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The Growing Web of Oil and Gas Pipelines

Although the vast majority of scientists agree that we must rapidly move away from fossil fuels to avoid a human-caused climate catastrophe by the end of this century, pipeline construction remains a big business.

Pipelines are the backbone of domestic fossil fuel use and for delivering fuels to terminals for international export. Yet aside from a few high-profile pipeline controversies that show up in the media, few Americans are aware of the vast network of pipelines that transport oil and gas products from sources of extraction to industry and end-use consumers.

The United States is crisscrossed by over 1.63 million miles of fossil fuel pipelines. This includes:

Many of the country’s pipelines have been built within the last few decades, and in recent years, construction of more has been spurred on by the fracking boom. The total mile count of crude oil pipelines (currently 79,000) has increased over 60% between 2004 and 2017.  Natural gas distribution and estimated service pipeline miles increased 72% between 1984 and 2017 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Miles of natural gas distribution (1,296,157 miles) and estimated service (
927,052 miles) pipelines in the U.S., 1984-2017

Although total mileage for transmission pipelines slightly dropped between 2004 and 2017 (according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration), total mileage for Hazardous Liquids pipelines jumped 33% during that same period (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2 (above). Total miles of Hazardous Liquid pipelines in the U.S., 2004-2017
Figure 3 (below). Break down of Hazardous Liquid pipeline miles in the U.S by what they’re transporting, 2004-2017

Exporting natural gas

When natural gas is imported or exported, it’s transported in a liquefied form. The product occupies much less space as a liquefied natural gas (LNG) than it does in its gaseous form, making it easier to transport.

For many years, the United States was an importer of natural gas, until 2007, when this trend quickly reversed, coinciding with the “fracking boom” in the Marcellus Shale, as well as several other shale plays in Texas, Wyoming, and elsewhere.

Figure 4. U.S. imports of natural gas, which is transported as liquefied natural gas (LNG)

LNG facilities store and process natural gas to help move it between markets. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of LNG facilities increased from 122 to 152 (includes LNG storage facilities). This nearly 25% increase reflects the surplus of natural gas in the lower 48 states.

The U.S. began exporting LNG in 2016, especially to Europe and China, where demand is high. According to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), LNG exports doubled between 2016 and 2017 (Figure 5).

Figure 5. U.S. LNG exports between January, 2016 and October, 2017, are shown in the blue bars

Exports are again expected to double over 2018 levels by the end of 2019, reaching a storage capacity of 9.6 billion cubic feet per day. The US is now the third largest exporter of LNG, after Australia and Qatar.

The breakdown of LNG terminals —existing and future— according to FERC is shown below. These terminals receive LNG imports or ship out LNG for export. The shift from LNG import to export activity over time is quite striking. No new import facilities are currently in the planning phase, yet there are 19 export facilities proposed and another 10 already approved.  

Table 1. Import and Export LNG Terminals in the US: Current, Approved, and Proposed.

  Import Export
Current 12: Everett, MA; Cove Point, MD; Elba Island, GA; Lake Charles, LA; offshore Boston, MA (2); Freeport, TX; Sabine, LA; Hackberry, LA; Sabine Pass, LA; Pascagoula, MS; Peñuelas, PR) 3: (Cove Point, MD; Sabine, LA; Kenai, AK)
Approved 3: Corpus Christi, TX; Gulf of Mexico (2) 10: Hackberry, LA (2); Freeport, TX; Corpus Christi, TX; Sabine Pass, LA (2); Elba Island, GA; Lake Charles, LA (2); Gulf of Mexico
Proposed None 19: Pascagoula, MS;  Cameron Parish, LA (2); Brownsville, TX (3); Port Arthur, TX; Jacksonville, FL; Plaquemines Parish, LA (2); Calcasieu Parish, LA; Nikiski, AK; Freeport, TX; Coos Bay, OR; Corpus Christi, TX; La Fourche Parish, LA; Sabine Pass, LA; Galveston Bay, TX

The challenge of keeping up

One of the challenges in working on oil and gas-related environmental advocacy is that from week to week, there are always changes in pipeline status. New pipelines are announced, others are delayed, others are postponed, and in some cases, projects are cancelled or defeated. Pipelines that have been under construction for years go on line. Listings are piece-meal, sometimes very vague, and sometimes reported by third and fourth party sources.

FracTracker is committed to sorting through this information, and providing a window into the expansion of oil and gas infrastructure. We have mapped and assembled information on over 60,000 miles of new and proposed oil and gas transmission pipelines and mapped over 250 projects since 2017.

Of these 60,000 pipeline miles, almost 9,800 have been completed and/or are operating. Close to 7,500 miles were cancelled or defeated. This leaves another 42,700 miles of pipeline that are currently in the replacement, reversal, planning or construction stages. 

In the interactive map below, against a background of existing pipelines, we show the newest pipelines that have come “on the radar” since 2017. In addition we show LNG terminals, one of the main destinations for the gas that flows through the pipelines to the export market.

Updated U.S. pipeline and LNG terminal map

View Map Full Screen | How Our Maps Work

Our mapping process

FracTracker is dedicated to bringing transparency to the landscape of oil and gas development. We use mapping tools such as GIS (geographic information systems) to illuminate developments in oil and gas infrastructure expansion.

Where do we get our data?

We draw our information from new listings by the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) and Sierra Club for natural gas projects. In addition, we find announcements about new crude oil and gas pipeline projects on RBN Energy’s website. 

After we create a composite list of pipelines, the research begins. We search the internet for references to each pipeline, looking for industry announcements, descriptions, news articles, and, most importantly, the docket listings of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

FERC may release detailed maps of pipeline routes from the company’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), filed after operators have progressed past the initial phases of planning. On occasion, we’ll stumble across links to Google Earth files that grassroots groups have ground-truthed. We can convert these .kml files into our ArcGIS mapping software directly.

