Posts

Urban Drilling in Los Angeles

Impact of a 2,500′ Oil and Gas Well Setback in California

Why does California need setbacks?

A new bill proposed by California State Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi (D), AB345, seeks to establish a minimum setback distance of 2,500′ between oil and gas wells and sensitive sites including occupied dwellings, schools, healthcare facilities, and playgrounds. A setback distance for oil and gas development is necessary from a public health standpoint, as the literature unequivocally shows that oil and gas wells and the associated infrastructure pose a significant risk to the communities that live near them.

FracTracker Alliance conducted a spatial analysis to understand the impact a 2,500’ well setback would have on oil and gas expansion in California. In a previous report, The Sky’s Limit California (Oil Change Internal, 2018), Fractracker data showed that 8,493 active or newly permitted oil and gas wells were located within a 2,500’ buffer of sensitive sites. At the time it was estimated that 850,000 Californians lived within the setback distance of at least one of these oil and gas wells.

This does not bode well for Californians, as a recently published FracTracker literature review found that health impacts resulting from living near oil and gas development include cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms. Studies also showed that health impacts increased with the density of oil and gas development, suggesting that health impacts are dose dependent. Living closer to more oil and gas sites means you are exposed to more health-threatening contamination.

An established setback is therefore necessary to alleviate some of these health burdens carried by the most vulnerable Environmental Justice (EJ) communities. Health assessments by the Los Angeles County Department of Health and studies on ambient air quality near oil fields by Occidental College Researchers support the assumption that 2,500′ is the necessary distance to help alleviate the harsh conditions of degraded air quality. Living at a distance beyond 2,500′ from an oil and gas site does not mean you are not impacted by air and water contamination. Rather the concentrations of contaminants will be less harmful. In fact studies showed that health impacts increased with proximity to oil and gas, with associated impacts potentially experienced by communities living at distances up to 9.3 miles (Currie et al. 2017) and 10 miles (Whitworth et al. 2017).

Assembly Bill 345

This analysis assesses the potential impact of State Assembly member Al Muratsuchi’s Assembly Bill 345 on California’s oil and gas extraction and production. Specifically, AB345 establishes a minimum 2,500’ setback requirement for future oil and gas development. It does not however directly address existing oil and gas permits.

The bill includes the following stipulations and definitions:

  • All new oil and gas development, that is not on federal land, are required to be located at least 2,500′ from residences, schools, childcare facilities, playgrounds, hospitals, or health clinics.
  • In this case the redrilling of a previously plugged and abandoned oil or gas well or other rework operation is to be considered new oil and gas development.
  • “Oil and gas development” means exploration for and drilling production and processing of oil, gas or other gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons; the flowlines; and the treatment of waste associated with that exploration, drilling, production, and processing.
  • “Oil and gas development” also includes hydraulic fracturing and other stimulation activities.
  • “Rework operations” means operations performed in the well bore of an oil or gas well after the well is completed and equipped for production, done for the purpose of securing, restoring, or improving hydrocarbon production in the subsurface interval that is the open to production in the well bore.
  • The bill does not include routine repairs or well maintenance work.

Map

Figure 1. Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites. The map below shows the oil and gas wells and permits that fall within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites.  Summaries of these well counts and discussions of these well types are included below as well.

Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

Environmental Justice

The California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) has just released their 2018 Environmental Justice Agency Assessment, which used FracTracker’s data and mapping to assess environmental equity in the state regulation of oil permitting and drilling. The report issued the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) a failing grade of ‘F’. According to the report, “DOGGR is aware that the proposed locations of many drilling activities are in or near EJ communities, but approves permits irrespective of known health and safety risks associated with neighborhood drilling.”

FracTracker’s analysis of low income communities in Kern County shows the following:

  • There are 16,690 active oil and gas production wells located in census blocks with median household incomes of less than 80% of Kern’s area median income (AMI).
  • Therefore about 25% (16,690 out of 67,327 total) of Kern’s oil and gas wells are located within low-income communities.
  • Of these 16,690 wells, 5,364 of them are located within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites such as schools and hospitals (32%) vs 13.1% for the rest of the state.

For more information on the breakdown of Kern County wells, see our informational table, here.

DOGGR wells

Using freshly published Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) data (6/3/19), we find that there are 9,835 active wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, representing 13.1% of the total 74,775 active wells in the state.

There are 6,558 idle wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, of nearly 30,000 total idle wells in the state. Putting these idle wells back online would be blocked if the wells require reworks to restart or ramp up production. For the most part operators do not intend for most idle wells to come back online. Rather operators are just avoiding the costs of plugging and properly abandoning the wells. To learn more about this issue, see our recent coverage of idle wells here.

Of the 3,783 permitted wells not yet in production, or “new wells,” 298 (7.8%) are located within the 2,500’ buffer zone.

Getting a count of plugged wells within the setback distance is more difficult because there is not a complete dataset, but there are over 30,000 wells in areas with active production that would be blocked from being redrilled. In total there are 122,209 plugged wells listed in the DOGGR database.

Permits

We also looked at permit applications that were approved in 2018, including permits for drilling new wells, well reworks, deepening wells and well sidetracks. This may be the most insightful of all the analyses.

