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The Falcon: Methods, Mapping, & Analysis

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

FracTracker began monitoring Falcon’s construction plans in December 2016, when we discovered a significant cache of publicly visible GIS data related to the pipeline. At that time, FracTracker was looking at ways to get involved in the public discussion about Shell’s ethane cracker and felt we could contribute our expertise with mapping pipelines. Below we describe the methods we used to access and worked with this project’s data.

Finding the Data

Finding GIS data for pipeline projects is notoriously difficult but, as most research goes these days, we started with a simple Google search to see what was out there, using basic keywords, such as “Falcon” (the name of the pipeline), “ethane” (the substance being transported), “pipeline” (the topic under discussion), and “ArcGIS” (a commonly used mapping software).

In addition to news stories on the pipeline’s development, Google returned search results that included links to GIS data that included “Shell” and “Falcon” in their names. The data was located in folders labeled “HOUGEO,” presumably the project code name, as seen in the screenshot below. All of these links were accessed via Google and did not require a password or any other authentication to view their contents.

Shell’s data on the Falcon remained publicly available at this link up to the time of the Falcon Public EIA Project‘s release. However, this data is now password protected by AECOM.

Google search results related to Falcon pipeline data

Viewing the Data

The HOUGEO folder is part of a larger database maintained by AECOM, an engineering firm presumably contracted to prepare the Falcon pipeline construction plan. Data on a few other projects were also visible, such as maps of the Honolulu highway system and a sewer works in Greenville, NC. While these projects were not of interest to us, our assessment is that this publicly accessible server is used to share GIS projects with entities outside the company.

Within the HOUGEO folder is a set of 28 ArcGIS map folders, under which are hundreds of different GIS data layers pertaining to the Falcon pipeline. These maps could all be opened simply by clicking on the “ArcGIS Online map viewer” link at the top of each page. Alternatively, one can click on the “View in: Google Earth” link to view the data in Google Earth or click on the “View in: ArcMap” link to view the data in the desktop version of the ArcGIS software application. No passwords or credentials are required to access any of these folders or files.

As seen in the screenshot below, the maps were organized topically, roughly corresponding to the various components that would need to be addressed in an EIA. The “Pipeline” folder showed the route of the Falcon, its pumping stations, and work areas. “Environmental” contained data on things like water crossings and species of concern. “ClassLocations” maps the locations of building structures in proximity to the Falcon.

The HOUGEO GIS folders organized by topic

 

Archiving the Data

After viewing the Falcon GIS files and assessing them for relevancy, FracTracker went about archiving the data we felt was most useful for our assessing the project. The HOUGEO maps are hosted on a web server meant for viewing GIS maps and their data, either on ArcOnline, Google Earth, or ArcMap. The GIS data could not be edited in these formats. However, viewing the data allowed us to manually recreate most of the data.

For lines (e.g. the pipeline route and access roads), points (e.g. shutoff valves and shut-off valves), and certain polygons (e.g. areas of landslide risk and construction workspaces), we archived the data by manually recreating new maps. Using ArcGIS Desktop software, we created a new blank layer and manually inputted the relevant data points from the Falcon maps. This new layer was then saved locally so we could do more analysis and make our own independent maps incorporating the Falcon data. In some cases, we also archived layers by manually extracting data from data tables underlying the map features. These tables are made visible on the HOUGEO maps simply by clicking the “data table” link provided with each map layer.

Other layers were archived using screen captures of the data tables visible in the HOEGEO ArcOnline maps. For instance, the table below shows which parcels along the route had executed easements. We filtered the table in ArcGIS Online to only show the parcel ID, survey status, and easement status. Screen captures of these tables were saved as PDFs on our desktop, then converted to text using optical character recognition (OCR), and the data brought into Microsoft Excel. We then recreated the map layer by matching the parcel IDs in our newly archived spreadsheet to parcel IDs obtained from property GIS shapefiles that FracTracker purchased from county deeds offices.

Transparency & Caveats

FracTracker strives to maintain transparency in all of its work so the public understands how we obtain, analyze, and map data. A good deal of the data found in the HOUGEO folders are available through other sources, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Census, as well as numerous state and county level agencies. When possible, we opted to go to these original sources in order to minimize our reliance on the HOUGEO data. We also felt it was important to ensure that the data we used was as accurate and up-to-date as possible.

For instance, instead of manually retracing all the boundaries for properties with executed easements for the Falcon’s right-of-way, we simply purchased parcel shapefiles from county deeds and records offices and manually identified properties of interest. To read more on how each data layer was made, open any of our Falcon maps in full-screen mode and click the “Details” tab in the top left corner of the page.

Finally, some caveats. While we attempted to be as accurate as possible in our methods, there are aspects of our maps where a line, point, or polygon may deviate slightly in shape or location from the HOUGEO maps. This is the inherent downside of having to manually recreate GIS data. In other cases, we spent many hours correcting errors found in the HOUGEO datasets (such as incorrect parcel IDs) in order to get different datasets to properly match up.

FracTracker also obtained copies of Shell’s permit applications in January by conducting a file review at the PA DEP offices. While these applications — consisting of thousands of pages — only pertain to the areas in Pennsylvania where the Falcon will be built, we were surprised by the accuracy of our analysis when compared with these documents. However, it is important to note that the maps and analysis presented in the Falcon Public EIA Project should be viewed with potential errors in mind.

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Related Articles

FracTracker Alliance to Host Community Meetings in Colorado

FracTracker Alliance invites Colorado’s Front Range communities to attend and participate in two community meetings, open to the public on August 23rd and 24th. Our shared goals will be to craft new research projects for FracTracker to study related to the environmental health impacts resulting from oil and gas development in Colorado. We also welcome Dr. Stephanie Malin, who will be giving a short presentation on her current work.

Background

FracTracker is returning to Colorado’s Front Range to continue working with communities where oil and gas exploration and production impacts the daily lives of Coloradoans and degrades the environment. While Colorado is not well known for oil and gas extraction, development within recent years using unconventional techniques like fracking has bloated production to over 60,000 active wells. The majority of these wells, over 33,000, are located in Weld County. These Front Range communities are also the most densely populated regions near major unconventional oil and gas development. FracTracker will, therefore, continue to support these communities under assault by the fossil fuel industry.

Community Workshops

FracTracker will be hosting two community engagement workshops in Weld County on August 23rd and 24th. You can find the flyers with times posted below. The meetings will serve to both inform the communities of the work FracTracker is currently conducting or has already completed to date, and to direct and inform future research in Colorado. Active communty engagement is most important to the environmental health research process. Researchers rely on community members. You, the community, are the experts we need to create responsibly informed research projects!

Below are flyers with more information about the events (click to expand).

Our agenda for the August 23rd meeting includes a synopsis of the research products that have been generated by FracTracker thus far. Below you will find links to the research that has been summarized into blog posts. Current, active research will also be presented:

Meeting Goals

Instead of coming in with a preconceived research question, we’re starting with your concerns. The goal of these meetings is to narrow down topics for future research, and then to refine the questions associated with each topic. The meeting on the 23rd will serve to nail down the issues that are most important to community members. This conversation may include expanding existing research and revisiting topics. On the evening of August 24th, we will present these topics to the greater community for further discussion. The issues will be prioritized with the help of a larger audience, and specific research aims will be synthesized.

workshop-wheel

For more information about these community meetings in Colorado, please contact Kyle Ferrar at ferrar@fractracker.org.

Underground Gas Storage map by Drew Michanowicz

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with the Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underground Gas Storage map

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

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

Top Counties with Obsolete1/Repurposed2 Wells

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

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

Additional Notes

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

  • More information related to the Aliso Canyon incident and this study is available here.
  • More info on the Center for Health and the Global Environment can be found here.

A Fresh Look at Oil and Gas Drilling from Europe

By Ted Auch, Kyle Ferrar, and Samantha Rubright with Max Gruenig

Fourteen days is not nearly enough time to fully understand the complex differences between oil and gas drilling issues and policies in the United States and several European Union countries. The EU’s drilling policies, geography, and the industry’s level of activity are quite distinct from those of the States in some cases. Still, as part of the Our Energy Solutions project, four staff from FracTracker Alliance and Ecologic Institute attempted to understand and share as many lessons-learned in Europe as we could in the first two weeks of September. Our interest covered all aspects of oil and gas development, but focused on those relating to the use of stimulation techniques (hydraulic fracturing – fracking) in unconventional reservoirs. Even with significant differences between the US and EU, there is still much to be gleaned in sharing our regulatory approaches, community concerns, and environmental challenges.

“Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered” ― José Saramago, The Double 

London, England Meetings

The House of Commons meeting was held in Parliament, just below London's Big Ben

The House of Commons meeting was held in Parliament, just below London’s Big Ben. Photo by Sam Rubright

Our European tour started in London with Ecologic Institute’s Max Gruenig. The first stop was a meeting with University of Salford Professor of Regeneration and Sustainable Development Erik Bichard outside of The Palace of Westminster. Erik has worked extensively to understand and chronicle common threads that weave together community response(s) to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) proposals. Much of Erik’s research in the UK has focused on the efforts of the leading shale gas extraction company in the EU, Cuadrilla Resources, to employ hydraulic fracturing technologies, as well as local oppositions to this development. The major points of contention are in Lancashire County, Northwest England and Balcombe in West Sussex. Erik pointed to the fact that Cuadrilla admitted their claims that the 4% decline in UK energy cost was a result of Lancashire oil and gas exploitation were significantly overstated. Such manipulative statements appear to be cut directly from North American energy’s playbook.

