For the past two years, a grand jury empaneled by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has been investigating what they see as an oil and gas industry that has run amok. The Attorney General admonished the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and to a lesser degree, the Department of Health (DOH), both of which they claim have conducted insufficient oversight of the industry, allowing serious problems to happen over and over again since the arrival of fracking in the Marcellus Shale sixteen years ago.
Mr. Shapiro claims that Pennsylvania should know better, as it is still dealing with the health and environmental impacts of mining and oil and gas operations that have been shuttered for decades. In fact, it was almost 50 years ago that the state Environmental Rights Amendment was adopted to the Pennsylvania constitution by a nearly 4 to 1 margin of Pennsylvania voters. It states:
Article I, Section 27: The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
As a part of the state’s constitution, it is a fundamental part of the law of the land.
The Attorney General said that the grand jury heard hundreds of hours of expert testimony and impacted residents, and charges have already been issued against two companies – Range Resources and Cabot.
These moves are not without their critics, however. Range Resources pleaded no contest to charges of environmental crimes at several sites, which was compounded by a pattern of not informing local residents about the mishaps and potential impacts. In one of these cases, the grand jury found that the company became aware of a contamination event stemming from a shredded liner in a wastewater impoundment, for which they proceeded to do nothing about for three years, resulting in a contaminated aquifer. The company was further accused of falsifying laboratory data related to the case to affect the outcome of related civil suits.
For all of incidents reviewed, the company was slapped with a modest $50,000 fine, and agreed to a $100,000 contribution to a watershed group in the area. This can hardly be considered a deterrent; for a multi-billion dollar company in an industry where each well costs millions of dollars to drill, this amounts to nearly nothing beyond the routine cost of doing business.
Cabot’s charges stem from an infamous incident in 2008 in Dimock Township, Susquehanna County, that was highlighted in the movie GasLand. One of the wells exploded, and soon afterwards, neighbors began to notice contamination of their well water. Contaminants included methane, arsenic, barium, DEHP, glycol compounds, manganese, phenol, and sodium – a toxic cocktail consistent with hydraulic fracturing operations. As is common with many drilling contamination events, residents lost their water supplies and began to experience a series of health effects from the chemicals that they were exposed to. To this day, Cabot denies responsibility.
Obviously, it is difficult to put an entire corporation in jail, but some hold that employees who engaged in negligence or subterfuge certainly could be, or perhaps executives who oversaw or authorized such activities. Another possible outcome would include placing serious restrictions on the offending companies’ activities within the Commonwealth. As a means of comparison, please take a moment to browse through a list of operators that are banned from drilling activities in Texas. Honestly, this may take a few moments, because there are so many of them. One wonders what it would take ban a company from drilling in Pennsylvania.
But the focus of the Attorney General’s presentation was on the government’s shortcomings. Case after case of water contamination, gumming up expensive well pumps, and making water undrinkable. Many people had similar health complaints, including rashes, respiratory issues, nosebleeds, as well as pet and livestock health concerns and deaths. Mr. Shapiro’s question was clear: how were these problems were allowed to keep happening?
There is a 2020 grand jury seated as we speak, so this is certainly not the end of the story.
This map of 15,164 unconventional violations in Pennsylvania speaks to the issues presented in the report.
The grand jury developed a list of suggestions to move forward. They include:
Enact a 2,500-foot setback from homes to well sites. This is a very large increase over the current 500-foot standard, which Mr. Shapiro says is clearly insufficient to protect Pennsylvanians, as is evidenced by 16 years of documented problems.
Disallow secret injections of chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluids. As FracTracker learned in our project with Partnership for Policy Integrity, companies injected 13,632 secret chemicals into over 2,500 wells in Pennsylvania just five years.
Enact common-sense toxic waste transportation, so that first responders and the public at large can find out when oil and gas waste has been transported. We find it interesting that the Attorney General chose the words “toxic waste” rather than “residual waste,” which we consider to be a loophole term that was invented to sidestep more stringent regulations.
Gathering lines for fracking wells need to be regulated based on risk, not size.
Reporting for air pollution needs to be aggregated by site, rather than reporting dozens of emission sources separately. This will allow researchers to better understand the cumulative risk at such locations.
A comprehensive public health study of the effects of exposure to contaminated air and water from fracking operations must be conducted. The Attorney General notes that the Department of Health has agreed with this recommendation, and preparations to conduct this study are underway.
The revolving door between regulators and industry must be stopped. Mr. Shapiro notes that at the very least, this cozy relationship creates an appearance of impropriety, which in itself erodes the public trust. He then went on to mention an instance where an operator hired seven former DEP office employees all at once.
The Attorney General’s office does not have original jurisdiction on environmental crimes, and must wait for a referral from a district attorney or the DEP. The DEP has not been making such referrals, considering civil penalties and fines to be sufficient. The Attorney General disagrees, and wants to hear directly from the people of Pennsylvania. To that end, a hotline has been setup.
Mr. Shapiro then proceeded to take DEP to task for its response to the investigation itself. The Department refused to send top staff to testify, he said, fighting with the grand jury investigation every step of the way. They then attempted to mislead the public, saying that they had no opportunity for input. What’s more, the Attorney General said that they spewed industry talking points, claiming that hundreds of hours of testimony were based on hearsay, and that a variety of the serious health impacts experienced by Pennsylvanians were, “not significant.”
In contrast, the Department of Health sent Secretary Rachel Levine to participate in the proceedings, who saw this as an opportunity to uncover her department’s shortcomings with respect to fracking over the past 16 years, and to forge a path forward in which they could do a better job in upholding their obligations.
While Mr. Shapiro characterized the response from DOH as earnest, DEP received no such accolades. “The DEP – let me be clear,” he said, “they need to clean up their act.”
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology, FracTracker Alliance
Challenges have plagued Shell’s construction of the Falcon Pipeline System through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, according to documents from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Records show that at least 70 spills have occurred since construction began in early 2019, releasing over a quarter million gallons of drilling fluid. Yet the true number and volume of spills is uncertain due to inaccuracies in reporting by Shell and discrepancies in regulation by state agencies.
A drilling fluid spill from Falcon Pipeline construction near Moffett Mill Road in Beaver County, PA. Source: Pennsylvania DEP
Releases of drilling fluid during Falcon’s construction include inadvertent returns and losses of circulation – two technical words used to describe spills of drilling fluid that occur during pipeline construction.
Drilling fluid, which consists of water, bentonite clay, and chemical additives, is used when workers drill a borehole horizontally underground to pull a pipeline underneath a water body, road, or other sensitive location. This type of installation is called a HDD (horizontal directional drill), and is pictured in Figure 1.
Figure 1. An HDD operation – Thousands of gallons of drilling fluid are used in this process, creating the potential for spills. Click to expand. Source: Enbridge Pipeline
Here’s a breakdown of what these types of spills are and how often they’ve occurred during Falcon pipeline construction, as of March, 2020:
Loss of circulation
Definition: A loss of circulation occurs when there is a decrease in the volume of drilling fluid returning to the entry or exit point of a borehole. A loss can occur when drilling fluid is blocked and therefore prevented from leaving a borehole, or when fluid is lost underground.
Cause: Losses of circulation occur frequently during HDD construction and can be caused by misdirected drilling, underground voids, equipment blockages or failures, overburdened soils, and weathered bedrock.
Construction of the Falcon has caused at least 49 losses of circulation releasing at least 245,530 gallons of drilling fluid. Incidents include:
15 losses in Ohio – totaling 73,414 gallons
34 losses in Pennsylvania – totaling 172,116 gallons
Definition: An inadvertent return occurs when drilling fluid used in pipeline installation is accidentally released and migrates to Earth’s surface. Oftentimes, a loss of circulation becomes an inadvertent return when underground formations create pathways for fluid to surface. Additionally, Shell’s records indicate that if a loss of circulation is large enough, (releasing over 50% percent of drilling fluids over 24-hours, 25% of fluids over 48-hours, or a daily max not to exceed 50,000 gallons) it qualifies as an inadvertent return even if fluid doesn’t surface.
Cause: Inadvertent returns are also frequent during HDD construction and are caused by many of the same factors as losses of circulation.
Construction of the Falcon has caused at least 20 inadvertent returns, releasing at least 5,581 gallons of drilling fluid. These incidents include:
18 inadvertent returns in Pennsylvania – totaling 5,546 gallons
2,639 gallons into water resources (streams and wetlands)
2 inadvertent returns Ohio – totaling 35 gallons
35 gallons into water resources (streams and wetlands)
However, according to the Ohio EPA, Shell is not required to submit reports for losses of circulation that are less than the definition of an inadvertent return, so many losses may not be captured in the list above. Additionally, documents reveal inconsistent volumes of drilling mud reported and discrepancies in the way releases are regulated by the Pennsylvania DEP and the Ohio EPA.
Very few of these incidents were published online for the public to see; FracTracker obtained information on them through a public records request. The map below shows the location of all known drilling fluid releases from that request, along with features relevant to the pipeline’s construction. Click here to view full screen, and add features to the map by checking the box next to them in the legend. For definitions and additional details, click on the information icon.
Our investigation into these incidents began early this year when we received an anonymous tip about a release of drilling fluids in the range of millions of gallons at the SCIO-06 HDD over Wolf Run Road in Jefferson County, Ohio. The source stated that the release could be contaminating drinking water for residents and livestock.
Working with Clean Air Council, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, and DeSmog Blog, we quickly discovered that this spill was just the beginning of the Falcon’s construction issues.
Documents from the Ohio EPA confirm that there were at least eight losses of circulation at this location between August 2019 and January 2020, including losses of unknown volume. The SCIO-06 HDD location is of particular concern because it crosses beneath two streams (Wolf Run and a stream connected to Wolf Run) and a wetland, is near groundwater wells, and runs over an inactive coal mine (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Losses of circulation that occurred at the SCIO-06 horizontal directional drill (HDD) site along the Falcon Pipeline in Jefferson County Ohio. Data Sources: OH EPA, AECOM
According to Shell’s survey, the coal mine (shown in Figure 2 in blue) is 290 feet below the HDD crossing. A hazardous scenario could arise if an HDD site interacts with mine voids, releasing drilling fluid into the void and creating a new mine void discharge.
A similar situation occurred in 2018, when EQT Corp. was fined $294,000 after the pipeline it was installing under a road in Forward Township, Pennsylvania hit an old mine, releasing four million gallons of mine drainage into the Monongahela River.
The Ohio EPA’s Division of Drinking and Ground Waters looked into the issues around this site and reported, “GIS analysis of the pipeline location in Jefferson Co. does not appear to risk any vulnerable ground water resources in the area, except local private water supply wells. However, the incident location is above a known abandoned (pre-1977) coal mine complex, mapped by ODNR.”
While we cannot confirm if there was a spill in the range of millions of gallons as the source claimed, the reported losses of circulation at the SCIO-06 site total over 60,000 gallons of drilling fluid. Additionally, on December 10th, 2019, the Ohio EPA asked AECOM (the engineering company contracted by Shell for this project) to estimate what the total fluid loss would be if workers were to continue drilling to complete the SCIO-06 crossing. AECOM reported that, in a “very conservative scenario based on the current level of fluid loss…Overall mud loss to the formation could exceed 3,000,000 gallons.”
Despite this possibility of a 3 million+ gallon spill, Shell resumed construction in January, 2020. The company experienced another loss of circulation of 4,583 gallons, reportedly caused by a change in formation. However, in correspondence with a resident, Shell stated that the volume lost was 3,200 gallons.
Whatever the amount, this January loss of circulation appears to have convinced Shell that an HDD crossing at this location was too difficult to complete, and in February 2020, Shell decided to change the type of crossing at the SCIO-06 site to a guided bore underneath Wolf Run Rd and open cut trench through the stream crossings (Figure 3).
Figure 3. The SCIO-06 HDD site, which may be changed from an HDD crossing to an open cut trench and conventional bore to cross Wolf Run Rd, Wolf Run stream (darker blue), an intermittent stream (light blue) and a wetland (teal). Click to expand.
An investigation by DeSmog Blog revealed that Shell applied for the route change under Nationwide Permit 12, a permit required for water crossings. While the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the route change on March 17th, one month later, a Montana federal court overseeing a case on the Keystone XL pipeline determined that the Nationwide Permit 12 did not meet standards set by federal environmental laws – a decision which may nullify the Falcon’s permit status. At this time, the ramifications of this decision on the Falcon remain unclear.
Inconsistencies in Reporting
In looking through Shell’s loss of circulation reports, we noted several discrepancies about the volume of drilling fluid released for different spills, including those that occurred at the SCIO-06 site. As one example, the Ohio EPA stated an email about the SCIO-06 HDD, “The reported loss of fluid from August 1, 2019 to August 14, 2019 in the memo does not appear to agree with the 21,950 gallons of fluid loss reported to me during my site visit on August 14, 2019 or the fluid loss reported in the conference call on August 13, 2019.”
In addition to errors on Shell’s end, our review of documents revealed significant confusion around the regulation of drilling fluid spills. In an email from September 26, 2019, months after construction began, Shell raised the following questions with the Ohio EPA:
when a loss of circulation becomes an inadvertent return – the Ohio EPA clarifies: “For purposes of HDD activities in Ohio, an inadvertent return is defined as the unintended return of any fluid to the surface, as well as losses of fluids to underground formations which exceed 50-percent over a 24-hour period and/or 25-percent loss of fluids or annular pressure sustained over a 48-hour period;”
when the clock starts for the aforementioned time periods – the Ohio EPA says the time starts when “the drill commences drilling;”
whether Shell needs to submit loss of circulation reports for losses that are less than the aforementioned definition of an inadvertent return – the Ohio EPA responds, “No. This is not required in the permit.”
How are these spills measured?
A possible explanation for why Shell reported inconsistent volumes of spills is because they were not using the proper technology to measure them.
Shell’s “Inadvertent Returns from HDD: Assessment, Preparedness, Prevention and Response Plan” states that drilling rigs must be equipped with “instruments which can measure and record in real time, the following information: borehole annular pressure during the pilot hole operation; drilling fluid discharge rate; the spatial position of the drilling bit or reamer bit; and the drill string axial and torsional loads.”
In other words, Shell should be using monitoring equipment to measure and report volumes of drilling fluid released.
