Posts

The Falcon: Methods, Mapping, & Analysis

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

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

Finding the Data

[av_font_icon icon=’ue864′ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

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

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

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

Google search results related to Falcon pipeline data

Viewing the Data

[av_font_icon icon=’ue826′ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

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

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

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

The HOUGEO GIS folders organized by topic

 

Archiving the Data

[av_font_icon icon=’ue851′ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

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

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

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

Transparency & Caveats

[av_font_icon icon=’ue804′ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

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

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

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

[av_font_icon icon=’ue803′ font=’entypo-fontello’ style=” caption=” link=” linktarget=” size=’40px’ position=’left’ color=”][/av_font_icon]

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

* * *

Related Articles

Drilling on PA state lands

Energy development is happening on your state lands, Pennsylvania

Decisions to drill or mine on public lands, however, are often extremely complicated.

By Allison M. Rohrs, Saint Francis University, Institute for Energy

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has historically been, and continues to be, home to an abundant array of energy resources like oil, gas, coal, timber, and windy ridgetops. Expectedly, these natural resources are found both on publicly and privately held land.

In Pennsylvania, the bulk of public lands are managed by two separate state agencies: The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which manages the state’s forest and park system, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), which manages the state’s game lands. Both of these state agencies manage oil, gas, and coal extraction as well as timbering on state property. Interestingly, neither of the agencies have utility-scale renewable energy generation on their land.

Some of Pennsylvania’s best wind resources can be found on the mountain ridges in the Commonwealth’s state forests and game lands, however, all proposals to build utility-scale wind farms have been denied by state agencies.

(Note: there are other state and federal agencies managing lands in PA, however, we focused our research on these two agencies specifically.)

Surprised to see that state lands have been greatly developed for different fossil industries but denied for wind energy, The Institute for Energy set out on a yearlong endeavor to collect as much information as we could about energy development on PA public lands. Using formal PA Right to Know requests, we worked with both DCNR and PGC to examine development procedures and management practices. We reviewed hundreds of available state agency reports, scientific documents, and Pennsylvania energy laws and regulations. We also worked with FracTracker Alliance to develop interactive maps that depict where energy development has occurred on state lands.

After a comprehensive review, we realized, like so much in life, the details are much more complicated than a simple yes or no decision to develop an energy project on state lands. Below is a brief summary of our findings, organized by energy extraction method:

Land/Mineral Ownership in Pennsylvania

One of the most significant issues to understand when discussing energy resources on state lands is the complexity of land ownership in Pennsylvania. In many instances, the development of an energy resource on publicly owned land is not a decision, but instead an obligation. In Pennsylvania, property rights are often severed between surface and subsurface ownership. In many cases, surface owners do not own the mineral rights beneath them, and, by PA law, are obligated to allow reasonable extraction of such resource, whether it be coal, oil, or gas. In Pennsylvania, approximately 85% of state park mineral rights are owned by someone other than the Commonwealth (severed rights).

Fee Simple - Mineral rights on state lands

Legal Authority to Lease

It is critical to note that DCNR and PGC are two entirely separate agencies with different missions, legal structures, and funding sources. This plays a significant role in decisions to allow oil, gas, and coal development on their properties. Both agencies have explicit legal authority under their individual statutes that allow them to lease the lands for mineral extraction. This becomes more of an issue when we discuss wind development, where legal authority is less clear, particularly for DCNR.

Oil and Gas Extraction

Oil and gas wells have been spudded on state parks, state forests, and state game lands. The decision to do so is multifaceted and ultimately decided by three major factors:

  1. Mineral ownership of the land,
  2. Legal authority to lease the land, and
  3. Potential impacts to the individual agency.

There is currently a moratorium on new surface leases of DCNR Lands. Moratoriums of such nature have been enacted and removed by different governors since 2010. Although there are no new lease agreements, extraction and production is still occurring on DCNR land from previously executed lease agreements and where the state does not own the mineral rights.

The Game Commission is still actively signing surface and non-surface use agreements for oil and gas extraction when they determine the action is beneficial to achieving their overall mission.

Revenues from the oil and gas industry play a significant role in the decision to drill or not. Both agencies have experienced increasing costs and decreasing revenues, overall, and have used oil and gas development as a way to bridge the gap.

