Peer-to-peer and neighbor-to-neighbor promotion and education helped pioneer a model for adoption of clean energy in New York State communities.
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If Gov. Cuomo wants to lead the nation on climate, he has to address the impacts of proof of work cryptocurrency mining industry in New York.
Over the past decade, New York State has seen a steep decline in the quantity of waste products from the fracking industry sent to its landfills for disposal. Explore FracTracker’s 2020 updated data.
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Oil and Gas Database includes records for nearly 45,000 wells in the state, nearly all of which are related to the oil and gas industry. Of these records, only 19,600 include drilling dates; some records simply reflect drilling permits that were applied for and expired, or were cancelled for other reasons. Of the records listed, 99% of those drilled are vertical, “conventional” wells.
Research by Bishop (2013) indicates that there could be more than 30,000 additional oil and gas wells that are not documented in the DEC’s database, and potentially not adequately plugged.
Over the past half-century, drilling activity in New York State has ebbed and flowed. In that period of time, drilling interest in oil and gas saw two main peaks: between 1975 and 1985, and — especially for gas — between 2004 and 2010. Gas drilling activity has currently tailed off to practically nothing since the ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing was passed in late 2014.
In 2018 and 2019, there was a brief flurry of oil drilling, but that too has dropped off. The causes for the decline in new wells are complicated, but likely reflect a combination of reduced consumption of fossil fuels, as well as steady decreases in the price of oil and gas. Prices in the past several years are up to half what they were previously. In addition, the impact of COVID on the industry has also contributed to this decline, although other sources assert that the fossil fuel industry has benefited from the global pandemic.
In this article we’ll look specifically at spatial and temporal patterns in oil and gas drilling across New York State.
Every year, FracTracker updates the full state-wide dataset of oil, gas, and other assorted (non-drinking water) wells. To see the entire “big picture,” you can explore our interactive map below, which shows all wells in the New York State database, from prior to 1900 through late February 2021.
New York State Oil and Gas Wells
This map shows that, despite New York State banning high volume hydraulic, nearly 45,000 wells have been drilled, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Not all the wells in the DEC’s database were actually drilled; some were sites that were permitted, but never explored. Many have been plugged and abandoned. There may be nearly as many undocumented wells as there are in the database, given that record keeping in earlier years was nowhere near as comprehensive as it is today.
In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view. Data sources can be found in the Details section of the map as well as listed the end of this article.
View Full Screen | Updated February, 2021
FracTracker has also taken a more fine-grained approach to consider the patterns in drilling in New York State both spatially and temporally. Using the DEC wells database, we first filtered out well data for records that had actual spud (drilling) dates between 1970 and the present. Then, using pivot tables in Microsoft Excel, we graphed the data, and also looked for patterns around where the drilling was taking place.
Emergent from this process, we see the following.
Oil and gas hotspots are directly related to the underlying geology of a region. In New York State, the majority of oil wells have been drilled in the Chipmunk and Bradford Formations, followed by the Fulmer Valley, Glade, and Richburg Formations.
Oil Wells in NYS and Their Associated Geological Formations
Updated February 2021
Figure 1. Oil Wells in NYS and Their Associated Geological Formations. Gas wells have historically been most productive in the Medina Formation, followed by the Queenston, and also Trenton-Black River Formations. Data source: New York State DEC Oil and Gas Database.
Gas Wells in NYS and Their Associated Geological Formations
Updated February 2021
Figure 2. Gas wells in NYS and their associated geological formations. Data source: NYS DEC Oil and Gas Database.
Activity in drilling has exhibited distinct patterns over time, as well.
Figure 3. New oil and gas wells in New York State by year (1970-2020). Data source: New York State DEC Oil and Gas Database.
In 1982 and 1983, gas drilling in New York State surged, with 774 and 667 new wells drilled over those two years, respectively. The hot spot was in the Medina Group, which over the years, continued to be a primary focus. Well depths in this section of bedrock average around 3,400 feet at that time, although wells were exploited at a more shallow depth in subsequent years. Starting in 1995, gas was discovered in the Black River shale formation, with reservoirs more than 10,000 feet deep in some places. All of these wells were vertically oriented, but still were exploited using hydraulic fracturing technologies.
The early to mid-1980s marked a relatively high level in oil well drilling in New York State, with a peak occurring in 1984, with 153 wells drilled. After a lull of about 20 years, activity picked up again in 2005, hitting a high point in 2006 when 188 oil wells were drilled. In 2010, there was another peak with 188 wells, followed by a waning period of 4 years. Then, in 2019, interest exploded in a small area of the Bradford oil fields in Cattaraugus County, with 156 wells drilled, and an average production of 319 barrels per well over the course of that year.
According to EIA estimate from 2014, the cost of drilling an onshore oil well is between $4.9 – 8.3 million, however smaller vertical wells like those common in New York State are likely to cost more in the range of $150,000. With the price of oil at $64 a barrel in 2019, in its first year in production, the gross profit of any of these wells in New York, based on reported production, would have been between $0 and $120,000, with an average year around $20,400 per well. It’s hard to imagine how drilling for oil in recent years in New York State could have possibly been profitable, in particular with the steep drop-off in production typically seen after the first year or two.