Within the 2018 permit data, we find that 4,369 permits were approved. Of those 518 permits (about 12%) were granted within the proposed 2,500’ setback. Of the permits 25% were for new drilling, 73% were for reworks, and 2% were for deepening existing wells. By county, 42% were in Kern, 24% were in Los Angeles, 14% in Ventura, 6% in Santa Barbara, 3% in Fresno, and 2% or less in Glenn, Monterey, Sutter, San Joaquin, Colusa, Solano, Orange and Tehama, in descending order.

SCAQMD Notices

In LA, Rule 1148.2 requires operators to notify the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) of activities at well sites, including stimulations and reworks. These data points are reiterative of the “permits” discussed above, but the dataset is specific to the SCAQMD and includes additional activities. Of the 1,361 reports made to the air district since the beginning of 2018 through April 1, 2019; 634 (47%) were for wells that would be impacted by the setback distance; 412 incidences were for something other than “well maintenance” of which 348 were for gravel packing, 4 for matrix acidizing, and 65 were for well drilling. We are not sure where gravel packing falls, in reference to AB345.

A major consideration is that this rule may force many active wells into an idle status. If the onus of plugging wells falls on the state, these additional idle wells could be a major liability for the public. Fortunately AB1328 recently defined new idle well rules. The rules entice operators to plug and abandon idle wells. If rule 1328 is effective at reducing the stock of idle wells, these two bills could complement each other. (For more information on idle wells, read FracTracker’s recent analysis, here: https://www.fractracker.org/2019/04/idle-wells-are-a-major-risk/)

State Bill 4 Well Stimulation Reporting

We also analyzed data reported to DOGGR under the well stimulation requirements of CA State Bill 4 (SB4), the 2013 bill that set a framework for regulating hydraulic fracturing in California. Part of the bill required an independent scientific study to be conducted on oil and gas well stimulation, including acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing. Since 2016 operators have been required to secure special permits to stimulate wells, which includes hydraulic fracturing and several other techniques. To learn more about this state regulation read FracTracker’s coverage of SB4. From January 1, 2016 to April 1, 2019, there have been 576 well stimulation treatment permits granted under the SB4 regulations. Only 1 hydraulic fracturing event, permitted in Goleta, would have been impacted by a 2,500’ setback in 2018.

Support for AB345

After being approved by the CA Assembly Natural Resources Committee in a 7-6 vote, the bill did not make it up for a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee during the 2019 legislative session.  The bill was described by the committee as “promising policies that need more time for discussion.” AB345 is now a two-year bill in the state Senate and will be reconsidered by the committee in January of 2020. The Chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, Lorena Gonzalez, indicated her general support for the policy and committed to working with the author to find a way to move the bill forward at the end of the session.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance 

Feature image by David McNew, Getty Images

http://www.bakersfield.com/news/arvin-looks-to-impose-more-regulations-on-oil-gas-operators/article_2beb26d6-cbdc-11e7-ba1a-4b0ac35a0fa8.html

Arvin, CA – a City in the Most Drilled County in the Country – files for a Setback Ordinance

The City of Arvin, with a population of about 20,000, is located in Kern County, California just 15 miles southeast of Bakersfield. Nicknamed ‘The Garden in the Sun,’ Arvin is moving forward with establishing new regulations that would limit oil and gas development within the city limits.

Setback Map

The new ordinance proposes setback distances for sensitive sites including hospitals and schools, as well as residentially and commercially zoned parcels. The proposal establishes a 300-foot buffer for new development and 600’ for new operations.

In the map below, FracTracker Alliance has mapped out the zoning districts in Arvin and mapped the reach of the buffers around those districts. The areas where oil and gas well permits will be blocked by the ordinance are shown in green, labeled “Buffered Protected Zones.” The “Unprotected Zones” will still allow oil and gas permits for new development.

There are currently 13 producing oil and gas wells within the city limits of Arvin, 11 of them are located in the protected zones. Those within the protected zones are operated by Sun Mountain Oil and Gas and Petro Capital Resources. They were all drilled prior to 1980, and are shown in the map below.

Map 1. Arvin, CA Proposed setback ordinance

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Information on the public hearings and proposals can be found in the Arvin city website, where the city posts public notices. As of January 24, 2018, these are the current documents related to the proposed ordinance that you will find on the webpage:

Earlier Proposals in Arvin

The proposed 2017 setback ordinance is in response to a previously proposed 2016 ordinance that would allow Kern County to fast track permits for oil and gas activities without environmental review or any public notice for the next 20 years. This could mean 72,000 new wells without review, in an area that already possesses the worst air quality in the country. Communities of color would of course be disproportionately impacted by such policy. In Kern County, the large percentage of Latinx residents suffer the impacts of oil drilling and fracking operations near their homes schools and public spaces.

In December of 2016, Committee for a Better Arvin, Committee for a Better Shafter, and Greenfield Walking Group, represented by Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, sued Kern County. The lawsuit was filed in coordination with EarthJustice, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Importance of Local Rule

Self-determination by local rule is fundamental of United States democracy, but is often derailed by corporate industry interests by the way of state pre-emption. There is a general understanding that local governments are able to institute policies that protect the interests of their constituents, as long as they do not conflict with the laws of the state or federal government. Typically, local municipalities are able to pass laws that are more constrictive than regional, state, and the federal government.

Unfortunately, when it comes to environmental health regulations, states commonly institute policies that preserve the rights of extractive industries to access mineral resources. In such cases, the state law “pre-empts” the ability of local municipalities to regulate. Local laws can be considered the mandate of the people, rather than the influence of outside interest on representatives. Therefore, when it comes to land use and issues of environmental health, local self-determination must be preserved so that communities are empowered in their decision making to best protect the health of their citizens.

