Oil and Gas Wastes are Radioactive – and Lack Regulatory Oversight

Highlighting the maps of radioactive oil and gas exploration and production wastes created in collaboration with the Western Organization of Research Councils

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Scott Skokos, Western Organization of Research Councils

Oil and gas waste can be radioactive, but it is not considered “hazardous,” at least according to the federal government. In this article, we summarize several of the hazardous risks resulting from the current federal policy that fails to regulate this massive waste stream, and the gaps left by states. Of the six states mapped in this assessment, only the state of Montana has initiated any type of rule-making process to manage the waste.

When it comes to unconventional oil and gas waste streams:

Nobody can say how much of any type of waste is being produced, what it is, and where it’s ending up. – Nadia Steinzor, Earthworks

To address some of these gaps, FracTracker Alliance has been working with the Western Organization of Resources Councils (WORC) to map out exactly where radioactive oil and wastes are being dumped, stored, and injected into the ground for disposal. The work is an extension to WORC’s comprehensive No Time to Waste report.

Why is accurate waste data so hard to come by? The Earthworks report, Wasting Away explains that the U.S. EPA intentionally exempted oil and gas exploration and production wastes from the federal regulations known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) despite concluding that such wastes “contain a wide variety of hazardous constituents.” As a result, there is very little waste tracking and reporting of oil and gas waste data nationally.

State Waste Management Maps

Some data is available at the state level, so we at FracTracker have compiled, cleaned, and mapped what little data we could find.

State-specific maps have been created for Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming – see below:

ND Radioactive Waste mapNorth Dakota – View map fullscreen

co-radioactive-featureColorado – View map fullscreen

Sources of Radioactivity

When we hear about “radioactive waste” associated with the energy industry, nuclear power stations and fission reactors are usually what come to mind. But, as the EPA explains, fracking has transformed the nature of the oil and gas waste stream. Components of fracking waste differ from conventional oil and gas exploration and production wastes in a number of ways:

  • In general, the waste stream has additional hazardous components, and that transformation includes increased radioactivity.
  • Fracking has allowed for more intrusive drilling, penetrating deep sedimentary formations using millions of gallons of fluid.
  • Drilling deeper produces more drill cuttings.
  • The process of hydraulic fracking introduces millions more gallons of fluid into the ground that then return to the surface. These returns are ultimately contaminated and require disposal.
  • The formations targeted for unconventional development are mostly ancient seabeds still filled with salty “brines” known as “formation waters.”
  • In addition to the hazardous chemicals in the fracking fluid pumped into the wells for fracking, these unconventional formations contain larger amounts of heavy metals, carcinogens and other toxics. This also includes more radioisotopes such as Uranium, Thorium, Radium, Potassium-40, Lead-210, and Polonium-210 than the conventional formations that have supplied the majority of oil and gas prior to the shale boom.

A variety of waste products make up the waste stream of oil and gas development, and each is enhanced with naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). This waste stream must be treated and disposed of properly. All the oil and gas equipment – such as production equipment, processing equipment, produced water handing equipment, and waste management equipment – also need to be considered as sources of radioactive exposure.

Figure 1 below explains where the waste from fracking goes after it leaves the well pad.

Radioactive Oil and Gas Pathway Life Cycle

Figure 1. Breakdown of the radioactive oil and gas waste life-cycle

Three facets of the waste stream particularly enhanced with NORMs by fracking include scales, produced waters, and sludges.

A. Scales

When injected into the ground, fracking fluid mixes with formation waters, dissolving metals, radioisotopes and other inorganic compounds. Additionally the fracking liquids are often supplemented with strong acids to reduce “scaling” from precipitate build up (to prevent clogging up the well). Regardless, each oil well generates approximately 100 tons of radioactive scale annually. As each oil and gas reservoir is drained, the amount of scale increases. The EPA reports that lead-210 and polonium-210 are commonly found in scales along with their decay product radon at concentrations estimated to be anywhere from 480 picocuries per gram (pCi/g) to 400,000 pCi/g). Scale can be disposed of as a solid waste, or dissolved using “scale inhibitors.” These radioactive elements then end up in the liquid waste portion of the waste stream, known as produced waters.

B. Produced Waters

In California, strong acids are used to further dissolve formations to stimulate additional oil production. Acidic liquids are able to dissolve more inorganic elements and compounds such as radioisotopes. While uranium and thorium are not soluble in water, their radioactive decay products such as radium dissolve in the brines. The brines return to the surface as “produced water.” As the oil and gas in the formation are removed, much of what is pumped to the surface is formation water.

Consequently, declining oil and gas fields generate more produced water. The ratio of produced water to oil in conventional well was approximately 10 barrels of produced water per barrel of oil. According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), more than 18 billion barrels of waste fluids from oil and gas production are generated annually in the United States. There are several options for managing the liquid waste stream. The waste could be treated using waste treatment facilities, reinjected into other wells to enhance production (a cheaper option), or injected for disposal. Before disposal of the liquid portion, all the solids in the solution must be removed, resulting in a “sludge.”

C. Sludges

The U.S. EPA reports that conventional oil production alone produces 230,000 million tons – or five million ft3 (141 cubic meters) – of TENORM sludge each year. Unconventional processes produce much more sludge waste than conventional processes. The average concentration of radium in sludges is estimated to be 75 pCi/g, while the concentration of lead-210 can be over 27,000 pCi/g. Sludges present a high risk to the environment and a higher risk of exposure for people and other receptors in those environments because sludges are typically very water soluble.

Federal Exemptions

According to the EPA, “because the extraction process concentrates the naturally occurring radionuclides and exposes them to the surface environment and human contact, these wastes are classified as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (TENORM).” Despite the conclusions that oil and gas TENORM pose a risk to the environment and humans, the EPA exempts oil and gas exploration and production wastes from the definition of “hazardous” under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) law. In fact, most wastes from all of the U.S. fossil fuel energy industry, including coal-burning and natural gas, are exempt from the disposal standards that hazardous waste normally requires.

The Center for Public Integrity calls this radioactive waste stream “orphan waste,” because no single government agency is fully managing it.

Fortunately, the EPA has acknowledged that federal regulations are currently inadequate, though this is nothing new. A U.S. EPA report from the 1980’s reported as much, and gave explicit recommendations to address the issue. For 30 years nothing happened! Then in August, 2015, a coalition of environmental groups (including the Environmental Integrity ProjectNatural Resources Defense CouncilEarthworksResponsible Drilling AllianceWest Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice) filed a lawsuit against the EPA, and has since reached a settlement.

Just last month (January 10, 2017) the U.S. EPA agreed to review federal regulations of oil and gas waste – a process they were meant to do every 3 years for the last 30 years. The EPA has until March 15, 2019, to determine whether or not regulatory changes are warranted for “wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil, natural gas, or geothermal energy.” With the recent freeze on all U.S. EPA grants, however, it is not clear whether these regulations will receive the review they need.

State Regulations

Regulation of this waste stream is left up to the states, but most states do not require operators to manage the radioactivity in oil and gas wastes, either. Because of the federal RCRA exemptions most state policies ignore the radioactive issue altogether. Operators are free to dispose of the waste at any landfill facility, unless the landfill tells them otherwise. For detailed analyses of state policies, see pages 10-45 of the No Time to Waste report. FracTracker has also covered these issues in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Another issue that screams for federal consideration of this waste stream is that states do not have the authority to determine whether or not the wastes can cross their borders. States also do not have the jurisdiction to decide whether or not facilities in their state can accept waste from across state lines. That determination is reserved for federal jurisdiction, and there are not any federal laws regulating such wastes. In fact, these wastes are strategically exempt from federal regulation for just these reasons.

Why can’t the waste be treated?

This type of industrial waste actually cannot be treated, at least not entirely. Unlike organic pollutants that can be broken down, inorganic constituents of the waste cannot be simply disintegrated out of existence. Inorganic components include heavy metals like arsenic and bromides, as well as radioactive isotopes of radium, lead, and uranium. Such elements will continue to emit radiation for hundreds-to-thousands of years. The best option available is to find a location to “isolate” and dispose of these wastes – a sacrifice zone.

Current management practices do their best to separate the liquid portions from the solid portions, but that’s about it. Each portion can then be disposed independently of each other. Liquids are injected into the ground, which is the cheapest option where it is available. If enough of the dissolved components (heavy metals, salts, and radioisotopes) can be removed, wastewaters are discharged into surface waters. The compounds and elements that are removed from the liquid waste stream are hyper-concentrated in the solid portion of the waste, described as “sludge” in the graphic above. This hazardous material can be disposed of in municipal or solid waste landfills if the state regulators do not require the radioactivity or toxicity of this material to be a consideration for disposal. There are not federal requirements, so unless there is a specific state policy regarding the disposal, it can end up almost anywhere with little oversight. These chemicals do not magically disappear. They never disappear.


