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Oil and gas production on public lands

Interactive maps show nearness of oil and gas wells to communities in 5 states

As an American, you are part owner of 640 million acres of our nation’s shared public lands managed by the federal government. And chances are, you’ve enjoyed a few of these lands on family picnics, weekend hikes or summer camping trips. But did you know that some of your lands may also be leading to toxic air pollution and poor health for you or your neighbors, especially in 5 western states that have high oil and gas drilling activity?

A set of new interactive maps created by FracTracker, The Wilderness Society, and partner groups show the threatened populations who live within a half mile of  federal oil and gas wells – people who may be breathing in toxic pollution on a regular basis.

Altogether, air pollution from oil and gas development on public lands threatens at least 73,900 people in the 5 western states we examined. The states, all of which are heavy oil and gas leasing areas, include ColoradoNew MexicoNorth DakotaUtah and Wyoming.

Close up of threat map in Colorado

Figure 1. Close up of threat map in Colorado

In each state, the data show populations living near heavy concentrations of wells. For example just northeast of Denver, Colorado, in the heavily populated Weld County, at least 11,000 people are threatened by oil and gas development on public lands (Figure 1).

Western cities, like Farmington, New Mexico; Gillette, Wyoming; and Grand Junction, Colorado are at highest risk of exposure from air pollution. In New Mexico, especially, concentrated oil and gas activity disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and minorities. Many wells can be found near population centers, neighborhoods and even schools.

Colorado: Wells concentrated on Western Slope, Front Range

Note: The threatened population in states are a conservative estimate. It is likely that the numbers affected by air pollution are higher.

In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to try to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations through comprehensive regulations that included inspections of oil and gas operations and an upgrade in oil and gas infrastructure technology. Colorado’s new regulations are already showing both environmental and financial benefits.

But nearly 16,000 people – the majority living in the northwestern and northeastern part of the state – are still threatened by pollution from oil and gas on public lands.

Many of the people whose health is endangered from pollution are concentrated in the fossil-fuel rich area of the Western Slope, near Grand Junction. In that area, three counties make up 65% of the total area in Colorado threatened by oil and gas development.

In Weld County, just northeast of Denver, more than 11,000 residents are threatened by air pollution from oil and gas production on federal lands. But what’s even more alarming is that five schools are within a half mile radius of wells, putting children at risk on a daily basis of breathing in toxins that are known to increase asthma attacks. Recent studies have shown children miss 500,000 days of school nationally each year due to smog related to oil and gas production.

State regulations in Colorado have helped improve air quality, reduce methane emissions and promote worker care and safety in the past two years, but federal regulations expected by the end of 2016 will have a broader impact by regulating pollution from all states.

New Mexico: Pollution seen from space threatens 50,000 people

With more than 30,000 wells covering 4.6 million acres, New Mexico is one of the top states for oil and gas wells on public lands. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure in the Four Corners region are so great, they have formed a methane hot spot that has been extensively studied by NASA and is clearly visible from space.

Nearly 50,000 people in northwestern New Mexico – 40% of the population in San Juan County – live within a half mile of a well. 

Dangerous emissions from those wells in San Juan County disproportionately affect minorities and disadvantaged populations, with about 20% Hispanic, almost 40% Native American, and over 20% living in poverty.

Another hot spot of oil and activity is in southeastern New Mexico stretching from the lands surrounding Roswell to the southern border with Texas. Wells in this region also cover the lands outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, potentially affecting the air quality and visibility for park visitors. Although less densely populated, another 4,000 people in two counties – with around 50% of the population Hispanic – are threatened by toxic air pollution.

Wyoming: Oil and gas emissions add to coal mining pollution

Pollution from oil and gas development in Wyoming, which has about as many wells as New Mexico, is focused in the Powder River Basin. This region in the northeast of the state provides 40% of the coal produced in the United States.

Oil and gas pollution threatens approximately 4,000 people in this region where scarred landscapes and polluted waterways are also prevalent from coal mining. 

With the Obama administration’s current pause on federal coal leasing and a review of the federal coal program underway, stopping pollution from oil and gas on public lands in Wyoming would be a major step in achieving climate goals and preserving the health of local communities.

Utah: Air quality far below federal standards

Utah has almost 9,000 active wells on public lands. Oil and gas activity in Utah has created air quality below federal standards in one-third of Utah’s counties, heightening the risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Especially in the Uintah Basin in northeastern Utah – where the majority of oil and development occurs – a 2014 NOAA-led study found oil and gas activity can lead to high levels of ozone in the wintertime that exceed federal standards.

North Dakota: Dark skies threatened by oil and gas activity

The geology of western North Dakota includes the Bakken Formation, one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in the United States. As a result, high oil and gas production occurs on both private and public lands in the western part of the state.

Nearly 650 wells on public lands are clustered together here, directly impacting popular recreational lands like Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The 70,000-plus-acre park – named after our president who first visited in 1883 and fell in love with the incredible western landscape – is completely surrounded by high oil and gas activity. Although drilling is not allowed in the park, nearby private and public lands are filled with active wells, producing pollution, traffic and noise that can be experienced from the park. Due to its remote location, the park is known for its incredible night sky, but oil and gas development increases air and light pollution, threatening visibility of the Milky Way and other astronomical wonders.

You own public lands, but they may be hurting you

Pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands is only a part of a larger problem. Toxic emissions from oil and gas development on both public and private lands threaten 12.4 million people living within a half mile of wells, according to an oil and gas threat map created by FracTracker for a project by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force.

Now that we can see how many thousands of people are threatened by harmful emissions from our public lands, it is more important than ever that we finalize strong federal regulations that will help curb the main pollutant of natural gas – methane – from being leaked, vented, and flared from oil and gas infrastructure on public lands.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

We need to clean up our air now

With U.S. public lands accounting for 1/5 of the greenhouse gas footprint in the United States, we need better regulations to reduce polluting methane emissions from the 96,000 active oil and gas wells on public lands.

Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is finalizing federal regulations that are expected by the end of 2016. These regulations are expected to curb emissions from existing sources – wells already in production – that are a significant source of methane pollution on public lands. This is crucial, since by 2018, it is estimated that nearly 90% of methane emissions will come from sources that existed in 2011.

Federal regulations by the BLM should also help decrease the risk to communities living near oil and gas wells and helping cut methane emissions by 40 to 45% by 2025 to meet climate change reduction goals.

Final regulations from the Bureau of Land Management will also add to other regulations from the EPA and guidance from the Obama administration to modernize energy development on public lands for the benefit of the American people, landscapes and the climate. In the face of a changing climate, we need to continue to monitor fossil fuel development on public lands and continue to push the government towards better protections for land, air, wildlife and local communities.


By The Wilderness Society – The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.

Interview with Therese Vick – Sentinel Award Winner

Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker’s Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement, interviews Therese Vick, one of FracTracker’s 2015 Community Sentinels Award Winners.

Therese Vick is a highly-regarded community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in North Carolina. A big part of her work is serving BREDL chapters in Stokes, Anson, Lee, and Chatham counties – all frontline communities threatened by shale gas extraction. In these communities, she offers organizing assistance, training programs, and strategic campaign planning for local groups. Watch-dogging state regulatory agencies is also a significant part of Therese’s work, about which she publishes extensively on in her blog, From Where I Sit: Reports From The North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission Meetings. Therese lives in Raleigh, NC, with her cats Savannah and Charity, and a very opinionated bunny named Stella.

Q: To start, can tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to the world of environmental advocacy work?

