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Oil and Gas Wastes are Radioactive – and Lack Regulatory Oversight

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

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

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

When it comes to unconventional oil and gas waste streams:

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

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

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

State Waste Management Maps

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

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

ND Radioactive Waste mapNorth Dakota – View map fullscreen

co-radioactive-featureColorado – View map fullscreen

Sources of Radioactivity

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

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

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

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

Radioactive Oil and Gas Pathway Life Cycle

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

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

A. Scales

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

B. Produced Waters

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

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

C. Sludges

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

Federal Exemptions

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

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

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

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

State Regulations

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

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

Why can’t the waste be treated?

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

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

Risks

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

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

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

Cases of Contamination

North Dakota

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

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

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

Pennsylvania

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

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

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

Action Plans Needed

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

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

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


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

The Dakota Access Pipeline: An Uncertain Future

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Eliza Czolowski, Program Associate, PSE Healthy Energy

 

Since April 2016, demonstrators in North Dakota have been protesting a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) being built by Dakota Access LLC, a construction subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LP. The proposed pipeline passes just 1.5 miles north of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Lands, where it is planned to cross Lake Oahe, the largest Army Corps of Engineers reservoir created on the Missouri River. The tribe argues that the project will not only threaten their environmental and economic well-being, but will also cut through land that is sacred.

Given how quickly circumstances have changed on the ground, we have received numerous requests to post an overview on the issue. This article examines the technical aspects of the DAPL proposal and details the current status of protests at Standing Rock. It includes a discussion of what the Army Corps’ recent denial of DAPL’s permits means for the project as well as looks towards the impacts of incoming Trump administration. We have also created the below map to contextualize DAPL and protest activities that have occurred at Standing Rock.

Standing Rock Protest Map

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Background

DAPL is a $3.78 billion dollar project that was initially slated for completion on January 1, 2017. The DAPL is a joint venture of Phillips 66, Sunoco Logistics, and other smaller fossil fuel companies including Marathon Petroleum Corporation, and Enbridge Energy Partners. Numerous banks and investment firms are supporting the project and financing the related infrastructure growth, including Citi Bank, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC, PNC, Community Trust, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, ING, Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, SunTrust, Us Bank, UBS, Compass and others.

Its route travels from Northwestern North Dakota, south of Bismarck, and crosses the waterway made up of the Missouri River and Lake Oahe just upriver of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Area. From North Dakota the pipeline continues 1,172 miles to an oil tank farm in Pakota, Illinois. DAPL would carry 470,000 barrels per day (75,000 m3/d) of Bakken crude oil with a maximum capacity up to 570,000 barrels per day. That’s the CO2 equivalent of 30 average sized coal fired power plants.

As documented by the NY Times map, in addition to the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, the pipeline crosses 22 other waterways that also require the pipeline to be drilled deep under these bodies of water. But Standing Rock portion is the only section disputed and as of yet unfinished. Now the pipeline project, known by the protesters as “the black snake,” is over 95% complete, despite having no official easement to cross the body of water created by the Missouri River and Lake Oahe. The easement is required for any domestic pipeline to cross a major waterway and because the land on either side of the Army Corps Lake Oahe project is managed by the Army Corps (shown in the protest map). An easement would allow Dakota Access LLC to drill a tunnel for the pipeline under the federally owned lands, including the lake and river.

Safety & Environmental Racism

Proponents of the project tout the opinion that pipelines are the safest method of moving oil large distances. Trucking oil in tankers on highways has the highest accident and spill rates, whereas moving oil by railways presents a major explosive hazard when incidents do occur. Pipeline spills are therefore considered the “safe” alternative. On November 11, Kelcy Warren was interviewed on CBS News, claiming Dakota Access, LLC takes every precaution to reduce leaks and that the likelihood of a leak is highly unlikely. The problem with comparing the risk for each of these transportation methods is that rates of incidence are the only comparison. The resulting hazard and impact is ignored. When pipelines rupture, they present a much larger hazard than trucks and trains. Large volumes of spilled oil result in much greater water and soil contamination.

We know that pipelines do rupture, and quite often. An analysis by the U.S. DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2012 shows that there have been 201 major incidents (with volumes over 1,000 gallons) related to liquid leaks in the U.S. over the last ten years that were reported to the Department of Transportation. The “average” pipeline therefore has a 57% probability of experiencing a major leak, with consequences over the $1 million range, in a ten-year period. FracTracker’s recent analysis of PHMSA data shows the systemic issue of pipeline spills: there have been 4,215 pipeline spill incidents just since 2010 resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion! The recent (December 12) spill of 176,000 gallons of crude oil into a stream just 150 miles from the Standing Rock protest site highlights the Tribes’ concerns.

A previously proposed route for the DAPL would have put Bismarck—a city that is 92% white—just downriver of its Missouri River crossing. This initial route was rejected due to its potential threat to Bismarck’s water supply, according to the Army Corps. In addition to being located upriver of Bismarck’s water intake, the route would have been 11 miles longer and would have passed through “wellhead source water protection” areas that are avoided to protect municipal water supply wells. Passing through this “high consequence area” would have required further actions and additional safety measures on the part of Dakota Access LLC. The route would also have been more difficult to stay at least 500 feet away from homes, as required by the North Dakota Public Service Commission. The route was changed and pushed as close to Sioux County as possible, the location of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Protests: The Water Protectors

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has taken an active stance against Bakken Oil Development in the past. In 2007, the Reservation passed a resolution to prevent any oil and gas development or pipelines on the Tribal Lands. However, deep concerns about the safety of DAPL led protesters to begin demonstrations at Standing Rock in April, 2016. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe then sued the Army Corps in July, after the pipeline was granted most of the final permits over objections of three other federal agencies. Construction of it, they say, will “destroy our burial sites, prayer sites and culturally significant artifacts.” A timeline of The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s litigation addressing DAPL through this period can be found on the EARTHJUSTICE website.