Despite that requirement, Shell was initially monitoring releases manually by measuring the remaining fluid levels in tanks. After inspectors with the Pennsylvania DEP realized this in October, 2019, the Department issued a Notice of Violation to Shell, asking the company to immediately cease all Pennsylvania HDD operations and implement recording instruments. The violation also cited Shell for not filing weekly inadvertent return reports and not reporting where recovered drilling fluids were disposed.
In Ohio, there is no record of a similar request from the Ohio EPA. The anonymous source that originally informed us of issues at the SCIO-6 HDD stated that local officials and regulatory agencies in Ohio were likely not informed of the full volumes of the industrial waste releases based on actual meter readings, but rather estimates that minimize the perceived impact.
While we cannot confirm this claim, we know a few things for sure: 1) there are conflicting reports about the volume of drilling fluids spilled in Ohio, 2) according to Shell’s engineers, there is the potential for a 3 million+ gallon spill at the SCIO-06 site, and 3) there are instances of Shell not following its permits with regard to measuring and reporting fluid losses.
The inconsistent ways that fluid losses (particularly those that occur underground) are defined, reported, and measured leave too many opportunities for Shell to impact sensitive ecosystems and drinking water sources without being held accountable.
What are the impacts of drilling fluid spills?
Drilling fluid is primarily composed of water and bentonite clay (sodium montmorillonite), which is nontoxic. If a fluid loss occurs, workers often use additives to try and create a seal to prevent drilling fluid from escaping into underground voids. According to Shell’s “Inadvertent Returns From HDD” plan, it only uses additives that meet food standards, are not petroleum based, and are consistent with materials used in drinking water operations.
However, large inadvertent returns into waterways cause heavy sedimentation and can have harmful effects on aquatic life. They can also ruin drinking water sources. Inadvertent returns caused by HDD construction along the Mariner East 2 pipeline have contaminated many water wells.
Losses of circulation can impact drinking water too. This past April in Texas, construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline caused a loss that left residents with muddy well water. A 3 million gallon loss of circulation along the Mariner East route led to 208,000 gallons of drilling mud entering a lake, and a $2 million fine for Sunoco, the pipeline’s operator.
Our Falcon Public EIA Project found 240 groundwater wells within 1/4 mile of the pipeline and 24 within 1,000 ft of an HDD site. The pipeline also crosses near surface water reservoirs. Drilling mud spills could put these drinking water sources at risk.
But when it comes to understanding the true impact of the more than 245,000+ gallons of drilling fluid lost beneath Pennsylvania and Ohio, there are a lot of remaining questions. The Falcon route crosses over roughly 20 miles of under-mined land (including 5.6 miles of active coal mines) and 25 miles of porous karst limestone formations (learn more about karst). Add in to the mix the thousands of abandoned, conventional, and fracked wells in the region – and you start to get a picture of how holey the land is. Where or how drilling fluid interacts with these voids underground is largely unknown.
Other Drilling Fluid Losses
In addition to the SCIO-04 HDD, there are other drilling fluid losses that occurred in sensitive locations.
In Robinson Township, Pennsylvania, over a dozen losses of circulation (many of which occurred over the span of several days) released a reported 90,067 gallons of drilling fluid into the ground at the HOU-04 HDD. This HDD is above inactive surface and underground mines.
The Falcon passes through and near surface drinking water sources. In Beaver County, Pennsylvania, the pipeline crosses the headwaters of the Ambridge Reservoir and the water line that carries out its water for residents in Beaver County townships (Ambridge, Baden, Economy, Harmony, and New Sewickley) and Allegheny County townships (Leet, Leetsdale, Bell Acres, and Edgeworth). The group Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir, which formed in 2012 to protect the reservoir from unconventional oil and gas infrastructure, led efforts to stop Falcon Construction, and the Ambridge Water Authority itself called the path of the pipeline “not acceptable.”In response to public pressure, Shell did agree to build a back up line to the West View Water Authority in case issues arose from the Falcon’s construction.
Unfortunately, a 50-gallon inadvertent return was reported at the HDD that crosses the waterline (Figure 4), and a 160 gallon inadvertent return occurred in Raccoon Municipal Park within the watershed and near its protected headwaters (Figure 5). Both of these releases are reported to have occurred within the pipeline’s construction area and not into waterways.
Figure 4) HOU-10 HDD location on the Falcon Pipeline, where 50 gallons were released on the drill pad on 7/9/2019
Figure 5) SCIO-05 HDD location on the Falcon Pipeline, where 160 gallons were released on 6/10/19, within the pipeline’s LOD (limit of disturbance)
Farther west, the pipeline crosses through the watershed of the Tappan Reservoir, which provides water for residents in Scio, Ohio and the Ohio River, which serves over 5 million people.
A 35- gallon inadvertent return occurred at a conventional bore within the Tappan Lake Protection Area, impacting a wetland and stream. We are not aware of any spills impacting the Ohio River.
Pipelines in a Pandemic
This investigation makes it clear that weak laws and enforcement around drilling fluid spills allows pipeline construction to harm sensitive ecosystems and put drinking water sources at risk. Furthermore, regulations don’t require state agencies or Shell to notify communities when many of these drilling mud spills occur.
The problem continues where the 97-mile pipeline ends – at the Shell ethane cracker. In March, workers raised concerns about the unsanitary conditions of the site, and stated that crowded workspaces made social distancing impossible. While Shell did halt construction temporarily, state officials gave the company the OK to continue work – even without the waiver many businesses had to obtain.
The state’s decision was based on the fact it considered the ethane cracker to “support electrical power generation, transmission and distribution.” The ethane cracker – which is still months and likely years away from operation – does not currently produce electrical power and will only provide power generation to support plastic manufacturing.
This claim continues a long pattern of the industry attempting to trick the public into believing that we must continue expanding oil and gas operations to meet our country’s energy needs. In reality, Shell and other oil and gas companies are attempting to line their own pockets by turning the country’s massive oversupply of fracked gas into plastic. And just as Shell and state governments have put the health of residents and workers on the line by continuing construction during a global pandemic, they are sacrificing the health of communities on the frontlines of the plastic industry and climate change by pushing forward the build-out of the petrochemical industry during a global climate crisis.
This election year, while public officials are pushing forward major action to respond to the economic collapse, let’s push for policies and candidates that align with the people’s needs, not Big Oil’s.
By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach & Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/FalconPipelineFrontPage.jpg8963125Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgErica Jackson2020-06-16 11:47:062020-06-18 12:11:30Falcon Pipeline Construction Releases over 250,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid in Pennsylvania and Ohio
Unconventional wells in Pennsylvania were always resource-intensive, but the maps below show how the amount of water used per well has grown significantly in recent years. In 2013, these wells used an average of 5.8 million gallons per well. By 2019, that figure had increased 145%, consuming more than 14.3 million gallons per well. This is a glimpse into the unsustainable resource demands of this industry and the decreasing energy returned on investment.
As fracking proponents will eagerly remind you, hydraulic fracturing was invented decades ago – back in 1947 – so the practice has been in use for quite a while. What really separates modern unconventional shale gas wells from the supposedly traditional, conventional wells is more a matter of scale than anything else. While conventional wells are typically fracked with tens of thousands of gallons of fluid, their unconventional counterparts are far thirstier, consuming millions of gallons per well.
And of course, more inputs translate into more outputs — not necessarily in the form of gas, but in the form of toxic, radioactive waste. This creates a slew of problems ranging from health impacts, to increased transportation, to disposal.
However, this increase in consumption has continued to grow on a per-well basis, so that wells drilled in recent years aren’t really in the same category as wells drilled a decade ago at the beginning of Pennsylvania’s unconventional boom.
In Pennsylvania, unconventional wells are primarily drilled into two deep shale layers, the Devonian-aged Marcellus Shale, which is about 390 million years old, and the Utica Shale from the Late Ordovician period, which was deposited about 60 million years before the Marcellus. These formations have been known about for decades, but did not yield enough gas justify the expense of drilling until the 21st century, when horizontal drilling allowed for a much greater surface area of exposure to the shale formations. However, stimulating this increased distance also requires significantly more fracking fluid – a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals – which increased the consumptive use of water by several orders of magnitude. And in the end, all of this extra work that is required to extract the gas from the ground has made the industry unprofitable, as high production numbers have outpaced demand.
As residents in shale fields around the country started to see impacts to their drinking water, they began to demand to know more about what was injected into the ground around them. The industry’s response was FracFocus, a national registry to address the water component of this question, if not the issue of fracking chemicals. In the early days, visitors to the site could only access data one well at a time, so systematic analyses by third parties were precluded. Additionally, record keeping was sloppy, with widespread data entry issues, incorrect locations, duplicate entries, and so forth.
Many of these issues were addressed with the rollout of FracFocus 2.0 in May of 2013. This fixed many of the data entry issues, such as the six different spellings of “Susquehanna” that were used, and enabled downloads of the entire data set. For that reason, when we wanted to look at changes over time, our analysis started in 2013, where only minimal obvious corrections were required at the county level.
Unconventional wells in Pennsylvania were always resource-intensive, but this GIF shows that the amount of water used per well has grown significantly in recent years. In 2013, these wells used an average of 5.8 million gallons per well. By 2019, that figure had increased 145%, consuming more than 14.3 million gallons per well. This is a glimpse into the unsustainable resource demands of this industry and the decreasing energy returned on investment.
However, statewide data is available since 2008, and as long as we keep in mind the data quality issues from the earlier years, the results are even more stark.
Total Water (gal)
Average Water per Well (gal)
Maximum Water (gal)
Figure 1: While the total number of frack jobs reported to FracFocus has declined over the years, the amount of water per well has increased substantially.
In terms of the total number of unconventional wells drilled, the boom years in Pennsylvania were around 2010 to 2014, with more than 1,000 wells drilled each of those years, a total that has not been achieved again since. It is important to note that in this FracFocus data, we are not counting the wells, per se, but the reported instances of well stimulation through hydraulic fracturing, commonly called frack jobs. In the earliest portion of the date range, submitting data to FracFocus was voluntary, and therefore the total activity from 2008 through 2010 is vastly undercounted, but we have included what data was available.
It should be noted that the average consumption for frack jobs started in 2020 are down from the 2019 totals, however, the sample size is considerably smaller. This smaller sample due, in part, to reduced drilling activity due to oversupply of gas in the Northeast, but also due to the fact that the year is still in progress. This analysis is based on data downloaded from FracFocus in April 2020.
Changes Over Time
As we examine changes in the average water consumption over time from Figure 1, we can see that operators in Pennsylvania averaged between 4-5 million gallons of water per well from 2008 to 2012. The numbers take off from there, tripling to more than 14 million gallons for 2019, the last full year available. At the same time, drilling operators began experimenting with truly monstrous quantities of water. In 2008, the only well with water data available used just over 4.1 million gallons. By 2019, there was a well that used 39.3 million gallons of water, almost a tenfold increase.
From late 2008 through early 2020, the industry recorded the use of 65.8 billion gallons of water in unconventional wells. Since we know that many wells during the early boom years did not report to FracFocus, the actual usage must be substantially higher. For the years with the most reliable and complete data – 2013 to 2019 – total water consumption ranged from 5.9 to 10.9 billion gallons per year. For context, the average Pennsylvanian uses about 100 gallons per day, or 36,500 gallons per year.
That means that the 10.9 billion gallons that were pumped into fracked wells in 2018 equals the total usage of 298,667 residents for an entire year. Alternatively, that water could have filled 16,517 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It is equivalent to 33,455 acre-feet, meaning it could fill an acre-sized column of water that stretches more than six miles high.
Surely, there must be a better way to make use of our precious resources than to turn millions upon millions of gallons of water into toxic waste.
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/waterfall-1806956_1920.jpg9271920Matt Kelso, BAhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgMatt Kelso, BA2020-05-29 16:22:102020-06-01 10:54:09Fracking Water Use in Pennsylvania Increases Dramatically
Air pollution from Pennsylvania shale gas compressor stations is a significant, worsening public health concern.
By Cynthia Walter, Ph.D.
Dr. Walter is a retired biology professor who has worked on shale gas industry pollution since 2009 through Westmoreland Marcellus Citizens Group, Protect PT and other groups. Contact: email@example.com
Compressor Stations (CS) in the gas industry are sources of serious air pollutants known to harm humans and the environment. CS are permanent facilities required to transport gases from wells to major pipelines and along pipelines. Additional operations and equipment located at CS also emit toxins. In the last 20 years, CS abundance and sizes have dramatically increased in shale gas extraction areas across the US. This report will focus on CS in and near Southwestern Pennsylvania. Numbers of CS there have risen more than tenfold in the last decade in response to well completions and pipelines after the local fracking boom began in 2005. For example, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, had two CS before 2005 and now has 50 CS corresponding with about 341 active shale gas wells. In Pennsylvania, state regulations allow CS to be as close as 750 feet from homes, schools, and businesses. Emission monitoring relevant to public health exposure is limited or absent.
Current Pennsylvania policies allow rapid CS expansion. Also, regulations do not address public health risks due to several major flaws. First, permits allow annual totals of emitted toxins using models that assume constant releases, but substantial emissions from CS occur in peaks that expose citizens to concentrations may impair health, ranging from asthma to cancer. Second, permits do not address the fact that CS simultaneously release many serious air toxins including benzene and formaldehyde, and particulates that carry toxins into lungs. This allowance of multiple toxin release does not reflect the well-established science that public health risks multiply when people are exposed to several toxins at once. Third, permit reviews rarely consider nearby known air pollution sources contributing to aggregate air toxin exposures that occur in bursts and continually. Fourth, permits do not require operators to provide public access to real-time reports of air pollutants released by CS and ambient air quality near CS.
Poor air quality causes harm directly, e.g. respiratory distress, and indirectly, e.g., through increased vulnerability to respiratory viruses. The annual cost of damages from air pollution from CS was estimated at $4 million-$24 million in Pennsylvania based on emissions from CS in 2011. These damages include harm to human and livestock health and losses of crops and timber. After 2011, CS and gas infrastructures continue to expand, with increasing air pollution and damages, especially in shale gas areas. These costs must be compared to the benefits of using alternative energy sources. For example, in a neighboring state, New York, shifting to renewable energy will save tens of billions of dollars annually in air pollution costs, prevent thousands of premature deaths each year, and trigger substantial job creation, based on peer-reviewed research using US government data.
Constant air monitoring must occur at current compressor stations and nearby sites important to the public, such as schools. The peak concentrations and totals for substances relevant to public health must be recorded and made available to the public in real time.