Figure 4. Example of monthly production decline following drilling of an oil well. Data source: US Energy Information Administration
These simple examples of a localized “oil boom” in New York State provide a stark example of exactly how unsustainable these endeavors are, particularly for small drilling operators. So, despite the enthusiastic rush to oil drilling in 2019, activity after that has been followed by a quick decline, with only 41 oil wells drilled in New York State in 2020, and only 4, so far, in 2021.
Patterns in other types of wells
The increase in dry wells seems to track with the general patterns of oil and gas exploration. Hence, in periods when a lot of oil and gas wells are being drilled, there will be a higher number of wells that are dry, or nonproductive. During the 1970s, there was also a strong peak in disposal wells drilled. We are not certain whether this is, or is not, related to the high number of gas wells drilled during this period.
Figure 5. New oil and gas wells in New York State, by year (1970-2020). Data source: New York State DEC Oil and Gas Database
New York State moving towards better stewardship of legacy wells
Some of the oil and gas wells drilled in the 19th and early 20th century were particularly poorly documented (or not documented at all), and improperly plugged. This creates a public and environmental safety hazard, with more than 30,000 of these undocumented oil and gas wells spread across the state potentially leaking methane into the air and water. Finding the abandoned and orphan wells has been a long term problem because they are often located in rough terrain across central and western New York. Fortunately, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has taken new measures to locate and plug these legacy wells, using drone technology. FracTracker reported on a pilot initiative a few years ago that was testing this technique, but the new program is backed by $400,000 in funding from NYSERDA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, in support of New York States ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
One hundred years ago, few people expressed concerns about the environmental hazards associated with oil and gas drilling. Record-keeping was spotty, which has left us with a legacy of wells whose locations are lost to memory, or simply improperly plugged. After several periods of vigorous mineral extraction activity in the 1980s and early 2000s, oil and gas drilling has declined in its profitability, and formerly easily-accessed reserves have been depleted. Today, with unprecedented interest in clean energy sources like wind, geothermal, and solar, society can become less dependent on fossil fuels, and focus on responsibly stewarding the remnants of these “dinosaurs,” using new technologies to help clean up the damages left by them.
Topics in this Article
Datasets used in this article and accompanying maps
The production of fracking waste in the Appalachian Basin puts public health and safety at risk.
Fracking produces more than just oil and gas — billions of gallons of highly toxic waste are also created in the process. Regulatory loopholes have led to limited oversight into how this waste is tracked and treated, putting public health and safety at risk.
The maps below explore issues related to fracking waste from the Marcellus and Utica Shale regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and West Virginia.
We suggest viewing this map fullscreen (click the link to do so)
This mapping platform is an evolving tool based on available data — yet the opaqueness of the fracking industry limits our ability to map and analyze the full scope of the problem of fracking waste in the Appalachian Basin.
Unfortunately, even after sifting through thousands of data points, we’re left with many outstanding questions — what are the chemical components of the waste created? Where is it all sent? Where are its byproducts sent? What facilities are being planned and proposed? How much illegal dumping occurs?
The production of fracking waste in the Appalachian Basin will continue to create environmental and public health threats for decades after the industry leaves the region. Wells can continue to generate wastewater for years and contaminated equipment sent to landfills will leach toxins into the environment. Furthermore, with the industry’s history of failing to restore land after it has been used for oil and gas operations, we can expect abandoned fracking sites to become an increasing source of pollution in the Appalachian Basin in the coming decades. It’s imperative that the public have access to accurate and detailed data on fracking waste to protect the health of workers and residents.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the current trend in “re-branding” incineration as a viable option to deal with the mountains of garbage generated by our society. Incineration can produce energy for electricity, but can the costs—both economically, and ecologically—justify the benefits? What are the alternatives?
Changes in our waste stream
In today’s world of consumerism and production, waste disposal is a chronic problem facing most communities worldwide. Lack of attention to recycling and composting, as well as ubiquitous dependence on plastics, synthetics, and poorly-constructed or single-use goods has created a waste crisis in the United States. So much of the waste that we create could be recycled or composted, however, taking extraordinary levels of pressure off our landfills. According to estimates in 2017 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 30 percent of municipal solid waste is made up of organic matter like food waste, wood, and yard trimmings, almost all of which could be composted. Paper, glass, and metals – also recyclable – make up nearly 40 percent of the residential waste stream. Recycling plastic, a material which comprises 13% of the waste stream, has largely been a failed endeavor thus far.
Figure 1: A breakdown of the 267.78 million tons of municipal waste that were generated in the US in 2017. Source: figure developed by FracTracker Alliance, based on 2017 EPA data. Source: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials
Nevertheless, of the approximately 400 million tons of plastic produced annually around the world, only about 10% of it is recycled. The rest winds up in the waste stream or as microfragments (or microplastics) in our oceans, freshwater lakes, and streams.
