Tag Archive for: National

Woody Biomass & Waste-To-Energy

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

While solar and wind energy gets much of the attention in renewable energy debates, various states are also leaning more and more on burning biomass and waste to reach renewable energy targets and mandates. As is the case with all sources of energy, these so-called “renewable energy” projects present a unique set of environmental and socioeconomic justice issues, as well as environmental costs and benefits. In an effort to document the geography of these active and proposed future projects, this article offers some analysis and a new map of waste and woody biomass-to-energy infrastructure across the U.S. with the maximum capacities of each facility.


Map of U.S. Facilities Generating Energy from Biomass and Waste

View map full screen to see map legend, additional layers, and bookmarks
How FracTracker maps work

Woody Biomass-to-Energy

To illustrate the problems of woody biomass-to-energy projects, one only needs to look at Michigan. Michigan’s growing practice of generating energy from the wood biomass relies on ten facilities that currently produce roughly 209 Megawatts (an average of 21 MW per facility) from 1.86 million tons of wood biomass (an average of 309,167 tons per facility). Based on our initial analysis this is equivalent to 71% of the wood and paper waste produced in Michigan.

Making matters worse, these ten facilities rely disproportionately on clearcutting 60-120 years old late successional northern Michigan hardwood and red pine forests. These parcels are often replanted with red pine and grown in highly managed, homogeneous 20-30 year rotations. Reliance on this type of feedstock stands in sharp contrast to many biomass-to-energy facilities nationally, which tend to utilize woody waste from urban centers. Although, to provide context to their needs, the area of forest required to service Michigan’s 1.86 million-ton demand is roughly 920 mi2. This is 1.65 times the area of Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Toronto combined.


Panorama of the Sunset Trail Road 30 Acre Biomass Clearcut, Kalkaska Conty, Michigan


Based on an analysis of 128 U.S. facilities, the typical woody biomass energy facility produces 0.01-0.58 kW, or an average of 0.13 kW per ton of woody biomass. A few examples of facilities in Michigan include Grayling Generating Station, Grayling County (36.2 MW Capacity and 400,000 TPY), Viking Energy of McBain, Missaukee County (17 MW Capacity and 225,000 TPY), and Cadillac Renewable Energy, Wexford County (34 MW Capacity and 400,000 TPY).


The relationship between wood processed and energy generated across all U.S. landfill waste-to-energy operations is represented in the figure below (note: data was log transformed to generate this relationship).



Dr. Jim Stewart at the University of the West in Rosemead, California, recently summarized the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) costs of waste landfill energy projects and a recent collaboration between the Sierra Club and International Brotherhood of Teamsters explored the dangers of privatizing waste-to-energy given that two companies, Waste Management and Republic Services/Allied Waste, are now a duopoly controlling all remaining U.S. landfill capacity (an additional Landfill Gas Fact Sheet from Energy Justice can be found here).

Their combined analysis tells us that, by harnessing and combusting landfill methane, the current inventory of ninety-three U.S. waste-to-energy facilities generate 5.3 MW of electricity per facility. Expanded exploitation of existing landfills could bring an additional 500 MW online and alleviate 21.12 million metric tons of CO2 pollution (based on reduction in fugitive methane, a potent greenhouse gas). Looking at this capacity from a different angle, approximately 0.027 MW of electricity is generated per ton of waste processed, or 1.64 MW per acre. If we assume the average American produces 4.4 pounds of waste per day, we have the potential to produce roughly 6.9 million MW of energy from our annual waste outputs, or the equivalent energy demand created by 10.28 million Americans.


The relationship between waste processed per day and energy generated across all U.S. landfill waste-to-energy operations is represented in the figure below.



Waste burning and woody biomass-to-energy “renewable energy”projects come with their own sets of problems and benefits. FracTracker saw this firsthand when visiting Kalkaska County, Michigan, this past summer. There, the forestry industry has rebounded in response to several wood biomass-to-energy projects. While these projects may provide local economic opportunity, the industry has relied disproportionately on clearcutting, such as is seen in the below photograph of a 30-acre clearcut along Sunset Trail Road:


As states diversify their energy sources away from fossil fuels and seek to increase energy efficiency per unit of economic productivity, we will likely see more and more reliance on the above practices as “bridge fuel” energy sources. However, the term “renewable” needs parameterization in order to understand the true costs and benefits of the varying energy sources it presently encompasses. The sustainability of clearcutting practices in rural areas—and the analogous waste-to-energy projects in largely urban areas—deserves further scrutiny by forest health and other environmental experts. This will require additional mapping similar to what is offered in this article, as well as land-use analysis and the quantification of how these energy generation industries enhance or degrade ecosystem services. Of equal importance will be providing a better picture of whether or not these practices actually produce sustainable and well-paid jobs, as well as their water, waste, and land-use footprints relative to fossil fuels unconventional or otherwise.