Therese: Well, I actually started out in a small town in Eastern North Carolina, working at a pharmacy. This was back in the very early ‘90s and a proposal for the world’s second largest hazardous waste incinerator landed on our county about six miles from my home. And this is a county that had no hospital. We had a volunteer fire department, but we had no haz-mat, none of that kind of infrastructure. That’s how I got involved in grassroots environmental work. I was a volunteer for years. Then I came on staff with Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) and was supported by a local organization – the North Hampton Citizens Against Pollution -through a small grant. I left my job at the drug store after about 15 years and went to work on a bunch of different issues, not just the hazardous waste incinerator, which we eventually defeated. I worked with BREDL for about three and a half years, then went back to work with my husband in his business and raised my kids but stayed active with local community groups off and on. I came here to the Triangle to complete my education in psychology and human services. I called the executive director of BREDL to let them know I was living here in Raleigh; I knew that they came to Raleigh sometimes. They offered me a job, I graduated, and I came back to work for BREDL. So that’s kind of how I ended up where I am right now. I have been volunteering and working on grassroots environmental issues for over 20 years.

Q: Now that you are back with Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, what sorts of projects have you been working on?

A: It can change from one day to the next, but my biggest areas of work are on fracking, of course, disposal of coal ash, and air quality in particular. I’m also working on pipelines. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is proposed to go through North Carolina. My co-worker and I are working with communities opposing that. And we work on myriads of other issues. We are community organizers, but we not only doing the organizing, we do a lot of research and technical assistance and watchdog regulatory agencies and things like that as well. That is another big part of my job, is public records and investigations and things like that.

Q: You also do a lot to communicate your findings to the public by way of your blog, From Where I Sit. How do you think that work has made a difference in helping community to understanding the political landscape of gas development?

A: How that blog came about was, I was attending many, many meetings. I can’t even tell you how many, I would say 100 meetings of the Mining and Energy Commission and their various committees, which were very hard to sit through and very frustrating. I wrote this really sarcastic report to our executive director and it was kind of funny too. He said, you know what, you need to start writing a blog before you lose your mind. So that is where it started. It was fun, but also serious. It’s a good organizing tool. In the court of public opinion, it is a good tool for communities to use and to let the general public know that this is something good we are doing for the community, for our community. I mean, it’s something that has to be done because we are just not being protected like we should be. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Fighting for Government Transparency

Q: How has all of this work that you are involved in shaped your feelings on the importance of making information and data available to the public?

A: Back in the ‘90s there were these proponents of the incinerator who were very assertive about how we needed the incinerator and how it was going to help the state and all of this stuff. People just had never known them to be active politically so they knew something was going on – all the proponents said, “oh we have nothing to gain from this, nothing. We just think it’s a good idea and blah, blah, blah.” So when I went to the state to do a file search, the first one I had ever done, nervous as I could be, and I found three options from three of the biggest proponent land owners with the company – they were selling their land to the company for the hazardous waste incinerator. Nobody knew this. And I so I paid my 25 cents a page, copied them, and hurried back home from Raleigh to the little town I lived. Long story short, it was a really big story. It was a statewide story and I got some threats, some anonymous threats, and I had a lawyer that call me saying I had no right to those documents. I ended up hanging up on him. Anyway, that kind of got me hooked on the power of having information.

Q: Have you found a similar sense of importance in working with oil and gas related data? I know, for instance, you have done a lot of writing about Halliburton having deep political ties in your area.

A: Well the Halliburton one, Greenpeace did some reporting on that piece and it got national attention. Most of the Mining and Energy Commission stuff is pretty mundane, but this one commissioner was not careful. I requested specific information about if they had met with certain individuals—all the commissioners, it was a request to all the commissioners. I wanted calendar entries and all that stuff. It took them a little bit to get me the information. But then this one commissioner he had it all in a folder that was marked Halliburton. I was stunned. There was this guy, Bowen Health, and he was a registered lobbyist for Halliburton. And this Commissioner, George Howard, he was on the Mining and Energy Commission. He had this folder marked Halliburton. Now, compared to other places of the country we had a pretty strong chemical disclosure law. And Halliburton essentially nixed that. They got that backed up. But this commissioner, he had a calendar entry on December 5th, 2012, from 5:30-6:00pm, there with Bowen Health, the Halliburton lobbyist. All of the commissioners had just maintained, over and over and over again, “We haven’t had any contact with Halliburton.” That is what led me to request the records and there it was, just in black and white. And, I tell you what, it made some of them really mad at him.

Q: What would you say, at this point, is the biggest challenge moving forward with this work?

A: I think the current anti-regulatory frenzy at the state level, the lack of care and concern for public health and the environment at the state level, and the rush to exploit oil and gas in North Carolina at any cost. Those would be the three biggest challenges you have to battle every single day. You’ve got the same philosophy at the head of the environmental agency that you have in the governor’s mansion and in the legislature. People that don’t—at least say they don’t—believe in climate change. People that think that fracking is fine. People that think that offshore drilling is great. Conservative folks, and I’m not political, but that’s one thing that kind of astounded me at the beginning of this. Forced pooling is legal in North Carolina, and it has been since the ‘40s. The fact that people who consider themselves believers in personal and private property rights support, or don’t repeal, that law just was stunning to me. I’m seeing the same thing with imminent domain and the pipelines. So the fact that all this stuff can be ignored, and with the legislature, the governor, and the Department Environment and Natural Resources having that same philosophy, makes it difficult, but not impossible.

Q: So how do you overcome the challenges of anti-disclosure and anti-regulatory sentiments?

A: You have to continue to try to expose what is going on. And, actually, I have got a huge request that I have been going through on coal ash that has some of what I was just telling you about. You have to expose what is going on to educate the public. You have to develop strategic plans within the bigger organization and at the community level, because you just have to be prepared for whatever comes next. And working at the grassroots is the most important thing – folks working in local communities with their local governments, that is the most important thing.

Q: If there was one thing that you would communicate to people or groups that are getting off the ground to deal with similar problems in other parts of the country, what would you say to those individuals?

A: We only have to last one day longer than they do. In other words, don’t give up. If you need to take a little break then take a break, but try to celebrate along the way because it’s hard work. It’s very, very hard work and it can be very depressing and stressful, especially when you are living in a targeted community or you are living with a problem. Try to have fun when you can find it.

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to mention that is important to you personally?

A: I just wanted to say – about the Community Sentinel Award – I wanted to lift up the communities that I work with. Over time they become friends, and they are the heroes. They are the heroes, and I couldn’t do the kind of work that I do without them.

Trust vs Uncertainty in Argentine Communities

By Sam Rubright, MPH, CPH – with contributions from Ana Wieman and editing by Cecilia G. Flocco, PhD

While the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is a globally critical issue (link updated in 2018) with significant implications for the oil and gas industry, the same industry encounters on-the-ground challenges in many places where extraction occurs. Argentina is now experiencing those challenges firsthand.

Argentina, South America’s 3rd largest economy, could have 801.5 trillion cubic feet of wet shale gas (more than unproven US reserves), and 27 billion barrels of tight oil.1 Oil and gas companies are excited about the prospects. Argentina has even started to produce its own sand for the hydraulic fracturing process in an attempt to reduce the cost of drilling and attract investors. Already, however, community concerns about environmental health and safety are rising to the surface.

Allen, Argentina

Allen is a city in the Río Negro (“Black River”) province of Argentina, located at the northern edge of the Patagonia region. It is known for its rich fruit production and hosts approximately 27,000 inhabitants as of the most recent census.2,3 Allen is also home to shale oil and gas drilling currently being conducted by Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), Argentina’s renationalized energy company.

