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The Falcon: Protected Habitats & Species of Concern

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

Major pipeline projects are scrutinized by state and federal agencies for their potential impacts to threatened, endangered, and protected species. As part of the planning process, operators are required to consult with agencies to identify habitats known to support these species and are often asked to conduct detailed field surveys of specific areas. In this segment of the Falcon Pipeline EIA Project, we investigate how Shell corresponded with different agencies in complying with federal and state protected species guidelines.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • More than half (54%) of construction areas are currently forested or farmland
  • Botanical species Purple Rocket and Climbing Fern located in proximity to workspaces
  • 67 Northern Harrier observations documented during site studies
  • One active Bald Eagle nest and two inactive nests in proximity to workspaces
  • Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees discovered as close as 318 feet from workspaces
  • Clusters of protected freshwater mussels, coldwater fish, and hellbenders in the path of the Falcon

Map of Protected Habitats & Species of Concern

The following map will serve as our guide to exploring the Falcon’s proximity to protected habitats and species of concern. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible at closer zoom levels. A number of additional layers are not shown by default, but can be turned on in the “layers” tab. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

Shell’s permit applications detail extensive correspondences over a number of years — as early as August 2015 — with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC), Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR), among other agencies. These interactions tell a story of locating and cataloging threatened flowers, birds of prey, aquatic species, and bats.

Land Cover Assessment

A number of terrestrial habitat types are present along the Falcon pipeline’s route that will be disrupted during its construction. These are easily determined using data maintained by the USGS that tracks land cover and land use trends often used for understanding geospatial biodiversity. Shell used this data in their ecological impacts analysis and we have used it as well for comparison.

Habitat documentations from Shell’s permit applications

More than half (54%) of land in the Falcon’s construction area is currently forested land (deciduous and evergreen). Shell’s permits describe these areas as “contained cool, forested stream valleys and seeps and rich slopes” similar to the image above, which was submitted as part of Shell’s permit applications. An additional 35% is currently farmland (pasture/hay/crops). The remaining land cover is generally made up of water and wetlands, as well as residential and commercial development.

These numbers reflect the fact that the Falcon will travel through predominantly rural areas. Note that this analysis does not account for disruptions that will result from the pipeline’s 111 temporary and 21 permanent access roads. Land Cover for areas along the pipeline can be seen on the FracTracker map by activating the data in the “layers” tab.

Botanical Studies

In their correspondences with state agencies, Shell was notified that a number of important species would likely be found in these habitats. For instance, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) noted the following botanical species on their watch list would be present:

  • Vase-vine Leather-flower (endangered): documented in floodplain and slopes of Raccoon Creek
  • Harbinger-of-spring (rare): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • White Trout-lily (rare): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • Purple Rocket (endangered): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • Declined Trillium (threatened): documented along wooded tributaries and slopes of Raccoon Creek
  • Snow Trillium (rare): documented in tributary ravines along Raccoon Creek

DCNR requested a survey the Falcon’s route through all of Beaver County and the portion of Allegheny County north of the western fork of Raredon Run. AECOM, Shell’s contractor for this work, surveyed a 300-foot wide buffer along the pipeline route to allow for “minor alignment shifts” as construction plans are refined.

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A final survey report was submitted to DCNR in March 2017. In it, AECOM noted having found multiple populations of Harbinger-of-spring (seen below), Purple Rocket, as well as Climbing Fern (Lygodium palmatum), also the PA Watch List. FracTracker’s map locates the general location of botanical discoveries nearest to the pipeline route.

Documented Harbinger-of-spring

DCNR’s response to the survey stated that route changes and plans to bore under Raccoon Creek using HDDs eliminated risks to Harbinger-of-spring and Purple Rocket. Meanwhile, Climbing Fern was determined to be in close proximity, but not directly in the pipeline’s construction area. Although, documents note that a number of ferns were transplanted “to further the species’ success within the Commonwealth.” As a result of these determinations, DCNR granted clearance for construction in August 2017.

Short-eared Owls & Northern Harriers

Shell was also notified by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) that portions of the Falcon’s workspace would be located near six areas with known occurrences of Short-eared Owls (PA endangered species) and Northern Harriers (PA threatened species).