Funds raised from DCNR’s oil and gas activities go back to the agency’s conservation efforts, although from 2009 to 2017, the State Legislature had directed much of this income to the state’s general fund to offset major budget deficits. Just this year, the PA Supreme Court ruled against this process and has restored the funds back to DCNR for conservations purposes.

All revenues generated from oil and gas development on state game lands stays within the Game Commission’s authority.

Along with positive economic benefits, there remains potential health and environmental risks unique to development on these public lands. Some studies indicate that users of these public lands could have potential exposure to pollution both in the air and in the water from active oil and gas infrastructure. The ease of public access to abandoned and active oil and gas infrastructure is a potential risk, as well. On the environmental side, many have argued that habitat fragmentation from oil and gas development is contradictory to the missions of the agencies. Both agencies have independent water monitoring groups specific to oil and gas activities as well as state regulated DEP monitoring. The potential negative effects on ground and surface water quality is an issue, however, mainly due the vast size of public lands and limited dwellings on these properties.

Use the map below to explore the PA state parks, forests, and game lands that have active oil and gas infrastructure.

Oil and Gas Wells on State Lands in PA


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Coal Mining

Thousands of acres of state forests and game lands have been mined for coal. Like oil and gas, this mineral is subject to similar fee simple ownership issues and is governed by the same laws that allow oil and gas extraction. DCNR, has not signed any virgin coal mining leases since the 1990s, but instead focuses on reclamation projects. There are coal mining operations, however, on forest land where DCNR does not own the mineral rights. The Game Commission still enters into surface and non-surface use agreements for mining.

In many circumstances, mining activity and abandoned mines were inherited by the state agencies and left to them to reclaim. Environmental and health impacts of mining specific to state land are generally attributed more to legacy mining and not to new mining operations.

Acid mine drainage and land subsidence has destroyed rivers and riparian habitats on these lands purposed for conservation.

The ease of public access and limited surveillance of public lands also makes abandoned mines and pits a dangerous health risk. Although threats to humans and water quality exist, abandoned mines have been noted for actually creating new bat habitat for endangered and threatened bat species.

Originally, we sought to quantify the total acreage of public lands affected by coal mining and abandoned mines; however, the dataset required to do so is not yet complete.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is currently in the process of digitizing over 84,000 hand drawn maps of mined coal seams in PA, an expected 15-year project.

Today, they have digitized approximately 30,000. The static map below demonstrates the areas with confirmed coal mining co-located on state lands:
Public lands and coal mining map - PA

Renewables

The discussion about renewable energy development in PA is almost as complex as the fossil industries. There are no utility-scale renewables on state owned land. Both DCNR and the Game Commission have been approached by developers to lease state land for wind development, however all proposals have been denied.

Even when DCNR owns the surface rights, they still cite the lack of legal authority to lease the land for wind, as their statute does not explicitly state “wind turbines” as a lawful lease option.

The Game Commission does have the legal authority to lease its land for wind development, but has denied 19 out of 19 requests by developers to do so, citing many environmental and surface disturbances as the primary reason.

Infographic regarding state land potential for wind energy

The development of wind projects in PA has slowed in the past five years, with only one new commercial wind farm being built. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that many of windiest locations on private lands have been developed.

We estimate that 35% of the state’s best wind resource is undevelopable simply because it is on public land.

Like all energy development, wind energy has potential environmental and health impacts, too. Wind could cause habitat fragmentation issues on land purposed for conservation. The wind energy industry also has realized negative effects on bird and bat species, most notably, the endangered Indiana bat. Health impacts unique to public lands and wind development include an increased risk of injury to hunters and recreators related to potential mechanical failure or ice throw off the blades. Unlike fossil energies, however, wind energy has potential to offset air emissions.

We estimate that wind development on PA public lands could offset and estimated 14,480,000 tons of CO2 annually if fully developed.

Commercial wind turbines are currently being installed at hub heights of 80-100 meters where the annual average wind resource is 6.5 m/s or greater. The following map demonstrates areas of Pennsylvania where the wind speeds are 6.5 m/s or greater at 100 meters, including areas overlapping state lands, where no utility scale development has occurred.