Air pollution from compressor stations must become an important part of measuring and modeling pollution exposures from all components of the shale gas industry.
Permits for new compressor stations must be revised to better protect the public in ways including, but not limited to the following:
Location, e.g., increased general setback limits and expanded limits for sensitive sites such as schools, senior care facilities and hospitals
Emission limits for criteria air pollutants and hazardous air pollutants including Radon, especially limits for peak concentrations and annual totals
Monitoring air quality within the station, at the fence-line and in key sites nearby, such as schools, using information from air movement models to select locations and heights.
Limits for CS size based on aggregate pollution from other local air pollution sources.
Costs of harm from CS and other shale gas activities must be compared to alternatives.
CS emissions contribute major air pollutants to the total pollution from unconventional gas development (UCGD), but their role in regional air quality problems has not always been noted. In 2009, when UCGD operations were only a few years in this region and many CS had not yet been built, CS emissions were estimated to be a small component. Now, in 2020, gas transport requirements have increased, leading to many more and larger CS. The amounts of CS emissions have increased accordingly, based on estimates by Carnegie Mellon University atmospheric researcher, Robinson (Figure 1). Part of the reason that CS are such a major pollution source is that they run constantly, in contrast to machinery for well development and trucking that fluctuate with the market for new wells.
Air pollutants in CS emissions vary substantially in chemistry and concentrations due to differences in equipment (Table 1). Emissions in CS can come from several types of sources described below.
Engines: Compression engines powered with methane release nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAP). Diesel engines release those pollutants as well as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and substantial particulate matter. In addition, diesel storage on site is a hazard. Electric engines produce less pollutants, but they are much less common than fossil fuel engines in southwestern Pennsylvania. CS operators can vary the use of engines at a station, and therefore, emissions vary during partial or full shutdowns and start-up periods.
Blowdowns: Toxic emissions dramatically increase during blowdowns, a procedure that is scheduled or used as needed to release the build-up of gases. Blowdown frequency and emissions vary with the rate of gas transport and the chemistry of transported gases. The full extent of emissions from any CS, therefore, is not known. Blowdowns can release a wide range of substances, and when flaring is used to burn off gases, the combustion creates new substances and additional particulates. Blowdowns are the most likely source of peaks in emissions at continuously operated CS. For example, Brown et al. (2015) used PA DEP measures of a CS in Washington County, Pennsylvania, alongside likely blowdown frequencies and weather models to predict peak emission frequency. They estimated nearby residents would experience over 118 peak emissions per year.
Non-compression Procedures: CS facilities are often the location for equipment that separate gases, remove water and other fluids, and run pipeline testing operations called pigging. These activities can be constant or intermittent and release a wide range of substances which may or may not be included in estimates for a permit. In addition, some of the processing releases gases which are flared at the facility, thus releasing a range of combustion by-products and particulate pollution. For example, the Shamrock CS operated by Dominion Transfer Inc. includes equipment for dehydration, glycol processing and pigging. The Janus facility operated by EQT includes dehydration and flaring. Permitted emissions for those facilities are listed in Table 1.
Storage Tank Emissions: CS often include storage tanks that hold substances known to release fumes. For example, the Shamrock CS was permitted to have an above ground storage tank of 3000 gallons for drip gas and a 1000-gallon tank for used oil, both of which release volatile organic compounds. The EQT Janus CS has two 8,820-gallon tanks. Gas releases from such tanks could be controlled and recorded by the operator or they could be unrecorded leaks.
Fugitive emissions: Gas leaks, called fugitive emissions, occur readily from many components in CS facilities; such problems will increase as equipment ages. A study of CS stations in Texas is an example.
“In the Fort Worth, TX area, researchers evaluated compressor station emissions from eight sites, focusing in part on fugitive emissions. A total of 2,126 fugitive emission points were identified in the four month field study of 8 compressor stations: 192 of the emission points were valves; 644 were connectors (including flanges, threaded unions, tees, plugs, caps and open-ended lines where the plug or cap was missing); and 1,290 were classified as Other Equipment. The Other category consists of all remaining components such as tank thief hatches, pneumatic valve controllers, instrumentation, regulators, gauges, and vents. 1,330 emission points were detected with an IR camera (i.e. high-level emissions) and 796 emission points were detected by Method 21 screening (i.e. low-level emissions). Pneumatic Valve Controllers were the most frequent emission sources encountered at well pads and compressor stations.”
Eastern Research Group (2011).
Table 1. Examples of air pollutants allowed for release by compressor stations. Air pollutants (pounds/year) are estimates provided by the companies for permits in West Virginia and Pennsylvania in recent years. Total compressor engine horsepower (hp) is noted. Sources: Janus and Tonkin CS Permits at WV DEP website. Shamrock CS permit. Buffalo CS, Washington, Co PA – PENNSYLVANIA BULLETIN, VOL. 45, NO. 16 APRIL 18, 2015.
Buffalo ** (PA) 20,000 hp + 5,000 bhp
Volatile Organic Compounds
Hazardous Air Pollutants-Total
Total Particulate Matter
(PM-2.5, PM-10-separate or combined)
Carbon Dioxide Equivalents
Health Effects of Compressor Station Emissions
Several toxic chemicals are released by individual CS in amounts that range from a few thousand pounds to a quarter of a million pounds per year (Tables 1 & 2) as described below.
Nitrous Oxides (NOx) are often the largest total amount of emissions from fossil fuel machinery. In CS, these oxides are formed when a fossil fuel such as methane or diesel is combusted to produce the energy to compress and propel gases. NOx contribute to acid rain. Excess acids in rain lower the pH of waters, in some cases to levels that dissolve toxic metals in drinking water supplies. NOx also trigger the formation of ozone, a substance well known to impair lungs.
Ozone forms when oxygen reacts with nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, and a wide range of volatile organic compounds. Ozone exposure can trigger asthma and heart attacks in sensitive individuals, and for healthy people, ozone causes breathing problems in the short term and eventual scarring of lungs and impaired function.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are gaseous compounds containing carbon, such as benzene and formaldehyde. In air pollution regulation, the EPA lists many compounds as VOC, but excludes carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and butane. Many VOC’s are toxic in themselves (Tables 2, 3 and 4). Also, several VOC’s react to form ozone. https://www.epa.gov/air-emissions-inventories/what-definition-voc
Carbon Monoxide (CO) is another product of fossil fuel combustion and another contributor to ozone formation. CO is directly toxic because it prevents oxygen from binding to the blood.
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) adds to lung irritation. It also contributes to acid rain, lowering the pH of water and increasing the ability of toxic metals to dissolve in water supplies.
Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) include highly toxic substances such as formaldehyde and benzene, which are known carcinogens, as well as the other substances known to be emitted from CS (Tables 3 & 4). The EPA lists 187 substances as HAP, which include many VOC’s as well as some non-organic chemicals such as arsenic and radionuclides including Radon. (https://www.epa.gov/haps/initial-list-hazardous-air-pollutants-modifications)
Particulate Matter (PM) usually refers to particles in small size classes. Most state or federal regulations address measures of particles less than 10 microns (PM-10) and some monitoring systems separate out particles less than 2.5 microns (PM-2.5). Particles in either of those size ranges are not visible, but highly damaging because they travel deep into the lungs where they irritate tissues and impair breathing. Also, these tiny particles carry toxins from air into the blood passing through the lungs. This blood transports substances directly to the brain where toxins can quickly impair the nervous system and subsequently impact other organs. (https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/particulate-matter-pm-basics)
Health impacts from many of the substances released by CS are well-known in medical research. For example, many of the VOC and HAP compounds permitted for release by state agencies are known carcinogens (Table 3). Many of these substances also impact the nervous system as shown in the organic compounds measured in CS in PA and listed in Table 4. Also, a study of 18 CS in New York by Russo and Carpenter (2017) found that all 18 CS released substances with known impacts on the nervous system and total annual emissions were over five million pounds, among the highest of all types of emissions (Table 5). Russo and Carpenter also found high annual emissions of over five million pounds for substances known to be associated with each of the following other health problems: digestive problems, circulatory disorders, and congenital malformations.
Congenital defects were significantly more common for mothers living in a 10-mile radius of denser shale gas development in Colorado compared to reference populations (MacKenzie et al. 2014). Currie et al. (2017) examined over a million birth records in Pennsylvania and found statistically significant increased frequencies of low birth weight and negative health scores for infants born to mothers within 3 km of unconventional gas wells compared to matching populations more distant from shale gas developments. Such developments include a wide range of gas infrastructure including CS and also high truck traffic and fracking. One plausible mechanism for harm to developing babies is exposure to VOCs such as benzene, toluene and xylene associated with CS and well operations. These VOC’s are classified by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry as known to cross the placental barrier and cause harm to the fetus including birth deformities.
In sum, CS are a significant source of air pollutants with direct and indirect impacts on health. One indirect impact especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, is the increased incidence and severity of respiratory viral infections in populations living in areas with poor air quality. Ciencewicki, and Jaspers (2007) write, “a number of studies indicate associations between exposure to air pollutants and increased risk for respiratory virus infections.”
Table. 2. Health effects of air pollutants permitted for release by compressor stations.
Impairs lungs and transfers toxins into body when microscopic particles carry chemicals deep into lungs and release into bloodstream.
Forms ozone that impairs lung function which can trigger asthma and heart attacks and scars lungs in the long term.
Forms acid rain that dissolves toxic metals into water supplies.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Includes a wide variety of gaseous organic compounds, some of which cause cancer. Many VOC react to form ozone that impairs lungs as noted above.
Blocks ability of blood to carry oxygen.
Also forms ozone that impairs lungs as noted above.
Irritates lungs, triggering respiratory and heart distress.
Forms acid rain that dissolves toxic metals into water supplies.
Hazardous Air Pollutants
Category of various toxic compounds many of which impact the nervous system. Includes formaldehyde, benzene and several other carcinogens.
Sum of emissions of all toxins. Exposure to multiple toxins exacerbates harm directly through impairment of lungs and circulatory system and indirectly through injury to detoxification mechanisms, such as liver function.
Carbon Dioxide Equivalents
A measure of the combined effects of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and Methane expressed in a standard unit equivalent to the heat trapping effect of CO2. Greenhouse gases trap heat and worsen climate change and related harm to health when increased air temperatures directly cause stress directly and indirectly accelerate ozone formation.
Table 3. Gas industry list of carcinogenicity rating for Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) released by compressor stations in a factsheet prepared by EQT for Janus compressor, WV. 2015 Source: DEP.
B2-Probable Human Carcinogen
Category A – Known Human Carcinogen
Category D Not Classifiable
Suggested Evidence of Carcinogenic Potential
B2-Probable Human Carcinogen
B1- Probable Human Carcinogen
C- Possible human Carcinogen
Table 4. Center for Disease Control list of health effects for volatile organic carbons measured by PA DEP near compressor station. Source: CDC.
Irritation to eyes and nose; nausea, headache; neuropath; numb extremities, muscle weakness; dermatitis; dizziness
Eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, peripheral nervous system
Central nervous system
Irritation to eyes, skin & respiratory system; headache, dizziness; nausea
Eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system
Drowsiness, narcosis, asphyxia
Central nervous system
Table 5. Amounts of pollutants known to be associated with health impacts in a review of 18 New York compressor stations. Emissions were grouped and tallied based on their impacts on disorders classified by ICD codes as defined by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), a medical classification list by the World Health Organization. Source: Copy of Table 3.17b, Russo and Carpenter 2017.
Congenital malformations and deformations
Eye, ear, face and neck
Chromosomal abnormalities, nec
Regional Air Toxins and Cancer Risk in Southwestern Pennsylvania
Cancer risks from HAPs have been elevated for many years in several areas of Southwestern PA, as noted in a map from 2005 (Figure 2), when most air pollution was from urban traffic and single sources such as coke works and unconventional gas development (UCGD) had just begun in the region. The cancer risk pattern changed by 2014 (Figure 3). The specific numbers of excess cancer risk predicted for each location cannot be compared between the two maps because each map was produced using different sources of information and models. The pattern, however, can be compared and shows that elevated cancer risk is now more widespread across Southwestern PA and no longer primarily in Allegheny County.
Cancer risk maps are constructed by the EPA office of National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) using models of reported air toxics and their relationship to cancer as a risk factor, as defined by NATA: “A risk level of “N”-in-1 million implies that up to “N” people out of one million equally exposed people would contract cancer if exposed continuously (24 hours per day) to the specific concentration over 70 years (an assumed lifetime). This would be in addition to cancer cases that would normally occur in one million unexposed people.” (https://www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment/nata-glossary-terms) In the current context, the NATA models are useful to compare the relative differences in air quality from a public health perspective, assuming the data on air pollutants is complete.
Another, very different statistic regarding cancer is the rate of cancer, also called the incidence. This number is based on actual reported cases and applies to cancers that occur due to all causes. The cancer rate, therefore, is a much higher number than a risk factor. For example, according to the US Center for Disease Control, the annual rate of new cases of cancer in PA in 2016, the most recent year reported, was 482.5 per 100,000 people. Compared to other states, PA is among the ten states with the highest cancer incidence. In the US, one in four people die from cancer, placing it second to heart disease as a leading cause of death. (https://gis.cdc.gov/Cancer/USCS/DataViz.html). Compared to other nations, the US has the fifth highest cancer rate, with 352 new cases each year per 100,000 people. (https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/cancer-trends/data-cancer-frequency-country)
Compressor station emissions contribute to air pollutants known to be associated with cancer. For example, in a review of emissions for 18 CS in New York, Russo and Carpenter (2017) found that most or all CS released substances associated with a wide range of cancers (Table 6). Up to 56 such chemicals were emitted in amounts that totaled over 1 million pounds each year.
Maps of cancer risk are likely to be under-reporting risk levels in both the amount rates of risk and also the locations. Cancer risks from serious air pollutants cannot be properly mapped for several reasons. First, reports on concentrations of HAP in emissions are limited. HAP emissions are in accounts required only from large facilities, and thus, smaller operations, such as many CS, are likely be ignored. Second, general air quality monitoring stations are limited in location and do not measure HAP. For example, the PA DEP maintains 47 air quality stations dispersed among over 60 counties (http://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/deputate/airwaste/aq/aqm/pollt.html). Most stations report hourly measures of Ozone and PM-2.5, and only a handful also monitor one or more other substances such as CO, NOx, SO ₂ or H2S. One county in Southwestern PA has additional air quality stations. Allegheny has a county health department that maintains 17 stations to report real-time air quality based on Ozone, SO2 or PM-2.5 (https://alleghenycounty.us/Health-Department/Programs/Air-Quality/Air-Quality.aspx).