Digital cartography

How do we go from online pictures of maps to data that we can use in our interactive maps? For the most part, we use a process called georeferencing, also known in some circles as “rubber-sheeting”. One of the beauties of digital cartography and GIS is that through the magic of computing, we can add information about location to mapped information. This allows us to add different features to a map, such as roads or rivers, and ensure that they line up correctly.

Let’s say I have a .jpg (image) file of a pipeline map that crosses four counties in Indiana. The .jpg shows both the pipeline and the county boundaries. I can open my GIS program and add a reference basemap of the United States, which is similar to what you see when you open Google Maps. I can zoom in to Indiana and add a second GIS layer of Indiana’s counties (already built with coordinates in the digital information), and voila! It drops right into where Indiana is on my base map. Can I do this with the pipeline .jpg? Not yet!

I have to use the clues on the pipeline image to place it in the correct location on the GIS map. Luckily, my pipeline map has county boundaries on it, so I can line up the corners (or other shapes) on the pipeline image to where they are on my map that is “smart” about location using ground control points.

Once I’m satisfied that the map I’ve added is in the correct location, I carefully trace the path of the pipeline, saving it as a GIS layer. Because it’s drawn with its own location data included, it will always appear in future maps in the same place relative to the rest of Indiana.

That’s our process in a nutshell.

Want to see this done as a demo? Here’s a nice 10-minute YouTube video:


By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator

https://www.windpowerengineering.com/business-news-projects/invenergy-completes-construction-financing-for-michigan-wind-farm/

Michigan’s budding renewable clean energy sector has room to grow

By Vivian Underhill, Data and GIS Intern; and Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

California and New York are not the only states supporting the transition from harmful fossil fuels such as natural gas to more sustainable and less polluting clean, renewable energy sources. In collaboration with Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), FracTracker has produced a series of maps investigating current clean energy businesses, existing renewable energy infrastructure, and renewable energy potential. These maps show where growth of the renewable economies is growing and even identifies the many renewable contractors and projects that are planned and already active across the country.

Michigan’s Clean Energy Sector

According to the Clean Jobs Midwest Report, growth of the renewable sector has been a strong boon for local Michigan economies, in addition to reducing green-house gas emissions. Michigan increased clean energy jobs by 5.3 percent, or 4,655, outpacing other job sectors in the state by a factor of three. According to a new Union of Concerned Scientists Report, Michigan utilities could create 10 times more jobs in renewables than natural gas. Another report by the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that:

… using the latest wind turbine technologies, Michigan’s onshore wind resource has the potential to generate nearly five times the state’s 2012 electricity demand, even after a variety of competing land uses are accounted for. Solar photovoltaic (PV) resources in urban areas — including large ground-mounted and smaller rooftop systems — could provide another 71 percent of the state’s 2012 electricity demand.

FracTracker’s maps below show plenty of potential for additional renewable energy generation, and highlight where Michigan’s clean energy sector is already paving the way to a healthier future. But first, let’s give you some background on this story.

Legislation

In 2008, Michigan passed legislation requiring utilities to generate 10% of their electricity from renewables by 2015. In 2014, The Michigan Public Service Commmission (MPSC) reported that this legislation would save the state over $4 billion dollars; as the MPSC Chairman John D. Quackenbush wrote in conjunction with a 2014 report on the state’s energy optimization activities: “The cheapest energy is the energy never used… For every dollar spent on these programs in 2014, customers can expect to realize $4.38 in savings – more than any year since 2010.” In addition, the statute’s focus on renewables has brought nearly $3 billion in renewable energy investment to the state.

In 2016, legislators built on this track record and improved aspects of the state’s clean energy standards with Public Acts 341 and 342; among other things, these acts increase the percentage of renewable energy to 15% by 2021, and otherwise incentivize clean energy sources.

Just last week, Michigan’s two largest utilities committed to increase their renewable power generation to 25% by 2030 under pressure from a ballot drive launched by Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist.

Maps of Michigan’s Clean Energy Sector

Below we have embedded the maps FracTracker created with E2, showing clean energy potential, generation capacity, and the location of clean energy businesses in Michigan.

Map 1. Michigan Clean Energy Potential

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

As shown in the map above, solar and wind are the most dominant forms of renewable energy in Michigan, although there is also potential to take advantage of the geothermal energy. Approximately 75% of the state has potential for either wind, solar, or geothermal power.

Map 2. Michigan Clean Energy Generation Capacity

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Map 2, above, shows the current generating capacity in the state. Most of Michigan’s existing solar and wind infrastructure exists in the South and Southeast portions of the state, though not exclusively. Many schools also have solar capabilities on their roofs. Further, 32 counties already have large-scale renewable energy projects, and many more are in in the works.

Map 3. Michigan Clean Energy Businesses

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Finally, a vibrant industry of over 1,200 businesses has developed to support the clean energy revolution in Michigan. Map 3 (above) shows the locations of these entreprenuers in fields that include both energy efficiency and renewable energy generation (solar, wind, and geothermal). Businesses include a range of operations including design, machining, installation, contracting, and maintenance – covering all 38 state senate districts and all 110 state house districts.

Room to Grow

While Michigan has come a long way in recent years, the field of clean renewable energy generation is still in its infancy. This geographical assessment, in addition to the numerous economic reports showing the profitability of the clean energy sector, paint a brighter future for Michigan and the climate. However, much more potential remains to be tapped, across solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. It is imperative that policies are put in place to prioritize clean energy growth over natural gas.


Cover photo: MI Wind Farm. Photo by Michelle Froese | Windpower Engineering and Development

Explore additional state analyses: IL | MI | MONY | OHPA

Upper Appalachian Gas Storage Wells

New map available showing Upper Appalachian gas storage wells

FracTracker has received numerous requests to compile a regional map of natural gas storage wells. In response, we have built the dynamic map below covering storage wells in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia:

Upper Appalachian Gas Storage Wells Map

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work 

Using Our Map

The colored areas on the map above  (pink, blue, and yellow) correspond to gas storage wells in one of the three states. When you first view the map in fullscreen mode you will notice that these wells have been “generalized” into one large layer. That feature allows the map to load more quickly in your browser.