Figure 2: Increase in global plastics production, 1950-2015, Source: Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7), e1700782. Available at: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782 Referenced in https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
According to an EPA fact sheet, by 2017, municipal solid waste generation increased three-fold compared with 1960. In 1960, that number was 88.1 million tons. By 2017, this number had risen to nearly 267.8 million tons. Over that same period, per-capita waste generation rose from 2.68 pounds per person per day, to 4.38 pounds per person per day, as our culture became more wed to disposable items.
The EPA provides a robust “facts and figures” breakdown of waste generation and disposal here. In 2017, 42.53 million tons of US waste was shipped to landfills, which are under increasing pressure to expand and receive larger and larger loads from surrounding area, and, in some cases, hundreds of miles away.
How are Americans doing in reducing waste?
On average, in 2017, Americans recycled and composted 35.2% of our individual waste generation rate of 4.51 pounds per person per day. While this is a notable jump from decades earlier, much of the gain appears to be in the development of municipal yard waste composting programs. Although the benefits of recycling are abundantly clear, in today’s culture, according to a PEW Research Center report published in 2016, just under 30% of Americans live in communities where recycling is strongly encouraged. An EPA estimate for 2014 noted that the recycling rate that year was only 34.6%, nationwide, with the highest compliance rate at 89.5% for corrugated boxes.
Figure 3. Percent of Americans who report recycling and re-use behaviors in their communities, via Pew Research center
Historically, incineration – or burning solid waste – has been one method for disposing of waste. And in 2017, this was the fate of 34 million tons—or nearly 13%– of all municipal waste generated in the United States. Nearly a quarter of this waste consisted of containers and packaging—much of that made from plastic. The quantity of packaging materials in the combusted waste stream has jumped from only 150,000 tons in 1970 to 7.86 million tons in 2017. Plastic, in its many forms, made up 16.4% of all incinerated materials, according to the EPA’s estimates in 2017.
Figure 4: A breakdown of the 34.03 tons of municipal waste incinerated for energy in the US in 2017
What is driving the abundance of throw-away plastics in our waste stream?
Sadly, the answer is this: The oil and gas industry produces copious amounts of ethane, which is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction. Plastics are an “added value” component of the cycle of fossil fuel extraction. FracTracker has reported extensively on the controversial development of ethane “cracker” plants, which chemically change this extraction waste product into feedstock for the production of polypropylene plastic nuggets. These nuggets, or “nurdles,” are the building blocks for everything from fleece sportswear, to lumber, to packaging materials. The harmful impacts from plastics manufacturing on air and water quality, as well as on human and environmental health, are nothing short of stunning.
FracTracker has reported extensively on this issue. For further background reading, explore:
- A Formula for Disaster: Calculating Risk at the Ethane Cracker (2/8/2017)
- Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure (5/3/2017)
- Piecing Together an Ethane Cracker: How fragmented approvals and infrastructure favor petrochemical development (5/31/2017)
- PTTGC’s Ethane Cracker Project: Risks of Bringing Plastic Manufacturing to Ohio (11/30/2018)
- Mapping the Petrochemical Build-Out Along the Ohio River (7/10/2019)
A report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance and the Center for Environmental Integrity in 2019 found that plastic production and incineration in 2019 contributed greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 189 new 500-megawatt coal power plants. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2050, these emissions could rise to the equivalent to the emissions released by more than 615 coal-fired power plants.
Figure 5: Projected carbon dioxide equivalencies in plastics emissions, 2019-2050. Source: Plastic and Climate https://www.ciel.org/plasticandclimate/
Just another way of putting fossil fuels into our atmosphere
Incineration is now strongly critiqued as a dangerous solution to waste disposal as more synthetic and heavily processed materials derived from fossils fuels have entered the waste stream. Filters and other scrubbers that are designed to remove toxins and particulates from incineration smoke are anything but fail-safe. Furthermore, the fly-ash and bottom ash that are produced by incineration only concentrate hazardous compounds even further, posing additional conundrums for disposal.
Incineration as a means of waste disposal, in some states is considered a “renewable energy” source when electricity is generated as a by-product. Opponents of incineration and the so-called “waste-to-energy” process see it as a dangerous route for toxins to get into our lungs, and into the food stream. In fact, Energy Justice Network sees incineration as:
… the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste – far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy – far more polluting than coal burning.
Municipal waste incineration: bad environmentally, economically, ethically
Waste incineration has been one solution for disposing of trash for millennia. And now, aided by technology, and fueled by a crisis to dispose of ever-increasing trash our society generates, waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration facilities are a component in how we produce electricity.
But what is a common characteristic of the communities in which WTEs are sited? According to a 2019 report by the Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School, 79% of all municipal solid waste incinerators are located in communities of color and low-income communities. Incinerators are not only highly problematic environmentally and economically. They present direct and dire environmental justice threats.