In sum, cancer risk estimates from air pollution fall short in the following ways:
Estimates of air quality do not reflect the reality of air pollution from CS as well as many other new sources such as increased truck traffic associated with shale gas development.
Tallies of annual emissions do not represent the actual exposures of individuals to pulses of toxins.
Models of air pollution and cancer are not sufficiently based on real world studies of impacts from multiple toxins in short and long-term exposures.
Figure 2. Cancer risk map in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 2005 from the National Air Toxics Assessment program in the EPA. Total Lifetime Cancer Risk from Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) per million. Colors indicate yellow for 28-78, gold for 79-95, light orange for 99-148, orange for 149-271, bright orange for 272-517, and red for 518-744 excess cancer risk per million. (https://www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment)
Figure 3. Cancer risk map in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 2014 from the National Air Toxics Assessment in the EPA. Facilities are locations where air quality information was available for modeling. Total Risk of cancer as a baseline was assumed to be 1 per 1,000,000. Estimates of risk predict known air pollution sources alone will cause 1-24 excess cancers per million in Light Pink areas, 25-49 excess cancers per million in Gray areas, and 50-74 excess cancers per million in Blue areas. Source: EPA.
Table 6. Amounts of pollutants known to be associated with cancer in a review of 18 New York compressor stations. Emissions were grouped and tallied based on their impacts on disorders classified by ICD codes as defined by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), a medical classification list by the World Health Organization. Source: Copy of Table 3b, Russo and Carpenter 2017.
Lip, oral cavity and pharynx
Respiratory system and intrathoracic organs
Bone and articular cartilage
Connective and soft tissue
Breast and female genital organs
Male genital organs
Eye, brain and central nervous system
Endocrine glands and related structures
Secondary and ill-defined
Malignant neoplasms, stated or presumed to be primary, of lymphoid, haematopoietic and related tissue
Malignant neoplasms of independent (primary) multiple sites
In situ neoplasms
Neoplasms of uncertain or unknown behavior
Measurements of Compressor Station Emissions
Studies of real-world concentrations of air pollutants from CS emissions are lacking, but some reports exist. Of these, a few records are in peer-reviewed studies, and cited in reviews such as Saunders et al. 2018. A few published reports are described below. They all show the high variation over time for CS emissions and the occurrence of peak concentrations.
Macey et al. (2014) observed ambient air near CS contained toxins at concentrations that impair health. They collected grab samples of air from industrial sites including CS in Arkansas and Pennsylvania and analyzed them for toxins using EPA approved methods. Most of the CS studied in Arkansas (Table 6) and Pennsylvania (Table 7) released formaldehyde at amounts associated with a cancer risk from exposure to this substance of 1/10,000 which is equivalent to 100 times higher risk than the widely accepted baseline risk of 1 per million. This means the amounts of formaldehyde found near CS substantially increased the risk of cancer using well-established federal analyses (https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/hac/phamanual/appf.html). Some toxins Macey et al. recorded are less well studied than formaldehyde and benzene. For example, 1,3-butadiene is classified by the EPA as a known human carcinogen, but a calculation of cancer risk for this substance is lacking. Air samples in the Macey study were collected close to the CS (e.g., 30-42m) and at greater distances (e.g., 254-460m). Those distant samples were well beyond the 750-foot set-back rule for Pennsylvania. At all these distances, air movement modeling predicts that toxins released from a source such as a CS are likely to travel downwind within the air mass under most weather conditions, thus exposing residents near and further from CS. Many people, therefore, in homes, schools and businesses that are downwind of CS are likely to experience serious air toxins at concentrations that harm their health.
Air toxins were also measured by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 in a variety of unconventional gas extraction facilities including one CS in Washington County, PA. Brown et al. (2015) reported these data, showing the concentrations that citizens could experience near a compressor station varied greater than tenfold within a day and among consecutive days (Table 8). The length of time for peak concentrations was unknown, but Brown et al. used a model of weather including wind patterns to estimate citizens are likely to experience 118 peak concentrations per year.
Goetz et al. (2015) sampled air in Marcellus shale regions of Pennsylvania for short periods (1-2.5 hrs.) at distances 480-1100 meters from eight CS, four with relatively small capacity (5,000-9,000 hp) and four with moderate capacity (14,000-17,000 hp). They found that each CS had a different pattern of relatively higher concentrations of some pollutants, such as NOX versus other pollutants, e.g., CO. Also, totals of all pollutants did not correlate with compressor engine capacity, probably because the CS they sampled include a mix of engines using fossil fuels and electric power. Goetz et al. concluded with recommendations for more comprehensive and longer-term monitoring to better understand air pollution from CS and all components in shale gas development.
Radionuclides in CS emissions are almost never measured, even though Marcellus shales are well known for containing elevated amounts of radiologic substances such as uranium, radium and radon. The only published report of testing for radionucleotides in CS emissions in PA was a test of a single CS emission for one period of time. In a review of radiation in shale gas industry components, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) measured radon (Rn) in ambient air at one CS by deploying sample bags in four cardinal directions at the fence line at a height of 5 feet for 62 days. They reported Rn concentrations of 0.1-0.8 pCi/L, values they stated were within the range of outdoor air in the US. (https://www.dep.pa.gov/Business/Energy/OilandGasPrograms/OilandGasMgmt/Oil-and-Gas-Related-Topics/Pages/Radiation-Protection.aspx) Given the high variation of amounts of emissions from CS and variable chemistry in sources of gases released from combustion, blowdowns and leaks, frequent testing for radionucleotides should be standard in monitoring CS emissions.
Methane is the substance tracked most often in emissions from CS and other gas industry facilities because of its central role in operations, requirements to avoid explosive concentrations, and readily available measurement technology, in comparison to other substances emitted from CS. Although methane emissions from CS are not always correlated with amounts of other, more toxic emissions, patterns observed in plumes of methane from CS are likely to reflect elevated concentrations of other harmful substances from CS.
Nathan et al (2015) sampled methane emissions from one CS in the Barnett shale region using a sensor carried on a model aircraft. The open-path, laser sensor produced measures with a precision of 0.1 ppmv over short intervals, allowing researchers to see emission variation in time and space as the aircraft changed position. Based on 22 flights within a week period, they observed a substantial range in methane released from 0.3 – 73 g CH4 per second. These values calculate to 0.02 – 6.3 metric tons of methane per day, a range that matches that estimated by Goetz of 0.5 – 9 metric tons per day. In addition, Nathan et al. found high variability in concentrations at different heights, as the emission plumes shifted in response to wind velocity, direction and topography. They recommend caution in interpretations of ground-based emission monitors and called for more monitoring of air movements and emissions at different elevations.
Payne et al. 2017 confirmed these ideas when they mapped plumes of methane in CS in New York and Pennsylvania using a sensor capable of recording methane in parts per million (ppm) every 0.25 – 5 seconds. The sensor was located on a mobile unit that marked GPS location. They found high variability in the shape and extent of plumes. For example, one of most extensive plumes was recorded near Dimock, Pennsylvania in a locale with CS as the only major source of methane. Researchers recorded the highest concentrations of methane in the study, 22 ppm, at 500 m from the CS, with a second peak of 0.6 ppm noted over 1 km from the CS and elevated methane as far as 3 km from the site (Figure 4). Wind direction did not always predict the shape of the plume, but data collection was restricted by the path of the sensor and the transport vehicle (Figure 8). Most importantly, they found that …“during atmospheric temperature inversions, when near-ground mixing of the atmosphere is limited or does not occur, residents and properties located within 1 mile of a compressor station can be exposed to rogue methane from these point sources.” These residents are likely to also experience excess toxins from CS as well, especially under such weather conditions.
Exposure to peak concentrations of air pollutants have dramatic effects on health for several reasons. First, lungs carry toxins into the blood within seconds, and the blood quickly transfers compounds to the brain and other vital organs. Many of the substances released by compressor stations impact the central nervous system as seen in Table 3, and these toxins are released simultaneously. Citizens, therefore inhaling a plume of emissions will have impacts from the total of these compounds. The health impacts for these combined toxins are unknown, and especially of concern during pregnancy and child development. Exposure studies in animals and humans test individual substances and the Center for Disease Control and NIOSH use these to develop exposure guidelines for a healthy adult in a work-place. In contrast, residents near compressor stations will include citizens of all ages with various health conditions. For example, the American Lung Association determined that over 50% of the 360,000 residents of Westmoreland County are at greater risk for health impairment due to air pollution because they have one or more of these conditions: asthma, diabetes, heart disease, respiratory illness, advanced age (https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/key-findings/people-at-risk.html).
In sum, the research on CS emissions of methane, air pollutants such as NOx, and hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene, all indicate exposures to CS emissions pose a threat to public health, but the emissions have not yet been fully quantified and modeled. Documenting CS contributions to harmful ambient air quality is feasible, however. The published studies from as far back as 2011 indicate that instrumentation to record substances and weather are readily available. Activities within a station such as compressor function, blowdowns, venting and flaring are all recorded by operators, but such reports are not released to researchers or the public. The science of models that predict public health risks in response to air pollution exposure are highly developed. In sum, operators of CS have the technology to measure emissions and ambient air quality and scientists have the models, but lack of industry data prevents the public from knowing impacts from CS.
Table 6. Air toxins found in grab samples near Arkansas compressor stations including concentrations, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), Minimum Risk Level (MRL) exceedance, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) cancer risk. Source: Copy of Table 4 from Macey et al. 2014.
EPA IRIS cancer risk exceeded
355 m from compressor
42 m from compressor
30 m from compressor
355 m from compressor
42 m from compressor
237 m from compressor
42 m from compressor
254 m from compressor
C = chronic; I = intermediate.
Table 7. Air toxins found in grab samples near Pennsylvania compressor stations including concentrations, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), Minimum Risk Level (MRL) exceedance, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) cancer risk. Source: Copy of Table 5 from Macey et al. 2014
EPA IRIS cancer risk exceeded
420 m from compressor
370 m from compressor
270 m from PIG launcha
790 m from compressor
C, I, A
420 m from compressor
C, I, A
230 m from compressor
460 m from compressor
C = chronic; A = acute; I = intermediate.
aLaunching station for pipeline cleaning or inspection tool.
Table 8. Variation in air pollutants measured in ug/cubic meter by PA DEP during two sampling times per day for three consecutive days near a compressor station in Southwest PA. Source: Copied from Table 1. Brown et al. 2015 based on data from Southwestern Pennsylvania Short Term Marcellus Ambient Air Sampling Report, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Nov. 2010.
Figure 4. Methane emission plumes from compressor stations near Dimock, Pennsylvania (left) and Springvale, Pennsylvania (right). Source: Copied from Payne et al. 2017.
Compressor Station Locations
Prior to 2008, compressor stations were infrequent with one or a few per county broadly distributed across PA as part of gas transport from locations outside of PA (Figure 5). These pipelines were mainly an issue for public health in the case of explosions. Major transmission pipelines use pressures up to 1500 psi. Leaks, therefore, release large amounts of gas much of which is not noticed because it lacks the mercaptan odorant added to household methane. For example, the 30-inch Spectra gas pipeline that exploded in 2016 in Westmoreland County caused a hole 12 feet deep and1500 square feet in area and burned 40 acres. The PA DEP claimed to have measured air quality, but they did not arrive until long after the plume from the fire traveled downwind. This pipeline was transporting gas from one of the largest gas storage facilities in the country, the Sunoco Gas Depot in Delmont, Pennsylvania to New Jersey as part of over 9,000 miles of pipelines in the Texas Eastern system from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast. That section of pipeline was built in 1981 and had recently been increased in pressure, probably using older or newer compressors in nearby locations. Faulty joints between pipeline sections were blamed for the catastrophic release of gas. (Phillips, S. 2016. State Impact, NPR). Immediately after the explosion, while gas continued to pour out of the pipeline, emergency workers needed at least one hour to locate shut-off locations. In general, pipeline shut-offs are sited at compressors stations or at intervals along a pipeline.
CS abundance in counties with shale gas extraction increased over tenfold in the decade after 2005 when the gas industry obtained exemptions to the Clean Water Act and began unconventional gas extraction in Pennsylvania (Figure 6). Permit applications for new wells, pipelines and CS continue throughout southwest Pennsylvania. In PA, the Oil and Gas law states the following: “ In order to allow for the reasonable development of oil and gas resources, a local ordinance … Shall authorize natural gas compressor stations as a permitted use in agricultural and industrial zoning districts and as a conditional use in all other zoning districts, if the natural gas compressor building meets the following standards:….(i) is located 750 feet or more from the nearest existing building or 200 feet from the nearest lot line, whichever is greater, unless waived by the owner of the building or adjoining lot;” (Pennsylvania Statutes Title 58 Pa.C.S.A. Oil and Gas §3304). CS and many aspects of the shale gas industry are controlled by this state law.
Each stage of gas extraction involves emissions that can be close or far from the well pad. Most emissions involve diesel engines. Diesel engines are well-known to produce substantial amounts of VOC’s, NOx and particulate pollution (PM-2.5, PM-10). Well pad construction requires intense activity by diesel trucks and earth moving equipment. Well drilling uses diesel engines. From 3 – 5 million gallons of water are used for each fracking event and up to 300 truck visits are needed to transport water for the many wells that are not close to water supplies from piped sources. Trucks are used to transport the 1 – 2 million gallons of produced water that emerges from the well for disposal in injection wells likely to be distant from most wells. Additional waste is carried long distances as well, including drill cuttings and sludge. For example, shale gas industry waste was handled for years in Max Environmental, one of the largest industrial waste sites in the eastern US located in Yukon, Westmoreland County since the 1960’s. Within one mile of Yukon is Reserved Environmental, a waste facility with operations focused since 2008 on processing sludge from fracking into solid cakes to be trucked to other landfills. In sum, all stages of shale gas industry contribute to many poorly documented sources of air pollution likely to be near CS.