House of Commons meeting, London

House of Commons meeting, London. Photo by Sam Rubright

We then attended a spirited Fracking with Nature Meeting at The House of Commons hosted by 21st Century Network and convened by MP Cat Smith (photo right). Many, if not all, of the attendees were concerned about the negative impacts of fracking and oil and gas development in general, but perhaps the event’s purpose self-selected for those attendees. We found the conversations to be very advanced considering that the UK has not seen nearly the same level of oil and gas activity as the US. Most questions centered on the potential for fracking to negatively impact ground water, followed by the induction of earthquakes. Air quality was not discussed as often, despite the serious risks that oil and gas air pollutants pose to health, and the frequency and severity of ambient degradation reported in the US. With the UK’s move to cut subsidies for renewables and a push toward fracking, these concerns may soon become a reality.

We later met with one of the speakers at the House of Commons meeting, Damien Short LLB, MA, PhD, Director of the University of London’s Human Rights Consortium[1] and the Extreme Energy Initiative.[2] NGO’s, we learned, are on the forefront of the issue, debating the need to prioritize community health over corporate profits. They have had quite a lot of success on this front, despite Tory projections.[3] The past state of UK politics under the direction of PM David Cameron, was supportive of extractive industries and corporate interests, blocking any attempt to introduce regulations. Even with the defeat of David Cameron’s administration, new “fast-tracking” rules to accelerate permits for fracking passed in August.[4] The overwhelming victory of democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the opposition Labour Party – means that the tenure of the current fracking moratoria in North Yorkshire, as well as in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland[5] could be brief.

Our time in London was filled with several other meetings, including one with Greenpeace UK’s new fracking coordinator, Hannah Martin. During our meeting she indicated that while Greenpeace was sympathetic to the views and tactics of Mr. Corbyn, they were concerned that his election would further divide Labour. In her opinion this change could allow the oil and gas sympathetic – and united – Tories to expedite their vision for fracking in the UK.

Regardless of the similarities between community concerns and industry tactics, however, one difference between the UK and US was crystal clear; no matter their view on the use of fracking, Brits support a substantial Petroleum Revenue Tax (PRT) rate to the tune of 50-60%. The PRT will fall to 35% in January, 2016, however. This latter figure is a sizeable decrease but would still be 40% higher than the average in the US.  California for example, the fourth largest producing state, does not and has never levied a severance tax.[6] Unfortunately, the UK is seeing similar conflict of interest issues and deliberate attempts to de-democratize the rule-making around fracking, as demonstrated in a recent move to prevent a proper parliamentary debate about drilling under protected areas in the UK.

Brussels, Belgium Workshop and Meeting

After the European Commission meeting

Geert, Max, Kyle, and Ted after our meeting with the European Commission in Brussels. Photo by Sam Rubright

The next phase of OES Europe took us to Brussels to host a community workshop and meet with members of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment. Both events brought to light many concerns and questions about drilling’s safety.

The European Commission is currently drafting a best available techniques reference document (BREF) regarding hydrocarbon extraction for the European Union to consider in December 2015. The recommendations will build upon the “Minimum Principles,” published in January, 2014.[7] Representatives from the European Commission asked us about a variety of concerns that have arisen from drilling in the US, and how Europe might have similar or different experiences. The Commission was most interested in environmental health risks and research focused on exposure to air pollutants, as well as other degraded environmental media (drinking water, soil, etc.). We also shared figures about water consumption, land use, and waste management. It was immediately apparent that the lack of high quality publicly accessible data in the US is making it very difficult for the Commission to make well-informed decisions or policy recommendations. This meeting was arranged by Geert De Cock, of Food and Water Europe, and – interestingly – was one of the first times that the European Commission met with non-industry representatives. (Several major oil and gas players have offices near the European Commission’s in Brussels.)

Rotenburg (Wümme), Germany Workshop

Presentations during Rotenburg Germany workshop, Sept 2015. Photo by Kyle Ferrar

Max presenting during the Rotenburg Germany workshop, Sept 2015. Photo by Kyle Ferrar

Our next stop in Germany was Rotenburg. Lower Saxony also has a long lineage of drilling, with the first well drilled in 1953 and the majority of natural gas development dating back to the mid 1980’s. Currently, this is an area were unconventional oil and gas drilling (fracking) is being heavily proposed and lobbied.

This workshop was by far the most well attended event. A variety of groups and stakeholders, including the town’s mayor, were in attendance and extremely well informed about environmental and public health risks that drilling could pose. They’ve been dealing with a series of environmental health concerns for some time, including high mercury levels in drilling waste and cancer clusters of questionable origin. A systematic statistical analysis has even suggested that cases of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma are higher in an area heavy with oil and gas wells and development.

See maps below for more information about drilling in Germany and Europe at large.

Unconventional gas production, conventional gas drilling, fracking and test boring in Europe
Map by Gegen Gasbohren (Against Gas Drilling)

View Gegen Gasbohren’s map fullscreen

A dynamic map similar to the one above was created by us to show simply where unconventional drilling is occurring in the UK and Netherlands:
View FracTracker’s map fullscreen

Rotenburg Field Tour

The following morning we set out with a local advocate, Andreas Rathjens, to tour over eight different oil and gas drilling sites and facilities in and around Rotenburg. This area is vey rural and a major agriculture hub, hosting 162k people, 200k cows, and 600k pigs according to our guide.

In recent years Germany has received very positive scores for its environmental policies and shift toward renewables. However, this tour highlighted some of the country’s lingering and poorly-regulated drilling history, which experienced a sharp increase in development here in the 1980’s. The pictures below will give you an idea of the issues that German residents are is still seeing from the country’s older oil and gas drilling operations. Click to enlarge the photos:

Rotenburg, Germany surface water runoff pond on a gas well pad in production

This pit is used to capture rainwater and runoff from the well pad. Since runoff from the pad will carry with it any contaminants spilled on the site, runoff must be quarantined for removal and proper disposal. Unfortunately, these tanks are rarely pumped and drained, and the runoff instead spills into local streams in small watersheds. Such is the case with this tank, with the spillway visible in the lower left corner of the photo.

IMG_0063

This site was recently renovated to improve the drainage off of the wellpad. The drainage leads to an excavated waste pit used as an overflow catchment.[8] In these types of waste pits pollutants evaporate into the air and percolate into groundwater sources. The waste from drilling in this region is known for its high levels of mercury.

Andreas showing us the site where he says 80,000 metric tonnes of solid waste from oil and gas drilling was mixed with residential waste and then disposed of in a field on top of a hill. Residents have tested the site and found troubling levels of arsenic and radioactive elements, but to Andreas’ knowledge no governmental or company testing has been done to-date.

Andreas showing us the site where he says 80,000 metric tonnes of solid  drilling waste was mixed with residential waste and then disposed of in a field on a hilltop. Residents have tested the site and found troubling levels of arsenic and radioactive elements, but to Andreas’ knowledge no governmental or company testing has been done to-date.

Andreas and community members all conveyed their support of domestic energy production but said they were disappointed in how the oil and gas industry has conducted itself historically in the region. They are very frustrated with how difficult it is to get their concerns heard, a sentiment echoed in many boomtowns across the US. One local politician even discussed the intentionally misleading statements made by the German state governments around environmental health issues. These residents are dedicated and driven despite the barriers, however. They are investigating and studying the problems directly at times, as well as searching for other technologies that can help improve their methods – such as the use of drones to measure air quality.

Badbergen, Lower Saxony, Germany Workshop

Fracking-freies Artland hosted our next workshop in Badbergen Germany. In addition to our presentation about drilling experiences in the US, these community gatekeepers led a presentation summarizing the work and struggles that have been occurring in their region due to both historic and modern drilling. The level of community engagement and activism here was quite impressive, mirroring that of NY State’s anti-drilling groups. These members help to inform the rest of the community about environmental and drilling issues, as Exxon is now considering fracking here again.[9]

Schoonebeek Tour, Netherlands

Our final border crossing brought us to the Schoonebeek region in the Netherlands. While the Groningen gas field is by far the largest of the fields in this Western European country, Schoonebeek is the only active field being drilled unconventionally in the Netherlands.

OES-Europe-Home

Interestingly, the entire field was recently shut down by NAM Shell/Exxon JV to fix this wastewater pipeline. It was discovered that the pipeline was leaking wastewater in nine places due to corrosion caused by the high sulfur content of the wastewater.

Upon starting our tour we were informed of the fact that the Dutch have an even higher extraction tax than the UK! The Netherlands retains a 50% State Profit Share for revenue and taxes the remaining production at a rate of 20% on the first $225,000 in revenue and “25% on the excess.” In comparison, the highest production tax rate on oil and gas drilling in the US is in Alaska at 35%. Most states have significantly lower severance taxes.[10]

Political support for higher taxes on the extractives industry may be explained by the fact that the state owns all subsurface mineral rights in these European countries. Regardless of other influences on perception, such high taxes disproves the notion here in the US that energy companies “won’t do business in a state [or country] with a newly-enacted punitive severance tax.” What do the states do with this extra revenue? The Netherlands and many Northern European countries have invested these monies for the rainy day when the oil and gas supply is depleted or extraction is no longer justifiable. The best examples are Norway’s $850 billion Government Pension Fund and Netherland’s $440 billion pension fund or $169,000 and $26,000 per capita, respectively.

