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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

Leaking tank in Arvin

Arvin, CA Setback Ordinance Passes Unanimously!

The small city of Arvin, CA has succeeded in taking a brave step forward to protect the public health of its community.

On July 17, 2018 the Arvin City Council voted 3-0 (two members were absent) in support of a setback ordinance. This is the first California oil and gas ordinance that has an actual effect, as it is the first in a region where drilling and fracking are actively occurring. The Arvin, CA setback ordinance prevents wells from being drilled in residential or commercially-zoned spaces. Also, setback distances of 300 feet for new development and 600 feet for new drilling operations have been established for sensitive sites, such as parks, hospitals, and schools.

(To see where other local actions have been taken in California, check out our coverage of local actions and map, which was recently updated.)

More details and maps of the setback ordinance and its development can be found in the initial FracTracker coverage of the proposal, below:

The measure was supported by Arvin Mayor Jose Gurrola. He described the front-lines experience of Arvin citizens:

The road to the update has been difficult for this community. Eight Arvin families were evacuated after a toxic gas leak from an underground oilfield production pipeline located near their homes in 2014. Some have now been re-occupied by concerned residents with no other options; other homes still stand empty. Meanwhile, a short distance away an older pump jack labors day and night next to homes pumping oil mixed with water to a nearby tank. Despite multiple complaints to state agencies of odors and noise by the residents, they are told by the agencies that there is nothing that can be done under the current regulations. The pump jack continues to creak along as children walk nearby on their way to school, covering their faces as the smell occasionally drifts their direction. – Jose Gurrola, Mayor of the City of Arvin

Fugitive Emissions Monitoring

In anticipation of the city council’s vote, FracTracker collaborated with Earthworks and the grassroots organization Central California Environmental Justice Network to visit the urban well sites within the city limits. Using Infrared FLIR technology, the sites were assessed for fugitive emissions and leaks. Visualizing emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at these sites provides a glimpse to what the community living near these wells are continually exposed. The infrared cameras used in these videos are calibrated to the wavelengths of the infrared spectrum where VOC hydrocarbons of interest are visible.

The map below shows the locations that were visited, as indicated by the three stars. Videos of each site are shown below the map.

Map 1. Arvin Setback Ordinance and FLIR Videos

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

FLIR Videos and Findings

Sun Mountain Simpson-1 Lease

In this FLIR video of Sun Mountain Simpson-1, fugitive emissions are obvious. The emissions are coming from the PV vent at the top of the produced water tank. These emissions are a mixture of a variety of volatile organic compounds, such as BTEX compounds and methane. This well site is located between homes, a small apartment complex, and a playground. While on the ground operating the FLIR camera I felt light headed, dizzy, and developed a headache. The emissions were reported to the San Joaquin Valley Air District (SJVAD), who sampled and found VOC concentrations at dangerous levels. The well operator was notified but refused to respond. Unfortunately, because this particular well produces under 50 barrels of oil/day, the site is exempt from any health related emissions regulations.

Sun Mountain Jewett 1-23 Lease

This well site is located near a number of single family homes and next two a park. The well site is also on the future location of the Arvin Community College. The FLIR video below is particularly interesting because it shows fugitive emissions from four different locations. The leaks include one at the well head that is potentially underground, one on separator equipment, and leaks from each of the tank PV hatches. When regulators were notified, they visited the site and fixed two of the leaks immediately. Fugitive emissions from the PV hatches were not addressed because this site is also exempt from regulations.

ABA Energy Corporation Richards Facility Tank Farm

The Richards Facility Tank Farm is a well site located outside the city limits on farmland. The facility is regulated as a point source of air pollution, therefore enforcement action can require the operator to fix leaks even from PV hatches on tanks. This FLIR video shows leaks from PV hatches, and a major leak from a broken regulator valve. A complaint was submitted to the SJVAD, and the operator was required to replace the broken regulator valve.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator

Feature Image: Leaking tank at the Simpson 1 well site, Photo by Kyle Ferrar | FracTracker Alliance, 2018.

Photo courtesy of Claycord.com

Tracking Refinery Emissions in California’s Bay Area Refinery Corridor

Air quality in the California Bay Area has been steadily improving over the last decade, and the trend can even be seen over just the course of the last few years. In this article we explore data from the ambient air quality monitoring networks in the Bay Area, including a look at refinery emissions.