For more on local policies that regulate oil and gas operations in California, see FracTracker’s pieces, Local Actions in California, as well as What Does Los Angeles Mean for Local Bans?


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Feature image by: Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Pipeline Regulations & Impact Assessments, a Primer

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

Pipelines are categorized by what they carry — natural gas, oil, or natural gas liquids (NGLs) — and where they go — interstate or intrastate. The regulatory system is complicated. This primer is a quick guide to the agencies that may be involved in Falcon’s permit reviews.

Regulating Pipelines

The siting of natural gas pipelines crossing state or country boundaries is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Meanwhile, determination of the location of natural gas routes that do not cross such boundaries are not jurisdictional to FERC, instead determined by the owner pipeline company. Hazardous liquids and NGL pipelines are not regulated for siting by FERC regardless of their location and destination. However, FERC does have authority over determining rates and terms of service in these cases. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gets involved when pipelines cross navigable waters such as large rivers and state Environmental Protection Agencies.

Pipeline design, operation, and safety regulations are established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), but these regulations may vary state-by-state as long as minimal federal standards are met by the pipeline project. Notably, PHMSA’s oversight of safety issues does not determine where a pipeline is constructed as this is regulated by the different agencies mentioned above – nor are PHMSA’s safety considerations reviewed simultaneously in siting determinations done by other agencies.

An excerpt from the U.S. Army Corps’ EIS of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline

These federal agencies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) investigating how the pipeline pertains to things like the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, as well as state and local laws. The image above, for instance, is a caption from the Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise, a natural gas pipeline.

An EIS is based on surveying and background research conducted by the company proposing the project, then submitted to agencies as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). An EIS can exceed hundreds of pages and can go through many drafts as companies are asked to refine their EIA in order to qualify for approval.

An excerpt from the PA DEP’s review of water crossings for the Mariner East 2 pipeline

Pipeline proposals are also evaluated by state and local agencies. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the PA DEP is responsible for assessing how to minimize pipeline impacts. The DEP’s mission is to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. The PA Fish and Boat Commission oversees the avoidance or relocation of protected species. Local township zoning codes can also apply, such as to where facilities are sited near zoned residential areas or drinking reservoirs, but these can be overruled by decisions made at the federal level, especially when eminent domain is granted to the project.

Regulating the Falcon

For the Falcon pipeline, an interstate pipeline that will transport ethane (an NGL), FERC will likely have authority over determining rates and terms of service, but not siting. Construction permitting will be left state agencies and PHMSA will retain its federal authority with the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) acting as PHMSA’s state agent to ensure the project complies with federal safety standards and to investigate violations. The Army Corps will almost certainly be involved given that the Falcon will cross the Ohio River. As far as we know, the Falcon will not have eminent domain status because it supplies a private facility and, thus, does not qualify as a public utility project.

Questioning Impact Assessments

The contents of EIAs vary, but are generally organized along the lines of the thematic categories that we have created for assessing the Falcon data, as seen above. However, there is also much that EISs fail to adequately address. The Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise is a good example. The final EIS resulting from the operators EIA includes considerations for socioeconomic impacts, such effects on employment and environmental justice, as seen in the excerpt below. But potential negative impact in these areas are not necessarily linked to laws requiring special accommodations. For instance, federal regulations mandate achieving environmental justice by “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” of projects subject to NEPA’s EIS requirement. However, there are no laws that outline thresholds of unacceptable impact that would disallow a project to proceed.

An excerpt from the Atlantic Sunrise EIS addressing environmental justice concerns

Furthermore, the narratives of EIAs are almost always written by the companies proposing the project, using sources of data that better support their claims of minimal or positive impact. This is again seen in the Atlantic Sunrise EIS, where several studies are cited on how pipelines have no affect on property values or mortgages, with no mention of other studies that contradict such findings. Other factors that may be important when considering pipeline projects, such as concerns for sustainability, climate change, or a community’s social well-being, are noticeably absent.

Complicating matters, some pipeline operators have been successful in skirting comprehensive EIAs. This was seen in the case of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Despite being the largest pipeline project in Pennsylvania’s history, a NEPA review was never conducted for ME2.

* * *

Related Articles

By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance

Northeast Ohio Class II injection wells taken via FracTracker's mobile app, May 2015

What are aquifer exemptions? Permitted exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act

We’d like to give our readers a bit of background on aquifer exemptions, because we’re going to be covering this topic in a few upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned!

Liquid Waste Disposal

Drilling for oil and gas produces both liquid and solid waste that must be disposed of. The liquid waste from this industry is considered a “Class II waste” according to the US EPA. Aquifers are places underground capable of holding or transmitting groundwater. To dispose of Class II waste, operators are granted aquifer exemptions, by the EPA based on the state’s recommendations. The term “exemption,” specifically, refers to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which protects underground sources of drinking water (USDWs).

Therefore, these exemptions grant oil and gas operators the right to contaminate groundwaters, albeit many of the groundwater formations used for disposal in Class II wells are very deep.