The density of CS in some areas such as southwest Pennsylvania impacts the local and regional air quality. For example, Westmoreland County has 50 CS and 341 shale gas wells (https://www.fractracker.org) and some neighboring counties have even more shale gas emission sources. People in Westmoreland County receive pollutants from shale gas activities in their immediate vicinity and additional air pollutants from CS and other industries in neighboring counties. Wind patterns shown in Figure 7 indicate Westmoreland County is frequently downwind from Washington County, a county with a very high density of shale gas operations, and Eastern Allegheny County where large industries such as coke works release substantial amounts of air pollutants.
Figure 5. Compressor Stations prior to 2008 and in around 2013. Source: Copied from article by James Hilton in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Figure 6. Compressor Stations in Pennsylvania mapped in 2019. Source: FracTracker Alliance. 2000.
Figure 7. Wind patterns at small airports around Pennsylvania 1991-2005 showing predominant direction of wind and velocity in knots (Orange 0 – 4, Yellow 4 – 7, Turquoise 7 – 11, Medium Blue 11 – 17, Dark Blue 17 – 21). Source: The Pennsylvania State Climatologist.
Costs of Compressor Stations and Air Pollution
As permanent, constant sources of air and noise pollution and safety risks, CS add significant costs to communities. Poor air quality alone is well-established as an economic drain for a region due to many factors including increased health care, lower property values, a declining tax base, and difficulty in attracting new businesses or housing development. Litovitz et al. (2013) estimated that, compared to other activities of shale gas extraction, CS made up the majority of the annual emissions of important air toxins in 2011, and therefore a majority of the damages from air pollution, totaling 4 – 24 million dollars of the 7 – 32 million dollars of the aggregate air pollution damages from gas operations (Table 9).
Litovitz and others recognize that the costs of damages from the gas industry air pollution in 2011 may appear smaller than the state-wide impacts from other industries, such as coal burning power plants and coke production, but that appearance deserves a second look. First, shale gas extraction activities are concentrated in a few regions of Pennsylvania, and local air quality is most relevant to public health and local economics such as property values. Second, emissions from gas extraction in 2011 was only in its early stages in Pennsylvania and shale gas operations will expand greatly unless regulations change, while coal-fired power plants are declining due to the advanced age of most facilities. For example, in Westmoreland County, PA alone there are over 50 CS in 2020, the number currently in the entire state of New York, where unconventional gas development was suspended due, in large part, to concerns for public health. Costs from one aspect of an energy sector can be viewed in the context of economic and other benefits of alternative energy efforts. For example, Jacobson et al. (2013) estimated that shifting to clean, renewable energy in NY state would prevent 4000 premature deaths each year and save $33 billion/year through air pollution reductions that impact health care, crop production and other costs. Jacobson et al. used government data in their models regarding health benefits and also identified substantial job growth during and after the transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. Pennsylvania has the potential to attain similar benefits in air quality, public health, savings and job growth gained from a shift to clean, renewable energy in place of fossil fuels.
Table 9. a) Emissions from shale gas industry in 2011 throughout Pennsylvania in metric tons per year. b) Costs of damages due to air pollution from shale gas extraction in 2011 throughout Pennsylvania. Copied from Tables 5 and 6 in Litovitz et al. 2013.
(2) Well drilling and hydraulic fracturing
(4) Compressor stations
17 000–28 000
ᵃ These totals are reported to two significant figures, as are all intermediate emissions values in this document. The activity emissions may not exactly sum to the totals.
Total regional damage for 2011 ($2011)
Average per well or per MMCF damage ($2011)
$320 000–$810 000
$180–$460 per well
(2) Well drilling, fracturing
$2 200 000–$4 700 0
$1 200-$2 700 per well
$290 000–$2 700 0
$0.27-$2.60 per MMCF
(4) Compressor stations
$4 400 000–$24 000 000
$4.20-$23.00 per MMCF
$7 200 000–$32 000 000
Major Studies Cited in Text:
Brown, David, Celia Lewis, Beth I. Weinberger and Heather Bonaparte. 2014. Understanding air exposure from natural gas drilling put air standards to the test. Reviews in Environmental Health. https://doi.org/10.1515/reveh-2014-0002
Brown, David, Celia Lewis and Beth I. Weinberger. 2015. Human exposure to unconventional natural gas development; a public health demonstration of high exposure to chemical mixtures in ambient air. Journal of Environmental Science and Health (Part A) 50: 460-472.
Goetz, J.D. E. Floerchinger, E., C. Fortner, J. Wormhoudt, P. Massoli, W. Berk Knighton, S.C. Herndon, C.E. Kolb, E. Knipping, S. L. Shaw, and P. F. DeCarlo. 2015. Atmospheric Emission Characterization of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Development Sites. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49, 7012−7020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.5b00452
Jacobson, MZ, RW Howarth, MA Delucchi, ST Scobie, JH Barth, M Dvorak, M Klevze, H. Hatkhuda, B. Mirand, NA Chowdhury, R Jones, L Plano, AR Ingraffea. 2013. Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight. Energy Policy 57: 585-601.
Macey, G.P., Breech, R., Chernaik, M. (2014) Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production: a community-based exploratory study. Environ Health 13, 82 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-069X-13-82
McKenzie, LM, G Ruisin, RZ Witter, DA Savitz, LS Newman, JL Adgate. 2014. Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado. Environmental Health Perspectives Vol 22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1306722.
Payne, RA, P Wicker, ZL Hildenbrand, DD Carlton, and KA Schug. 2017. Characterization of methane plumes downwind of natural gas compressor stations in Pennsylvania and New York. Science of The Total Environment 580:1214-1221
Russo, PN and DO Carpenter 2017. Health Effects Associated with Stack Chemical Emissions from NYS Natural Gas Compressor Stations: 2008-2014 Institute for Health and the Environment, A Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Environmental Health, University at Albany, 5 University Place, Rensselaer New York. Https://www.albany.edu/about/assets/Complete_report.pdf
Saunders, P.J., D. McCoy. R. Goldstein. A. T. Saunders and A. Munroe. 2018. A review of the public health impacts of unconventional natural gas development Environ Geochem Health 40:1–57. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-016-9898-x
Compressor Stations in Westmoreland Co. PA in Dec 2019, based on information from FracTracker Alliance, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Air Quality Report, and the Department of Homeland Security.
CNX GAS CO/HICKMAN COMP STA
PEOPLES TWP/RUBRIGHT COMP STA
CNX GAS CO/BELL POINT COMP STA
RW GATHERING LLC/ECKER BERGMAN RD COMP STA
RE GAS DEV/ORGOVAN COMP STA
RW GATHERING LLC/SALEM COMP STA
RW GATHERING LLC/ECKER BERGMAN RD COMP STA
EQT GATHERING LLC/DERRY COMP STA
Layman Compressor, Range Resources Appalachia, LLC
Key Rock Energy/LLC
Kriebel Minerals Inc./Sony Compressor Station (Inactive)
Lynn Compressor, Kriebel Minerals Inc.
Range Resources Appalachia/ Layman Compressor Station
Keyrock Energy LLC/ Hribal Compresor Station, East Huntingdon, Pa. (active)
KeyRock Energy LLC/ Hribal Compressor Station (Active)
Range Resources Appalachia/Schwartz Comp. Station
TEXAS KEYSTONE/FAIRFIELD TWP COMP STA
EQUITRANS LP/W FAIRFIELD COMP STA
DIVERSIFIED OIL & GAS LLC/MURPHY COMP SITE
TEXAS KEYSTONE INC/ MURPHY COMP STA
Silvis Compressor Station, Exco Resources Pa. Inc
Dominion Trans Inc., Lincoln Heights
CNX Gas Co. LLC
CNX Gas Co. LLC/ Jackson Compressor Station, Status: Active
PEOPLES NATURAL GAS CO/ARNOLD COMP STA
Lower Burrell City
TEXAS KEYSTONE INC/LOYALHANNA
HUNTLEY & HUNTLEY INC/BOARST COMP STA
MTN GATHERING LLC/10078 MAINLINE COMP STA
Dominion Trans Inc/Jeannette
DOMINION ENERGY TRANS INC/ROCK SPRINGS COMP STA
EQT GATHERING/SLEEPY HOLLOW COMP STA
EQT GATHERING/SLEEPY HOLLOW COMP STA
COLUMBIA GAS TRANS CORP/DELMONT COMP STA
LAUREL MTN MIDSTREAM OPR LLC/SALEM COMP STA
CNX Gas Co./ Jacobs Creek Compressor Station,
South Huntingdon Twp
Rex Energy I LLC/Launtz
Keyrock Energy LLC/ Unity Compressor Station
Nelson/RE Gas Dev LLC
People’s Natural Gas/ Latrobe Compressor Station
CNX Gas Co. LLC, Troy Compressor Station
Dominion Peoples (Inactive)
HUNTLEY & HUNTLEY INC/WASHINGTON STATION
PEOPLES NATURAL GAS/MERWIN COMP STA
HUNTLEY & HUNTLEY INC/TARPAY STA
Mamont (CNX GAS CO/MAMONT COMP STA)
CONE MIDSTREAM PARTNERS LP/MAMONT COMP STA
Feature image of a compressor station within Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance, June 2016.
Pennsylvania’s House Bill 1100, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Turzai, has passed through the House and Senate with broad bipartisan support. If approved, the bill would provide billions of dollars in subsidies to energy and fertilizer companies that use fracked natural gas as feedstock.
The Bill is part of “Energize PA,” a package of bills that encourage natural gas and petrochemical development by providing companies with streamlined permitting processes and subsidies. The Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County received $1.6 billion in state subsidies, the largest tax break in state history. HB1100 would provide similar tax credits to additional petrochemical and natural gas projects.
According to its Republican sponsors, HB1100 is “designed to make Pennsylvania attractive to outside businesses, create family-sustaining jobs and provide economic benefits to underserved regions, without creating any new fees or taxes.” Indeed, the cumulative wage impacts of the Appalachian basin shale gas build-out was around $21 billion from 2004 to 2016, according to a 2019 Carnegie Mellon University study.
March 25, 2020 Update
After weeks of sitting on the bill, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed HB1100, and the Pennsylvania Senate submitted it to Governor Wolf on March 18. This came amidst the chaos of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Governor is still expected to veto the bill, after which point, the General Assembly is likely to attempt an override.
March 27, 2020 Update
Governor Wolf said in his press release:
“Rather than enacting this bill, which gives a significant tax credit for energy and fertilizer manufacturing projects, we need to work together in a bipartisan manner to promote job creation and to enact financial stimulus packages for the benefit of Pennsylvanians who are hurting as they struggle with the substantial economic fallout of COVID-19.” Read the full press release here.
However, both Energize PA and HB1100 have been criticized for their overall economic inefficacy and environmental externalities. The aforementioned CMU study found that the cumulative air pollution damage cost about $23 billion and the cumulative greenhouse gas damage reached $34 billion, leading the authors to conclude that the negative environmental and health externalities outweigh the benefits of shale gas development.
Diana Polson, Senior Policy Analyst at Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, has also raised concerns about the economics of the petrochemical buildout in Pennsylvania. At a recent town hall meeting in Millvale, Pennsylvania, she made the point that tax incentives are rarely a deciding factor in a company’s decision on where to operate. This means that initiatives like “Energize PA” have little impact in terms of private investment decisions. Many factors outweigh the impact that tax credits have on a private company’s bottom line, such as proximity to a strong workforce, other existing industries, and access to supply chains.
What about job creation? The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue estimates that the HB1100 tax credit program would cost the Commonwealth $22 million per plant per year over the next 30 years. Diana Polson estimates that this would equate to about $8.8 million per permanent job over the course of the tax break.
This cost-to-job ratio is unacceptable to representatives like Sara Innamorato. “According to Shell, the cracker plant in Beaver will support 6,000 construction jobs at the peak of work, but will only lead to a possible 600 permanent jobs. Each of these jobs costs $2.75 million in subsidies — money that could have sustained many more families currently struggling to make ends meet in our communities,” the State Representative wrote. “Imagine how many workers we could employ with that level of investment in rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, replacing lead pipes, and repairing bus-swallowing sinkholes.”
Corporate tax revenue has fallen to 14% of Pennsylvania’s General Fund revenue, about half of what it was in the 1970’s. Without these corporate tax cuts, Pennsylvania would have about $4 billion more in corporate tax revenue per year than it does today. Critics like Innamorato believe that the state should respond to an already large public investment deficit by subsidizing investments such as education, human services, infrastructure, and environmental protection. HB1100 runs counter such public investments, particularly Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s efforts to instate a severance tax on fracking operations that would subsidize infrastructure projects.
Environmental & Climate Impacts
Critics of HB1100 also raise environmental concerns. Much of the petrochemical buildout in the Appalachian basin would produce plastics, exacerbating the problem of single-use plastic pollution. There are also worries about the industry’s contributions to climate change. A recent report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance and the Center for Environmental Integrity 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, these emissions could rise to the equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 coal-fired power plants. Locking in these emissions for decades to come has some wondering how Pennsylvania will reach its carbon budget goal of 58 million tons of CO2 in 2050.
In addition to economic and environmental concerns, HB1100 has come under criticism for its potential to worsen the health impacts associated with natural gas and petrochemical development, which range from asthma attacks, cardiovascular disease, strokes, abnormal heart rhythms and heart attacks. Research has also shown that natural gas and petrochemical development increase the risk of cancer, and there is growing evidence that air pollution affects fetal development and adverse birth outcomes.
It is now in the hands of Governor Wolf to either pass or veto HB1100. Wolf’s spokesman J.J. Abbott said that the governor “believes such projects should be evaluated on a specific case-by-case basis. However, if there was a specific project, he would be open to a conversation.”
One in three jobs in Pennsylvania’s energy sector are in clean energy. Many taxpayers will continue to push for policies that support this kind of job creation and investment in public services and infrastructure. Will our Commonwealth leaders listen, or will they continue to prioritize fossil fuel companies?
Visualize the petrochemical buildout by exploring FracTracker’s maps.
Penn Future and dozens of other groups are holding a press conference in Harrisburg on March 9th.
Harrisburg Press Conference - March 9
When: Monday, March 9, 10:00 – 11:00 AM
Where: Pennsylvania State Capitol – Main Rotunda
State and Third Street
Harrisburg, PA 17101
The list of speakers is subject to change. Current confirmed speakers include: Jacquelyn Bonomo, President and C.E.O., PennFuture State Representative Sara Innamorato, (21st House District) State Representative Chris Rabb, (200th House District) State Representative Carolyn Comitta, (156th House District) State Senator Katie Muth, (44th Senatorial District) Veronica Coptis, Executive Director, The Center for Coalfield Justice Ashleigh Deemer, Deputy Director, PennEnvironment Rabbi Daniel Swartz, Temple Hesed Briann Moye, One Pennsylvania
You can contact PennFuture Western Pennsylvania Outreach Coordinator, Kelsey Krepps, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 224 – 4477 with any questions or concerns.