On July 21, 2015, two separate incidents occurred near Allen. In the first case, a violent decompression at the well4 triggered what was likely a blowout. The spray that resulted caused hydrocarbons to be deposited into a lagoon that flows into the Black River, the province’s namesake and one of the main water sources for the arid Patagonian plateau. Clean up efforts took place immediately, although there was a lack of awareness that a rural community, Calle Ciega #10, lives very close to the drilling activity.5 Less than 24 hours later, Ysur, a YPF contractor, damaged an aqueduct near the town, leaving coastal area residents without drinking water.6

Mirroring community concerns near drilling operations in the US, residents of Calle Ciega #10 have felt the effects ever since the industry came to town; living near such intense industrial activity, they say, has put them all on edge. They worry about everything from cracking foundations, fire and explosions, potential gas leaks, to the heavy truck traffic. Organic farmers are even having trouble selling their produce due to the proximity of oil and gas operations to their fields. The uncertainty of it all is the biggest problem; residents have gone so far as to protest the recent incidents by blocking access to one of wells in the area (EFO 250).7 The neighbors’ concerns were brought to a civil court by Rio Negro province’s Ombudsman, action resulting in ordering environmental impact investigations and in ceasing activities at the well (EFO 280).8

Below you will find some photos from Allen, showing the trucks that transport water for the drilling, a warehouse for sand and ceramics, the well where there were two explosions in recent history, and piping that goes into a neighbor’s yard – Submitted by Ana Wieman:

Trust vs Uncertainty

Argentine communities are fighting a battle between trusting that the industry and government will properly manage oil and gas operations and being left in the dark about public health and safety risks. In addition to the incidents in Allen, a major cyanide spill from a gold mine9 in San Juan province in September (exploited by Canadian Barrick Gold Corp.) has added fuel to public concerns about how Argentine natural resources, as well as the response to incidents and information, are being handled. Inconsistent messages elevate community tensions, leaving a trail of doubt and uncertainty in their wake.

“Vos y yo, bebemos la misma agua.” = “You and I, we drink the same water.”
– Facebook sentiment by Elvio Mendioroz, Argentina


Footnotes and Additional Resources

  1. World Shale Resource Assessments. (2015). US EIA
  2. Rio Negro Province Census (2010)
  3. Geographic coordinates: 38°58′00″S 67°50′00″O
  4. Excavadora dejó dos barrios sin agua (Excavator left two neighborhoods without water). (2015). Rionegro.com.ar
  5. EFO well 280 located between the rural road 11 and Route 22
  6. Escape de petróleo cayó a una laguna en Allen (Escape of oil fell to a lagoon in Allen). (2015). Rionegro.com.ar
  7. Allen: “La vida cambió para peor” alertan vecinos por petrolera (Allen: “Life changed for the worse” Neighbors alert the oil company’s presence). Rionegro.com.ar
  8. La Justicia buscará determinar el posible impacto ambiental del pozo EFO 280. (The Justice will determine the possible environmental impact of well EFO 280). (2015). defensoriarionegro.gov.ar
  9. Cyanide Spill Resources:
    1. Argentina: El cianuro llega al río (Argentina: Cyanide reaches the river). (2015). Biodiversity in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    2. Jáchal y San Juan reclaman la prohibición de la minería a cielo abierto tras el derrame de cianuro en la mina de Barrick Gold (Jáchal and San Juan demand the ban on open pit mining after the cyanide spill at Barrick Gold mine). (2015). lavaca.org.
    3. Por el derrame de cianuro en San Juan, piden incluir los delitos ambientales en el Código Penal (For the cyanide spill in San Juan, they ask to include environmental crimes in the Penal Code). (2015). Cronista.com.
    4. Derrame de Cianuro en San Juan (Cyanide spill in San Juan). (2015). About the cyanide spill in the Veladero mine, San Juan – TV news show
    5. Jáchal, cuando ya nadie te nombre (Jáchal, when no one will say your name – anymore). (2015). De Tierras y de Utopias Viaje Documental – From Lands and Utopies, documentary of the spill in Jáchal that resulted in years of existing water problems
    6. Jorge Lanata’s interview with Simón Ernesto about the spill in Veladero. (2015) by Canal Zeta y Cero, Argentina

Please note: Many of the resources we accessed to write this story, as well as most correspondence, were in Spanish. Please alert Sam to any translation errors: malone@fractracker.org.

Interview with Craig Stevens – Sentinel Award Winner

Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker’s Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement, interviews Craig Stevens, one of FracTracker’s 2015 Community Sentinels Award Winners.

CraigStevens&MarkRuffalo

Craig Stevens (on right) with actor Mark Ruffalo

Craig Stevens is a 6th generation landowner from Silver Lake Township in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Craig and his neighbors have experienced first-hand the truck traffic, noise, air pollution, and water contamination issues that often accompany shale gas extraction. Beginning in 2011 Craig began arranging tours of Susquehanna Co. to share affected residents’ stories with the press. This work has attracted citizens, journalists, elected officials, and celebrities from all over the world who now see Susquehanna Co. as an example of what could happen in their own backyards. We spoke with Craig about his work.

Q: Perhaps we can start by telling the readers your story, how you come back to Pennsylvania and how this led to your advocacy work related to oil and gas development?

Craig: Well, I was born in California in 1960, lived there for 46 years. Then my dad got sick in 2006; he was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. My brother and sister and I ended up inheriting the ancestral 115-acre property. I had visited there my whole life, every couple of years, but I knew nothing about oil and gas or coal or any extraction methods and pretty much grew up at the beach in Southern California. Nobody in the family wanted to keep the family property, so I moved up here in January of 2010. The first thing I did was to check the deed to make sure that it had been transferred to our names. That’s when I found a gas lease for the property. On my father’s deathbed, he told us not to have anything to do with the industry, that he had refused to sign a lease. But then I did my research and found out Chesapeake Energy had signed my 95 year old grandmother, who was living in a nursing home, to a ten year oil and gas lease. My grandmother was a tenant but did not own the property. In Pennsylvania, and many other states, you can’t transfer mineral rights to anybody that’s a life tenant because that is part of a real estate deal. But they did it, they recorded it on our deed, tying up all of our mineral rights and giving it to Chesapeake Energy.

The second thing that got me fired up was when I was riding my three-wheeler and found a company had staked out a half-mile area right down the middle of our property. They were looking to put in a 16-inch pipeline without our permission or knowledge. So I pulled all the stakes out, went into town, and found the company. They right there offered me money. They said, well, we are going to put this in and we appreciate it if your family signed up, because we need to get this gas to market. After I refused their offer they told me all my neighbors had signed along the route already and I was going to be holding things up. Then they said, the state wants us here and they are going to give us Certificate of Public Convenience, so we are going to take your property either way. So that was my introduction to the gas industry.

Q: You have said in the past that we need to think about how we deal with shale gas extraction’s impacts as a matter of helping each other deal with civil and human rights abuses. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A: I was raised always to think globally, but act locally. Because everything that happens in our lives happens in our backyard and that is where things go. I was very politically active from a young age. My father got us all politically active. My older brother and my younger sister, at 10 years old, 8 years old, we were going to city council meetings and town council and county commission meetings, just because my dad was interested in what was going on in his community. Back then my neighbors in Dimock, PA, were having a problem. So I thought, I better find out what’s happening. Not only help them, because they are having a problem that doesn’t look like it’s resolved, but also to help prevent it from coming to Silver Lake Township. I always try to help people that are having a problem, especially with big people and bullies. So it was natural for me to stand with them and I started to tell my own story at the same time.

The Citizens’ Perspective

Q: Tell me about some of the projects you have been involved in that bring the public into shale gas debates. For instance, I know you organize regular tours of gas fields. Who attends these tours? What do you think they learn from visiting gas communities?