Waste-to-Energy facilities in the US, existing and proposed
Activate the Layers List button to turn on Environmental Justice data on air pollutants and cancer occurrences across the United States. We have also included real-time air monitoring data in the interactive map because one of the health impacts of incineration includes respiratory illnesses. These air monitoring stations measure ambient particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the atmosphere, which can be a helpful metric.
What are the true costs of incineration?
These trash incinerators capture energy released from the process of burning materials, and turn it into electricity. But what are the costs? Proponents of incineration say it is a sensible way to reclaim or recovery energy that would otherwise be lost to landfill disposal. The US EIA also points out that burning waste reduces the volume of waste products by up to 87%.
The down-side of incineration of municipal waste, however, is proportionally much greater, with a panoply of health effects documented by the National Institutes for Health, and others.
Dioxins (shown in Figures 6-11) are some of the most dangerous byproducts of trash incineration. They make up a group of highly persistent organic pollutants that take a long time to degrade in the environment and are prone to bioaccumulation up the food chain.
Dioxins are known to cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine and immune systems, and lead to reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins are some of the most dangerous compounds produced from incineration. Compared with the air pollution from coal-burning power plants, dioxin concentrations produced from incineration may be up to 28 times as high.
Federal EPA regulations between 2000 and 2005 resulted in the closure of nearly 200 high dioxin emitting plants. Currently, there are fewer than 100 waste-to-energy incinerators operating in the United States, all of which are required to operate with high-tech equipment that reduces dioxins to 1% of what used to be emitted. Nevertheless, even with these add-ons, incinerators still produce 28 times the amount of dioxin per BTU when compared with power plants that burn coal.
Even with pollution controls required of trash incinerators since 2005, compared with coal-burning energy generation, incineration still releases 6.4 times as much of the notoriously toxic pollutant mercury to produce the equivalent amount of energy.
Energy Justice Network, furthermore, notes that incineration is the most expensive means of managing waste… as well as making energy. This price tag includes high costs to build incinerators, as well as staff and maintain them — exceeding operation and maintenance costs of coal by a factor of 11, and nuclear by a factor of 4.2.
Figure 12. Costs of incineration per ton are nearly twice that of landfilling. Source: National Solid Waste Management Association 2005 Tip Fee Survey, p. 3.
Energy Justice Network and others have pointed out that the amount of energy recovered and/or saved from recycling or composting is up to five times that which would be provided through incineration.
Figure 13. Estimated power plant capital and operating costs. Source: Energy Justice Network
The myth that incineration is a form of “renewable energy”
Waste is a “renewable” resource only to the extent that humans will continue to generate waste. In general, the definition of “renewable” refers to non-fossil fuel based energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower, and biomass. Synthetic materials like plastics, derived from oil and gas, however, are not. Although not created from fossil fuels, biologically-derived products are not technically “renewable” either.
ZeroWasteEurope argues that:
Biogenic materials you find in the residual waste stream, such as food, paper, card and natural textiles, are derived from intensive agriculture – monoculture forests, cotton fields and other “green deserts”. The ecosystems from which these materials are derived could not survive in the absence of human intervention, and of energy inputs from fossil sources. It is, therefore, more than debatable whether such materials should be referred to as renewable.
Although incineration may reduce waste volumes by up to 90%, the resulting waste-products are problematic. “Fly-ash,” which is composed of the light-weight byproducts, may be reused in concrete and wallboard. “Bottom ash” however, the more coarse fraction of incineration—about 10% overall—concentrates toxins like heavy metals. Bottom-ash is disposed of in landfills or sometimes incorporated into structural fill and aggregate road-base material.
How common is the practice of using trash to fuel power plants?
Trash incineration accounts for a fraction of the power produced in the United States. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, just under 13% of electricity generated in the US comes from burning of municipal solid waste, in fewer than 65 waste-to-energy plants nation-wide. Nevertheless, operational waste-to-incineration plants are found throughout the United States, with a concentration east of the Mississippi.
According to EnergyJustice.net’s count of waste incinerators in the US and Canada, currently, there are:
- 88 operating
- 41 proposed
- 0 expanding
- 207 closed or defeated
Figure 14. Locations of waste incinerators that are already shut down. Source: EnergyJustice.net)
Precise numbers of these incinerators are difficult to ascertain, however. Recent estimates from the federal government put the number of current waste-to-energy facilities at slightly fewer: EPA currently says there are 75 of these incinerators in the United States. And in their database, updated July 2020, the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), lists 63 power plants that are fueled by municipal solid waste. Of these 63 plants, 40—or 66%—are in the northeast United States.
Regardless, advocates of clean energy, waste reduction, and sustainability argue that trash incinerators, despite improvements in pollution reduction over earlier times and the potential for at least some electric generation, are the least effective option for waste disposal that exists. The trend towards plant closure across the United States would support that assertion.
Let’s take a look at the dirty details on WTE facilities in three states in the Northeastern US.