Learn more about disposal well classes and aquifer exemptions on this story map by the US EPA

Aquifer Exemption Criteria

There are several qualifiers for a USDW to be granted exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Aquifer exemptions are granted for underground formations that are not currently used as a source of drinking water and meet one of the following criteria:

  • The formation contains commercially producible minerals or hydrocarbons;
  • The formation is so deep that recovery of water for drinking water purposes is economically or technologically impractical; or,
  • The formation is so contaminated that it would be economically or technologically impractical to render the water fit for human consumption.
  • In some states, aquifer exemptions are not approved for formations with Total Dissolved Solids (TDS*) equal to or less than 3,000 mg/l TDS.

If an underground formation qualifies for an exemption, it does not mean that groundwater cannot be used for drinking water, just that it is not currently a source of drinking water. The most precarious criteria requirement, therefore, is the determination that a USDW is simply not “economically viable” or it is “technologically impractical,” meaning that the cost of drilling a groundwater well to the depth of the aquifer (under the condition of the current need for water) may make the investment impractical. In the near future, this water may be needed and highly valued, however.

TDS = Total dissolved solids are inorganic salts (e.g. calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, bicarbonates, chlorides, and sulfates), as well as some organic matter, dissolved in water.

The Lay of the Land

Below, we have put together a map of aquifer exemptions in the U.S. Click on the dots and shaded areas to learn more about a particular aquifer.

Map of all aquifer exemptions in the U.S.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Oil and Gas Wastes are Radioactive – and Lack Regulatory Oversight

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

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

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

When it comes to unconventional oil and gas waste streams:

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

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

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

State Waste Management Maps

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

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

ND Radioactive Waste mapNorth Dakota – View map fullscreen

co-radioactive-featureColorado – View map fullscreen

Sources of Radioactivity

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

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

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

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

Radioactive Oil and Gas Pathway Life Cycle

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

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

A. Scales

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

B. Produced Waters

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

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

C. Sludges

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

Federal Exemptions

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

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

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

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

State Regulations

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

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

Why can’t the waste be treated?

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

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

Risks

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

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

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

Cases of Contamination

North Dakota

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

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

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

Pennsylvania

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

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

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

Action Plans Needed

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

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

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


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

Offshore oil and gas development in CA - Photo by Linda Krop Environmental Defense Center

More offshore drilling and “fracking” in California

Offshore oil and gas development is expanding in CA. This article explores the state’s regulatory framework, existing data, and data discrepancies.

Federal Regulations for Offshore Fracking

In the summer of 2016 the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) jointly released an environmental study that reviewed offshore fracking operations. The report found that operations have a minimal impact on marine health. For a review of California’s offshore oil and gas operations, see FracTrackers Alliance’s coverage of the collaborative report with the Environmental Defense Center, the Dirty Water Report.

As ThinkProgress reports, these two federal agencies will now resume the approval of offshore fracking permits. In response, Governor Jerry Brown made a plea to President Obama, to prevent fracking off California’s coast. Governor Brown asked President Obama to institute a permanent ban on all new offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters, saying:

California is blessed with hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline; home to scenic state parks, beautiful beaches, abundant wildlife and thriving communities,” Brown wrote in a letter to Obama. “Clearly, large new oil and gas reserves would be inconsistent with our overriding imperative to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and combat the devastating impacts of climate change.

A new report by Liza Tucker at Consumer Watchdog has reviewed the state regulatory agency’s own policies under the Brown Administration. The report claims, “Brown has nurtured drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the state while stifling efforts to protect the public.” The report asks Governor Brown to “direct regulators to reject any drilling in a protected coastal sanctuary, ban offshore fracking, and phase out oil drilling in state waters” among other recommendations.

California Data & Discrepancies

FracTracker Alliance reviewed the data published by DOGGR on permitted offshore wells. (DOGGR refers to the Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources, which regulates drilling in CA). Using API identification numbers as a timeline, we actually find that it is likely that 238 wells have been drilled offshore since the start of 2012. The DOGGR database only lists “spud” (drilling) and completion dates for 71 – a mere 1.3% of the 5,435 total offshore wells. DOGGR reports that 1,366 offshore wells are currently active production wells. It must be noted that these numbers are only estimations, since operators have a 2-year window to drill wells after receiving a permit and API number.

Using these methods of deduction, we find that since the beginning of 2012 the majority of offshore wells have been drilled offshore of Los Angeles County in the Wilmington Oil Field (204 in total); followed by 25 offshore in the Huntington Beach field; 7 in the West Montalvo field offshore of Ventura County, and 1 in the Belmont field, also offshore of Ventura County. These wells are shown as bright yellow circles in the map below. Additionally, the Center for Biological Diversity reports that at least 200 of the wells off California’s coast have been hydraulically fractured.

Offshore Oil and Gas Development and SB4-Approved Well Stimulations


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

In total, DOGGR data shows 5,435 offshore oil and gas wells. Of those listed as active, new or idle, they break down into well types as shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Offshore oil and gas well types

Well Type Count
Oil and Gas Production 1,539
Dry Gas 5
Waste Disposal 14
Steam Flood 2
Water Flood 813
Pressure Maintenance 3
Observation 8

New Fracking under SB4 Rules

The map above also shows several datasets that detail the stimulation activity that has been occurring in California since the passage of SB4 under Jerry Brown. Prior to the adoption of the new stimulation regulations on July 1, 2015, operators submitted applications and received permits for a total of 2,130 wells. These well permits are shown in the map labeled “CA SB4 Interim Well Stimulation Permits.” Since July of 2015, 596 of these permitted wells have been stimulated. In the map above, the layer “CA SB4 Well Stimulation Disclosures” shows the time series of these wells. An additional 31 well stimulation treatment permit applications have been submitted to DOGGR, since the adoption of the final rules on July 1, 2015. They are shown in the map, labeled “CA SB4 Well Stimulation Treatment Permit Applications.”