Photo by Derrick Broze

Photo by Derrick Broze/cc

In August, a group organized on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation called ReZpect Our Water brought a petition to the Army Corps in Washington, D.C. stating that DAPL interferes with their ancestral land and water rights. The Tribe sued for an injunction citing the endangerment of water and soil, cultural resources, and the improper use of eminent domain. The suit argued that the pipeline presents a risk to Sioux Tribe communities who live near or downstream of the pipeline. The Missouri River is the main water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. In September, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota finally made headlines.

Federal Injunction

On September 9, District Judge James Boasberg denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribes preliminary injunction request to prevent the Army Corps from granting the easement. The Judge ordered Dakota Access to stop work only on the section of pipeline nearest the Missouri river until the Army Corps granted the crossing easement. The excavation of Standing Rock burial grounds and other sacred sites, where direct action demonstrators were clashing with Dakota Access security and guard dogs, was allowed to continue. Later that same day, a joint statement was released by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army:

“We request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

In the map above the 20-mile buffer zone is shown in light green. Regardless of the request from the three federal agencies to pause construction, Dakota Access’s parent company Energy Transfer Partners LP ignored requests to voluntarily halt construction. Dakota Access LLC has also disregarded the instructions of the federal judge. The Army Corps declared Dakota Access LLC would not receive the easement required to cross the waterway until after 2016, but that has not stopped the company from pushing forward without the necessary permits. The pipeline has been built across all of Cannonball Ranch right up to Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, which can be seen in the map above and in drone footage taken November 2, 2016 showing the well pad for the drill rig has been built.

On November 4 the Army Corps requested Dakota Access LLC voluntarily halt construction for 30 days; then on November 8 (Election Day), Dakota Access ignored the request and announced they would begin horizontally drilling under the waterway within weeks. On November 14 Dakota Access filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps arguing that permits are not legally required. Later that day, the Army Corps responded with a statement that said any construction on or under Corps land bordering Lake Oahe cannot occur because the Army has not made a final decision on whether to grant an easement. In the issued statement, Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy said “in light of the history of the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossession of lands [and] the importance of Lake Oahe to the Tribe,” the Standing Rock Sioux tribe would be consulted to help develop a timetable for future construction plans. The Army Corps has since denied the easement entirely.

Violence Against Protesters

Law enforcement has used physical violence to disrupt demonstrations on public lands and to prevent direct action activities as protesters aim to shut down construction on private land held by Energy Transfer Partners LP. Since September 4, law enforcement agencies led by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department have maintained jurisdiction over the protests. Officers from other counties and states have also been brought in to assist. Morton County and the State of North Dakota do not have the jurisdiction to evict protesters from the camps located on Army Corps land. Well over 500 activists have been arrested.

The majority of clashes with law enforcement have occurred on the roadways exiting the Army Corps lands, or at the access points to the privately owned Cannonball Ranch (shown on the map). Morton County has spent more than $8 million keeping direct action protesters from shutting down excavation and construction activities along the path of the pipeline. Meanwhile, the state of North Dakota has spent over $10 million on additional law enforcement officials to provide assistance to Morton County.

DAPL protests from in-depth documentations at: https://vimeo.com/189249968

DAPL protests from video by UnicornRiot/cc

The first violent confrontation occurred on September 3 after Dakota Access bulldozed an area of Cannonball Ranch identified by the Tribe as a sacred site hosting burial grounds. At that time, the site was actively being contested in court and rulings still had not been made. The Tribe was seeking a restraining order, known as a “preliminary injunction” to protect their cultural heritage. Direct action demonstrators put themselves in the way of bulldozers to stop the destructive construction. In response, Dakota Access LLC security personnel assaulted protesters with pepper spray and attack dogs. The encounter was documented by Democracy Now reporter Amy Goodman.

October 27, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department reinforced with 300 police from neighboring counties and states, raided the frontline camp site making mass arrests. In response, demonstrators reinforced a blockade of the 1806 bridge, shown in the map above. The most violent clash was witnessed on public lands on November 20, 2016 at this bridge, which demarcates Army Corps land. The Police forces’ use of “non-lethal” bean bag rounds, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, water hoses, LRAD, and explosive flash grenades on peaceful demonstrators has been criticized by many groups. Fire hoses were used on protesters in freezing conditions resulting in dozens of demonstrators needing treatment for hypothermia. In total 300 people were injured according to a release from the standing rock medic and healer council.

Most recently, the Army Corps has targeted the Standing Rock Demonstration by determining that it is no longer safe to stay at the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps located on Army Corps property. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has frequently blasted the Army Corps for not removing the protesters.

As of December 5th, federal authorities consider the protesters to be trespassing on federal lands, leaving protesters vulnerable to various citations and possible arrest. The Army Corps has also said that emergency services may no longer be provided in the evacuation area. The Army Corps has jurisdiction on Army Corps lands, and only federal authorities can remove the protesters from federal lands. There are now more than 5,000 activists demonstrating at Standing Rock, and an additional 2,000 U.S. veterans joined the protest this past week for an action of solidarity. Nevertheless, U.S. authorities have said that there are no plans to forcibly remove activists, despite telling them to leave.

Victory and an Uncertain Future

Perhaps as a result of this mass outcry, the Army Corps announced on December 4th—only a day before trespassing claims would be imposed—that Dakota Access LLC’s permit application to cross under the Missouri River and Lake Oahe had been denied. Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, announced:

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do…The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”

To determine alternate routes, the Army Corps has announced it will undertake an environmental impact statement which could take years to complete. While this is a major victory for the “water protectors” demonstrating at Standing Rock, it is not a complete victory. Following the Army Corps’ announcement, the two main pipeline investors, Energy Transfer Partners LP and Sunoco Logistics, responded that they:

“…are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.”