There are multiple pathways for contamination from facilities that are not qualified to manage radioactive and hazardous wastes. At least seven different environmental pathways provide potential risks for human exposure. They include:

  1. Radon inhalation,
  2. External gamma exposure,
  3. Groundwater ingestion,
  4. Surface water ingestion,
  5. Dust inhalation,
  6. Food ingestion, and
  7. Skin beta exposure from particles containing the radioisotopes.

According to the EPA, the low-level radioactive materials in drilling waste present a definitive risk to those exposed. High risk examples include dust suppression and leaching. If dust is not continuously suppressed, radioactive materials in dust pose a risk to people at these facilities or those receptors or secondary pathways located downwind of the facilities. Radioactive leachate entering surface waters and groundwaters is also a significant threat. A major consideration is that radioactive waste can last in these landfills far longer than the engineered lifespans of landfills, particularly those that are not designed to retain hazardous wastes.

Cases of Contamination

North Dakota

In North Dakota, the epicenter of the Bakken Oil Fields, regulators were not ready for the massive waste streams that came from the fast growing oil fields. This  allowed thousands of wastewater disposal wells be drilled to dispose of salty wastewater without much oversight, and no places in state for companies to dispose of radioactive solid waste. Many of the wastewater disposal wells were drilled haphazardly, and as a result many contaminated surrounding farmland with wastewater. With regard to radioactive solid waste, the state until recently had a de facto ban on solid radioactive waste disposal due to their radioactivity limit being 5 picocuries per gram. The result of this de facto ban made it so companies either had to make one of two decisions: 1. Haul their radioactive solid waste above the limit out of state to facilities in Idaho or Colorado; or 2. Risk getting caught illegally dumping waste in municipal landfills or just plain illegal dumping in roadsides, buildings, or farmland.

In 2014, a massive illegal dumping site was discovered in Noonan, ND when North Dakota regulators found a gas station full of radioactive waste and filter socks (the socks used to filter out solid waste from wastewater, which contain high levels of radioactivity). Following the Noonan, ND incident North Dakota regulators and politicians began discussions regarding the need for new regulations to address radioactive solid waste.

In 2015, North Dakota moved to create rules for the disposal of solid radioactive waste. Its new regulations increase the radioactivity limit from 5 picocuries per gram to 50 picocuries per gram, and sets up new requirements for the permitting of waste facilities accepting radioactive waste and the disposal of radioactive waste in the waste facilities. Dakota Resource Council, a member group of WORC, challenged the rules in the courts, arguing the rules are not protective enough and that the agency responsible for the rules pushed through the rules without following the proper procedures. Currently the rules are not in effect until the litigation is settled.


In Pennsylvania, the hotbed of activity for Marcellus Shale gas extraction, the regulatory body was ill equipped and uninformed for dealing with the new massive waste stream when it first arrived on scene. Through 2013, the majority of wastewater was disposed of in commercial and municipal wastewater treatment facilities that discharge to surface waters. Numerous facilities engaged in this practice without amending their federal discharge permits to include this new waste stream.

Waste treatment facilities in Pennsylvania tried to make the waste streams less innocuous by diluting the concentrations of these hazardous pollutants. They did this by mixing the fracking wastes with other waste streams, including industrial discharges and municipal waste. Other specialized facilities also tried to remove these dissolved inorganic elements and filter them from the discharge stream.

As a result of site assessments by yours-truly and additional academic research, these facilities realized that such hazardous compounds do not simply dilute into receiving waters such as the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. Instead, they partition (settle) into sediments where they are hyper-concentrated. As a result of the lawsuits that followed the research, entire river bottoms in Pennsylvania had to be entirely dug up, removed, and disposed of in hazardous waste landfills.

Action Plans Needed

Massive amounts of solid and liquid wastes are still generated during drilling exploration and production from the Marcellus Shale. There is so much waste, operators don’t know what to do with it. In Pennsylvania, there is not much they can do with it, but it is not just Pennsylvania. Throughout the Ohio River Valley, operators struggle to dispose of this incredibly large waste stream.

Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania have all learned that this waste should not be allowed to be discharged to surface waters even after treatment. So it goes to other states – those without production or the regulatory framework to manage the wastes. Like every phase of production in the oil and gas industry, operators (drillers) shop around for the lowest disposal costs. In Estill County, Kentucky, the State Energy and Environment Department just recently cited the disposal company Advance Disposal Services Blue Ridge Landfill for illegally dumping hydraulic fracturing waste. The waste had traveled from West Virginia Marcellus wells, and ended up at an ignorant or willfully negligent waste facility.

In summary, there is inadequate federal oversight of potentially hazardous waste coming from the oil and gas industry, and there are serious regulatory gaps within and between states. Data management practices, too, are lacking. How then, is the public health community supposed to assess the risk that the waste stream poses to people? Obviously, a more thorough action plan is needed to address this issue.

Feature image: Drill cuttings being prepared to be hauled away from the well pad. Photo by Bill Hughes, OVEC

Koontz Class II Injection Well, Trumbull County, Ohio, (41.22806065, -80.87669281) with 260,278 barrels (10,020,704 gallons) of fracking waste having been processed between Q3-2010 and Q3-2012 (Note: Q1-2016 volumes have yet to be reported!).

Ohio Shale Activity, Waste Disposal, and Public Water Supplies

Ohio is unique relative to its Appalachian neighbors in the Marcellus and Utica Shale Basins in that The Buckeye State chose to “diversify” when it came to planning for the hydraulic fracturing revolution. One of the first things financial advisers tell their clients is to “diversify, diversify, diversify.” However, this strategy is usually meant to buffer investors when certain sectors of the economy underperform. Columbus legislators took this strategy to mean that we should drill and hydraulically fracture our geology to extract oil and gas (O&G), as well as taking in vast quantities of liquid and solid O&G waste from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Accepting significant quantities of out-of-state waste raises several critical questions, however. How will these materials will be contained? Will such volumes require more and larger waste landfills? And will the injection of liquid brine waste into our geology (photo below) make Ohio the “Oklahoma of Appalachia” with respect to induced seismicity?

Above: Example Class II salt water disposal (SWD) wells in Ohio

Risks to Public Water Supplies

There are also mounting concerns about public water supply (PWS) security, quality, and resilience. These concerns stem from the growing uncertainty surrounding the containment of hydraulically fractured and Class II injection wells.

To begin to assess the risks involved in locating these wells near PWS’s, we compiled and incorporated as many of the state’s PWS’s into our primary Ohio maps. In this post, we explore PWS proximity to Utica drilling activity and Class II salt water disposal (SWD) wells in Ohio.

Waste Disposal & Drilling Near PWS’s

Public water chartJust how close are public water supplies to Class II waste disposal wells and permitted Utica wells? As of January 15, 2017, there are 13 PWS’s within a half-mile of Ohio’s Class II SWD wells, and 18 within a half-mile of permitted Utica wells. These facilities serve approximately 2,000 Ohioans each, with an average of 112-153 people per PWS (Tables 1 and 5). Within one mile from these wells there are 64 to 66 PWSs serving 18 to 61 thousand Ohioans. That’s an average of 285-925 residents.

Above: Photos of SWD wells from the sky

While PWSs on the 5-mile perimeter of our analysis don’t immediately conjure up water quality/quantity concerns, they may in the future; the rate of Utica and Class II permitting is likely to accelerate under a new White House administration more friendly to industry and averse to enforcing or enhancing regulatory hurdles.

A total of 960 and 699 PWSs are currently within five miles of Ohio Class II and Utica wells. These facilities service roughly 1.5 million and one-half million Ohioans each day, which is ~13% and 4% of the state, respectively. The average PWS within range of Class II wells is 37% to 330 times the average PWS within range of Utica wells.

Roland Marily Kemble Class II Salt Water Disposal Well, Muskingum County, Ohio, Muskingum River Watershed, 39.975, -81.845, 1,984,787 Barrels of Waste Disposed Between 2010 and Q3-2016

Roland Marily Kemble Class II Salt Water Disposal Well, Muskingum County, Ohio, Muskingum River Watershed, 39.975, -81.845, 1,984,787 Barrels of Waste Disposed Between 2010 and Q3-2016

Fifty-eight (58%) to 69% of the PWSs within range of Class II wells are what the Ohio EPA calls Transient Non-Community (TNC) (Table 2). TNC’s are defined by the OH EPA and OH Department of Agriculture as serving[1]:

…at least 25 different persons over 60 days per year. Examples include campgrounds, restaurants and gas stations. In addition, drinking water systems associated with agricultural migrant labor camps, as defined by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, are regulated even though they may not meet the minimum number of people or service connections.

Meanwhile 60-89% of PWS’s in the shadow of Ohio’s permitted Utica wells are of the TNC variety. Even larger percentages of these PWS’s are either Groundwater or Purchased Groundwater types. Most of the PWS’s within the range gradient we looked at are privately owned, with only handful owned by federal or state agencies (Table 6).