Zoom in further to where the generalized layers change to individual points in order to explore the wells more in depth, as shown in the screenshot below:

Screenshot of the Upper Appalachian Gas Storage Wells map, zoomed in


Map Metadata: Upper Appalachian Gas Storage Wells

This map shows gas storage wells in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  Due to the large amount of data, generalized layers were created to show the location of the storage fields at statewide zoom levels.  To access well data, viewers must zoom in beyond the scale of 1:500,000, or about the size of a large county.  Each state’s data includes slightly different data fields.

Data Layers include:

Name: OH Storage Wells
Date: January 2018
Source: Ohio DNR
Notes: Gas storage wells in Ohio. Storage wells selected from a broader dataset by FracTracker Alliance.

Name: PA Storage Wells
Date:  January 2018
Source:  Pennsylvania DEP
Notes:  Gas storage wells in Pennsylvania. Storage wells selected from a broader dataset by FracTracker Alliance.

Name:  WV Storage Wells
Date:  January 2018
Source:  West Virginia DEP
Notes:  Gas storage wells in West Virginia. Storage wells selected from a broader dataset by FracTracker Alliance.

Name: State Boundaries
Date:  2018
Source:  USDA Geospatial Data Gateway
Notes:  State boundaries of states with gas storage wells on this map.

Waiting on Answers - XTO incident image two weeks later

Waiting on Answers Weeks after a Well Explosion in Belmont County Ohio

Mar 7 Update: The well has finally been capped.

On February 15, 2018, officials evacuated residents after XTO Energy’s Schnegg gas well near Captina Creek exploded in the Powhatan Point area of Belmont County, Ohio. More than two weeks later, the well’s subsequent blowout has yet to be capped, and people want to know why. Here is what we know based on various reports, our Ohio oil and gas map, and our own fly-by on March 5th.

March 19th Update: This is footage of the Powhatan Point XTO Well Pad Explosion Footage from Ohio State Highway Patrol’s helicopter camera the day after the incident:


Powhatan Point XTO well pad explosion footage from Ohio State Highway Patrol

Cause of the Explosion

The well pad hosts three wells, one large Utica formation well, and two smaller ones. XTO’s representative stated that the large Utica well was being brought into production when the explosion occurred. The shut-off valves for the other two wells were immediately triggered, but the explosion caused a crane to fall on one of those wells. The representative claims that no gas escaped that well or the unaffected well.

Observers reported hearing a natural gas hiss and rumbling, as well as seeing smoke. The Powhatan Point Fire Chief reported that originally there was no fire, but that one later developed on the well pad. To make matters worse, reports later indicated that responders are/were dealing with emergency flooding on site, as well.

As of today, the Utica well that initially exploded is still releasing raw gas.

Site of the Feb 15th explosion on the XTO pad

Map of drilling operations in southeast Ohio, with the Feb 15, 2018 explosion on XTO Energy’s Schnegg gas well pad marked with a star. View dynamic map

Public Health and Safety

No injuries were reported after the incident. First responders from all over the country are said to have been called in, though the mitigation team is not allowed to work at night for safety reasons.

The evacuation zone is for any non-responders within a 1-mile radius of the site, which is located on Cat’s Run Road near State Route 148. Thirty (30) homes were originally evacuated within the 1-mile zone according to news reports, but recently residents within the outer half-mile of the zone were cleared to return – though some have elected to stay away until the issue is resolved completely. As of March 1, four homes within ½ mile of the well pad remain off limits.

The EPA conducted a number of site assessments right after the incident, including air and water monitoring. See here and here for their initial reports from February 17th and 20th, respectively. (Many thanks to the Ohio Environmental Council for sharing those documents.)

Much of the site’s damaged equipment has been removed. Access roads to the pad have been reinforced. A bridge was recently delivered to be installed over Cats Run Creek, so as to create an additional entrance and exit from the site, speaking to the challenges faced in drilling in rural areas. A portion of the crane that fell on the adjacent wellhead has been removed, and workers are continuing their efforts in removing the rest of the crane.


The above video by Earthworks is optical gas imaging that makes visible what is normally invisible pollution from XTO’s Powhatan Point well disaster. The video was taken on March 3, 2018, almost 3 weeks after the accident that started the uncontrolled release. Learn more about Earthworks’ video and what FLIR videos show.

An early estimate for the rate of raw gas being released from this well is 100 million cubic feet/day – more than the daily rate of the infamous Aliso Canyon natural gas leak in 2015/16. Unfortunately, little public information has been provided about why the well has yet to be capped or how much gas has been released to date.

Bird’s Eye View

On February 26, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted around the incident’s location. The TFR was supposed to lapse during the afternoon of March 5, however, due to complications at the site the TFR was extended to the evening of March 8. On March 5, we did a flyover outside of the temporary flight restriction zone, where we managed to capture a photo of the ongoing release through a valley cut. Many thanks to LightHawk and pilot Dave Warner for the lift.

Photo of the XTO Energy well site and its current emissions after the explosion two weeks ago. Many are still waiting on answers as to why the well has yet to be capped.

XTO Energy well site and ongoing emissions after the explosion over two weeks ago. Many are still waiting on answers as to why the well has yet to be capped. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, March 5, 2018. Aerial support provided by LightHawk

Additional resources

Per the Wheeling Intelligencer – Any local residents who may have been impacted by this incident are encouraged to call XTO’s claims phone number at 855-351-6573 or visit XTO’s community response command center at the Powhatan Point Volunteer Fire Department, located at 104 Mellott St. or call the fire department at 740-312-5058.