In fact, prior to the Army Corps denying the easement, numerous democrats in congress called for President Obama to shut down the pipeline. While President Obama has not heeded these calls to shut down the project entirely, he also has not given the green light for the project either. Instead the President stated that the situation needed to be handled carefully and urged the Army Corps to consider rerouting the pipeline. “We’re monitoring this closely and I think, as a general rule, my view is that there’s a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans…. I think right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline,” the President said.

trump keystone

The Corps decision to conduct a lengthy environmental impact statement is encouraging but, ultimately, the Trump administration may have the final say on the DAPL easement. President-elect Trump has voiced support for the easement in the past, and on December 5th, just one day following the Army Corps’ decision, Trump spokesman Jason Miller commented:

“That’s something we support construction of, and we will review the full situation in the White House and make an appropriate determination at that time.”

Energy Transfer Partners LP CEO Kelcy Warren donated $103,000 to the Trump campaign and the President-elect has investments in Energy Transfer Partners LP totaling up to $1 million according to campaign financial disclosures. President-elect Trump has made it clear that pipeline projects, specifically the Keystone Access Pipeline rejected by President Obama, will be allowed to move forward along with additional fossil fuel extraction projects.

If the construction company, Dakota Access LLC, continues building the pipeline they are liable to be fined. It is not yet clear whether Dakota Access LLC will “eat” the fine to continue building and drilling, or whether the Army Corps will forcefully stop DAPL. Analysts say the expense of changing the route, such as to the south of the tribal lands, would make the economics of the pipeline a total loss. It is cheaper for Dakota Access LLC to continue to fight the protest despite overwhelming disapproval of the project.

Meanwhile, protestors have refused to leave Standing Rock in fear that the Army Corp will reverse its decision and allow DAPL to proceed, despite requests by the chairman of the Sioux Tribe that demonstrators go home. Many are hopeful that, by stalling the project past January 1st—the deadline by which Energy Transfer Partners LP promised oil companies it would complete construction—the possibility exists that contracts will expire and DAPL loses support from investors.

Other Mapping Resources

This web map shows the current construction progress of the pipeline.

The New York Times website is hosting a map focusing on the many water crossings of the pipeline route.

The Guardian has a static map on their website similar to our interactive map.

Header photograph by Joe Brusky/flickr/cc

Oil and gas production on public lands

Interactive maps show nearness of oil and gas wells to communities in 5 states

As an American, you are part owner of 640 million acres of our nation’s shared public lands managed by the federal government. And chances are, you’ve enjoyed a few of these lands on family picnics, weekend hikes or summer camping trips. But did you know that some of your lands may also be leading to toxic air pollution and poor health for you or your neighbors, especially in 5 western states that have high oil and gas drilling activity?

A set of new interactive maps created by FracTracker, The Wilderness Society, and partner groups show the threatened populations who live within a half mile of  federal oil and gas wells – people who may be breathing in toxic pollution on a regular basis.

Altogether, air pollution from oil and gas development on public lands threatens at least 73,900 people in the 5 western states we examined. The states, all of which are heavy oil and gas leasing areas, include ColoradoNew MexicoNorth DakotaUtah and Wyoming.

Close up of threat map in Colorado

Figure 1. Close up of threat map in Colorado

In each state, the data show populations living near heavy concentrations of wells. For example just northeast of Denver, Colorado, in the heavily populated Weld County, at least 11,000 people are threatened by oil and gas development on public lands (Figure 1).

Western cities, like Farmington, New Mexico; Gillette, Wyoming; and Grand Junction, Colorado are at highest risk of exposure from air pollution. In New Mexico, especially, concentrated oil and gas activity disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and minorities. Many wells can be found near population centers, neighborhoods and even schools.

Colorado: Wells concentrated on Western Slope, Front Range

Note: The threatened population in states are a conservative estimate. It is likely that the numbers affected by air pollution are higher.

In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to try to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations through comprehensive regulations that included inspections of oil and gas operations and an upgrade in oil and gas infrastructure technology. Colorado’s new regulations are already showing both environmental and financial benefits.

But nearly 16,000 people – the majority living in the northwestern and northeastern part of the state – are still threatened by pollution from oil and gas on public lands.

Many of the people whose health is endangered from pollution are concentrated in the fossil-fuel rich area of the Western Slope, near Grand Junction. In that area, three counties make up 65% of the total area in Colorado threatened by oil and gas development.

In Weld County, just northeast of Denver, more than 11,000 residents are threatened by air pollution from oil and gas production on federal lands. But what’s even more alarming is that five schools are within a half mile radius of wells, putting children at risk on a daily basis of breathing in toxins that are known to increase asthma attacks. Recent studies have shown children miss 500,000 days of school nationally each year due to smog related to oil and gas production.

State regulations in Colorado have helped improve air quality, reduce methane emissions and promote worker care and safety in the past two years, but federal regulations expected by the end of 2016 will have a broader impact by regulating pollution from all states.

New Mexico: Pollution seen from space threatens 50,000 people

With more than 30,000 wells covering 4.6 million acres, New Mexico is one of the top states for oil and gas wells on public lands. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure in the Four Corners region are so great, they have formed a methane hot spot that has been extensively studied by NASA and is clearly visible from space.

Nearly 50,000 people in northwestern New Mexico – 40% of the population in San Juan County – live within a half mile of a well. 

Dangerous emissions from those wells in San Juan County disproportionately affect minorities and disadvantaged populations, with about 20% Hispanic, almost 40% Native American, and over 20% living in poverty.

Another hot spot of oil and activity is in southeastern New Mexico stretching from the lands surrounding Roswell to the southern border with Texas. Wells in this region also cover the lands outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, potentially affecting the air quality and visibility for park visitors. Although less densely populated, another 4,000 people in two counties – with around 50% of the population Hispanic – are threatened by toxic air pollution.

Wyoming: Oil and gas emissions add to coal mining pollution

Pollution from oil and gas development in Wyoming, which has about as many wells as New Mexico, is focused in the Powder River Basin. This region in the northeast of the state provides 40% of the coal produced in the United States.

Oil and gas pollution threatens approximately 4,000 people in this region where scarred landscapes and polluted waterways are also prevalent from coal mining. 