Offshore drilling cover photo by Linda Krop, Environmental Defense Center

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cuyahoga River on fire - Photo by Cleveland State Univ Library

On a Dark Road to Nowhere

Teddy Roosevelt is rolling over in his grave. The progressive conservationist and one-time republican knew that healthy air, clean water, and stewardship of natural resources are tantamount to a high quality of life. Fifty years before Donald Trump drew his first infantile breath, Roosevelt was championing national parks and cities beautiful. America gained stature in the world – not only from economic might – but from noble ideas and values shared. Roosevelt was a visionary.

The ideals he sowed led to further cultivation of good. From Aldo Leopold to Rachel Carson, we learned that ecology includes humans. Everything is interconnected; everything has consequence. Ignoring the science of climate change and elementary cause and effect will have dire consequences.

In just a few days, the new president has wrought unprecedented carnage on laws and institutions created to protect our land and its people. The Center for Disease Control cancelled a long planned conference on climate change and health. An executive order was signed to clear the way for the Dakota and Keystone XL pipelines – potentially locking-in carbon pollution for decades if the projects move forward. The administration imposed a freeze on EPA grants and contracts and may be considering legislation to ban the EPA from generating its own internal science. The EPA is the federal agency charged to “protect human health and the environment.” Leadership with our best interests in mind would encourage scientific inquiry and requisite oversight, not silence it.

Economies thrive and civilizations rise when challenged to adapt and improve. Prosperity is on the rise in states with high expectations and greater public investment. The mantra of cutting regulations is gross deception. We can’t forget silent springs and burning rivers (photo top), Love Canals or the gulf spills. Attempts to roll back environmental laws and agreements – some enacted decades ago with bipartisan support – can’t go unchecked. Which safeguard enacted to protect life and property is too much? Should billionaire-funded anti-regulatory agendas trump civil rules designed to benefit mankind?

Conservation, restoration, green infrastructure, clean energy, and smart public expenditure pay huge social and economic dividends:

Fighting climate change fuels innovation. Research grows jobs. Cutting pollution reduces healthcare costs. Creating open space and public amenities retains and attracts a motivated, productive workforce. Sustainability nurtures hope.


Other countries will build the renewable energy future if we don’t. They already are. We can be in the top tier or risk sliding into a dirty and dangerous, carbon-dependent oblivion. If that sounds alarmist, take a look at the basic impacts we’ve seen from fossil fuel extraction and distribution nationwide. Hundreds of thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells lay strewn across the country, 200,000 in Pennsylvania alone. Thousands of miles of streams have been contaminated by coal mining. Volatile and potentially explosive oil trains and pipelines pass by our homes, across sacred tribal lands, and through highly populated cities. Refineries pollute the very air we breathe. Degradation and injustice is un-American.

These strange and troubling times require a loud and unified chorus. Roosevelt said “It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.”

There is no choice but to resist. And we will.

On a Dark Road to Nowhere – By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance


Feature Image Credit: Cleveland State University Library. The Cuyahoga River is a river in the United States, located in Northeast Ohio, that feeds into Lake Erie. The river is famous for having been so polluted that it “caught fire” in 1969. The event helped to spur the environmental movement in the US – via Wikipedia

Revolving Doors & the PA Natural Gas Industry

By Susan Volz, FracTracker Alliance Intern

The result of this year’s presidential election has sent shock waves through all levels of government. Many are now wondering what the next four years will look like in terms of funding and policy decisions. Just a few days after the inauguration, the next administration’s cabinet choices have many worried. For example, the person President-Elect Trump has selected to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Myron Ebell, has connections to the fossil fuel industry, suggesting national energy policy may embrace fossil fuel development. Of equal concern are the industry connections of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and former Texas governor Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy.

While these transformations are happening at the federal level, Pennsylvania has its own long history of revolving doors between government and industry that deserve attention. Examination of data collected by citizen advocate, Dorina Hippauf, as well as my own independent research, shows a state government with extensive ties to the oil and gas industry. This relationship is a concern given that state responses to national energy policy and climate change will become particularly important in coming years.

The Governor’s Office

Former Governor Ed Rendell, who served from 2003-2011, has multiple ties to the natural gas industry and was governor during the initial stages of the shale gas boom in PA. During this time, Governor Rendell leased 130,000 acres of state land to gas extraction companies (he later imposed a ban on leasing state lands). After leaving office, Rendell joined Element Partners, an equity firm with investments in the gas industry. Currently, Rendell is Co-chair of Building America’s Future, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials advocating for investment in the nation’s infrastructure. As recently as August 2016, Rendell has said he makes no apologies and remains a “strong advocate” of unconventional gas extraction, also stating that weaknesses in regulation were “cured” in 2010.