Relevant Data

All US Waste-to-Energy Operations along with waste processed and energy produced (MW)

All US Woody Biomass-to-Energy Operations along with waste processed and energy produced (MW)

Updated Pipeline Incident Analysis

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

As massive new pipeline projects continue to generate news, the existing midstream infrastructure that’s hidden beneath our feet continues to be problematic on a daily basis. Since 2010, there have been 4,215 pipeline incidents resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion.

Chart 1: Cumulative impacts pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016. Operators are required to submit incident reports within 30 days.

Figure 1: Cumulative impacts pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016. Operators are required to submit incident reports within 30 days.

In our previous analyses, pipeline incidents occurred at a rate of 1.6 per day nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Rates exceeding 1.9 incidents per day in 2014 and 2015 have brought the average rate up to 1.7 incidents per day. Incidents have been a bit less frequent in 2016, coming in at a rate of 1.43 incidents per day, or 1.59 if we roll results back to October 4th in order to capture all incidents that are reported within the mandatory 30 day window.

Chart 1: Pipeline incidents per day for years between 2010 and 2016. Incidents after October 4, 2016 may not be included in these figures.

Figure 2: Pipeline incidents per day for years between 2010 and 2016. Incidents after October 4, 2016 may not be included in these figures.

These figures are the aggregation of three reports, namely natural gas transmission and gathering pipelines (828 incidents since 2010), natural gas distribution (736 incidents), and hazardous liquids (2,651 incidents). Not all of the hazardous liquids are petroleum related, but the vast majority are. 1,321 of the releases involved crude oil, and an additional 896 involved other liquid petroleum products, accounting for 84% of hazardous liquid incidents. The number could be higher, depending on the specific substances involved in the 399 highly volatile liquid (HVL) related incidents. The HVL category includes propane, butane, liquefied petroleum gases, ethylene, and propylene, as well as other volatile liquids that become gaseous at ambient conditions.

What is causing all of these pipeline incidents?

Figure 3: Cause of pipeline incidents for all reports received from January 1, 2010 through November 4, 2016.

Nonprofits, academics, and concerned citizens looking for accurate pipeline data will find that it is restricted, with the argument that releasing accurate pipeline data constitutes a threat to national security.  This makes little sense for several reasons. First, with over 2.4 million miles of pipelines, they are nearly omnipresent. Additionally, similar data access restrictions only apply to midstream infrastructure such as pipelines and compressor stations, whereas the locations for wells, refineries, and power plants are all publicly available, despite the presence of the same volatile hydrocarbons at these facilities. Additionally, pipelines are purposefully marked with surface placards to help prevent unintentionally impacting the infrastructure.

In fact, a quick look at the causes of pipeline incidents reveal that it it much more dangerous to not know where the pipelines are located. In the “Other Incident Cause” category (Figure 3) there are 152 incidents that were caused by unsuspecting motor vehicles. When this is combined with incidents resulting from excavation damage, we have 558 cases where “not knowing” about the pipeline’s location likely contributed to the failure. On the other hand, there are 14 incidents (only .003%) where the cause is identified as intentional. While even one case of tampering with pipeline infrastructure is unacceptable, PHMSA incident data indicate that obfuscated pipelines are 40 times more likely to cause a problem when compared to sabotage. Equipment failures and corrosion account for more than half of all incidents.

Where do these incidents occur?

PHMSA is not allowed to make accurate pipeline location data available for download, but such rules apparently do not apply to pipeline incidents. The following map shows the 4,215 pipeline releases since 2010, highlighting those that have resulted in injuries and fatalities.

Pipeline incidents in the US. Please zoom in to access specific incident data.  To see the legend and other tools, Please click here.


Pipeline Incidents by State for reports received 1/1/2010 through 11/4/2016.

Figure 4: Pipeline incidents by state for reports received 1/1/2010 through 11/4/2016.

While operators are required to submit the incident’s location as a part of their report to PHMSA, data entry errors are common in the dataset. The FracTracker Alliance has been able to identify and correct a few of the higher profile errors, such as the February 9, 2011 explosion in Allentown, PA, the report for which had mangled the latitude and longitude values so badly that the incident was rendered in Greenland. Other errors persist in the dataset, however. Since 2010, pipeline incidents have occurred in Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and 49 states (the exception being Vermont). Ten states have at least 100 incidents apiece during the past six years (see Figure 4), and more than a quarter of all pipeline incidents in that time frame have occurred in Texas.

Which operators are responsible?

Figure 5: This table shows the ten operators with the most reported incidents, along with the length of their pipeline network.

Figure 5: This table shows the ten operators with the most reported incidents, along with the length of their pipeline network.

Altogether, there are 521 pipeline operators with reported releases, although many of these are affiliated with one another in some fashion. For example, the top two results in Figure 5 are almost certainly both subsidiaries of Enterprise Products Partners, L.P.