PGC requested a study of these areas to identify breeding and nesting locations, which AECOM executed from April-July 2016 within a 1,000-foot buffer of the pipeline’s workspace (limited to land cover areas consisting of meadows and pasture). One Short-eared Owl observation and 67 Northern Harrier observations were recorded during the study, but that some of these harriers appeared to be nesting just outside the study area. The study area is visible on the FracTracker map, as shown below.

AECOM’s Owl & Harrier study areas

In February 2017, Shell notified PGC that a number of reroutes had occurred that would shift the Falcon pipeline away from a subset of the observed Northern Harrier habitat. Although, there is no mention in the permit applications about identifying potential nest locations in the neighboring areas where AECOM’s biologists observed additional harriers. Nevertheless, PGC’s final determination in August 2017, approved the project, stipulating that, “based on the unusually high number of observations at these locations” work should not be done in these areas during harrier breeding season, April 15 through August 31.

Bald Eagles

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) notified Shell that a known Bald Eagle nest was located in Beaver County. Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) noted that two potential “alternate nests” were located where the Falcon crosses the Ohio River. National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines bar habitat disturbances that may interfere with the ability of eagles to breed, nest, roost, and forage.

AECOM surveyed these areas in March 2016 and March 2017. The first stage included an analysis of land cover data to determine other areas along the Falcon’s route that may be desirable eagle habitat. In addition to the sites noted above, AECOM determined that Fort Cherry Golf Course (discussed in gerater detail here) and Beaver Conservation District owned land (discussed in greater detail here) would serve as eagle habitat, although in later field surveys no additional nests were found.

The one active nest in close proximity to the Falcon, called the Montgomery Dam Nest, is located just west of the pipeline’s terminus at Shell’s ethane cracker facility. AECOM’s study determined that the foraging areas for a pair of eagles using the nest span the Ohio River and Raccoon Creek.

An additional nesting site was found near Tomlinson Run, along the Ohio River. During initial field observations it was noted that the nest was not in-use and is in an unmaintained condition. Nevertheless, its use by Bald Eagles as recently as 2015 means it is still considered an “alternate nest” and thus accorded protection from habitat modifications. A second alternate nest was found the west bank of the Ohio River. No previous history of the nest had been recorded by state agencies.

Bald Eagle Study Gaps?

Below are maps from Shell’s permit applications identifying the locations of the three nests. These can also be found on the FracTracker map.[/av_icon_box]

USFWS requested that Shell only implement setback buffers for the one active nest at Montgomery Dam. These include no tree clearing within 330 feet, no visible disturbances with 660 feet, and no excessive noise with 1,000 feet of an active nest. Furthermore, Shell must avoid all activities within 660ft of the nest from January 1st to July 31st that may disturb the eagles, including but not limited to “construction, excavation, use of heavy equipment, use of loud equipment or machinery, vegetation clearing, earth disturbance, planting, and landscaping.”

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According to Shell’s permit applications, the reroute that occurred at the Ohio River crossing took the Falcon pipeline away from the two alternate nest sites of concern, and the crossing at the river will be done with HDD boring, thus no impacts will occur. Apparently USFWS agreed with this position. However, as we see in the above maps, the HDD staging area on the WV side of the river (where a great deal of noise will likely occur) is just barely outside the 1,000 foot buffer.

Important Bird Areas

USFWS determined that the Falcon pipeline was also in close proximity to many migratory bird species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and that “direct or indirect, unintentional take of migratory birds may result even if all reasonable measures to avoid avian mortality are utilized.” In particular, the USFWS brought attention to the Raccoon Creek Valley and State Park Important Bird Area (IBA), which is located just south and west of the Falcon pipeline’s two major branches, as seen below.

USFWS recommended a number of strategies, such as co-locating the Falcon pipeline along rights-of-way used by existing pipelines. We see this indeed became the case, as 11 of the Falcon’s 23 pipeline miles in Beaver County are found adjacent to or parallel to existing ROWs.

Additional restrictions were placed on the project in Ohio, where ODNR determined that the Falcon is within range of the Upland Sandpiper, a state endangered bird that nests in grasslands and pastures. Shell was instructed to avoid construction in these habitat types from April 15-July 31 if such areas were to be disturbed. As we can see on the FracTracker map’s analysis of land cover data, there are significant areas of grassland and pasture in Ohio along the pipeline route.

No Peregrine Falcon?

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One absence we noted in AECOM’s birds of prey studies was any mention of Peregrine Falcons, listed as endangered and protected under the PA Game and Wildlife Code. Peregrine Falcons nest in cliffs and bridges along rivers in Allegheny and Beaver counties and are particularly prized by the PA DEP, as evidenced by a prominently displayed booth at their Harrisburg headquarters.

PA DEP Falcon Exhibit

One known nest is located under the East Rochester-Monaca Bridge just north of the Falcon pipeline’s terminus at Shell’s ethane cracker facility. While it is unlikely that activities such as tree clearing would affect falcon habitat, other aspects of the pipeline’s construction, such accidental drilling mud spills at HDD sites or ethane releases along Raccoon Creek, may indeed impact Falcon populations.

Federally Protected Bats

The USFWS notified Shell that the Falcon is located within the range of federally protected Indiana Bats and Northern Long-eared Bats in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and requested Shell conduct a bat “mist net” survey to identify breeding areas. Mist netting involves setting up nylon mesh nets at predetermined locations to capture and document bat populations.

AECOM’s bat survey was conducted from April-July 2016. While bats are known to live in caves and abandoned mines in winter, the study focused on summer habitats — mainly forests that support roost trees — given that tree clearing from building the pipeline would be the most likely impact. These forested areas constituted about 27 of the Falcon pipeline’s 97 miles in the two states. Mist net locations (MNLs) were established at 46 sites along the route, roughly 1/2 mile apart, as shown on the FracTracker map. A later reroute of the pipeline led to setting up 4 additional MNLs in June 2017.

A total of 274 bats from 6 different species were captured in the study, included 190 Big Brown Bats, 2 Silver-haired Bats, 62 Eastern Red Bats, 2 Hoary Bats, and 1 Little Brown Bat. 17 Northern Long-eared Bats were found at 13 of the MNL sites, but no Indiana Bats were captured. Radio transmitters were then attached to the Northern Long-eared Bats in order to follow them to roost trees. A total of 9 roost trees were located, with the nearest roost tree located 318 feet from the pipeline’s workspace.

A captured Northern Long-eared Bat

In January 2018, USFWS stated that, because the Falcon’s construction area is not within 150 feet of a known roost tree during breeding season or within a 1/4 mile of a known year-round hibernation site, that “incidental take that might result from tree removal is not prohibited.” However, USFWS also stated that “Due to the presence of several Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees within the vicinity of the project footprint (although outside of the 150-foot buffer), we recommend the following voluntary conservation measure: No tree removal between June 1 and July 31.”

Furthermore, the PGC noted in early correspondences that Silver-haired Bats may be in the region (a PA species of special concern). This was confirmed in AECOM’s mist net study. PGC did not require a further study for the species, but did request a more restrictive conservation of no tree clearing between April 1 and October 31.

Bat Study Gaps?

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There are a number of possible gaps in AECOM’s study that need attention. First, the study notes the nearest roost tree is 318 feet from the Falcon’s workspace, but this does not fully represent the likely impact to bat populations. As is seen in the map below, taken from Shell’s permits, this tree is just one in a cluster of five trees all within 750 feet of the pipeline’s workspace.

A dense cluster of bat roosting trees

Furthermore, tree clearing in this area will be extensive considering its proximity to the Falcon’s juncture in Beaver County that also must accommodate a metering pad and access roads. This area is shown in the permit application map below and can be explored on the FracTracker map as well.

A second questionable aspect of the study is that, while the USFWS letter states the Falcon is not “within a 1/4 mile of a known year-round hibernation site,” this was not proven in the study as it did not identify nearby winter habitats. These omissions are noteworthy given the already significant stressors to bat populations in the region, as well as increasing pressure from oil and gas companies to relax standards for protecting endangered bat species.

A Note on Noise Control

As part of their ability to build the Falcon pipeline, USFWS mandated that Shell employ an “independent noise consultant” to measure ambient pre-construction noise levels at each HDD site and at designated Noise Sensitive Areas (NSA), which are generally determined by the presence of protected bird and bat species. Less is known about the details of this part of AECOM’s study plan for Shell. However, we have located noise monitoring sites on the FracTracker map for reference.