From the data and air quality reports we find that that many criteria pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and oxides of nitrogen (NOX) have decreased dramatically, and areas that were degraded are now in compliance.

While air pollution from certain sectors such as transportation have been decreasing, the north coast of the East Bay region is home to a variety of petrochemical industry sites. This includes five petroleum refineries. The refineries not only contribute to these criteria pollutants, but also emit a unique cocktail of toxic and carcinogenic compounds that are not monitored and continue to impact cardiovascular health in the region. This region, aptly named the “refinery corridor” has a petroleum refining capacity of roughly 800,000 BPD (barrels per day) of crude oil.

Petroleum refineries in California’s East Bay have always been a contentious issue, and several of the refineries date back to almost the turn of the 20th century. The refineries have continuously increased their capacities and abilities to refine dirtier crude oil through “modernization projects.” As a result, air quality and health impacts became such a concern that in 2006 and again in 2012, Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party candidate, was elected as Mayor of the City of Richmond. Richmond, CA became the largest city in the U.S. with a Green Party Mayor. While there have been many strides in the recent decade to clean up these major sources of air pollution, health impacts in the region including cardiovascular disease and asthma, as well as cancer rates, are still disproportionately high.

Regulations

To give additional background on this issue, let’s discuss some the regulations tasked with protecting people and the environment in California, as well as climate change targets.

New proposals for meeting California’s progressive carbon emissions standards were proposed in January of 2017. A vote to decide on the plan to meet the aggressive new climate target and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% across all sectors of the economy will happen this month, May 2017! Over the last ten years the refineries have invested in modernization projects costing more than $2 billion to reduce emissions.

However – a current proposal will actually allow the refineries to process more crude oil by setting a standard for emissions by volume of crude/petroleum refined, rather than an actual cap on emissions. The current regulatory approach focuses on “source-by-source” regulations of individual equipment, which ignores the overall picture of what’s spewing into nearby communities and the atmosphere. Even the state air resources board has supported a move to block the refineries from accepting more heavy crude from the Canadian tar sands.

New regulatory proposals incentivize refineries to continue expanding operations to refine more oil, resulting in a larger burden on the health of these already disproportionately impacted environmental justice communities. Chevron, in particular, is upgrading their Richmond refinery in a way as to allow it to process dirtier crude in larger volumes from the Monterey Shale and Canada’s Tar Sands. Since the production volumes of lighter crudes are shrinking, heavier dirtier crudes are becoming a larger part of the refinerys’ feedstocks. Heavier crudes require more energy to refine and result in larger amounts of hazardous emissions.

Upgrades are also being implemented to address greenhouse gas emissions. While the upgrades address the carbon emissions, regulatory standards without strict caps for other pollutants will allow emissions of criteria and toxic air pollutants such as VOC’s, nitrosamines, heavy metals, etc… to increase. In fact, newly proposed emissions standards for refineries will make it easier for the refineries to increase their crude oil volumes by regulating emissions on per-barrel standards. Current refining volumes can be seen below in Table 1, along with their maximum capacity.

Table 1. Bay Area refineries average oil processed and total capacity

Refinery Location Ave. oil processed
Barrels Per Day (2012 est.)
Max. capacity (BPD)
Chevron U.S.A. Inc. Richmond Refinery Richmond 245,271 >350,000
Tesoro Refining & Marketing, Golden Eagle Refinery Martinez 166,000 166,000
Shell Oil Products US, Martinez Refinery Martinez 156,400 158,000
Valero Benicia Refinery Benicia 132,000 150,000
Phillips 66, Rodeo San Francisco Refinery Rodeo 78,400 100,000

Source: California Energy Commission. One barrel of oil = 42 U.S. gallons.

Environmental Health Inequity

The Bay Area, and in particular the city of Richmond, have been noted in the literature as a place where environmental racism and environmental health disparity exist. The city’s residents of color disproportionately live near the refineries and chemical plants, which is noted in early works on environmental racism by pioneers of the idea, such as Robert Bullard (Bullard 1993a,b).

Since the issue has been brought to national attention by environmental justice groups like West County Toxics Coalition, progress has been made to try to bring justice, but it has been limited. People of color are still disproportionately exposed to toxic, industrial pollution in that area. A recent study showed 93% of respondents in Richmond were concerned about the link between pollution and health, and 81% were concerned about a specific polluter, mainly the Chevron Refinery (Brody et al. 2012). Recent health reports continue to show the trend that these refinery communities suffer disproportionately from cases of asthma and cardiovascular disease and higher mortality rates from a variety of cancers.