Above: Example Class II salt water disposal (SWD) wells in Ohio

Of the 24 hydrologic unit codes (HUCs)/watersheds that contain Class II SWD wells, the lion’s share of PWS’s within the shadow of injection wells are the Tuscarawas, Mahoning, and Walhonding (Table 3). Even the Cuyahoga River, which feeds directly in the Great Lakes, is home to up to 138 PWS’s within 5 miles of Class II SWD wells. Conversely, only 13 HUCs currently contain Ohio’s Utica wells. Like Class II-affected HUCs, we see that the Mahoning, Tuscarawas, and Cuyahoga PSW’s contain most of the PWSs of interest (Table 7).


Watershed security/resilience concerns are growing in Eastern Ohio. Residential and agricultural water demands are increasingly coming into conflict with the drilling industry’s growing freshwater demand. Additionally, as oil and gas drilling uses more water, we will see more brine produced (Figures 1 and 2).

This, in turn, will create more demand – on top of an already exponential trend (Figure 3) – for Ohio’s existing Class II wells from across Northern Appalachia, stretching from Southeast Ohio and West Virginia to North Central Pennsylvania.

An understanding of the links between watershed security, O&G freshwater demand, brine production, and frack waste disposal is even more critical in areas like Southeast Ohio’s Muskingum River Watershed (Figure 4).

A Dynamic Model of Water Demand Between 2000 and 2020 within the Muskingum River Watershed, Southeast Ohio, Kurtz, E. 2015

Figure 4. A Dynamic Model of Water Demand Between 2000 and 2020 within the Muskingum River Watershed, Southeast Ohio, Kurtz and Auch 2015

This is a region of the state where we have seen new water withdrawal agreements like the one below between the Muskingum River Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD) and Antero described in last week’s Caldwell Journal-Leader, Noble County, Ohio:

The [MWCD], which oversees 10 lakes in east central Ohio, approved a second short-term water sale from Seneca Lake last week. The deal, with Antero Resources, Inc., could net the district up to $9,000 a day over about a three month period, and allows Antero to draw up to 1.5 million gallons of water a day during the months of August, September and October for a total of 135 million gallons; less than one percent of the lake’s estimated volume of 14.2 billion gallons. Antero plans to use the water in its fracking operations in the area and will pay $6 per 1000 gallons drawn.

Consol Energy's Cowgill Road Impoundment, Sarahsville, Wills Creek, Noble County, Ohio, 39.8212, -81.4061

Consol Energy’s Cowgill Road Impoundment, Sarahsville, Wills Creek, Muskingum River Watershed, Noble County, Ohio, 39.8212, -81.4061

This agreement will mean an increase in new Class II SWD permits and/or discussion about converting Ohio’s thousands of other Class II wells into SWD wells. What does this change means for communities that have already seen the industry extract the equivalent of nearly 14% – and even 25-80% in several counties – of residential water from their watersheds, only to inject it 6,000+ feet into the state’s geology is unknown? (Figure 5)

It is critical that we establish and frequently revisit the spatial relationship between oil and gas infrastructure the water supplies of Appalachian Ohio. The state of national politics, federal agency oversight and administrations, growing concerns around climate change, and the fact that Southeast Ohio is experiencing more intense and infrequent precipitation events are testaments to that fact. We will be tracking these changes to Ohio’s landscape as they develop. Stay tuned.

Kleese Disposal Class II Salt Water Disposal Well, Trumbull County, Shenango/Mahoning River, 41.244, -80.641, 3,548,104 Barrels of Waste Disposed Between 2010 and Q3-2016

Kleese Disposal Class II Salt Water Disposal well from the sky, Trumbull County, Shenango/Mahoning River, 41.244, -80.641. Data suggest 3,548,104 barrels of waste have been disposed of there between 2010 and Q3-2016.

Supplemental Tables

Public Water and Class II Wells

Table 1. Number of Ohio public water supplies and population served at several intervals from Class II Injection wells

Well Distance (Miles) # Total Population Ave Served Per Well Max People Per Well
0.5 13 1,992 153 (±120) 446
<1 66 60,539 917 (±4,702) 37,456
<2 198 278,402 1,406 (±4,374) 37,456
<3 426 681,969 1,601(±8,187) 148,000
<4 681 1,086,463 1,596 (±8,284) 148,000
<5 960 1,450,865 1,511 (±7,529) 148,000


Table 2. Ohio public water supplies by system type, source, and ownership at several intervals from Class II Injection wells


Well Distance (Miles)

System Type† Source†† Ownership






















0.5 3 9 1 13 13
<1 11 47 8 65 1 61 5
<2 30 118 50 177 16 5 164 34
<3 76 245 105 385 32 8 351 75
<4 122 392 167 628 40 12 574 106 1
<5 162 564 234 878 30 32 19 823 135 1 1

† NTNC = Non-Transient Non-Community; TNC = Transient Non-Community; C = Community

†† G = Groundwater; GP = Purchased Groundwater; S = Surface Water; SP = Purchased Surface Water


Table 3. Ohio public water supplies by hydrologic unit code (HUC) at several intervals from Class II Injection wells


HUC Name

Well Distance (Miles)
0.5 <1 <2 <3 <4 <5
Ashtabula-Chagrin, 799 1 5 18 18 22
Black-Rocky, 859 1 1 2 2 9
Cuyahoga, 832 1 8 20 92 92 138
Grand, 811 12 30 71 71 81
Hocking, 1081 4 18 18 22
Licking, 1010 1 2 17 17 29
Little Muskingum-Middle Island, 1062 1 2 2 6
Lower Maumee, 856 2 2 4
Lower Scioto, 1091 6 6 9
Mahoning, 831 9 17 48 129 129 161
Mohican, 919 1 3 3 4
Muskingum, 1006 1 3 15 15 33
Raccoon-Symmes, 1128 1
Sandusky, 862 3 19 19 27
Shenango, 815 1 2 6 10 10 11
St. Mary’s, 934 3 5 5 7
Tiffin, 837 4 4 7
Tuscarawas, 889 1 9 76 147 147 213
Upper Ohio, 901 3 15 15 23
Upper Ohio-Shade, 1120 4 8 8 9
Upper Ohio-Wheeling, 984 1 1 4 4 5
Upper Scioto, 959 5 13 13 23
Walhonding, 906 1 11 26 69 69 101
Wills, 1009 2 3 12 12 14


Table 4. Ohio public water supplies by county at several intervals from Class II Injection wells



Well Distance (Miles)
0.5 <1 <2 <3 <4 <5
Ashtabula 4 9 16 19 22
Athens 1 2 2 3
Auglaize 3 5 5 7
Belmont 1 4 5 6
Carroll 2 9 20
Columbiana 1 2 6 13 20 32
Coshocton 7 8 10 13
Crawford 1
Cuyahoga 1
Delaware 1
Fairfield 4
Franklin 1 3 7
Fulton 2 4 8
Gallia 1
Geauga 8 19 33 60 71
Guernsey 2 4 10 11 11
Harrison 1 1
Henry 2 3 3
Henry 2 3
Hocking 3 10 11 13
Holmes 1 11 34 25 38 47
Jefferson 1 3 3 5
Knox 2 6 8 9
Lake 1 4 7 17 18
Licking 1 2 10 14 26
Lorain 1 4
Mahoning 3 4 13 25 37 48
Medina 1 1 1 2 5
Meigs 4 5 6 7
Morgan 1 1 1 6 17
Morrow 3 8 11 11
Muskingum 3 8 15
Noble 1 2 2 3
Perry 5 6 8
Pickaway 2 3 7 10
Portage 3 12 41 62 90 113
Seneca 1 12 17 21
Stark 1 4 20 52 121 161
Summit 2 12 26 51
Trumbull 3 7 24 32 45 61
Tuscarawas 6 10 22 24 26
Washington 1 2 4 9
Wayne 1 1 9 18 24 54
Wyandot 2 2 2 3

Public Water and Hydraulically Fractured Wells

Table 5. The number of Ohio public water supplies and population served at several intervals from hydraulically fractured Utica Wells

Well Distance (Miles) # Total Population Ave Served Per Well Max People Per Well
0.5 18 2,010 112 (±72) 31
<1 64 17,879 279 (±456) 2,598
<2 235 116,682 497 (±1,237) 8,728
<3 433 257,292 594 (±2,086) 29,787
<4 572 380,939 666 (±2,404) 29,787
<5 699 496,740 711 (±2,862) 47,348


Table 6. Ohio public water supplies by system type, source, and ownership at several intervals from hydraulically fractured Utica Wells


Well Distance (Miles)

System Type† Source†† Ownership






















0.5 1 16 1 17 1 18
<1 9 45 10 59 3 1 1 58 6
<2 50 137 48 216 6 3 10 206 29
<3 83 265 85 400 14 5 14 381 51 1
<4 109 352 111 534 16 7 15 504 67 1
<5 141 421 137 652 19 9 18 621 77 1

† NTNC = Non-Transient Non-Community; TNC = Transient Non-Community; C = Community

†† G = Groundwater; GP = Purchased Groundwater; S = Surface Water; SP = Purchased Surface Water



Table 7. Ohio public water supplies by hydrologic unit code (HUC) at several intervals from hydraulically fractured Utica wells


HUC Name

Well Distance (Miles)
0.5 <1 <2 <3 <4 <5
Black-Rocky, 859 1 4 4 4
Cuyahoga, 832 2 12 31 54 82
Grand, 811 1 15 18 23
Licking, 1010 2 2 3 3
Little Muskingum-Middle Island, 1062 2 5 10 11 11
Mahoning, 831 2 5 48 105 142 175
Muskingum, 1006 3 7 9 11
Shenango, 815 2 5 10 13 14
Tuscarawas, 889 8 28 87 140 178 220
Upper Ohio, 901 7 20 45 66 72 73
Upper Ohio-Wheeling, 984 1 13 23 27 28
Walhonding, 906 10 15 34 47
Wills, 1009 2 3 5 7 8



Table 8. Ohio public water supplies by county at several intervals from hydraulically fractured Utica wells



Well Distance (Miles)
0.5 <1 <2 <3 <4 <5
Ashtabula 1 1
Belmont 1 2 7 14 15 16
Carroll 6 20 36 43 43 43
Columbiana 4 15 45 72 80 81
Coshocton 7 10 10
Geauga 14 20 25
Guernsey 1 1 2 4 5
Harrison 2 6 16 16 16 16
Holmes 5 13 31 43
Jefferson 2 3 11 22 25 25
Knox 1 1 2 2
Licking 1 1 1 1
Mahoning 2 10 32 44 55
Medina 1 4 5 7
Monroe 2 4 6 6 6
Muskingum 1 1 1 2 3
Noble 2 2 2 2
Portage 2 8 25 49 84
Stark 2 5 40 85 110 122
Summit 6 10
Trumbull 3 23 36 53 65
Tuscarawas 1 2 15 22 28 43
Washington 3 10 12 13
Wayne 5 5 7 21


  1. Community (C) = serve at least 15 service connections used by year-round residents or regularly serve at least 25 year-round residents. Examples include cities, mobile home parks and nursing homes; Non-Transient, Non-Community (NTNC) = serve at least 25 of the same persons over six months per year. Examples include schools, hospitals and factories.

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Power Plants & Other Facilities Now on Ohio Oil & Gas Map

Over the last few months we’ve been busy working on some updates to our Ohio Oil & Gas Map. Check out what we’ve added recently and explore the map below!

New: Power Plants & ATEX Pipeline

We now have the locations of eight of the credible natural gas power plants proposed in Ohio, along with the jobs they cite during construction and operations. We also now have a complete inventory of 118 existing power plants, including 25 natural gas facilities. Together, these plants would produce 7,660 megawatts, around 957 per facility.

Six of these plants are either in the heart of Ohio’s Utica Shale or within several miles of the 1,200+ mile Appalachia-to-Texas (ATEX) pipeline. ATEX was installed to transport 190,000 barrels per day (BPD) of natural gas liquids (NGLs) from the Marcellus and Utica region to the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Goast refinery corridor. The 360 mile segment of this pipeline that runs from Pennsylvania to south central Jackson County, Indiana is also now shown on the Ohio Oil & Gas Map.

Late Permitting Increases

Cumulative and Monthly Ohio Utica Hydraulic Fracturing Well Permits

Figure 1. Cumulative and monthly hydraulic fracturing well permits in Ohio’s Utica Shale

While many shale plays across the United States are experiencing a period of contraction (with low gas prices often cited as the primary reason), drilling activity in Ohio’s Utica Shale has been experiencing a slow and steady expansion. The region has seen more than 2,700 permitted wells as of the end of January 2017. Incidentally, roughly 59% of these wells are producing either oil or gas as of Q3-2016. For more information on that subject, explore our production map.

The permitting trajectory hit a low of 13-16 permits per month between February and January of 2016. Since the presidential election in November, however, permitting rates have more than doubled (Figure 1).

Ohio Oil & Gas Map

Ohio sits on the western edge of both the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations, but conditions are such that the Marcellus Shale is all but being ignored in Ohio. Explore our updated map of OH drilling activity and related facilities below:

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Map Layers

The map above is made up of various datasets, from the location of permits to compressor stations. These “map layers” make up the legend. Below we describe each layer on the map, as well as the data source and date range.

Horizontal Marcellus Permits, Laterals
There have been 40+ permits issued for horizontal wells in Ohio’s Marcellus Shale.

Source:   Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Date Range:  December 2009 – Present

Horizontal Utica Permits
An aggregate of ODNR’s monthly cumulative Utica and Marcellus permits as well as a more detailed weekly Risk Based Data Management System (RBDMS) Microsoft Access inventory. At the present time Ohio is home to 2,160+ permitted Utica Wells with the wells broken out by status. Additionally this layer contains depth, water usage, sand usage, HCl, and Gelling Agent percentage for 249 wells based on data provided to FracFocus. Finally, we have incorporated production in various units from individual industry press releases and the ODNR annual report.

Source:   Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Date Range:  December 2009 – Present

Horizontal Utica Permits actual and straight line laterals
An aggregate of ODNR’s monthly cumulative Utica and Marcellus permits as well as a more detailed weekly Risk Based Data Management System (RBDMS) Microsoft Access inventory. At the present time we have straight line laterals for all drilled, drilling, and producing wells as well as actual PLAT laterals for 341 of the wells.

Source:   Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Date Range:  December 2009 – Present

High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Gathering Lines
All gathering lines servicing Ohio’s inventory of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) wells.

Source:   Herbert Hoover Foundation grant
Date Range:  December 2009 – 2015

High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Well Pads
The well-pads of all Ohio’s drilled or producing High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) wells.

Source:   Herbert Hoover Foundation grant
Date Range:  December 2009 – 2015

High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Well Pad’s Limits Of Disturbance (LOD)
Limits Of Disturbance (LOD) for all Ohio’s drilled or producing High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) well-pads.

Source: Herbert Hoover Foundation grant
Date Range:  December 2009 – 2015

Compressor Stations and Cracking Facilities
Boundaries of several confirmed High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) servicing cracking and compressor station facilities.

Source:   Herbert Hoover Foundation grant
Date Range:  December 2009 – 2015

Ohio Active Class II Injection Wells
This data speaks to the state’s “Active” Class II Injection wells able to accept hydraulic fracturing waste. There are 240+ Active Wells with 51 having yet to receive waste from hydraulic fracturing. For more on Ohio’s Class II Inventory in depth refer to our recent Ohio Fracking Waste Transport & Disposal Network article.

Source:   Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Date Range:  Historical to October, 2015

Earthquakes of >2.0 Magnitude
This data speaks to the state’s 258 earthquakes with current updates from the Ohio Seismic Network and historical quakes – all >2.0 magnitude. These data come from the department’s inventory. Additionally, we present Ohio earthquakes with <2.0 magnitude courtesy of Environment Canada’s Search the Earthquake Database platform.

Source: Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological Survey, The Ohio Seismic Network
Date Range:  Historical to Present

Shell Ethane Cracker

A Formula for Disaster: Calculating Risk at the Ethane Cracker

by Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow
map & analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement
in partnership with the Environmental Integrity Project

On January 18, 2016, Potter Township Supervisors approved conditional use permits for Shell Chemical Appalachia’s proposed ethane cracker facility in Beaver County, PA. A type of petrochemical facility, an ethane cracker uses energy and the by-products of so-called natural gas to make ethylene, a building block of plastics. FracTracker Alliance has produced informative articles on the jobs numbers touted by the industry, and the considerable negative air impacts of the proposed facility. In the first in a series of new articles, we look at the potential hazards of ethane cracker plants in order to begin calculating the risk of a disaster in Beaver County.

As those who stand to be affected by — or make crucial decisions on — the ethane cracker contemplate the potential risks and promised rewards of this massive project, they should also carefully consider what could go wrong. In addition to the serious environmental and human health effects, which might only reveal themselves over time, what acute events, emergencies, and disasters could potentially occur? What is the disaster risk, the potential for “losses, in lives, health status, livelihoods, assets and services,” of this massive petrochemical facility?

Known Ethane Cracker Risks

A well-accepted formula in disaster studies for determining risk, cited by, among others, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), is Disaster Risk = (Hazard x Vulnerability)/Capacity, as defined in the diagram below. In this article, we consider the first of these factors: hazard. Future articles will examine the remaining factors of vulnerability and capacity that are specific to this location and its population.


Applied to Shell’s self-described “world-scale petrochemical project,” it is challenging to quantify the first of these inputs, hazard. Not only would a facility of this size be unprecedented in this region, but Shell has closely controlled the “public” information on the proposed facility. What compounds the uncertainty much further is the fact that the proposed massive cracker plant is a welcome mat for further development in the area—for a complex network of pipelines and infrastructure to support the plant and its related facilities, and for a long-term commitment to continued gas extraction in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays.


U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, Williams Geismar Case Study, No. 2013-03-I-LA, October 2016.

We can use what we do know about the hazards presented by ethane crackers and nearby existing vulnerabilities to establish some lower limit of risk. Large petrochemical facilities of this type are known to produce sizable unplanned releases of carcinogenic benzene and other toxic pollutants during “plant upsets,” a term that refers to a “shut down because of a mechanical problem, power outage or some other unplanned event.” A sampling of actual emergency events at other ethane crackers also includes fires and explosions, evacuations, injuries, and deaths.

For instance, a ruptured boiler at the Williams Company ethane cracker plant in Geismar, Louisiana, led to an explosion and fire in 2013. The event resulted in the unplanned and unpermitted release of at least 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air, including ethylene, propylene, benzene, 1-3 butadiene, and other volatile organic chemicals, as well as the release of pollutants through the discharge of untreated fire waters, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. According to the Times-Picayune, “workers scrambl(ed) over gates to get out of the plant.” The event required the evacuation of 300 workers, injured 167, and resulted in two deaths.

The community’s emergency response involved deployment of hundreds of personnel and extensive resources, including 20 ambulances, four rescue helicopters, and buses to move the injured to multiple area hospitals. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board chalked up the incident to poor “process safety culture” at the plant and “gaps in a key industry standard by the American Petroleum Institute (API).” The accident shut the plant down for a year and a half.

Potential Risks & Shell’s Mixed Messages

Shell has done little to define the potential for emergencies at the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker plant, at least in materials made available to the public. Shell has revealed that general hazards include “fire, explosion, traffic accidents, leaks and equipment failures.”

However, we located numerous versions of Shell’s handout and found one notable difference among them—the brochure distributed to community members at a December 2016 public hearing held by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) excluded the word “explosion” from the list of “potential safety concerns.” The difference is seen in comparing the two documents.

Figure #1 below: Excerpt of online version of a handout for Beaver County, dated May 2015, with “explosion” included in list of “potential safety concerns.” (Other Shell-produced safety documents, like the one included as an exhibit in the conditional use permit application on file with the township, and Shell’s webpage for the project, also include “explosion” in the list of hazards.)

Figure #2 below: Excerpt of handout, dated November 2016 and provided to the community at December 15, 2016 meeting, with the word “explosion” no longer included.


Additional hints about risks are peppered throughout the voluminous permit applications submitted by Shell to the PA DEP and Potter Township, such as references to mitigating acts of terror against the plant, strategies for reducing water contamination, and the possibility of unplanned upsets. But the sheer volume of these documents, coupled with their limited accessibility challenge the public’s ability to digest this information. The conditional use permit application submitted by Shell indicates the existence of an Emergency Response Plan for the construction phase, but the submission is marked as confidential.

Per Pennsylvania law, and as set forth in PA DEP guidelines, Shell must submit a Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency Plan (PPC Plan) at an unspecified point prior to operation. But at that likely too-late stage, who would hear objections to the identified hazards, when construction of the plant is already a done deal? Even then, can we trust that the plan outlined by that document is a solid and executable one?

Shell’s defense of the Beaver County plant is quick to point out differences between other plants and the one to come, making the case that technical advances will result in safety improvements. But it is noteworthy that the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board attributes failures at the Williams Geismar plant, in part, to “the ineffective implementation of…process safety management programs… as well as weaknesses in Williams’ written programs themselves.” The Geismar explosion demonstrates some of the tangible hazards that communities experience in living near ethane cracker plants. It is worth noting that the proposed Beaver County facility will have about 2½ times more ethylene processing capacity than the Geismar plant had at the time of the 2013 explosion.

Opening the Floodgates

In an effort to expand our understanding of risk associated with the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker and the extent of related developments promised by industry leaders, FracTracker Alliance has constructed the below map. It shows the site of the Shell facility and nearby land marked by Beaver County as “abandoned” or “unused.” These land parcels are potential targets for future build-out of associated facilities. Two “emergency planning zones” are indicated—a radius of 2 miles and a radius of 5 miles from the perimeter of Shell’s site. These projections are based upon FracTracker’s discussions with officials at the Saint Charles Parish Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, who are responsible for emergency planning procedures in Norco, Louisiana, the site of another Shell ethane cracker facility. The emergency zones are also noted in the 2015 Saint Charles Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Also shown on the map is an estimated route of the Falcon pipeline system Shell intends to build, which will bring ethane from the shale gas fields of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Note that this is an estimated route based on images shown in Shell’s announcement of the project. Finally, our map includes resources and sites of vulnerability, including schools, fire stations, and hospitals. The importance of these sites will be discussed in the next article of this series.

Ethane Cracker Hazards Map

View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

While the site of the Shell cracker is worth attending to, it would be a mistake to limit assessments of disaster risk to the site of the facility alone. Shell’s proposed plant is but one component in a larger plan to expand ethane-based processing and use in the region, with the potential to rival the Gulf Coast as a major U.S. petrochemical hub. An upcoming conference on petrochemical construction in the region, scheduled for June 2017 in Pittsburgh, shows the industry’s commitment to further development. These associated facilities (from plants producing fertilizers to plastics) would utilize their own mix of chemicals, and their potential interactions would produce additional, unforeseen hazards. Ultimately, a cumulative impact assessment is needed, and should take into account these promised facilities as well as existing resources and vulnerabilities. The below Google Earth window gives a sense of what this regional build-out might look like.

What might an ethane cracker and related petrochemical facilities look like in Beaver County? For an idea of the potential build-out, take a tour of Norco, Louisiana, which includes Shell-owned petrochemical facilities.

Final Calculations

As discussed in the introduction, “hazard,” “vulnerability,” and “capacity” are the elements of the formula that, in turn, exacerbate or mitigate disaster risk. While much of this article has focused on drastic “hazards,” such as disastrous explosions or unplanned chemical releases, these should not overshadow the more commonplace public health threats associated with petrochemical facilities, such as detrimental impact on air quality and the psychological harm of living under the looming threat of something going wrong.

The second and third articles in this series will dig deeper into “vulnerability” and “capacity.” These terms remind us of the needs and strengths of the community in question, but also that there is a community in question.

Formulas, terminology, and calculations should not obscure the fact that people’s lives are in the balance. The public should not be satisfied with preliminary and incomplete risk assessments when major documents that should detail the disaster implications of the ethane cracker are not yet available, as well as when the full scale of future build-out in the area remains an unknown.

Much gratitude to Lisa Graves-Marcucci and Lisa Hallowell of the Environmental Integrity Project for their expertise and feedback on this article.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws. 

Map of PA drilling complaints - collaboration with Public Herald

PA Fracking Complaints are Increasing, Systemic

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) logs incoming complaints from residents about drilling activity in the Commonwealth, and Public Herald has spent a great deal of time aggregating and making that information public. A recent investigation by Public Herald into that data, with help from FracTracker, has highlighted a number of concerning issues related to fracking in Pennsylvania unfortunately.

Concerning Complaints

Firstly, the data they reviewed indicate that complaints from residents about unconventional drilling (how most fracked wells are designated) are more common than those about traditional wells. Secondly, it seems that complaints about fracked wells are increasing over time, even though the number of new wells has decreased.

There may be several reasons for such trends, and Public Herald discusses some of them in their new report. Are fracking wells more likely to fail, resulting in a higher proportion of complaints from nearby residents? Or has tracking simply improved in recent years? What these trends undoubtably indicate, however, is that the impacts from drilling have been systemic, according to Drs. Ingraffea and Stolz, who also reviewed the data.

Probably the most troubling finding unearthed in this investigation is that the PA DEP was not transparent about complaint data. The information they released to Public Herald differed wildly from the spreadsheets previously obtained by other requestors. Learn more about this and other issues in Public Herald’s Hidden Data Report.

Digging into the Data

Below we have included a map showing where those complaints originated, as well as a table that parses out the data by county.

Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Complaint Map

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The above map by Public Herald and FracTracker Alliance shows the density of citizen complaints reported to the Department of Environmental Protection from 2004 – 2016. It includes conventional and unconventional well complaints. Clicking on a township reveals a database of complaints where viewers can download files.

In addition to the report issued by Public Herald, you can explore the data mapped above in the table below. It fleshes out how many complaints have been issued by residents, where these complaints originated, and how many are specific to water issues.

Table 1. PA Unconventional Well Complaint Statistics Logged by the PA DEP

DEP Office County Total Complaints (#) Water Complaints (#) Municipalities w/Complaints (#) Drilled Unconventional Wells, Jan 2004 – Nov 29 2016
PENNSYLVANIA 47 9442 4108 893 10027
SWRO 3653 1427 328 3587
NWRO 3197 1159 284 1027
NCRO (ERO) 2592 1522 281 5413
SWRO Washington 1066 460 51 1478
ERO Susquehanna 648 393 32 1326
ERO Bradford 647 468 43 1371
SWRO Greene 576 156 26 1082
NWRO McKean 550 121 21 134
SWRO Westmoreland 538 219 43 270
NWRO Warren 443 106 26 3
NWRO Butler 419 186 35 497
SWRO Armstrong 388 208 38 223
SWRO Indiana 367 153 32 48
ERO Tioga 349 212 30 907
SWRO Fayette 335 121 28 291
NWRO Mercer 276 153 31 61
NWRO Venango 273 108 25 6
NWRO Crawford 258 141 35 3
NWRO Jefferson 244 113 29 56
ERO Lycoming 242 110 32 927
SWRO Allegheny 228 30 53 100
NWRO Clarion 186 89 23 28
NWRO Forest 177 56 8 22
ERO Clearfield 175 70 34 150
ERO Wyoming 167 92 19 258
NWRO Erie 164 17 30 0
NWRO Elk 143 37 9 146
ERO Potter 108 60 25 91
ERO Sullivan 86 47 8 127
SWRO Beaver 67 44 25 62
NWRO Lawrence 64 32 12 71
SWRO Somerset 44 16 18 26
SWRO Cambria 43 20 13 7
ERO Clinton 40 16 8 107
ERO Bedford 36 25 7 1
ERO Centre 33 10 9 65
ERO Luzerne 19 1 10 2
ERO Wayne 14 4 7 5
ERO Lackawanna 6 3 3 2
ERO Columbia 5 1 2 3
ERO Blair 4 3 2 6
ERO Cameron 4 2 2 64
ERO Huntingdon 2 2 1 1

SWRO = Southwest Regional Office; NWRO = Northwest Regional Office; NCRO (ERO) = North Central/Eastern Regional Office. Find your office here.

Stay Tuned

Public Herald will be releasing Part 2 of their Hidden Data report soon!

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.

Colonial Pipeline and site of Sept 2016 leak in Alabama

A Proper Picture of the Colonial Pipeline’s Past

On September 9, 2016 a pipeline leak was detected from the Colonial Pipeline by a mine inspector in Shelby County, Alabama. It is estimated to have spilled ~336,000 gallons of gasoline, resulting in the shutdown of a major part of America’s gasoline distribution system. As such, we thought it timely to provide some data and a map on the Colonial Pipeline Project.

Figure 1. Dynamic map of Colonial Pipeline route and related infrastructure

View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work | The Sept. 2016 leak occurred in Shelby County, Alabama

Pipeline History

The Colonial Pipeline was built in 1963, with some segments dating back to at least 1954. Colonial carries gasoline and other refined petroleum projects throughout the South and Eastern U.S. – originating at Houston, Texas and terminating at the Port of New York and New Jersey. This ~5,000-mile pipeline travels through 12 states and the Gulf of Mexico at one point. According to available data, prior to the September 2016 incident for which the cause is still not known, roughly 113,382 gallons had been released from the Colonial Pipeline in 125 separate incidents since 2010 (Table 1).

Table 1. Reported Colonial Pipeline incident impacts by state, between 3/24/10 and 7/25/16

State Incidents (#) Barrels* Released Total Cost ($)
AL 10 91.49 2,718,683
GA 11 132.38 1,283,406
LA 23 86.05 1,002,379
MD 6 4.43 27,862
MS 6 27.36 299,738
NC 15 382.76 3,453,298
NJ 7 7.81 255,124
NY 2 27.71 88,426
PA 1 0.88 28,075
SC 9 1639.26 4,779,536
TN 2 90.2 1,326,300
TX 19 74.34 1,398,513
VA 14 134.89 15,153,471
Total** 125 2699.56 31,814,811
*1 Barrel = 42 U.S. Gallons

** The total amount of petroleum products spilled from the Colonial Pipeline in this time frame equates to roughly 113,382 gallons. This figure does not include the September 2016 spill of ~336,000 gallons.

Data source: PHMSA

Unfortunately, the Colonial Pipeline has also been the source of South Carolina’s largest pipeline spill. The incident occurred in 1996 near Fork Shoals, South Carolina and spilled nearly 1 million gallons of fuel into the Reedy River. The September 2016 spill has not reached any major waterways or protected ecological areas, to-date.

Additional Details

Owners of the pipeline include Koch Industries, South Korea’s National Pension Service and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Royal Dutch Shell, and Industry Funds Management.

For more details about the Colonial Pipeline, see Table 2.

Table 2. Specifications of the Colonial and/or Intercontinental pipeline

Pipeline Segments 1,1118
Mileage (mi.)
Avg. Length 4.3
Max. Length 206
Total Length 4,774
Segment Flow Direction (# Segments)
Null 657
East 33
North 59
Northeast 202
Northwest 68
South 20
Southeast 30
Southwest 14
West 35
Segment Bi-Directional (# Segments)
Null 643
No 429
Yes 46
Segment Location
State Number Total Mileage Avg. Mileage Long Avg. PSI Avg. Diameter (in.)
Alabama 11 782 71 206 794 35
Georgia 8 266 33 75 772 27
Gulf of Mexico 437 522 1.2 77 50 1.4
Louisiana 189 737 3.9 27 413 11
Maryland 11 68 6.2 9 781 30
Mississippi 63 56 0.9 15 784 29
North Carolina 13 146 11.2 23 812 27
New Jersey 65 314 4.8 28 785 28
New York 2 6.4 3.2 6.4 800 26
Pennsylvania 72 415 5.8 17 925 22
South Carolina 6 119 19.9 55 783 28
Texas 209 1,004 4.8 33 429 10
Virginia 32 340 10.6 22 795 27
PSI = Pounds per square inch (pressure)

Data source: US EIA

By Sam Rubright, Ted Auch, and Matt Kelso – FracTracker Alliance

Wastewater Disposal Facility in Colorado

Groundwater Threats in Colorado

FracTracker has been increasingly looking at oil and gas drilling in Colorado, and we’re finding some interesting and concerning issues to highlight. Firstly, operators in Colorado are not required to report volumes of water use or freshwater sources. Additionally, this analysis looked at how wastewater in Colorado is injected, and found that the majority is injected into Class II disposal wells (85%) while recycling wastewater is not common. Open-air pits for evaporation and percolation of wastewater is still a common practice. Colorado has at least 340 zones granted aquifer exemptions from the Clean Water Act for injecting wastewater into groundwater. The analysis also found that Weld County produces the most oil and gas in the state, while Rio Blanco and Las Animas counties produce more wastewater. And finally, Rio Blanco injects the most wastewater of all Colorado counties. Learn more about groundwater threats in Colorado below:


Working directly with communities in Weld County, Colorado the FracTracker Alliance has identified issues concerning oil and gas exploration and production in Colorado that are of particular concern to community stakeholder groups. The issues include air quality degradation, environmental justice concerns for communities most impacted by oil and gas extraction, and leasing of federal mineral estates. Analysis of data for Colorado’s Front Range has identified areas where setback regulations are not followed or are inadequate to provide sufficient protections for individuals and communities and our analysis of floodplains shows where oil and gas operations pose a significant risk to watersheds. In this article we focus on the specific threat to groundwater resources as a result of particular waste disposal methods, namely underground injection and land application in disposal pits and sumps. We also focus on the sources of the immense amount of water necessary for fracking and other extraction processes.

Groundwater Threats

Numerous threats to groundwater are associated with oil and gas drilling, including hydraulic fracturing. Research from other regions shows that the majority of groundwater contamination events actually occur from on-site spills and poor management and disposal of wastes. Disposal and storage sites and spill events can allow the liquid and solid wastes to leach and seep into groundwater sources. There have been many groundwater contamination events documented to have occurred in this manner. For example, in 2013, flooding in Colorado inundated a main center of the state’s drilling industry causing over 37,380 gallons of oil to be spilled from ruptured pipelines and damaged storage tanks that were located in flood-prone areas. There are serious concerns that the oil-laced floodwaters have permanently contaminated groundwater, soil, and rivers.

Waste Management

In Colorado, wastes are managed several ways. If the wastewater is not recycled and used again in other production processes such as hydraulic fracturing, drilling fluids disposal must follow one of three rules:

  1. Treated at commercial facilities and discharged to surface water,
  2. Injected in Class II injection wells, or
  3. Stored and applied to the land and disposal pits at centralized exploration and production waste management facilities.

Additionally the wastes can be dried and buried in additional drilling pits, with restrictions for crop land. For oily wastes, those containing crude oil, condensate or other “hydrocarbon-containing exploration and production waste,” there are additional land application restrictions that mostly require prior removal of free oil. These various sites and facilities are mapped below, along with aquifer exemptions and other map layers related to water quality.

Figure 1. Interactive map of groundwater threats in Colorado

View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work

Injection Wells

In 2015, Colorado injected a total of 649,370,514 barrels of oil and gas wastewater back into the ground. That is 27,273,561,588 gallons, which would fill over 41,000 Olympic sized swimming pools. Injected into the ground in deep formations, this water is forever removed from the water cycle.

Allowable injection fluids include a variety of things you do not want to drink:

  • Produced Water
  • Drilling Fluids
  • Spent Well Treatment or Stimulation Fluids
  • Pigging (Pipeline Cleaning) Wastes
  • Rig Wash
  • Gas Plant Wastes such as:
    • Amine
    • Cooling Tower Blowdown
    • Tank Bottoms

This means that federal exemptions to Underground Injection Control (UIC) regulations for oil and gas exploration and production have nothing to do with environmental chemistry and risk, and only consider fluid source.

Why the concern?

Why are we concerned about these wastes? To quote the regulation, “it is possible for an exempt waste and a non-exempt hazardous waste to be chemically very similar” (RCRA). Since oil and gas development is considered part of the United State’s strategic energy policy, the entire industry is exempt from many federal regulations, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which protects underground sources of drinking water (USDW).

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has primacy over the UIC permits and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) administers the environmental protection laws related to air quality, waste discharge to surface water, and commercial disposal facilities. Under the UIC program, operators are legally allowed to inject wastewater containing heavy metals, hydrocarbons, radioactive elements, and other toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into groundwater aquifers.

The State of CO Injection Wells

According to the COGCC production reports for the year 2015, there are 9,591 active injection wells with volumes reported to the regulatory agency. Additionally, there are of course distinctions within the UIC rules for different types of injection wells, although the COGCC does not provide comprehensive data to distinguish between these types.

Injecting into the same geological formation or “zone” as producing wells is typically considered EOR, although some of the injected water will ultimately remain in the ground. Injecting into a producing formation is an immediate qualification for receiving an aquifer exemption.

EOR operations require considerably more energy and resources than conventional wells, and therefore have a higher water carbon footprint. If the wastewater is “recycled” as hydraulic fracturing fluid, the injections are exempt from all UIC regulations regardless. These are two options for the elimination of produced wastewater, although much of it will return to the surface in the future along with other formation waters. When the produced waters reach a certain level of salinity the fluid can no longer be used in enhanced recovery or stimulation, so final disposal of wastewater is typically necessary. These liquid wastes may then go to UIC Class II Disposal Wells.

Class II Injection Wells

The wells injecting into non-producing formations are therefore disposal wells, since they are not “enhancing production.” Of the almost 10,000 active injection wells in Colorado there are OVER 670 class II disposal well facilities; 402 facilities are listed as currently active. These facilities may or may not host multiple wells. By filtering the COGCC production and injection well database by target formation, we find that there are over 1,070 wells injecting into non-producing formations. These disposal wells injected at least 66,193,874 barrels (2,780,142,708 gallons) of wastewater in 2015 alone.

Where is the waste going?

A simple life-cycle assessment of wastewater in Colorado shows that the majority of produced water is injected back underground into class II disposal and EOR wells. The percentage of injected produced waters has been increasing since 2012, and in 2015 85% of the total volume of produced water in 2015 was injected.

If we assume that all the volume injected was produced wastewater, this still leaves 60 million barrels of produced water unaccounted for. Some of this volume may have been recycled and used for hydraulic fracturing, but this is rarely the case. Other options for disposal include commercial oilfield wastewater disposal facilities (COWDF) that use wastewater sumps (pits) for evaporation and percolation, as well as land application, to dilute the solid and liquid wastes by mixing them into soil.

Centralized Exploration and Production Waste Management Facilities

Photo by COGCC

Figure 2. Chevron Wastewater Land Application and Pit “Disposal” Facility. Photo by COGCC

According to the COGCC, there are 40 active and 71 total “centralized exploration and production waste management facilities” in Colorado. These facilities, mapped in Figure 1 above, are mostly open-air pits used for storage or disposal, or land-application sites.

As can be seen in the Figure 2 to the right, land application sites are little more than farms that don’t grow anything, where wastewater is mixed with soil. Groundwater monitoring wells around these sites measure the levels of some contaminants. Inspection reports show that sampling of the wastewater is not usually – if ever – conducted. The only regulatory requirement is that oil is not visibly noticeable as a sheen on the wastewater fluids in impoundments, such as the one in Figure 3 below, operated by Linn Operating Inc., which is covered in an oily sheen.

In most other hydrocarbon producing states, open-air pits or sumps are not allowed for a variety of reasons. At FracTracker, we have covered this issue in other states, as well. In New Mexico, for example, the regulatory agency outlawed the use of pits after finding cased where 369 pits were documented to have contaminated groundwater. California is another state that still uses above ground pits for disposal. At sites in California, plumes of contaminants are being monitored as they spread from the facilities into surrounding regions of groundwater. Additionally, these wastewater pit disposal sites present hazards for birds and wildlife. There have been a number of papers documenting bird deaths in pits, and the risk for migratory bird species is of high concern. Other states like California are struggling with the issue of closing these types of open-air pit facilities. Closing these facilities means that more wastewater will be injected in Class II disposal wells.


Figure 3. Linn energy oily wastewater disposal pit

Production and Injection Volumes

The data published by the COGCC for well production and injection volumes shows some unique trends. An analysis of injection and production well volumes shows Class II Injection is tightly connected to exploration and production activities. This finding is not surprising. Class II injection wells are considered a support operation for the production wells, and therefore should be expected to be similarly related. Wastewater injection wells are needed where oil and gas extraction is occurring, particularly during the exploration and drilling phases.

Looking at the graphs in Figures 4-6 below, it is obvious that injection volumes have been consistently tied to production of wastewater. It is also clear that the trend since 2012 shows that an increasingly larger percentage of wastewater is being injected each year. This trend follows the sharp increase in high volume hydraulic fracturing activity that occurred in 2012. During this boom in exploration and drilling activity, recycling of flowback for additional hydraulic fracturing activities most likely accounts for some of the discrepancy in accounting for the fact that 200% more wastewater was produced than was injected in 2012.

When Figure 4 (below) is compared to the graphs in Figures 5 and 6 (further below) it is also interesting to note that produced water volumes in 2015 are at a 5-year low as of 2015, while production volumes of both natural gas and oil are at a 5-year high. Wastewater volumes are linked to production volumes, but there are many other factors, including geological conditions and types of extraction technologies being used, that have a massive affect on wastewater volumes.

CO wastewater Volumes by year

Figure 4. Colorado wastewater volumes by year (barrels)

The graphs in Figures 5 and 6 below show different trends. Gas production in Colorado has remained relatively constant over the last five years with a sharp increase in 2015, while oil production volumes have been continually increasing, with the largest increase of 49% from 2014 to 2015, and 46% the year prior.

Figures 5-6

Colorado’s Front Range, specifically Weld County, is increasing oil production at a fast rate. New multi-well well-pads are being permitted in neighborhoods and urban and suburban communities without consideration for even elementary schools. Weld County currently has 2,169 new wells permitted within the county. The figure is higher than the next 9 counties combined. The other top three counties with the most well permits are 2. Garfield (1,130) and 3. Rio Blanco (189), for perspective. Additionally, 74% of pending permits for new wells are located in Weld County.

How Counties Compare

The top 10 counties for oil production are very similar to the top 10 counties for both produced and injected volumes, although there are some inconsistencies (Table 1). For example, Las Animas County produces the second largest amount of produced wastewater, but is not in the top 10 of oil producing counties. This is because the majority of wells in Las Animas County produce natural gas. Natural gas wells do not typically produce as much wastewater as oil wells. The counties and areas with the most oil and gas production are also the regions with the most injection and surface waste disposal, and therefore surface water and groundwater degradation.

Table 1. Top 10 CO counties for gas production, oil production, wastewater production, and injection volumes in 2015.

Gas Production Oil Production Wastewater Production Injection Volumes
Rank County Gas1 County Oil2 County Water2 County Water2
1 Weld 568,919,168 Weld 112,898,400 Rio Blanco 113,132,037 Rio Blanco 138,502,742
2 Garfield 556,855,359 Rio Blanco 4,412,578 Las Animas 45,868,907 Weld 50,360,796
3 La Plata 322,029,940 Gardield 1,744,900 Weld 37,665,571 Garfield 29,022,147
4 Las Animas 78,947,042 Araahoe 1,661,204 Garfield 34,704,673 La Plata 23,211,646
5 Rio Blanco 57,284,876 Lincoln 1,194,435 Washington 25,075,998 Washington 15,105,886
6 Mesa 32,200,936 Cheyenne 1,192,162 La Plata 23,352,861 Las Animas 13,706,555
7 Yuma 25,960,947 Adams 664,530 Cheyenne 9,326,944 Cheyenne 10,309,413
8 Archuleta 13,648,006 Moffat 419,893 Moffat 7,712,323 Logan 5,930,937
9 Moffat 13,610,219 Washington 413,603 Logan 5,606,828 Mesa 5,611,075
10 Gunnison 4,805,541 Jackson 407,537 Morgan 4,197,849 La Plata 4,992,391
1. Units are in MCF = Thousand cubic feet of natural gas;
2. Units are in Barrels

Aquifer Exemptions

Operators are given permission by the U.S. EPA to inject wastewater into groundwater aquifers in certain locations where groundwater formations are particularly degraded or when operators are granted aquifer exemptions. Aquifer exemptions are not regions where the groundwater is not suitable for use as drinking water. Quite the contrary, as any aquifer with groundwaters above a 10,000 ppm total dissolved solids (TDS) threshold are fast-tracked for injection permits. When the TDS is below 10,000 ppm operators can apply for an exemption from SDWA (safe drinking water act) for USDWs (underground sources of drinking water), which otherwise protects these groundwater sources. An exemption can be granted for any of the following three reasons. The formation is:

  • hydrocarbon producing,
  • too deep to economically access, or
  • too “contaminated” to economically treat.

Since the first requirement is enough to satisfy an exemption, most class II wells are located within oil and gas fields. Other considerations include approval of mineral owners’ permissions within ¼ mile of the well. On the map above, you can see the ¼ mile buffers around active injection wells. If you live in Colorado, and suspect you live within the ¼ mile buffer of an injection well, you can input an address into the search field in the top-right corner of the map to fly to that location.

Sources of Water

The economic driver for increasing wastewater recycling is mostly influenced by two factors. First, states with many class II disposal wells, like Colorado, have much lower costs for wastewater disposal than states like Pennsylvania, for example. Additionally, the cost of water in drought-stricken states makes re-use more economically advantageous.

These two factors are not weighted evenly, though. On the Colorado front range, water scarcity should make recycling and reuse of treated wastewater a common practice. The stress of sourcing fresh water has not yet become a finanacial restraint for exploration and production. Water scarcity is an issue, but not enough to motivate operators to recycle. According to an article by Small, Xochitl T (2015) “Geologic factors that impact cost, such as water quality and availability of disposal methods, have a greater impact on decisions to recycle wastewater from hydraulic fracturing than water scarcity.” As long as it is cheaper to permit new injection wells and contaminate potential USDW’s than to treat the wastewater, recycling practices will be largely ignored. Even in Colorado’s arid Front Range where the demand for freshwater frequently outpaces supply, recycling is still not common.

Fresh Water Use

The majority of water used for hydraulic fracturing is freshwater, and much of it is supplied from municipal water systems. There are several proposals for engineering projects in Colorado to redirect flows from rivers to the specific municipalities that are selling water to oil and gas operators. These projects will divert more water from the already stressed watersheds, and permanently remove it from the water cycle.

The Windy Gap Firming Project, for example, plans to dam the Upper Colorado River to divert almost 10 billion gallons to six Front Range cities including Loveland, Longmont, and Greeley. These three cities have sold water to operators for fracking operations. Greeley in particular began selling 1,500 acre-feet (500 million gallons) to operators in 2011 and that has only increased . The same thing is happening in Fort Lupton, Frederick, Firestone, and in other communities. Additionally, the Northern Integrated Supply Project proposes to drain an additional 40,000 acre feet/year (13 billion gallons) out of the Cache la Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins. The Seaman Reservoir Project by the City of Greeley on the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River proposes to drain several thousand acre feet of water out of the North Fork and the main stem of the Cache la Poudre. And finally, the Flaming Gorge Pipeline would take up to 250,000 acre feet/year (81 billion gallons) out of the Green and Colorado Rivers systems, among others.

Other Water Sources

Unfortunately, not much more is known about sources and amounts of water for used for fracking or other oil and gas development operations. Such a data gap seems ridiculous considering the strain on freshwater sources in eastern Colorado and the Front Range, but regulators do not require operators to obtain permits or even report the sources of water they use. Legislative efforts to require such reporting were unsuccessful in 2012.

Now that development and fracking operations are continuously moving into urban and residential areas and neighborhoods, sourcing water will be as easy as going to the nearest fire hydrant. Allowing oil and gas operators to use municipal water sources raises concerns of conflicts of interest and governmental corruption considering public water systems are subsidized by local taxpayers, not well sites.


In Colorado, exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas continues to increase at a fast pace, while the increase in oil production is quite staggering. As this trend continues, the waste stream will continue to grow with production. This means more Class II injection wells and other treatment and disposal options will be necessary.

While other states are working to end the practices that have a track record of surface water and groundwater contamination, Colorado is issuing new permits. Colorado has issued 7 permits for CEPWMF’s in 2016 alone, some of them renewals. While there aren’t any eco-friendly methods of dealing with all the wastewater, the use of pits and land application presents high risk for shallow groundwater aquifers. In addition, sacrificing deep groundwater aquifers with aquifer exemptions is not a sustainable solution. These are important considerations beyond the obvious contribution of carbon dioxide and methane to the issue of climate change when considering the many reasons why hydrocarbon fuels need to be eliminated in favor of clean energy alternatives.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator & Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo by COGCC

Energy-related story maps

Energy-Related Story Maps for Grades 6-10

Over the past half year, FracTracker staffer Karen Edelstein has been working with a New York State middle school teacher, Laurie Van Vleet, to develop a series of interdisciplinary, multimedia story maps addressing energy issues. The project is titled “Energy Decisions: Problem-Based Learning for Enhancing Student Motivation and Critical Thinking in Middle and High School Science.” It uses a combination of interactive maps generated by FracTracker, as well as websites, dynamic graphics, and video clips that challenge students to become both more informed about energy issues and climate change and more critical consumers of science media.

Edelstein and VanVleet have designed energy-related story maps on a range of topics. They are targeted at 6th through 8th grade general science, and also earth science students in the 8th and 10th grades. Story map modules include between 10 and 20 pages in the story map. Each module also includes additional student resources and worksheets for students that help direct their learning routes through the story maps. Topics range from a basic introduction to energy use, fossil fuels, renewable energy options, and climate change.

The modules are keyed to the New York State Intermediate Level Science Standards. VanVleet is partnering with Ithaca College-based Project Look Sharp in the development of materials that support media literacy and critical thinking in the classroom.

Explore each of the energy-related story maps using the links below:

Energy-related story maps

Screenshot from Energy Basics story map – Click to explore the live story map

This unique partnership between FracTracker, Project Look Sharp, and the Ithaca City School District received generous support from IPEI, the Ithaca Public Education Imitative. VanVleet will be piloting the materials this fall at Dewitt and Boynton Middle Schools in Ithaca, NY. After evaluating responses to the materials, they will be promoted throughout the district and beyond.

New York: A Sunshine State!

Photovoltaic solar resources of the US (NREL)

Photovoltaic solar resources of the US (NREL)

It’s difficult to talk about the risks of oil and gas extraction without providing data on energy alternatives in the conversation. Let’s look at New York State, as an example. There, solar power is taking a leadership position in the renewable energy revolution in the United States. Although New York State receives far less sunshine than many states to the west and south, the trends are bright! Currently, New York State ranks seventh in the nation in installed solar capacity, with over 700 MW of power generated by the sun, enough to power 121,000 homes.

Despite common assumptions that solar power only makes sense where the sun shines 360 days a year, we’ve been seeing successful adoption of solar in Europe for years. For example, in Germany, where even the most southern part of the country is further north of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State, close to 7% of all the power used comes from combined residential and commercial scale photovoltaic sources–35.2 TWh in all. Munich, one of the sunniest places in all of Germany, has a lower average solar irradiation rate of 3.1 kWh/m2/day than most cities in New York State; compare it with locations in New York like Rochester (3.7 kWh/m2/day), New York City (4.0 kWh/m2/day), and Albany (3.8 kWh/m2/day). At present, Germany still leads New York State by more than double the electrical output from solar for equivalent areas.


Cumulative Solar Capacity in New York

The cumulative capacity for completed photovoltaic systems in New York State has risen steeply in the past three years, with ground-mounted and roof-top residential capacity outpacing commercial capacity by a wide margin.

Nonetheless, commercial and industrial scale installations in New York account for over 100 MW of power capacity in the state.

Large-Scale Solar Installations Map

This map shows the location of those large-scale solar installations in the US (zoom out to see full extent of US), as of March 2016. Here is our interactive map:

View map full screen | How FracTracker maps work

In the past fifteen years, the increase in small to medium-sized solar installations in New York State has been significant, and growth is projected to continue.  The following animation, based on data from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), shows that increase in capacity (by zip code) since 2000:


Solar Installations by Zip Code

NYSERDA also provides maps that show distributions of residential, governmental/NGO, and commercial solar energy projects (images shown below). For example, Suffolk County leads the way in the residential arena, with nearly 8200 photovoltaic (PV) systems on roofs and in yards, with an average size of 8.3 kW each.

Erie County has 128 PV systems run by governmental and not-for-profit groups, with an average size of about 27 kW each. Albany County has over 320 commercial installations, with an average size each of about 117 kW.

New York State’s Future Solar Contribution


Price of Completed Solar Systems 2003-2016

The prices of solar panels is steeply declining, and is coupled with generous tax incentives. The good news, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), is that over the next five years, New York State’s solar capacity is expected to quadruple its current output, adding over 2900 MW of power. This change would elevate New York State from seventh to fourth place in output in the US.

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance


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