Additional support for severance taxes is likely due to these countries’ history with oil and gas exploration. They are familiar with the boom-bust cycles that come with the initial expectations and long-term reality on the ground. When the music stops, Europeans are determined not to be the ones left standing.


About the Our Energy Solutions Project

This trip to Europe and our previous expeditions to Florida, North Carolina, Argentina, and Uruguay are part of a larger, collaborative project with Ecologic Institute US called Our Energy Solutions. OES is creating an informed global community of engaged citizens, organizations, businesses, governments, and stakeholders to develop ideas and solutions to keep our society moving forward while preserving our planet for the future. Learn more at: ourenergysolutions.org.

On a more personal note, our sincerest thanks goes out to the many groups and individuals that we met on our Europe tour, including those we did not directly mention in this article. We are forever indebted to all of the people with whom we met on these OES trips for sharing their time and knowledge with us.

Endnotes and References

  1. Dr. Short is currently advising local anti-fracking groups in the UK and county councils on the human rights implications of unconventional (extreme) energy extraction processes such as fracking.
  2. Dr. Short and collaborators were recently granted an opportunity to put fracking on trial at hearings to be held by The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) in the UK and the US.
  3. Much of the ammunition used by the anti- or undecided fracking community in the UK – and the EU writ large – is coming from proofs of concept in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and North Dakota.
  4. Gosden, Emily. 8/13/15. Fracking: new powers for ministers to bypass local councils. The Telegraph. Accessed 10/25/15.
  5. Strachan, Peter. Russell, Alex. Gordon, Robert. 10/15/15. UK government’s delusional energy policy and implications for Scotland. OilVoice. Accessed 10/25/15.
  6. California, instead, imposes a statewide assessment fee.
  7. European Commission. 1/22/14. Fracking: minimum principles for the exploration and production of hydrocarbons using high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Eur-Lex. Accessed 10/26/15.
  8. A practice that is supposedly now being investigated for soil contamination issues.
  9. Exxon originally wrote in the local/regional paper that there was to be no unconventional shale drilling (fracking), but now the company is reconsidering.
  10. Please note that the cited article was last updated in 2012. Some tax rates have changed since the time that the article was published, but the table still adequately represents an estimation of production taxes by state.
Landfill disposal of drill cuttings

Landfill Disposal of WV Oil and Gas Waste – A Report Review

By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison

As oil and gas drilling increases in West Virginia, the resulting waste stream must also be managed. House Bill 107 required the Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to investigate the risks associated with landfill disposal of solid drilling waste. On July 1, 2015, a massive report was issued that details the investigation and its results: Examination of Leachate, Drill Cuttings and Related Environmental, Economic and Technical Aspects Associated with Solid Waste Facilities in West Virginia, by Marshall University.

While I must commend the State for looking into this important issue, much more needs to be done, and I have serious concerns about the validity of several aspects of this study. Since the report is almost 200 pages long, I will summarize its findings and my critiques below.

Summary of Waste Disposal Concerns in Report

The page numbers that I reference below refer to the page numbers found within the PDF version of the full study.

  1. Marcellus shale cuttings are radioactive: pgs. 17, 139, 142, 154
  2. We do not know if there is a long term problem: pg. 19
  3. About 30 million tons of waste in next few decades: pg. 176
  4. Landfill liners leak: pg. 20
  5. Owning & operating their own landfill would be expensive & risky for gas companies: pgs. 186-7
  6. Toxicity and biotic risk from drill cuttings is uncharted territory: pg. 78
  7. Landfill leachate is toxic to plants & invertebrates: pgs. 16, 95, 97
  8. Other landfills also have radioactive waste: pgs. 14-15
  9. We have no idea if this will get worse: pgs. 96, 154
  10. If all systems at landfills work as designed, leachate might not affect ground water: pg. 41

Introduction

WV Field Visits 2013

Drilling rig behind a wastewater pond in West Virginia

Any formal report comprised of 195 pages generated by a reputable school like Marshall University with additional input from Glenville State College – supported by over 2,300 pages of semi-raw data and graphs and charts and tables – requires some serious investigation prior to making comprehensive and final conclusions. However, some initial observations are needed to provide independent perspective and to help reflect on how sections of this report might be interpreted.

The overarching perspective that must be kept in mind is that the complete study was first limited by exactly what the legislature told the WV Department of Environmental Protection DEP to do. Secondly, the DEP then added other research guidelines and determined exactly what needed to be in the study and what did not belong. There were also budget and time constraints. The most constricting factor was the large body of existing data possessed by the DEP that was provided to the researchers and report writers. Because of the time restrictions, only a small amount of additional raw data could be added.

And most importantly, similar to the WVU Water Research Institute (WVU WRI) report from two years ago, it must be kept in mind that these types of studies, initiated by those elected to our well-lobbied legislature and funded and overseen by a state agency, do not occur in a political power vacuum. It was surely anticipated that the completed report might have the ability to affect the growing natural gas industry – which is supported by most in the political administration. Therefore, we must be cautious here. The presence and influence of political and economic factors need to be considered. Also, for universities to receive research contracts and government paid study requests, the focus must include keeping the customer satisfied.

My comments below on the report’s methods and findings are organized into three broad and overlapping categories:

  • GOOD  –  positive aspects, good suggestions, important observations
  • GENERAL  –  general comments
  • FLAW  –  problems, flaws, limitations
  • MOVING FORWARD  – my suggestions & recommendations

I. Water Quality: EPA Test Protocols & Datasets

Marcellus Shale (at the surface)

Marcellus Shale (at the surface)

GENERAL  It is obvious that a very smart and well-trained set of researchers put a lot of long, detailed thought into analyzing all of the available data. There must be tens of thousands of data points. Meticulous attention was put into how to assemble all of the existing years’ worth of leachate chemical and radiological information.

GOOD  There is an elaborate and detailed discussion of how to best analyze everything and how to utilize the best statistical methods and generate a uniform and integrated report. This was made difficult with non-uniform time intervals, some non-detect values, and some missing items. The researchers used a credible process, explaining how they applied the various appropriate statistical analysis methods to all the data. They provided some trends and observations and draw some conclusions.

FLAW 1  The most glaring flaw and the greatest limitation pertaining to the data sets is the nature of the very data set, which was provided to the researchers from the DEP. It is to the commendable credit of the DEP that the leachate at landfills receiving black shale drill cuttings from the Marcellus and other shale formations were, from the beginning, required to start bi-monthly testing of leachate samples at landfills that were burying drill waste products. And in general, when compared to on-site disposal as done for conventional wells, it was initially a good requirement to have the drill cuttings put into some type of landfill; that way we could keep track of where the drill cuttings are located when there are future problems.

To the best of my knowledge, until the states in the Marcellus region started allowing massive quantities of black shale waste material to be put into local landfills, we have never knowingly deposited large quantities of known radioactive industrial waste products into generic municipal waste landfills. The various waste products and drill cuttings of Marcellus black shales have been known for decades by geologists and radiochemists to be radioactive. We know better than to depose of hazardous radioactive waste in an improper way. Therefore, it is very understandable that we might not know how to best solve the problems of this particular waste product. This was and still is new territory.

FLAW 2  All of the years of leachate test samples were processed for radioactivity using what is called the clean drinking water test protocols, also referred to as the EPA 900 series. Three years ago, given the unfamiliarity of regulatory agencies with the uniqueness of this waste problem, we chose the wrong test protocol for assessing leachate samples. We speculated that the commonly used and familiar clean drinking water test procedure would work. So now we have a massive set of test results all derived from using the wrong test protocol for the radiologicals. Fortunately, all of the chemistry test results should still be reasonably useful and accurate.

At first, three years ago, this was understandable and possibly not an intentional error. Now it is widely known by hydrogeologists and radiochemists, however, that the plain EPA 900 series of test methods for determining the radioactivity of contaminated liquids do not work on liquids with high TDS — Total Dissolved Solids. Method 900.0 is designed for samples with low dissolved solid like finished drinking water supplies.

Despite this major and significant limitation, the effort by Marshall University still has some utility. For example, doing comparisons between and among the various landfills accepting drill waste might provide some interesting observations and correlations. It is clearly known now, however, that the protocols that were used for all samples from the start when testing for gross alpha, gross beta and radium-226 and radium-228 in leachate, can only result in very inaccurate, under-reported data. Therefore, it is not possible to draw any valid conclusions on several very important topics, including:

  • surface water quality,
  • potential ground water contamination,
  • exposure levels at landfills and public health implications,
  • and policy and regulations considerations.

Labs certified to test for radiological compounds and elements are very familiar with the 900 series of EPA test procedures. These protocols are intended to be used on clean drinking water. They are not intended to be used on “sludgy” waters or liquids contaminated with high dissolved solids like all the many liquid wastes from black shale operations like flowback and produced water and brines and leachate. The required lab process for sample size, preparation, and testing will guarantee that the results will be incorrect.

In no place in the final 195 page report have I seen any discussion of which EPA test protocol was used for the newer samples and why was it used. It has also not yet been seen in the 2,300+ pages of supportive statistical and analytical results, either. The fact that the wrong protocol was used three years ago is very understandable. However, this conventional EPA 900 series was still being used on the additional very recent (done in fall of 2014 and spring of 2015) samples that were included in the final report. The researchers, without any justification or discussion or explanations continued to use the wrong test protocol.