With the Obama administration’s current pause on federal coal leasing and a review of the federal coal program underway, stopping pollution from oil and gas on public lands in Wyoming would be a major step in achieving climate goals and preserving the health of local communities.

Utah: Air quality far below federal standards

Utah has almost 9,000 active wells on public lands. Oil and gas activity in Utah has created air quality below federal standards in one-third of Utah’s counties, heightening the risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Especially in the Uintah Basin in northeastern Utah – where the majority of oil and development occurs – a 2014 NOAA-led study found oil and gas activity can lead to high levels of ozone in the wintertime that exceed federal standards.

North Dakota: Dark skies threatened by oil and gas activity

The geology of western North Dakota includes the Bakken Formation, one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in the United States. As a result, high oil and gas production occurs on both private and public lands in the western part of the state.

Nearly 650 wells on public lands are clustered together here, directly impacting popular recreational lands like Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The 70,000-plus-acre park – named after our president who first visited in 1883 and fell in love with the incredible western landscape – is completely surrounded by high oil and gas activity. Although drilling is not allowed in the park, nearby private and public lands are filled with active wells, producing pollution, traffic and noise that can be experienced from the park. Due to its remote location, the park is known for its incredible night sky, but oil and gas development increases air and light pollution, threatening visibility of the Milky Way and other astronomical wonders.

You own public lands, but they may be hurting you

Pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands is only a part of a larger problem. Toxic emissions from oil and gas development on both public and private lands threaten 12.4 million people living within a half mile of wells, according to an oil and gas threat map created by FracTracker for a project by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force.

Now that we can see how many thousands of people are threatened by harmful emissions from our public lands, it is more important than ever that we finalize strong federal regulations that will help curb the main pollutant of natural gas – methane – from being leaked, vented, and flared from oil and gas infrastructure on public lands.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

We need to clean up our air now

With U.S. public lands accounting for 1/5 of the greenhouse gas footprint in the United States, we need better regulations to reduce polluting methane emissions from the 96,000 active oil and gas wells on public lands.

Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is finalizing federal regulations that are expected by the end of 2016. These regulations are expected to curb emissions from existing sources – wells already in production – that are a significant source of methane pollution on public lands. This is crucial, since by 2018, it is estimated that nearly 90% of methane emissions will come from sources that existed in 2011.

Federal regulations by the BLM should also help decrease the risk to communities living near oil and gas wells and helping cut methane emissions by 40 to 45% by 2025 to meet climate change reduction goals.

Final regulations from the Bureau of Land Management will also add to other regulations from the EPA and guidance from the Obama administration to modernize energy development on public lands for the benefit of the American people, landscapes and the climate. In the face of a changing climate, we need to continue to monitor fossil fuel development on public lands and continue to push the government towards better protections for land, air, wildlife and local communities.


By The Wilderness Society – The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.

Photo by David Nix 2015

Documenting Oil and Gas Industry Damage in North Dakota

North Dakota is now in its third oil boom due to the drilling technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that have made once-inaccessible oil accessible. The Bakken formation covers western North Dakota, eastern Montana, and parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. At the height of the boom in 2014, just under 12,000 wells were active across the west, extracting 1.1 million barrels (bbl) of oil per day and flaring at 32%. The boom has bumped North Dakota to the second largest oil and gas producing state, second only to Texas.

Dakota Resource Council (DRC) is a member-led, grassroots organization that has been working in extraction-impacted communities in North Dakota since 1978. DRC’s members work on oil and gas campaigns that aim to eliminate impacts to land, air, water, and livelihoods of the citizens of North Dakota. Campaign issues on oil and gas industry damage include: flaring, pipelines, radioactive/oilfield waste, state accountability, and oil-by-rail.

The following photos from DRC show impacts of current and legacy oil and gas extraction in western North Dakota – an area in the heart of the Bakken that is historically a rich agricultural and ranching region. The vast contrast between the two industries are not complementary.

Bear Den Bay Incident

Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is the epicenter of fracking in the Bakken. On July 8, 2014 a wastewater pipeline rupture was accidentally discovered in rural Mandaree on the reservation. The pipeline is owned by Crestwood Midstream, LLC – a Texas-based company.

An estimated 1 million gallons of toxic saltwater ran down a ravine, ending up in the tributary of Bear Den Bay, which is located ¼ mile from the city of Mandaree’s water intake. The spill was contained, but the state doesn’t know exactly how much waste went into the bay. Tribal administration released a statement that beaver dams prevented the fluids from reaching the lake.

Weeks after the incident Crestwood released a statement saying:

… while assessment of the effect is ongoing, examination and testing to date show that an area of grass, brush and trees about 200 yards long sustained damage. Some produced water ran down a ravine into natural pools in a small stream at the bottom, but it appears that the produced water stopped there… The impact on fish and wildlife appears to have been minimal, in fact beavers, turtles, frogs, deer and pelicans have been seen returning to and re-inhabiting the impacted area.

To date, there has been no penalty for the damage that has been done to the land and reclamation is ongoing. Below are photos documenting the incident’s effects:

The Legacy of North Dakota Oil Booms

Western North Dakota has weathered through two previous oil booms in the early 1950’s and 1980’s. Previous booms left behind infrastructure that sits abandoned today. Due to hydraulic fracking technology, once-inaccessible oil is now accessible. These pre-existing wells are called legacy wells, that produce roughly 5% of North Dakota’s 1.2 million barrels per day.

Much of these wells contain infrastructure that has been in place for over 60 years. Pipelines have not been mapped or regulated in North Dakota until recently. Farmers are finding underground tanks and pipelines filled with toxic sludge. Just like previous oil booms, North Dakota was not prepared for the cost of extraction. Scroll through the following gallery showing a variety of legacy sites in ND.