Sources:

A Hazy Future Report Cover

A Hazy Future: Pennsylvania’s Energy Landscape in 2045

Report Calculates Impacts from PA’s Planned Natural Gas Infrastructure

FracTracker Alliance released the report: A Hazy Future: Pennsylvania’s Energy Landscape in 2045 today, which details the potential future impacts of a massive buildout of Marcellus Shale wells and associated natural gas infrastructure.

Industry analysts forecast 47,600 new unconventional oil and gas wells may be drilled in Pennsylvania by 2045, fueling new natural gas power plants and petrochemical facilities in PA and beyond. Based on industry projections and current rates of consumption, FracTracker – a national data-driven non-profit – estimates the buildout would require 583 billion gallons of fresh water, 386 million tons of sand, 798,000 acres of land, 131 billion gallons of liquid waste, 45 million tons of solid waste, and more than 323 million truck trips to drilling sites.

A Hazy Future - Impact Summary

“Only 1,801 of the 10,851 unconventional wells already drilled count as a part of this projection, meaning we could see an additional 45,799 such wells in the coming decades,” commented Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology for FracTracker and lead author on the report.

Why the push for so much more drilling? Out of state – and out of country – transport is the outlet for surplus production.

“The oil and gas industry overstates the need for more hydrocarbons,” asserted FracTracker Alliance’s Executive Director, Brook Lenker. “While other countries and states are focusing more on renewables, PA seems resolute to increase its fossil fuel portfolio.”

The report determined that the projected cleared land for well pads and pipelines into the year 2045 could support solar power generation for 285 million homes, more than double the number that exist in the U.S.

A Hazy Future shows that a fossil fuel-based future for Pennsylvania would come at the expense of its communities’ health, clean air, water and land. It makes clear that a dirty energy future is unnecessary,” said Earthworks’ Pennsylvania Field Advocate, Leann Leiter. Earthworks endorsed FracTracker’s report. She continued, “I hope Governor Wolf reads this and makes the right choices for all Pennsylvanians present and future.”

A Hazy Future reviews the current state of energy demand and use in Pennsylvania, calculates the footprint of industry projections of the proposed buildout, and assesses what that would look like for residents of the Commonwealth.

About FracTracker Alliance

Started in 2010 as a southwestern Pennsylvania area website, FracTracker Alliance is a national organization with regional offices across the United States in Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, New York, Ohio, and California. The organization’s mission is to study, map, and communicate the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation. Its goal is to support advocacy groups at the local, regional, and national level, informing their actions to positively shape our nation’s energy future.

Questions? Email us: info@fractracker.org.

Heavy equipment moves debris from the site of a house explosion April 17 in Firestone, Colo., which killed two people. (David Kelly / For The Times)

Risks from Colorado’s Natural Gas Storage and Transmission Systems

Given recent concerns about underground natural gas storage wells (UGS), FracTracker mapped UGS wells and fields in Colorado, as well as midstream transmission pipelines of natural gas that transport the gas from well sites to facilities for processing. Results show that 6,673 Colorado residents in 2,607 households live within a 2.5 mile evacuation radius of a UGS well. Additionally, the UGS fields with the largest number of “single-point-of-failure” high-risk storage wells are also the two fields in Colorado nearest communities.

Worst Case Scenario

A house exploding from a natural gas leak sounds straight out of a 19th century period drama, but this tragedy just recently occurred in Firestone, Colorado. How could this happen in 2017? We have seen pictures and read reports of blowouts and explosions at well sites, and know of the fight against big oil and natural gas pipelines across the country. At the same time we take for granted the natural gas range that heats our food to feed our families. The risk of harm is seemingly far removed from our stove tops, although it may be much closer to home than we think – There are documented occupational hazards and compartmentalized risks in moving natural gas off site.

Natural gas is an explosive substance, yet the collection of the gas from well sites remains largely industry-regulated. Unfortunately, it has become clear that production states like Colorado are not able to provide oversight, much less know where small pipelines are even located. This is particularly dangerous, since the natural gas in its native state is ordorless, colorless, and tasteless. Flowing in the pipelines between well sites and processing stations, natural gas does not contain the mercaptan that gives commercial natural gas its tell-tale odor. In fact, much of the natural gas or “product” is merely lost to the atmosphere, or much worse, can collect in closed spaces and reach explosive levels. This means that high, potentially explosive levels of methane may go undetected until far too late.

Mapping Flow Lines

As a result of the house explosion in Firestone on April 17th CO regulators are now requiring oil and gas operators to report the location of their collection flow pipelines, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Map of Gathering Pipeline “Flowlines”


View map fullscreen

The locations of the collection of pipeline “flowlines”, like the uncapped pipeline that caused the house explosion in Firestone, have been mapped by FracTracker Alliance (above). The dataset is not complete, as not all operators complied with the reporting deadline set by the COGCC. For residents living in the midst of Colorado’s oil and gas production zones, addresses can be typed into the search bar in the upper left corner of the map. Users can see if their homes are located near or on top of these pipelines. The original mapping was done by Inside Energy’s Jordan Wirfs-Brock.

Underground Storage

When natural gas is mixed with mercaptan and ready for market, operators and utility companies store the product in UGS fields. (EDIT – Research shows that in most cases natural gas in UGS fields is not yet mixed with mercaptan. Therefore leaks may go undetected more easily. Aliso Canyon was a unique case where the gas was being stored AFTER being mixed with mercaptan. Odorization is not legally required until gas moves across state lines in an interstate pipeline or is piped into transmission lines for commercial distribution.) In August 2016, a natural gas storage well at the SoCal Gas Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field failed causing the largest methane leak in U.S. history. The Porter Ranch community experienced health impacts including nosebleeds, migraines, respiratory and other such symptoms. Thousands of residents were evacuated. While Aliso Canyon was the largest leak, it was by no means a unique case.

