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Release: The 2019 You Are Here map launches, showing New York’s hurdles to climate leadership

For Immediate Release

Contact: Lee Ziesche, lee@saneenergyproject.org, 954-415-6282

Interactive Map Shows Expansion of Fracked Gas Infrastructure in New York State

And showcases powerful community resistance to it

New York, NY – A little over a year after 55 New Yorkers were arrested outside of Governor Cuomo’s door calling on him to be a true climate leader and halt the expansion of fracked gas infrastructure in New York State, grassroots advocates Sane Energy Project re-launched the You Are Here (YAH) map, an interactive map that shows an expanding system of fracked infrastructure approved by the Governor.

“When Governor Cuomo announced New York’s climate goals in early 2019, it’s clear there is no room for more extractive energy, like fossil fuels.” said Kim Fraczek, Director of Sane Energy Project, “Yet, I look at the You Are Here Map, and I see a web of fracked gas pipelines and power plants trapping communities, poisoning our water, and contributing to climate change.”

Sane Energy originally launched the YAH map in 2014 on the eve of the historic People’s Climate March, and since then, has been working with communities that resist fracked gas infrastructure to update the map and tell their stories.

“If you read the paper, you might think Governor Cuomo is a climate leader, but one look at the YAH Map and you know that isn’t true. Communities across the state are living with the risks of Governor Cuomo’s unprecedented buildout of fracked gas infrastructure,” said Courtney Williams, a mother of two young children living within 400 feet of the AIM fracked gas pipeline. “The Governor has done nothing to address the risks posed by the “Algonquin” Pipeline running under Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. That is the center of a bullseye that puts 20 million people in danger.”

Fracked gas infrastructure poses many of the same health risks as fracking and the YAH map exposes a major hypocrisy when it comes to Governor Cuomo’s environmental credentials. The Governor has promised a Green New Deal for New York, but climate science has found the expansion of fracking and fracked gas infrastructure is increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“The YAH map has been an invaluable organizing tool. The mothers I work with see the map and instantly understand how they are connected across geography and they feel less alone. This solidarity among mothers is how we build our power ,” said Lisa Marshall who began organizing with Mothers Out Front to oppose the expansion of the Dominion fracked gas pipeline in the Southern Tier and a compressor station built near her home in Horseheads, New York. “One look at the map and it’s obvious that Governor Cuomo hasn’t done enough to preserve a livable climate for our children.”

“Community resistance beat fracking and the Constitution Pipeline in our area,” said Kate O’Donnell  of Concerned Citizens of Oneonta and Compressor Free Franklin. “Yet smaller, lesser known infrastructure like bomb trucks and a proposed gas decompressor station and 25 % increase in gas supply still threaten our communities.”

The YAH map was built in partnership with FracTracker, a non-profit that shares maps, images, data, and analysis related to the oil and gas industry hoping that a better informed public will be able to make better informed decisions regarding the world’s energy future.

“It has been a privilege to collaborate with Sane Energy Project to bring our different expertise to visualizing the extent of the destruction from the fossil fuel industry. We look forward to moving these detrimental projects to the WINS layer, as communities organize together to take control of their energy future. Only then, can we see a true expansion of renewable energy and sustainable communities,” said Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator at Fractracker Alliance.

Throughout May and June Sane Energy Project and 350.org will be traveling across the state on the ‘Sit, Stand Sing’ tour to communities featured on the map to hold trainings on nonviolent direct action and building organizing skills that connect together the communities of resistance.

“Resistance to fracking infrastructure always starts with small, volunteer led community groups,” said Lee Ziesche, Sane Energy Community Engagement Coordinator. “When these fracked gas projects come to town they’re up against one of the most powerful industries in the world. The You Are Here Map and ‘Sit, Stand Sing’ tour will connect these fights and help build the power we need to stop the harm and make a just transition to community owned renewable energy.”

An Earth Day Tribute to Bill Hughes

In March 2019, Bill Hughes, environmental defender extraordinaire and former FracTracker colleague, passed away. His legacy lives through the multitude of lives he enriched – from students to activists to everyday people. Bill was an omnipresent force for good and always armed with facts and a pervasive smile. He is dearly missed. The article that follows is derived from an interview with him in 2018. Please keep Bill in your heart this Earth Day.

Raised in an industrial town a few miles east of Pittsburgh, William “Bill” Hughes married his wife, Marianne, in 1969. With dreams of a rural setting to raise a family, they bought 79 acres in West Virginia with an old farm house – the last and only home up a hollow in an almost abandoned valley. To Bill, it was a “little piece of almost heaven.”  Proud parents to a son and daughter, the Hughes enjoyed the peace and quiet of life in Wetzel County until the shale gas invasion.

Truck accidents, blocked roads, travel delays, road damage, infrastructure degradation, and demolished signs and guardrails became the norm. The noticeable impacts eroded the community’s quality of life and Bill was there to witness, document, and report the degradation, a picture at a time.

One of Bill’s many photos of of truck traffic & air impacts from the shale gas industry in West Virginia

Bill served on the county solid waste authority where he pushed-back on accepting the radioactive waste of the fracking industry. The Franciscan magazine St. Anthony Messenger featured Bill in a 2015 story where he spoke about the waste issue. “As far as I know, in the history of humans burying waste produced from human activity, we have never taken known radioactive materials like this and buried large amounts of it in a generic landfill designed for household trash disposal.”  Bill had a knack for appealing to common sense.

In early 2015, he testified at a hearing at the WV Public Service Commission regarding the landfill’s pending permit request for the special cell for drill cuttings. Delays irritated the owners of the landfill and, in February 2016, Bill became a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed against him. A summons was delivered to his home. Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission granted the permit. It was salt in the wounds but Bill reflected on it with his signature matter-of-factness. “One must consider that during the year 2013 alone at least $9 million exchanged hands at the landfill due to drill cuttings. The state received a third of that, the landfill about two-thirds. The county also got its share. My days were numbered.”

After an initial ruling in his favor, followed by appeal by the landfill, the Fourth Circuit issued a final dismissal order in March 2017. The unnerving ordeal was over but in the preceding seven years, about 850,000 tons of drilling waste found a home at the Wetzel County landfill.

Waste hazards and air pollution from drilling were a weight on Bill’s shoulders but he was most concerned about the social impacts of the extraction craze. “For ten years, gas companies have been fracturing the deep shale in Wetzel County but families have also been fractured,” Bill said. “The whole process…has contaminated the long-standing Appalachian culture and eroded our community history. The old normal is forever gone.” Bill called it collateral damage.

But doom and gloom weren’t part of his vocabulary. Bill put the “P” in perseverance. For nearly a decade, he educated thousands of people through a process he perfected – documenting and disseminating photography of the activities and effects of shale gas development. The photos became immediately useful in helping others understand what this industry was doing to America. Visible evidence was needed to counter false industry narratives suggesting hydraulic fracturing was harmonious and benign. Bill cranked out 8,000 photos suggesting otherwise.

Bill Hughes giving tours of gas fields in West Virginia. Photo by Joe Solomon. https://flic.kr/s/aHskkXZj3z

Bill Hughes giving a tour of gas fields in West Virginia. Photo by Joe Solomon.

Just taking pictures was not enough. Context was needed. Bill interpreted each picture – explaining the location, thing or activity, and significance of every image. Did it represent a threat to our water, air, or land? When did it happen? What happened before and after? Did it show a short or long-term problem?  Should state regulatory agencies see it to become better informed? Dissemination followed in many forms: tours of the gas fields; power point presentations to groups in five states; op-ed pieces written for news media; countless responses to questions and inquiries; even blogs and photo essays for various websites. Ceaseless Bill never stopped caring.

The work continues to impress and influence. Multiple examples reside on FracTracker.org – such as his forensic tour of visible air emissions or the instructive virtual oil and gas tour.

Perhaps his latter gestures were his most poignant. Surrounded by the despair of fracking, Bill sowed hope in the form of a 10,000 watt, ground mount, grid-tied, 36-panel home solar system installed in late June 2016. “During the twelve months of 2017, it produced over 12,000 kilowatt hours,” Bill said. It proved that solar can be immediately productive and cost effective. It was a viable alternative, off-the-shelf ready and capable of providing needed energy. The bold move needed a companion – in the form of an electric car. He purchased the only Chevy Bolt to be found in the state of West Virginia.

Maybe Bill Hughes should be an official emblem for Earth Day – a humble, faithful man of modest proportions, spreading the stewardship imperative from a little electric car. Hitch a ride, follow his lead, and, like Bill, always tell it like it is.

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

https://www.kvpr.org/post/dormant-risky-new-state-law-aims-prevent-problems-idle-oil-and-gas-wells

Idle Wells are a Major Risk

Designating a well as “idle” is a temporary solution for operators, but comes at a great economic and environmental cost to Californians 

Idle wells are oil and gas wells which are not in use for production, injection, or other purposes, but also have not been permanently sealed. During a well’s productive phase, it is pumping and producing oil and/or natural gas which profit its operators, such as Exxon, Shell, or California Resources Corporation. When the formations of underground oil pools have been drained, production of oil and gas decreases. Certain techniques such as hydraulic fracturing may be used to stimulate additional production, but at some point operators decide a well is no longer economically sound to produce oil or gas. Operators are supposed to retire the wells by filling the well-bores with cement to permanently seal the well, a process called “plugging.”

A second, impermanent option is for operators to forego plugging the well to a later date and designate the well as idle. Instead of plugging a well, operators cap the well. Capping a well is much cheaper than plugging a well and wells can be capped and left “idle” for indefinite amounts of time.

Well plugging

Unplugged wells can leak explosive gases into neighborhoods and leach toxic fluids into drinking waters. Plugging a well helps protect groundwater and air quality, and prevents greenhouse gasses from escaping and expediting climate change. Therefore it’s important that idle wells are plugged.

While plugging a well does not entirely eliminate all risk of groundwater contamination or leaking greenhouse gases, (read more on FracTracker’s coverage of plugged wells) it does reduce these risks. The longer wells are left idle, the higher the risk of well casing failure. Over half of California’s idle wells have been idle for more than 10 years, and about 4,700 have been idle for over 25 years. A report by the U.S. EPA noted that California does not provide the necessary regulatory oversite of idle wells to protect California’s underground sources of drinking water.

Wells are left idle for two main reasons: either the cost of plugging is prohibitive, or there may be potential for future extraction when oil and gas prices will fetch a higher profit margin.  While idle wells are touted by industry as assets, they are in fact liabilities. Idle wells are often dumped to smaller or questionable operators.

Orphaned wells

Wells that have passed their production phase can also be “orphaned.” In some cases, it is possible that the owner and operator may be dead! Or, as often happens, the smaller operators go out of business with no money left over to plug their wells or resume pumping. When idle wells are orphaned from their operators, the state becomes responsible for the proper plugging and abandonment.

The cost to plug a well can be prohibitively high for small operators. If the operators (who profited from the well) don’t plug it, the costs are externalized to states, and therefore, the public. For example, the state of California plugged two wells in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles at a cost of over $1 million. The costs are much higher in urban areas than, say, the farmland and oilfields of the Central Valley.

Since 1977, California has permanently sealed about 1,400 orphan wells at a cost of $29.5 million, according to reports by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). That’s an average cost of about $21,000 per well, not accounting for inflation. From 2002-2018, DOGGR plugged about 600 wells at a cost of $18.6 million; an average cost of about $31,000.

Where are they?

Map of California’s Idle Wells

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The map above shows the locations of idle wells in California.  There are 29,515 wells listed as idle and 122,467 plugged or buried wells as of the most recent DOGGR data, downloaded 3/20/19. There are a total of 245,116 oil and gas wells in the state, including active, idle, new (permitted) or plugged.

Of the over 29,000 wells are listed as idle, only 3,088 (10.4%) reported production in 2018. Operators recovered 338,201 barrels of oil and 178,871 cubic feet of gas from them in 2018. Operators injected 1,550,436,085 gallons of water/steam into idle injection wells in 2018, and 137,908,884 cubic feet of gas.

The tables below (Tables 1-3) provide the rankings for idle well counts by operator, oil field, and county (respectively).  Chevron, Aera, Shell, and California Resources Corporation have the most idle wells. The majority of the Chevron idle wells are located in the Midway Sunset Field. Well over half of all idle wells are located in Kern County.

Table 1. Idle Well Counts by Operator
Operator Name Idle Well Count
1 Chevron U.S.A. Inc. 6,292
2 Aera Energy LLC 5,811
3 California Resources Production Corporation 3,708
4 California Resources Elk Hills, LLC 2,016
5 Berry Petroleum Company, LLC 1,129
6 E & B Natural Resources Management Corporation 991
7 Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC 842
8 HVI Cat Canyon, Inc. 534
9 Seneca Resources Company, LLC 349
10 Crimson Resource Management Corp. 333

 

Table 2. Idle Well Counts by Oil Field
Oil Field Count by Field
1 Midway-Sunset 5,333
2 Unspecified 2,385
3 Kern River 2,217
4 Belridge, South 2,075
5 Coalinga 1,729
6 Elk Hills 958
7 Buena Vista 887
8 Lost Hills 731
9 Cymric 721
10 Cat Canyon 661

 

Table 3. Idle Well Counts by County
County Count by County
1 Kern 17,276
2 Los Angeles 3,217
3 Fresno 2,296
4 Ventura 2,022
5 Santa Barbara 1,336
6 Orange 752
7 Monterey 399
8 Kings 212
9 San Luis Obispo 202
10 Sutter 191

 

Risks

According to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) the count of idle wells in California has increased from just over 20,000 idle wells in 2015 to nearly 30,000 wells in 2018! That’s an increase of nearly 50% in just 3 years!

Nobody knows how many orphaned wells are actually out there, beneath homes, in forests, or in the fields of farmers. The U.S. EPA estimates that there are more than 1 million of them across the country, most of them undocumented. In California, DOGGR officially reports that there are 885 orphaned wells in the state.

A U.S. EPA report on idle wells published in 2011 warned that existing monitoring requirements of idle wells in California was “not consistent with adequate protection” of underground sources of drinking water. Idle wells may have leaks and damage that go unnoticed for years, according to an assessment by the state Department of Conservation (DOC). The California Council on Science and Technology is actively researching this and many other issues associated with idle and orphaned wells. The published report will include policy recommendations considering the determined risks. The report will determine the following:

  • State liability for the plugging and abandoning of deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Assessment of costs associated with plugging and abandoning deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Exploration of mechanisms to ameliorate plugging, abandoning, and decommissioning burdens on the state, including examples from other regions and questions for policy makers to consider based on state policies

Current regulation

As of 2018, new CA legislation is in effect to incentivize operators to properly plug and abandon their stocks of idle wells. In California, idle wells are defined as wells that have not had a 6-month continuous period of production over a 2-year period (previously a 5-year period). The new regulations require operators to pay idle well fees.  The fees also contribute towards the plugging and proper abandonment of California’s existing stock of orphaned wells. The new fees are meant to act as bonds to cover the cost of plugging wells, but the fees are far too low:

  • $150 for each well that has been idle for 3 years or longer, but less than 8 years
  • $300 for each well that has been idle for 8 years or longer, but less than 15 years
  • $750 for each well that has been idle for 15 years or longer, but less than 20 years
  • $1,500 for each well that has been idle for 20 years or longer

Operators are also allowed to forego idle well fees if they institute long-term idle well management and elimination plans. These management plans require operators to plug a certain number of idle wells each year.

In February 2019, State Assembly member Chris Holden introduced an idle oil well emissions reporting bill. Assembly bill 1328 requires operators to monitor idle and abandoned wells for leaks. Operators are also required to report hydrocarbon emission leaks discovered during the well plugging process. The collected results will then be reported publicly by the CA Department of Conservation. According to Holden, “Assembly Bill 1328 will help solve a critical knowledge gap associated with aging oil and gas infrastructure in California.”

While the majority of idle wells are located in Kern County, many are also located in California’s South Coast region. Due to the long history and high density of wells in the Los Angeles, the city has additional regulations. City rules indicate that oil wells left idle for over one year must be shut down or reactivated within a month after the city fire chief tells them to do so.

Who is responsible?

All of California’s wells, from Kern County to three miles offshore, on private and public lands, are managed by DOGGR, a division of the state’s Department of Conservation. Responsibilities include establishing and enforcing the requirements and procedures for permitting wells, managing drilling and production, and at the end of a well’s lifecycle, plugging and “abandoning” it.

To help ensure operator liability for the entire lifetime of a well, bonds or well fees are required in most states. In 2018, California updated the bonding requirements for newly permitted oil and gas wells. These fees are in addition to the aforementioned idle well fees. Operators have the option of paying a blanket bond or a bond amount per well. In 2018, these fees raised $4.3 million.

Individual well fees:

  • Wells less than 10,000 feet deep: $10,000
  • Wells more than 10,000 feet deep: $25,000

Blanket fees:

  • Less than 50 wells: $200,000
  • 50 to 500 wells: $400,000
  • 500 to 10,000 wells: $2,000,000
  • Over 10,000 wells: $3,000,000

With an average cost of at least $31,000 to plug a well, California’s new bonding requirements are still insufficient. Neither the updated individual nor blanket fees provide even half the cost required to plug a typical well.

Conclusions

Strategies for the managed decline of the fossil fuel industry are necessary to make the proposal a reality. Requiring the industry operators to shut down, plug and properly abandon wells is a step in the right direction, but California’s new bonding and idle well fees are far too low to cover the cost of orphan wells or to encourage the plugging of idle wells. Additionally, it must be stated that even properly abandoned wells have a legacy of causing groundwater contamination and leaking greenhouse gases such as methane and other toxic VOCs into the atmosphere.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo: Kerry Klein, Valley Public Radio

DOGGR

Literally Millions of Failing, Abandoned Wells

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

In California’s Central Valley and along the South Coast, there are many communities littered with abandoned oil and gas wells, buried underground.

Many have had homes, buildings, or public parks built over top of them. Some of them were never plugged, and many of those that were plugged have since failed and are leaking oil, natural gas, and toxic formation waters (water from the geologic layer being tapped for oil and gas). Yet this issue has been largely ignored. Oil and gas wells continue to be permitted without consideration for failing and failed plugged wells. When leaking wells are found, often nothing is done to fix the issue.

As a result, greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere and present an explosion risk for homes built over top of them. Groundwater, including sources of drinking water, is known to be impacted by abandoned wells in California, yet resources are not being used to track groundwater contamination.

Abandoned wells: plugged and orphaned

The term “abandoned” typically refers to wells that have been taken out of production. At the end of their lifetime, wells may be properly abandoned by operators such as Chevron and Shell or they may be orphaned.

When operators properly abandon wells, they plug them with cement to prevent oil, natural gas, and salty, toxic formation brine from escaping the geological formation that was tapped for production. Properly plugging a well helps prevent groundwater contamination and further air quality degradation from the well. The well-site at the surface may also be regraded to an ecological environment similar to its original state.

Wells that are improperly abandoned are either plugged incorrectly or are “orphaned” by their operators. When wells are orphaned, the financial liability for plugging the well and the environmental cleanup falls on the state, and therefore, the taxpayers.

You don’t see them?

In California’s Central Valley and South Coast abandoned wells are everywhere. Below churches, schools, homes, they even under the sidewalks in downtown Los Angeles!

FracTracker Alliance and Earthworks recently spent time in Los Angeles with an infrared camera that shows methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. We visited several active neighborhood drilling sites and filmed plumes of toxic and carcinogenic VOCs floating over the walls of well-pads and into the surrounding neighborhoods. We also visited sites where abandoned, plugged wells had failed.

In the video below, we are standing on Wilshire Blvd in LA’s Miracle Mile District. An undocumented abandoned well under the sidewalk leaks toxic and carcinogenic VOCs through the cracks in the pavement as mothers push their children in walkers through the plume. This is just one case of many that the state is not able to address.

California regulatory data shows that there are 122,466 plugged wells in the state, as shown below in the map below. Determining how many of them are orphaned or improperly plugged is difficult, but we can come up with an estimate based on the wells’ ages.

While there are no available data on the dates that wells were plugged, there are data on “spud dates,” the date when operators begin drilling into the ground. Of the 18,000 wells listing spud dates, about 70% were drilled prior to 1980. Wells drilled before 1980 have a higher risk of well casing failures and are more likely to be sources of groundwater contamination.

Additionally, wells plugged prior to 1953 are not considered effective, even by industry standards. Prior to 1950, wells either were orphaned or plugged and abandoned with very little cement. Plugging was focused on protecting the oil reservoirs from rain infiltration rather than to “confine oil, gas and water in the strata in which they are found and prevent them from escaping into other strata.” Of the wells with drilling dates in the regulatory data, 30% are listed as having been drilled prior to the use of cement in well plugging.

With a total of over 245,000 wells in the state database, and considering the lack of monitoring prior to 1950, it’s reasonable to assume there are over 80,000 improperly plugged and unplugged wells in California.

Map of California’s Plugged Wells

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The regions with the highest counts of plugged wells are the Central Valley and the South Coast. The top 10 county ranks are listed below in Table 1. Kern County has more than half of the total plugged wells in the entire state.

Table 1. Ranks of Counties by Plugged Well Counts
  • Rank
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • County
  • Kern
  • Los Angeles
  • Orange
  • Fresno
  • Ventura
  • Santa Barbara
  • Monterey
  • San Luis Obispo
  • Solano
  • Yolo
  • Plugged Well Count
  • 65,733
  • 17,139
  • 7,259
  • 6,970
  • 4,302
  • 4,192
  • 2,266
  • 1,463
  • 1,456
  • 1,383

The issue is not unique to California. Nationally, an estimated 2.56 million oil and gas wells have been drilled and 1.93 million wells had been abandoned by 1975. Using interpolated data, the EPA estimates that as of 2016 there were 3.12 million abandoned wells in the U.S. and 69% of them were left unplugged.

In 2017, FracTracker Alliance organized an exercise to track down the locations of Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells that are not included in the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s digital records. Using paper maps and the FracTracker Mobile App, volunteers explored Pennsylvania woodlands in search of these hidden greenhouse gas emitters.

What are the risks?

Emissions

Studies by Kang et al. 2014, Kang et al 2016, Boothroyd et al 2016, and Townsend-Small et al. 2016 have all measured methane emissions from abandoned wells. Both properly plugged and improperly abandoned wells have been shown to leak methane and other VOCs to the atmosphere as well as into the surrounding groundwater, soil, and surface waters. Leaks were shown to begin just 10 years after operators plugged the wells.

Well density

The high density of aging and improperly plugged wells is a major risk factor for the current and future development of California’s oil and gas fields. When fields with old wells are reworked using new technology, such as hydraulic fracturing, CO2 flooding, or solvent flooding (including acidizing, water flooding, or steam flooding), the injection of additional fluid and gas increases pressure in a reservoir. Poorly plugged or aging wells often lack the integrity to avoid a blowout (the uncontrolled release of oil and/or gas from a well). There is a consistent risk that formation fluids will be forced to migrate up the plugged wellbores and bypass the existing plugs.

Groundwater

In a 2014 report, the U.S. Geological Service warned the California State Water Resources Control Board that the integrity of abandoned wells is a serious threat to groundwater sources, stating, “Even a small percentage of compromised well bores could correspond to a large number of transport pathways.”

The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) has also suggested the need for additional research on existing aquifer contamination. In 2014, they called for widespread testing of groundwater near oil and gas fields, which has still not occurred.

Leaks

In addition to the contamination of underground sources of drinking water, abandoned well failures can even create a pathway for methane and fluids to escape to Earth’s surface. In many cases, such as in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California, where drilling began prior to the turn of the 20th century, many wells have been left unplugged. Of the abandoned wells that were plugged, the plugging process was much less adequate than it is today.

If plugged wells are allowed to leak, surface expressions can form. These leaks can travel to the Earth’s crust where oil, gas, and formation waters saturate the topsoil. A construction supervisor for Chevron named David Taylor was killed by such an event in the Midway-Sunset oil field near Bakersfield, CA. According to the LA Times, Chevron had been trying to control the pressure at the well-site. The company had stopped injections near the well, but neighboring operators continued high-pressure injections into the pool. As a result, migration pathways along old wells allowed formation fluids to saturate the Earth just under the well-site. Tragically, Taylor fell into a 10-foot diameter crater of 190° fluid and hydrogen sulfide.

California regulations

Following David Taylor’s death in 2011, California regulators vowed to make urgent reforms to the management of underground injection, and new rules finally went into effect on April 1, 2018. These regulations require more consistent monitoring of pressure and set maximum pressure standards. While this will help with the management of enhanced oil recovery operations, such as steam and water flooding and wastewater disposal, the issue of abandoned wells is not being addressed.

New requirements incentivizing operators to plug and abandon idle wells will help to reduce the number of orphan wells left to the state, but nothing has been done or is proposed to manage the risk of existing orphaned wells.

Conclusion

Why would the state of California allow new oil and gas drilling when the industry refuses to address the existing messes? Why are these messes the responsibility of private landholders and the state when operators declare bankruptcy?

New bonding rules in some states have incentivized larger operators to plug their own wells, but old low-producing or idle wells are often sold off to smaller operators or shell (not Shell) companies prior to plugging. This practice has been the main source of orphaned wells. And regardless of whether wells are plugged or not, research shows that even plugged wells release fugitive emissions that increase with the age of the plug.

If the fossil fuel industry were to plug the existing 1.666 million currently active wells, there would be nearly 5 million plugged wells that require regular inspections, maintenance, and for the majority, re-plugging, to prevent the flow of greenhouse gases. This is already unattainable, and drilling more wells adds to this climate disaster.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Wicked Witch of the Waste

The Great Plains has become the unconventional oil & gas industry’s dumping ground, prompting questions about the security and resilience of the bread basket and the underlying Ogalalla Aquifer

Back in December of 2016, FracTracker analyzed the growing link between injection wells that dispose fracking waste and “induced seismicity” [1], or human-caused earthquakes. Our compiled maps from this analysis (including Figure 1 below) show seismic activity in Kansas and Oklahoma along with Class II injection well volumes up through 2015. 

Figure 1. Earthquakes and Class II Injection Well Activity at the Kansas-Oklahoma Border

This link was given acute attention at that time as a result of the magnitude 5.8 earthquake in Pawnee, Oklahoma on September 3rd, 2016, followed closely by a 4.5 earthquake on November 1st.  The industry’s increased production of waste came home to roost 5 days later when a magnitude 5.0 quake struck a mile west of the “Cushing Hub,” the largest commercial crude oil storage center in North America. The Cushing Hub is capable of storing 54 million barrels of crude – the equivalent of 2.8 times the U.S. daily oil refinery capacity and 3.1 times the daily oil refinery capacity of all of North America.

Sunflower State of Affairs

Since we published this analysis and associated maps, Class II injection wells have been in the news several times across the Great Plains. An investigation by KSN News found that the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) improperly permitted over 2,000 Class II injection wells. The KCC stated that public comment periods for well proposals lasted just 15 days, instead of the correct number of 30 days. This amounts to 42% and 28% of the state’s active and total inventory of oil and gas waste receiving wells approved with inaccurate public notices.


Quail Oil & Gas LC’s Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) well, Morris County,
KS near Diamond Creek (Photo Courtesy of Karla jo Grimmett at South 500 photography)

According to Cindy Hoedel, a freelance journalist in Kansas, the KCC responded to the investigation findings… by ruling that no remedy was needed and closing the docket.”

Attorneys representing the Sierra Club maintain that improper permitting by the KCC continued into the Fall of 2018:

“The significance is they are choking us off in terms of giving us less and less time to try to mount a protest, to submit any kind of comment, and that’s a lot,” Cindy Hoedel, a Matfield Green resident who has complained about earthquakes in her area, said… “These notices get published in these tiny little newspapers, and sometimes it might take us 15 days before we find it”

As Ms. Hoedel wrote in an email when I asked her to comment on issues relating to Kansas’ Class II injection wells:

“The Republican controlled Kansas Legislature is trying to fend off several proposed bills that would reform the KCC (the regulatory body that oversees the permitting of Class II underground injection control wells). Citizen challenges of individual applications for disposal and EOR [enhanced oil recovery] wells continue, with the KCC moving more aggressively than in the past to dismiss protestants before a hearing is held. Some of these dismissals are being challenged in appellate court. The activists’ view is that EPA, the SWDA [Safe Water Drinking Act] and Congress clearly intend for the public to be able to participate in the regulatory process; instead, KCC has written regulations that are effectively barriers to participation… Activists have questions about the large number of EOR wells being applied for in Kansas and what their true purpose is, given the insignificant amounts of oil being produced compared to high volumes of injected fluids. Another concern is that the injection well earthquakes in Oklahoma and Kansas continue, yet KCC refuses to add regs that would address seismic risk in permit applications. There is also a problem with harassment of citizens exercising their right to protest – Scott Yeargain and I were both turned in to the Kansas AG’s office by a KCC staffer on the bogus claim that we were practicing law without a license because we helped explain the convoluted process to other protesters.”

Grapes of Wrath

Meanwhile, across the border, Oklahoma City and its surrounding suburbs have become the San Francisco of the Great Plains, with regular earthquake swarms (including many that exceed magnitude 4.0). According to Think Progress reporter Samantha Page, despite the damages and lawsuits caused by these earthquakes, “for years, the state was slow to respond, while Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and others questioned the link to human activity.” 

Eventually, by the end of 2016, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission responded by implementing a ‘traffic light’ protocol, in which operations are paused or stopped altogether following earthquakes of certain magnitudes. For a time, the EPA demanded a moratorium on disposal across Class II wells injecting into the Arbuckle formation in “high seismically active focus areas.”

Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, said that this response by the EPA is “a stellar example of the inefficiency of the federal government…It’s akin to a newspaper telling us today the football scores from games played 15 months ago.”

In reporting on the industry’s response, journalist Paul Monies, buried the lead when he pointed out the following in his second to last paragraph:

“Wastewater recycling remains an expensive option compared to the low costs of disposal wells in Oklahoma. While operators can inject wastewater into formations other than the Arbuckle, Hatfield said other formations don’t accept water as easily and are at shallower depths.”

The Map

Our second stab at mapping the scale and scope of Class II injection wells across the Great Plains is slightly different than our first effort in a few ways:

  1. This iteration includes Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) Injection Wells in Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Kansas on one map. Clicking on a well reveals its location, well name, operator, and the volume of wastewater disposed. Volumes are presented annually for Nebraska and monthly for 2011 to 2017 for Oklahoma and Kansas. We also present annual sums for Oklahoma from 2006 to 2010.
  2. The map shows Arkansas and Platte River Basin boundaries, which contain the entire inventory of OK, NE, and KS Class II wells.
  3. We’ve included Hydrologic Unit Codes, which when zoomed in to the map, identify sub-watersheds, and the Ogalalla Aquifer boundary, courtesy of the USGS’s Sharon Qi.
  4. Finally, we’ve includedUS Forest Service Robert G. Bailey’s Ecoregions to give a sense for the types of ecosystems threatened by the O&G industry’s demand for suitable waste disposal sites

View Map Full Screen | To view the legend on this map, click the “layers” icon on the top left of the screen


Table 1, below, breaks down the volumes of oil and gas wastewater disposed in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Volumes are measured in million barrels, with one barrel equivalent to 42 gallons. The number of Class II SWD (salt water disposal) injection wells in these states is separated to show the total number of wells permitted verse the number of wells that were active (receiving waste).

Table 1. Class II injection well volumes in 2017

In total, 3,385,700,000 barrels of wastewater were disposed in 5,975 injection wells in these three states in 2017. The volume of wastewater disposed has increased in recent years (Table 2).

Table 2. Cumulative Class II injection well volumes to 2017, annual percent changes, and likely 2018 and 2027 volumes

In Table 2, the theoretical annual volumes for 2018 and 2027 are predictions based on the average of linear, exponential, and polynomial models.

The Kansas-Oklahoma Border

It is critical that we analyze the Great Plains fracking waste ecosystem across state lines. There are several reasons for this, including the proximity of Kansas’ most active Class II wells to the Oklahoma border (Figure 2) and the potential for the KCC to use enhanced oil recovery wells in Kansas to dispose of Oklahoma’s fracking waste.

Figure 2. Class II injection well volumes for 2017 along the Kansas-Oklahoma border.

Collaboration between front line communities, non-profits like FracTracker Alliance, and groups like the Kansas Water Advocacy Team (WAT) will be crucial to understanding the impacts of waste disposal writ large.  It seems like the “food vs energy” nexus has come to a head in the heart of the U.S. Bread Basket. We’ll continue to highlight and map the issues associated with this topic in the coming months and years.

Data Download Links

The following links contain the data used in the above tables and map, for use in excel and with Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

[1] To learn more about Induced Seismicity, read an exclusive FracTracker two-part series from former researcher with Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences, Ariel Conn: Part I and Part II.

Additionally, the USGS has created an Induced Earthquakes landing page as part of their Earthquake Hazards Program.

The Growing Web of Oil and Gas Pipelines

Although the vast majority of scientists agree that we must rapidly move away from fossil fuels to avoid a human-caused climate catastrophe by the end of this century, pipeline construction remains a big business.

Pipelines are the backbone of domestic fossil fuel use and for delivering fuels to terminals for international export. Yet aside from a few high-profile pipeline controversies that show up in the media, few Americans are aware of the vast network of pipelines that transport oil and gas products from sources of extraction to industry and end-use consumers.

The United States is crisscrossed by over 1.63 million miles of fossil fuel pipelines. This includes:

Many of the country’s pipelines have been built within the last few decades, and in recent years, construction of more has been spurred on by the fracking boom. The total mile count of crude oil pipelines (currently 79,000) has increased over 60% between 2004 and 2017.  Natural gas distribution and estimated service pipeline miles increased 72% between 1984 and 2017 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Miles of natural gas distribution (1,296,157 miles) and estimated service (
927,052 miles) pipelines in the U.S., 1984-2017

Although total mileage for transmission pipelines slightly dropped between 2004 and 2017 (according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration), total mileage for Hazardous Liquids pipelines jumped 33% during that same period (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2 (above). Total miles of Hazardous Liquid pipelines in the U.S., 2004-2017
Figure 3 (below). Break down of Hazardous Liquid pipeline miles in the U.S by what they’re transporting, 2004-2017

Exporting natural gas

When natural gas is imported or exported, it’s transported in a liquefied form. The product occupies much less space as a liquefied natural gas (LNG) than it does in its gaseous form, making it easier to transport.

For many years, the United States was an importer of natural gas, until 2007, when this trend quickly reversed, coinciding with the “fracking boom” in the Marcellus Shale, as well as several other shale plays in Texas, Wyoming, and elsewhere.

Figure 4. U.S. imports of natural gas, which is transported as liquefied natural gas (LNG)

LNG facilities store and process natural gas to help move it between markets. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of LNG facilities increased from 122 to 152 (includes LNG storage facilities). This nearly 25% increase reflects the surplus of natural gas in the lower 48 states.

The U.S. began exporting LNG in 2016, especially to Europe and China, where demand is high. According to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), LNG exports doubled between 2016 and 2017 (Figure 5).

Figure 5. U.S. LNG exports between January, 2016 and October, 2017, are shown in the blue bars

Exports are again expected to double over 2018 levels by the end of 2019, reaching a storage capacity of 9.6 billion cubic feet per day. The US is now the third largest exporter of LNG, after Australia and Qatar.

The breakdown of LNG terminals —existing and future— according to FERC is shown below. These terminals receive LNG imports or ship out LNG for export. The shift from LNG import to export activity over time is quite striking. No new import facilities are currently in the planning phase, yet there are 19 export facilities proposed and another 10 already approved.  

Table 1. Import and Export LNG Terminals in the US: Current, Approved, and Proposed.

  Import Export
Current 12: Everett, MA; Cove Point, MD; Elba Island, GA; Lake Charles, LA; offshore Boston, MA (2); Freeport, TX; Sabine, LA; Hackberry, LA; Sabine Pass, LA; Pascagoula, MS; Peñuelas, PR) 3: (Cove Point, MD; Sabine, LA; Kenai, AK)
Approved 3: Corpus Christi, TX; Gulf of Mexico (2) 10: Hackberry, LA (2); Freeport, TX; Corpus Christi, TX; Sabine Pass, LA (2); Elba Island, GA; Lake Charles, LA (2); Gulf of Mexico
Proposed None 19: Pascagoula, MS;  Cameron Parish, LA (2); Brownsville, TX (3); Port Arthur, TX; Jacksonville, FL; Plaquemines Parish, LA (2); Calcasieu Parish, LA; Nikiski, AK; Freeport, TX; Coos Bay, OR; Corpus Christi, TX; La Fourche Parish, LA; Sabine Pass, LA; Galveston Bay, TX

The challenge of keeping up

One of the challenges in working on oil and gas-related environmental advocacy is that from week to week, there are always changes in pipeline status. New pipelines are announced, others are delayed, others are postponed, and in some cases, projects are cancelled or defeated. Pipelines that have been under construction for years go on line. Listings are piece-meal, sometimes very vague, and sometimes reported by third and fourth party sources.

FracTracker is committed to sorting through this information, and providing a window into the expansion of oil and gas infrastructure. We have mapped and assembled information on over 60,000 miles of new and proposed oil and gas transmission pipelines and mapped over 250 projects since 2017.

Of these 60,000 pipeline miles, almost 9,800 have been completed and/or are operating. Close to 7,500 miles were cancelled or defeated. This leaves another 42,700 miles of pipeline that are currently in the replacement, reversal, planning or construction stages. 

In the interactive map below, against a background of existing pipelines, we show the newest pipelines that have come “on the radar” since 2017. In addition we show LNG terminals, one of the main destinations for the gas that flows through the pipelines to the export market.

Updated U.S. pipeline and LNG terminal map

View Map Full Screen | How Our Maps Work

Our mapping process

FracTracker is dedicated to bringing transparency to the landscape of oil and gas development. We use mapping tools such as GIS (geographic information systems) to illuminate developments in oil and gas infrastructure expansion.

Where do we get our data?

We draw our information from new listings by the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) and Sierra Club for natural gas projects. In addition, we find announcements about new crude oil and gas pipeline projects on RBN Energy’s website. 

After we create a composite list of pipelines, the research begins. We search the internet for references to each pipeline, looking for industry announcements, descriptions, news articles, and, most importantly, the docket listings of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

FERC may release detailed maps of pipeline routes from the company’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), filed after operators have progressed past the initial phases of planning. On occasion, we’ll stumble across links to Google Earth files that grassroots groups have ground-truthed. We can convert these .kml files into our ArcGIS mapping software directly.

Digital cartography

How do we go from online pictures of maps to data that we can use in our interactive maps? For the most part, we use a process called georeferencing, also known in some circles as “rubber-sheeting”. One of the beauties of digital cartography and GIS is that through the magic of computing, we can add information about location to mapped information. This allows us to add different features to a map, such as roads or rivers, and ensure that they line up correctly.

Let’s say I have a .jpg (image) file of a pipeline map that crosses four counties in Indiana. The .jpg shows both the pipeline and the county boundaries. I can open my GIS program and add a reference basemap of the United States, which is similar to what you see when you open Google Maps. I can zoom in to Indiana and add a second GIS layer of Indiana’s counties (already built with coordinates in the digital information), and voila! It drops right into where Indiana is on my base map. Can I do this with the pipeline .jpg? Not yet!

I have to use the clues on the pipeline image to place it in the correct location on the GIS map. Luckily, my pipeline map has county boundaries on it, so I can line up the corners (or other shapes) on the pipeline image to where they are on my map that is “smart” about location using ground control points.

Once I’m satisfied that the map I’ve added is in the correct location, I carefully trace the path of the pipeline, saving it as a GIS layer. Because it’s drawn with its own location data included, it will always appear in future maps in the same place relative to the rest of Indiana.

That’s our process in a nutshell.

Want to see this done as a demo? Here’s a nice 10-minute YouTube video:


By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator

Well Pad

Sow Love and Hope with FracTracker

FracTracker Alliance celebrates February, the “month of love,” as we do most months – by striving to help people and the planet. A few weeks ago, we sent checks to four organizations who were recipients of our December “spreading the cheer initiative,” receiving half our online donations that month in honor of the four winners of the 2018 Community Sentinel Award.  The beneficiaries included Redeemer Community Partnership (Los Angeles, CA), SkyTruth (Shepherdstown, WV), League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans (Erie, CO), and Clean Air Council (Philadelphia, PA). Thanks to our December donors for providing a total of $860 to these important groups.

Our care extends beyond our nonprofit brethren to directly address Mother Earth. Less than 120 miles north of my office, Pine Creek flows to the Susquehanna River, draining nearly 1,000 square miles and encompassing one of the highest concentrations of exceptional value and high quality streams anywhere in the Keystone state. The creek’s breathtaking 47-mile gorge is known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

Photo of Pine Creek Gorge by Nicholas Tonelli, Flickr

Unfortunately, the Pine Creek watershed has been inundated by hundreds of unconventional and conventional natural gas wells and the pipelines, compressor stations, impoundments and access roads that accompany oil and gas development.  It is estimated that in the watershed’s Tiadaghton State Forest, more than 1,000 acres have already been disturbed by gas operations.  Much of this degradation has occurred in the last 10 years. With wilderness in the balance, FracTracker – with support from the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds – is examining what a decade of drilling means for this treasured landscape and its beloved woods and waters.

Over the next few months, we aim to construct a digital atlas – ripe with vivid, detailed maps and data – to tell the story of the changes in this emblematic place. The capstone will be an extensive field documentation tour using staff and volunteers deployed with cameras and the FracTracker mobile app. With the help of groups like the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, Save Pennsylvania Forests Coalition, Responsible Drilling Alliance, Middle Susquehanna RiverKeeper, LightHawk, and others, images from the ground and air will be collected and included in the atlas project. The final product will be an invaluable tool to educate diverse audiences about the risks of natural gas development on Pine Creek, the Susquehanna watershed, and our public lands.

Near and far – for people, the planet, and precious watersheds like Pine Creek – there’s so much to do. Please consider becoming a FracTracker recurring monthly donor. Your gesture warms our hearts, nurtures our work, and sows hope –with invaluable information, tenacious solidarity, and the unstoppable spirit of love.

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

destroyed home following pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA

Unnatural Disasters

Guest blog by Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group

Roughly half of the homes in America use gas for providing heat, hot water or powering appliances. If you use gas in your home, you know that leaks are bad – they waste money, they pollute the air, and, if exposed to a spark, they could spell disaster.

Our homes, however, are only the end point of a vast production and transportation system that brings gas through a network of pipelines all the way from the wellhead to our kitchens. There are opportunities for wasteful and often dangerous leaks all along the way – leaks that threaten the public’s health and safety and contribute to climate change.

How frequent are gas leaks?

Between January 2010 and November 2018, there were a reported 1,888 incidents that involved a serious injury, fatality or major financial loss related to gas leaks in the production, transmission and distribution system, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. These incidents caused 86 deaths, 487 injuries and over $1 billion in costs.

When gas lines leak, rupture, or are otherwise damaged, the gas released can explode, sometimes right in our own backyards. Roughly one in seven of the incidents referenced above – 260 in total – involved an explosion.

In September 2018, for example, a series of explosions in three Massachusetts communities caused one death, numerous injuries and the destruction of as many as 80 homes. And there are many more stories like it from communities across the U.S. From the 2010 pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people and destroyed almost 40 homes to the 2014 disaster in New York City that destroyed two five-story buildings and killed eight people, these events serve as a powerful reminder of the danger posed by gas.

The financial and environmental costs

Gas leaks are also a sheer waste of resources. While some gas is released deliberately in the gas production process, large amounts are released unintentionally due to malfunctioning equipment, corrosion and natural causes like flooding. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 123,692 million cubic feet of gas were lost in 2017 alone, enough to power over 1 million homes for an entire year. That amount is likely an underestimate. On top of the major leaks reported to the government agency in charge of pipeline safety, many of our cities’ aging gas systems are riddled with smaller leaks, making it tricky to quantify just how much gas is lost from leaks in our nation’s gas system.

Leaks also threaten the stability of our climate because they release large amounts of methane, the main component of gas and a potent greenhouse gas. Gas is not the “cleaner” alternative to coal that the industry often makes it out to be. The amount of methane released during production and distribution is enough to reduce or even negate its greenhouse gas advantage over coal. The total estimated methane emissions from U.S. gas systems have roughly the same global warming impact over a 20-year period as all the carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal plants in 2015 – and methane emissions are likely higher than this amount, which is self-reported by the industry.

In most states, there is no strong incentive for gas companies to reduce the amount of leaked gas because they can still charge customers for it through “purchased gas adjustment clauses.” These costs to consumers are far from trivial. Between 2001 and 2011, Americans paid at least $20 billion for gas that never made it to their homes.

These and other dangers of gas leaks are described in a recent fact sheet by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. At a time when climate change is focusing attention on our energy system, it is critical that communities understand the full range of problems with gas – including the ever-present risk of leaks in the extensive network of infrastructure that brings gas from the well to our homes.

The alternative

We should not be using a fuel that endangers the public’s safety and threatens the stability of our climate. Luckily, we don’t have to. Switching to electric home heating and hot water systems and appliances powered by renewable energy would allow us to move toward eliminating carbon emissions from homes. Electric heat pumps are twice as efficient as gas systems in providing heat and hot water, making them a viable and commonsense replacement. Similarly, as the cost of wind and solar keep falling, they will continue to undercut gas prices in many regions.

It’s time to move beyond gas and create a cleaner, safer energy system.

By Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group, a non-profit think tank part of The Public Interest Network. She is based in Denver, Colorado.

Feature image at top of page shows San Bruno, California, following the 2010 pipeline explosion

Getting Rid of All of that Waste – Increasing Use of Oil and Gas Injection Wells in Pennsylvania

Oil and gas development generates a lot of liquid waste.

Some of the waste comes that comes out of a well is from the geologic layer where the oil and gas resources are located. These extremely saline brines may be described as “natural,” but that does not make them safe, as they contain dangerous levels of radiation, heavy metals, and other contaminants.

Additionally, a portion of the industrial fluid that was injected into the well to stimulate production, known as hydraulic fracturing fluid, returns to the surface.  Some of these substances are known carcinogens, while others remain entirely secret, even to the personnel in the field who are employed to use the additives.

The industry likes to remind residents that they have used this technique for more than six decades, which is true. What separates “conventional” fracking from developing unconventional formations such as the Marcellus Shale is really a matter of scale.  Conventional formations are often stimulated with around 10,000 gallons of fluid, while unconventional wells now average more than 10 million gallons per well.

In 2017 alone, Pennsylvania oil and gas wells generated 57,653,023 barrels (2.42 billion gallons) of liquid waste.

Managing the waste stream

Liquid waste can be reused to stimulate other oil and gas wells, but reuse concentrates the contaminant load in the fluid. There is a limit to this concentration that operators can use, even for this industrial purpose.

Another strategy is to decrease the volume of the waste through evaporation and other treatment methods. This also increases the contaminant concentration. Pennsylvania used to permit “treatment” of wastewater at sewage treatment facilities, before being forced to concede that the process was completely ineffective, and resulted in contaminating streams and rivers throughout the Commonwealth.

In many states, much of this waste is disposed of in facilities known as salt water disposal (SWD) wells, a specific type of injection well. These waste facilities fall under the auspices of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. Such wells are co-managed with states’ oil and gas regulatory agencies, although the specifics vary by state.

These photos show SWD wells in other states, but what about in Pennsylvania?

The oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania has not used SWD wells as a primary disposal method, as the state’s geology has been considered unsuitable for this process.  For example, on page 67 of this 2009 industry report, the authors saw treatment of flowback fluid at municipal facilities as a viable option (before the process was  banned in 2011), but underground injection as less likely (emphasis added):

The disposal of flowback and produced water is an evolving process in the Appalachians. The volumes of water that are being produced as flowback water are likely to require a number of options for disposal that may include municipal or industrial water treatment facilities (primarily in Pennsylvania), Class II injection wells [SWDs], and on-site recycling for use in subsequent fracturing jobs. In most shale gas plays, underground injection has historically been preferred. In the Marcellus play, this option is expected to be limited, as there are few areas where suitable injection zones are available.

The ban on surface “treatment” being discharged into Pennsylvania waters has increased the pressure for finding new solutions for brine disposal.  This is compounded by the fact that the per-well volume of fluid injected into shale gas wells in the region has nearly tripled in that time period. Much of what is injected comes back up to the surface and is added to the liquid waste stream.

Chemically-similar brine from conventional wells has been spread on roadways for dust suppression. This practice was originally considered a “beneficial use” of the waste product, but the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) halted that practice in May 2018.

None of these waste management decisions make the geology in Pennsylvania suddenly suitable for underground injection, however, they do increase the pressure on the state to find a disposal solution.

Concerns with SWD wells

There are numerous concerns with salt water disposal wells.  In October 2018, the DEP held a hearing in Plum Borough, on the eastern edge of Allegheny County, where there is a proposal to convert the Sedat 3A conventional well to an injection well. Some of the concerns raised by residents include:

  • Fluid and/or gas migration- There are numerous routes for fluids and gas to migrate from the injection formation to drinking water aquifers or even surface water.  Potential conduits include coal mines, abandoned gas wells, water wells, and naturally occurring fissures in crumbling sedimentary formations.
  • Induced seismicity- SWD wells have been linked to increased earthquake activity, either by lubricating or putting pressure on old faults that had been dormant. Earthquakes can occur miles away from the injection location, and in sedimentary formations, not just igneous basement rock.
  • Noise, diesel pollution, loss of privacy, and road degradation caused by a constant stream of industrial waste haulers to the well location.
  • Complicating existing issues-  Plum Borough and surrounding communities are heavily undermined, and in fact the well bore goes right through the Renton Coal Mine (another part of which has been on fire for decades).  Mine subsidence is already a widespread issue in the region, and many fear that even small seismic events could exacerbate this.
  • Possibility of surface spill-  Oil and gas is, sadly, a sloppy industry, with unconventional operations having accumulated more than 13,000 violations in Pennsylvania since 2008.  If a major spill were to happen at this location, there is the possibility of release into Pucketa Creek, which drains into the Allegheny River, the source of drinking water for multiple communities.
  • Radioactivity and other contaminants- Flowback fluids are often highly radioactive, contain heavy metals, and other contaminants that are challenging to effectively clean.  The migration of radon gas into homes above the injection formation is also a possibility.

The current state of SWDs in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has numerous data sources for oil and gas, but they are not always in agreement. To account for this, we have mapped SWDs (and a five mile buffer around them) from two different data sources in the map below. The first source is a subset of SWD wells from a larger dataset of oil and gas locations from the DEP’s mapping website. The second source is from a Waste Facility Report, represented in pink triangles that are offset at an angle to allow users to see both datasets simultaneously in instances where they overlap.


Map of existing, proposed, and plugged salt water disposal (SWD) injection wells in Pennsylvania.

 View map fullscreen How FracTracker maps work

According to the first data set of DEP’s oil and gas locations, Pennsylvania contains 13 SWDs with an active status, one SWD with a regulatory inactive status, and eight that are plugged. The Waste Facility Report shows 10 SWD wells total, including one well that was left out of the other data set in Annin Township, McKean County.

It is worth noting that Pennsylvania’s definition for an “active” well status is confusing, to put it charitably. It does not mean that a well is currently in operation, nor does it even mean that it is currently permitted for the activity, whether that is waste disposal or gas production, or some other function. An active status means that the well has been proposed for a given use, and the well hasn’t been plugged, or assigned some other status.

The Sedat 3A well in Plum, for example, has an active status, although the DEP has not yet granted it a permit to operate as a SWD well. Another  status type is “regulatory inactive,” which is given to a well that hasn’t been used for its stated purpose in 12 months, but may potentially have some future utility.

Karst, coal mines, and streams

While there are numerous factors worthy of consideration when siting SWD wells, this map focuses on three: the proximity of karst formations, coal mines and nearby streams that the state designates as either high quality or exceptional value.

Karst formations are unstable soluble rock formations like limestone deposits which are likely to contain numerous subsurface voids. These voids are concerning in this context. For one reason, there’s the possibility of contaminated fluids and gasses migrating into underground freshwater aquifers. Also, the voids are inherently structurally unstable, which could compound the impacts of artificially-induced seismic activity caused by fluid injections in the well.

Our analysis found over 78,000 acres (123 square miles) of karst geology within five miles of current, proposed, or plugged SWD wells in Pennsylvania.

Coal mines, while a very different sedimentary formation, have similar concerns because of subsurface voids. Mine subsidence is already a widespread problem in many of the communities surrounding SWD well sites.  Pennsylvania has several available data sets, including active underground mine permits and digitized mined areas, which are used in this map.  Active mine permits show current permitted operations, while digitized mine areas offer a highly detailed look at existing mines, including abandoned mines, although the layer is not complete for all regions of the state.

In Pennsylvania, there are 56,542 acres (88 square miles) of active mines within five miles of SWD wells. Our analysis found 97,902 acres (153 square miles) of digitized mined areas within five miles of SWD wells.  Combined, there are 139,840 acres (219 square miles) of existing and permitted mines within the 5 mile buffer zone around SWDs in Pennsylvania.

Streams with the designation “high quality” and “exceptional value” are the best streams Pennsylvania has to offer, in terms of recreation, fishing, and biological diversity. In this analysis, we have identified such streams within a five mile radius of SWD wells, irrespective of the given watershed of the well location.

While the rolling topography of Western Pennsylvania sheds rainwater in a complicated network of drainages, groundwater is not subject to that particular geography. Furthermore, groundwater regularly interacts with surface water through water wells, abandoned O&G wells, and natural seeps and springs. Therefore, it is possible for SWDs to contaminate these treasured streams, even if they are not located within the same watershed.

Altogether, there are 716 miles of high quality streams and 110 miles of exceptional value streams within 5 miles of the SWDs in this analysis.

Conclusion

For decades, geologists have concluded that the subsurface strata in Pennsylvania were not suitable for oil and gas liquid waste disposal in underground injection wells.  The fact that vast quantities of this waste are now being produced in Pennsylvania has not suddenly made it a suitable location for the practice.  If anything, additional shallow and deep wells have further fractured the sedimentary strata, thereby increasing the risk of contamination.

The only factor that has changed is the volume of waste being produced in the region. SWD wells in nearby Ohio and West Virginia have capacity issues from their own production wells, and it is not clear that the geologic formations across the border are that much better than in Pennsylvania. But as new wells are drilled and volumes of hydraulic fracturing fluid continue to spiral into the tens of millions of gallons per well, the pressure to open new SWD wells in the state will only increase.

Perhaps because of these pressures, DEP has become quite bullish on the technology:

Several successful disposal wells are operating in Pennsylvania and options for more sites are always being considered. The history of underground disposal shows that it is a practical, safe and effective method for disposing of fluids from oil and gas production.
Up against this attitude, residents are facing an uphill battle trying to prevent harm to their health and property from these industrial facilities in their communities.  Municipalities that have attempted to stand up for their residents have been sued by DEP to allow for these injection wells.  The Department’s actions, which put the interests of industry above the health of residents and the environment, is directly at odds with the agency’s mission statement:
The Department of Environmental Protection’s mission is to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. We will work as partners with individuals, organizations, governments and businesses to prevent pollution and restore our natural resources.
It’s time for DEP to live up to its promises.

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

FracTracker Alliance Logo with Map

Seeking new Manager of Communications and Development – based in Pittsburgh or Harrisburg, PA

Job Announcement and Online Application:
Manager of Communications and Development, FracTracker Alliance

Job Description

PURPOSE: Manage all external communications activities of the organization; Cultivate and maintain strategic relationships with partner organizations and institutions; Promote and coordinate college internship program; Manage cyber security activities; In coordination with Executive Director, execute organizational fundraising activities including proposal development, prospect ID, annual giving campaigns, major gift solicitation, events planning, donor relations, and applicable database management.

DUTIES:

  • Oversee FracTracker website. Write/edit articles on key issues and findings related to oil and gas development concerns and coordinate maintenance of other content areas (photos, resources, projects, etc.)
  • Work with Manager of Data and Technology, other FracTracker staff, and consultants to evaluate and improve the aesthetics, features, and functionality of FracTracker’s website and related technology (e.g. phone app)
  • Oversee survey development regarding user feedback on the FracTracker website and related technologies (as needed)
  • Periodically update online and printed training tools for utilization of the website, web maps, and mobile app
  • Proactively engage news media on oil and gas issues and FracTracker’s work through interviews, calls, meetings, alerts, and other techniques. Serve as initial contact for major media inquiries
  • Work with Manager of Operations to maintain and update FracTracker exhibits, publications, and marketing materials (as needed)
  • Create and disseminate the organization’s annual report each spring
  • Develop timely FracTracker e-newsletters and communications with our constituencies (with support from Community Outreach and Communications Specialist). Oversee social media channels.
  • Manage implementation of the organization’s communications plan; regularly propose, integrate, and evaluate new communications strategies/ideas; and, help Executive Director assure staff compliance with communications response protocols
  • Supervise and inform activities of Community Outreach and Communications Specialist, who will strategically engage community partners and support communication activities of the organization
  • Periodically represent FracTracker at important conferences, meetings, and events regionally and nationally
  • As opportunities arise, author/co-author scientific papers and white papers elevating the work of FracTracker – translate FracTracker’s work into policy-relevant content
  • As opportunities arise, write articles for popular media on the work and successes of FracTracker
  • Manage FracTracker’s internship program by organizing and publicizing internship opportunities across the U.S.; overseeing hiring of the interns working with field staff and the Manager of Operations
  • Assess cyber threats and vulnerabilities to FracTracker’s website. Initiate and manage protocols to protect the website and staff devices from cyber threats, including routine data backups
  • Oversee and orchestrate an annual giving campaign developed in consultation with the Executive Director and board
  • Populate and maintain donor and fundraising database (with support from Manager of Operations)
  • Identify and cultivate new prospective donors and manage relationships with existing donors
  • Assist Executive Director with proposal development and engagement of potential funders and regional and national partners for program collaboration

PREFERRED SKILLS: Writing, web design, media relations, strategic communication, public speaking, research, citizen science and/or data collection, data management, social media, digital marketing, teamwork, supervisory, interpersonal, fundraising, and knowledge of environmental, public health, economic, agricultural, or other issues of relevance to understanding and addressing the implications of oil and gas extraction, petrochemicals, and climate change

MINIMUM EDUCATION/QUALIFICATIONS: Bachelor’s degree in communications, journalism, or related field preferred, but candidates with degrees in natural or physical sciences, environmental studies, citizen science, public health, public policy or other relevant fields will be considered. Master’s degree preferred but not required. Five years of work experience exercising the skills listed above; Ability and willingness to travel; Valid driver’s license.

LOCATION: Pittsburgh, PA or Harrisburg, PA

STATUS: Full time (37.5 hours per week) – exempt

CANDIDATES ARE ASKED TO SUBMIT SALARY REQUIREMENTS IN THEIR COVER LETTER


Application Process

Manager of Communications and Development candidates can apply online below. Clarifying questions about the application process can be submitted to Brook Lenker via email: lenker@fractracker.org.

Application period closes March 22, 2019 – 5:00 PM EST.

The FracTracker Alliance is an equal opportunity employer. All decisions regarding recruiting, hiring, promotion, assignment, training, termination, and other terms and conditions of employment are made without unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, religion, age, pregnancy, disability, work-related injury, covered veteran status, political ideology, genetic information, marital status, or any other factor that the law protects from employment discrimination.


Online Application