A: We’ve had 40 sitting assembly members and 8 state senators from New York State visit Susquehanna Co. We have had hundreds of mayors and town supervisors and country commissioners come and see first hand from a citizens’ perspective. We have had 60 countries come and send their public television stations. One of our tours was with Sean Lennon, Yoko Ono, Susan Sarandan, Arun Gandhi (Gandhi’s grandson) and Josh Fox. They had 35 journalists with them, including Rolling Stone. When they come we tell these people, also go take an industry tour, so they can see the other side. We encourage it because we don’t want them to think we are just bashing them and that they don’t get to defend themselves. Our thing was, if we highlight what is happening in our little neck of the woods then we could educate by showing the truth and affect the debate. Of course we were attacked viciously by the oil and gas industry, and by Energy in Depth, but also by the local elected officials that were pro-gas.

Q: This obviously requires a community effort. How have people and organizations in the area come together through these actions, and have they been able to develop more power by not just working as individuals?

A: Well here is the interesting thing. When I moved here, there were about 50 people that would show up at public meetings to discuss their first-hand experiences. These were people from Dimock, PA, and other surrounding areas. Besides that, there really was no collective organizing in Northeastern Pennsylvania. But we found that, by telling our stories, we brought the interest of organizations like New Yorkers Against Fracking and Mark Ruffalo’s group, Water Defense. They started to adopt us. I and other families started to travel all over, not only in New York but also in New Jersey and Ohio, to educate people. I realized that I was meant to take these stories further out. I took them to all these State Houses — North Carolina, Florida, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Ohio. In California I was allowed to go and sit with the Governor’s entire Cabinet in his executive office. I was very proud to go there since I grew up in California.

Q: In the bigger picture of protecting our environment, why do you think it’s important for concerned citizens to get involved in these kinds of activities?

A: I have four children who will not live on the same clean planet that I did; as dirty as we thought it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s when I grew up, this is going to make that look like the heyday of environmental cleanliness. I’m doing this because I really believe this is a generational suicide we’re experiencing. By not telling this story, I would be complicit. When people see the gas company’s commercials and hear the radio ads, it sounds like the truth because it’s coming from credible people. By facing up to these giants, and showing people that you can do it and win like in New York, that can start a grassroots fire all around the world. And that has happened if you look at what is happening in England and Poland and Spain and France and Germany. We are proud to be part of that movement.

Q: What would you say is the most valuable insight you have learned from working with people fighting the gas industry?

A: The most valuable lesson for me is that people power trumps corporate power. People sometimes just don’t realize that they have an inner strength – that an average person who knew nothing about this five and a half or six years ago can get involved and become leaders. I’m more excited today than ever. I went to Florida. They have some very bad chemical non-disclosure bills. Right now we have 15 counties and 35 cities in Florida that have passed resolutions for bans of fracking for oil or gas in Florida. Maryland is safe until October of 2017 because of their moratorium. So what we are doing is working. I try to remind people, and everyone out there should know this, that you are a federal citizen, the same you are a citizen of the state or Commonwealth or republic that you live in. You are protected constitutionally and legally as a federal taxpayer. So the federal government can’t just throw us to the wolves of these individual states. They have to act. If they don’t, then they need to step down and let somebody get in there that has the health and safety of their citizens at the top of their list of what they are supposed to be doing every day in their position of power.

 

 

The Ultimate Price of PA State Forest Drilling

By Ted Auch, Matt Kelso, and Sam Rubright

PA DCNR recently released a draft State Forest Resource Management Plan. The draft plan, last revised in 2007, is an important tool that the Bureau of Forestry (BOF) uses to help manage Pennsylvania’s approximately 2.2 million acre state forest system. Approximately 1.5 million acres of state forest lands lie within the shale gas fairway and gas extraction – along with related issues like water resources –  is among the numerous subjects addressed in the document.

In total, approximately 673,000 acres are available for oil and gas development in PA state forests, either because private interests own the mineral rights below the land or because DCNR has opened up state-lands for drilling where it controls the mineral rights.

Approximately 386,000 acres have been leased by DCNR to allow drilling. DCNR’s shale gas monitoring report in 2014 said that only 16% of available state forest lands have been developed, which means that 84% (or 328,700 acres) could still be accessed for oil and gas through DCNR leases. Another 287,000 acres of state forest land sits atop private mineral rights. Mineral rights supersede – or overrule – those of the surface rights.

By some estimates, the projected “drillout” of state forest lands may include an additional 2,000 to 3,000 unconventional natural gas wells. There are concerns that the draft plan also does not adequately address the full scale and scope of such drilling and the serious impacts associated with it.

Derived from available data, FracTracker has prepared the following portrait of the projected impact to Pennsylvania’s state forest estate with emphasis on the resource-intensive nature of hydraulic fracturing and its extensive footprint on this sensitive landscape.


View or print static infographic

Get Involved

If you are concerned about these risks and potential development, DCNR is holding twelve meetings to gather public input on this draft plan until Nov 12th. Written comments can also be submitted through November 30 at StateForestPlan2015@pa.gov.

More background information about PA’s Draft 2015 State Forest Resource Management Plan


Extra Resources: Projected Build out Statistics

Land Use

Table 1. Projected land use needed to add 2,000 to 3,000 more wells on PA state forestlands

 Facility Type  Unit Projected Drilled Wells
2,000 3,000
Well Pads # 606 909
Acres 2,477 3,716
Limit Of Disturbance (LOD)* Acres 7,130 10,695
Gathering Lines Acres 20,189 30,284
Addtl. Mid/Down-stream Facilities Acres 2,847 4,271
Compressor Stations** # 126-210 189-316
Acres 2,978-4,976 4,466-7,464
ESTIMATED TOTAL Acres 36,621 54,931

*Limit of Disturbance includes infrastructure, mounded earth, etc. needed to access and service the well pads.
**1 compressor station is needed for every 25-30 miles of gathering lines, at 15-30 acres per station.

In Ohio, well pads average 4-5 acres, 3.4 laterals per well pad, and 8.5 acres of gathering line per acre of well pad. However, each pad has what we are calling a “Limit of Disturbance,” which includes infrastructure, mounded earth, etc. LOD likely represents a conservative estimate of miscellaneous land disturbance as it does not include the access roads; it was not possible with our current datasets to discern which roads were specifically added to access the well pads. LODs are averaging 10-14 acres.

Using the 2,000-3,000 wells proposed, the total acreage that could be disturbed by new well pads, well pad LODs, gathering lines, compressor stations, and related mid/downstream facilities in PA’s state forests would be between and 36,621 and 54,931 acres depending on the number and size of compressor stations (i.e., averaging 24 acres) (Table 1).

Water Use

Table 2. Projected resource use and waste produced per well based on OH, WV, and PA historical figures.

Variable Unit Avg Increase / Quarter
Water Needed Gallons 3.5 MGs

PA Stats

Gallons 4.4 MGs

OH Stats*

Gallons 6.2-7.0 MGs 405-410 K

WV Stats

Gallons 7.9 MGs 450 K
Drill Cuttings** Tons 1,050 4.96
OH Stats Tons 700+ (estimate) 4.7-5.2
PA Stats Tons 1,400
Landfill Waste (Drilling Muds) Tons / Facility 28,098 15,319
Silica Sand Tons 4,303 86
Injection Waste Gallons / Quarter 117 MGs 5.4 MGs

* 7-9% of injected fluids returns to the surface as fracking waste
** significantly dependent upon lateral length

Frac

Interview with Dorina Hippauf – Sentinel Award Winner

Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker’s Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement, interviews Dorina Hippauf, one of FracTracker’s 2015 Community Sentinels Award Winners.

dorina_hippauf

Dorina Hippauf is the Chair of the Research Committee for the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition (GDAC) of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and a contributing member of the Shale Justice Coalition. When a landman came knocking on her door in 2010, offering riches in exchange for a gas lease, Dory took the old saying of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t” to heart. This was the starting point that led to her dedicated exploration of the industry’s practices and the creation of the Shale Players project, which now contains over 10,000 entries of who is connected to who in the industry. Dorina is one of three recipients of the 2015 FracTracker Community Sentinels Award. Here we talk with Dory about her work to connect the dots between board rooms, lobbyists, PR firms, astroturf organizations, and government agencies that promote the agendas of the gas industry.