Review of WTE plants in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey
A. New York State
In NYS, there are currently 11 waste-to-energy facilities that are operational, and two that are proposed. Here’s a look at some of them:
The largest waste-to-energy facility in New York State, Covanta Hempstead Company (Nassau County), was built in 1989. It is a 72 MW generating plant, and considered by Covanta to be the “cornerstone of the town’s integrated waste service plan.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ECHO database, this plant has no violations listed. Oddly enough, even after drawing public attention in 2009 about the risks associated with particulate fall-out from the plant, the facility has not been inspected in the past 5 years.
Other WTE facilities in New York State include the Wheelabrator plant located in Peekskill (51 MW), Covanta Energy of Niagara in Niagara Falls (32 MW), Convanta Onondaga in Jamesville (39 MW), Huntington Resource Recovery in Suffolk County (24.3 MW), and the Babylon Resource Recovery Facility also in Suffolk County (16.8 MW). Five additional plants scattered throughout the state in Oswego, Dutchess, Suffolk, Tioga, and Washington Counties, are smaller than 15 MW each. Of those, two closed and one proposal was defeated.
In Pennsylvania, six WTE facilities are currently operating. Two have been closed, and six defeated.
C. New Jersey
And in New Jersey, there are currently four operating WTE facilities. Essex County Resource Recovery Facility, is New Jersey’s largest WTE facility. It opened in 1990, houses three burners, and produces 93 MW total.
Union County Resource Recovery Facility, which opened in 1994, operates three burners, producing 73 MW total. Covanta Camden Energy Recovery Center opened in 1991. It has 13 burners, producing a total of 46 MW. Wheelabrator Gloucester LP (Westville, NJ) opened in 1990. The two burners there produce 21 MW of power. Covanta Warren Energy is the oldest and smallest WTE facility in New Jersey. It produced 14 MW of energy and opened in 1988. Operations are currently shut down, but this closure may not be permanent.
Throw-aways, burn-aways, take-aways
Looming large above the arguments about appropriate siting, environmental justice, financial gain, and energy prices, is a bigger question:
How can we continue to live on this planet at our current rates of consumption, and the resultant waste generation?
The issue here is not so much about the sources of our heat and electricity in the future, but rather “How MUST we change our habits now to ensure a future on a livable planet?”
Professor Paul Connett (emeritus, St. Lawrence University), is a specialist in the build-up of dioxins in food chains, and the problems, dangers, and alternatives to incineration. He is a vocal advocate for a “Zero Waste” approach to consumption, and suggests that every community embrace these principles as ways to guide a reduction of our waste footprint on the planet. The fewer resources that are used, the less waste is produced, mitigating the extensive costs brought on by our consumptive lifestyles. Waste-to-energy incineration facilities are just a symptom of our excessively consumptive society.
Dr. Connett suggests these simple but powerful methods to drastically reduce the amount of materials that we dispose — whether by incineration, landfill, or out the car window on a back-road, anywhere in the world:
- Source separation
- Door-to-door collection
- Building Reuse, Repair and Community centers
- Implementing waste reduction Initiatives
- Building Residual Separation and Research centers
- Better industrial design
- Economic incentives
- Interim landfill for non-recyclables and biological stabilization of other organic materials
Connett’s Zero Waste charge to industry is this: “If we can’t reuse, recycle, or compost it, industry shouldn’t be making it.” Reducing our waste reduces our energy footprint on the planet.
In a similar vein, FracTracker has written about the potential for managing waste through a circular economics model, which has been successfully implemented by the city of Freiburg, Germany. A circular economic model incorporates recycling, reuse, and repair to loop “waste” back into the system. A circular model focuses on designing products that last and can be repaired or re-introduced back into a natural ecosystem.
This is an important vision to embrace. Every day. Everywhere.
- “U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators: An Industry in Decline,” Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School. May, 2019. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5d14dab43967cc000179f3d2/t/5d5c4bea0d59ad00012d220e/1566329840732/CR_GaiaReportFinal_05.21.pdf
- For more in-depth and informative background on plastic in the environment, please watch “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/). The producers of the film encourage holding group discussions after the film so that audiences can actively think through action plans to reduce plastic use.
Figure 17: Illustration of common waste streams from “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/)
On August 3, 2020, New Yorkers rejoiced in Governor Cuomo’s signing of legislation to protect the Empire State from Pennsylvania’s fracking waste. Although New York State has banned high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” within its borders, a fracking waste loophole allowed numerous landfills to received both solid and liquid waste products from drilling operations just south of its border, according to records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP).
What has been at stake
A regulatory loophole in New York State’s laws exempted drilling waste from scrutiny as hazardous materials. Therefore, solid and liquid wastes from drilling operations — including many constituents which are considered secret or “proprietary” — were sent to landfills, and in some cases, spread on roads and walkways in the state. Municipalities were provided with very little understanding of the risks those materials might be posing to air and water quality in and around landfills. Until the signing of this legislation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has considered road-spreading of waste brine from both conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells that was spread on roads a “BUD,” or a beneficial use determination.