Pennsylvania’s shale gas industry saw its beginnings under Governor Rendell, but the industry truly boomed under Governor Tom Corbett. Corbett, a Republican, served a single term from 2011 to 2015. One of Corbett’s first acts as governor was to sign Act 13, which revised oil and gas laws and implemented the controversial impact fee in lieu of a severance tax. Corbett overturned Rendell’s ban on leasing public lands to gas companies. Corbett accepted $1.8 million in campaign contributions from gas companies. These contributions came not only from the companies themselves but also individual contributions from industry executives. Many of the companies that donated to Corbett’s campaign also found themselves appointed to the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

Pennsylvania’s current Governor, Democrat Tom Wolf, campaigned on a platform of tougher restrictions on natural gas companies, as well as a 5% severance tax. However, the severance tax has failed to be implemented due to contentious budget negotiations with the Republican-held General Assembly. There were also concerns during Wolf’s campaign when it was revealed he had received $273,000 in donations from members of the gas industry. Many environmental advocates called on Wolf to return the funds.

Another important point to consider in these transitions is that, as elected officials move through various offices, their staffers often move with them or are appointed to influential positions. For example, K. Scott Roy served as Rendell’s chief of staff while in Harrisburg. After leaving politics, Roy joined Range Resources, one of the largest gas extraction companies in Pennsylvania. In the past he has also served as Treasurer for the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

The DEP: Regulating in the Public Interest?

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the state agency responsible for enforcing and regulating the natural gas industry in PA. However, research shows a consistent thread of secretaries with ties to the oil and gas industry dating as far back as secretaries James Seif (1995-2001) and David Hess (2001-2003). Both joined lobbying firms after leaving government. Seif joined Ridge Global, LLC, a lobbying firm founded by former governor Tom Ridge, which has had contracts with the Marcellus Shale Coalition, and where Seif currently serves as Principal of Energy and Environment. Hess joined Crisci, a lobbying firm with many gas companies as clients, where he is currently the Director of Policy and Communication at Crisci.

Katie McGinty was appointed by Governor Rendell and served from 2003 to 2008. Since leaving the agency she has worked for a number of energy-related companies including NRG Energy (operator of natural gas plants),  Element Partners (the same firm Ed Rendell joined), and has been senior vice-president at Westen Solutions (a consulting firm with several natural gas companies as clients). During her Senate campaign, McGinty faced criticism for the significant campaign donations she received from the natural gas industry, as well as her employment past. McGinty was succeeded by John Hanger, who served from 2008 to 2011. Hanger left the DEP to join the law and lobbying firm Eckert Seamans Cherin and Mellott, LLC, which is a member of the Marcellus Shale Coalition. One of their clients is the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA).

Perhaps the most infamous DEP secretary was Michael Krancer (2011-2013), who once notoriously said, “At the end of the day, my job is to get gas done.” Prior to joining the DEP, Krancer worked for Blank Rome, a law and lobbying firm that represents gas companies and is also a member of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, where he now currently works once again. Krancer also served as a member of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, the panel that advised Governor Corbett on unconventional gas drilling regulations. Krancer’s father, Ronald, was also a significant contributor to Corbett’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. After Krancer left the DEP, Corbett appointed Christopher Abruzzo, who served for about a year, followed by Dana Ankust, who also served a single year.

When Tom Wolf took office in 2015, he appointed John Quigley to head the DEP. Due to his past working with environmental advocacy group PennFuture, there was optimism that Quigley’s appointment would take the DEP in a different direction. Quigley had also previously served as secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Council sued the Commonwealth to try and stop the leasing of state lands to gas companies. Quigley testified that he had felt pressure to allow the lease of public land. Quigley dramatically resigned as secretary of the DEP in May, 2016, as a result of a leaked email voicing frustration with environmental advocacy groups and gridlock in the General Assembly. Quigley is an interesting counterpoint to the trend of DEP secretaries being influenced by the shale gas industry — an environmental advocate entering a political arena hostile to the DEP’s mission.

If one looks deeper at the DEP, there is further evidence of the revolving door between the oil and gas industry and the agency. For example, Barbara Sexton served as executive deputy secretary before leaving to join Chesapeake Energy, where she is currently Director of Government Relations. Another former deputy secretary, John Hines, left the agency to work for Shell. Michael Arch, who was an inspection supervisor, left to work for PIOGA. And finally, L. Richard Adams was formerly the DEP watershed manager before joining Chief Oil and Gas.

Conclusion

These findings suggest that multiple aspects of the Pennsylvania state government have historical and presently revolving-door relationships with the oil and gas industry. In a sense, this situation is not entirely surprising. PA is one of the largest natural gas producing states in the country, and the rhetoric of energy policy sells natural gas as a cleaner, cheaper, domestically-produced alternative to coal or oil. Historically, states have acted as “laboratories of policy,” as the federal government has been slow to pass legislation addressing energy and climate change. The incoming Trump administration has shown itself to be enthusiastic about expanding the fossil fuel market. However, it’s impossible to predict what changes will happen to the EPA and federal regulations. Such unpredictability makes states all the more important in shaping environmental protection policy in the next few years. We need to be aware of these revolving doors so we can be prepared for what’s coming in the future.

Drilling Bella Romero: Children at Risk in Greeley, Colorado

By
Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator

Weld County, Colorado, is one of the top producing shale oil and gas regions in the United States, boasting more than 12,000 active horizontal or directional wells, which account for 50% of all horizontal or directional wells in the state. To put this into perspective, the entire state of Pennsylvania has ten times the land area with “only” 9,663 horizontal or directional wells. At the center of Weld County is the city of Greeley, population 92,889. Greeley has experienced dramatic changes in the past decade as extraction companies compete to acquire oil and gas mineral rights. Extensive housing developments on the outskirts of the city are being built to accommodate future well pads on neighboring lots. Meanwhile, a number of massive well pads are proposed within or on the border of city limits.