The clean drinking water procedures should have been used along with the 901.1M (gamma spec) process, for comparison. It is understandable for the new data to be consistent and comparable with the very large existing dataset that a case could be made for using the incorrect protocol and the proper one also. There should have been a detailed discussion of what and why any test method was being used, however. That discussion is usually one of the first topics investigated and explained in the Methods section. Having that type of discussion and justification seems to represent a basic science method and accepted research process – and that omission is a serious flaw.

MOVING FORWARD  We all know that if we want to bake an appetizing and attractive cake we must use the correct measuring cups for the ingredients. If we want to take our child’s temperature we need an accurate thermometer. When our doctor helps us understand our blood test results, we all want to be confident the right test was used at the lab. The proper test instrument, recently calibrated and designed for the specific sample, is crucial to get useable test results from which conclusions can be drawn and policy enacted.

It seems that the best suggestion so far to test high TDS liquids similar to leachate would be to use what is referred to as Gamma-ray Spectrometry with a high purity germanium instrument with at least a 21-day hold period (30 days are better), while the sample is sealed then counted for at least 16 hours. Many of the old leachate test results indicate high uncertainties that might be attributed to short hold times and short counting times. This procedure is referred to as the 901.1 M (modified). If the sample is sealed, the sample will reach about 99% equilibrium after 30 days. Radon 222 (a gas) must not be allowed to escape.

The potential environmental impacts to water quality section of this report seems to demonstrate that if you do not want to find out something, there are always justifiable options to avoid some inconvenient facts. Given the very narrow scope as defined, some the Marshall University folks did not seem to have the option to stray into important scientific foundational assumptions and, for the most part, just had to work with the stale data sets given to them. All of which, as we have known for close to a year now, have used the wrong test protocol. Therefore we have incorrect results of limited value.

II. Marcellus is Radioactive

GOOD 1  Of course, geologists have known that the Marcellus Shale is radioactive for many decades, but also for decades there has been great reluctance by the natural gas exploration and production companies to acknowledge this fact to the public. And finally we now have a public report that clearly and unambiguously states that Marcellus shale is radioactive. Interestingly enough, it was not much more than a year ago that some on the WV House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, seemed to be echoing the industry’s intentional deception by declaring that:

…it was only dirt and rock…

So this report represents progress and provides a very valuable contribution to beginning to recognize some of the potential problems with shale wastes and their disposal challenges.

GOOD 2  Another very important advance is that finally after eight years of drilling here in Wetzel County, we now have a test sample from near the horizontal bore. The WVU WRI study researchers were never given access to any samples taken from the horizontal bore material itself, however. That was, of course, what they were supposed to have been allowed to do, but they were only given access to study material from the vertical section of the well bore. This report describes how we are getting closer to actually testing good samples of the black shale. It seems that we have gotten closer – but let’s see how close.

Page 11 describes that only three Antero wells in Doddridge County were chosen as the place to try to obtain samples from the horizontal bore. Considering that over 1,000 deviated/horizontal wells or wells with laterals have been drilled in the past few years, that number represents a very small fraction of wells drilled: less than .3%. Even if a high quality sample could have been obtained it might be a challenge to extrapolate test results to the waste being produced from the other wells in WV. These limitations are completely ignored in the report, however. Given the available documentation from the DEP, this seems to be a serious flaw that compromises the reliability of the entire report.

III. Samples From Vertical vs. Horizontal Well Bores

FLAW  The actual samples tested from at least two of the three wells used in the study do not seem to be from the horizontal bore material. The sample from the third well might have come from the horizontal bore, but just barely. There is no way to know for sure. I will try to show this within the below chart using information provided by Antero to DEP Office of Oil & Gas. This information is in state records on Antero’s well plats, which become part of the well work application and also part of the final permit.

Table 1. Details about the samples taken from three Antero wells in Doddridge County, WV – and my concerns about the sampling process*

Antero well ID API # Sample’s drilling depth Marcellus depth** Horizontal bore length** Comments / Issues
Morton 1H 47-017-06559 6,856 ft. 7,900 TVD*** 10,600 ft. ~1,044 ft. short of reaching Marcellus formation
McGee 2H 47-017-06622 6,506 ft. 6,900 TVD 8,652 ft. ~394 ft. short of reaching Marcellus
Wentz1 H 47-017-06476 8,119 ft. 7,900 TVD 8,300 ft. Just drilled into Marcellus by 219 ft.
* Original chart found on page 11 of report
** Based on information from Antero’s well plat
*** TVD = Total Vertical Depth

Antero is an active driller in Doddridge County. If any company knows where to find the Marcellus formation it is that company. Well plats are very detailed, technical documents provided to the DEP by the operator regarding the well location, watershed, and leased acres and property boundaries. We need to trust that the information on those plats is accurate and has been reviewed and approved by the permitting agency. Those plats also give the depth of the Marcellus and the length and heading of the lateral or horizontal bore. The Marshall University report gives the drilling depth when the sample was taken on the surface. Using these available well plat records from the DEP it appears that at two of the wells the sample (and its test results included in the report) came from material produced when the experienced drilling operator was not yet into the shale formation.

On the third well, Wentz 1H, the numbers seem to indicate that the sample was taken when the driller said that they were just barely within the shale layer – by 219 feet. Since the drill cuttings take some time to return to the surface from over 7,000 feet down, drilling just a few hundred feet would not at all guarantee that the returned cuttings were totally from the black shale. The processing of the drill cuttings at the shaker table and separator and centrifuge and the mixing in the tubs all cast some doubt on whether the sample, wherever it was taken from, was truly from the horizontal bore material.

On page 11 there is a clear and unambiguous statement:

Three representative sets of drill cuttings from the horizontal drilling activities within the Marcellus Shale formation were collected.

A successful attempt to get three such samples might have then allowed an appropriate waste characterization to be done as needed to accomplish the five required research topics listed in the report’s cover letter. Only an accurate chemical and radiological waste characterization would have allowed scientifically justifiable conclusions to be formulated and then allow for accurate legislation and regulations. It does not seem that West Virginia yet has the required scientific data upon which to confidently formulate laws and regulations to protect public health with regard to shale waste disposal.

Would it not seem prudent – if one wanted a good, representative sample – to make absolutely sure that the operator was, in fact, drilling in the black shale and that the cuttings returning to the surface were, in fact, from the Marcellus bore? That approach would have been eminently defensible and easily accomplished by just waiting for drilling to progress into the lateral bore far enough that the drill cuttings returning to the surface were in fact from the black shale. There might be plausible explanations for this apparent inconsistency or error. Of course, it might be speculated that the Antero-provided information on the well plats is incorrect and not intended to be accurate, or perhaps the driller is not really sure yet where the Marcellus layer starts. There may be many other possible scenarios of explanations. Time will tell.

IV. Research Observations Review

Landfill disposal of drill cuttings

Landfill disposal of drill cuttings

GOOD There are a number of recommendations and suggestions in the study on landfills and leachate related conditions. It seems that a number of these proposals are very accurate and should be implemented. For example:

The report clearly restates that drill cuttings are known to contain radioactive compounds. Since all landfill liners will eventually leak, and since landfills already have ground water test wells for monitoring for potential ground water contamination due to leaking liners, then the well samples should be tested for radiological isotopes. Good idea. They are not required to do that now, but this recommendation should be implemented immediately (pgs. 17 and 21).

GOOD The report recommends that the Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) or in the case of Wetzel County, the on-site wastewater treatment plants, should also test their effluent for radioactive isotopes. This is very important since there is no way to efficiently filter out many of the radioactive isotopes. Such contaminants will pass through traditional wastewater treatment plants.

It is also very useful that the report recommends that all the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) limits at the POTWs be reviewed and required to take into consideration the significantly more challenging chemical and radiological makeup of the shale waste products.

V. Economic Considerations on an Industry Supported Mono-Fill

The legislature asked that the DEP evaluate the feasibility of the natural gas industry to build, own, or operate its own landfill solely for the disposal of the known radioactive waste. This request seems to be a very reasonable approach, since for decades we have only put known radioactive waste products into dedicated landfills that are exclusively and specifically designed for the long term storage of the special waste material.

The discussion of the economic considerations is extremely complete and detailed. They are given in Appendix I and take into consideration a very thorough economic feasibility study of such a proposed endeavor. This section seems to have been compiled by a very talented professional team.

FLAW  However, some of the basic assumptions are a bit askew. For example:

The initial Abstract of the financial analysis states that two new landfills would be needed because we do not want to have the well operators to drive any further than they do now. Interesting. This seems to be not too different than a homeowner while in search for privacy and quiet, builds a home far out into the country and then expects the public sewage lines to be extended miles to his new home so he would not have to incur the cost of a septic system. Homebuilders in rural settings should know they will have to incur expenses for their waste disposal needs. Should gas companies expect that communities to provide cheap waste disposal for them?

More than 15 pages later, the most important aspect is clearly stated that, “…the most salient benefit of establishing a separate landfill sited specifically to receive (radioactive) drill cuttings would be the preservation of existing disposal capacity of existing fills for future waste disposal”. Meaning for my (our) grandchildren. See page 175.