Cover photo showing early construction (2016) of the Shell Ethane Cracker in Beaver County, PA. By Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. Aerial assistance provided by LightHawk. Provided by FracTracker Alliance, fractracker.org/photos.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Shell-Ethane-Cracker-6.jpg23764364Shannon Smithhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgShannon Smith2020-03-05 12:57:122020-03-27 13:27:12House Bill 1100: What you need to know
Natural gas compressor stations (1,367) – Facilities built along a pipeline route that pressurize natural gas to keep it flowing through the pipeline.
Crude oil rail terminals (94) – Rail terminals that load and unload crude oil (liquid hydrocarbons that have yet to be processed into higher-value petroleum products).
Liquefied natural gas import/export terminals (8) – Facilities that can a) liquefy natural gas so it can be exported as LNG (liquefied natural gas) and/or b) re-gasify LNG so it can be used as natural gas. Natural gas is transported in a liquid state because it takes up less space as a liquid than as a gas.
Natural Gas Underground Storage (486) – Locations where natural gas is stored underground in aquifers, depleted gas fields, and salt formations.
Petroleum Product Terminals (1,484) – Terminals with a storage capacity of 50,000 barrels or more and/or the ability to receive volumes from tanker, barge, or pipeline. Petroleum products include products “produced from the processing of crude oil and other liquids at petroleum refineries, from extraction of liquid hydrocarbons at natural gas processing plants, and from production of finished petroleum products at blending facilities.”
Petroleum Ports (242) – A port that can import and/or export 200,000 or more short tons of petroleum products a year.
Natural gas import/export pipeline facility (54) – A facility where natural gas crosses the border of the continental United States.
Crude oil pipelines – major crude oil pipelines, including interstate truck lines and selected intrastate lines, but not including gathering lines.
Natural gas liquid pipelines – Also referred to as hydrocarbon gas liquid pipelines, they carry the heavier components of the natural gas stream which are liquid under intense pressure and extreme cold, but gas in normal conditions.
Natural gas pipelines– Interstate and intrastate natural gas pipelines. Due to the immensity of this pipeline network and lack of available data, this pipeline layer in particular varies in degree of accuracy.
Petroleum Product Pipelines – Major petroleum product pipelines.
Recent Pipeline Projects – Pipeline projects that have been announced since 2017. This includes projects in various stages, including under construction, complete, planned or canceled. Click on the pipeline for the status.
Processing & Downstream
Natural Gas Processing Plants (478) – Plants that separate impurities and components of the natural gas stream.
Chemical plants (36) – Includes two types of chemical plants – petrochemical production and ammonia manufacturing – that report to EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.
Ethylene Crackers (30) – Also referred to as ethane crackers, these petrochemical complexes that converts ethane (a natural gas liquid) into ethylene. Ethylene is used to make products like polyethylene plastic.
Petroleum Refineries (135) – A plant that processes crude oil into products like petroleum naphtha, diesel fuel, and gasoline.
Power Plants (9,414) – Electric generating plants with a capacity of at least one megawatt, sorted by energy source.
Wind Turbines (63,003) – Zoom in on wind power plants to see this legend item appear.
Shale Plays (45) – Tight oil and gas shale plays, which are formations where oil and gas can be extracted.
Solar Energy Potential – Potential solar energy generation, in kilowatt-hours per square meter per day – averaged annually.
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?
Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants.
The state generating the largest amount of solar energy is California, while wind energy is Texas. The state with the greatest relative solar energy is not technically a state – it’s D.C., where 18% of electricity generation is from solar, closely followed by Nevada at 17%. Iowa leads the country in relative wind energy production, at 45%.
The state generating the most amount of energy from both natural gas and coal is Texas. Relatively, West Virginia has the greatest reliance on coal for electricity (85%), and Rhode Island has the greatest percentage of natural gas (92%).
With 28% of total U.S. energy consumption for transportation, many of the refineries, crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, and terminals on this map are dedicated towards gasoline, diesel, and other fuel production.
Petrochemical production, which is expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, takes the form of chemical plants, ethylene crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines on this map, largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast.
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).
Figure 1. Electricity generation by source in the United States, 2019. Data from EIA.
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.
Figure 2. Electricity generation state-wide by source, 2019. Data from EIA.
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.
Transportation Fuel Infrastructure. Data from EIA.
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.
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.
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.
Petrochemical development off the coast of Texas, November 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial support provided by LightHawk.
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.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/National-map-feature-3.png400900Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgErica Jackson2020-02-28 17:35:142020-06-25 18:15:00National Energy and Petrochemical Map
Despite the ever-increasing heaps of violations and drilling waste, Pennsylvania’s fracked wells continue to produce an excess supply of gas, driving prices down. To cut their losses, the oil and gas industry is turning towards increased exports and petrochemical production. Continuing to expand fracking in Pennsylvania will only increase risks to the public and to the climate, all for what may amount to another boom and bust cycle that is largely unprofitable to investors.
Let’s take a look at gas production, waste, newly drilled wells, and violations in Pennsylvania in the past year to understand just how precarious the fracking industry is.
Fracked hydrocarbon production continues to rise in Pennsylvania, resulting in an increase in waste production, violations, greenhouse gas emissions, and public health concerns. There are three types of hydrocarbons produced from wells in Pennsylvania: gas, condensate, and oil. Gas is composed mostly of methane, the most basic of the hydrocarbons, but in some parts of Pennsylvania, there can be significant quantities of ethane, propane, and other so-called “natural gas liquids” (NGLs) mixed in. Each of these NGLs are actually gaseous at atmospheric conditions, but operators try to separate these with a combination of pressure and low temperatures, converting them to a liquid phase. Some of these NGLs can be separated on-site, and this is typically referred to as condensate. Fracked wells in Pennsylvania also produce a relatively tiny amount of oil.
For those of you wondering why we are looking at the November, 2018 through October, 2019 time frame, this is simply a reflection of the available data. In this 12-month period, 9,858 fracked Pennsylvania wells, classified as “unconventional,” reported producing 6.68 trillion cubic feet of gas (Tcf), 4.89 million barrels of condensate, and just over 70,000 barrels of oil.
By means of comparison, Pennsylvania consumed about 1.46 Tcf of gas across all sectors in 2018, of which just 253 billion cubic feet (Bcf) was used in the homes of Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million residents. In fact, the amount of gas produced in Pennsylvania exceeds residential consumption in the entire United States by almost 1.7 Tcf. However, less than 17% of all gas consumed in Pennsylvania is for residential use, with nearly 28% being used for industrial purposes (including petrochemical development), and more than 35% used to generate electricity.
Figure 1. Fracked gas production compared to all fracked gas consumption and residential gas consumption in Pennsylvania from 2013 through 2018. Data from ref. Energy Information Administration.
While gas production has expansive hotspots in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state, the liquid production comes from a much more limited geography. Eighty percent of all condensate production came from Washington County, while 87% of all fracked oil came from wells in Mercer County.
Because the definition of condensate has been somewhat controversial in the past (while the oil export ban was still in effect), I asked the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the definition, and was told that if hydrocarbons come out of the well as a liquid, they should be reported as oil. If they are gaseous but condense to a liquid at standard temperature and pressure (60 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure 14.7 PSIA) on-site, then it is to be reported as condensate. Any NGLs that remain gaseous but are removed from the gas supply further downstream are reported as gas in this report. For this reason, it is not really possible to use the production report to find specific amounts of NGLs produced in the state, but it certainly exceeds condensate production by an appreciable margin.
The volume of gas withdrawn from fracked wells in Pennsylvania in just one year is equal to the volume of 3.2 Mount Everests!
Hydrocarbons aren’t the only thing that come out of the ground when operators drill and frack wells in Pennsylvania. Drillers also report a staggering amount of waste products, including more than 65 million barrels (2.7 billion gallons) of liquid waste and 1.2 million tons of solid waste in the 12-month period.
Waste facilities have significant issues such as inducing earthquakes, toxic leachate, and radioactive sediments in streambeds.
Liquid Waste (Barrels)
Solid Waste (Tons)
Drilling Fluid Waste
Other Oil & Gas Wastes
Soil Contaminated by Oil & Gas Related Spills
Spent Lubricant Waste
Synthetic Liner Materials
Unused Fracturing Fluid Waste
Waste Water Treatment Sludge
Figure 2. Oil and gas waste generated by fracked wells as reported by drillers from November 1, 2018 through October 31, 2019. Data from ref: PA DEP.
Some of the waste is probably best described as sludge, and several of the categories allow for reporting in barrels or tons. Almost all of the waste was in the well bore at one time or another, although there are some site-related materials that need to be disposed of, including filter socks which separate liquid and solid waste, soils contaminated by spills, spent lubricant, liners, and unused frack fluid waste.
Where does all of this waste go? We worked with Earthworks earlier this year to take a deep dive into the data, focusing on these facilities that receive waste from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas wells. While the majority of the waste is dealt with in-state, a significant quantity crosses state lines to landfills and injection wells in neighboring states, and sometimes as far away as Idaho.
Oil and gas operators have started the drilling process for 616 fracking wells in 2019, which appear on the Pennsylvania DEP spud report. This is less than one third of the 2011 peak of 1,956 fracked wells, and 2019 is the fifth consecutive year with fewer than 1,000 wells drilled. This has the effect of making industry projections relying on 1,500 or more drilled wells per year seem rather dubious.
Figure 3. Unconventional (fracked) wells drilled from 2005 through December 23, 2019, showing totals by regional office. Data from ref: PA DEP.
Oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania fall under the jurisdiction of three different regional offices. By looking at Figure 2, it becomes apparent that the North Central Regional Office (blue line) was a huge driver of the 2009 to 2014 drilling boom, before falling back to a similar drilling rate of the Southwest Regional Office.
The slowdown in drilling for gas in recent years is related to the lack of demand for the product. In turn, this drives prices down, a phenomenon that industry refers to as a “price glut.” The situation it is forcing major players in the regions such as Range Resources to reduce their holdings in Appalachia, and some, such as Chevron, are pulling out entirely.
Disturbingly, 2019 was the fifth straight year that the number of violations issued by DEP will exceed the total number of wells drilled.
Figure 4. Unconventional (fracked) drilled wells and issued violations from 2005 through December 2019. Data from ref: DEP.
Violations related to unconventional drilling are a bit unwieldy to summarize. The 13,833 incidents reported in Pennsylvania fall into 359 different categories, representing the specific regulations in which the drilling operator fell short of expectations. The industry likes to dismiss many of these as being administrative matters, and indeed, the DEP does categorize the violations as either “Administrative” or “Environmental, Health & Safety”. However, 9,998 (72%) of the violations through December 3, 2019, are in the latter category, and even some of the ones that are categorized as administrative seem like they ought to be in environmental, health, and safety. For example, let’s look at the 15 most frequent infractions:
SWMA301 – Failure to properly store, transport, process or dispose of a residual waste.
Environmental Health & Safety
CSL 402(b) – POTENTIAL POLLUTION – Conducting an activity regulated by a permit issued pursuant to Section 402 of The Clean Streams Law to prevent the potential of pollution to waters of the Commonwealth without a permit or contrary to a permit issued under that authority by the Department.
Environmental Health & Safety
102.4 – Failure to minimize accelerated erosion, implement E&S plan, maintain E&S controls. Failure to stabilize site until total site restoration under OGA Sec 206(c)(d)
Environmental Health & Safety
SWMA 301 – MANAGEMENT OF RESIDUAL WASTE – Person operated a residual waste processing or disposal facility without obtaining a permit for such facility from DEP. Person stored, transported, processed, or disposed of residual waste inconsistent with or unauthorized by the rules and regulations of DEP.
Environmental Health & Safety
601.101 – O&G Act 223-General. Used only when a specific O&G Act code cannot be used
402CSL – Failure to adopt pollution prevention measures required or prescribed by DEP by handling materials that create a danger of pollution.
Environmental Health & Safety
78.54* – Failure to properly control or dispose of industrial or residual waste to prevent pollution of the waters of the Commonwealth.
Environmental Health & Safety
401 CSL – Discharge of pollutional material to waters of Commonwealth.
Environmental Health & Safety
102.4(b)1 – EROSION AND SEDIMENT CONTROL REQUIREMENTS – Person conducting earth disturbance activity failed to implement and maintain E & S BMPs to minimize the potential for accelerated erosion and sedimentation.
Environmental Health & Safety
102.5(m)4 – PERMIT REQUIREMENTS – GENERAL PERMITS – Person failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the E & S Control General Permit.
Environmental Health & Safety
78.56(1) – Pit and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances.
78a53 – EROSION AND SEDIMENT CONTROL AND STORMWATER MANAGEMENT – Person proposing or conducting earth disturbance activities associated with oil and gas operations failed to comply with 25 Pa. Code § 102.
Environmental Health & Safety
102.11(a)1 – GENERAL REQUIREMENTS – BMP AND DESIGN STANDARDS – Person failed to design, implement and maintain E & S BMPs to minimize the potential for accelerated erosion and sedimentation to protect, maintain, reclaim and restore water quality and existing and designated uses.
Environmental Health & Safety
CSL 401 – PROHIBITION AGAINST OTHER POLLUTIONS – Discharged substance of any kind or character resulting in pollution of Waters of the Commonwealth.
Environmental Health & Safety
OGA3216(C) – WELL SITE RESTORATIONS – PITS, DRILLING SUPPLIES AND EQUIPMENT – Failure to fill all pits used to contain produced fluids or industrial wastes and remove unnecessary drilling supplies/equipment not needed for production within 9 months from completion of drilling of well.
Environmental Health & Safety
Figure 5. Top 15 most frequently cited violations for unconventional drilling operations in Pennsylvania through December 3, 2019. Data from ref: DEP.
Of the 15 most common categories, only two are considered administrative violations. One of these is a general code, where we don’t know what happened to warrant the infraction without reading the written narrative that accompanies the data, and is therefore impossible to categorize. The only other administrative violation in the top 15 categories reads, “78.56(1) – Pit and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances,” which certainly sounds like it would have some real-world implications beyond administrative concerns.