 

Q: Dorina, perhaps we can begin by your telling me a bit about what brought you to advocacy work related to oil and gas development?

Dorina: What got me into the whole issue of gas drilling was, one, when I was driving to work, I would see flares on hillsides and I didn’t really understand what was going on.  You know, there were big, large flames and my first thought was, something is on fire. Then I realized that from the way it was flaming, it was contained. But I still didn’t know what was going on. And then we had a land man come knock on our door and start offering us a lease. And we only have three quarters of an acre. Originally he was offering $1,000 an acre and when we said we only have three quarters of an acre, he dropped the price to $750. Everything just didn’t sound right. So I started doing some online investigating. I came across the GDAC, which is a local grassroots group in our area. I started attending meetings and I got involved from there.

The big driller here that was signing everybody up was Encana, which is of course based out of Canada. They did three test wells in our area. All three came up dry. Basically we are right at the edge of the productive end of the Marcellus Shale. Encana, shortly after they finished up the last test well, released everybody from their leases and left town in 2011. But I remained active with GDAC because I realized they have to get the gas to market. We’re located along the Transcontinental Pipeline, an ideal place for them to connect to gas hubs for gathering lines. So I knew the whole issue of gas drilling wasn’t going to be over with just Encana leaving our area.

 

The Shale Players Project

Q: I know that one of the projects that you were instrumental in founding was the Shale Players project. Tell me more about that project, how it began, and what its status is presently?

A: I was at a GDAC meeting and somebody was talking about Encana and the question was asked, who is Encana? So I started Googling them and getting some information and this lead to other connections and I realized that just jotting things down on a piece of paper wasn’t going to give the whole picture. A lot of these companies are all interconnected one way or the other. I created this spreadsheet that grew into the Shale Players project. I have lists of the executives that work at these companies, the Board of Directors, politicians that are connected to them, other front groups, trade agencies, Astroturf, PR firms, and lobbying groups. It has grown to over 10,000 entries now.

Dorina explains Shale Players in her video “Connecting the Dots”

Q: How have you disseminated your findings and what are some of the results that you have seen come from this research?

A: Anyone who wants it, I give it to them. It’s also online on Google Docs. What I hope to do eventually is find someone that is able to put this into a format so it’s searchable online. So that when you type in somebody’s name or a company, it shows all of those connections. I update the online version every three or four months. As for what we’ve done with the results, the Public Accountability Initiative used it when they did their expose on Pennsylvania and gas drilling. Walter Brasch also cited a lot of my work in his book Fracking Pennsylvania. Other groups are using it because they go looking for information on a company that they may be dealing with.

Q: You also do a fair amount of blogging too, correct?

A: Yes, my blog is Frackorporation. When I blog, I usually try to show the connections to the genealogy of some of these organizations to give people a better idea of who they are really dealing with. So many people are looking for a single villain to blame. But it’s all interconnected. And that’s what I’m trying to show people, that this is more than just drilling and fracking and dealing with one company, it also extends to the whole issue of lobbying, the citizen united decision, and with unlimited donations to candidates. A lot of money gets passed around. Alec is involved, the Koch brothers are involved. A lot of big names.

 

 

We’re in for the long haul

Q: How do you think your work has made a difference in the public’s understanding of the political and economic landscape of the gas industry?

A: Well, to some extent, it discourages people because they see how large and involved it is. But on the other hand, it also makes them angry and they realize that you have to deal with this issue on a lot of different levels, both in terms of environmental impact, getting the community involved, and that its important to get involved politically. Also, it helps them to determine who to contact if they want to write a letter to a company. Too often we will just send it to the spokesperson who is just reading a script, but that is not whose attention you want to get. Also, the shareholders, they often don’t realize what the company is really doing. If you own one share of a company, you can go to their meetings and make a lot of noise.

Q: So this really is about building community and not just about collecting data. This relates to another project you are involved in called the Shale Justice Coalition. Can you tell me more about the Coalition?

A: The Shale Justice Coalition is a coalition of grassroots groups. Our overall objective is to stop the practice of fracking and to promote alternative energy as a better option. We have members in four or five in the states now as well as some from England and Ireland. Lots of information gets passed around as a result of the coalition — things that are going on in Ohio that we may not know about, things that are going on in New York — we try to share the information, get people interested and make them more aware of the bigger picture of the industry. Many of these groups will get a hold of me personally and ask me to write up a blog post about what is going on in their area. The media is not paying attention. With the Seneca Lake gas storage project there was some emails that were uncovered where Crestwood was telling its employees to boycott all businesses in the towns surrounding the lake that opposed the storage facility. Local groups had tried to get it to reporters who put it on the back burner and didn’t follow-up. I blogged about it, then it got picked up on social media, then the papers finally picked it up. Yeah, I mean, sometimes you have to rattle the cages.

 

 

Q: How has this work changed your perspective on the role of making information and data available to the public, in terms of making for better environmental protection?

A: It’s important to get this information out there, to make it readily accessible, easy for people to find and to use. I always thought when I first started this, that I could find one website where I could do a search on companies specifically for fracking and gas and oil drilling. But there wasn’t any. So in a way, with the Shale Players project, I’ve had to fill that niche. Also, a lot of the information I tend to find online I don’t know where they got their information. I take great pains to make sure whatever I put out there has the source link to it, so people can go and look for it themselves.

Q: So what is next for you Dory? What kind of new projects are you planning?

A: At the moment we are fighting the pipelines. I’ve been going around doing presentations at the request of organizations. Talking about what is going on with FERC and how the FERC process works. Letting people know what they need to be aware of the easement agreements and that they do have to negotiate. Just saying “no” to the easement and taking it to the point of imminent domain, if that is the course the company takes, isn’t enough. You have to show good faith and some attempt at negotiating an easement. Otherwise, when you go before the judge, he’s going to side with the company. Unfortunately, I think with these pipelines, unless we get more action from people, these pipelines are going to go through.

 

 

Q: Is there anything that you would communicate to other people and groups that are trying to get off the ground to deal with issues related to oil and gas?

A: Yes. One of the biggest things I keep hearing from people is that, when we have meetings or presentations or newspaper articles or whatever, we are only preaching to the choir. But what these groups have to realize is that the choir is growing. Every pipeline and every gas well sparks a new group of concerned people. So, the choir is growing and people are listening. It does get discouraging. It feels like you are losing at Whack-a-Mole. You are not going to get your cookies right now. And there is no one magic bullet that is going to fix everything. You have to deal with FERC, you have to deal with DEP, you have to deal with the government agencies that are involved. You have to consider who your legislators are. And you just can’t get discouraged. Take a break, stay off the computer for a week, recharge your batteries, and get back into it. You are in it for the long haul and you have to be able to make that commitment.

Q: Do you have any concluding thoughts for our readers?

A: People need to get local and be vocal. Tip O’Neil said, all politics are local and that is where it’s going to start. It’s like that movie, Groundswell. That’s grassroots. It starts from the bottom up to make real change. You can’t look at the federal government to fix it for you and the state government isn’t going to fix it either. You have to start locally and building the momentum there. And don’t give up.