FracTracker visited Colorado back in November 2015 and met with regional advocacy organizations including Coloradans Against Fracking, Protect our Loveland, Weld Air and Water, and Our Longmont to determine how we could assist with data analysis, mapping, and digital storytelling. FracTracker returned in June 2016 to explore conditions unique to Weld County’s oil and gas fields. During our visit we interviewed residents of Greeley and found that one of their greatest concerns was the dangers of siting oil and gas wells near schools. While there is much more we will be publishing in coming weeks about our visit, this article focuses on one troubling project that would bring gas drilling to within 1,300ft of a public school. The proposal goes before the Weld County Commissioners on Wednesday, June 29th for final approval. As such, we will be brief in pointing out what is at stake in siting industrial oil and gas facilities near schools in Colorado and why residents of Greeley have cause for concern.

Drilling Bella Romero

On June 7th, the Weld County Planning Commission unanimously approved a proposal from Denver-based Extraction Oil & Gas to develop “Vetting 15H”—a 24-head directional well pad in close proximity to Bella Romero Academy, a middle school just outside Greeley city limits. In addition to the 24-head well pad would be a battery of wastewater tanks, separators, and vapor recovery units on an adjacent lot. The permit submitted to the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) also states that six more wells may be drilled on the site in the future.

As was detailed in a recent FracTracker article, Colorado regulations require a minimum setback distance of 500ft from buildings and an additional 350ft from outdoor recreational areas. In more populated areas, or where a well pad would be within 1,000ft of high occupancy buildings, schools, and hospitals, drilling companies must apply for special variances to minimize community impacts. Setbacks are measured from the well head to the nearest wall of the building. For well pads with multiple heads, each well must comply with the respective setback requirements.

bella_romero_playground

Bella Romero’s playground with Vetting 15H’s proposed site just beyond the fence.

Vetting 15H would prove to be one of the larger well pads in the county. And while its well heads remain just beyond the 1,000ft setback requirement from Bella Romero buildings, a significant portion of the school’s ballfields are within 1,000ft of the proposed site. When setbacks for the well pad and the processing facility are taken together—something not explicitly demonstrated in the permit—almost the entirety of school grounds are within 1,000ft and the school itself lies only 1,300ft from the pad. The below figures show the images supplied by Extraction Oil & Gas in their permit as well as a more detailed graphic generated by FracTracker.

 

Youth: A High Risk Population

The difference between 1,000ft and 1,300ft may be negligible when considering the risks of locating industrial scale oil and gas facilities near populated areas. The COGCC has issued 1,262 regulatory violations to drilling companies since 2010 (Extraction Oil & Gas ranks 51st of 305 operators in the state for number of violations). Some of these violations are for minor infractions such as failing to file proper paperwork. Others are for major incidents; these issues most often occur during the construction phases of drilling, where a number have resulted in explosions and emergency evacuations. Toxic releases of air and water pollution are not uncommon at these sites. In fact, the permit shows drainage and potential spills from the site would flow directly towards Bella Romero school grounds as is shown in the figure below.

Vetting 15H post-development drainage map.

Vetting 15H post-development drainage map.

A host of recent research suggests that people in close proximity to oil and gas wells experience disproportionate health impacts. Emissions from diesel engine exhaust contribute to excessive levels of particular matter, and fumes from separators generate high levels of volatile organic compounds. These pollutants decrease lung capacity and increase the likelihood of asthma attacks, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (read more on that issue here). Exposure to oil and gas facilities is also linked to skin rashes and nose bleeds.

As we’ve mentioned in our analysis of oil and gas drilling near schools in California, children are more vulnerable to these pollutants. The same amount of contaminants entering a child’s body, as opposed to an adult body, can be far more toxic due to differences in body size and respiratory rates. A child’s developing endocrine system and neural pathways are also more susceptible to chemical interactions. These risks are increased by children’s lifestyles, as they tend to spend more hours playing outdoors than adults and, when at school, the rest of their day is spent at a central location.

At the June 7th public hearing Extraction Oil & Gas noted that they intend to use pipelines instead of trucks to transport water and gas to and from Vetting 15H to reduce possible exposures. But, as residents of Greeley noted of other projects where similar promises were made and later rescinded, this is dependent on additional approvals for pipelines. Extraction Oil & Gas also said they would use electric drilling techniques rather than diesel engines, but this would not eliminate the need for an estimated 22,000 trucking runs over 520 days of construction.

Below is a table from the Vetting 15H permit that shows daily anticipated truck traffic associated with each phase of drilling. The estimated duration and operational hours of each activity are based on only 12 wells since construction is planned in two phases of 12 wells at a time. These numbers do not account for the trucking of water for completions activities, however. The figures could be much higher if pipelines are not approved, as well as if long-term trucking activities needed to maintain the site are included in the estimates.

Vetting 15H daily vehicle estimates.

Vetting 15H daily vehicle estimates from permit

 

At the Top of the Most Vulnerable List

Bella Romero Academy has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few schools in Colorado in close proximity to a horizontal or directional well amongst 1,750 public and 90 private schools in the state. Based on our analysis, there are six public schools within 1,000ft of a horizontal or directional well. At 2,500ft we found 39 public schools and five private schools. Bella Romero is presently at the top of the list of all schools when ranked by number of well heads located within a 1,000ft buffer. An 8-head well pad is only 800ft across the street from its front door. If the Vetting 15H 24-head well pad was to be constructed, Bella Romero would be far and above the most vulnerable school within 1,000ft of a well. It would also rank 3rd in the state for well heads located within 2,500ft of a school. The tables below summarize our findings of this proximity analysis.