Nevertheless, research has shown that produced water from fracking operations can contain tens to thousands of times the allowable drinking water concentration limit of radium, strontium, barium, lead, arsenic, and other elements. Human health impacts of all phases of drilling operations were explored in a recent paper by Wollin et al. (May 2020).
Water that flows to the surface from oil and gas wells, so-called ‘produced water’, represents a mixture of flow-back, the injected frac fluid returning to the surface, and the reservoir water present in natural oil and gas deposits. Among numerous hazardous compounds, produced water may contain bromide, arsenic, strontium, mercury, barium, radioactive isotopes and organic compounds, particularly benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX). The sewage outflow, even from specialized treatment plants, may still contain critical concentrations of barium, strontium and arsenic. Evidence suggests that the quality of groundwater and surface water may be compromised by disposal of produced water.
Carcinogenic and radioactive wastes that are brought to the surface with both conventional and unconventional drilling technologies can have toxic impacts on human health and the natural environment, impacting the endocrine, nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, as well as air and water quality. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 75 percent of the chemicals used in fracking are associated with harm to human organs, while 25 percent are tied to cancer and other genetic mutations.
How could this be allowed?
Although the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)—passed in 1976—specifically safeguards human and environmental health, an amendment to the Act in 1980 exempted from regulation all waste from oil and gas exploration, development, and production. Despite close to 40 years of federal oversight of pollution created by countless industries, oil and gas operations have been subject to far more lax regulations. And although states can pass their own regulations to supplement the federal rule-making, this had not occurred in New York State.
The lead-up to the legislation
The recent legislation to close the fracking loophole in New York State was sponsored in 2019 by Senator Rachel May and Assemblyman Steve Engelbright. Lawmakers had been deadlocked on the issue since 2011, but through much hard work, political and public will, and a favorable complement of elected officials, after the bills finally passed both the New York State Senate and Assembly, they could move to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk, where they were signed into law in early August, 2020. According to EarthWorks, all oil and gas waste will be
- Subject to laboratory analysis to determine whether it has the characteristics of hazardous waste (i.e., ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity)
- Subject wastes to clearer, stronger management regulations like processing, tracking and marking of loads, recordkeeping with a manifest system, reporting to DEC, and specific requirements for clean up in the case of a spill
In addition, the law ensures that waste is disposed of only at facilities equipped to safely handle it.
Now, even wastes like brine from conventional drilling operations must undergo laboratory analysis to determine whether they have characteristics consistent with hazardous materials.
Here’s a look back at our history of accepting fracking waste from Pennsylvania into New York State.
Visualizing a long history of oil and gas waste coming to New York State from Pennsylvania
FracTracker has annually mapped the flow of drilling waste from Pennsylvania to New York State.
To view the map a full screen, click here
Since 2011, nearly 29,000 barrels of fracking liquid waste (drilling fluids, fracturing fluids, produced waters, etc.), along with close to 645,000 tons of solid waste (drill cuttings—some of it radioactive, sludge, contaminated soils, etc.) from Pennsylvania drilling operations have been disposed of in New York State. For more references on radioactivity in drilling materials, explore this resource. Drilling waste reports available from 2010 through the present show a steady decline in waste sent to New York State, beginning in 2011. Nonetheless, New York’s landfills have received as much as 11,548 barrels of drilling waste, and 214,168 tons of solid waste in a given year.
PA DEP’s records are far from complete prior to 2016, however, with disposal destinations unknown for close to 2/3 of liquid waste (see yellow portions of the bar chart in Figure 1) generated between 2012 and 2015.
Figure 1. Pennsylvania’s liquid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, 2010-2019
In more recent years, waste products were accounted for more accurately, as well as shipped to injection wells in Ohio.
On a relatively smaller scale, one can also see how West Virginia’s acceptance of Pennsylvania’s fracking waste has skyrocketed in 2018 and 2019, particularly in comparison to states other than Pennsylvania and Ohio (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Pennsylvania’s liquid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state (excluding Pennsylvania and Ohio), 2010-2019
In general, records indicate more solid waste disposal occurring within Pennsylvania over time, with Ohio accepting varying quantities from year to year, and New York State steadily receiving less over time (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Pennsylvania’s solid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, 2010-2019
Now that the regulatory loophole has been closed, these numbers should drop to near zero. Data about waste coming from Pennsylvania to New York in the first half of 2020 support that assertion (Figures 4 and 5).
Figure 4. Pennsylvania’s liquid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, January-May 2020
Figure 5. Pennsylvania’s solid unconventional drilling waste disposal by state, January-May 2020
FracTracker applauds New York State for closing the fracking waste loophole and in doing so, continuing to set high standards to protect its residents from the human and environmental impacts created by oil and gas extraction. We hope that other states will follow suit, and develop their own stringent standards to protect human and environmental health, in particular where federal legislation like RCRA has fallen woefully short.