Comprehensive and sound financial details later explain that having the natural gas operators build, operate, and eventually close their own radioactive waste depository landfill would involve a lot of their capital and involve some risk to them. It is stated that their money would be better used drilling more wells. The conclusion then seems to be that, all around, it is simply cheaper and less risky for the gas industry to put all their waste products into our Municipal Waste Landfills, and later residents should incur the costs and risk to build another land fill for their household garbage when needed.

VI. Report Omissions

  1. Within the report section dealing with the leachate test results, it is casually mentioned that not only do the landfills receiving shale waste materials have radioactive contaminated leachate, but the other tested landfills do, as well. However, rather than raising a very red flag and expressing concern over a problem that no one has looked into, the report implies we should not worry about any radioactive waste because it might be in all landfills (pg. 139).
  2. Nowhere within the radiological discussion is there any mention of what might be called speciation of radioactive isotopes. The report does state that the test for both gross alpha and gross beta, are considered a “scanning procedure.” The speciation process is sort of a slice and dice procedure, showing exactly what isotopes are responsible for the activity that is being indicated. This process, however, does not seem to have been done on the landfill leachate test samples. The general scanning process cannot do that. Appendix H, pages 141-142, contains detailed facts on radiation dose, risk, and exposure. This might have been a good place to also discuss the proper EPA testing protocols, used or not used, and why.
  3. A short discussion of the DEP-required landfill entrance radiation monitors is included on page 146. The installed monitors are the goalpost type. Trucks drive between them at the entrance and when they cross the scales. It seems that the report should have emphasized that that type of monitor will primarily only detect high-energy gamma radiation. However what is omitted on page 144 is that the primary form of decay for radium-226 is releasing alpha particles. The report is ambiguous in saying the decay products of radium-226 include both alpha particles and some gamma radiation, but radium-266 is not a strong gamma emitter. It is very unlikely that a normal steel enclosed roll-off box would ever trip the alarm setting with a load of drill cuttings. However those monitors are still useful since they will detect the high-energy gamma radiation from a truck carrying a lot of medical waste (pg. 17).
  4. It is stated on page 144 that the greatest health risk due to the presence of radium-226 is the fact that its daughter product is radon-222. Radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years, compared to radon’s 3.8 days. This difference might seem to imply that radon is less of a concern. Given the multitude of radium-226 going into our landfills means that we will be producing radon for a very long time.

VII. Resource Referenced in Article

Examination of Leachate, Drill Cuttings and Related Environmental, Economic and Technical Aspects Associated with Solid Waste Facilities in West Virginia, by Marshall University.

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

West Central Wisconsin’s Landscape and What Silica Sand Mining Has Done to It

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and Elliott Kurtz, GIS Intern

The Great Lakes may see a major increase in the number of sand mines developed in the name of fracking. What impacts has the area already seen, and does future development mean for the region’s ecosystem and land use?

Introduction

Sand is a necessary component of today’s oil and gas extraction industry for use in propping open the cracks that fracking creates. Silica sand is a highly sought after proppant for this purpose and often found in Wisconsin and Michigan. At the present time here in Ohio our Utica laterals are averaging 4,300-5,000 tons of silica sand or “proppant” with demand increasing by 85+ tons per lateral per quarter.

Wisconsin’s 125+ silica sand mines and processing facilities are spread out across 15,739 square miles of the state’s West Central region, adjacent to the Minnesota border in the Northern Mississippi Valley. These mines have dramatically altered the landscape while generating proppant for the shale gas industry; approximately 2.5 million tons of sand are extracted per mine. The length of the average shale gas lateral well grows by > 50 feet per quarter, so we expect silica sand usage will grow from 5,500 tons to > 8,000 tons per lateral. To meet this increase in demand, additional mines are being proposed near the Great Lakes.

Migration of the sand industry from the Southwest to the Great Lakes in search of this silica sand has had a large impact on regional ecosystem productivity and watershed resilience[1]. The land in the Great Lakes region is more productive, from a soil and biomass perspective; much of the Southwest sandstone geology is dominated by scrublands that have accrue plant biomass at much slower rates, while the Great Lakes host productive forests and agricultural land. Great Lakes ecosystems produce 1.92 times more soil organic matter and 1.46 times more perennial biomass than Southwestern ecosystems.

Effects on the Great Lakes

Quantifying what the landscape looks like now will serve as a baseline for understanding how the silica sand industry will have altered the overall landscape, much like Appalachia is doing today in the aftermath of strip-mining and Mountaintop Removal Mining[2]. West Central Wisconsin (WCW) has a chance to learn from the admittedly short-cited and myopic mistakes of their brethren across the coalfields of Appalachia.

Herein we aim to present numbers speaking to the diversity and distribution of WCW’s “working landscape” across eight types of land-cover. We will then present numbers speaking to how the silica mining industry has altered the region to date and what these numbers mean for reclamation. The folks at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy , and Management describe “Working Landscapes” as follows:

a broad term that expresses the goal of fostering landscapes where production of market goods and ecosystem services is mutually reinforcing. It means working with people as partners to create landscapes and ecosystems that benefit humanity and the planet… A goal is finding management and policy synergies—practices and policies that enhance production of multiple ecosystem services as well as goods for the market…Collaborative management processes can help discover synergies and create better decisions and policy. Incentives can help private landowners support management that benefits society.

Methods

We used the 1993 WISCLAND satellite imagery to determine how WCW’s landscape is partitioned and then we applied these data to an updated inventory of silica sand mine boundaries to determine what existed within their boundaries prior to mining. The point locations of Wisconsin’s current inventory of silica sand mines was determined using the “Geocode Address” function in ArcMap 10.2 using the Composite_US Address Locator. Addresses were drawn from mine inventory information originally maintained by the West Central WI Regional Planning Commission (WCWRPC) and now managed by the WI Department of Natural Resources’ Mines, pits and quarries division. Meanwhile current mine extent boundary polygons were determined using one of three satellite data-sets:

  1. 2013 imagery from the USDA National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP),
  2. 2014 ArcMap 10.2 World Imagery, and
  3. 2014 Google Satellite.

What We Found

Land Cover Types Replaced by Silica Sand Mining

Sand-LandEffects

Fig 1. Square mileage of various land cover types replaced by silica sand mining in WCW

Thirty-nine percent of the WCW landscape is currently allocated to forests, 43% to agriculture broadly speaking, and 13% is occupied by various types of wetlands. Open waters occupy 2.6% of the landscape with tertiary uses including barren lands (1.3%), golf courses (0.03%), high and low-density urban areas (0.9%), and miscellaneous shrublands (0.6%) (See Figure 1).

Effects by Land Cover Type

Figure 2. Forest Cover in WCW

Fig 2. Forest Cover in WCW

Figure 3. Agricultural Cover

Fig 3. Agricultural Cover

Figure 4. Open Water & Wetland Cover

Fig 4. Open Water & Wetland Cover

Figure 5. Forested Wetland Cover

Fig 5. Forested Wetland Cover

Figure 6. Lowland Shrub Wetland Cover

Fig 6. Lowland Shrub Wetlands

Figure 7. Miscellaneous Cover

Fig 7. Miscellaneous Cover

Figure 2. The wood in these forests has a current stumpage value of $253-936 million and by way of photosynthesis accumulates 63 to 131 million tons of CO2 and has accumulated 4.8-9.8 billion tons of CO2 if we assumed that on average forests in this region are 65-85 years old. Putting a finer point on WCW forest cover and associated quantifiables is difficult because most of these tracts (2.7 million acres) fall within a catchall category called “Mixed Forest”. Pine (2.3% of the region), Aspen (4.7%), and Oak (3.8%) most of the remaining 1.2 million forested acres with much less sugar (Acer saccharum) and soft (Acer rubrum) maple acreage than we expected scattered in a horseshoe fashion across the Northeastern portion of the study area.

Figure 3. Seven different agricultural land-uses occupy 4.3 million WCW acres with forage crops and grasslands constituting 29% of the region followed by 1.4 million acres of row crops and miscellaneous agricultural activities. Additionally, 2% of WI’s 19,700 cranberry bog acres are within the study area generating $4.02 million worth of cranberries per year. The larger agricultural categories generate $3.2 billion worth of commodities.

Figure 4. Nearly 16% of WCW is characterized by open waters or various types of wetlands with a total area of 2,396 square miles clustered primarily in two Northeast and one Southeast segment. Open waters occupy 398 square miles with forested wetlands – possibly vernal pool-type systems – amounting to 5.4% of the region or 841 square miles. Lowland shrub and emergent/wet meadows occupy 540 and 618 square miles, respectively.

Figure 5. Of the nine types of wetlands present in this region the forested broad-leaved deciduous and emergent/wet meadow variety constitute the largest fraction of the region at 1,107 square miles (7.1% of region). Some percentage of the former would likely be defined by Wisconsin DNR as vernal pools, which do the following according to their Ephemeral Pond program. The WI DNR doesn’t include silica sand mining in its list of 14 threats to vernal pools or potential conservation actions, however.

These ponds are depressions with impeded drainage (usually in forest landscapes), that hold water for a period of time following snowmelt and spring rains but typically dry out by mid-summer…They flourish with productivity during their brief existence and provide critical breeding habitat for certain invertebrates, as well as for many amphibians such as wood frogs and salamanders. They also provide feeding, resting and breeding habitat for songbirds and a source of food for many mammals. Ephemeral ponds contribute in many ways to the biodiversity of a woodlot, forest stand and the larger landscape…they all broadly fit into a community context by the following attributes: their placement in woodlands, isolation, small size, hydrology, length of time they hold water, and composition of the biological community (lacking fish as permanent predators).

Figure 6. Broad-leaved evergreen lowland shrub wetlands constitute ≈2.1% of the region or 319 square miles with most occurring around the Legacy Boggs silica mines and several cranberry operations turned silica mines in Jackson County. Meanwhile broad-leaved deciduous and needle-leaved lowland shrub wetlands are largely outside the current extent of silica sand mining in the region occupying 1.9% of the region with 293 square miles spread out within the northeastern 1/5th of the study area.

Figure 7. Finally, miscellaneous land-covers include 200 square miles of barren land, 145 square miles of low/high intensity urban areas including the cities of Eau Claire (Pop. 67,545) and Stevens Point (Pop. 26,670) as well as towns like Marshfield, Wisconsin Rapids, Merrill, and Rib Mountain-Weston. WCW also hosts 3,204 acres (0.03% of region) worth of golf courses which amounts to roughly 21 courses assuming the average course is 157 acres. Shrublands broadly defined occur throughout 0.6% of the region scattered throughout the southeast corner and north-central sixth of the region, with the both amalgamations poised to experience significant replacement or alteration as they are adjacent to two large silica mine groupings.

Producing Mine Land-Use/Land-Cover Change

To date we have established the current extent of land-use/land-cover change associated with 25 producing silica mines occupying 12 square miles of WCW. These mines have displaced 3 square miles of forests and 7 square miles of agricultural land-cover. These forested tracts accumulated 31,446-64,610 tons of CO2 per year or 2.4-4.9 million tons over the average lifespan of a typical Wisconsin forest. These values equate to the emissions of 144,401-295,956 Wisconsinites or 2.5-5.1% of the state’s population. The annual wood that was once generated on these parcels would have had a market value of $126,097-197,084 per year. Meanwhile the above agricultural lands would be generating roughly $1.5-3.3 million in commodities if they had not been displaced.

However, putting aside measurable market valuations it turns out the most concerning result of this analysis is that these mines have displaces 871 acres of wetlands which equals 11% of all mined lands. This alteration includes 158 acres of formerly forested wetlands, 352 acres of lowland shrub wetlands, and 361 acres of emergent/wet meadows. As we mentioned previously, the chance that these wetlands will be reconstituted to support their original plant and animal assemblages is doubtful.

We know that the St. Peter Sandstone formation is the primary target of the silica sand industry with respect to providing proppant for the shale gas industry. We also know that this formation extend across seven states and approximately 8,884 square miles, with all 91 square miles overlain by wetlands in Wisconsin. To this end carbon-rich grasslands soils or Mollisols, which we discussed earlier, sit atop 36% of the St. Peter Sandstone and given that these soils are alread endangered from past agricultural practices as well as current O&G exploration this is just another example of how soils stand to be dramatically altered by the full extent of the North American Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex. The following IFs would undoubtedly have a dramatic effect on the ability of the ecosystems overlying the St. Peter Sandstone to capture and store CO2 to the extent that they are today not to mention dramatically alter the landscape’s ability to capture, store, and purify precipitation inputs.

  • IF silica sand mining continues at the rate it is on currently
  • IF reclamation continues to result in “very poor stand of grass with some woody plants of very poor quality and little value on the whole for wildlife. Some areas may be reclaimed as crop land, however it is our opinion that substantial inputs such as commercial fertilizer as well as irrigation will be required in most if not all cases in order to produce an average crop.”
  • IF the highly productive temperate forests described above are not reassembled on similar acreage to their extent prior to mining and reclamation is largely to the very poor stands of grass mentione above
    • For example: Great Lakes forests like the ones sitting atop the St. Peter Sandstone capture 20.9 tons of CO2 per acre per year Vs their likely grass/scrublands replacement which capture 10.6-12.8 tons of CO2 per acre per year… You do the math!
  • “None two sites are capable of supporting the growing of food. They grow trees and some cover grass, but that is all. General scientific research says that the reclaimed soils lose up to 75% of their agricultural productivity.”

Quote from a concerned citizen:

I often wonder what it was like before the boom, before fortunes were built on castles of sand and resultant moonscapes stretched as far as the eye could see. In the past few years alone, the nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has become a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, Illinois. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate and threaten thewellbeing of our people and rural ecosystem.

Additional Testimonials

References & Resources

  1. The US Forest Service defined Watershed Resilience as “Over time, all watersheds experience a variety of disturbance events such as fires and floods [and mining]. Resilient watersheds have the ability to recover promptly from such events and even be renewed by them. Much as treating forests can make them more resilient to wildfire, watershed restoration projects can improve watershed resilience to both natural and human disturbances.”
  2. Great example: Virginia Tech’s Powell River Project
Earthquake damage photo from Wikipedia

The Science Behind OK’s Man-made Earthquakes, Part 2

By Ariel Conn, Seismologist and Science Writer with the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences

Oklahoma has made news recently because its earthquake story is so dramatic. The state that once averaged one to two magnitude 3 earthquakes per year now averages one to two per day. This same state, which never used to be seismically active, is now more seismically active than California. In terms of understanding the connection between wastewater disposal wells and earthquakes, though, it may be more helpful to look at other states first. Let us explore this issue further in Man-made Earthquakes, Part 2.

How other states handle induced seismicity

In 2010 and 2011, Arkansas experienced a swarm of earthquakes near the town of Greenbrier that culminated in a magnitude 4.7 earthquake. Officials in Arkansas ordered a moratorium on all disposal wells in the area, and earthquake activity quickly subsided.

In late 2011, Ohio experienced small earthquakes near a disposal well that culminated in a magnitude 4 earthquake that shook and startled residents. The disposal well was shut down, and the earthquakes subsided. Subsequent research into the earthquake confirmed that the disposal well in question had, in fact, triggered the earthquake. A swarm of earthquakes last year in Ohio shut down another well, and again, after the wastewater injection ceased, the earthquakes subsided.

Similarly in Kansas, after two earthquakes of magnitudes 4.7 and 4.9 shook the state in late 2014, officials ordered wells in two southern counties to decrease the volume of water injected into the ground. Again, earthquake activity quickly subsided.

A seismologist’s toolbox

A favorite saying among scientists is that correlation does not equal causation, and it’s easy to apply that phrase to the correlations seen in Ohio, Arkansas, and Kansas. Yet scientists remain certain that wastewater disposal wells can trigger earthquakes. So what are some of the techniques they use to come to these conclusions? At the Virginia Seismological Observatory (VTSO), two of the tools we used to determine a connection were cross-correlation programs and beach ball diagrams.

Cross-correlation

The VTSO research, which was funded by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, looked specifically at earthquake swarms that have popped up a couple times near a wastewater disposal well in West Virginia. We used a cross-correlation program to distinguish earthquakes that were likely triggered by the nearby well from events that might be natural or related to mining activity.

A seismic station records all of the vibrations that occur around it as squiggly lines. When an earthquake wave passes through, its squiggly lines take on a specific shape, known as a waveform, that seismologists can easily recognize (as an example, the VTSO logo in Fig. 1 was designed using a waveform from one of West Virginia’s potentially induced earthquakes.)

Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory logo

Figure 1. Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory logo w/waveform

For naturally occurring earthquakes, the waveforms will have some variation in shape because they come from different faults in different locations. When an injection well triggers earthquakes, it typically activates faults that are within close proximity, resulting in greater similarities between waveforms. A cross-correlation program is simply a computer program that can run through days, weeks, or months of data from a seismometer to find those similar waveforms. When matching waveforms indicate that earthquake activity is occurring near an injection well – and especially in regions that don’t have a history of seismic activity – we can conclude the earthquakes are triggered by human activity.

Beach Balls

Any earthquake fault, whether it’s active or ancient, is stressed to its breaking point. The difference is that, in places like California that are active, the natural forces against the faults often change, which triggers earthquakes. Ancient faults are still highly stressed, but the ground around them has become more stabilized. However at any point in time, if an unexpected force comes along, it can still trigger an earthquake.

Beach ball diagrams of 16 of the largest earthquakes in Oklahoma in 2014, all showing similar focal mechanisms, which is indicative of induced seismicity.

Figure 2. Beach ball diagrams of 16 of the largest earthquakes in Oklahoma in 2014, all showing similar focal mechanisms, which is indicative of induced seismicity.

Earthquake faults don’t all point in the same direction, which means different forces will affect faults differently. Depending on their orientation, some faults might shift in a north-south direction, some might shift in an east-west direction, some might be tilted at an angle, while others are more upright, etc. Seismologists use focal mechanisms to describe the movement of a fault during an earthquake, and these focal mechanisms are depicted by beach ball diagrams (Figure 2). The beach ball diagrams look, literally, like black and white beach balls. Different quadrants of the “beach ball” will be more dominant depending on what type of fault it was and how it moved (See USGS definition of Focal Mechanisms and the “beach ball” symbol).

When an earthquake is triggered by an injection well, it means that the fluid injected into the ground is essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back. Earthquake theory predicts that the forces from an injection well won’t trigger all faults, but only those that are oriented just right. Since we expect that only certain faults with just the right orientation will get triggered, that means we also expect the earthquakes to have similar focal mechanisms, and thus, similar beach ball diagrams. And that’s exactly what we see in Oklahoma.

Cross-correlation programs and beach ball diagrams are only two tools we used at the VTSO to confirm which earthquakes were induced, but seismologists have many means of determining if an earthquake is induced or natural.

Limitations of science?

With so much strong scientific evidence, why can people in industry still claim there isn’t enough science to officially confirm that an injection well triggered an earthquake? In some cases, these claims are simply wrong. In other cases, though, especially in Oklahoma, the problem is that no one was monitoring the disposal wells and the earthquakes from the start. Well operators were not required to publicly track the volumes of water they injected into wells until recently, and no one monitored for nearby earthquake activity. The big problem is not a lack of scientific evidence, but a lack of data from industry to perform sufficient research. Scientists need information about the history, volume, and pressure of fluid injection at a disposal well if they’re to confirm whether or not earthquakes are triggered by it. Often, that information is proprietary and not publically available, or it may not exist at all.

At this point though, two other factors make direct correlations between injection wells and earthquakes in Oklahoma even more difficult:

  1. So many wells have injected signficiant volumes of water in close enough proximity that pointing a finger at a specific well is more challenging.
  2. A large number of wells have injected water for so many years, that the earthquakes are migrating farther and farther from their original source. Again, pointing a finger at a specific well gets harder with time.

What we know

We know what induced seismicity is and why it occurs. We know that if a wastewater injection well disposes of large volumes of fluids deep underground in a region that has existing faults, it will likely trigger earthquakes. We know that if a region previously had few earthquakes, and then sees an uptick in earthquakes after wastewater injection begins, the earthquakes are likely induced. We know that if we want to understand the situation better, we need more seismic stations near disposal wells so we can more accurately monitor the area for seismicity both before and after the well becomes active.

What don’t we know?

We don’t know how big an induced earthquake can get. Oklahoma’s largest earthquake, which was also the largest induced earthquake ever recorded in the United States, was a magnitude 5.6. That’s big enough to cause millions of dollars of damage. Worldwide, the largest earthquake suspected to be induced occurred near the Koyna Dam in India, where a magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed nearly 200 people in 1967.

Can an earthquake that large occur in the central U.S.? The best guess right now: yes.

Seismologists suspect that an induced earthquake could get as big as the size of the fault. If a fault is big enough to trigger a magnitude 7 or 8 earthquake, then that is potentially how large an induced earthquake could be. In the early 1800s, three earthquakes between magnitudes 7 and 8 struck along the New Madrid Fault Zone near St. Louis, Missouri. Toward the end of the 1800s, a magnitude 7 earthquake shook Charleston, South Carolina. In those two areas, injection wells could potentially trigger very large earthquakes.

We have no historic record of earthquakes that large in Oklahoma, so right now, the best guess is that the largest an earthquake could get there would be between a magnitude 6 and 6.5. That would be big enough to cause significant damage, injuries, and possibly death.

The solution

What’s the take-home message from all of this?

  • First, the science exists to back up the conclusion that wastewater injection wells trigger earthquakes.
  • Second, if we want to get a better feel for which wells are more problematic, we need funding, seismic stations, and staff to monitor seismic activity around all high-volume injection wells, along with a history of injection times, volumes and pressures at the well.
  • Third, this is a problem that, if left unchecked, has the potential to result in major damage, incredible expense, and possibly loss of life.

Induced earthquakes are a real phenomenon. While more research is necessary to help us better understand the intricacies of these events and to identify correlations in complex cases, the general cause of the earthquake swarms in Oklahoma and other states is not a mystery. They are man-made problems, backed up by decades of scientific research. They have the potential to create significant damage, but we have the wherewithal to prevent them. We don’t need to go to the extreme of shutting down all wells, but rather, we just need to be able to monitor the wells and ensure that they don’t trigger earthquakes. If a well does trigger an earthquake, then at that point, the well operators can either experiment with significantly decreasing the volume of water that’s injected, or the well can be shut down completely. Understanding and acknowledging the connection between injection wells and earthquakes will make induced seismicity a much easier problem to solve.

11% of organic farms near drilling in US, potentially 31% in future

By Juliana Henao & Samantha Malone, FracTracker Alliance

Currently, 11% (2,140 of 19,515 total) of all U.S. organic farms share a watershed with active O&G drilling. Additionally, this percentage could rise up to 31% if unconventional O&G drilling continues to grow.

Organic farms represent something pure for citizens around the world. They produce food that gives people more certainty about consuming chemical-free nutrients in a culture that is so accustomed to using pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides in order to keep up with booming demand. Among their many benefits, organic farms produce food that is high in nutritional value, use less water, replenish soil fertility, and do not use pesticides or other toxic chemicals that may get into our food supply. To maintain their integrity, however, organic farms have an array of regulations and an extensive accreditation process.

What does it mean to be an organic farm?

The accreditation process for an organic farm is quite extensive. USDA organic regulations include:

  • The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substance.
  • No prohibited substances can be applied to the farm for a period of 3 years immediately preceding harvest of a crop
  • The farm must have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones, such as runoff diversions to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to the crop or contact with a prohibited substance applied by adjoining land that is not under organic management.

There are additional regulations that pertain to crop pest, weed, and disease standards; soil fertility and crop nutrient management standards; seeds and planting stock practice standards; and wild-crop harvesting practice standards, to name a few. A violation of any one of these USDA regulations can mean a hold on the accreditation of an organic farm.

The full list of regulations and requirements can be found here.

Threats Posed by Oil & Gas

Nearby oil and gas drilling is one of many threats to organic farms and their crop integrity. With a steady expansion of wells, the O&G industry is using more and more land, requiring significant quantities of fresh water, and emitting air and water pollution from sites (both in permitted and unpermitted cases). O&G activity could not only affect the quality of the produce from these farms, but also their ability to meet the USDA’s organic standards.

To see how organic farms and the businesses surrounding wells are being affected, Ted Auch analyzed certain dynamics of organic farms near drilling activity in the United States, and generated some key findings. His results showcase how many organic farms are at risk now and in the future if O&G drilling expands. Below we describe a few of his key findings, but you can also read the entire article here.

Key Findings – Organic Farms Near Oil & Gas Activity

Explore this dynamic map of the U.S. organic farms (2,140) within 20 miles of oil & gas drilling. To view the legend and see the map fullscreen, click here.

Of the 19,515 U.S. organic farms in the U.S., 2,140 (11%) share a watershed with oil and gas activity – with up to 31% in the path of future wells in shale areas. Why look at oil and gas activity at the watershed level? Watersheds are key areas from which O&G companies pull their resources or into which they emit pollution. For unconventional drilling, hydraulic fracturing companies need to obtain fresh water from somewhere in order to frack the wells, and often the local watershed serves as that source. Spills can and do occur on site and in the process of transporting the well pad’s products, posing risks to soils and waterways, as well.

Figure 1, below, demonstrates the number of organic farms near active oil & gas wells in the U.S. – broken down by five location-based Regions of Concern (ROC).

Farm-Chart1

Figure 1: Total and incremental numbers of US organic farms in the 5 O&G Regions of Concern (ROC).

The most at-risk farms are located in five states: California, Ohio, Michigan, Texas and Pennsylvania. Learn more about the breakdown of the types of organic farms that fall within these ROCs, including what they produce.

Out of Ohio’s 703 organic farms, 220 organic farms are near drilling activity, and 105 are near injection (waste disposal) wells.

Conclusion

More and more O&G drilling is being permitted to operate near organic farms in the United States. The ability for municipalities to zone out O&G varies by state, but there is currently no national restriction that specifically protects organic farms from this industrial activity. As the O&G industry expands and continues to operate at such close proximities to organic farms in the US, there are a variety of potential impacts that we could see in the near future. The following list and more is explained in further detail in Auch’s research paper:

  • A complete alteration in soil composition and quality,
  • A need to restore wetland soils that are altered beyond the best reclamation techniques,
  • A dramatic decline in organic farm and land productivity,
  • A changing landscape,
  • Wildlife habitat fragmentation, and
  • Watershed resilience … to name a few.

PA feature image taken by Sara Gillooly, 2013

Photo by Evan Collins and Rachel Wadell

These Fish Weren’t Playing Opossum (Creek)

A First-hand Look at the Recent Statoil Well Pad Fire

By Evan Collins and Rachel Wadell, Summer Research Interns, Wheeling Jesuit University

Statoil well pad fire 2205-crop

Monroe Co. Ohio – Site of June 2014 Statoil well pad fire

After sitting in the non-air-conditioned lab on a muggy Monday afternoon (June 30, 2014), we were more than ready to go for a ride to Opossum Creek after our professor at Wheeling Jesuit University mentioned a field work opportunity. As a researcher concerned about drilling’s impacts, our professor has given many talks on the damaging effects that unconventional drilling can have on the local ecosystem. During the trip down route 7, he explained that there had been a serious incident on a well pad in Monroe County, Ohio (along the OH-WV border) on Saturday morning.

About the Incident

Hydraulic tubing had caught fire at Statoil’s Eisenbarth well pad, resulting in the evacuation of 20-25 nearby residents.1 Statoil North America is a relatively large Norwegian-based company, employing roughly 23,000 workers, that operates all of its OH shale wells in Monroe County.2 The Eisenbarth pad has 8 wells, 2 of which are active.1 However, the fire did not result from operations underground. All burning occurred at the surface from faulty hydraulic lines.

Resulting Fish Kill?

Photo by Evan Collins and Rachel Wadell

Several fish from the reported fish kill of Opossum Creek in the wake of the recent well pad fire in Monroe County, OH.

When we arrived at Opossum Creek, which flows into the Ohio River north of New Martinsville, WV, it smelled like the fresh scent of lemon pine-sol. A quick look revealed that there was definitely something wrong with the water. The water had an orange tint, aquatic plants were wilting, and dozens of fish were belly-up. In several shallow pools along the creek, a few small mouth bass were still alive, but they appeared to be disoriented.  As we drove down the rocky path towards the upstream contamination site, we passed other water samplers. One group was from the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH). The consulting firm was sampling for volatile organic compounds, while we were looking for the presence of halogens such as Bromide and Chloride. These are the precursors to trihalomethanes, a known environmental toxicant.

Visiting the Site

After collecting water samples, we decided to visit the site of the fire. As we drove up the ridge, we passed another active well site. Pausing for a break and a peek at the well, we gazed upon the scenic Appalachian hillsides and enjoyed the peaceful drone of the well site. Further up the road, we came to the skeletal frame of the previous Statoil site. Workers and members of consulting agencies, such as CTEH, surrounded the still smoking debris. After taking a few pictures, we ran into a woman who lived just a half-mile from the well site.  We asked her about the fire and she stated that she did not appreciate having to evacuate her home. Surrounding plants and animals were not able to be evacuated, however.

Somehow the fish living in Opossum Creek, just downhill from the well, ended up dead after the fire. The topography of the area suggests that runoff from the well would likely flow in a different direction, so the direct cause of the fish kill is still obscure. While it is possible that chemicals used on the well pad ran into the creek while the fire was being extinguished, the OH Department of Natural Resources “can’t confirm if it (the fish kill) is related to the gas-well fire.”3  In reference to the fire, a local resident said “It’s one of those things that happens. My God, they’re 20,000 feet down in the ground. Fracking isn’t going to hurt anything around here. The real danger is this kind of thing — fire or accidents like that.”4

Lacking Transparency

WV 2014 Photo by Evan Collins and Rachel Wadell

Run by Statoil North America, Eisenbarth well pad in Monroe County, Ohio is still smoking after the fire.

Unfortunately, this sentiment is just another example of the general public being ill-informed about all of the aspects involved in unconventional drilling. This knowledge gap is largely due to the fact that oil and gas extraction companies are not always transparent about their operations or the risks of drilling. In addition to the potential for water pollution, earthquakes, and illness due to chemicals, air pollution from active unconventional well sites is increasing annually.

CO2 Emissions

Using prior years’ data, from 2010 to 2013, we determined that the average CO2 output from unconventional gas wells in 2013 was equal to that of an average coal-fired plant. If growth continued at this rate, the total emissions of all unconventional wells in West Virginia will approximate 10 coal-fired power plants in the year 2030. Coincidentally, this is the same year which the EPA has mandated a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by all current forms of energy production. However, recent reports suggest that the amount of exported gas will quadruple by 2030, meaning that the growth will actually be larger than originally predicted.5 Yet, this number only includes the CO2 produced during extraction. It does not include the CO2 released when the natural gas is burned, or the gas that escapes from leaks in the wells.

Long-Term Impacts

Fires and explosions are just some of the dangers involved in unconventional drilling. While they can be immediately damaging, it is important to look at the long-term impacts that this industry has on the environment. Over time, seepage into drinking water wells and aquifers from underground injection sites will contaminate these potable sources of water. Constant drilling has also led to the occurrence of unnatural earthquakes. CO2 emissions, if left unchecked, could easily eclipse the output from coal-fired power plants – meaning that modern natural gas drilling isn’t necessarily the “clean alternative” as it has been advertised.

References

  1. Willis, Jim ed. (2014). Statoil Frack Trucks Catch Fire in Monroe County, OH. Marcellus Drilling News.
  2. Forbes. (2014). Statoil.
  3. Woods, Jim. (2014). Fish Kill in Eastern Ohio Might be Linked to Fire at Fracking Well. The Columbus Dispatch.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Cushman, John H., Jr. (2014). US Natural Gas Exports No Better for Climate than China’s Coal, Experts Say.

Water Use in WV and PA

Water Resource Reporting and Water Footprint from Marcellus Shale Development in West Virginia and Pennsylvania

Report and summary by Meghan Betcher and Evan Hansen, Downstream Strategies; and Dustin Mulvaney, San Jose State University

GasWellWaterWithdrawals The use of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction has greatly increased in recent years in the Marcellus Shale. Since the beginning of this shale gas boom, water resources have been a key concern; however, many questions have yet to be answered with a comprehensive analysis. Some of these questions include:

  • What are sources of water?
  • How much water is used?
  • What happens to this water following injection into wells?

With so many unanswered questions, we took on the task of using publically available data to perform a life cycle analysis of water used for hydraulic fracturing in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Summary of Findings

Some of our interesting findings are summarized below:

  • In West Virginia, approximately 5 million gallons of fluid are injected per fractured well, and in Pennsylvania approximately 4.3 million gallons of fluid are injected per fractured well.
  • Surface water taken directly from rivers and streams makes up over 80% of the water used in hydraulic fracturing in West Virginia, which is by far the largest source of water for operators. Because most water used in Marcellus operations is withdrawn from surface waters, withdrawals can result in dewatering and severe impacts on small streams and aquatic life.
  • Most of the water pumped underground—92% in West Virginia and 94% in Pennsylvania—remains there, lost from the hydrologic cycle.
  • Reused flowback fluid accounts for approximately 8% of water used in West Virginia wells.
  • Approximately one-third of waste generated in Pennsylvania is reused at other wells.
  • As Marcellus development has expanded, waste generation has increased. In Pennsylvania, operators reported a total of 613 million gallons of waste, which is approximately a 70% increase in waste generated between 2010 and 2011.
  • Currently, the three-state region—West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—is tightly connected in terms of waste disposal. Almost one-half of flowback fluid recovered in West Virginia is transported out of state. Between 2010 and 2012, 22% of recovered flowback fluid from West Virginia was sent to Pennsylvania, primarily to be reused in other Marcellus operations, and 21% was sent to Ohio, primarily for disposal via underground injection control (UIC) wells. From 2009 through 2011, approximately 5% of total Pennsylvania Marcellus waste was sent to UIC wells in Ohio.
  • The blue water footprint for hydraulic fracturing represents the volume of water required to produce a given unit of energy—in this case one thousand cubic feet of gas. To produce one thousand cubic feet of gas, West Virginia wells require 1-3 million gallons of water and Pennsylvania wells required 3-4 million gallons of water.

Table 1. Reported water withdrawals for Marcellus wells in West Virginia (million gallons, % of total withdrawals, 2010-2012)

WV Water Withdrawals

Source: WVDEP (2013a). Note: Surface water includes lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers. The dataset does not specify whether purchased water originates from surface or groundwater. As of August 14, 2013, the Frac Water Reporting Database did not contain any well sites with a withdrawal “begin date” later than October 17, 2012. Given that operators have one year to report to this database, the 2012 data are likely very incomplete.

As expected, we found that the volumes of water used to fracture Marcellus Shale gas wells are substantial, and the quantities of waste generated are significant. While a considerable amount of flowback fluid is now being reused and recycled, the data suggest that it displaces only a small percentage of freshwater withdrawals. West Virginia and Pennsylvania are generally water-rich states, but these findings indicate that extensive hydraulic fracturing operations could have significant impacts on water resources in more arid areas of the country.

While West Virginia and Pennsylvania have recently taken steps to improve data collection and reporting related to gas development, critical gaps persist that prevent researchers, policymakers, and the public from attaining a detailed picture of trends. Given this, it can be assumed that much more water is being withdrawn and more waste is being generated than is reported to state regulatory agencies.

Data Gaps Identified

We encountered numerous data gaps and challenges during our analysis:

  • All data are self-reported by well operators, and quality assurance and quality control measures by the regulatory agencies are not always thorough.
  • In West Virginia, operators are only required to report flowback fluid waste volumes. In Pennsylvania, operators are required to report all waste fluid that returns to the surface. Therefore in Pennsylvania, flowback fluid comprises only 38% of the total waste which means that in West Virginia, approximately 62% of their waste is not reported, leaving its fate a mystery.
  • The Pennsylvania waste disposal database indicates waste volumes that were reused, but it is not possible to determine exactly the origin of this reused fluid.
  • In West Virginia, withdrawal volumes are reported by well site rather than by the individual well, which makes tracking water from withdrawal location, to well, to waste disposal site very difficult.
  • Much of the data reported is not publically available in a format that allows researchers to search and compare results across the database. Many operators report injection volumes to FracFocus; however, searching in FracFocus is cumbersome – as it only allows a user to view records for one well at a time in PDF format. Completion reports, required by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), contain information on water withdrawals but are only available in hard copy at PADEP offices.

In short, the true scale of water impacts can still only be estimated. There needs to be considerable improvements in industry reporting, data collection and sharing, and regulatory enforcement to ensure the data are accurate. The challenge of appropriately handling a growing volume of waste to avoid environmental harm will continue to loom large unless such steps are taken.

Report Resources

Complete Report  |  Webinar

This report was written on behalf of Earthworks and was funded by a Network Innovation Grant from the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation.

This FracTracker article is part of the Water Use Series

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