The real outlier in Figure 5, in terms of incidents per 100 miles, is Kinder Morgan Liquid Terminals; LLC. However, this is one of ten or more companies that share the Kinder Morgan name when reporting pipeline inventories. When taken in aggregate, companies with the Kinder Morgan name accounted for 142 incidents over a reported 7,939 miles, for a rate of 1.8 incidents per 100 miles. It should be noted that this, along with all of the statistics in Figure 5, are entirely based on matching the operator name between the incident and inventory reports.  Kinder Morgan’s webpage boasts of 84,000 miles of pipelines in the US — there are numerous possible explanations for the discrepancy in pipeline length, including additional Kinder Morgan subsidiaries, as well as whether gathering lines that aren’t considered to be mains are on both lists.

The operators responsible for the most deaths from pipeline incidents since 2010 include Pacific Gas & Electric (15), Washington Gas Light (9), and Consolidated Edison Co. of New York (8). Of course, the greatest variable in whether or not a pipeline explosion kills people or not is whether or not the incident happens in a populated location. In the course of this analysis, there were 230 explosions and 635 fires over 2,500 days, meaning that there is pipeline explosion somewhere in the United States every 11 days, on average, and a fire every fourth day. The fact that only 65 of the incidents resulted in fatalities indicates that we have been rather lucky with incidents in the midstream sector.

Screenshot from Vulnerable Populations Map

Sensitive Receptors near Fracked Oil & Gas Wells


Cover of Dangerous and Close report. Click to view report

FracTracker Alliance has been working with the Frontier Group and Environment America on a nationwide assessment of “fracked” oil and gas wells. The report is titled Dangerous and Close, Fracking Puts the Nation’s Most Vulnerable People at Risk. The assessment analyzed the locations of fracked wells and identified where the fracking has occurred near locations where sensitive populations are commonly located. These sensitive sites include schools and daycare facilities because they house children, hospitals because the sick are not able to fight off pollution as effectively, and nursing homes where the elderly need and deserve clean environments so that they can be healthy, as well. The analysis used data on fracked wells from regulatory agencies and FracFocus in nine states. Maps of these nine states, as well as a full national map are shown below.

No one deserves to suffer the environmental degradation that can accompany oil and gas development – particularly “fracking” – in their neighborhoods. Fracked oil and gas wells are shown to have contaminated drinking water, degrade air quality, and sicken both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Additionally, everybody responds differently to environmental pollutants, and some people are much more sensitive than others. In fact, certain sects of the population are known to be more sensitive in general, and exposure to pollution is much more dangerous for them. These communities and populations need to be protected from the burdens of industries, such as fracking for oil and gas, that have a negative effect on their environment. Commonly identified sensitive groups or “receptors” include children, the immuno-compromised and ill, and the elderly.  These groups are the focus of this new research.


National Map

National interactive map of sensitive receptors near fracked wells

View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work

State-By-State Maps in Dangerous and Close Report

Click to view interactive maps associated with each state

Colonial Pipeline and site of Sept 2016 leak in Alabama

A Proper Picture of the Colonial Pipeline’s Past

On September 9, 2016 a pipeline leak was detected from the Colonial Pipeline by a mine inspector in Shelby County, Alabama. It is estimated to have spilled ~336,000 gallons of gasoline, resulting in the shutdown of a major part of America’s gasoline distribution system. As such, we thought it timely to provide some data and a map on the Colonial Pipeline Project.

Figure 1. Dynamic map of Colonial Pipeline route and related infrastructure

View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work | The Sept. 2016 leak occurred in Shelby County, Alabama

Pipeline History

The Colonial Pipeline was built in 1963, with some segments dating back to at least 1954. Colonial carries gasoline and other refined petroleum projects throughout the South and Eastern U.S. – originating at Houston, Texas and terminating at the Port of New York and New Jersey. This ~5,000-mile pipeline travels through 12 states and the Gulf of Mexico at one point. According to available data, prior to the September 2016 incident for which the cause is still not known, roughly 113,382 gallons had been released from the Colonial Pipeline in 125 separate incidents since 2010 (Table 1).

Table 1. Reported Colonial Pipeline incident impacts by state, between 3/24/10 and 7/25/16

State Incidents (#) Barrels* Released Total Cost ($)
AL 10 91.49 2,718,683
GA 11 132.38 1,283,406
LA 23 86.05 1,002,379
MD 6 4.43 27,862
MS 6 27.36 299,738
NC 15 382.76 3,453,298
NJ 7 7.81 255,124
NY 2 27.71 88,426
PA 1 0.88 28,075
SC 9 1639.26 4,779,536
TN 2 90.2 1,326,300
TX 19 74.34 1,398,513
VA 14 134.89 15,153,471
Total** 125 2699.56 31,814,811
*1 Barrel = 42 U.S. Gallons

** The total amount of petroleum products spilled from the Colonial Pipeline in this time frame equates to roughly 113,382 gallons. This figure does not include the September 2016 spill of ~336,000 gallons.