By Nicole Donaghy, Dakota Resource Council

Screenshot from Vulnerable Populations Map

Sensitive Receptors near Fracked Oil & Gas Wells

EnvironmentAmerica_reportcover

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

FracTracker map of the density of wells by U.S. state as of 2015

1.7 Million Wells in the U.S. – A 2015 Update


 

Updated National Well Data

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

In February 2014, the FracTracker Alliance produced our first version of a national well data file and map, showing over 1.1 million active oil and gas wells in the United States. We have now updated that data, with the total of wells up to 1,666,715 active wells accounted for.

Density by state of active oil and gas wells in the United States. Click here to access the legend, details, and full map controls. Zoom in to see summaries by county, and zoom in further to see individual well data. Texas contains state and county totals only, and North Carolina is not included in this map. 

While 1.7 million wells is a substantial increase over last year’s total of 1.1 million, it is mostly attributable to differences in how we counted wells this time around, and should not be interpreted as a huge increase in activity over the past 15 months or so. Last year, we attempted to capture those wells that seemed to be producing oil and gas, or about ready to produce. This year, we took a more inclusive definition. Primarily, the additional half-million wells can be accounted for by including wells listed as dry holes, and the inclusion of more types of injection wells. Basically anything with an API number that was not described as permanently plugged was included this time around.

Data for North Carolina are not included, because they did not respond to three email inquiries about their oil and gas data. However, in last year’s national map aggregation, we were told that there were only two active wells in the state. Similarly, we do not have individual well data for Texas, and we use a published list of well counts by county in its place. Last year, we assumed that because there was a charge for the dataset, we would be unable to republish well data. In discussions with the Railroad Commission, we have learned that the data can in fact be republished. However, technical difficulties with their datasets persist, and data that we have purchased lacked location values, despite metadata suggesting that it would be included. So in short, we still don’t have Texas well data, even though it is technically available.

Wells by Type and Status

Each state is responsible for what their oil and gas data looks like, so a simple analysis of something as ostensibly straightforward as what type of well has been drilled can be surprisingly complicated when looking across state lines. Additionally, some states combine the well type and well status into a single data field, making comparisons even more opaque.

Top 10 of 371 published well types for wells in the United States.

Top 10 of 371 published well types for wells in the United States.

Among all of the oil producing states, there are 371 different published well types. This data is “raw,” meaning that no effort has been made to combine similar entries, so “gas, oil” is counted separately from “GAS OIL,” and “Bad Data” has not been combined with “N/A,” either. Conforming data from different sources is an exercise that gets out of hand rather quickly, and utility over using the original published data is questionable, as well. We share this information, primarily to demonstrate the messy state of the data. Many states combine their well type and well status data into a single column, while others keep them separate. Unfortunately, the most frequent well type was blank, either because states did not publish well types, or they did not publish them for all of their wells.

There are no national standards for publishing oil and gas data – a serious barrier to data transparency and the most important takeaway from this exercise… 

Wells by Location

Active oil and gas wells in 2015 by state. Except for Texas, all data were aggregated published well coordinates.

Active oil and gas wells in 2015 by state. Except for Texas, all data were aggregated published well coordinates.

There are oil and gas wells in 35 of the 50 states (70%) in the United States, and 1,673 out of 3,144 (53%) of all county and county equivalent areas. The number of wells per state ranges from 57 in Maryland to 291,996 in Texas. There are 135 counties with a single well, while the highest count is in Kern County, California, host to 77,497 active wells.

With the exception of Texas, where the data are based on published lists of well county by county, the state and county well counts were determined by the location of the well coordinates. Because of this, any errors in the original well’s location data could lead to mistakes in the state and county summary files. Any wells that are offshore are not included, either. Altogether, there are about 6,000 wells (0.4%) are missing from the state and county files.

Wells by Operator

There are a staggering number of oil and gas operators in the United States. In a recent project with the National Resources Defense Council, we looked at violations across the few states that publish such data, and only for the 68 operators that were identified previously as having the largest lease acreage nationwide. Even for this task, we had to follow a spreadsheet of which companies were subsidiaries of others, and sometimes the inclusion of an entity like “Williams” on the list came down to a judgement call as to whether we had the correct company or not.

No such effort was undertaken for this analysis. So in Pennsylvania, wells drilled by the operator Exco Resources PA, Inc. are not included with those drilled by Exco Resources PA, Llc., even though they are presumably the same entity. It just isn’t feasible to systematically go through thousands of operators to determine which operators are owned by whom, so we left the data as is. Results, therefore, should be taken with a brine truck’s worth of salt.

Top 10 wells by operator in the US, excluding Texas. Unknown operators are highlighted in red.

Top 10 wells by operator in the US, excluding Texas. Unknown operators are highlighted in red.

Texas does publish wells by operator, but as with so much of their data, it’s just not worth the effort that it takes to process it. First, they process it into thirteen different files, then publish it in PDF format, requiring special software to convert the data to spreadsheet format. Suffice to say, there are thousands of operators of active oil and gas wells in the Lone Star State.

Not counting Texas, there are 39,693 different operators listed in the United States. However, many of those listed are some version of “we don’t know whose well this is.” Sorting the operators by the number of wells that they are listed as having, we see four of the top ten operators are in fact unknown, including the top three positions.

Summary

The state of oil and gas data in the United States is clearly in shambles. As long as there are no national standards for data transparency, we can expect this trend to continue. The data that we looked for in this file is what we consider to be bare bones: well name, well type, well status, slant (directional, vertical, or horizontal), operator, and location. In none of these categories can we say that we have a satisfactory sense of what is going on nationally.

Click on the above button to download the three sets of data we used to make the dynamic map (once you are zoomed in to a state level). The full dataset was broken into three parts due to the large file sizes.

Oil train - Photo by Washinton House Democrats

Increasing Risk from Exploding Crude Trains

By Randy Sargent, Carnegie Mellon CREATE Lab and Samantha Malone, FracTracker Alliance

In the past two years, crude oil trains have exploded 10 times, killing 47 people.