PA Wind Potential on State Lands


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Additional Renewables

Biomass is organic material, such as wood, that is considered renewable because of its ability to be replenished. The harvesting of such wood (timber) occurs on both DCNR and PGC lands and provides funding for these agencies.

Small-scale wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass projects do exist on PA public lands for onsite consumption, however no renewables exist on a commercial or utility scale.

Both the fossil and renewable energy industries are forecasted to grow in Pennsylvania in the years to come. The complex decisions and obligations to develop energy resources on PA public lands should include thoughtful management and fair use of these public lands for all energy resources.


For more information and details, check out the entire comprehensive report on our website: www.francis.edu/energy.

This work was supported by The Heinz Endowments.

Brine or water roadspreading in WV

Does roadspreading of brine equate to oil and gas waste dumping?

air quality impact, which is why roadspreading of brine occurs

This 2015 photo from West Virginia illustrates that large trucks on dirt roads create a legitimate dust problem, which impacts both air and water quality.

The application of liquid oil and gas waste from conventional wells onto roadways for dust control and road stabilization is permitted in Pennsylvania, provided that operators adhere to plans approved by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). There are brine spreading guidelines that operators are required to follow, but overall, DEP considers roadspreading to be a beneficial use of the liquid oil and gas waste products.

Dust suppression is a legitimate concern, particularly in areas that see a lot of heavy truck traffic on dirt roads, such rural oil and gas fields. Prolonged exposure to airborne dust contributes to a number of different health problems, ranging from temporary irritation to debilitating diseases of the heart, lungs, and kidneys. This road dust can also impact aquatic life, from plants to aquatic insects to fish.

While applying liquid waste from the oil and gas industry undoubtedly seems like a convenient solution to dusty roads, is roadspreading really advisable?

PA Oil and Gas Liquid Waste Road Applications


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

In the map above, the areas in green are municipalities where liquid waste from Pennsylvania’s conventional wells were applied to roadways in 2016. The purple areas are counties where additional quantities of the liquid waste were applied in cases where the exact municipality was not specified on the 2016 waste report. The majority of the state’s oil and gas roadspreading remains in Pennsylvania, but some of the brine is spread on roads in New York, as well.

What’s in the brine?

In Pennsylvania, the large-scale extraction efforts from deep carbon-rich shales like the Marcellus and Utica formations are classified as unconventional oil and gas, whereas the shallower formations requiring smaller amounts of hydraulic fracturing stimulation to bring the wells into production are considered to be conventional.

While the chemical components of these brines vary from formation to formation, in general they are known for containing high-salinity toxic metals, such as barium and strontium, as well as volatile organic compounds including benzene. Bromide in the brine can interact with purification processes at treatment plants to create carcinogenic compounds called trihalomethanes. These compounds actually created a problem in the early parts of the Marcellus boom in Western Pennsylvania, when large enough quantities of bromide were added to the region’s rivers and streams. And of particular concern is naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs), which sometimes occur at very high concentrations, even in brines from conventional wells.

The Pennsylvania Geological Survey commissioned Evan Dresel and Arthur Rose from Penn State to investigate oil and gas brine from a sample of 40 wells in 1985, although the accompanying paper wasn’t published until 2010.  Their samples included dissolved solids of 343,000 milligrams per liter, and radium occurring at up to 5,300 picocuries per liter. As a point of comparison, the US Environmental Protection Agency mandates that drinking water not exceed 5 picocuries per liter, and the authors of this report express concern about the high levels shown in these brines.

Based on the six samples analyzed, radium shows a general correlation with barium and strontium and an inverse correlation with [sulfate], though the correlation is not perfect. The radium values are high enough that a possible radiation hazard exists, especially where radium could be adsorbed on iron oxides and accumulate in brine tanks.

The article’s preface, written in 2010, echoes the concern, stating, ” the very high radium contents indicate that caution should be used in handling these brines.” One imagines that the radium content might also be a concern for people walking their dogs along dirt roads where these brines are spread.