To address the excess supply of gas, companies have tried to export the gas and liquids to other markets through pipelines. Those efforts have been fraught with trouble as well. Residents are reluctant to put up with an endless barrage of new pipelines, yielding their land and putting their safety at risk for an industry that can’t seem to move the product safely. The Revolution pipeline explosion hasn’t helped that perception, nor have all of the sinkholes and hundreds of leaky “inadvertent returns” along the path of the Mariner East pipeline system. In a sense, the industry’s best case scenario is to call these failures incompetence, because otherwise they would be forced to admit that the 2.5 million miles of hydrocarbon pipelines in the United States are inherently risky, prone to failure any time and any place.
Pennsylvania’s high content of NGLs is a selling point by the industry, because they have an added value when compared to gas. While all of these hydrocarbons can burn and produce energy in a similar manner, operators are required to remove most of them to get the energy content of the gas into an acceptable range for gas transmission lines. Because of this, enormous facilities have to be built to separate these NGLs, while even larger facilities are constructed to consume it all. Shell’s Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex ethane cracker being built in Beaver County, PA is scheduled to make 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene per year, mostly for plastics.
This comes at a time when communities around the country and the world are enacting new regulations to rein in plastic pollution, which our descendants are going to finding on the beach for thousands of years, even if everyone on the planet were to stop using single-use plastics today. Of course, none of these bans or taxes are currently permitted in Pennsylvania, but adding 1.6 million metric tons per year to our current supply is unnecessary, and indeed, it is only the beginning for the region. A similar facility, known as the PTT Global Chemical cracker appears to be moving forward in Eastern Ohio, and ExxonMobil appears to be thinking about building one in the region as well. Industry analysts think the region produces enough NGLs to support five of these ethane crackers.
Despite all of these problems, the oil and gas industry still plans to fill the Ohio River Valley with new petrochemical plants, gas processing plants, and storage facilities in the hopes that someday, somebody may want what they’ve taken from the ground.
Here’s hoping that 2020 is a safer and healthier year than 2019 was. But there is no need to leave it up to chance. Together, we have the power to change things, if we all demand that our voices are heard. As a start, consider contacting your elected officials to let them know that renewing Pennsylvania’s blocking of municipal bans and taxes on plastic bags is unacceptable.
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/PA-2019-Fracked-Gas-Production-Feature.jpg16673750Matt Kelso, BAhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgMatt Kelso, BA2020-01-07 18:02:382020-03-11 12:37:20Fracking in Pennsylvania: Not Worth It
A recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University estimated that for every three job years created by fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one year of life is lost for a resident due to increased pollution exposure. As fracking continues to expand around the perimeter of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania — one of the top ten most polluted regions in the U.S. — we’re called to question how this industry is impacting the area’s already poor air quality. To answer this question, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), and FracTracker Alliance conducted a study on air quality around sites impacted by fracking development.
Over the course of this past year, we set up air monitors in seven communities in or near Allegheny County with current or proposed oil and gas infrastructure, with the goal of gathering baseline data and identifying possible public health concerns.
The sites in question are mapped and described below. Click on the arrow to scroll through maps of the different sites.
North Braddock: Merrion Oil and Gas has proposed a fracking well on the property of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, near where North Braddock, East Pittsburgh, and North Versailles meet.
Plum Borough: Penneco has proposed to build a wastewater disposal well in Plum Borough. We placed three monitors at homes in areas where the air is likely to be impacted by construction and truck traffic should the wastewater disposal well be installed.
Economy Borough (Beaver County): We monitored around PennEnergy Resource’s B50 well pad, which recently began construction. Of particular concern to residents is the increase in truck traffic along a narrow road in a residential neighborhood that will be used to access the well pad.
Frazer Township: Monitoring took place around the Gulick, Schiller, and Bakerstown well pads.During their monitoring period, there was reported fracking activity on one well, and drilling activity on another.
Elizabeth Township: Monitoring occurred around three EQT and Olympus Energy fracked well pads listed as active; fracking reportedly occurred on one well pad during the monitoring period.
Indiana Township: Monitoring followed the construction of the Miller Jr. fracked well pad.
Stowe Township: Monitoring occurred in Stowe Township, where McKees Rocks Industrial Enterprise (MRIE) is located, and in adjacent McKees Rocks. This facility processes and transports frac sand, which operators use to frack a well by injecting it at extremely high pressures underground.
PM2.5 is a pollutant small enough to enter our lungs and bloodstream and therefore poses a great risk to human health.
The process of constructing, drilling and fracking a well releases a variety of pollutants, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nitrous oxides (NOx).
Allegheny County has some of the worst air quality in the nation. In recent years, the air quality in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, which had been improving since 2005, began to worsen. This is due in part to fracking activities.
There are 163 fracked wells that have been drilled in Allegheny County, all of which pose a threat to human health.
This initial air quality study by Southwest Environmental Health Project and FracTracker found that areas with proposed fracking sites are particularly vulnerable because they already have poor air quality.
Further investigations will need to monitor air quality throughout different stages of development and during different seasons in order to provide meaningful comparisons of changes in air quality that could be correlated with oil and gas development.
Allegheny’s air – from bad to worse
In recent years, the air quality in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, which had been improving since 2005, began to worsen. According to the 2019 State of the Air report, levels of ozone and particle pollution increased over 2015-2017 (Figure 1).
This fact echoes a nationwide trend. Another study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that after several years of improvement, air pollution in the United States worsened in 2017 and 2018. The study cited several possible explanations, including increased natural gas production, more wildfires, and a rollback on Clean Air Act regulations by the EPA.
While Allegheny County’s air pollution is largely attributable to steel, coal, and chemical plants, in the last decade, the oil and gas industry has brought many new sources of pollution to the area.
As of December, 2019, operators have drilled 163 fracking wells in the county (Table 1) and constructed nine compressor stations. Additional pollution caused by the oil and gas industry is attributable to the thousands of truck trips required to frack a well.
Table 1. Fracked wells in Allegheny County by municipality
The fracking process releases emissions that can affect human health at every stage of its lifespan. Research has linked fracking to immediate health symptoms, such as burning eyes, sore throat, and headaches. Ongoing research has identified the potential for long term health impacts, such as cardiovascular disease and adverse birth outcomes.
Air pollution from the oil and gas industry does not impact everyone equally. An individual’s response to exposure varies depending on factors such as age and health conditions.
There is also a great deal of variation amongst wells and compressor stations when it comes to emissions. As such, the best way to understand someone’s exposure is to monitor the places they frequent, such as the home, school, or workplace.
Types of Pollutants
The process of drilling and fracking a well releases a variety of pollutants, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nitrous oxides (NOx). Table 2, below, shows reported emissions from gas wells in Allegheny County for 2017.
Table 2. Reported emissions from Allegheny County gas wells in 2017, from the PA DEP
Emission Amount (Tons)
Xylenes (Isomers And Mixture)
Our study looked at particulate matter (PM) – a mix of solid particles and liquids found in the air, like dust, soot, and smoke. Specifically, the study focused on PM2.5, which are particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter (Figure 2). PM forms during construction activities, combustion processes such as those in diesel engines, and from industrial sites and facilities.
Fracking and its associated processes release hazardous chemicals into the air, which then attach to PM2.5. Additionally, combustion engines of trucks and machinery used to construct well sites and drill wells release diesel emissions, including PM2.5. Compressor stations and flaring are additional sources.
PM2.5 is small enough to enter our lungs and bloodstream and therefore poses a great risk to human health. Their health impacts include reduced lung function and cardiovascular disease, as well as short term effects such as sinus irritation.
Figure 2. Particulate matter diagram, from the US EPA
The monitors were placed at varying distances and directions from the facility in question, not exceeding 1.5 miles from the facility in question. We used Speck monitors indoors and Purple Air monitors outdoors; both types measured the concentration of particulate matter over roughly one month.
The EPA’s guideline for exposure to PM2.5 is 35 μg/m3 averaged over 24 hours. However, averaging exposure over 24 hours can obscure peaks- relatively short time spans of elevated PM2.5 concentrations. While it is normal for peaks to occur occasionally, high, long, or frequent peaks in pollution can affect people’s health, particularly with acute impacts such as asthma attacks.
The graphs below show our results. On each graph, you’ll see three to five lines, one for each outdoor monitor. Lines that follow similar trends show data that is likely an accurate representation of air quality in the community. Lines that stray from the pack may represent a unique situation that only that house is experiencing.
In addition to graphing the results, EHP used the following parameters to analyze the data:
Frequency of peaks
Duration of peaks
Time between peak exposures
Baseline (level of particles generally found outside when peaks are not occurring)
Total sum (or quantity) of peak exposure
These five parameters were compared to EHP’s data gathered from roughly 400 sites in Ohio, West Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania. This database compiles air quality data from locations that have no infrastructure present as well as nearby sites such as well pads, compressor stations, frac-sand terminals, processing facilities, etc.
In the table below, numbers in green indicate values that are better than EHP’s averages, while red values show values that are worse than the average of EHP’s dataset. Black numbers show values that are average.
Table 3. EHP/FracTracker sites of air quality investigation in Allegheny County
*The proposed well is near the intersection of East Pittsburgh, North Braddock, and North Versailles
**Monitors were also placed in neighboring McKees Rocks
~In homes where baseline levels of PM2.5 are low, such as in Frazer and Economy, peaks are more easily registered in our analysis, but they typically have a smaller magnitude compared to homes that have high baselines.
Communities with proposed sites
In North Braddock and Plum Borough, the outdoor air monitors collected data around sites of future and/or proposed activity. This baseline monitoring helps us understand what the air is like before oil and gas activity and is essential for understanding the future impact of oil and gas development in a community.
In these neighborhoods, we found worse than average values for total accumulation of PM2.5. This may be due to other patterns of PM2.5 movement in the area related to weather and surrounding sources of pollution. North Braddock is an urban environment, and therefore has pollution from traffic and buildings. Another source is the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, one of the county’s top polluters. While Plum Borough is more rural, it also contains an active fracking well pad and is near a coal-fired power plant and a gas power plant.
If constructed, the proposed fracking well and the proposed wastewater disposal well will add additional pollution from construction, truck traffic, and in North Braddock’s case, emissions from the well itself. This may pose a significant health risk, especially in vulnerable populations like children and those with preexisting health conditions.
Communities with constructed well pads
Emissions vary across the timeline of drilling and fracking a well. Figure 2 below shows reported emissions of PM2.5 and VOCs from different components of a fracking operation. PM2.5 emissions are highest during drilling (when the well bore is formed) and completion (when the well is fracked by injecting high volumes of water, sand, and chemicals at tremendous pressure). For a step by step outline of the fracking process, check out FracTracker’s fracking operation virtual tour.
Figure 2. 2017 emissions from Allegheny County gas wells at different stages in the fracking process, reported to the PA DEP
Our monitoring in Economy Borough, where construction on PennEnergy Resources’ B50 well pad had just begun, showed air quality that is better than EHP’s averages. However, if the wells on the well pad are drilled and fracked, EHP hopes to provide monitors again to track changes in air quality. In addition to emissions from the fracking well, which is close to the Chestnut Ridge housing development, residents are concerned about truck traffic along Amsler Ridge Road.
In Indiana, while residents reported truck traffic to the site, the wells were not fracked during the monitoring period. The measurements were average or slightly above the average EHP typically sees near homes. Looking at these results, peak duration was flagged, and the total sum of particulate matter was slightly elevated compared to our average suggesting that the long durations may ignite a health response in sensitive individuals. Other sources that could be contributing to pollution include the PA Turnpike and the Redland Brick manufacturer.
In Frazer, there was reported fracking activity on one well and drilling activity on another; these time periods were only slightly elevated on the hourly average charts. Monitors were left at two households in Frazer because there was an indication that fracking would start soon.
In Elizabeth Township, air quality measurements were generally better compared to the rest of EHP’s data, but there were clear peaks that all monitors registered which generated a similar, if not potentially higher, amounts of accumulated PM2.5.
Frac sand facility
Finally, monitors around MRIE, the frac sand processing facility in Stowe Township, showed air quality that may pose a health risk. The peaks in these neighborhoods generated a higher amount of accumulated PM2.5 and lasted longer compared to the rest of our data. In addition to pollution from MRIE and its associated trucks and trains, the neighborhood has many sources of pollution, including highways and industrial facilities on Neville Island.
This study is limited in that PM2.5 was the only pollutant that the Purple Air and Speck monitors captured. To understand the complete burden of air pollution residents are exposed to, other pollutants such as VOCs, must be monitored.
Additionally, monitoring occurred over a short time period. Further investigations will need to monitor air quality throughout different stages of development and during different seasons in order to provide meaningful comparisons of changes in air quality that could be correlated with oil and gas development. EHP will continue to monitor around certain active sites to watch for changes in the data.
If you’re concerned about health or environmental impacts from a well in your neighborhood, make sure to document the issue by taking notes, photos, and videos, and file a complaint with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. To report an environmental health concern, reach out to the Department of Health by phone at 1-877 PA Health (1-877-724-32584) or email (RA-DHENVHEALTH@pa.gov). If you’re an employer or worker and have health or safety concerns, reach out to your area’s OSHA office or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
While cleaning up the air in your community is difficult, there are steps you can take to protect the air in your home. With the average American spending 90% of their time indoors, the air inside can greatly impact your health. For this project, we also set up air monitors in residents’ homes so participants could better understand these risks. Visit EHP’s resources under the section “What You Can Do” to learn more about protecting your indoor air quality. To learn more about how fracking is impacting residents in southwest Pennsylvania, explore the Environmental Health Channel.
Finally, help us crowdsource new data on the impacts and status of oil and gas development in your community by reporting what you see, hear, smell, and question on the FracTracker mobile app (also available from your computer!). Those living near oil and gas infrastructure are the best source of knowledge when it comes to understanding the impacts of this industry. With your help, we want to make sure all of these impacts are being documented to inform decision makers and residents about the risks of fracking.
Many thanks to the Southwest Environmental Health Project for including us as collaborators on this study.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/drilling-rig.jpg16673750Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgErica Jackson2019-12-18 10:56:062020-03-13 13:43:56Allegheny County Air Quality Monitoring Project
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Allegheny-Lease-Map-front-page.jpg5732000Matt Kelso, BAhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgMatt Kelso, BA2019-12-02 14:05:562020-03-06 20:03:47Prizio Increases Transparency in Oil & Gas Data in Allegheny County
Pennsylvania’s fracking industry is producing record amounts of toxic waste — where does it all go?