LacMegantic

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec: 47 killed

NewBrunswick

Outside Plaster Rock, New Brunswick

Casselton

Outside Casselton, ND

Aliceville

Outside Aliceville, AL

Lynchburg

Outside Lynchburg, VA

WV

Outside Mt. Carbon, WV

Timmins

Outside Timmins, Ontario

Galena

Outside Galena, IL

 

 

Heimdal

Outside Heimdal, ND

Gogoma

Outside Gogama, Ontario

It could have been much worse. Eight of the ten trains exploded in rural areas. The train that flattened half the business district of the small town of Lac-Mégantic might have killed hundreds of people if it had exploded during business hours.[1] Residents in Philadelphia have dodged a bullet several times already; they’ve seen two oil train derailments there that fortunately did not explode. And last week’s Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia that killed 8 people and injured more than 200 could have been much worse, had it impacted an oil train in that area.

Today we ship 17 times as much oil by rail as we did in 2010. This past year we shipped 14.5 billion gallons of oil — that’s 6,700 oil trains the size that destroyed Lac-Mégantic:

This chart above and the ones that follow are derived from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s recently provided data tracking crude oil movements by rail.

Why do oil trains explode so easily?

Like a carbonated beverage with dissolved CO2, oil extracted from Bakken wells naturally has lighter hydrocarbons in it, such as methane, ethane, propane, and butane. Methane — natural gas — is the lightest of the gases and boils out quickly at surface pressure. But ethane, propane, and butanes, known as light ends or natural gas liquids in the oil industry, take time and/or heat to boil out.[2]

In the most prolific oilfield in the U.S. today, North Dakota’s Bakken formation, most of light ends are left in the oil before loading on the train, to maximize value of what is sent to the refinery. But much like a soda bottle, the pressure increases with temperature and motion, with pressurized ethane, propane, and butane at the top. With those highly volatile gases under pressure, all it takes to create an explosion is a leak and a spark, and both commonly happen in a derailment or collision.

All ten exploding crude trains carried oil from the Bakken.

In contrast, shale oilfields in Texas do stabilize crude by removing light ends prior to shipment by rail.

Where are the exploding Bakken oil trains going?

Bakken trains travel through much of the US and Canada, heading to refineries on the coasts. Increasingly, they are traveling to East coast refineries, which now handle over half of Bakken crude oil production.

Closer to home for the authors, Pittsburgh is a popular waypoint for Bakken oil trains. Known for its steel industry in the 20th century, Pittsburgh continues to sport a large rail infrastructure. Its rails go through very densely populated areas, a good thing when the rails carried ore and steel and coal for the mills. But it’s a disaster waiting to happen now that the rails are bringing explosive oil trains through the city.

CMU

Oil and compressed gasses transit Carnegie Mellon University multiple times daily, Pittsburgh, PA

Oil trains travel across Pittsburgh's North Shore and Downtown multiple times daily, as well

Oil trains travel across Pittsburgh’s North Shore and Downtown multiple times daily, as well

 

A significant and growing fraction of Bakken oil trains carrying 1 million gallons or more transit Pittsburgh, with ~30 a week based on Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency data released for five days in October 2014. Prior to the disclosure, volunteers spent a day with us in 2014 recording traffic along one of several routes into the city to learn more about whether / how the trains might pose a risk to city residents and workers. Learn more about what we found here.

Why does this matter?

As crude-by-rail traffic continues to increase, it is only a matter of time before an oil train explodes in a populated area again. Imagine any of the 10 explosions so far taking place instead in downtown Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, or flattening a school in suburban Chicago, for example.

Map of Lac-Mégantic destruction from the Toronto Star’s article, “Where they died”

Map of Lac-Mégantic destruction from the Toronto Star’s article, Where they died. Click to explore the interactive map.

Learn more about the Lac-Megantic disaster through the eyes of those who lived through it.

What can be done

One attempt to make these trains safer, by requiring new tanker cars be built to a safer standard, does not appear to have helped; the most recent 5 exploding trains used the newest, “safer” tanker cars.

But there are effective measures that are in our power to take:


Photo and Video Credits

Endnotes

  1. The direction that the ignited oil flowed after the incident also played a significant role in the path of the damage and fatalities.
  2. Light Ends information

Is it getting hot in North Dakota?

By Samantha Malone, Manager of Education, Communications & Partnerships, FracTracker Alliance

North Dakota sure is popular recently. You might wonder why ND’s oil and gas development has been such a hot topic when the average monthly temperature there in November is only 27° F. Below we summarize the recent ND coverage and why the state has been the focus of several conversations lately.

The Intensity of Drilling

On November 22nd The New York Times launched a two-part series starting with The Downside of the Boom. Herein, the NY Times highlights how North Dakota’s regulatory system is insufficient to manage a hefty oil and gas industry. Part two in the series looks into Where Oil and Politics Mix in ND. This investigative journalism series questioned how well the state is managing oil and gas development, which was followed quickly by criticism of the series by state officials. If you haven’t checked out this series and its incredible visuals yet, I would highly recommend it.

FracTracker maintains a shale viewer map of North Dakota and its horizontal oil wells if you would like to explore where the industry is operating. Interestingly, ND is one of the few states where the horizontally drilled well data is available to the public. (Horizontal wells jut out from the vertical wells below ground.) Our interactive map of ND includes zooming features, well API information, and a measurement tool to examine horizontal well lengths. The screenshot below shows that one of the laterals on this map extends out two miles underground. Click the map to explore more:

Interactive Map of ND Wells on FracTracker

Interactive Map of ND Wells on FracTracker, with Measurement Tool

Alternatively, here the New York Times shows what ND would look like if all of the state’s oil wells were aboveground:

NYTimes Graphic: What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground

NYTimes Graphic: What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground

NPCA

On November 12 and 13, 2014, the National Parks Conservation Association launched their campaign to educate citizens about how oil and gas development may affect America’s national parks. NPCA kicked off their campaign with two events in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, PA to showcase a crowd-sourced digital map we helped them create with our new mobile app. The map’s photos detail the scale of oil and gas development near North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park and is shown below:


NPCA Photo Map. View fullscreen

Photos

And finally… We spent some time with NPCA collecting photos for that map with our app in ND this spring. Below are just a few, the rest of which can be found in our new ND photo album:

Over 1.1 Million Active Oil and Gas Wells in the US

Many people ask us how many wells have been hydraulically fractured in the United States.  It is an excellent question, but not one that is easily answered; most states don’t release data on well stimulation activities.  Also, since the data are released by state regulatory agencies, it is necessary to obtain data from each state that has oil and gas data to even begin the conversation.  We’ve finally had a chance to complete that task, and have been able to aggregate the following totals:

Oil and gas summary data of drilled wells in the United States.

Oil and gas summary data of drilled wells in the United States.

 

While data on hydraulically fractured wells is rarely made available, the slant of the wells are often made accessible.  The well types are as follows:

  • Directional:  Directional wells are those where the top and the bottom of the holes do not line up vertically.  In some cases, the deviation is fairly slight.  These are also known as deviated or slant wells.
  • Horizontal:  Horizontal wells are directional wells, where the well bore makes something of an “L” shape.  States may have their own definition for horizontal wells.  In Alaska, these wells are defined as those deviating at least 80° from vertical.  Currently, operators are able to drill horizontally for several miles.
  • Directional or Horizontal:  These wells are known to be directional, but whether they are classified as horizontal or not could not be determined from the available data.  In many cases, the directionality was determined by the presence of directional sidetrack codes in the well’s API number.
  • Vertical:  Wells in which the top hole and bottom hole locations are in alignment.  States may have differing tolerances for what constitutes a vertical well, as opposed to directional.
  • Hydraulically Fractured:  As each state releases data differently, it wasn’t always possible to get consistent data.  These wells are known to be hydraulically fractured, but the slant of the well is unknown.
  • Not Fractured:  These wells have not been hydraulically fractured, and the slant of the well is unknown.
  • Unknown:  Nothing is known about the slant, stimulation, or target formation of the well in question.
  • Unknown (Shale Formation):  Nothing is known about the slant or stimulation of the wells in question; however, it is known that the target formation is a major shale play.  Therefore, it is probable that the well has been hydraulically fractured, with a strong possibility of being drilled horizontally.

Wells that have been hydraulically fractured might appear in any of the eight categories, with the obvious exception of “Not Fractured.”  Categories that are very likely to be fractured include, “Horizontal”, “Hydraulically Fractured”, and “Unknown (Shale Formation),” the total of which is about 32,000 wells.  However, that number doesn’t include any wells from Texas or Colorado, where we know thousands wells have been drilled into major shale formations, but the data had to be placed into categories that were more vague.

Oil and gas wells in the United States, as of February 2014. Location data were not available for Maryland (n=104), North Carolina (n=2), and Texas (n=303,909).  To access the legend and other map tools, click the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner.

The standard that we attempted to reach for all of the well totals was for wells that have been drilled but have not yet been plugged, which is a broad spectrum of the well’s life-cycle.  In some cases, decisions had to be made in terms of which wells to include, due to imperfect metadata.

No location data were available for Maryland, North Carolina, or Texas.  The first two have very few wells, and officials in Maryland said that they expect to have the data available within about a month.  Texas location data is available for purchase, however such data cannot be redistributed, so it was not included on the map.

It should not be assumed that all of the wells that are shown in  the map above the shale plays and shale basin layers are actually drilled into shale.  In many cases, however, shale is considered a source rock, where hydrocarbons are developed, before the oil and gas products migrate upward into shallower, more conventional formations.

The raw data oil and gas data is available for download on our site in shapefile format.

 

Oil Drilling’s Impact on ND Communities

By Thomas DiPaolo, 2013 GIS Intern, FracTracker Alliance

ND Shale Viewer

ND Shale Viewer

Out of North Dakota’s 53 counties, 19 are responsible for producing the oil and natural gas that has brought the state so much prosperity and attention. It’s the latest get-rich-quick scheme, and one that works better than that name would suggest: drive to North Dakota, work in the oil fields for six months, and go home with enough money to find something more permanent. This means that some of the quiet towns overlying the Bakken formation are exploding in size, and many of their new residents lack any connection to these communities when they’re off duty. In the past, similar population booms have been tied to a corresponding increase in crime rates and drug usage, and FracTracker Alliance has examined the available data to find out how much life has changed in North Dakota since the oil started to flow.

Housing Availability

There’s a reason why the you have to drive to North Dakota if you want to stay in the black, and it helps if you’ve got a comfortable car.

Perhaps the biggest problem here, perhaps a cause of others, is that there is simply not enough housing for everyone who wants to work in North Dakota. Trailer parks pack every available inch of space for families from out of state prepared to settle in, becoming themselves towns in miniature, and one of the benefits to consider when working for one oil drilling company over another is to find out which ones are constructing dedicated worker housing and amenities. Familiarity doesn’t fail to breed contempt; demand for living space is so high, in fact, that families who have lived in these towns their whole lives are being forced out as rent prices rise without end. Meanwhile, many have taken to simply sleeping in their cars, and tensions have grown as stores forbid them from parking overnight in their lots.

Crime

With the number of people moving into the state to work in the oil fields, or in industries that support them, North Dakota’s population reached 699,628 in 2012, a jump from the 642,200 people of 2000. More people, of course, means greater effort required to keep the peace – The number of law enforcement officers accordingly jumped from 967 in 2000 to 1,253 in 2012. At first glance, one might think that did the job, since the crime rate fell from 2,203 index crimes1 reported per 100,000 people to 2,122 per 100,000 people, and the number of arrests per officer stayed constant (3.1 in 2000, 3.0 in 2012). That conclusion doesn’t hold up well when you look at how crime has fluctuated within the oil-producing counties.2 The population there has risen to 183,940 people, from just 167,515 people in 2000, and it currently employs 379 law enforcement officers, up from 250 officers. In 2000 the crime rate was already in excess of the state average at 1,582 index crimes reported per 100,000 people and 8.3 arrests per law enforcement officer. By 2012, those figures reached 1,629 crimes per 100,000 people and 12.8 arrests per officer. With only a quarter of the state’s population, the crime rate is three-quarters of the state average. This upswell applies especially to violent crimes. Violent crime reports, numbered at 558 statewide in 2000, nearly tripled to 1,445 in 2012; in the oil counties, they more than tripled from 103 to 363 crimes reported. That number carries through in the crime rate figures; statewide, 206.5 violent crimes occurred per 100,000 people in 2012, while only 86.9 crimes were reported per 100,000 people in 2000; in the oil counties, 197.3 violent crimes were reported per 100,000 people in 2012, compared to only 61.5 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2000. See Table 1 for a comparison of total and violent crimes between the year 2000 and the year 2012.