Testing for radiological contamination appears to be insufficient for liquid oil and gas waste. Ben Stout, PhD, a professor of Biology at Wheeling Jesuit University (and a FracTracker Alliance board member) sampled liquid waste from Marcellus Shale wells in 2009. Here is what he found:

In terms of radiation, 9 of the 13 samples exceeded the drinking water standard for radium. Furthermore, 7 of the 13 samples exceeded the drinking water standard for gross alpha particles, which are a strong indicator of radioactivity. Most notably, one sample from a frac pit at the Phillips #20 site in Westmoreland County, PA yielded a gross alpha reading of 4846 +/‐ 994 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), though the drinking water standard is 15 pCi/L. In fact, the same sample had combined radium readings well over 1,000 pCi/L, a multiple in excess of 200 times the (5 pCi/L) standard. It should be noted that none of the samples triggered a response from radiation meters.

What to do?

From environmental concerns of high salinity to health concerns about the toxic and radiological content of oil and gas brines, intentionally introducing this waste product to public spaces is a dubious practice. It is understandable that township supervisors would want to use readily available materials for dealing with dust control on dirt roads, but if you are concerned about the practice and your area is indicated on the map above, you may wish to contact them to find out where this waste is being spread in greater detail.

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

Allegheny County, PA map of zoning designations

Allegheny County, PA – Drilling, Leasing, and Zoning Trends

By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
and Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

FracTracker recently updated its Pennsylvania Shale Viewer to reflect the latest data on unconventional oil and gas permits and active wells in the state. Within this data, we noticed an increase in permitting over the past year for Allegheny County, PA. We have worked on a number of recent initiatives aimed at expanding conversations about unconventional oil and gas drilling by mapping mineral rights leasing and zoning ordinances in Allegheny County. In this article, we bring these various analyses together.

The analysis below can assist residents and public officials in preparing for what appears to be a pending wave of new development.

Untapped Reserves

Over the past decade, unconventional oil and gas development has predominantly occurred in areas where shale formations are densest and most productive. For instance, the map below illustrates wells and permits in Southwestern Pennsylvania that track along the Marcellus Shale. An outlier on the map is Allegheny County when compared to its neighbors such as Washington and Greene Counties just to the south—two of the most drilled in the Commonwealth.

swpa_ac_og

Unconventional wells and permits in Southwest Pennsylvania

A few factors may explain these spatial anomalies. First, oil and gas companies are generally reluctant to operate in heavily populated areas. This is partly due to the complications of acquiring leases and easements in tightly packed communities.

Infrastructure is second consideration. In the absence of compressor stations and midstream pipelines, companies can’t get their product to market.

A third factor is the stronger political opposition often found in urban centers. For example, Pittsburgh’s 2010 fracking ban pushed back against drillers and had a chilling effect in bordering municipalities. Many of Allegheny County’s municipalities have, thus, had the luxury of putting oil and gas-related land use decisions on the back burner. Nevertheless, operators have maintained interest in extracting untapped shale reserves that lie beneath their borders.

Recent Permitting & Drilling Trends

Within Allegheny County, PA, there are now 24 well pads containing a combined 248 permitted wells, of which 109 currently have an active status. On average, these numbers show a 20% increase in well permits annually (40-50 per year) since 2014. This figure compares to less than 10 per year prior to 2012. Furthermore, while only partway through 2017, we’ve already reached this 20% increase in new permits (41 since 8/24), with the overwhelming number of these being issues for Findlay and Forward Townships. A table and graph of permitting activity since 2008 is seen below.

ac_permits_table_08242017

ac_permits_graph_08242017

Table and graph of permitted wells in Allegheny County

Interestingly, the number of active wells over the past few years does not track with increasing number of permits. In fact, active wells peaked in 2014-2015 and have steadily declined since, as is seen in the table and graph below. We credit these opposing trends to operators placing their wells into inactive status during a period of lower gas prices. Meanwhile, operators are increasing their applications for new wells in preparation for a predicted rebound as well as new pipelines and processing facilities coming online for delivering to new markets.

ac_dw_table_08242017

ac_dw_graph_08242017

Table and graph of active wells in Allegheny County

Predicting Development: Mineral Rights Leasing

The locations of permits and active wells are not always good indicators of long-term future development. A better picture can be painted with data on properties leased for eventual drilling. In 2016, FracTracker built the Allegheny County Lease Mapping Project, which revealed the extent of oil and gas leasing agreements across the region. From that work came some interesting findings.