FracTracker has mapped the underground natural gas storage facilities in Colorado, and the wells that service the facilities. As can be seen below, there are 10 storage fields in Colorado, and an 11th one is planned. All the fields used for storage in Colorado are previously depleted oil and gas production fields. The majority of storage wells used to be production wells. All sites are shown in the map below (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Map of Natural Gas Underground Storage Facilities


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Impacted Populations

Our analysis of Colorado natural gas storage facilities shows that 6,673 Colorado residents living in 2,607 households live within a 2.5 mile evacuation radius of a UGS well. The majority of those Coloradans (5,422) live in Morgan County, with 2,438 in or near the city of Fort Morgan. The city of Fort Morgan is surrounded by the Young Gas Storage Facility with a working capacity of 5,790,049 MCF and Colorado Interstate Gas Company with a working capacity of 8,496,000 MCF.

By comparison, the failure in Aliso Canyon leaked up to 5,659,000 MCF. A leak at either of these facilities could, therefore, result in a similar or larger release.

UGS Well Risk Assessment

A FracTracker co-founder and colleague at Harvard University recently completed a risk assessment of underground natural gas storage wells across the U.S. The analysis identified the storage wells shown in the map above (Figure 1) and defined a number of “design deficiencies” in wells, including “single-point-of-failure” designs that make the wells vulnerable to leaks and failures. Results showed that 2,715 of the total 14,138 active UGS wells across the country were constructed using similar techniques as the Aliso Canyon failed well.

Applying this assessment to the wells in Colorado, FracTracker finds the following:

  • There are a total of 357 UGS wells in Colorado.
  • 220 of which are currently active.
  • Of those 220 UGS wells, they were all drilled between 1949 and 1970.
  • 43 of the UGS wells are repurposed production wells.
  • 40 of those repurposed wells are the highest risk single barrier wells.

Specifically focusing on the UGS fields surrounding the city of Fort Morgan:

  • 21 single barrier wells are located in the Flank field 2.5 miles North of the city.
  • 13 single barrier wells are located in the Fort Morgan field 2.5 miles South of the city.

We originally asked how something as terrible as Firestone could have occurred. Collectively we all want to believe this was an isolated incident. Sadly, the data suggest the risk is higher than originally thought: The fields with the largest number of “single-point-of-failure” high-risk UGS wells are also the two fields in Colorado nearest communities. While the incident in Firestone is certainly heartbreaking, we hope regulators and operators can use the information in this analysis to avoid future catastrophes.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Feature Image: Heavy equipment moves debris from the site of a house explosion April 17, 2017 in Firestone, Colorado, which killed two people. (David Kelly / For The Times)

Underground Gas Storage map by Drew Michanowicz

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with the Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underground Gas Storage map

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

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

Top Counties with Obsolete1/Repurposed2 Wells

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

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

Additional Notes

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

  • More information related to the Aliso Canyon incident and this study is available here.
  • More info on the Center for Health and the Global Environment can be found here.
Gas-Fired Power Plant Buildout in PA

Wanted: More Places to Burn Natural Gas

By Alison Grass, Senior Researcher at Food & Water Watch

Over the past decade, the natural gas industry has experienced a renaissance that has been a boon to energy company profits. But it has altered the quality of life for the rural communities where most new gas wells have been drilled. Now, fracking is fueling a gas-fired power plant boom in Pennsylvania, with 47 new facilities. Most have already been approved, with a handful in commercial operation (see map below).

New research by Pennsylvanians Against Fracking shows, in vivid detail, the scale of this buildout, and the impacts it will have on Pennsylvania communities.

Current & Potential PA Gas-Fired Power Plants & their Emissions

View Map Fullscreen

Approximately half of the new gas power plants are located in northeastern region of Pennsylvania, a part of the state already overburdened by the lingering environmental maladies of coal mining and the more recent dangers associated with fracking. These rural communities may see increased drilling, fracking and pipeline construction to support the power plants — and the siting could be strategic. In a StateImpact Pennsylvania article about the first Marcellus shale gas power plant, for example, a company representative admitted that the location was chosen specifically due to its convenient access to shale gas. “This plant was sited precisely where it is because of its access to the abundant, high-quality natural gas that’s found a mile to two miles beneath our feet.”

Drilling Trends

The first modern Marcellus well was drilled in Pennsylvania by Range Resources in 2003, and commercial production began in 2005. Although fracking expanded rapidly in several areas across the country, Pennsylvania has been ground zero of the fracking boom, with just over 10,000 shale gas wells drilled between 2005 and 2016. Since then, however, there has been a rapid downturn in new wells drilled. After the early and dramatic increase in drilling – from 9 shale wells in 2005 to 1,957 shale wells in 2011 – the number dropped to 504 in 2016.

According to Natural Gas Intelligence, natural gas from the Appalachian Basin “…hit a roadblock in 2016, as pipeline projects struggled to move forward and a storage glut slowed the region’s previously rapid production growth.” Thus, it appears that in order to maintain fracking’s profitability, the gas industry is relying on new gas-fired power plants to alleviate the storage glut, while potentially increasing demand for shale gas (which could propagate more drilling and fracking).

Gas-Fired Power Plant Siting

The siting of these power plants also enables companies to use Pennsylvanian fracked gas to generate power for larger regional markets. This is because northeastern Pennsylvania is close to dense populations, including New York City. In Luzerne County, for instance, the new Caithness Moxie Freedom Generating Station gas-fired power plant will supply electricity to not just Pennsylvania residents, but also to New Jersey and New York State. And in the more central region of the state in Snyder County, the Panda Hummel Station will send “much of its power to the New York City market.”

Siting gas-fired power plants in the northeast may also increase drilling and fracking in the region, where gas is predominantly “dry”  and less profitable than the “wet” gas found in southwest PA. This trend is largely due to a resurgence in North American petrochemical markets and increased ethane exports that rely on wet gas. (Dry natural gas contains primarily methane and smaller amounts of other hydrocarbons, while wet natural gas has higher concentrations of natural gas liquids. Natural gas liquids — predominantly ethane but also propane, butane, isobutane and pentanes — are the raw materials for manufacturing petrochemicals.)