Maps of Updated Central Penn Pipeline Emphasize Threats to Residents and Environment

By Sierra Shamer, Guest Author

The Atlantic Sunrise Project or Central Penn Line is a natural gas pipeline Williams Companies has proposed for construction through eight counties of Central Pennsylvania. Williams intends to connect the Atlantic Sunrise to their two Transco pipelines, which extend from the northeast to the Gulf of Mexico. FracTracker discussed and mapped this controversial project as part of a blog entry in June of 2014; since then, the Atlantic Sunrise Project has been, and continues to be, a focus of unprecedented opposition. While supporters of the pipeline stress how it may enhance energy independence, economic growth, and job opportunities, opponents cite Williams’ poor safety records, their threats of eminent domain, and environmental hazards. This article provides details and maps pertaining to these threats and concerns.

Atlantic Sunrise: Project Overview

The Atlantic Sunrise Project would add 183 miles of new pipeline through the construction of the Central Penn Line North and the Central Penn Line South. The proposed Central Penn Line North (CPLN) begins in Susquehanna County, continues through Wyoming and Luzerne counties, and meets with the Transco Pipeline in Columbia County. With a 30 inch in diameter, it would allow for a maximum pressure of 1,480 psi (pounds per square inch). The proposed Central Penn Line South (CPLS) begins at the Transco Pipeline in Columbia County, and continues through Northumberland, Schuylkill, and Lebanon counties, ending in Lancaster. It would be 42 inches in diameter with a maximum pressure of 1,480 psi. The Atlantic Sunrise project also involves the construction of two new compressor stations, one in Clinton Township, Wyoming County, and the other in Orange Township, Columbia County. Finally, to accommodate the daily 1.7 million dekatherms (1 dekatherm equals 1,000 cubic feet of gas or slightly more than 1 million BTUs in energy) of additional natural gas that would flow through the system, the project proposes the expansion of 10 existing compressor stations along the Transco Pipeline in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Although the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline would be entirely within Pennsylvania, it is permitted and regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) because through its connection to the Transco Pipeline, it transports natural gas over state lines.

Updated Central Penn Pipeline Route

On March 31, 2015, Williams filed their formal application to FERC docket #CP15-138. Along with the formal application came changes to the pre-filing route of the pipeline that was submitted in the spring of 2014. The route of the Central Penn Line North has been modified since then by 21%, while the Central Penn Line South has been rerouted by 57%.

Williams’ application comprised of hundreds of attached documents, including pipeline alignment sheets for the entire route. Here is one example: 

alignment_sheet_example

These alignment sheets show the extent of William’s biological investigation, the limits of disturbance, the occurrence of stream and wetland crossings, and any road or foreign pipeline crossings. Absent from the alignment sheets, however, is the area around the right-of-way that will be endangered by the presence of the pipeline. This is colloquially known as the “burn zone” or “hazard zone”.

What are “Hazard Zones”?

A natural gas pipeline moves flammable gas under extreme pressure, creating a risk of pipeline rupture and potential explosion. The “potential impact radius” or “hazard zone” is the approximate area within which there will be immediate damage in the case of an explosion. Should this occur, everything within the hazard zone would be incinerated and there would be virtually no chance of escape or survival. Based on pipeline diameter and pressure, the hazard zone can be calculated using the formula: potential impact radius = 0.69 * pipeline diameter * (√max pressure ).

Based on this formula, the hazard zone for the Central Penn Line North, with its diameter of 30 inches and maximum pressure of 1,480 psi, is approximately 796 feet (243 meters) on either side of the pipeline. The hazard zone for Central Penn Line South, with its diameter of 42 inches and maximum pressure of 1480 psi, is 1,115 feet (340 meters) on either side.

Many residents are unaware that their homes, workplaces, and schools are located within the hazard zone of the proposed Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline. Williams does not inform the public about this risk, primarily communicating with landowners along the right-of-way. The interactive, zoomable map (below) of the currently proposed route of the Atlantic Sunrise, Central Penn North and South pipelines depicts the pipeline right-of-way, as well as the hazard zones. The pipeline route was digitized using the alignments sheets included in Williams’ documents submitted to FERC. You can use this map to search home, work, and school addresses to see how the pipeline will affect residents’ lives and the lives of their communities.

Click in the upper right-hand corner of the map to expand to full-screen view, with a map legend.

Affected Communities

Landowners & Eminent Domain

Landowners along the right-of-way are among the most directly and most negatively impacted by the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, and other similar projects. Typically, people first become aware that a pipeline is intended to pass through their property when they receive a notice in the mail. Landowners faced with this news are on their own to negotiate with the company, navigate the FERC permitting and public comment process, and access unbiased and pertinent information. They face on-going stress, experiencing pressure from Williams to sign easement agreements, concern about the effects of construction on their property, and fear of living near explosive infrastructure. They must also consider costs of legal representation, decreases in property value, and limited options for mortgage and refinancing.

Sometimes, landowners in a pipeline’s right-of-way choose to not allow the company onto their property to conduct a survey. Landowners may also refuse to negotiate an agreement with the pipeline company. In response, the pipeline company can threaten to seize the property through the power of eminent domain, the federal power allowing private property to be taken if it is for the “public use.”

The law of eminent domain states that landowners whose properties are condemned must be fairly compensated for their loss. However, most landowners feel that in order to be fairly compensated by the company, they must hire their own land appraiser and attorney. This decision can be costly, however, and may not be an option for many people. The legitimacy of Williams’ intent to use eminent domain is contested by opponents of the project, who cite how “public use” of the property provides no positive local impacts. The Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline is intended to transport gas out of Pennsylvania through the Transco, so the landowners in its path will not benefit from it at all. Further, it connects to a network of pipelines leading to current export terminals in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as controversial planned export facilities like Cove Point, MD .

Throughout Pennsylvania, communities have responded to the expansion of pipelines, and to the threats of large companies like Williams. The need for landowner support has been addressed by organizations such as the Shalefield Organizing Committee, Energy Justice Network, the Clean Air Council, the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, and We Are Lancaster County. These organizations have worked to provide information, increase public awareness, engage with FERC, and develop resistance to the exploitation of Pennsylvania’s resources and residents. Director Scott Cannon of the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition has documented firsthand the impacts of unconventional drilling in Pennsylvania through a short film series called the Marcellus Shale Reality Tour. The most recent in the series relates the stories of two landowners impacted by the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline in the short film Atlantic Sunrise Surprise.

Environmental Review

Theoretically, environmental review of this proposed pipeline would be extensive. Primary decision-making on the future of the Atlantic Sunrise rests with FERC. Due to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), all projects overseen by federal agencies are required to prepare environmental assessments (EAs) or environmental impact assessments (EIAs). Because FERC regulates interstate pipelines, EA’s or EIA’s are required in their approval process. These assessments are conducted to accurately assess the environmental impacts of projects and to ensure that the proposals comply with federal environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air and Water Acts. On the state level, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) issues permits for wetlands and waterways crossings and for compressor stations on regional basis.

Core Habitats, Supporting Landscapes

The route of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline will disturb numerous areas of ecological importance, including many documented in the County Natural Heritage Inventory (CNHI). The PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources conducted the inventory to be used as a planning, economic, and infrastructural development tool, intending to avoid the destruction of habitats and species of concern. The following four maps show the CNHI landscapes affected by the current route of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline (Figures 1-4).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Columbia & Northumberland counties

Figure 3. Lebanon County

Figure 2. Lebanon & Lancaster counties

Figure 3. ddd

Figure 3. Threatened Core Habitats

Figure 4. Schuyklill

Figure 4. Schuyklill & Lebanon counties

The proposed pipeline would disrupt core habitats, supporting landscapes, and provisional species-of-concern sites. According to the Natural Heritage Inventory report, core habitats “contain plant or animal species of state or federal concern, exemplary natural communities, or exceptional native diversity.” The inventory notes that the species in these habitats will be significantly impacted by disturbance activities. Supporting landscapes are defined as areas that “maintain vital ecological processes or habitat for sensitive natural features.” Finally, the provisional species of concern sites are regions where species have been identified outside of core habitat and are in the process of being evaluated. The Atlantic Sunrise intersects 16 core habitats, 12 supporting landscapes, and 6 provisional sites.

Active Mine Fires

Map5-GlenBurn

Figure 5. Glen Burn Mine Fires

The current route of the Atlantic Sunrise intersects the Cameron/Glen Burn Colliery, considered to be the largest man-made mountain in the world and composed entirely of waste coal. This site also includes a network of abandoned mines, three of which are actively burning (Figure 5).

The pipeline right-of-way is roughly a half-mile from the closest burning mine, Hickory Swamp. These mine fire data were sourced from a 1988 report by GAI Consulting Inc. The time frame for the spread of the mine fires is unknown, and dependent on environmental factors. Mine subsidence — when voids in the earth created by mines cause the surface of the earth to collapse — is another issue of concern. Routing the pipeline through this unstable area adds to the risk of constructing the pipeline through the Glen Burn region.

Looking Ahead

The Atlantic Sunrise Project has received an unprecedented level of resistance that continues to grow as awareness and information about the threats and hazards develops. While Williams, FERC, and the PA DEP negotiate applications and permits, work is also being done by many non-profit, research, and grassroots organizations to investigate the environmental, cultural, and social costs of this pipeline. We will follow up with more information about this project as it becomes available.


This article was written by Sierra Shamer, an environmental mapper and activist. Sierra is a member of the Shalefield Organizing Committee and holds two degrees from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County: a B.A. in environmental studies and an M.S. in geography and environmental systems.

Volunteers counting trucks supplying a new well pad in PA

3 Community ‘Sentinels’ Honored with FracTracker’s Environmental Stewardship Award

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director

In my earlier conservation work, I was always inspired by the activities of certain volunteers. Whether it was a guy who touched the lives of scores of kids through his outings and mentorship or a watershed maven who was the queen of planting and restoration, there are people who go above and beyond to make a difference, help others, and heal the planet. Some call them saints, others call them stewards, but whatever you call them they deserve our praise.

In this spirit, FracTracker Alliance created an award – in partnership with the Halt the Harm Network – to honor three ‘sentinels’ amongst the thousands of volunteers across the United States working in their communities and cherished places to observe, measure, document and report impacts caused by activities of the oil and gas industry. In the complex universe around these issues, volunteers fill regulatory gaps in oversight and do extraordinary things. Everyday insights from citizens lead to the discovery of problems unnoticed or ignored, to enforcement and remediation, and to new perspectives and initiatives for environmental protection. Whether mapping or monitoring, capturing photos or video, a sentinel is someone watching tirelessly, caring boldly – an indispensable ally in informing science, understanding, and action.

Community Sentinel Nominations

The nomination process launched in July and closed on August 17th, with 27 nominations received from around the country but especially the Northeast. The nominee lineup was a tour de force:

  • Ling Tsou, United for Action – New York, NY
  • Craig Stevens, Food & Water Watch, NYAF, PAF and other organizations – Herndon, VA
  • Diane Sipe, Marcellus Outreach Butler – Evans City, PA
  • Therese Vick, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League – Raleigh, NC
  • Vera Scroggins – Brackney, PA
  • Jim Rosenberg, Fayette Marcellus Watch – Grindstone, PA
  • Kel Pickens, Stop Fracking Payne County – Stillwater, OK
  • Dick Martin, Pennsylvania Forest Coalition – Boiling Springs, PA
  • Leatra Harper, Freshwater Accountability Project – Grand Rapids, OH
  • Michael Fitzgerald, The Finger Lakes Times and Subject2Change Media – Watkins Glen, NY
  • Dory Hippauf, Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition – Dallas, PA
  • Frank Finan, Breathe Easy Susquehanna County – Hop Bottom, PA
  • Karen Edelstein, FracTracker Alliance – Lansing, NY
  • Dana Dolney, Friends of the Harmed – Pittsburgh, PA
  • John Detwiler, Marcellus Protest – Pittsburgh, PA
  • Malinda Clatterbuck, Martic Soul – Holtwood, PA
  • Anne Marie Garti, Stop the (UN) Constitutional Pipeline – East Meredith, NY

An esteemed panel of judges carefully considered the outstanding choices without pause to geography. Judges included:

  • Paul Feezel – Chair, Carroll Concerned Citizens
  • Julie Weatherington-Rice – Senior Scientist, Bennett & Williams
  • Jennifer Krill – Executive Director, Earthworks
  • Francisco “Paco” Ollervides – Leadership Development Manager, River Network
  • Ben Stout – Professor of Biology, Wheeling Jesuit University & FracTracker Alliance Board of Directors
  • Phil Pritchard – Retired, Nature Conservancy et al  & FracTracker Alliance Board of Directors

Award Recipients

In the end, in what were admitted to be very difficult decisions, three winners were chosen.

Dory Hippauf, Therese Vick, and Craig Stevens became the first recipients of the Community Sentinel Awards for Environmental Stewardship. Let’s make the ground shake with seismic applause! In the weeks to come, FracTracker plans to highlight each of these conservation heroes, sharing their experiences and inspiring others.

The Community Sentinels will be duly recognized at a FracTracker Film Night event in Mechanicsburg, PA on Saturday evening, September 12 where they will receive very special artisan-made awards fit for proud display. If you can, please join us for this celebration.

[ticket sales closed]

I’m gratified for the chance to meet and honor these dedicated individuals and lift up the names of all the nominees. I also appreciate the time and thoughtfulness of the nominators who presented such worthy candidates. While this was the inaugural year for the Sentinel Awards, we intend to give them annually and continue to affirm the good performed by good people in communities near and far.

Landfill disposal of drill cuttings

Has radioactivity risk from oil and gas activity been underrated?

Reviewing a Pennsylvania TENORM Study

By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern

Technologically-enhanced, naturally-occurring radioactive materials, also known as TENORM, are produced when radionuclides deep in the earth are brought to the surface by human activity such as oil and gas drilling. The radioactive materials, which include uranium (U), thorium (th), potassium-40 (K-40) and their decay products, occur naturally in the environment. These materials are known to dissolve in produced water, or brine, from the hydraulic fracturing process (e.g. fracking), can be found in drilling muds, and can accumulate in drilling equipment over time.

According to the EPA, ~30% of domestic oil and gas wells produce TENORM. Surveys have shown that 90% of the wells show some TENORM concentrations, while others have nothing at all. However, with increasing natural gas exploration and production in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, there is a parallel increase in TENORM. According to Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, an international expert on radiation, drilling companies and geologists locate the Marcellus Shale layer by way of its higher level of radiation.

Bringing more of this TENORM to the surface has the potential to greatly impact public health and the environment. Since 2013, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) has been gathering raw data on TENORM associated with oil and gas activity in the state. The study was initiated due to the volume of waste containing high TENORM concentrations in the state’s landfills, something that is largely unregulated at the state and federal level.  In January 2015, the PA DEP released a report that outlined their findings and conclusions, including potential exposures, TENORM disposal practices, and possible environmental impacts.

Radioactivity Study Overview

Drilling mud being collected on the well pad

This review touches on the samples tested, the findings, and the conclusions drawn after analysis. The main areas of concern included potential exposure to workers, members of the public, and the environment.

The samples gathered by the DEP came from 38 well sites, conventional and unconventional, by testing solids, liquids, ambient air, soils, and natural gas near oil and gas activity in Pennsylvania. All samples contained TENORM or were in some way impacted by TENORM due to oil and gas operations. The samples were mainly tested for radioactive isotopes, specifically radium, through radiological surveys.