Freshwater Mussels

The USFWS and PGC identified very early in the Shell’s construction plans that the project would likely impact four endangered mussel species: the Northern Riffelshell, the Clubshell, the Rayed Bean, and the Snuffbox. AECOM conducted a survey in May 2016, at the request of Pennsylvania and Ohio agencies at 16 perennial streams along the route in those two states. These are shown on the FracTracker map. In PA, mussels were found to be present at both of the Falcon’s intersections with Raccoon Creek, as seen in a photo from Shell’s permit application below.

Documented freshwater mussels in Raccoon Creek

The results of the Ohio study are unknown at this time. However, we found it interesting that ODNR’s letter to Shell stated that unavoidable impacts could be resolved by allowing specialists to collect and relocate mussels to suitable and similar upstream habitats. Meanwhile, it appears that the USFWS and PFBC have also green lighted construction around the two known Raccoon Creek mussel habitats, as Shell’s applications argue these waters would not be impacted due to the fact that they would be crossing using HDD boring.

Coldwater Fish

The PA Fish & Boat Commission notified Shell that the Falcon may impact the Southern Redbelly Dace. This threatened species is especially vulnerable to physical and chemical (turbidity, temperature) changes to their environment. PAFB explicitly notes in their correspondences that “we are concerned about potential impacts to the fish, eggs and the hatching fry from any in-stream work.” Of note is that these sites of concern are located in HQ/CWF streams of the Service Creek watershed (discussed in greater detail here), as shown on the map below.

Headwater streams in the Service Creek watershed

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Early correspondences with PFBC show the agency requesting that directional boring be used for these stream crossings or, if work necessitated direct impacts (such as open-cut crossings), that these activity be avoided during the spawning season. Shell responded to the request in stating that, with the exception of the Service Creek itself which will be crossed by HDD, the terrain surrounding its headwater streams was not suitable for boring, and would thus require open-cuts.

PFBC’s final determination on these matters is that they generally agreed, with the exception of the HDD site and one headwater stream (S-PA-151104-MRK-001), all other crossings must adhere to seasonal restrictions with no in-stream activity being conducted between May 1-July 31.

In Ohio, we see similar circumstances related to the River Darter, the Paddlefish, and the Channel Darter, all threatened species in the state. The ODNR recommended no in-stream work in the Ohio River from March 15-June 30 and no in-stream work in any of the state’s perennial streams from April 15-June 30.

Eastern Hellbenders

The Falcon is also within range of Eastern Hellbender habitat in Ohio, a state endangered species and a federal species of concern. In particular, ODNR noted that Yellow Creek, in Jefferson County, is known to host the species. Because of this, ODNR requested that if any in-stream work was to occur in Yellow Creek, a habitat suitability survey must be conducted to determine if Hellbenders were present. Yellow Creek’s tributaries are indeed crossed by the Falcon. Whether or not a study was conducted as a result of this is unknown due to our not having reviewed Shell’s Ohio permit applications. The below image, captured from our page on water crossings, shows these locations.

Falcon crossing Yellow Creek tributaries

Allowable Work Dates

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To summarize, there are numerous implications for how Shell’s construction of the Falcon pipeline must accommodate endangered, threatened, and rare species in different states. In particular, Shell must avoid land and aquatic disturbances during different breeding and spawning seasons. Below is a breakdown of these black-out periods. Note that these only apply to locations where sensitive species were found in AECOM’s studies.

Land Disturbances

  • Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls (PGC): No clearing between April 15 and August 31
  • Bald Eagles (USFWS): No work between January 1 and July 31
  • Upland Sandpiper (ODNR): No clearing between April 15 and July 31
  • Bats (USFWS): No clearing between April 1 and October 31

Aquatic Disturbances

  • Southern Redbelly Dace (PFBC): No in-stream work between May 1 and July 31
  • River Darter, Paddlefish, Channel Darter (ODNR): No Ohio River work between March 15 and June 30; no perennial stream work between April 15 and June 30

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Related Articles

Falcon Pipeline: Cumulative Development & Compounded Risks

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

In this final section of the Falcon Public EIA Project, we explore the Falcon pipeline’s entanglements with a region already impacted by a long history of energy development. Featured in this article are where the Falcon pipeline intersects underground mining facilities, strip mines, other hazardous pipelines, active oil and gas wells, as well as a very large compressor station. We utilize this information to locate spaces where cumulative development also has the potential for compounded risk.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • 20 miles of the Falcon run through under-mined areas; 5.6 miles through active mines
  • 18 miles of the Falcon run through surface-mined areas; also coal slurry waste site
  • Shares a right-of-way with Mariner West pipeline for 4 miles in Beaver County
  • 11 well pads, as well as a compressor station, are within the potential impact radius

Map of Falcon relative to mined areas and other energy-related development

The following map will serve as our guide in breaking down where the Falcon intersects areas that have experienced other forms of energy development. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible as you zoom in. A number of additional features of the map are not shown by default, but can be turned on in the “layers” tab. These include information on geological features, water tables, soil erosion characteristics, as well as drinking reservoir boundaries. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work


Mined Lands

The Falcon pipeline intersects a surprising number of active and inactive/abandoned mine lands. While the location of active mines is fairly easy to obtain from mine operators, finding data on abandoned mines is notoriously difficult. State agencies, such as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), have digitized many legacy maps, but these resources are known to be incomplete and inaccurate in many locations.

AECOM’s engineers used data layers on active and abandoned mine lands maintained by state agencies in OH, WV, and PA. FracTracker obtained this data, as well, as shown on the interactive map. Shell states in their permits that AECOM’s engineers also went through a process of obtaining and digitizing paper maps in areas with questionable mine maps.

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Shell states that their analysis shows that 16.8 miles of the Falcon pipeline travel through under-mined areas. Our analysis using the same dataset suggests the figure is closer to 20 miles. Of these 20 miles of pipeline:

  • 5.6 miles run through active coal mines and are located in Cadiz Township, OH (Harrison Mining Co. Nelms Mine); Ross Township, OH (Rosebud Mining Co. Deep Mine 10); and in Greene Township, PA (Rosebud Mining Co. Beaver Valley Mine). 
  • More than 18 miles run through areas that have been historically surface-mined (some overlapping under-mined areas).
  • Of those 18 miles, 1.5 miles run through an active surface mine located in Cadiz Township, OH, managed by Oxford Mining Company.

Beaver Valley Mine

The Beaver Valley Mine in Greene Township, PA, appeared to be of particular importance in Shell’s analysis. Of the three active mines, Shell maintained an active data layer with the mine’s underground cell map for reference in selecting routes, seen in the image below. Note how the current route changed since the map was originally digitized, indicating that a shift was made to accommodate areas around the mine. The FracTracker interactive map shows the mine based on PA DEP data, which is not as precise as the mine map AECOM obtained from Rosebud Mining.

Digitized map of Beaver Valley Mine

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Rosebud Mining idled its Beaver Valley Mine in 2016 due to declining demand for coal. However, Rosebud appears to be expanding its workforce at other mines in the area due to changing economic and political circumstances. We don’t know exactly why this particular mine was highlighted in Shell’s analysis, or why the route shifted, as it is not directly addressed in Shell’s permit applications. Possibilities include needing to plan around areas that are known to be unfit for the pipeline, but also perhaps areas that may be mined in the future if the Beaver Valley Mine were to restart operations.

Coal Slurry Site, Imperial PA

As discussed in other segments of the Falcon Public EIA Project, Shell intends to execute 19 horizontal directional drilling (HDD) operations at different sites along the pipeline. A cluster of these are located in Allegheny and Washington counties, PA, with extensive historical surface mining operations. A 2003 DEP report commented on this region, stating:

All of the coal has been underground mined. Most of the coal ribs and stumps (remnants from the abandoned underground mine) have been surface mined… The extensive deep mining, which took place from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, has had a severe effect on groundwater and surface water in this watershed.

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Shell’s applications note that AECOM did geotechnical survey work in this and other surface-mined areas co-located with proposed HDD operations, concluding that the ”majority of rock encountered was shale, sandstone, limestone, and claystone.” However, at one proposed HDD (called “HOU-06”) the Falcon will cross a coal waste site identified in the permits as “Imperial Land Coal Slurry” along with a large Palustrine Emergent (PEM) wetland along Potato Garden Run, seen below.

A Falcon HDD crossing under a wetland and coal slurry site

Foreign Pipelines

In addition to its entanglements with legacy coal mining, the Falcon will be built in a region heavily traveled by oil and gas pipelines. More than 260 “foreign pipelines” carrying oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids, were identified by AECOM engineers when selecting the Falcon’s right-of-way (note that not all of these are directly crossed by the Falcon).

Owners of these pipelines run the gamut, including companies such as Williams, MarkWest, Columbia, Kinder Morgan, Energy Transfer Partners, Momentum, Peoples Gas, Chesapeake, and Range Resources. Their purposes are also varied. Some are gathering lines that move oil and gas from well pads, others are midstream lines connecting things like compressor stations to processing plants, others still are distribution lines that eventually bring gas to homes and businesses. FracTracker took note of these numbers and their significance, but did not have the capacity to document all of them for our interactive map.

Shared Rights-of-Way

However, we did include one pipeline, the Mariner West, because of its importance in the Falcon’s construction plans. Mariner West was built in 2011-2013 as part of an expanding network of pipelines initially owned by Sunoco Pipeline but now operated by Energy Transfer Partners. The 10-inch pipeline transports 50,000 barrels of ethane per day from the Separator plant in Houston, PA, to processing facilities in Canada. Another spur in this network is the controversial Mariner East 2

Mariner West is pertinent to the Falcon because the two pipelines will share the same right-of-way through a 4-mile stretch of Beaver County, PA, as shown below.

The Falcon and Mariner West sharing a right-of-way

Reuse of existing rights-of-way is generally considered advantageous by pipeline operators and regulatory agencies. The logistics of sharing pipelines can be complicated, however. As noted in Shell’s permit applications:   

Construction coordination will be essential on the project due to the numerous parties involved and the close proximity to other utilities. Accurate line location was completed; however, verification will also be key, along with obtaining proper crossing design techniques from the foreign utilities. A meeting with all of pipeline companies will be held to make sure that all of the restrictions are understood prior to starting construction, and that they are documented on the construction alignment sheets/bid documents for the contractor(s). This will save a potential delay in the project. It will also make working around the existing pipelines safe.

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Shell’s attention to coordinating with other utility companies is no doubt important, as is their recognition of working near existing pipelines as a safety issue. There are elevated risks with co-located pipelines when they come into operation. This was seen in a major pipeline accident in Salem Township, PA, in 2016. One natural gas line exploded, destroying nearby homes, and damaged three adjacent pipelines that took more than a year to come back onlineThese findings raise the question of whether or not Class Location and High Consequence Area assessments for the Falcon should factor for the exponential risks of sharing a right-of-way with Mariner West.

Oil & Gas Extraction

The remaining features included on our map relate to oil and gas extraction activities. The Falcon will carry ethane from the three cryogenic separator plants at the pipeline’s source points. But the wet, fracked gas that supplies those plants also comes from someplace, and these are the many thousands of unconventional gas wells spread across the Marcellus and Utica shale.

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We found 11 unconventional oil and gas pads, hosting a combined 48 well heads, within the Falcon’s 940-foot PIR. We also found a large compressor station operated by Range Resources, located in Robinson Township, PA. This is shown below, along with a nearby gas pad.

A well pad and compressor station in Falcon’s PIR

We noted these well pads and the compressor station because Class Location and HCA risk analysis may account for proximity to occupied businesses and homes, but does not always consider a pipeline’s proximity to other high-risk industrial sites. Nevertheless, serious incidents have occurred at well pads and processing facilities that could implicate nearby hazardous liquid pipelines. By the same measure, an accident with the Falcon could implicate one of these facilities, given they are all within the Falcon’s blast zone.

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Related Articles

The Falcon: Methods, Mapping, & Analysis

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

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

Finding the Data

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

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

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

Google search results related to Falcon pipeline data

Viewing the Data

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

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

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

The HOUGEO GIS folders organized by topic

 

Archiving the Data

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

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

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

Transparency & Caveats

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

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

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

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

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