Well Integrity and Other Risks

However, increased drilling and fracking mean more pollution for the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania, where shale gas wells have proven to be more prone to well construction “impairments” and well integrity problems, compared to conventional wells. This risk is especially true in the northeastern part of the state, where over nine percent of shale gas wells have indications of compromised well integrity.

Overall, fracking causes many public health and environmental problems. Methane, fracking fluids, and wastewater can pollute water supplies and imperil the livelihoods of farmers, who rely on clean water. Increased truck traffic and drilling emissions reduce air quality, and methane leaks contribute to global warming. Meanwhile, the proliferation of natural gas derricks and associated infrastructure destroys pristine landscapes (and related tourism and recreation industries).

The last thing that Pennsylvanians need is another way for the oil and gas industry to capitalize on shale at the expense of residents’ health and well-being.

Northern Access Project - pipeline map

Northern Access Project: Exporting PA’s Marcellus Gas Northward

In March 2015, the National Fuel Gas Supply Corporation and Empire Pipeline Company filed a joint application with the Federal Energy Resource Commission (FERC) to construct a new natural gas pipeline and related infrastructure, known collectively as the Northern Access Project (NAPL). The pricetag on the project is $455 million, and is funded through international, as well as local, financial institutions. The Public Accountability Initiative recently produced a report detailing the funding for this pipeline project, entitled “The Power Behind the Pipeline“.

The proposed Northern Access Project consists of a 97-mile-long, 24” pipe that would carry Marcellus Shale gas from Sergeant Township (McKean County), PA, to the Porterville Compressor Station in the Town of Elma (Erie County), NY. Nearly 69% of the proposed main pipeline will be co-located in existing pipeline and power line rights-of-way, according to FERC. The agency says this will streamline the project and reduce the need to rely on eminent domain to most efficiently route the project.

A $42 million, 15,400 horsepower Hinsdale Compressor Station along the proposed pipeline route was completed in 2015. In addition to the pipeline itself, the proposed project includes:

  • Additional 5,350 HP compression at the existing Porterville Compressor Station, a ten-fold increase of the capacity of that station
  • A new 22,214 HP compressor station in Pendleton (Niagara County), NY
  • Two miles of pipeline in Pendleton (Niagara County), NY
  • A new natural gas dehydration facility in Wheatfield (Niagara County), NY
  • An interconnection with the Tennessee Gas Pipeline in Wales (Erie County), NY, as well as tie-ins in McKean, Allegany, and Cattaraugus counties
  • A metering, regulation and delivery station in Erie County
  • Mainline block valves in McKean, Allegany, Cattaraugus and Erie counties; and
  • Access roads and contractor/staging yards in McKean, Allegany, Cattaraugus and Erie counties

Map of Proposed Northern Access Project


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The above map shows the proposed pipeline (green) and related infrastructure (bright pink). The pale yellow and pink lines on the map are the existing pipelines that the Northern Access Project would tie into. Click here to explore the map fullscreen.

Project Purpose

National Fuel maintains that the goal of the proposed project would be to supply multiple markets in Western New York State and the Midwest. The project would also supply gas for export to Canada via the Empire Pipeline system, and New York and New England through the Tennessee Gas Pipeline 200 Line. The company anticipates that the project would be completed by late 2017 or early 2018. Proponents are hoping that NAPL will keep fuel prices low, raise tax revenues, and create jobs.

Push-back against this project has been widespread from citizens and environmental groups, including Sierra Club and RiverKeeper. This is despite an environmental assessment ruling in July 2016 that FERC saw no negative environmental impacts of the project. FERC granted a stamp of approval for the project on February 4, 2017.

Concerns about the Proposed Pipeline

The Bufffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper, asserts that the project presents multiple threats to environmental health of the Upper Lake Erie and Niagara River Watersheds. In their letter to FERC, they disagreed with the Commission’s negative declaration that the project would result in “no significant impact to the environment.” The pipeline construction will require crossings of 77 intermittent and 60 perennial streams, 19 of which are classified by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) as protected trout streams. Twenty-eight of the intermittent streams impacted also flow into these protected streams. Resulting water quality deterioration associated with bank destabilization, increased turbidity, erosion, thermal destabilization of streams, and habitat loss is likely to impact sensitive native brook trout and salamanders. Riverkeeper found that National Fuel’s plan on how to minimize impacts to hundreds of wetlands surround the project area was insufficient. FERC’s Environmental Assessment of the project indicated that approximately 1,800 acres of vegetation would affected by the project.

Several groups have also taken issue with the proposed project’s plan to use the “dry crossing” method of traversing waterways. Only three crossings will be accomplished using horizontal directional drilling under the stream bed — a method that would largely protect the pipes from dynamic movement of the stream during floods. The rest will be “trenched” less than 5 feet below the stream bed. Opponents of the project point out that NYSDEC, federal guidelines, and even industry itself discourage pipe trenching, because during times of high stream flow, stream scour may expose the pipes to rocks, trees, and other objects. This may lead to the pipes leaking, or even rupturing, impacting both the natural environment, and, potentially, the drinking water supply.

A December 2016 editorial to The Buffalo News addressed the impacts that the proposed Northern Access Project could have to the Cattaraugus Creek Basin Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for 20,000 residents in surrounding Cattaraugus, Erie, and Wyoming counties in New York. In particular, because the aquifer is shallow, and even at the surface in some locations, it is particularly vulnerable to contamination. The editorial took issue with the absence of measures in the Environmental Assessment that could have explored how to protect the aquifer.

Other concerns include light and noise pollution, in addition to well-documented impacts on climate change, created by fugitive methane leakage from pipelines and compressors.