By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Feature photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial support by Lighthawk
By Kim Fraczek (Sane Energy Project), with input and mapping by Karen Edelstein (FracTracker Alliance)
Despite overwhelming concern about the impacts of fossil fuels on climate chaos, pipeline projects are springing up all over the country in an effort find markets for the surplus of fracked gas extracted from the Marcellus region in Pennsylvania. New Yorkers are directly impacted by these problematic supply chains. The energy company, National Grid, is proposing to raise New Yorkers’ monthly bills in order to complete a new, 30-inch high-pressure fracked gas transmission pipeline through Brooklyn, New York. National Grid euphemistically named the 350-psi pipeline the “The Metropolitan Reliability Pipeline Project.” Gas moving through this pipeline is destined for a National Grid Depot on Newtown Creek, which divides Brooklyn from the borough of Queens. National Grid plans to expand liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage and vaporizer operations at the Depot. The Depot expansion will also facilitate trucking transport of gas to and from North Brooklyn to destinations in Long Island and Massachusetts.
For an industry explanation on how vaporizers work, click here.
National Grid is asking the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) to approve:
- A charge of $185 million to rate-payers in order to finish the current pipeline phase under construction in Bushwick. Pipeline construction would continue north into East Williamsburg and Greenpoint (other sections of Brooklyn)
- $23 million to replace two old vaporizers at National Grid’s Greenpoint LNG facility
- $54 million to add two new vaporizers to the Greenpoint LNG facility
- $31.5 million over the next 4 years to add “portable LNG capabilities at the Greenpoint site that will allow LNG delivered via truck to on-system injection points.” National Grid is currently seeking a variance from New York City for permission to bring LNG trucks onto city property. Currently, this sort of activity is illegal due to high risk of fires and explosions.
Impacts on the community, resistance to the pipeline
Pipelines also present risks of catching fire and exploding. On average, a 350-psi gas pipeline has an evacuation radius of approximately 1275 feet. FracTracker Alliance created the interactive map, below, using 2010 census data to show population density in the neighborhoods within this blast zone. According to FracTracker, there were 614 reported pipeline incidents in the United States in 2019 alone, resulting in the death of 10 people, injuries to another 35, and about $259 million in damages.
There is widespread community opposition to this pipeline, LNG expansion, and trucking proposal because it will:
- Threaten the health and safety of nearly 153,000 people living in the evacuation zone. Concerns include air quality impacts from fugitive methane that could especially impact those with asthma, and functional logistics around safe evacuation in the event of a leak or explosion.
- Within the evacuation zone, using federal data, FracTracker determined that there are also:
Opponents of this pipeline project also raise objections that the pipeline will:
- Become a stranded asset leaving residents to foot the bill for the pipeline as city and state climate laws are implemented
- Contribute carbon monoxide and methane to the atmosphere, thereby accelerating climate change and its impacts on coastal metropolises like New York City
National Grid is currently constructing Phase 4 of the pipeline. However, public pressure and concern about COVID-19 safety measures forced them to stop construction on March 27, 2020. After Governor Cuomo issued an executive order to halt all non-essential work, neighbors reported the company was not mandating personal protective equipment (PPE) nor social distancing for its workers.
Additionally, funding to build north of Montrose Avenue in Bushwick through to Greenpoint—neighborhoods in northeastern Brooklyn on the border with Queens that make up the fifth phase of the pipeline construction—is pending a decision by the Public Service Commission. The approval of the fifth phase of the pipeline would allow it to reach the LNG facility at Greenpoint.
The current National Grid rate case proceeding is in its last stage of discovery, testimony, cross-examination, and final briefs from parties to the rate case. The Administrative Law Judges overseeing the proceeding will review all parties’ information, and make a recommendation to the Public Service Commission, a five-person panel appointed by New York State Governor Cuomo to regulate our utilities. This decision will most likely happen at the monthly meeting on June 18, 2020, where they also may make a decision on National Grid’s Long Term Plan proceeding that could determine the future of LNG expansion in North Brooklyn.
What are the broader economic and political concerns for stopping this, and other new pipeline projects?
Sane Energy Project has laid out a clear and cogent set of arguments. These include:
- This project is not about “modernizing” our system for heating and cooking. This is about an expansion to charge rate-payers an increase and to grow profits for National Grid’s shareholders.
- This is a transmission pipeline, not a gas distribution line. It will not service the affected community where the already trafficked main thoroughfares and already stressed trucking routes for local businesses will be dug up.
- Gas pipelines are not safe. According to the United States Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration (PHMSA), between 2016 and 2018, an average of 638 pipeline incidents per year resulted in a total of 43 fatalities and 204 injuries . The cost to the public for these incidents over those three years was nearly $2.7 billion. [For more analysis on national pipeline incidents, see FracTracker’s February 2020 article.]
- Fracking exacerbates climate change. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Over a 20 year period, it contributes 86 to 100 times more atmospheric warming than equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide. Climate change is destroying Earth’s ability to sustain life.
- This project holds New York State back on our renewable energy goals. We should be mandating any gas pipelines should be replaced with geothermal energy, along with energy efficiency measures in our buildings.
- The industry coined the term “natural” gas to create the sense that it is clean, but the extraction, transport and burning of this gas creates air pollution, disturbs ecosystems, contaminates drinking water sources, and disproportionately affects lower income communities and communities of color.
- A report authored by Suzanne Mattei, former DEC Region 2 Chief, notes National Grid does not have gas supply constraints–the situation where consumer demand exceeds the supply. Mattei contends that this is a manufactured crisis to maintain business-as-usual, keep us hooked on fossil fuels, and charge rate-payers for construction well after the lifespan of this pipeline. This makes local constituents pay for the company’s stranded assets. National Grid themselves report that they are able to handle yearly peak demand through existing supplemental gas sources. What’s more, the EIA expects for natural gas demand to remain flat over the course of the next decade, refuting National Grid’s claim that their massive pipeline project is necessary to respond to the few hours of peak demand experienced each year.
- This is actually a substantial project, which avoided more stringent permitting and discussion by breaking the work into five separate projections, a process known as “segmentation”. The North Brooklyn Pipeline project is disguised as a local upgrade by segmentation, while in reality, it is a much larger project leading to an LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) depot, CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) and other fracking infrastructure facilities in Greenpoint.
- National Grid is requesting almost 185 million ratepayer dollars over the next three years to complete the project.
As gas prices continue to drop and renewable energy technologies are more accessible and wide-spread, the whole equation that relies on a fossil fuel-based economy becomes more desperate and unsustainable. Many communities are also saying “no” to new pipelines in their communities, so industry is looking to ship fracked gas over land by truck. Another method for disposing of surplus gas is to compress it into LNG (liquefied natural gas) and ship it to international markets by boat.
For more updates on the North Brooklyn Pipeline, check Sane Energy Project’s website. If you live in the New York/Metropolitan area and want to get involved in this fight, there are numerous ways in which you can work with Sane Energy. Click here for details.
We’ve recently updated the New York State Oil and Gas Well Viewer with data up to 2020. The map and data below show that conventional gas drilling in New York State has decreased significantly since the first decade of 2000, but drilling for oil in western New York has increased in the past few years. In part thanks to the fracking ban in New York State, less than 1% of the wells in New York State have been drilled unconventionally.
Currently, there are more active gas wells in New York State than all other types combined. Fewer than 1% of the wells in the New York State database have been drilled directionally or horizontally. And only a fraction of those were gas wells. Since 2014, high-volume hydraulic fracturing has been banned, due to health and environmental concerns.
Western New York State was once a very active region for oil drilling, but today, only 21% of all oil wells are still active. Additional well types include brine solution mines. Many of these mines, once a large enough cavern has been dissolved, are later converted into storage mines for gas.
|Well type, as of 24 January 2020||Status = Active||Status = Other (includes plugged and abandoned, unlisted/unknown, converted, voided/expired permit, etc.)|
|Gas well||6,721 (58% of all active wells)||4,214 (13% of “other” categories)|
|Oil well||3,581 (31% of all active wells)||13,217 (40% of “other” categories)|
|Storage well||840 (7% of all active wells)||146 (<1% of “other” categories)|
|Monitoring well||165 (1% of all active wells)||311 (1% of “other” categories)|
|Brine well||138 (1% of all active wells)||593 (2% of “other” categories)|
|Other (145 geothermal, 7724 category not listed)||85 (1% of all active wells)||7,784 (23% of “other” categories)|
|Disposal well||36 (<1% of all active wells)||4,186 (13% of “other” categories)|
|Dry hole||4 (<1% of all active wells)||2,786 (8% of “other” categories)|
Patterns in Well Drilling
Well drilling in New York State was at a high point between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s. After another peak in activity in the first decade of the 21st century with conventional gas drilling, activity has dropped off sharply.
Figure 1. Oil and gas wells in New York State per year, 1990-2020. Data from NYS DEC.
A Potential Uptick in the Past Few Years
While gas drilling in New York State has tapered off dramatically, drilling for oil in Cattaraugus County in western New York has increased significantly since 2017.
Figure 2. Oil wells drilled in Cattaraugus County, New York, 2018-19. Data from NYS DEC.
Nearly every one of the 169 new wells drilled in New York State during 2019 was an oil well within 5 miles of St. Bonaventure in Cattaraugus County. We’ll be following up shortly with a more in-depth analysis of the issues and risks associated with this oil “boom” in the upper reaches of the Allegheny River of New York State.
FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!
View Full Size Map | Updated 9/1/21 | Data Tutorial
This map has been updated since this blog post was originally published, and therefore statistics and figures below may no longer correspond with the map
The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:
This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?
The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?
In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.
In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).
This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.
The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”
The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.
This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.
In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.
How does your state generate electricity?
One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others. The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.
The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.
The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses. Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.
China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.
In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.
We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.
Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.
This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.
Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.
Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.
The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.
As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.
Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.
“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”
Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.
Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)
In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”
What will this map look like in the next 30 years?
A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”
Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?
Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.