Data source: PHMSA

Unfortunately, the Colonial Pipeline has also been the source of South Carolina’s largest pipeline spill. The incident occurred in 1996 near Fork Shoals, South Carolina and spilled nearly 1 million gallons of fuel into the Reedy River. The September 2016 spill has not reached any major waterways or protected ecological areas, to-date.

Additional Details

Owners of the pipeline include Koch Industries, South Korea’s National Pension Service and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Royal Dutch Shell, and Industry Funds Management.

For more details about the Colonial Pipeline, see Table 2.

Table 2. Specifications of the Colonial and/or Intercontinental pipeline

Pipeline Segments 1,1118
Mileage (mi.)
Avg. Length 4.3
Max. Length 206
Total Length 4,774
Segment Flow Direction (# Segments)
Null 657
East 33
North 59
Northeast 202
Northwest 68
South 20
Southeast 30
Southwest 14
West 35
Segment Bi-Directional (# Segments)
Null 643
No 429
Yes 46
Segment Location
State Number Total Mileage Avg. Mileage Long Avg. PSI Avg. Diameter (in.)
Alabama 11 782 71 206 794 35
Georgia 8 266 33 75 772 27
Gulf of Mexico 437 522 1.2 77 50 1.4
Louisiana 189 737 3.9 27 413 11
Maryland 11 68 6.2 9 781 30
Mississippi 63 56 0.9 15 784 29
North Carolina 13 146 11.2 23 812 27
New Jersey 65 314 4.8 28 785 28
New York 2 6.4 3.2 6.4 800 26
Pennsylvania 72 415 5.8 17 925 22
South Carolina 6 119 19.9 55 783 28
Texas 209 1,004 4.8 33 429 10
Virginia 32 340 10.6 22 795 27
PSI = Pounds per square inch (pressure)

Data source: US EIA

By Sam Rubright, Ted Auch, and Matt Kelso – FracTracker Alliance

The BP Whiting, IN Oil Refinery

US Oil Refineries and Economic Justice

How annual incomes in the shadow of oil refineries compare to state and regional prosperity

North American Oil Refinery Capacity (Barrels Per Day (BPD))

Figure 1. North American Oil Refinery Capacity

Typically, we analyze the potential economic impacts of oil refineries by simply quantifying potential and/or actual capacity on an annual or daily basis. Using this method, we find that the 126 refineries operating in the U.S. produce an average of 100,000-133,645 barrels per day (BPD) of oil – or 258 billion gallons per year.

In all of North America, there are 158 refineries. When you include the 21 and 27 billion gallons per year produced by our neighbors to the south and north, respectively, North American refineries account for 23-24% of the global refining capacity. That is, of course, if you believe the $113 dollar International Energy Agency’s 2016 “Medium-Term Oil Market Report” 4.03 billion gallon annual estimates (Table 1 and Figure 1).

Table 1. Oil Refinery Capacity in the United States and Canada (Barrels Per Day (BPD))

United States Canada Mexico Total
Refinery Count 126 17 6 158
Average Capacity 133,645 BPD 104,471 BPD 228,417 BPD 139,619 BPD
Low Foreland & Silver Eagle Refining in NV & WY, 2-3K BPD Prince George & Moose Jaw Refining in BC and SK, 12-15K BPD Pemex’s Ciudad Madero Refinery, 152K BPD
High Exxon Mobil in TX & LA, 502-560K BPD Valero and Irving Oil Refining in QC & NS, 265-300K BPD Pemex’s Tula Refinery, 340K BPD
Median 100,000 BPD 85,000 BPD 226,500 109,000
Total Capacity 16.8 MBPD 1.8 MBPD 1.4 MBPD 22.1 MBPD

Census Tract Income Disparities

However, we would propose that an alternative measure of a given oil refinery’s impact would be neighborhood prosperity in the census tract(s) where the refinery is located. We believe this figure serves as a proxy for economic justice. As such, we recently used the above refinery location and capacity data in combination with US Census Bureau Cartographic Boundaries (i.e., Census Tracts) and the Census’ American FactFinder clearinghouse to estimate neighborhood prosperity near refineries.


Our analysis involved merging oil refineries to their respective census tracts in ArcMAP 10.2, along with all census tracts that touch the actual census tract where the refineries are located, and calling that collection the oil refinery’s sphere of influence, for lack of a better term. We then assigned Mean Income in the Past 12 Months (In 2014 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) values for each census tract to the aforementioned refinery tracts – as well as surrounding regional, city, and state tracts – to allow for a comparison of income disparities. We chose to analyze mean income instead of other variables such as educational attainment, unemployment, or poverty percentages because it largely encapsulates these economic indicators.