NYSDEC has held three public hearings about the project already: February 7th at Saint Bonaventure University (Allegany, NY), February 8th at Iroquois High School (Elma, NY), February 9th at Niagara County Community College (Sanborn, NY). The hearing at Saint Bonaventure was attended by nearly 250 people.

While FERC approved the project on February 4, 2017, the project still requires approvals from NYSDEC – including a Section 401 Water Quality Certification. These decisions have recently been pushed back from March 1 to April 7.

Proponents for the project – particularly the pipefitting industry – have emphasized that it would create up to 1,700 jobs during the construction period, and suggested that because of the experience level of the construction workforce, there would be no negative impacts on the streams. Other speakers emphasized National Fuel’s commitment to safety and environmental compliance.

Seneca Nation President Todd Gates expressed his concerns about the gas pipeline’s impacts on Cattaraugus Creek, which flows through Seneca Nation land (Cattaraugus Indian Reservation), and is downstream from several tributaries traversed by the proposed pipeline. In addition, closer to the southern border of New York State, the proposed pipeline cuts across tributaries to the Allegheny River, which flows through the Allegany Indian Reservation. One of New York State’s primary aquifers lies beneath the reservation. The closest that the proposed pipeline itself would pass about 12 miles from Seneca Nation Territory, so National Fuel was not required contact the residents there.

Concerns about Wheatfield dehydration facility & Pendleton compressor station

According to The Buffalo News, National Fuel has purchased 20 acres of land from the Tonawanda Sportsmen’s Club. The company is building two compressors on this property, totaling 22,000 HP, to move gas through two miles of pipeline that are also part of the proposed project, but 23 miles north of the primary stretch of newly constructed pipeline. Less than six miles east of the Pendleton compressor stations, a dehydration facility is also proposed. The purpose of this facility is to remove water vapor from the natural gas, in accordance with Canadian low-moisture standards. According to some reports from a National Fuel representative, the dehydration facility would run only a few days a year, but this claim, has not been officially confirmed.

Residents of both Pendleton and Wheatfield have rallied to express their concerns about both components of the project, citing potential impacts on public health, safety, and the environment relating to air and water quality.

Northern Access Project Next Steps

The deadline for public comment submission is 5 pm on February 24, 2017 — less than two weeks away. To file a comment, you can either email NYS DEC directly To Michael Higgins at NFGNA2016Project@dec.ny.gov, or send comments by mail to NYS DEC, Attn. Michael Higgins, Project Manager, 625 Broadway, 4th Floor, Albany, NY 12233.

 

Note: this article originally stated that the Porterville Compressor Station would double its capacity as a result of the NAPL project. In fact, the capacity increase would be ten-fold, from 600 hp to about 6000 hp. We regret this error.


by Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Aliso Canyon natural gas leak - Photo by Environmental Defense Fund

A Climate Disaster – California in state of emergency as a result of massive natural gas leak

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

A natural gas well equipment failure in southern California has resulted in the largest point release of methane to the atmosphere in U.S. history. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a California state of emergency for the incident, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has identified the site as the single largest source point of global warming.1 Since October 23, 2015 the failure has been reported to be releasing 62 million cubic feet of methane per day – 110,000 pounds per hour – for a total of about 80 million metric tons thus far. (A running counter for the natural gas leak can be found here, on Mother Jones).2,3 This quantity amounts to a quarter of California’s total methane emissions, and the impact to the climate is calculated to be the equivalent of the operation of 7 million cars.

SoCalGas (a subsidiary of Sempra Energy) reports that nothing can be done to stop or reduce the leak until February or March of 2016. As a result, the nearby community of Porter Ranch has been largely evacuated (30,000 people) due to health complaints and the rotten egg smell of tertbutyl mercaptan and tetradydrothiophen. Air quality sampling, being assessed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard and Assessment (OEHHA), measured volatile organic compounds, specifically the carcinogen benzene, at concentrations below acute toxicity health standards.4 Exposure to benzene even at low levels presents a risk of cancer and other health hazards. Locals have complained of headaches, sore throats, nosebleeds and nausea. The LA County Department of Public Health has ordered SoCalGas to offer free temporary relocation to any area residents affected. About 1,000 people are suing the company.5 A fly over of the site has been posted to youtube by the Environmental Defense Fund, and can be seen here. The video uses a FLIR camera to take infrared video that shows the leak.

Site Description

CA gas storage and Aliso Canyon natural gas leak

Figure 1. California active natural gas storage fields most active in 2014

The source of the leak is a natural gas storage well operated by SoCalGas in the Aliso Canyon oil field – a drained oil field now used to store natural gas. SoCalGas is the largest natural gas utility in the U.S., distributing natural gas to 20.9 million.4 Aliso Canyon is the largest gas storage field in the state, but there are numerous other gas storage fields in the state that could present similar risks. In Figure 1, to the right, California’s other currently active gas storage fields are shown. Injection volumes of natural gas are summed and averaged over the area of the field, and the Aliso Canyon is shown to have injected over 1,000,000 cubic feet per km2 of natural gas since the beginning of 2014. Other high volume fields include Honor Rancho, McDonald Island Gas, and Wild Goose Gas.

The failed well, known as Standard Sesnon 25, is marked with a red star in the map of gas storage wells shown below (Figure 2). The well was drilled in October of 1953. Reports show that pressures in the well bored reached 2,516 PSI in 2015. If you use the map to navigate around the state of California, it is clear that there are numerous other natural gas storage facilities in California, with wellbore pressures similar to or higher than the reported pressure of Standard Sesnon 25 and other wells in the Aliso Canyon Field. Beyond California, the state of Michigan is reported to have the most natural gas storage by volume, at 1.1 trillion cubic feet.6 The incident that caused the leak was a well casing failure, although the cause of the well casing failure has not yet been identified. There have been numerous editorials written that have painted SoCalGas as a model for contemporary corporate greed and corruption for several reasons, including the removal of safety valves, reports of corrosion, and lack of resources for inspections and repairs.7 Rather than this being a unique case of criminal neglect, casing failures are a statistical likelihood for wells of this age. Well casing failures are a systemic issue of all oil and gas development. Every well casing has a shelf life and will fail eventually.8 Additionally, leaks from gas storage wells have occurred at other SoCalGas natural gas storage facilities in California, such as Montebello and Playa Del Rey.

Figure 2. California’s gas storage wells. The size of orange markers indicates wellhead pressure, as reported in 2015. Blue markers show the volume of gas injected in 2014/2015. The Aliso Canyon leak at ‘Standard Sesnon 25’ natural gas storage well is marked with a red star. Click here to manipulate the map. After expanded, use the “Layers” menu to visualize the data with colored markers rather than size. 

Response

Fixing the problem is therefore much more complicated, overall, in this specific case. Since the well casing has ruptured deep underground, natural gas is leaking in the annular space outside the borehole and spewing from the topsoil surrounding the well head. To stop the leak the production pipe must be plugged below the rupture. All attempts to plug the well from the surface have failed due to the high pressure within the borehole, a 7” inner diameter of the production pipe. Therefore, a relief well is being drilled to intersect the well casing, to inject a mud-chemical cocktail intended to plug the well far below the casing failure. Updates on the response, claims information, and the location of the Community Resource Center can be found here. Additionally, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency, which means federal support and a requirement of the state of California to cover the costs.9

The state response to the natural gas leak has included numerous agencies. According to documents from California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the agencies leading the response are the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), the Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), California Air Resources Board (ARB), California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA), the California Energy Commission (CEC), and the CPUC. DOGGR is conducting an independent investigation of the incident. The investigation will include a third party analysis for root-cause issues. CARB is monitoring total methane emissions while the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment with CalEPA are collecting and reviewing air quality data. Coordinated response information can be found on the CalOES site. SoCalGas has submitted a proposal to regulators to raise customer rates in order to raise $30 million for a more proactive approach to inspections and repairs.10

This event is the largest, but is not the first major methane/natural gas leak to occur at a wellsite. Leaks can result from a number of natural and anthropogenic (man made) causes. Besides the natural degradation of well integrity with age, acute events can also cause casing failures. There are documented cases where seismic activity has caused casing failures.

As a result of an earthquake natural fractures in the region can grow and disrupt well bores. In areas of dense drilling, fracture stimulations that propagate improperly or intersect unknown faults. When two wells become interconnected, known as “downhole communication” or a “frack hit” when it occurs due to hydraulic fracturing, spills and leaks can occur due to over-pressurization. In many states, these risks are mitigated by having setbacks between wells. California, the most seismically active state, has minimal setbacks for drilling or fracking oil and gas wells. In previous research, FracTracker found that over 96% of new hydraulic fractures in 2013 were drilled within 1,200 feet of another well, which would even violate setback rules in Texas!

Climate Impacts

Natural gas is hailed by the fossil fuel industry as the bridge fuel that will allow the world to transition to renewables. The main argument claims natural gas is necessary to replace coal as our main source of generating electricity. Burning both coal and natural gas produce carbon dioxide, but natural gas is more efficient. For the same amount of energy production, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide emissions. The legitimate threat of climate impacts comes from fugitive (leaked) emissions of methane, before the natural gas can be burned. Since methane is a gas, it is much harder to contain than oil or coal. Methane is also more insulating than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (34-86 times more insulating), making it a more potent greenhouse gas. The leaked natural gas from the Aliso Canyon well is currently equivalent to 7,000,000 tons of CO2 (Updated here, on Mother Jones).

Current estimates show methane is responsible for 25% of the world’s anthropogenic warming to date. Proponents of the bridge fuel theorize that if methane leakage can be kept under 4% of total production, natural gas power generation will provide a climate-positive alternative to coal. EPA estimates set the leakage rate at 2.4%, but independent research estimates actual rates up to 7.9%.11 The EDF has been conducting an $18 million project focused on quantifying methane leaks from the natural gas industry. A team of 20 researchers from 13 institutions conducted the 2 year study measuring emissions from the Barnett Shale. Details can be found on the Environmental Defense Fund’s Page.12

Natural Gas Leak References

  1. Goldenberg, S. (2016). A single gas well leak is California’s biggest contributor to climate change. The Guardian. Accessed 1/6/16.
  2. Environmental Defense Fund. (2015). Aerial Footage of Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak. via YouTube. Accessed 1/5/16.
  3. Lurie, J. (2016). Thousands of Californians are Fleeing an Enormous Methane Leak. Here are 8 Things You Need to Know. Mother Jones. Accessed 1/6/16.
  4. CalOES. (2015). Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak. Accessed 1/8/15.
  5. BBC. (2015). California state of emergency over methane leak. Accessed 1/8/15
  6. Ellison, G. (2015). Michigan has most underground natural gas storage in U.S. MLive. Accessed 1/8/15.
  7. Reicher, M. (2015). SocalGas knew of corrosion at Porter Ranch gas facility, doc shows. LA Daily News. Accessed 1/5/16.
  8. Ingraffea et al. (2013). Assessment and risk analysis of casing and cement impairment in oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, 2000-2012. PNAS. Vol.111 no.30.
  9. Cronin, M. (2015). Why Engineers Can’t Stop Los Angeles’ Enormous Methane Leak. Accessed 1/4/16.
  10. CUUC. (2015). Appendix A. Accessed 1/5/15. [please note that some CPUC files are being taken offline for unknown reasons]
  11. Howarth et al. (2011). Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations. Climatic Change. 106:679-690.
  12. Song, L. (2015). Texas Fracking Zone Emits 90% More Methane Than EPA Estimated. InsideClimate News.

Feature Image: Aliso Canyon natural gas leak – Photo by Environmental Defense Fund

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