Drilling for methane and other fossil fuels is an energy-intensive process with many associated environmental costs. In addition to the gas that is produced through high volume hydraulic fracturing (“unconventional drilling,” or “fracking”), the process generates a great deal of waste at the drill site. These waste products may include several dozen tons of drill cutting at every well that is directionally drilled, in addition to liner materials, contaminated soil, fracking fluid, and other substances that must be removed from the site.
In 2018, Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry (including both unconventional and conventional wells) produced over 2.9 billion gallons (nearly 69 million barrels) of liquid waste, and 1,442,465 tons of solid waste. In this article, we take a look at where this waste (and its toxic components) end up and how waste values have changed in recent years. We also explore how New York State, despite its reputation for being anti-fracking, isn’t exempt from the toxic legacy of this industry.
Waste that comes back to haunt us
According to a study by Physicians, Scientists and Engineers, over 80% of all waste from oil and gas drilling stays within the state of Pennsylvania. But once drilling wastes are sent to landfills, is that the end of them? Absolutely not!
Drilling waste also gets into the environment through secondary means. According to a recent report by investigative journalists at Public Herald, on average, 800,000 tons of fracking waste from Pennsylvania is sent to Pennsylvania landfills. When this waste is sent to landfills, radioactivity and other chemicals can percolate through the landfill, and are collected as leachate, which is then shipped to treatment plants.
Public Herald documented how fourteen sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania have been permitted by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) to process and discharge radioactive wastes into more than a dozen Pennsylvania waterways.
Public Herald’s article includes an in-depth analysis of the issue. Their work is supported by a map of the discharge sites, created by FracTracker.
Trends over time
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection maintains a rich database of oil and gas waste and production records associated with their Oil and Gas Reporting Website. The changes in waste disposal from Pennsylvania’s unconventional drilling reveal a number of interesting stories.
Let’s look first at overall unconventional drilling waste.
According to data from the federal Energy Information Administration, gas production in Pennsylvania began a steep increase around 2010, with the implementation of high volume hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale (see Figure 1). The long lateral drilling techniques allowed industry to exploit exponentially more of the tight shale via single well than was ever before possible with conventional, vertical drilling.
Figure 1. Data summary from FracTracker.org, based on EIA data.
The more recently an individual well is drilled, the more robust the production. We see an overall increase in gas production over time in Pennsylvania over the past decade. Paradoxically, the actual number of new wells drilled each year in the past 4-5 years are less than half of the number drilled in 2011 (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Data summary from FracTracker.org, based on PA DEP data
Why is this? The longer laterals —some approaching 3 miles or more—associated with new wells allow for more gas to be extracted per site.
With this uptick in gas production values from the Marcellus and Utica Formations come more waste products, including copious amounts drilling waste, “produced water,” and other byproducts of intensive industrial operations across PA’s Northern Tier and southwestern counties.
Comparing apples and oranges?
When we look at the available gas production data compared with data on waste products from the extraction process, some trends emerge. First of all, it’s readily apparent that waste production does not track directly with gas production in a way one would expect.
Recall that dry gas production has increased annually since 2006 (see Figure 1). However, the reported waste quantities from industry have not followed that same trend.
In the following charts, we’ve split out waste from unconventional drilling by solid waste in tons (Figure 3) and liquid waste, in barrels (Figure 4).
Figure 3: Annual tonnage of solid waste from the unconventional oil and gas industry, organized by the state it is disposed in. Data source: PA DEP, processed by FracTracker Alliance
Figure 4: Annual volume of liquid waste from the unconventional oil and gas development, organized by state it is disposed in. One barrel is equivalent to 42 gallons. Data source: PA DEP, processed by FracTracker Alliance
Note the striking difference in disposal information for solid waste, compared with liquid waste, coming from Pennsylvania.
“Disposal Location Unknown”
Until just the last year, often more than 50% of the known liquid waste generated in PA was disposed of at unknown locations. The PA DEP waste report lists waste quantity and method for these unknown sites,depending on the year: “Reuse without processing at a permitted facility,” “Reuse for hydraulic fracturing,” “Reuse for diagnostic purposes,” “Reuse for drilling or recovery,” “Reuse for enhanced recovery,” and exclusively in more recent years (2014-2016), “Reuse other than road-spreading.”
In 2011, of the 20.5 million barrels of liquid waste generated from unconventional drilling, about 56% was allegedly reused on other drilling sites. However, over 9 million barrels—or 44% of all liquid waste—were not identified with a final destination or disposal method. Identified liquid waste disposal locations included “Centralized treatment plant for recycle,” which received about a third of the non-solid waste products.
In 2012, the quantity of the unaccounted-for fracking fluid waste dropped to about 40%. By 2013, the percentage of unaccounted waste coming from fracking fluid dropped to just over 21%, with nearly 75% coming from produced fluid, which is briny, but containing fewer “proprietary”—typically undisclosed—chemicals.
By 2017, accounting had tightened up further. PA DEP data show that 99% of all waste delivered to undisclosed locations was produced fluid shipped to locations outside of Pennsylvania. By 2018, all waste disposal was fully accounted for, according to DEP’s records.
In looking more closely at the data, we see that:
Prior to 2018, well drillers did not consistently report the locations at which produced water was disposed of or reused. Between 2012 and 2016, a greater volume of unconventional liquid waste went unaccounted for than was listed for disposal in all other locations, combined.
In Ohio, injection wells, where liquid waste is injected into underground porous rock formations, accounted for the majority of the increase in waste accepted there: 2.9 million barrels in 2017, and 5.7 million barrels in 2018 (a jump of 97%).
West Virginia’s acceptance of liquid waste increased significantly in 2018 over 2017 levels, a jump of over a million barrels, up from only 55,000. This was almost entirely due to unreported reuse at well pads.
In 2018, reporting, in general, appears to be more thorough than it was in previous years. For example, in 2017, nearly 692,000 barrels of waste were reused at well pads outside PA, but those locations were not disclosed. Almost 7000 more barrels were also disposed of at unknown locations. In 2018, there were no such ambiguities.
A closer look at Pennsylvania’s fracking waste shipped to New York State
Despite a reputation for being resistant to the fracking industry, for most of this decade, the state of New York has been accepting considerable amounts of fracking waste from Pennsylvania. The greatest percentage shipped to New York State is in the form of drilling waste solids that go to a variety of landfills throughout Central and Western New York.
Looking closely at the bar charts above, it’s easy to notice that the biggest recipients of Pennsylvania’s unconventional liquid drilling waste are Pennsylvania itself, Ohio, as well as a significant quantity of unaccounted-for barrels between 2011 and 2016 (“Disposal location unknown”). The data for disposal of solid waste in New York tells a different story, however. In this case, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York State all play a role. We’ll take a look specifically at the story of New York, and illustrate the data in the interactive map that follows.
In this map, source locations in Pennsylvania are symbolized with the same color marker as the facility in New York that received the waste from the originating well pad. In the “Full Screen” view, use the “Layers” drop down menu to turn on and off data from separate years.
From the early days of unconventional drilling in Pennsylvania, New York State’s landfills provided convenient disposal sites due to their proximity to the unconventional drilling occurring in Pennsylvania’s Northern tier of counties. Pennsylvania and Ohio took the majority of solid wastes from unconventional drilling waste from Pennsylvania. New York State, particularly between 2011-2015, was impacted far more heavily than all other states, combined (Figure 5, below).
Figure 5: Known disposal locations (excluding PA and OH) of Pennsylvania’s solid waste. Data source: PA DEP, processed by FracTracker Alliance
Here’s the breakdown of locations in New York to where waste was sent. Solid waste disposal into New York’s landfills also dropped by half, following the state’s ban on unconventional drilling in 2014. Most of the waste after 2012 went to the Chemung County Landfill in Lowman, New York, 10 miles southeast of Elmira.
Figure 6: Solid waste from unconventional drilling, sent to facilities in NYS. Data source: PA DEP, processed by FracTracker Alliance
Is waste immobilized once it’s landfilled?
The fate of New York State’s landfill leachate that originates from unconventional drilling waste is a core concern, since landfill waste is not inert. If drilling waste contains radioactivity, fracking chemicals, and heavy metals that percolate through the landfill, and the resulting leachate is sent to municipal wastewater treatment plants, will traditional water treatment methods remove those wastes? If not, what will be the impact on public and environmental health in the water body that receives the “treated” wastewater? In Pennsylvania, for example, a case is currently under investigation relating to pollution discharges into the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh. “That water was contaminated with diesel fuels, it’s alleged, carcinogens and other pollutants,” said Rich Bower, Fayette County District Attorney.
Currently, a controversial expansion of the Hakes Landfill in Painted Post, New York is in the news. Sierra Club and others were concerned about oversight of radium and radon in the landfill’s leachate and air emissions, presumably stemming from years of receiving drill cuttings. The leachate from the landfill is sent to the Bath Wastewater Treatment plant, which is not equipped to remove radioactivity. “Treated” wastewater from the plant is then discharged into the Cohocton River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. In April 2019, these environmental groups filed a law suit against Hakes C&D Landfill and the Town of Campbell, New York, in an effort to block the expansion.
Similar levels of radioactivity in leachate have also been noted in leachate produced at the Chemung County Landfill, according to Gary McCaslin, President of People for a Healthy Environment, Inc.
In recent years, much of the solid unconventional waste arriving in New York State has gone to the Chemung County Landfill (see Figure 6, above). Over the course of several years, this site requested permission to expand significantly from 180,000 tons per year to 417,000 tons per year. However, by 2016, the expansion was deemed unnecessary, and according, the plans were put on hold, in part “…because of a decline in the amount of waste being generated due to a slower economy and more recycling than when the expansion was first planned years ago.” The data in Figure 5 above also parallel this story, with unconventional drilling waste disposed in New York State dropping from over 200,000 tons in 2011 to just over 20,000 tons in 2018.
Liquid waste transported to New York State
The story about liquid unconventional drilling waste exported from Pennsylvania to states other than Ohio is not completely clear (see Figure 7, below). Note that the data indicate more than a 2000% increase in waste liquids going from Pennsylvania to West Virginia after 2017. While it has not been officially documented, FracTracker has been anecdotally informed that a great deal of waste was already going to West Virginia, but that the record-keeping prior to 2018 was simply not strongly enforced.
Figure 7: Known disposal locations (excluding Pennsylvania and Ohio) of Pennsylvania’s liquid waste. Data source: PA DEP, processed by FracTracker Alliance
Beginning in the very early years of the Pennsylvania unconventional fracking boom, a variety of landfills in New York State have also accepted liquid wastes originating in Pennsylvania, including produced water and flowback fluids (see Figure 8, below).
Figure 8: Liquid waste from unconventional drilling, sent to facilities in New York State. Data source: PA DEP, processed by FracTracker Alliance
In addition, while this information doesn’t even appear in the PA DEP records (which are publicly available back to 2010), numerous wastewater treatment plants did accept some quantity, despite being fully unequipped to process the highly saline waste before it was discharged back into the environment.
One such facility was the wastewater treatment plant in Cayuga Heights, Tompkins County, which accepted more than 3 million gallons in 2008. Another was the wastewater treatment plant in Auburn, Cayuga County, where the practice of accepting drilling wastewater was initially banned in July 2011, but the decision was reversed in March 2012 to accept vertical drilling waste, despite strong public dissent. Another wastewater treatment plant in Watertown, Jefferson County, accepted 35,000 gallons in 2009.
Fortunately, most New York State wastewater treatment plant operators were wise enough to not even consider adding a brew of unknown and/or proprietary chemicals to their wastewater treatment stream. Numerous municipalities and several counties banned fracking waste, and once the ban on fracking in New York State was instituted in 2014, nearly all importation of liquid unconventional drilling waste into the state ceased.
Nevertheless, conventional, or vertical well drilling also generates briny produced water, which the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) permits communities in New York to accept for ice and dust control on largely rural roads. These so-called “beneficial use determinations” (BUDs) of liquid drilling waste have changed significantly over the past several years. During the height of the Marcellus drilling in around 2011, all sorts of liquid waste was permitted into New York State (see FracTracker’s map of affected areas) and was spread on roads. As a result, the chemicals—many of them proprietary, of unknown constituents, or radioactive—were indirectly discharged into surface waters via roadspreading.
Overall, in the years after the ban in 2014 on high volume hydraulic fracturing was implemented, restrictions on Marcellus waste coming into New York have strengthened. Very little liquid waste entered New York’s landfills after 2013, and what did come in was sent to a holding facility owned by Environmental Services of Vermont. This facility is located outside Syracuse, New York.
New York State says “no” to this toxic legacy
Fortunately, not long after these issues of fracking fluid disposal at wastewater treatment facilities in New York State came to light, the practice was terminated on a local level. The 2014 ban on fracking in New York State officially prevented the disposal of Marcellus fluids in municipal wastewater treatment facilities and required extra permits if it were to be road-spread.
In New York State, the State Senate—after 8 years of deadlock—in early May 2019, passed key legislation that would close a loophole that had previously allowed dangerous oil and gas waste to bypass hazardous waste regulation. Read the press release from Senator Rachel May’s office here. However, despite strong support from both the Senate, and the Assembly, as well as many key environmental groups, the Legislature adjourned for the 2019 session without bringing the law to a final vote. Said Elizabeth Moran, of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), “I want to believe it was primarily a question of timing… Sadly, a dangerous practice is now going to continue for at least another year.”
See Earthworks’ recent three part in-depth reporting on national, New York, and Pennsylvania oil and gas waste, with mapping support by FracTracker Alliance.
All part of the big picture
As long as hydrocarbon extraction continues, the issues of waste disposal—in addition to carbon increases in the atmosphere from combustion and leakage—will result in impacts on human and environmental health. Communities downstream and downwind will bear the brunt of landfill expansions, water contamination, and air pollution. Impacts of climate chaos will be felt globally, with the greatest impacts at low latitudes and in the Arctic.
Transitioning to net-zero carbon emissions cannot be a gradual endeavor. Science has shown that in order to stay under the 1.5 °C warming targets, it must happen now, and it requires the governmental buy-in to the Paris Climate Agreement by every economic power in the world.
No exceptions. Life on our planet requires it.
We have, at most, 12 years to make a difference for generations to come.