Health Impact Studies

Manufacturing and refining are known to produce particularly toxic pollution. Additionally, there has been research done on the specific makeup of pollution in the refinery corridor. The best study to do this is the Northern California Household Exposure Study (Brody et al. 2009). They examined indoor and outdoor air in Richmond, a refinery corridor community, and Bolinas, a nearby but far more rural community. They found 33% more compounds in Richmond, along with higher concentrations of each compound. The study also found very high concentrations of vanadium and nickel in Richmond, some of the highest levels in the state. Vanadium and nickel have been shown to be some of the most dangerous PM2.5 components as we previously stated, which gives reason to believe the air pollution in Richmond is more toxic than in surrounding areas.

Another very similar study compared the levels of endocrine disrupting compounds in Richmond and Bolinas homes, and found 40 in Richmond homes and only 10 in Bolinas (Rudel et al. 2010). This supports the idea that a large variety of pollutants with synergistic effects may be contributing to the increased mortality and hospital visits for communities in this region. This small body of research on pollution in Richmond suggests that the composition of air pollution may be more toxic and thus trigger more pollution-related adverse health outcomes than in surrounding communities.

Air Quality Monitoring

As discussed above and in FracTracker’s previous reports on the refinery corridor, the refinery emissions are a unique cocktail whose synergistic effects may be driving much of the cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer risk in the region. Therefore, the risk drivers in the Bay Area need to be prioritized, in particular the compounds of interest emitted by the petrochemical facilities.

The targets for emissions monitoring are compounds associated with the highest risk in the neighboring communities. An expert panel was convened in 2013 to develop plans for a monitoring network in the refinery corridor. Experts found that measurements should be collected at 5 minute intervals and displayed to the public real-time. The gradient of ambient air concentrations is determined by the distance from refinery, so a network of three near-fence-line monitors was recommended. Major drivers of risk are supposed to be identified by air quality monitoring conducted as a part of Air District Regulation 12m Rule 15: Petroleum Refining Emissions tracking. According to the rule, fence-line monitoring plans by refinery operators:

… must measure benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes (BTEX) and HS concentrations at refinery fence-lines with open path technology capable of measuring in the parts per billion range regardless of path length. Open path measurement of SO2, alkanes or other organic compound indicators, 1, 3-butadiene, and ammonia concentrations are to be considered in the Air Monitoring Plan.

The following analysis found that the majority of hazardous pollutants emitted from refineries are not monitored downwind of the facility fence-lines, much less the list explicitly named in the regulations above.

As shown below in Figure 1, the most impacted communities are in those directly downwind of the facility. According to the BAAQMD, each petroleum refinery is supposed to have fence-line monitoring. Despite this regulation developed by air quality and health experts, only two out of the five refineries have even one fence-line monitor. Real-time air monitoring data at the Chevron Richmond fence-line monitor and the Phillips 66 Rodeo fence-line monitor can be found on fenceline.org. Data from these monitors are also aggregated by the U.S. EPA, and along with the other local monitors, can be viewed on the EPA’s interactive mapping platform.

Figure 1. Map of Hydrogen Sulfide Emissions from the Richmond Chevron Refinery
Refinery emissions - H2S gradient

Hazardous Emissions and Ambient Pollution

Since the majority of hazardous chemicals emitted from the refineries are not measured at monitoring sites, or there are not any monitoring sites at the fence-line or downwind of the facility, our mapping exercises instead focus on the hazardous air pollution for which there is data.

As shown in the map of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) above, the communities immediately neighboring the refineries are subjected to the majority of hazardous emissions. The map shows the rapidly decreasing concentration gradient as you get away from the facility. H2S would have been a good signature of refinery emissions throughout the region if there were more than three monitors. Also, those monitors only existed until 2013, when they were replaced with a singular monitor in a much better location, as shown on the map. The 2016 max value is much higher because it is more directly downwind of Chevron Refinery.

The interpolated map layer was created using 2013 monitoring data from three monitors that have since been removed. The 2016 monitoring location is in a different location and has a maximum value more than twice what was recorded at the 2013 location.

Table 2. Inventory of criteria pollutant emissions for the largest sectors in the Bay Area

Annual average tons per day
PM10 PM2.5 ROG NOX SOX CO
Area wide 175.51 52.90 87.95 19.92 0.62 161.86
Mobile 20.33 16.27 183.12 380.52 14.93 1541.50
Total Emissions 16.30 12.14 106.58 50.59 45.95 44.31

Table adapted from the BAAQMD Refinery Report. PM10 = particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter  (about the width of a human hair); PM2.5 = PM less than 2.5 microns in diameter; ROG = reactive organic gases; NOX = nitrogen oxides; SOX = sulfur oxides; CO = carbon monoxide.

Additionally, exposure assessment can also rely on using surrogate emissions to understand where the plumes from the refineries are interacting with the surrounding communities. It is particularly important to also discriminate between different sources of pollution. As we see in Table 2 above, the largest volume of particulate matter (PM), NOX, and CO emissions actually come from mobile sources, whereas the largest source of sulfur dioxide and other oxides (SOX) is from stationary sources. Since the relationship between PM2.5 and health outcomes is most established, the response to ambient levels of PM2.5 in the refinery corridor gives insight into the composition of PM as well as the presence of other species of hazardous air pollution. On the other hand, SO2 can be used as a surrogate for the footprint of un-monitored air toxics.

Pollutants’ Fingerprints

Particulate Matter

Figure 2. Map of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 2 above displays ambient levels of PM2.5, and as the map shows, the highest levels of particulate matter surround the larger metro area of downtown Oakland and also track with the larger commuting corridors. The map shows evidence that the largest contributor to PM2.5 is truly the transportation (mobile) sector. PM2.5 is one hazardous air pollutant which negatively impacts health, causing heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), among other conditions. PM2.5 is particulate matter pollution, meaning small particles suspended in the air, specifically particles under 2.5 microns in diameter. Exposure to high levels of PM2.5 increases the risk of MI within hours and for the next 1-2 days (Brooks et al. 2004; Poloniecki et al. 1997).While refineries may not be the largest source of PM in the Bay Area, they are still large point sources that contribute to high local conditions of smog.

The chemical make-up of the particulate matter also needs to be considered. In addition, the toxicity of PM from the refineries is of particular concern. Since particulate matter acts like small carbon sponges, the source of PM affects its toxicity. The cocktail of hazardous air toxics emitted by refineries absorb and adsorb to the surfaces of PM. When inhaled with PM, these toxics including heavy metals and carcinogens are delivered deep into lung tissue.

Pooled results of many studies showed that for every 10 micrograms per meter cubed increase in PM2.5 levels, the risk of MI increases 0.4-1% (Brooks et al. 2010).  However, this relationship has not been studied in the context of EJ communities. EJ communities are generally low income communities of color (Bullard 1993), which have higher exposures to pollution, more sources of stress, and higher biological markers of stress (Szanton et al. 2010; Carlson and Chamberlein 2005). All of these factors may affect the relationship between PM2.5 and MI, and increase the health impact of pollution in EJ communities relative to what has been found in the literature.

Sulfur Dioxide

Figure 3 below shows the fingerprint of the refinery emissions on the refinery corridor, using SO2 emissions as a surrogate for the cocktail of toxic emissions. The relationship between SOand health endpoints of cardiovascular disease and asthma have also been established in the literature (Kaldor et al. 1984).

In addition to assessing SO2 as a direct health stressor, it is also the most effective tracer of industrial emissions and specifically petroleum refineries for a number of reasons. Petroleum refineries are the largest source of SO2 in the BAAQMD by far (Table 1), and there are more monitors for SO2 than any of the other emitted chemical species that can be used to fingerprint the refineries. The distribution of SO2 is therefore representative of the cocktail of a combination of the hazardous chemicals released in refinery emissions.

Figure 3. Map of Sulfur Dioxide for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Further Research

The next step for FracTracker Alliance is to further explore the relationship between health effects in the refinery communities and ambient levels of air pollution emitted by the refineries. Our staff is currently working with the California Department of Public Health to analyze the response of daily emergency room discharges for a variety of health impacts including cardiovascular disease and asthma.

References

Brody, J. G., R. Morello-Frosch, A. Zota, P. Brown, C. Pérez, and R. A. Rudel. 2009. Linking Exposure Assessment Science With Policy Objectives for Environmental Justice and Breast Cancer Advocacy: The Northern California Household Exposure Study. American Journal of Public Health 99:S600–S609.

Brook, R. D., B. Franklin, W. Cascio, Y. Hong, G. Howard, M. Lipsett, R. Luepker, M. Mittleman, J. Samet, S. C. Smith, and I. Tager. 2004. Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 109:2655–2671.

Brooks, R. D., S. Rajagopalan, C. A. Pope, J. R. Brook, A. Bhatnagar, A. V. Diez-Roux, F. Holguin, Y. Hong, R. V. Luepker, M. A. Mittleman, A. Peters, D. Siscovick, S. C. Smith, L. Whitsel, and J. D. Kaufman. 2010. Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 121:2331–2378.

Bullard, R. D. 1993a. Race and Environmental Justice in the United States Symposium: Earth Rights and Responsibilities: Human Rights and Environmental Protection. Yale Journal of International Law 18:319–336.

Bullard, R. D. 1993b. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. South End Press.

Carlson, E.D. and Chamberlain, R.M. (2005), Allostatic load and health disparities: A theoretical orientation. Res. Nurs. Health, 28: 306–315. doi:10.1002/nur.20084

Kaldor, J., J. A. Harris, E. Glazer, S. Glaser, R. Neutra, R. Mayberry, V. Nelson, L. Robinson, and D. Reed. 1984. Statistical association between cancer incidence and major-cause mortality, and estimated residential exposure to air emissions from petroleum and chemical plants. Environmental Health Perspectives 54:319–332.

Poloniecki, J. D., R. W. Atkinson, A. P. de Leon, and H. R. Anderson. 1997. Daily Time Series for Cardiovascular Hospital Admissions and Previous Day’s Air Pollution in London, UK. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 54:535–540.

Rudel, R. A., R. E. Dodson, L. J. Perovich, R. Morello-Frosch, D. E. Camann, M. M. Zuniga, A. Y. Yau, A. C. Just, and J. G. Brody. 2010. Semivolatile Endocrine-Disrupting Compounds in Paired Indoor and Outdoor Air in Two Northern California Communities. Environmental Science & Technology 44:6583–6590.

Szanton SL, Thorpe RJ, Whitfield KE. Life-course Financial Strain and Health in African-Americans. Social science & medicine (1982). 2010;71(2):259-265. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.04.001.


By Daniel Menza, Data & GIS Intern, and Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo credit: Claycord.com

Air emissions from drilling rig

A Review of Oil and Gas Emissions Data in Pennsylvania

By Wendy Fan, 2016 Intern, FracTracker Alliance

From 2011-2013, the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) required air emission data to be conducted and reported by oil and gas drillers in Pennsylvania. We have tried to look at this data in aggregate to give you a sense of the types and quantities of different pollutants. Corresponding to their degree of oil and gas drilling activity, Washington, Susquehanna, Bradford, Greene, and Lycoming counties are the highest emitters of overall pollutants between the specified years. Despite the department’s attempt to increase transparency, the data submitted by the operators severely underestimates the actual amount of pollutants released, especially with regard to methane emissions. Furthermore, gaps such as inconsistent monitoring systems, missing data, and a lack of a verification process of the self-reported data weaken the integrity and reliability of the submitted data. This article explores the data submitted and its implications in further detail.

Why Emissions Are Reported

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that U.S. natural gas production will increase from 23 trillion cubic feet in 2011 to over 33 trillion cubic feet in 2040. Pennsylvania, in particular, is one of the states with the highest amount of drilling activity at present. This statistic can be attributed to resource-rich geologic formations such as the Marcellus Shale, which extends throughout much of Appalachia. While New York has banned drilling using high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking), Pennsylvania continues to expand its operations with 9,775 active unconventional wells as of June 10, 2016.

Between 2000-2016, drillers in Pennsylvania incurred 5,773 violations and $47.2 million in fines. The PA DEP, which oversees drilling permits and citations, has undergone criticism for their lack of action with complaints related to oil and gas drilling, as well as poor communication to the public*. In order to increase transparency and to monitor air emissions from wells, the DEP now requires unconventional natural gas operators to submit air emission data each year. The data submitted by operators are intended to be publicly accessible and downloadable by county, emission, or well operator.

* Interestingly, PA scored the highest when we rated states on a variety of data transparency metrics in a study published in 2015.

Importance of Data Collected

PA’s continual growth in oil and gas drilling activity is concerning for the environment and public health. Pollutants such as methane, carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrous oxides (NOx) are all major contributors to climate change, and these are among the more common emissions found near oil and gas activities. Long-term exposure to benzene, also commonly associated with drilling sites, can result in harmful effects on the bone marrow and the decrease in red blood cells. Vomiting, convulsions, dizziness, and even death can occur within minutes to several hours with high levels of benzene.

With such risks, it is crucial for residents to understand how many wells are within their vicinity, and the levels of these pollutants emitted.

Air Monitoring Data Findings & Gaps

Although the DEP collects emission data on other important pollutants such as sulfur oxides (SOx), particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), and toluene, this article focuses only on a few select pollutants that have shown the highest emission levels from natural gas activity. The following graphs illustrate emissions of methane, carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), benzene, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for the top 10 counties with the highest amounts of natural gas activity. PA wells drilled data (often called SPUD data) will also be referenced throughout the article. Data source: PA SPUD Data.

CMC

PA DEP’s Calculation Methods Codes for Emissions

Well operators self-report an estimate of total emissions in tons per year through either an online or paper reporting system. They must also indicate the method they used to generate this estimate with the Calculation Methods Codes for Emissions (table shown right).

For more information on how the data is prepared and what are the reporting requirements, refer to PA DEP’s Instruction for Completing the Annual Emissions Statement Reporting Forms

Total Amount of Unconventional Wells 2000-2016

AmountofWells

Figure 1

Overall, Washington, Susquehanna, Bradford, Greene, and Lycoming counties were the main emitters of all selected pollutants (methane, CO2, CO, NOx, VOCs, and benzene) throughout Pennsylvania based on tons per year (Fig 1). This trend may be correlated to the amount of natural gas activity that exists within each state as shown in the graph above. The top three Pennsylvania counties with the highest amount of oil and gas activity since 2000 are Washington, Susquehanna, and Bradford with 1,347; 1,187; and 1,091 unconventional active wells, respectively.

Methane Emissions

PA_Methane

Figure 2

In 2012, Susquehanna, Bradford, and Lycoming counties reported the highest amount of methane released with levels at 36,607, 23,350, and 14,648 tons, respectively (Fig 2). In 2013, Bradford, Lycoming, and Greene counties reported the highest amount of methane released with levels at 17,805, 17,265, and 15,296 tons, respectively.

Although the overall trend of methane emission declines from 2012 to 2013, there is an unusual drop in Susquehanna County’s methane emissions from 2012 to 2013. Susquehanna’s levels went from 36,607 tons to 12,269 tons in that timeframe. However, the DEP SPUD data recorded an increase of 190 active wells to 214 active wells from 2012 to 2013 in that same county. Though the well operators did not provide details for this shift, possible reasons may be because of improved methods of preventing methane leaks over the year, well equipment may be less robust as it once was, operators may have had less of a reason to monitor for leaky wells, or operators themselves could have changed.

Lackawanna and Luzerne counties reported zero tons of methane released during the year of 2012 (not shown on graph). There are two possible reasons for this: both counties did not have any unconventional wells recorded in the 2012 SPUD data, which may explain why the two counties reported zero tons for methane emissions, or the levels submitted are a significant underestimation of the actual methane level in the counties. (While there were no new wells, there are existing wells in production in those counties.)

Considering that methane is the primary component of natural gas activity, the non-existent level of methane reported seem highly implausible even with inactive wells on site. Typically, an old or inactive gas well can either be abandoned, orphaned, or plugged. By definition, abandoned wells have been inactive for more than a year, and orphaned wells were abandoned prior to 1985. (Because of this distinction, however, no unconventional wells can be considered “orphaned.”) To plug a well, cement plugs are used to cover up wellbores in order to cease all flow of gas. The act of physically plugging up the wells paints an illusion that it is no longer functioning and has ceased all emissions.

Because of this flawed impression, systematic monitoring of air emissions is often not conducted and the wells are often ignored. Several studies have shown even abandoned and plugged wells are still spewing out small and at times large quantities of methane and CO2. One study published in 2014 in particular measured 19 abandoned wells throughout Pennsylvania, and concluded that abandoned wells were significant contributors to methane emissions – contributing 4-7% of total anthropogenic (man-made) methane emissions in PA.

View methane emissions map full screen: 2012-2013

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

PA_CO2

Figure 3

In 2012, Bradford County reported 682,302 tons of CO2 emitted; Washington County reported 680,979 tons; and Susquehanna reported 560,881 tons (Fig. 3). In 2013, Washington continued to lead with 730,674 tons, Bradford at 721,274 tons, and Lycoming with 537,585 tons of COemitted.