Table 1. Crime rates per 100,000 people in North Dakota (2000 vs. 2012)

Total Index Crimes Violent Crimes
Statewide Oil Counties Statewide Oil Counties
2000 2,203 1,582 86.9 61.5
2012 2,122 1,629 206.5 197.3

Where the line blurs is in addressing property crime. Until 2009, there had been a steady decline in the rate of property crime. Since then, however, it has been increasing every year, even if the 2012 figures are still beneath those of 2000. Statewide, the number of property crimes hovered at 13,592 reported crimes in 2000 and 13,402 in 2012, while in the oil counties they rose slightly from 2,547 property crimes in 2000 to 2,634 crimes in 2012. At the same time, the property crime rates fell both statewide (2,116 crimes per 100,000 people to 1,916 per 100,000 people) and in the oil counties (1,529 crimes per 100,000 people to 1,486 per 1000,000 people).

Prostitution

When you have that many single young men together, as so many of the oil field workers are, a market inevitably springs up for very particular crimes. Prostitution stings consume a greater quantity of police time than ever before, with some ND counties reporting their first prostitution arrests ever. In many cases, the suspects in these cases demonstrate a similar attitude to the oil workers they court: stay for a brief period (typically days rather than months), make enough money to support themselves, and keep going out of town. Officers often say that these cases are risky, as they require enough evidence to prove the intent of both parties to exchange money for sex. Without an undercover officer to carry out a sting, many cases could be accused of discrimination, especially in cases where race may be an issue. In other situations, sting operations have provided evidence of drug activity in addition to prostitution.

Drug Use

Juvenile Alcohol Use

In addition to the oil boom, North Dakota has the uncomfortable claim of being one of the nation’s leaders when it comes to binge drinking. It’s notable then to see that, while juvenile3 alcohol use has fallen drastically across the board, juveniles are developing more permissive attitudes towards alcohol use. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of juveniles who reported using alcohol within the previous month fell from 18,000 to 7,000, and it fell from 11,000 to 4,000 juveniles in regards to binge drinking4 on a weekly basis. At the same time, the number of juveniles showing signs of alcohol dependence or abuse fell from 6,000 to 2,000, and those described as needing but not receiving treatment for alcohol abuse fell from 5,000 to 2,000. Yet only 17,000 juveniles reported perceiving great risk from said binge drinking in 2011, where 22,000 had reported perceiving great risk in 2000. Why are more juveniles rejecting personal alcohol use while becoming less concerned with others’ usage?

Adult Drug & Alcohol Use

Whatever the reason, adult alcohol usage has demonstrated the opposite trend: more people are drinking but fewer enjoy it. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of adults using alcohol monthly rose from 286,000 to 320,000, and those binge drinking weekly rose from 144,000 to 165,000. The number of adults perceiving great risk from weekly binge drinking also rose from 173,000 to 183,000, but the number with signs of alcohol dependence or abuse rose from 33,000 to 47,000. Interestingly, the number of adults described as needing but not receiving treatment for alcohol use has barely changed in this time; 46,000 adults were characterized this way in 2000, as opposed to 45,000 of them in 2011.

Smoking and Marijuana Use

The one trend shared between both juveniles and adults is a steady increase in the number of people expressing permissive attitudes towards the use of marijuana. In 2000, 4,000 juveniles and 13,000 adults reported using marijuana within the previous month; by 2011, only 2,000 juveniles reported using marijuana within the previous month, but the number of adults doing so had jumped to 23,000. At that time, only 17,000 juveniles and 171,000 adults reported perceiving great risk from the use of marijuana on a monthly basis, down from 25,000 and 213,000 respectively in 2000. These figures come at a time when other forms of smoking are becoming less popular across the U.S. In 2000 in ND, 16,000 juveniles were using tobacco products on a monthly basis, and 13,000 were using cigarettes specifically; those numbers had fallen to 6,000 and 5,000 juveniles respectively by 2000. Even among adults there were small declines over this time period: 154,000 adults were using tobacco monthly in 2011 as opposed to 161,000 in 2000, and 121,000 adults as opposed to 128,000 were using cigarettes. And while the number of juveniles perceiving great risk from pack-a-day smoking fell from 38,000 to 32,000 between 2000 and 2011, while 346,000 adults perceived great risk from it in 2011, as opposed to 315,000 in 2000.


Footnotes

  1. According to the Crime and Homicide Reports of the North Dakota Attorney General’s office, index crimes are reported to the National Uniform Crime Reporting program managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in order to broadly describe the level of criminal activity around the country. They are divided into two categories, violent and property-related. The violent index crimes tracked by North Dakota are murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The property index crimes tracked by the state are burglary, larceny and theft, and motor vehicle theft.
  2. The North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties lists the following counties as its members: Adams, Billings, Bottineau, Bowman, Burke, Divide, Dunn, Golden Valley, Hettinger, McHenry, McKenzie, McLean, Mercer, Mountrail, Renville, Slope, Stark, Ward, and Williams.
  3. The National Surveys on Drug Use and Health define a “juvenile” as any person between the ages of 12 and 17 years, and an adult as any person aged 18 years or older.
  4. The National Surveys on Drug Use and Health define “binge drinking” as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting.