting Bakken Formation crude oil from North Dakota to parts all over the country.
Some of the risks of transporting volatile crude via train have been clearly depicted in the news with announcements of spills, derailments, and explosions in urban and suburban areas, putting many people in harm’s way. Despite the decrease in spills between 1996 and 2007, devastating train accidents like the one on July 6, 2013 have raised questions about the safety of transportation by train.
Trains and train tracks in general can be very dangerous, as demonstrated by the deadly Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia this May. The total number of incidents in 2014, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, sum up to 11,793 – with 818 of those being fatal. These fatalities have been linked to a range of possible causes, but the numbers depict the gravity of safety issues within the railroad regulations.
As we all know, finishing the Keystone XL pipeline has stirred years of controversy, since this project was initially proposed back in 2008. On January 31, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of tar sand oil per day through an 875-mile long pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast area. Below we have mapped the current and proposed tracks of the Keystone, along with the numerous ports, refineries, and rail lines:
The Keystone XL, Alberta oil sands, North American oil refineries and associated ports. View fullscreen and click Details for the metadata behind this map.
The SEIS discussed the impacts that the proposed pipeline would have on the environment and public health based on research, modeling, and analysis. One of the many purposes of the SEIS is to focus on whether the proposed project serves the national interest by comparing the risks to the benefits – discussed in more detail below.
The current risks associated with pipelines are similar to the risks associated with other modes of transporting oil across the United States. Oil spills are among the highest risks, but with the XL pipeline, it’s a more profound risk due to the type of oil being carried: tar sand oil. Tar sand oil, also known as heavy oil, is known for its tedious processing and its many environmental implications. Burning one single barrel of oil produced from Canadian tar sands generally emits 170 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It also requires large amounts of energy and water, much of which cannot be recycled, to separate the oil from the tar sands and transform the oil into a form of petroleum that can be processed by refineries.
According to the final SEIS:
The proposed project would emit approximately 24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year during the construction period (up to three times as much than producing conventional crude), which would be directly emitted through fuel use in construction vehicles and equipment as well as land clearing activities including open burning, and indirectly from electricity usage.
Additional risks associated with the XL pipeline include potential groundwater contamination of major aquifers – particularly the Ogallala Aquifer – as well as deforestation, habitat destruction, and fragmentation.
In the event of an oil spill from the Keystone XL or other pipelines crossing the U.S., the responsibility for who cleans it up does not fall on TransCanada. According to a report from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), tar sand oils are exempt from paying into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Amendments that would require TransCanada to pay the 8-cent-per-barrel fee to the fund have not been passed.
Devastating oil spills such as the one in Santa Barbara in mid May reflect the impact it not only has on wildlife, but on the local culture, especially on those who depend on fisheries and whose lives revolves around surfing in the brisk waters of the Pacific Ocean. 21,000 gallons of crude oil covers roughly 4 miles of Santa Barbara’s coast now, extending about 50 yards into the water.
Jobs, jobs, jobs. The economic stimulus is one purported advantage to the XL pipeline. During construction, proposed project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs, directly and indirectly and around $2 billion in earnings throughout the US, according to the final SEIS. Despite different job creation estimates, any number will contribute significantly to the US gross domestic product, associating a huge economic growth with the construction of the proposed XL pipeline. (TransCanada estimates around 13,000 construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs, which is about 3 times higher than the State Department’s estimate.) In addition, the cost of paying for the Keystone XL project ($3.3 billion) would not be placed on the U.S. but on Keystone.
According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA), the industry and their operators have reduced the risk of hazardous materials transportation incidents with death or major injury by 4% every 3 years, and since 2002, they have reduced the risk of a pipeline spill with environmental consequences by an average of 5% per year.1
Still, there is more work to be done. Safety issues that the pipeline industry is aiming to fix include:
Infrastructure: Repair obsolete pipeline infrastructure through a pipeline integrity management program and investigate new technologies that can detect pipeline risks.
Improving human error and safety culture: Increase the focus on safety beyond compliance standards and evaluate the potential value of safety management systems.
Adding secondary containment: Limit the spread of HAZMAT in the event of a failure in the primary container, and improve leak detection.
Transparency: Increasing transparency for companies and their accountability
Check out the infographic below for a summary of all of these pros and cons:
All methods of transporting oil present various risks and benefits based on the available data. Explaining both sides of this coin allows us to assess each method’s impacts on our economy, environment, and public health. Through these assessments, we can make more informed decisions on what truly serves the nation’s interests. Oil and gas transport is a dangerous business, but all transportation industries are improving their management programs and increasing their regulations to provide citizens peace of mind and the safety they deserve. In light of ongoing issues, however, some would ask if these risks are even necessary.
For example, the growth of safer energy resources such as solar energy would significantly cut down the risks mentioned above in addition to providing jobs and stimulating the overall economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Solar Foundation, the growth in direct industry jobs for solar has outweighed oil and gas for the past 3 years. In 2014, new jobs created for the solar industry were more than twice the jobs created for the oil and gas industry. Based on 2014’s economics, Kepler Cheuvreux stated that all renewables are already more competitive than oil priced at $100 per barrel — This is because renewables have a higher net energy return on capital invested (EROCI).
As a reader and a citizen, it is important to know the pros and cons of the current activities taking place in our country today. We must be aware of loopholes that may be putting our states, cities, or counties into harm’s way, as well as recognize alternative energy sources and regulatory oversight that lessen the threats that oil extraction and transport pose to our health and environment.
1. These statistics are based from the Census Bureau analysis and Bureau of Transportation Statistics as of July 2012.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Keystone-Apr2015.jpg400900FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgFracTracker Alliance2015-05-26 11:00:222020-03-12 14:09:58Pipelines vs Oil Trains
A FracTracker team has just returned from North Carolina where fracking has been given the green light by the state’s government. Time may tell what reserves are contained within the Mesozoic basins but already landmen are knocking on doors and striking deals with willing landowners. Offshore drilling is also under consideration in a state where tourism – fueled in part by renowned beach destinations – is a $20 billion a year industry.
OES panel answering questions in Asheville, NC
The visit was for Our Energy Solutions, a project bringing 14 workshops to seven countries on three continents. The aim is to help build a global community of engaged citizens and stakeholders who are informed of the risks of fossil fuels (like oil and natural gas), enlightened about renewable energy opportunities, and inspired to share ideas for a more sustainable planet. The attendance, interest, and dialogue at the North Carolina workshops were inspiring. People young and old came out to prove there is great concern about these issues. While acknowledging the complexities of energy and climate challenges, they seemed willing to dig-in, reach-out, engage, and act. The audiences owned the “Our” in Our Energy Solutions. Just weeks earlier, another team from FracTracker and the Ecologic Institute – the lead collaborators in Our Energy Solutions – launched the project with workshops in Florida, hosted by the South Florida Wildlands Association. In North Carolina, our partners were Environment North Carolina and MountainTrue. These regional and statewide groups offer abundant ways to get involved and illuminate a better path forward.
Both states are at risk from accelerated and more extreme hydrocarbon extraction, but both also bear significant potential for broad success with renewable energy. While only 0.1% of Florida’s current generating capacity comes from solar, it has some of the strongest incoming solar radiation in the country. North Carolina sports the best conditions for offshore wind energy on the east coast. The Tarheel State ranked 2nd in the nation for new installed solar capacity in 2014, and the same year, over 4,300 North Carolinians worked in the solar power industry. Already, 4,800 Floridians work in the solar industry.
Well density by county in the U.S.
The volatile economics of oil and gas, the effects of fossil fuel combustion on the planet, and the impairment of human health and the environment caused by extraction necessitate other approaches to meet our energy needs. Our Energy Solutions will strive to showcase brighter possibilities – one workshop at a time. Next stop, Argentina – May 5-12th.
Lifting the Veil on Oil & Gas Company Spills & Violations
NRDC Issue Paper • April 2015
Today Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report in conjunction with work by those of us at FracTracker Alliance.
We launched this investigation to determine what information about oil and gas company violations is publicly available on the Internet, how accessible it is, and whether it provides an adequate understanding about the practices of different companies.
This report highlights the information gaps about the frequency and nature of oil and gas company violations; such data is only publically accessible in 3 states – even though 36 states have active oil and gas development.
To take the review one step further, we analyzed the data that was available from these states – Pennsylvania, Colorado, and West Virginia. The results show that companies have been issued a series of violations, some of which were quite severe.
Of these companies, the following 10 had the most violations overall, in order of most to least:
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Fracking-Most-Wanted-Feature1.jpg400900FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgFracTracker Alliance2015-04-01 15:21:002020-03-12 14:12:00Fracking’s Most Wanted - An NRDC Issue Paper
The US Food, Energy, Water Interface Examined By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator
With the emergence of concerns about the Food, Energy, Water (FEW) intersection as it relates to oil and gas (O&G) expansion, we thought it was time to dig into the numbers and ask some very simple questions about organic farms near drilling. Below is an analysis of the location and quantity of organic farms with heavy drilling activity in Ohio and nationally. Organic farms rely heavily on the inherent/historical quality of their soils and water, so we wanted to understand whether and how these businesses closest to O&G drilling are being affected.
Currently 11% of US organic farms are within US O&G Regions of Concern (ROC). However, this number has the potential to balloon to 15-31% if our respective shale plays and basins are exploitated, either partially or in full,
68-74% of these farms produce crops in states like California, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas,
Issues such as soil quality, watershed resilience, and water rights are likely to worsen over time with additional drilling.
To answer this broad question, we divided organic farms in the United States into three categories, depending on whether they were within the:
Core (O&G Wells < 1 mile from each other),
Intermediate (1-3 miles between O&G Wells), or
Periphery (3-5 miles between O&G Wells) of current activity or Regions of Concern (ROC).1
Additionally, from our experience looking at O&G water withdrawal stresses within the largely agrarian Muskingum River Watershed in OH we decided to add to the ROCs. To this end we worked to identify which sub-watersheds (5-10 miles between O&G Wells) and watersheds (10-20 miles between O&G Wells) might be affected by O&G development.
Together, distance from wells and density of development within particular watersheds make up the 5 Regions of Concern (ROCs) (Table 1).
Table 1. Five ROCs under this investigation and what they look like from a mapping perspective
Distance Between Wells
< 1 mi
We generated a dataset of 19,515 US organic farms from the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) by using the Geocode Address function in ArcGIS 10.2, which resulted in a 100% match for all farms.2
We also extracted soil order polygons within the above 5 ROCs using the NRCS’ STATSGO Derived Soil Order3 dataset made available to us by Sharon Whitmoyer at the USDA-NRCS-NSSC-Geospatial Research Unit and West Virginia University. For those not familiar with soil classification, soil orders are analogous to the kingdom level within the hierarchy of biological classification. Although, in the case of soils there are 12 soil orders compared to the 6 kingdoms of biology.
The National Organic Farms Map
This map shows organic farms across the U.S. that are located within the aforementioned ROCs. Data include certifying agent, whether or not the farm produces livestock, crops, or wild crops along with contact information, farm name, physical address, and specific products produced. View map fullscreen
Figure 1. Total and incremental number of US organic farms in the 5 O&G ROCs.
Nationally, the number of organic farms near drilling activity within specific regions of concern are as follows (as shown in Figure 1):
Watershed O&G ROC – 2,140 organic farms (11% of North American organic farms)
Sub-Watershed O&G ROC – 1,319
Periphery O&G ROC – 752
Intermediate O&G ROC – 455
Core O&G ROC – 183
Ohio’s Organic Farms Near Drilling
The following key statistics stood out among the analyses for OH’s 703 (3.6% of US total) organic farms. Figures 2 & 3 show how many farms are near drilling activity and injection (disposal) wells in OH. Click the images to view fullsize graphics:
Figure 2. OH Organic Farms Proximity to Drilling Activity
Figure 3. OH Organic Farms Proximity to Injection Wells
If oil and gas extraction continues along the same path that we have seen to-date, it is reasonable to expect that we could see an increase in the number of organic farms near this industrial activity. A few figures that we have worked up are shown below:
2,912 Organic Farms in the US Shale Plays (15% of total organic farms)
Another way to look at these five ROCs when asking how shale gas build-out will interact with and/or influence organic farming is to look at the soils beneath these ROCs. What types of activity do they currently support? The productivity of organic farms, as well as their ability to be labeled “organic,” are reliant upon the health of their soils even more so than conventional farms. Organic farms cannot rely on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or related soil amendments to increase productivity. Soil manipulation is prohibitive from a cost and options perspective. Thus, knowing what types of soils the shale industry has used and is moving towards is critical to understanding how the FEW dynamic will play out in the long-term. There is no more important variable to the organic farmer sans freshwater than soil quality and diversity.
The soils of most concern under this analysis are the Prairie-Forest Transition soils of the Great Lakes and Plains, commonly referred to as Alfisols, and the Carbon-Rich Grasslands or Mollisols (Figure 4 & 5). The latter is proposed by some as a soil order worthy of protection given our historical reliance on its exceptional soil fertility and support for the once ubiquitous Tall Grass Prairies. Both soils face a second potential wave of O&G development, with a combined 18,660 square miles having come under the influence of the O&G industry within the Core ROC and an additional 58-108,000 square miles in the Intermediate and Periphery ROCs. If the watersheds within these soils and O&G co-habitat were to come under development, total potential Alfisol and Mollisol alteration could reach 273,200 square miles. This collection of soils currently accounts for 43-47% of the Core and Intermediate O&G ROCs and would “stabilize” at 50-51% of O&G development if the watersheds they reside in were to see significant O&G exploration.
Figure 6. The five soil orders within the Bakken Shale formation in Montana and North Dakota.
These same soils sit beneath or have been cleared for much of our wheat, corn, and soybean fields – not to mention much of the Bakken Shale exploration to date (Figure 6, above)
The three forest soil orders (i.e., Spodosol, Ultisol, and Andisol shown in Figures 7-9) account for 9,680-20,529 square miles of the Core and Intermediate O&G ROCs, which is 22 and 17% of those ROC’s, respectively. If we assume future exploration into the Periphery and Watershed ROC we see that forest soils will become less of a concern, dropping to 14-15% of these outlying potential plays, with the same being true for the two Miscellaneous soil types. The latter will decline from 28% to 25% of potential O&G ROCs.
Figure 7. Ultisol – Courtesy of the University of Georgia
Figure 8. Spodosol – Courtesy of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest
Figure 9. Andisol – Courtesy of USDA’s NRCS
Figure 10. Histosol, – Courtesy of Michigan State University
If peripheral exploration were to be realized, another soil type will have to fill this gap. Our analysis demonstrates this gap would be filled by either Organic Wetlands or Histosols, which currently constitute <200 and 529 square miles of the Core and Intermediate ROCs, respectively (Figure 10). For so many reasons wetland soils are crucial to the maintenance and enhancement of ecosystem services, wildlife migration, agricultural productivity, and the capture and storage of greenhouse gases. However, if O&G exploration does expand to the Periphery ROC and beyond we would see reliance on wetland soils increase nearly 15 fold (i.e., 16% of Lower 48 wetland soil acreage).
The quality of these wetlands is certainly up for debate. However, what is fact is that these wetlands would be altered beyond even the best reclamation techniques. We know from the reclamation literature that the myriad difficulties associated with reassembling prior plant wetland communities. Finally, it is worth noting that a similar uptick in O&G reliance on arid (i.e., extremely unproductive but unstable) soils is may occur with future industry expansion. These soils will, as a percent of all ROCs, increase from 7% to 9% (i.e. 10-11% of all lower 48 arid soil acreage).
What do these changes mean for the agriculture industry in OH?
If these future O&G exploration scenarios were to play out, we estimate 20-22% of Southern Acidic Forest, Prairie-Forest Transition, Miscellaneous Recent Origin, and Carbon-Rich Grassland soils will have been effected or dramatically altered due to O&G land-use/land-cover (LULC) change nationally (Figure 11). This decline in productivity is likely familiar to communities currently grappling with how to manage a dramatically different landscape post-shale introduction in counties like Bradford in PA and Carroll in OH. The effects that such alteration has had and will have on landscape productivity, wildlife habitat fragmentation, and hydrological cycles is unknown but worthy of significant inquiry.
These questions are important enough to have received a session at Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association’s (OEFFA) 2015 conference in Granville last month and were deemed worthy of a significant grant to The FracTracker Alliance from the Hoover Foundation aimed at quantifying the total LULC footprint of the shale gas industry across three agrarian OH counties. Early results indicate that every acre of well-pad requires 5.3 acres of gathering lines along with nearly 14 miles of buried pipelines – most of which are beneath high quality wetlands. This study speaks to the potential for 20-30% of the state’s Core Utica Region – or 10-15% of the Expanded Utica Region4 – being altered by shale gas activity.
Figure 11. National distribution of soil types within the 5 ROCs under consideration: 1) Forest Soils, 2) Prairie/Agriculture soils, 3) Organic Wetlands, 4) Miscellaneous soils, 5) Dry Soils.
Figure 11 Description:
Forest Soils – Northern and Southern Acidic Forests, Volcanic Forests,
Prairie/Agriculture – Prairie-Forest Transition and Carbon-Rich Grasslands,
Miscellaneous – Recent and Intermediate Origins,
Dry Soils – Dry Calcium Carbonite and Clay-Rich Shrink/Swell Clays
The current and potential interaction(s) between the O&G and organic farming industries is nontrivial. Currently 11% of US organic farms are within what we are calling O&G ROCs. However, this number has the potential to balloon to 15-31% if our respective shale plays and basins are exploited, either partially or in full. Most of these (68-74%) are crop producers in states like California, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Issues such as soil quality – specifically Prairie-Forest, Carbon Rich Grasslands, and Wetland soils – watershed resilience, and water rights are likely to become of more acute regional concern as the FEW interactions become increasingly coupled. How and when this will play out is anyone’s guess, but its play out is indisputable. Agriculture is going to face many staunch challenges in the coming years, as the National Science Foundation5 wrote:
The security of the global food supply is under ever-increasing stress due to rises in both human population and standards of living world-wide. By the end of this century, the world’s population is expected to exceed 10 billion, about 30% higher than today. Further, as standards of living increase globally, the demand for meat is increasing, which places more demand on agricultural resources than production of vegetables or grains. Growing energy use, which is connected to water availability and climate change, places additional stress on agriculture. It is clear that scientific and technological breakthroughs are needed to produce food more efficiently from “farm to fork” to meet the challenge of ensuring a secure, affordable food supply.
An additional 69 organic farms were geo-referenced in Canada and 7,524 across the globe for a similar global analysis to come.
Description of STATSGO2 Database and associated metadata here.
Core Utica Regions include any county that has ≥10 Utica permits to date and Expanded Utica Region includes any county that has 1 or more Utica permits.
By the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee – Subcommittee on Food Systems in “Food, Energy and Water: Transformative Research Opportunities in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences”
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/OrganicFarms-Feature.jpg400900Ted Auch, PhDhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgTed Auch, PhD2015-03-11 15:00:572020-03-12 14:15:26Organic farms near drilling activity in the U.S. and Ohio
On January 26, 2015, the Columbian, a paper in Southwestern Washington state, reported that an oil tanker spilled over 1,600 gallons of Bakken Crude in early November 2014. The train spill was never cleaned up, because frankly, nobody knows where the spill occurred. This issue highlights weaknesses in the incident reporting protocol for trains, which appears to be less stringent than other modes of transporting crude.
Possible Train Spill Routes
To follow the most likely train route for this incident, start at the yellow flag, then follow the line west. The route forks at Spokane – the northernmost route would be the most efficient. View full screen map
While there is not a good place for an oil spill of this size, some places are worse than others – and some of the locations along this train route are pretty bad. For example, the train passes through the southern edge of Glacier National Park in Montana, the scenic Columbia River, and the Spokane and Seattle metropolitan areas.
Significant Reporting Delay
The Columbian article mentions that railroads are required to report spills of hazardous materials in Washington State within 30 minutes of spills being noticed. In this case, however, the spill was apparently not noticed until the tanker car in question was no longer in BNSF custody. Therefore, relevant state and federal regulatory agencies were never made aware of the incident.
Both state and federal officials are now investigating, and we will follow up this post with more details when they are made available.