What’s intriguing is according to SPUD data, Armstrong, Westmoreland, and Fayette also had considerable natural gas activity between the two years as shown on the map. Yet, their levels of CO2 emission are significantly lower compared to Lycoming or Susquehanna Counties. Greene County, in particular, had lower levels of CO2 reported. Yet, they had 106 active wells in 2012 and 117 in 2013. What is even more unusual is that Bradford County had 9 more wells than Greene County in 2013, yet, Greene County still had significantly higher CO2 levels reported.

Reasons for this difference may be that Greene County lacked the staff or resources to accurately monitor for CO2, the county may have forgotten to record emissions from compressor stations or other fugitive emission sources, or the method of monitoring may have differed between counties. Whatever the reason is, it is evident that the levels reported by Greene County may not actually be an accurate depiction of the true level of COemitted.

View CO2 emissions map full screen: 2012-2013

Carbon Monoxide Emissions

Spudded wells in PA with reported CO emissions by county 2011-13

Spudded wells in PA with reported CO emissions by county 2011-13

PA_CO

Figure 4

According to the PA SPUD data, the number of new wells drilled in Bradford County dropped from 389 in 2011 to 163 in 2012 to 108 to 2013. The diminishing number of newly drilled wells in this particular county may explain the noticeable outlier in CO emission as seen on the graph (Fig 4).

View CO emissions map full screen: 2011-2013

NOx and VOCs

Compressor stations are also known to emit VOC, NOx, and various greenhouse gases; they run 24/7 and serve multiple wells. Compressor stations are necessary to move the natural gas along the pipelines, and thus, may still be required to function even after some wells have ceased operation. Furthermore, there can be multiple compressor stations in a region because they are installed at intervals of about 40 to 100 miles. This suggests that in addition to drilled wells, compressor stations provide additional avenues for NOx or VOC to leak into the air.

View NOx and VOC emissions maps full screen: VOC 2011-2013 | NOx 2011-2013

Benzene Emissions

Spudded wells in PA with reported benzene emissions by county 2011-13

Spudded wells in PA with reported benzene emissions by county 2011-13

Chart of PA benzene emissions data county to county

Figure 7

The levels of benzene emitted varied the most when compared to the other pollutants presented previously. Generally, the high levels of methane, CO2, and NOx emitted correlate with the high amount of natural gas activity recorded for each county’s number of drilled unconventional wells. However, it is interesting that both Westmoreland and Fayette counties had fewer active wells than Bradford County, yet, still reported higher levels of benzene (Fig 1, Fig 7).

An explanation for this may be the different monitoring techniques, the equipment used on each site which may vary by contractor or well access, or that there are other external sources of benzene captured in the monitoring process.

View benzene emissions map full screen: 2011-2013

Questions Remain

Although the collection and monitoring of air emission from wells is a step in the right direction, the data itself reveals several gaps that render the information questionable.

  • The DEP did not require operators to report methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide in 2011. Considering that all three components are potent greenhouse gases and that methane is the primary component in natural gas production, the data could have been more reliable and robust if the amount of the highest pollutants were provided from the start.
  • Systematic air monitoring around abandoned, orphaned, and plugged wells should still be conducted and data reported because of their significant impact to air quality. The DEP estimates there are approximately 200,000 wells that have been abandoned and unaccounted for. This figure includes older, abandoned wells that had outdated methods of plugging, such as wood plugs, wood well casings, or no plug at all. Without a consistent monitoring system for fugitive air emissions, the public’s true risk of the exposure to air pollutants will remain ambiguous.
  • All emissions submitted to the DEP are self-reported data from the operators. The DEP lacks a proper verification process to confirm whether the submitted data from operators are accurate.
  • The finalized data for 2014 has yet to be released despite the DEP’s April 2016 deadline. The DEP inadvertently posted the reports in March 2016, but quickly removed them without any notification or explanation as to why this information was removed. When we inquired about the release date, a DEP representative stated the data should be uploaded within the next couple of weeks. We will provide updates to this post when that data is posted but the DEP.

Overall, PA DEP’s valiant attempt to collect air data from operators and to increase transparency is constrained by the inconsistency and inaccuracy of the dataset. The gaps in the data strongly suggest that the department’s collection process and/or the industry’s reporting protocol still require major improvements in order to better monitor and communicate this information to the public.