As the authors of the UN’s International Forum of Social Development paper Social Justice in an Open World wrote:

In today’s world, the enormous gap in the distribution of wealth, income and public benefits is growing ever wider, reflecting a general trend that is morally unfair, politically unwise and economically unsound… excessive income inequality restricts social mobility and leads to social segmentation and eventually social breakdown…In the modern context, those concerned with social justice see the general  increase  in  income  inequality  as  unjust,  deplorable  and  alarming.  It is argued that poverty reduction and overall improvements in the standard of living are attainable goals that would bring the world closer to social justice.

Environmental regulatory agencies like to separate air pollution sources into point and non-point sources. Point sources are “single, identifiable” sources, whereas non-point are more ‘diffuse’ resulting in impacts spread out over a larger geographical area. We would equate oil refineries to point sources of socioeconomic and/or environmental injustice. The non-point analysis would be far more difficult to model given the difficulties associated with converting perceived quality of life disturbance(s) associated with infrastructure like compressor stations from the anecdotal to the empirical.


Primarily, residents living in the shadow of 80% of our refineries earn nearly $16,000 less than those in the surrounding region – or, in the case of urban refineries, the surrounding Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Only residents living in census tracts within the shadow of 25 of our 126 oil refineries earn around $10,000 more annually than those in the region.

On average, residents of census tracts that contain oil refineries earn 13-16% less than those in the greater region and/or MSAs (Figure 2). Similarly, in comparing oil refinery census tract incomes to state averages we see a slightly larger 17-21% disparity (Figure 3).

Digging Deeper

United States Oil Refinery Income Disparities (Note: Larger points indicate oil refinery census tracts that earn less than the surrounding region or city)

Figure 4. United States Oil Refinery Income Disparities (Note: Larger points indicate oil refinery census tracts that earn less than the surrounding region or city.)

Oil refinery income disparities seem to occur not just in one region, but across the U.S. (Figure 4).

The biggest regional/MSA disparities occur in northeastern Denver neighborhoods around the Suncor Refinery complex (103,000 BPD), where the refinery’s census tracts earn roughly $42,000 less than Greater Denver residents1. California, too, has some issues near its Los Angeles’ Valero and Tesoro Refineries and Chevron’s Bay Area Refinery, with a combined daily capacity of nearly 600 BPD. There, two California census associations in the shadow of those refineries earn roughly $38,000 less than Contra Costa and Los Angeles Counties, respectively. In the Lone Star state Marathon’s Texas City, Galveston County refinery resides among census tracts where annual incomes nearly $33,000 less than the Galveston-Houston metroplex. Linden, NJ and St. Paul, MN, residents near Conoco Phillips and Flint Hills Resources refineries aren’t fairing much better, with annual incomes that are roughly $35,000 and nearly $33,000 less than the surrounding regions, respectively.

Click on the images below to explore each of the top disparate areas near oil refineries in the U.S. in more detail. Lighter shades indicate census tracks with a lower mean annual income ($).


Clearly, certain communities throughout the United States have been essentially sacrificed in the name of Energy Independence and overly-course measures of economic productivity such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The presence and/or construction of mid- and downstream oil and gas infrastructure appears to accelerate an already insidious positive feedback loop in low-income neighborhoods throughout the United States. Only a few places like Southeast Chicago and Detroit, however, have even begun to discuss where these disadvantaged communities should live, let alone how to remediate the environmental costs.

Internally Displaced People

There exists a robust history of journalists and academics focusing on Internally Displaced People (IDP) throughout war-torn regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia – to name a few – and most of these 38 million people have “become displaced within their own country as a result of violence.” However, there is a growing body of literature and media coverage associated with current and potential IDP resulting from rising sea levels, drought, chronic wildfire, etc.

The issues associated with oil and gas infrastructure expansion and IDPs are only going to grow in the coming years as the Shale Revolution results in a greater need for pipelines, compressor stations, cracker facilities, etc. We would propose there is the potential for IDP resulting from the rapid, ubiquitous, and intense expansion of the Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex here in the United States.

N. American Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex Map

View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work | Download map data

Footnotes and Additional Reading

  1. The Suncor refinery was implicated in a significant leak of tar sands crude associated benzene into the South Platte River as recently as 2013. According to Suncor’s website this refinery “supplies about 35% of Colorado’s gasoline and diesel fuel demand and is a major supplier of jet fuel to the Denver International Airport. The refinery is also the largest supplier of paving-grade asphalt in Colorado.”
  2. New York Times story on the growing footprint of BP’s Whiting Refinery: Surrounded by Industry, a Historic Community Fights for Its Future

By Ted Auch, PhD – Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

26" oil/gas pipeline being installed in Maryland, 2016

An Introduction to Oil and Gas Pipelines

By: Wendy Fan, FracTracker Alliance Intern

North America consists of a vast network of inter- and intrastate pipelines that serve a vital role in transporting water, hazardous liquids, and raw materials. There is an estimated 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the nation, and it delivers trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of tons of liquid petroleum products each year. Because the pipeline network fuels the nation’s daily functions and livelihoods by delivering resources used for energy purposes, it is crucial to shed light on this transportation system. This article briefly discusses oil and gas pipelines, what they are, why they exist, their potential health and environmental impacts, proposed projects, and who oversees them.