Colorado public schools within 1,000ft of a horizontal or directional well

Colorado public schools within 1,000ft of a horizontal or directional well

Colorado public schools within 2,500ft of a horizontal or directional well with 5 or more well heads. There are 39 schools in total.

Colorado public schools within 2,500ft of a horizontal or directional well with 5 or more well heads. There are 39 schools in total

Colorado private schools within 2,500ft of a horizontal or directional well

Colorado private schools within 2,500ft of a horizontal or directional well

The following interactive map shows which schools in Colorado are within a range of 2,500ft from a directional and horizontal well. Additional buffer rings show 1,000ft and 500ft buffers for comparison. 1,000ft was selected as this is the minimum distance required by Colorado regulations from densely populated areas and schools without requiring special variances. Environmental advocacy groups are presently working to change this number to 2,500ft. The map is zoomed in to show the area around Bella Romero. Zoom out see additional schools and click on features to see more details. [NOTE: The Colorado school dataset lists Bella Romero Academy as an elementary/middle school. Bella Romero was recently split, with the elementary school moving a few blocks west.]

Map of schools and setbacks in Colorado

View map full screen | How FracTracker maps work

Environmental Injustice

Drilling near Bella Romero is also arguably an environmental justice issue, as its student population has some of the highest minority rates in the county and are amongst the poorest. According to coloradoschoolgrades.com, Bella Romero is 89% Hispanic or Latino and 3% African American whereas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Greeley as a whole is 59% White and 36% Hispanic or Latino. 92% of Bella Romero’s students are also from low income families. Furthermore, according to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening Tool, which is used by the agency to assess high risk populations and environments, the community surrounding Bella Romero is within the 90-95% percentile range nationally for linguistically isolated communities.

Many of Bella Romero's students come from low-income communities surrounding Greeley.

Many of Bella Romero’s students come from low-income communities surrounding Greeley.

 

Implications

These statistics are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, oil and gas permitting in Colorado only requires operators to notify residents immediately surrounding proposed well pads. This rule does not include residents who may live further from the site but send their students to schools like Bella Romero. Parents who might comment on the project would need to hear about it from local papers or neighbors, but language barriers can prevent this from occurring. Another factor we witnessed in our June visit to Latino communities in Weld County is that many students have undocumented family members who are hesitant to speak out in public, leaving them with no voice to question risks to their children.

Residents of Greeley speak out at the June 7th Planning Commission meeting.

Residents of Greeley speak out at the June 7th Planning Commission meeting

Nevertheless, at the June 7th Planning Commission hearing, Weld County administrators insisted that their decisions would not take race and poverty into consideration, which is a blatant disregard for EPA guidelines in siting industrial development in poor minority communities. Weld County’s Planning Commission claimed that their ruling on the site would be the same regardless of the school’s demographics. By comparison, another proposed Extraction Oil & Gas site that would have brought a 22-head well pad to within 1,000ft of homes in a more well off part of town was denied on a 0-6 vote by the City of Greeley’s Planning Commission earlier this year after nearby residents voiced concerns about the potential impacts. Extraction Oil & Gas appealed the ruling and Greeley City Council passed the proposal in a 5-2 vote pending additional urban mitigation area permit approval. While the Greeley Planning Commission and the Weld County Planning Commission are distinct entities, the contrast of these two decisions should emphasize concerns about fair treatment.

Conclusion

There are very real health concerns associated with siting oil and gas wells near schools.  When evaluating this project, county administrators should assess not only the immediate impacts of constructing the well pad but also the long-term effects of allowing an industrial facility to operate so close to a sensitive youth population. There are obvious environmental justice issues at stake, as well. Public institutions have a responsibility to protect marginalized communities such as those who send their children to Bella Romero. Finally, approving the Vetting 15H project would place Bella Romero far at the top of the list for schools in Colorado within 1,000ft of oil and gas wells. School board administrators should be concerned about this activity, as it will undoubtedly put their students’ health and academic performance at risk. We hope that, when the County Commissions review the proposal, these concerns will be taken into account.

Defining Environmental Justice in Pennsylvania

By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based
Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance

Missing the Mark in Oil & Gas Communities

Conventional oil and gas drilling for commercial purposes has existed in Pennsylvania for over 150 years. In the past decade, drilling operations have turned to extract these resources from unconventional reservoirs, such as the deep underground Marcellus Shale formation. Proponents of the oil and gas industry’s expansion promise jobs and tax revenue for regions seeking economic revitalization. However, a growing body of research suggests that these processes also negatively impact the environment and pose significant public health risks.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. How this definition applies to residents of Pennsylvania has become a hotly contested issue as regulatory agencies have begun to investigate whether or not the oil and gas industry targets marginalized communities.

PA Environmental Justice Map

The following interactive article and map illustrates how race and poverty, the two key indicators for determining environmental justice eligibility, fail to capture the nature of the industry. It also suggests that there are other ways we might assess unfair development practices. In doing so, the goal of the article is to shed light on the complexity of environmental justice issues and to offer guidance as PA’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) assesses its policies in coming days.

environmental justice map

Feature image photo credit: Drilling rig and farm in PA by Schmerling (photodocmark@gmail.com)

Events

Nothing Found

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria