Our thoughts and opinions about gas extraction and related topics
Fracking has made a real mess of things – sullying our air, befouling our water, disrupting communities. Ethane and other hydrocarbons feed plastic production, accelerating the global plastic pollution crisis while the planet warms out of control.
It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment.
Last week I traveled to Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, a quiet town along the Susquehanna, the mother river to the treasured Chesapeake Bay. Around Wyalusing, fracking consumes the landscape, and a planned 265-acre natural gas liquefaction complex promises more madness: around the clock trucking of volatile cargoes. Imagine watching a field behind your home morph into a sprawling industrial site with hazardous emissions. That story is real. Enough is enough – we need your help.
FracTracker works to illuminate the incursions of this rogue industry. Our maps, data, and analyses support the mounting pushback on infrastructure – from sand mines to pipelines, production wells to waste injection wells. The spectrum of harms is daunting, but our team is motivated to highlight risk and injustice wherever they arise, giving the public the tools and information they need in these David vs. Goliath battles.
Wyalusing is a Native American word meaning “home of the warrior.” Like the people standing their ground in that place today or the army of organizations across America with whom we collaborate, we’re all warriors fighting for a healthy future near and far.
Please give to FracTracker this holiday season. Your donation offers us hope and strength, powering actions that aid, inspire, and facilitate victory. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
FracTracker will soon eclipse one million unique visitors to our website, underscoring that we are and shall remain a valued resource for advocacy, education, and research until the glorious day fossil fuels fade into history. Until then, on behalf of our staff and board, thank you for your ongoing support and warm wishes for a safe and joyous holiday season.
Pittsburgh, PA – Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced their decision to issue a permit for the construction of Shell’s Falcon ethane pipeline project in southwest PA. FracTracker Alliance is extremely disappointed that DEP is allowing this project to proceed despite heavy opposition from the public and unaddressed concerns for the safety and well-being of nearby residents and the surrounding environment.
The past year has seen countless issues from the construction of new pipelines in the Commonwealth – from hundreds of “inadvertent returns,” (spills of bentonite drilling mud) along the path of the Mariner East II project to the catastrophic explosion of the week-old Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County. These reoccurring and serious incidents make it clear that oil and gas midstream companies are rushing to put infrastructure in place, and DEP and other regulatory agencies have been failing in their mission to adequately supervise the process.
According to data from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, there were 108 pipeline incidents in Pennsylvania between January 2010 and mid-July 2018, resulting in 8 fatalities, 15 injuries, requiring over 1,100 people to be evacuated from their homes, and causing more than $66 million in property damage. This track record, which does not include the Revolution Pipeline explosion in September of 2018, is frankly unacceptable.
Certainly, the Commonwealth has invested heavily in the Shell Ethane Cracker facility, offering steep tax subsidies and even paying the global petrochemical giant $2.10 for every barrel of ethane it consumes from Pennsylvania wells, equivalent to $1.6 billion over the next 25 years. It appears to FracTracker that these business arrangements have made the continued extraction and exploitation of hydrocarbons the priority for DEP, not protecting the environment and health and safety of Pennsylvanians, as the mission of the Department suggests is their focus. DEP’s decision also traces an unfortunate pattern of opaqueness and poor timing by announcing unpopular decisions right before the holidays.
Fundamentally, oil and gas companies like Shell exist to make profits, and will therefore make decisions to maximize earnings and limit their costs, if left to their own devices. This approach is often directly at odds with public safety, so Pennsylvania entrusts DEP to oversee the operations. FracTracker feels that with their decision to move forward with the project on December 20, 2018, DEP brushed over dozens of substantial concerns regarding the Falcon ethane pipeline project, and therefore failed in this mission. We remain unconvinced that the “appropriate construction techniques and special conditions” required by DEP will adequately protect the environment and health and safety of residents along the Falcon pipeline route.
Dec. 21st Update: After this article was written, FracTracker learned that Ohio’s EPA issued an air quality permit for the cracker plant in Belmont County, Ohio on December 21st. The short public comment period and the rush to issue permits again illustrates that significant public health and environmental concerns are given minimal importance versus corporate wishes and political expediency. The regulatory paradigm is broken. The public has been ill served by the agencies entrusted to safeguard their interests. A collective regional voice should be raised in protest.
About FracTracker Alliance
Started in 2010 as a southwestern Pennsylvania area website, FracTracker Alliance is now a national organization with regional offices across the United States in Pennsylvania, Washington DC, New York, Ohio, and California. The organization’s mission is to study, map, and communicate the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation. Its goal is to support advocacy groups at the local, regional and national level, informing their actions to positively shape our nation’s energy future. www.fractracker.org
Learn more about FracTracker’s coverage of the Falcon ethane pipeline project by exploring the posts below:
Can you believe the end of the year is almost here? How time flies when you’re busy…
We are reaching out to you today to ask if you could help us spread the cheer this holiday season. For any donations FracTracker receives in the month of December, we will share half the contributions equally amongst four worthy organizations selected by this year’s Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship recipients.
Any time you give to FracTracker you help us support frontline oil and gas communities and organizations with pivotal insights and resources to protect what they hold dear. With just $100, we can provide a custom map to a community fighting the environmental and health impacts of the oil and gas industry.
And in December your money will go even further! In the spirit of the Sentinel Awards, help us spread the cheer by donating before January 1st.
With Much Gratitude,
Executive Director and Sentinel Award Coordinator
Reflecting back on the Community Sentinel award reception, held on November 26th, I can’t help but be in awe of the raw grit and determination that filled the room. It was a cold, blustery day in Pittsburgh – and yet the hall felt warm from the passion each of the Community Sentinels awardees exuded. FracTracker Alliance and our many award sponsors and partners were so very proud to award Nalleli Cobo of California, Rebecca Roter and Ellen Gerhart of Pennsylvania, and Natasha Léger of Colorado with the 2018 Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship. (On a more personal note… This is the first year that all of the recipients have been women. Kudos!)
The Program on November 26th
As I nervously re-checked the AV equipment for the presentations to be led by our emcee from Rootskeeper, David Braun, attendees spent time networking and getting to know the awardees. We met people from all walks of life – each of them concerned about the negative impacts the oil and gas industry.
Rebekah Sale, of the Property Rights and Pipeline Center, kicked off the event with introductions, followed by David Braun to set the stage. Lauren Davis, of The 11th Hour Project, then graciously gave the keynote address. During her formative years as a funder, Lauren met many frontline communities – from the people facing the impacts of oil and gas development in their backyards to volunteers responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill along the Gulf. Working with these early community sentinels served as a critical juncture in her career. Lauren thanked them for the many lessons they taught her about perseverance, patience, and integrity.
Each year during the Community Sentinel Awards program we honor activists who valiantly fought against the harms of dirty energy but passed away in the past year in a presentation called “Legacy of Heroes.” During this year’s program we celebrated the lives and passions of Ben Stout of West Virginia, Ray Beiersdorfer of Ohio, and Carol Zagrocki of Pennsylvania. On behalf of all of the award partners and sponsors, a heartfelt thank you goes out to these incredible advocates who are truly leaving behind a Legacy of Heroes. Learn more about their inspiring work below.
And last but not least, the four recipients of the 2018 Community Sentinel award were presented with their awards.
David Braun introduced Nalleli Cobo, who became an activist at a young age after experiencing severe health impacts from nearby urban drilling. Nalleli has been a critical voice in the movement to end oil drilling in Los Angeles’ neighborhoods. Veronica Coptis of Center for Coalfield Justice presented the award to Ellen Gerhart, a renowned but reluctant activist in Pennsylvania. She has fearlessly stood in the way of Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners for the past few years in order to protect her family’s home from the Mariner East pipelines. Matt Mehalik of the Breathe Project then introduced Natasha Léger. Natasha, a steadfast and eloquent lawyer by training, is currently leading a team of dedicated people in protecting the North Fork Valley of Delta County Colorado from irresponsible oil and gas development and fracking. Raina Rippel of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project then presented the final award to Rebecca Roter. Rebecca, who moved out of PA to escape the health effects of oil and gas development near her home, still works tirelessly to protect communities from fracking’s impacts through strategic advocacy and on-the-ground research.
On behalf of all those who benefit from your resolute endeavors – Thank You, Dear Sentinels.
More About the Awardees
- Nalleli CoboAt age nine, Nalleli Cobo unknowingly engaged in community activism. Her journey began when she noticed she was often ill. Her frequent headaches, stomach pains, nosebleeds, and body spasms worsened to asthma and heart palpitations. Soon after, Nalleli learned others in her community were also having similar problems. Nalleli lived in an apartment complex in South L.A. across from AllenCo’s oil drilling operations. Terrible odors would take over her community every day. After calling regulatory agencies, Nalleli noticed the smells from the oil well only getting worse. Nalleli and her neighbors took action – creating a grassroots campaign called People Not Pozos (Wells). Through grassroots activism, Nalleli strengthened her community’s voice by fighting the oil company poisoning her neighborhood. After a hard fight, AllenCo temporarily closed in November 2013. Her community is fighting to close it permanently.
Nalleli is a member of the South Los Angeles Youth Leadership Coalition. This group, along with Communities for a Better Environment Youth from Wilmington, sued the City of Los Angeles for environmental racism and violation of CEQA. Nalleli is a member of STAND LA (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling – Los Angeles). STAND LA works tirelessly to establish a 2500-ft buffer between oil extraction, homes, and sensitive land.
- Ellen Gerhart
Being an activist was not on Ellen Gerhart’s bucket list for retirement. She was born 63 years ago in Monaca, PA, a small steel mill town near Pittsburgh. She attended Penn State University, where she received a BS in linguistics, teaching certification in deaf-ed, English as a 2nd language, and biology and general science. Ellen also met her husband Stephen there. They bought a house in Huntingdon County, where they raised two daughters, Lyra and Elise. After 28 years of teaching, Ellen retired. That same year, 2015, the fight against the Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) Mariner East 2 pipeline began.
In the three years since, Ellen has had three acres of woodlands and wetlands seized through eminent domain; helped establish a resistance camp and aerial blockade known as Camp White Pine; supported tree sits on her property; been heavily surveilled, threatened, and harassed; and arrested 3 times (released from a 2-6 month jail sentence on September 26, 2018). She most recently attended an ETP unit holders meeting in Dallas, TX where she and other activists confronted CEO Kelcy Warren.
- Rebecca RoterRebecca Roter grew up in West Philadelphia. Her parents’ involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements instilled values of standing witness and speaking truth to power. In 1986, when she moved to Susquehanna County, she had no clue the Marcellus Shale under her feet would spur her advocacy for public health. After the first test well was drilled in the county in 2006, she organized an EPA citizen Marcellus listening session, spearheaded a grassroots community billboard campaign, gave guided tours and interviews to national and international media, facilitated the Duke University NEPA ground water studies, and worked with Clean Air Council – winning PA DEP public hearings for compressors. She networked at every turn with federal and state agencies advocating for scientific research, fact-driven discussion, and public health
In 2013, Rebecca co-founded the grassroots group Breathe Easy Susquehanna County (BESC) striving to unify a community long divided over natural gas, air quality, and public health. BESC arranged local radio interviews with health care professionals about air pollution, natural gas infrastructure and public health; collaborated with Public Lab to design a Community Formaldehyde Monitoring project; collected citizen science formaldehyde data used in a peer reviewed article; and has a seat on an academic stakeholder advisory board. BESC partnered with researchers from University of London for a citizen science air study generating seven months of continuous PM2.5 data county wide. Data near the Williams Central Compressor was shared with federal and state health agencies.
EPA follow up testing was used for an ATSDR Health Consultation. Two days after this consultation was publicly released , PA DEP announced plans for Air Quality Stations in shale counties. As of 10.25.18 , the continuous PM2.5 PA DEP monitoring station was operational in Susquehanna County; a victory for public health brought home by citizen science.
- Natasha LégerNatasha Léger is the Executive Director (Interim) of Citizens For A Healthy Community (CHC). CHC is a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to protecting air, water and foodsheds in the Delta County region of Southwest Colorado from the impacts of oil and gas development. Before stepping in as Interim ED, Natasha served on the board. She brings to CHC legal, location, ecosystem, and industry analysis experience. Natasha is an international trade attorney, turned independent business consultant, turned editor of a location intelligence magazine, turned author of Travel Healthy: A Road Warrior’s Guide to Eating Healthy. She believes clean air, water, soils, and nouri (a word to describe what we should be eating for optimum health) are a basic human right.
Under her leadership, CHC has developed new strategic partnerships with state, regional, and national impacted citizens groups and environmental and conservation groups, and developed tools for empowering the community to respond to threats from oil and gas activity in the North Fork Valley. She championed the ground breaking community cost-benefit analysis of a proposed natural gas project, and contributed to the first food-shale production map to highlight the risks to our food supply of overlapping oil and gas activity with farms. She also exposed the regulatory black hole around rural gas-gathering pipelines. Her work in empowering the community has led to withdrawal of projects and leasing proposals that threaten the community, and an unprecedented number of public comments and widespread opposition to oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley, which serves a unique role in Colorado’s food supply, recreation economy, and biodiversity.
Legacy of Heroes Presentation
Use the slideshow controls on the right to learn about the dedication of Ben, Ray, and Carol.
Ben Stout of West Virginia
In the fleeting passage of days, FracTracker enjoyed a long history with Dr. Ben Stout. The infamous biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University served on the FracTracker board since the inception of the organization in 2012. Brook Lenker, FracTracker executive director reflects: “While we didn’t get to spend as much time with him as we would have liked, each reunion was a pleasure, a reconnection with an old friend.”
Ben was wily and wiry, casual and confident. He exuded a passion for protecting people and nature from industry run amok. As a scientist and educator, he was thorough and curious, yet always bold and engaged; he genuinely cared about the Appalachian communities he knew so well. The Intelligencer in Wheeling noted how he was viewed as an environmental hero. He was too humble to accept such a label, but his revelatory research and staunch advocacy warrant the honor.
On August 3rd, at age 60, Ben died from recurring cancer. Even heroes can’t live forever, but this one’s legacy won’t soon fade away. Ben Stout’s work lives on as an inspiration to so many other people.
Ray Beiersdorfer of Ohio
Ray Beiersdorfer was a renowned professor at Youngstown State University who didn’t let his work stop at the walls of academia. His series of public lectures on Energy and the Environment were an example of that effort. He recruited top notch speakers explaining the technical, legal, social, economic, and environmental issues associated with energy production in a way that non-technical attendees could understand. He also gave countless lectures in person and virtually to lay audiences all over.
As Dr. Weatherington-Rice wrote in giving us her thoughts on Ray: “I agree that Ray and Ben Stout are huge losses this year. We simply are not making scientists of their caliber fast enough to replace their loss to the scientific community and to the greater community of this region. They leave huge holes in the fabric of our universe.”
Ray was an elegant and engaging presenter of the data that speaks to the myriad issues associated with quakes resulting from the injection of hydraulic fracturing waste into Class II injection wells. Such a complex issue is not the easiest topic to explain or make palatable to the general public, but he did it with ease. Ray passed away this year from complications of a heart attack.
Carol Zagrocki of Pennsylvania
Carol Zagrocki was dedicated to many environmental projects, and her passion shown in every aspect of her work. Her grants on behalf of the Colcom Foundation supported so many worthy causes – from watershed monitoring and grassroots organizing, to conservation groups and critical research at universities like Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, and Wheeling Jesuit.
Her husband Rege writes: “Thank you for this honor being bestowed on Carol. She truly loved working with all her grantees. She took great pride in their accomplishments, and it did not matter to her if it was a one-person operation or a national organization, she was at her happiest when the grants got approved by her board.”
On a Saturday morning after breakfast, Carol died suddenly in her home of a heart attack – a condition that runs in her family. She went quickly and hopefully without pain. Carol’s passing was recognized by a humbling assortment of organizations, such as The National Aviary and Carnegie Library. The Pittsburgh Botanical Gardens will soon have a garden dedicated in her honor, as well.
Sponsors and Partners
The Sentinels’ program and reception requires financial support – for monetary awards, awardee travel, and many other costs. As such, each year we call upon dedicated sponsors and partners to provide resources to enable this endeavor to continue. The often-thankless jobs that community sentinels do each day in protecting our health and the environment deserve no less.
Thank you to our incredible 2018 award sponsors: The 11th Hour Project, The Heinz Endowments, The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds and a generous anonymous donor. We could not do this work without your support.
And a big thank you to our partners in presenting the award: Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, Breathe Project, Center for Coalfield Justice, Crude Accountability, Earthworks, Food and Water Watch, Halt the Harm Network, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Property Rights and Pipeline Center, Save the Hills Alliance, Sierra Club, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, and Viable Industries.
This year, 23 people were nominated by their peers to receive this distinguished award (listed below).
- Richard Averitt – Nellysford, VA
- Odessa, Gunner, Kylan, and Nels Bjornson – Scenery Hill, PA
- Mark Borchardt – Marshfield, NY
- Shelley Brock – Eagle, ID
- Genevieve Butler – Freetown, LA
- John Childe – Dauphin, PA
- Malinda Clatterbuck – Holtwood, PA
- Nalleli Cobo – San Gabriel, CA*
- Torch Can Do – Coolville, OH
- Karen Feridun – Kutztown, PA
- Friends of Buckingham – Buckingham, VA
- Ellen Gerhart – Huntington, PA*
- Bill Huston – Dimock, PA
- April Keating – Buckhannon, WV
- Natasha Léger – Paonia, CO*
- Megan Mcdonough – Elizabeth, PA
- Janice Milburn – Ligonier, PA
- Misha Mitchell – Plaquemine, LA
- Anne Rolfes – New Orleans, LA
- Rebecca Roter – Montrose, PA and Nicholson, GA*
- Douglas Shields – Pittsburgh, PA
- Diane Sipe – Evans City, PA
- Joe Spease – Overland Park, KS
* Denotes 2018 award recipient
Many thanks to the following judges for donating their time to review all of the nominations.
- Jill Hunkler – Activist, Ohio
- Raina Rippel – Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project
- Dan Shaffer – Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance and Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition
- Elena Sorokina – Crude Accountability
- Dan Xie – Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups)
Reception Photo Gallery
To say the November 6th election is important might be the understatement of the century. With a climate in peril, fossil fuel interests eviscerating the planet, and politicians sowing discord and demonizing those in greatest need, the voice of the people must be heard from sea to shining sea and everywhere in between.
The hate and horror of the Pittsburgh massacre shook us to our core. It was an act of despicable violence on the victims and everyone in America. Depravity upon humanity takes other forms – whether it’s malice towards people yearning for a better life or atrocities against nature perpetrated by the oil and gas industry. Darkness tears at our society and the ecological and community fabric with which it is woven.
Our hearts ache for those killed or wounded at the synagogue. The murders were premeditated madness. Less obvious and excruciating are vile efforts to compromise civility, compassion, democracy, and wellness for political gain or profit.
We may have reached a new low, but we climb higher. The Tree of Life, while shaken, stands strong. Rooted in justice and sowing seeds of mercy, it is nurtured by light and an endless stream of stewards caring for the earth and one another. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman wrote of next week’s election, “hate is on the ballot.” In the spirit of love manifest after last week’s tragedy, let’s gather at the polls on Tuesday and, together, shape history.
By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance
Need voter information? Check out Rock the Vote
Feature photo by Aaron Burden via Good Free Photos
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has come a long way. While still challenged by air and water pollution, the sun shines on the city – my city – revealing a place of promise. Greenways embrace our rivers, solar energy sprouts on rooftops, innovation and entrepreneurship blossom block-by-block. The new Pittsburgh is vibrant, hopeful, and alive.
But an ominous cloud could darken the region for decades – and I’m not referring to the chaotic weather that climate change is already delivering.
No, the approaching storm is petrochemical development – from monstrous ethane crackers poised to inundate the world with toxic plastic, to an acceleration of destructive fracking and pipeline construction pumping fuel and feedstock to these hazardous facilities. Call it a dystopia, but if greed prevails, it will infest our region and others, as well.
I am proud of the accomplishments of the many environmental organizations I work with every day. They all are impressive. Each offers unique strengths and talents to improve communities and protect the natural world. I have been an admirer of FracTracker Alliance for many years. Born in the Burgh, they’ve branched out and collaborate nationwide to show and tell about the harms of extraction (and everything it represents) through their amazing maps and data-driven insights. Whether it’s in local meetings, statewide hearings, or national reports, their information arms advocates for better energy development and sustainable solutions. Their cool digital apps equip anyone – and hopefully everyone – with tools they can use to report oil and gas impacts wherever they happen.
We need to fight petrochemical expansion on every front. In addition to an army of caring people, the battle requires data, visualizations, outreach, and technology – services that FracTracker offers with abundance and often at no cost to the user. Please consider a donation to FracTracker as they launch their Annual Fund Campaign for 2018-2019.
FracTracker is lean and efficient, but it takes ample funding to continue to do what they do so well. Please give. We have a long struggle ahead, but with generosity and fortitude our hope-filled vision will prevail.
Annual Fund Chair
In the fleeting passage of days, FracTracker enjoyed a long history with Dr. Ben Stout. The infamous biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University served on our board since the inception of the organization in 2012. While we didn’t get to spend as much time with him as we would have liked, each reunion was a pleasure, a reconnection with an old friend.
Ben was wily and wiry, casual and confident. He exuded a passion for protecting people and nature from industry run amok. As a scientist and educator, he was thorough and curious, yet always bold and engaged; he genuinely cared about the Appalachian communities he knew so well. The Intelligencer in Wheeling noted how he was viewed as an environmental hero. He was too humble to accept such a label, but his revelatory research and staunch advocacy warrant the honor.
On August 3rdat age 60, Ben died from recurring cancer. Even heroes can’t live forever, but this one’s legacy won’t soon fade away. Godspeed, Ben Stout – you did a whole lot of good in this world!
Feature image: Dr. Benjamin Stout. Photo courtesy of OVEC.
As part of FracTracker’s staff spotlight series, learn more about the newest member of the FracTracker team, Erica Jackson, and what she’ll be working on in the Pittsburgh tri-state region with us.
Time with FracTracker: Today is Erica’s fourth day
Education: University of Pittsburgh
Office Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Title: Community Outreach and Communications Specialist
What will you actually do in that role?
I’ll be working to share FracTracker’s resources with the public. This includes developing online content, providing tools and trainings for communities affected by fossil fuels, and partnering with other environmental organizations and researchers in the area. Much of my work will be on the community-scale, focusing on oil and gas development in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
I’m also here to assist with grant reporting, data analysis, mapping, and the many other activities that keep FracTracker running. Since today is my first day, I suspect I’ll have a better idea of these projects pretty soon!
Previous Position and Organization
Predoctoral Fellow in the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (Pittsburgh, PA)
How did you first get involved working on oil and gas issues / fracking?
I’ve always been interested in fossil fuel issues due to their connection with climate change, however it was not until I began researching their public health impacts that I was inspired to pursue opportunities to work in this field. Living in Pennsylvania where fracking occurs in backyards, it’s hard to ignore the risks oil and gas pose to the public, or the amount of activism and interest this topic generates. Working at CHEC was a great opportunity to familiarize myself with this issue and the data out there, as well as gain a better understanding of environmental health concerns. I’m always looking for ways to protect natural resources while also promoting healthy and sustainable communities, and working on oil and gas issues is a perfect way to do that.
What is one of the most impactful projects you are excited to be involved in with FracTracker?
I’m excited to partner with and support communities in the Ohio River Valley impacted by oil and gas. This region is at a critical point in its history, where the decisions being made now will shape the wellbeing and sustainability of the area over the next century. It’s challenging and contentious, but at a point where open data and clear communication of risks involved is vital – I’m looking forward to enhancing these efforts as a part of FracTracker.
“The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)
I always tell people that you can’t really understand or appreciate the enormity, heterogeneity, and complexity of the unconventional oil and gas industry’s impact unless you look at the landscape from the cockpit of a Cessna 172. This bird’s-eye-view allows you to see the grandeur and nuance of all things beautiful and humbling. Conversely, and unfortunately more to the point of what I’ve seen in the last year, a Cessna allows one to really absorb the extent, degree, and intensity of all things destructive.
I’ve had the opportunity to hop on board the planes of some amazing pilots like Dave Warner, a forester formerly of Shanks, West Virginia (Note: More on our harrowing West Virginia flight with Dave later!!), Tim Jacobson Esq. out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, northern Illinois retired commodity and tree farmer Doug Harford, and Target corporate jet pilot Fred Muskol out of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.
Since joining FracTracker I’ve been fortunate to have completed nearly a dozen of these “morning flights” as I like to call them, and five of those have taken place since August 2017. I’m going to take the next few paragraphs to share what I’ve found in my own words and by way of some of the photos I think really capture how hydraulic fracturing, and all of its tentacles, has impacted the landscape.
The following is by no means an empirical illustration. I’m increasingly aware, however, that often times tables, charts, and graphs fail to capture much of the scale and scope of fossil fuel’s impact. Photos, if properly georeferenced and curated, are as robust a source of data as a spreadsheet or shapefile, both of which are the traditional coins of the realm here at FracTracker.
West Central Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines
August 2, 2017
It was nearly a year ago today that I met Bloomer, Wisconsin dairy farmer Ken Schmitt at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (KEAU) and soon thereafter jumped into Tim Jacobson’s Cessna 172 to get a bird’s-eye-view of the region’s many frac sand mines and their impacts (Figure 1). These sites are spread out over a 12-county region known as West Central Wisconsin (WCW). Ken hadn’t been up to see these mines since October of 2016 and was eager to see how they had “progressed,” knowing what he did about their impact on his neck of the woods in northern Chippewa County.
Ken is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, and – befitting a dairy farmer – he is also one of the most conservative and analytical folks I’ve ever met. However, that morning it was clear that his patience with county administrators and the frac sand mining industry had long since run out. He was tired of broken promises, their clear and ubiquitous bullying tactics, and a general sense that his livelihood and the farm he was hoping to leave his kids were at risk due to sand mining’s complete capture of WCW’s residents and administrators.
Meanwhile Mr. Jacobson Esq. was intimately familiar with some of the legal tools residents were using to fight the spread of sand mining in the WCW. This is something he referred to as “anticipatory nuisance” lawsuits, which he and his colleagues were pursuing on behalf of several landowners against OmniTrax’s (f/k/a Terracor) “sand mine, wet and dry processing, a conveyor system to a rail load out with manifest yard” proposal in Jackson County, Wisconsin. I, too, have worked with Tim to inform some of his legal work with respect to the nuisance stories and incidents I’ve documented in my travels, as well as research into the effects of sand mining across Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Explore details from our sand mining tour by clicking on the images below:
Our flight lasted nearly 2.5 hours and stretched out over 4,522 square miles. It included nearly 20 sand mines – and related infrastructure – in the counties of Jackson, Wood, Clark, Eau Claire, Monroe, Trempealeau, and Buffalo. What we saw was a sizeable expansion of the mining complex in the region since the last time I flew the area – nearly four years earlier on October 8, 2013. The number and size of mines that had popped up since that trip were far greater than any of us had expected.
This expansion paralleled the relative – and total –increase in demand for “proppant” from the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) all across the country (Figure 2).
West Virginia Panhandle & Southeastern Ohio
January 26, 2018
On the morning of January 26th, I woke up on the west side of Cleveland thinking there was very little chance we were going to get up in the air for our flight with SouthWings’ pilot Dave Warner due to inclement weather. There was a part of me that was optimistic, however, so I decided to make the three hour drive down to the Marshall County Airport (KMPG) in Moundsville, West Virginia from Cleveland in the hopes that the “cold rain and snow” we’d been receiving was purely lake effect stuff and the West Virginia panhandle had not been in the path of the same cold front.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Moundsville airport I was wrong, and the runway was pretty slick around 8:00 a.m. However, the airport’s staff worked diligently to de-ice and plow the runway and by the time Dave Warner arrived from southern West Virginia conditions were ideal. The goal of this flight was two-fold:
- Photograph some of the large-scale high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) infrastructure in the West Virginia counties of Doddridge, Wetzel, and Marshall owned and operated by MarkWest, and
- Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant was doing a story on natural gas gathering pipeline’s impact on waterways, and more specifically the Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). She was looking to see the impacted landscape from the air.
Both of these goals were achieved efficiently and safely, with the resulting Allegheny Front piece receiving significant interest across multiple public radio and television platforms including PRI’s Living On Earth.
Explore details from our WV / OH tour by clicking on the images below:
On my return drive home that afternoon the one new thing that really resonated with me was the fact that hydraulic fracturing or fracking has come to be defined by 4-5 acre well pads across Appalachian, Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. This is a myth, however, expertly perpetuated by the oil and gas industry and their talking shops. Fracking’s extreme volatility and quick declines in rates of return necessitate that this latest fossil fuel iteration install large pieces of infrastructure like compressor stations and cracking facilities. This all is to ensure timely movement of product from supply to demand and to optimize the “value added” products the global markets demand and plastics industry uses as their primary feedstocks. This large infrastructure was never mentioned at the outset of the shale revolution, and I would imagine if it had been there would be far more resistance.
The one old thing the trip reinforced was the omnipresence and sinuosity of natural gas gathering lines across extremely steep and forested Appalachian geographies. How these pipelines will hold up and what their hasty construction is doing to terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, not to mention humanity, is anyone’s guess; the data is just so darn bad.
March 5, 2018 – aka, The XTO Powhatan Point Well Pad Explosion Flight
Around 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 15, 2018, an explosion occurred at XTO’s Schnegg frack pad “as the company worked to frack a fourth well” in Powhatan Point, Belmont County, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) around the incident’s location. The TFR was supposed to lapse during the afternoon of March 5, however, due to complications at the site the TFR was extended to the evening of March 8.
We were antsy to see what we could see, so we caught an emergency flight with Dave Warner, only this time under the LightHawk umbrella. We left on the morning of March 5th out of the all too familiar Carroll County-Tolson Airport (KTSO). Although we couldn’t get close to the site, there was a holler valley to the northwest of the pad that allowed us to capture a photo of the ongoing releases. Additionally, within several weeks we obtained by FOIA the raw Ohio State Trooper monitoring footage from their helicopter and posted this footage to our YouTube channel, where it has received 4,787 views since March 19, 2018. This type of web traffic is atypical for anything that doesn’t include kittens, the Kardashians, or the Kardashians’ kittens.
Explore details from our Southeastern Ohio tour by clicking on the images below:
Much like our flight in January the most salient points I got out of Dave’s plane thinking about were:
- Astonishment regarding the number of gas gathering lines and the fact that they seem to have been installed with very little-to-no reclamation forethought. They are also installed during a time of year when – even if hydroseed is applied – it won’t grow, leaving plenty of chances for predictable spring rains to cause major problems for streams and creeks, and
- Amazement over the growing inventory of large processing infrastructure required by the HVHF industry. This insfrastructure includes the large Mark West and Blue Racer Midstream processing plants in Cadiz and Lewisville, Ohio, respectively, as well as Texas-based Momentum Midstream’s natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio along the Carroll and Harrison County borders. That complex is affectionately referred to by the company’s own spokesman as The Beast because of its sheer size.
It is a big plant, a very big plant and far bigger than other plants around here… What’s really amazing that we got it up and running in six months. No one believed that we could do that. – Momentum Midstream spokesman Eric Mize discussing their natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio, Ohio.
LaSalle County, Illinois
May 24 & 26, 2018
Frac Sand Mines and The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands Buffalo Herd, Franklin Grove, Illinois
It was during the week of June 20, 2016 that I first visited the frac sand mine capital of the United States: LaSalle County, Illinois. Here is the land of giant silica sand mines owned by even larger multinationals like U.S. Silica, Unimin, and Fairmount Santrol.
Fast forward to the week of May 21st of this year, and I was back in the frac sand capital to interview several folks that live near these mines or have been advocating for a more responsible industry. I conducted a “morning flight” with several journalists and county officials from neighboring Ottawa County.
LaSalle County is an extremely interesting case study for anyone even remotely interested in the food, energy, and water (FEW) conversation that has begun to receive significant attention in the age of the “Shale Revolution.” (Such focus is largely thanks to the extreme amounts of water required during the fracking process.) While LaSalle County has never experienced even a single HVHF permit, it is home to much of the prized silica or “proppant” the HVHF industry prizes. La Salle receives this recognition due to its location above one of the finest sources of silica sand: the St. Peter Sandstone formation. This situation has prompted a significant expansion in the permitting of new silica sand mines and expansion of existing mines throughout the county – from small townships like North Utica and Oglesby to Troy Grove 7 miles north on East 8th Road.
Meanwhile, LaSalle County is home to some of the most productive soils in the United States, due largely to the carbon sequestration capabilities of the tallgrass prairies that once dominated the region. In any given year, the county ranks in the top 5 nationally based on the amount of soybean and corn produced on a per-acre basis. According to an analysis of the most recent USDA agricultural census, total agricultural value in LaSalle County exceeds $175 million or seven times the national average by county of roughly $23 million.
Needless to say, the short-term extraction of silica sands in the name of “energy independence” stands to have a profound impact on long-term “food security” in the U.S. and worldwide. Sadly, this conflict is similar to the one facing the aforementioned West Central Wisconsin, home to similarly productive soils. The cows that feed on the forage those soils produce some of the highest quality dairy anywhere. (As an aside: both regions are facing the realities of their disproportionate support for Donald Trump and the effects his trade war will have on their economies.)
LaSalle County is also home to the 2,630-acre Starved Rock State Park along the south bank of the Illinois River. Much of the park’s infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) back in the early 1900s. Starved Rock is home to 18 canyons featuring:
… vertical walls of moss-covered stone formed by glacial meltwater that slice dramatically through tree-covered sandstone bluffs. More than 13 miles of trails allow access to waterfalls, fed season runoff or natural springs, sandstone overhangs, and spectacular overlooks. Lush vegetation supports abundant wildlife, while oak, cedar and pine grow on drier, sandy bluff tops. – IL DNR
Starved Rock receives more than 2.5 million visitors annually, which is the most of any Illinois state park. However, it is completely surrounded by existing or proposed frac sand mines, including US Silica’s Covel Creek mine. US Silica even recently pitched an expansion to the doorstep of Starved Rock and future plans to nearly engulf the park’s perimeter. What such an expansion would do to the attractiveness of the park and its trickle down economic impact is debatable, but LaSalle County residents Paul Wheeler and photographer Michelle McCray took a stab at illustrating the value of the state park to residents for our audience back in August, 2016:
Our flight with LightHawk pilot and neighboring Mazon, Illinois retired farmer Doug Harford lifted off from Illinois Valley Regional Airport (KVYS) at around 9:00 a.m. local time on the morning of May 24th. We had perfect conditions for taking photos, with no clouds and a comfortable 70-75°F for the duration of a two-hour flight. We covered nearly 200 square miles and ten existing, abandoned, or permitted frac sand mines.
Explore details from our Illinois tour by clicking on the images below:
All passengers were struck by how large these mines were and how much several of the mines had expanded since the last time we all flew over them in June of 2016. The mines that had experienced the greatest rates of expansion were US Silica’s LaSalle Voss mine along Interstate 80 and the aforementioned Illinois River mine along with Fairmount Mineral’s major expansion, both in terms of infrastructure and actual mine footprint, in Wedron along the Fox River.
Most of this expansion is due to three critical distinguishing characteristics about the industry in LaSalle County:
- The processing and export infrastructure (i.e., east-west rail) is in place and allows for mining to take place at times when other sand mining regions are mothballed,
- Due to the large aggregation of parcels for farming purposes, companies can lease or outright purchase large amounts of land from relatively few landowners, and
- Only the largest firms are active in the region, and with economies of scale they are not subject to the same types of shocks that smaller firms are when the price of oil collapses (like it did between June 2015 and February 2016). This means that the conflict will only be amplified in the coming months and years as the frac sand mining industry looks to supersede agriculture as LaSalle County’s primary economic driver.
However, all is not lost in North Central Illinois. This hope was stoked during our sojourn – and my subsequent trip in person – up to see The Nature Conservancy’s 3,600 acre preserve in Franklin Grove on the border of Lee and Ogle counties. As someone who is working hard to establish a small plot of prairie grasses and associated wildflowers at my home outside Cleveland, I was hoping to see what an established prairie looks like from the air. My primary goal, however, was to see what a healthy herd of native bison looks like. The Nachusa bison are unique in that they came:
… from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and…Unlike most other American bison, animals from the Wind Cave herd have no history of cross-breeding with cattle. Bison from Wind Cave are the species’ most genetically pure and diverse specimens.
We were fortunate during our flight to have spotted the heard at the western edge of the preserve in what volunteer naturalist, Betty Higby, later told me the staff calls Oak Island. While I am not a person of faith, seeing these behemoths roaming freely and doing what 20-30 million of their ancestors used to do across much of North America moved me in a way I was not prepared for. I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of awe and humility. How was I going to explain this beast’s former ubiquity and current novelty to my 5-year-old son, who shares a love of the North American Bison with me and would most certainly ask me what happened to this majestic creature?
Medina & Stark counties, Ohio NEXUS Pipeline flight
June 25, 2018
Ohio is currently home to 2,840 fracking permits, with 2,370 of these laterals having been drilled since September 2010. The growing concern around the fracking and petrochemicals conversation across much of the Midwest is the increasing number of FERC-permitted natural gas pipeline “proposals” the industry is demanding it needs to maximize potential. Most residents in the path of these pipelines have strong objections to such development, citing the fact that imminent domain should not be invoked for corporate gain.
Much like all of the other patterns and processes we’ve documented and/or photographed at FracTracker, we felt that a flight over the latest FERC-approved pipeline – The NEXUS pipeline – would give us a better understanding of how this critical piece of infrastructure has altered the landscapes of Medina and Stark counties. Given the population density of these two northeastern Ohio counties, we also wanted to document the pipeline’s pathway with respect to urban and suburban centers.
Our flight on June 25th was delayed due to low clouds and last minute changes to the flight plan, but once we took off from Wadsworth Municipal Airport (3G3) with a local flight instructor it was clear that NEXUS is a pipeline that navigates a sinuous path in cities and townships like Green, Medina, Rittman, and Seville – coming dangerously close to thousands of homes and farms, as well as many schools and medical facilities.
Explore details from our NEXUS Pipeline tour by clicking on the images below:
Will this be the last FERC-approved pipeline to transverse Ohio in the name of “energy independence”? Will this pipeline and its brethren with names like the Utopia and ET Rover be monitored in real-time? If not, why? It is unfortunate, to say the least, that we so flippantly assume these pipelines are innocuous given their proximity to so many Ohioans. And, as if to add insult to injury, imminent domain is invoked. All this for a piece of oil and gas infrastructure that will profit companies on the global market, with only a fraction of the revenue returning to affected communities.
I don’t know of a better way to understand the magnitude of these pipelines than flying over them at 1,000-1,500 feet, and I will continue to monitor and photograph oil and gas developments from the air with the assistance of amazing pilots like those affiliated with LightHawk and SouthWings.
To this end, I will be returning to West Central Wisconsin for yet another “morning flight” with the aforementioned La Crosse-area pilot and lawyer Tim Jacobson and frequent collaborator University of Wisconsin-Stout professor Tom Pearson. Our flight plan will return us to the northern Wisconsin frac sand counties of Chippewa, Barron, Dunn, Eau Claire, and if we have time we’ll revisit the mines we photographed in August of last year. We’ve been told by Susan Bence, an environmental reporter out of Milwaukee Public Radio, that she is trying to convince the powers that be at NPR in Washington, DC that this is a story the entire country should hear about. Wish us luck!
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator
- The first of my morning fracking flights was out of this airport back in June, 2012 along with the other passenger on this flight Paul Feezel of Carroll Concerned Citizens and David Beach of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Green City Blue Lakes program.
- The Conservancy initially brought at least 30 bison of different ages and genders to Nachusa. The bison graze on approximately 1,500 acres of the prairie and the site currently supports more than 120 bison according to site volunteer naturalist Betty Higby.
- I put quotes around this word because in my travels across Ohio interviewing those in the path of these transmission pipelines it is clear that this is not the correct word because ‘proposals’ implies that these pipelines might not happen or are up for debate. Yet, neither could be further from the truth with most folks indicating that it was very clear very early in their interactions with FERC and the pipeline companies that there was never a chance that these pipelines were not going to happen with “imminent domain for private gain” being the common thread throughout my conversations.
- Tom is the author of a recently published book on the topic “When the Hills Are Gone.”
- Aubry R. Letter to LaSalle County Board regarding “Blank Check Legislation” relative to frac sand mining across the county (PDF).
- Aubry R. Feb 26, 2018. Letter to LaSalle County Board regarding Fairmount Santrol’s Wedron frac sand mine expansion proposal (PDF).
- Giuliani D. Mar 15, 2018. County Board gets little zoning info (PDF). Ottawa Times (regarding Fairmount Santrol’s Wedron frac sand mine).
- Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). 2017. Monthly State Park Attendance for 2016 (PDF).
- Research Department of the U.S. Travel Association. 2017. The Economic Impact of Travel on Illinois Counties 2016 (PDF). Study prepared for the Illinois Bureau of Tourism.