What are pipelines, and what are they used for?

Oil and Gas Pipelines in ND

Pipelines in North Dakota. Photo credit: Kathryn Hilton

The pipeline network in the U.S. is a transportation system used to move goods and materials. Pipelines transport a variety of products such as sewage and water. However, the most common products transported are for energy purposes, which include natural gas, biofuels, and liquid petroleum. Pipelines exist throughout the country, and they vary by the goods transported, the size of the pipes, and the material used to make pipes.

While some pipelines are built above ground, the majority of pipelines in the U.S. are buried underground. Because oil and gas pipelines are well concealed from the public, most individuals are unaware of the existence of the vast network of pipelines.

Extent of U.S. Pipeline System

The United States has the most miles of pipelines than any other country, with 1,984,321 km (1,232,999 miles) in natural gas transport and 240,711 km (149,570 miles) in petroleum products. The country with the second most miles of pipelines is Russia with 163,872 km (101,825 miles), and then Canada with 100,000 km (62,137 miles).

Types of Oil and Gas Pipelines

There are two main categories of pipelines used to transport energy products: petroleum pipelines and natural gas pipelines.

  1. Petroleum pipelines transport crude oil or natural gas liquids, and there are three main types of petroleum pipelines involved in this process: gathering systems, crude oil pipeline systems, and refined products pipelines systems. The gathering pipeline systems gather the crude oil or natural gas liquid from the production wells. It is then transported with the crude oil pipeline system to a refinery. Once the petroleum is refined into products such as gasoline or kerosene, it is transported via the refined products pipeline systems to storage or distribution stations.
  2. Natural gas pipelines transport natural gas from stationary facilities such as gas wells or import/export facilities, and deliver to a variety of locations, such as homes or directly to other export facilities. This process also involves three different types of pipelines: gathering systems, transmission systems, and distribution systems. Similar to the petroleum gathering systems, the natural gas gathering pipeline system gathers the raw material from production wells. It is then transported with large lines of transmission pipelines that move natural gas from facilities to ports, refiners, and cities across the country. Lastly, the distribution systems consist of a network that distributes the product to homes and businesses. The two types of distribution systems are the main distribution line, which are larger lines that move products close to cities, and the service distribution lines, which are smaller lines that connect main lines into homes and businesses.

Right-of-Way (ROW)

Before pursuing plans to build new pipelines, a ROW needs to be secured from private and public landowners, which pipeline companies usually will pay for. ROW are easements that must be agreed and signed upon by both the landowner and pipeline company, and permits pipeline operators to go forth with installing and maintaining pipelines on that land. Pipeline operators can obtain ROW by purchasing the property or through a court-ordered procedure. ROW can be permanent or temporary acquisitions, and needs approval from FERC.

Regulatory Oversight

Depending on the type of pipeline, what it is transferring, what it is made of, and where it runs, there are various federal or state agencies that have jurisdiction over its regulatory affairs.

A. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)

Interstate pipelines, those that either physically cross state boundaries or carry product that will cross state boundaries, are all permitted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The FERC is an independent organization within the U.S. Department of Energy that permits interstate electricity and natural gas infrastructure. The FERC’s authority lies within various acts of energy legislation, beginning with the Natural Gas Act of 1938 to the more recent Energy Policy Act of 2005. The U.S. President appoints its four commissioners. Other agencies such as the Dept. of Transportation, regional authorities such as the River Basin Commissions, and the Army Corps of Engineers may also be involved. FERC approves the location, construction, operation, and abandonment of interstate pipelines. They do not have jurisdiction over the siting of intrastate natural gas pipelines nor hazardous liquids.

B. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA)

Under the U.S. Department of Transportation, the PHMSA oversees, develops, and enforces regulations to ensure the safe and environmentally sound pipeline transportation system. There are two offices within the PHMSA that fulfill these goals. The Office of Hazardous Materials Safety develops regulations and standards for classifying, handling, and packaging hazardous materials. The Office of Pipeline Safety develops regulations and risk management approaches to assure safe pipeline transportation, and ensures safety in the design, construction, operation and maintenance, and spill response of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipeline transportation. Below are some regulations enforced by PHMSA:

1. Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 or Pipeline Safety Act 2011

This act reauthorizes PHMSA to continue with the examination and improvement of the pipeline safety regulations. It allows PHMSA to:

  • Provide the regulatory certainty necessary for pipeline owners and operators to plan infrastructure investments and create jobs
  • Improve pipeline transportation by strengthening enforcement of current laws and improving existing laws where necessary
  • Ensure a balanced regulatory approach to improving safety that applies cost-benefit principles
  • Protect and preserve Congressional authority by ensuring certain key rule-makings are not finalized until Congress has an opportunity to act

2. Federal Pipeline Safety Regulations: Public Awareness Programs

  • Enforced by PHMSA, the Public Awareness Program mandates that pipeline companies and operators to develop and implement public awareness programs that follow guidance provided by the American Petroleum Institute.
  • Under this regulation, pipeline operators must provide the public with information on how to recognize, respond, and report to pipeline emergencies.

3. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968

  • This act authorizes the Department of Transportation to regulate pipeline transportation of flammable, toxic, or corrosive natural gas, or other gases, as well as transportation and storage of liquefied natural gas.

The PHMSA also designed an interactive national pipeline mapping system for the public to access and utilize. However, the map can only be viewed one county at a time, it does not include distribution or gathering lines, and when you zoom in too far, the pipelines disappear. In fact, the site warns that the map should not be used to determine accurate locations of pipelines, stating that the locations can be incorrect by up to 500 ft. PHMSA argues that these restrictions exist in the interest of national security.

C. United States Army Corps of Engineers

Permits must be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if a pipeline is to be constructed through navigable bodies of water, including wetlands. State environmental regulatory agencies, such as PA’s Department of Environmental Protection, are also involved in the approval process of pipeline construction through waterways and wetlands.

Environmental Health and Safety Risks

Although pipeline transportation of natural gas and petroleum is considered safer and cheaper than ground transportation, pipeline failures, failing infrastructure, human error, and natural disasters can result in major pipeline disasters. As such, previous incidents have been shown to cause detrimental effects to the environment and the public’s safety.

A. Land Use and Forest Fragmentation

Columbia Pipeline

Construction staging area and the right-of-way of Columbia’s 26″ Pipeline. Photo credit: Sierra Shamer

In order to bury pipelines underground, an extensive amount of forest and land is cleared out to meet the pipe’s size capacity. States, such as Pennsylvania, that consist of rich ecosystem due to their abundance of forests, are at critical risk of diminishing habitats for plant species, and are at risk of the eradication of certain animal species. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) aimed to quantify the amount of land disturbance in Bradford and Washington counties in PA as a result of oil and gas activity including pipeline implementation. The USGS report concluded that pipeline construction was one of the highest sources of increasing forest patch numbers. Bradford County, PA had an increase of 306 patches, in which 235 were attributable to pipeline construction. Washington County increased by 1,000 patches, in which half was attributable to pipeline construction.

B. Compressor Stations

Compressor stations play an important role in processing and transporting the materials that pass through the pipeline. However, compressor stations present significant environmental health hazards. Even when the process of drilling and fracking is completed, compressor stations remain in the area to keep the gas in pipelines continually flowing. The stationary nature of this air pollution source means that a combination of pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), formaldehyde, and greenhouse gases are continually being released into the atmosphere. These pollutants are known to produce deleterious health impacts to the respiratory system, nervous system, or lung damage. In addition to pollutants emitted, the noise level generated by compressor stations can reach up to 100 decibels. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports hearing loss can occur by listening to sounds at or above 85 decibels over an extended period of time.

C. Erosion and Sedimentation

Heavy rainfall or storms can lead to excessive soil disruption, in turn increasing opportunities for erosion and sedimentation to occur. Erosion can uncover pipelines buried underground, and rainfall of more than 5 inches (13 cm) can move or erode berms, and also disrupt mounds of soil used to protect against flooding. Soil erosion increases underground pipelines’ vulnerability to damage from scouring or washouts, and damage from debris, vehicles, or boats.

D. Eminent Domain

Eminent domain allows state or federal government bodies to exercise their power to take private property from residents or citizens for public use and development. In some cases, private companies have exercised power to seize land for their own profit. Owners of the property are then given a compensation in exchange for their land. However, landowners may end up spending more than they receive. In order to receive compensation, owners must hire their own appraiser and lawyer, and they are also not usually compensated for the full value of the land. Furthermore, property values decrease once pipelines are established on their land, making it more difficult to sell their home in the future.

E. Spills and Leaks

Poorly maintained and faulty pipelines that transport liquefied natural gas or crude oil may pose high health and environmental risks should the fluids spill or leak into the soil. Crude oil can contain more than 1,000 chemicals that are known carcinogen to humans, such as benzene. The release of the potentially toxic chemical or oil can infiltrate into the soil, exposing communities to fumes in the atmosphere as well as contaminating groundwater and surface water. Not only are the incidents costly to control and clean up, the chemical or oil spills can also have long lasting impacts to the environment and the public. A ruptured pipeline that leaked 33,000 gallons of crude oil in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2010 exposed residents in a nearby community to chemical fumes, causing them to experience drowsiness and lethargy. After being commissioned in 2010, the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline had reported 35 leaks and spills in its first year alone. In April 2016, the Keystone pipeline leaked 17,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. Older pipelines are more likely to leak than newer ones, so this issue will only increase as pipeline infrastructure ages.

Natural gas pipelines have also been shown to leak methane, a major component in natural gas, at levels that far exceed what is estimated. Not only does methane contribute to climate change, it puts surrounding communities at risk of gas explosions, and exposes them to dangerously high levels of methane in the air they breathe.

F. Explosions

Pipeline sign Texas 2016

Pipeline warning sign in Texas. Photo credit: Ecologic Institute US

Explosions are also common with faulty pipelines that leak natural gas. Unlike oil or liquid spills, which generally spread and infiltrate into the soil, gas leaks can explode due to the hydrocarbon’s volatility. A recent pipeline explosion in Westmoreland County, PA, for example, caused a man to incur severe burns, as well as caused dozens of homes to be evacuated. Another pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California resulted in 8 people dead, 6 missing, and 58 injured. Thirty-eight homes were also destroyed and 70 others were damaged. This explosion exposed the haphazard system of record keeping for the tens of thousands of miles of gas pipelines, shoddy construction, and inspection practices.

Upcoming Proposed Projects

An estimated 4,600 miles of new interstate pipelines will be completed by 2018. Below are just a few major projects that are currently being proposed or are in the process of obtaining a permit.

A. Atlantic Sunrise Expansion Project

This pipeline will include 194 miles throughout the state of Pennsylvania. It will be constructed to cut through portions of 10 different PA counties, including Columbia, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Clinton, and Lycoming. This project will require a 125-foot ROW, and will traverse through 52 areas designed as “protected land” in Pennsylvania. This proposed project is still in review by FERC – a decision is expected late 2016 or early 2017.

B. NEXUS Gas Transmission

Spectra Energy (Houston), DTE Energy (Detroit), and Enbridge Inc. (Canada) are partnering to build a $2 billion gas line that would travel from eastern Ohio to Michigan to Ontario. Already applied with FERC and will start construction early 2017. It proposed a 255-mile pipeline and will be 36-inch wide line.

C. Mariner East 2 Pipeline

This pipeline will expand the existing pipeline’s capacity from 70,000 barrels a day to 345,000. It has plans to deliver propane, butane, ethane, and other natural gas liquids across state to Delaware, Berks, and Lebanon counties in PA. Currently, the construction is delayed due to push back and permits acquisition.

D. Northeast Energy Direct (NED) Project

This project was intended to expand an existing pipeline by 420 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania and passing through New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Recently in April 2016, Kinder Morgan decided to suspend further development of this proposed pipeline.

E. Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline had initial plans to establish 550 miles of pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, and to cut through dozens of Chesapeake headwater streams, two national forests, and across Appalachian Trail. Their permit to construct this pipeline was denied by the US Forest Service on January 2016; thus, delaying the project at the moment.

F. Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) Project

With approval by FERC, Spectra Energy has begun 37 miles of pipeline construction through New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The pipeline location is particularly worrisome because it is critically close to the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Ruptures or leaks from the pipeline can threaten the public’s safety, and even result in a power plant meltdown. Spectra Energy has also submitted two additional proposals: the Atlantic Bridge and Access Northeast. Both projects will expand the Algonquin pipeline to reach New England, and both are still in the approval process with FERC.

G. Constitution Pipeline

The Constitution pipeline had initially planned to include 124 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania to Schoharie County, New York, and was denied by NY State in April 2016.

To view the routes of proposed pipelines, visit FracTracker’s North American Pipeline and Oil and Gas Infrastructure Proposals map.

North America Proposed Oil and Gas Pipelines Map

Preview of North America proposed pipelines map. Click to view fullscreen.

Further Questions

Please email us at info@fractracker.org if there are any unanswered questions you would like us to answer or include.

Update: this article was edited on June 21, 2016 due to reader feedback and suggestions. 

2016 New FracTracker Logo

Welcome to FracTracker Alliance 2.0

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.

New FracTracker Alliance 2.0 Logo without tagline

If you have questions about these organizational changes, please email us at info@fractracker.org, or call +1 202-630-6426.

Surveyor Symbols & Signs – A Guide

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,
  • well locations,
  • ponds and impoundment locations,
  • temporary water pipeline paths,
  • surface disturbance limits,
  • compressor stations,
  • 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

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.

Boundary survey monument

Additional Oil & Gas Photos on FracTracker

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:

Germany  |  Netherlands  |  Ohio  |  Pennsylvania  |  West Virginia

If you would like to contribute photos or videos to this collection, please email us the files along with information on how to credit the photographer to: info@fractracker.org.


Oil Train Response 2015

November 13-15, 2015

Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Coordinated by FracTracker Alliance and ForestEthics

Couldn’t make it?
Watch Friday’s Presentations
Or check out the conversation on Twitter: #oiltrain15

About the Event

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


Conference – November 13th

Friday, Nov 13th: 7:30 AM – 5:00 PM. View Agenda

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.

Please contact us with questions or requests: anne@forestethics.org.

Many thanks to Paul Heckbert & Randy Sargent of CMU for supplying the oil train photo (top).