The PA DEP concluded in the cases of well sites, wastewater treatment plants (POTW), centralized wastewater treatment plants, zero liquid discharge plants, landfills, natural gas in underground storage, natural gas fired power plants, compressor stations, natural gas processing plants, radon dosimetry (the calculation and assessment of the radiation dose received by the human body), and oil and gas brine-treated roads that there is little potential for internal radiation exposure to workers and members of the public. In spite of this, each section of the report typically concluded with: however, there is a potential for radiological environmental impacts…

Examples of these findings include:

  • There is little potential for radiological exposure to workers and members of the public from handling and temporary storage of produced water on natural gas well sites. However, there is a potential for radiological environmental impacts from spills of produced water from unconventional natural gas well sites and from spills that could occur from the transportation of this fluid.
  • There is little potential for radiological exposure to workers and members of the public from sediment-impacted soil at landfills that accepted O&G waste for disposal.  However, there may be a radiological environmental impact to soil from the sediments from landfill leachate treatment facilities that treat leachate from landfills that accept O&G waste for disposal.
  • Radium 226 was detected within the hydraulic fracturing fluid ranging from 64.0-21,000 pCi/L. Radium-228 was also detected ranging from 4.5-1,640 pCi/L. The hydraulic fracturing fluid was made up of a combination of fresh water, produced water, and reuse flowback fluid. There is little potential impact for radiological exposure to workers and members of the public from handling and temporary storage of flowback fluid on natural gas well sites. However, there is a potential for radiological environmental impacts from spills of flowback fluid on natural gas well sites and from spills that could occur from the transport of this fluid.
  • Nine influent and seven effluent leachate samples were collected at the nine selected landfills.  Radium was detected in all of the leachate samples. Radium-226 concentrations were detected in produced water samples ranging from 40.5 – 26,600 pCi/L. Radium-228 concentrations were also detected ranging from 26.0 – 1,900 pCi/L. The Ra-226 activity in unconventional well site produced water is approximately 20 times greater than that observed in conventional well site produced water. The ratio of Ra-226 to Ra-228 in unconventional well site produced water is approximately eight times greater than that found in conventional well site produced water.  (Sections 3.3.4 and 3.6.3) (PA DEP TENORM study report section 9.0)

According to Melody Fleck from Moshannon Group- Sierra Club Executive Committee:

While the report comprehensively covers the processes from drilling to end users, the number of samples collected and analyzed are very sparse for a state-wide study. Just to give an idea, only 8 well sites were sampled during the flowback phase and of the 8 only 4 had enough volume to analyze. Of 14 drill mud samples collected, only 5 were analyzed as liquids, and alpha & beta analysis was only done on one sample.

Obtaining the proper sample size is often a major barrier for field studies. Additional research needs to be conducted with a larger sample size and more rigorous exposure monitoring to determine specific risk metrics for workers and the public.

Current Handling of TENORM

From drilling to distribution, there are many topics of concern associated with TENORM; however, we will focus on the current treatment of TENORM waste, the release of data, and the transparency of this issue.

On a federal level, there are no specific regulations governing many aspects of TENORM, such as sludge or solids containing TENORM from water treatment plants. Additionally, if concentrations of U or Th make up less than .05% by weight, they are seen as an “unimportant quantity” and are exempt from NRE regulation. Currently, 13 states regulate TENORM with varying degrees of standards. Hazardous waste facilities in each state can choose to accept TENORM materials as long as they don’t exceed certain concentrations.

Today, about 12 of PA’s 50 landfills accept such radioactive waste from oil and gas activity at a 1:50 dilution ratio (related to their other intake sources). Under RCRA’s Land Disposal Restrictions, “dilution is prohibited as treatment for both listed and characterized wastes.”

According to the DEP report, hydraulic fracturing produces an enormous stream of waste by-products. Safe disposal of this waste has not yet been devised. A few of the conclusions concerning TENORM disposal and treatment in the report listed some areas of concern, identified below:

  1. Filter cake [1] and its radiological environmental impact if spilled, and
  2. The amount of radioactive waste entering the landfills in PA, which reached 430,317 tons in the first 10 months of 2014.

In unison with the conclusions were recommendations, where the report “recommends considering limiting radioactive effluent discharge from landfills, and adding radium-226 and radium-228 to annual sample analysis of leachate from landfills.” Additionally, the report states that if something such as filter cake spills, it will bring into question the safety of long-term disposal and suggest a protocol revision.

Public Health Concerns

The report identified two places where there is a higher than average radioactive exposure risk for workers and community members of the public: specifically at centralized wastewater treatment plants and zero liquid discharge plants that treat oil and gas wastewater. An additional unknown is whether there is a potential inhalation or ingestion hazard from fixed alpha and beta surface radioactivity if materials are disturbed. As a general precaution, they recommend the evaluation of worker’s use of protective equipment under certain circumstances.

Although research has not come to a consensus regarding a safe level of radiation exposure, it should not be assumed that any exposure is safe. Past research has evaluated two types of radiation exposure: stochastic and non-stochastic, both of which have their own risks and are known to be harmful to the human body. The EPA has defined stochastic effects as those associated with long-term, low level exposure to radiation, while non-stochastic effects are associated with short-term, high-level exposure. From past scientific research, radiation is known to cause cancer and alter DNA, causing genetic mutations that can occur from both stochastic and non-stochastic exposure. Radiation sickness is also common, which involves nausea, weakness, damage to the central nervous system, and diminished organ function. Exposure levels set by the EPA and other regulatory agencies fall at 100 millirem (mrem) per year to avoid acute health effects. As a point of reference, medical X-rays deliver less than 10 mrem, and yearly background exposure can be about 300 mrem.

In the report, Radiological Dose and Risk Assessment of Landfill Disposal of TENORM in North Dakota, Argonne National Laboratory researchers suggest that the exposure to workers be limited and monitored. In many of their studies, they found the doses exceed the 100 mrem/year level in the workers when the appropriate attire is not worn during working hours, which raised some concern.

The DEP deems certain radiation levels “allowable”, but it should be noted that allowable doses are set by federal agencies and may be arbitrary. Based on the PA DEP’s report, consumers of produced gas can get up to 17.8% of their yearly radiation allowance, while POTW workers could get up to 36.3% of their yearly allowable dose. According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, radiation bio-accumulates in ecosystems and in the body, which introduces a serious confounder in understanding the risk posed by a dose of 17.8% per year.

Transparency of Radiation Risk

The DEP has been gathering data for their TENORM report since 2012. In July of 2014, Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed a Right-to Know request to obtain the information that the DEP had collected in order for their expert to analyze the raw data. The department refused to release the information, insisting that “the release of preliminary invalidated data, including sample locations, could likely result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm, pose a security risk and lead to erroneous and/or misleading characterizations of the levels and effects of the radioactive risks.” Essentially, the DEP was equating the risks of radioactive material to the risks of releasing raw data — two incomparable risks. DRN appealed, claiming that they simply sought the raw information, which is presumed public unless exempt, and would have no risk on the public. PA DEP was ordered to release their records to DRN within 30 days.

Conclusion

One observation that you could take from this report is the lack of regulatory advancement. The study is filled with suggestions, like:

  • Radium should be added to the PA spill protocol to ensure cleanups are adequately characterized,
  • A limited potential was found for recreationists on roads with oil and gas brine from conventional natural gas wells–further study should be conducted, and
  • More testing is needed to identify areas of contamination and any area should be cleaned up.

Intent doesn’t make the changes; action does. Will any regulations change, at least in Pennsylvania where radioactive materials are returning to the surface on a daily basis? There seems to be no urgency when it comes to regulating TENORM and its many issues at the state level. Are workers, citizens, and the environment truly being protected or will we wait for a disaster to spur action?

Footnotes:

[1] This is the residue deposited on a permeable medium when a slurry, such as a drilling fluid, is forced against the medium under pressure. Filtrate is the liquid that passes through the medium, leaving the cake on the medium.

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