There are 467,200 acres in Allegheny County. We found 63,014 acres (18% of the county) are under some kind of oil and gas agreement – this includes mineral rights leases, as well as other agreement such as pipeline rights of ways. It is important to note that as many as 15% of the records we obtained in executing the project could not be mapped due to missing metadata (many block/lot numbers were no longer provided with online records after 2010), so these are conservative estimates.

The list below shows the top five municipalities found to have the most leases. Of note is how West Deer, North Fayette, and Elizabeth townships all have a significant number of leases, but do not yet register in permitting activity.

Most Leased Municipalities in Allegheny County, PA

  1. West Deer Township (5,325 leases)
  2. North Fayette Township (5,070 leases)
  3. Elizabeth Township (4,070 leases)
  4. Fawn Township (3,872 leases)
  5. Forward Township (3,801)

We also discovered that more than 70% of leased properties were zoned residential or agricultural, despite the fact that unconventional oil and gas development is a highly disruptive and industrialized activity. The list below shows a breakdown of zoning designations.

Leased Properties Zoning

    • Residential (37%)
    • Agricultural (34%)
    • Commercial (23%)
    • Industrial (3%)
    • Other (3%)

Status of Protective Zoning

In 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upended state laws governing local oil and gas zoning rights with its landmark Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decision. The court struck down parts of Act 13 that imposed statewide zoning standards for oil and gas development. Zoning ordinances with stronger ordinances are now being adopted by some townships. However, many others have zoning codes that reflect pre-Robinson language, which allows mineral extraction everywhere, regardless of whether it is a compatible land use.

Drawing the connections between drilling trends, leasing activity, and protective zoning is, therefore, significant. Over the past six months, FracTracker has worked with Food & Water Watch to put our lease mapping data and state drilling data in context with assessments of Allegheny County’s municipal oil and gas zoning ordinances. The map below illustrates these overlaps.

Map of Allegheny County Drilling, Leasing, and Zoning


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Analysis

Allegheny County contains 130 municipalities. Food & Water Watch was able to obtain and review zoning codes for 104 of these 130. At least 56 municipalities have no zoning ordinances specific to oil and gas development. Of greatest concern, when placed in context with leasing and permitting data, FracTracker found that leases already existed in 43 of these 56 municipalities without oil and gas ordinances, although 8 of these 43 were found to have other less restrictive language regulating specific oil and gas activities, such as seismic testing. Fawn Township, one of the most permitted and most leased municipalities in the county, was found to have no oil and gas zoning ordinance.

Conclusions

It’s important to recognize that there is a significant difference between conventional oil and gas development and today’s heavily industrialized unconventional extraction industry. In many of Allegheny County’s municipalities there seems to be a presumption that there is no need to prepare zoning codes for drilling, despite data that suggest increased oil and gas development may be just around the corner.

With the deeper understanding of Allegheny County’s permitting trends, leasing activities, and the state of protective zoning presented in this article, municipalities would be wise to assess where they stand. Reviewing and updating their respective zoning codes to determine if they sufficiently address concerns related to unconventional drilling could be the most effective way to protect the interests of their residents.

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.

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_capacity

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_animation_cumulative_2000-15

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

pricing

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

Air emissions from drilling rig

A Review of Oil and Gas Emissions Data in Pennsylvania

By Wendy Fan, 2016 Intern, FracTracker Alliance

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

Why Emissions Are Reported

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

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

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

Importance of Data Collected

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

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

Air Monitoring Data Findings & Gaps

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

CMC

PA DEP’s Calculation Methods Codes for Emissions

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

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

Total Amount of Unconventional Wells 2000-2016

AmountofWells

Figure 1

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

Methane Emissions

PA_Methane

Figure 2

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

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

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

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

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

View methane emissions map full screen: 2012-2013

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

PA_CO2

Figure 3

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

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

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

View CO2 emissions map full screen: 2012-2013

Carbon Monoxide Emissions

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

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

PA_CO

Figure 4

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

View CO emissions map full screen: 2011-2013

NOx and VOCs

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

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

Benzene Emissions

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

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

Chart of PA benzene emissions data county to county

Figure 7

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

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

View benzene emissions map full screen: 2011-2013

Questions Remain

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

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

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

Richmond, CA crude by rail protest

CA Refineries: Sources of Oil and Crude-by-Rail Terminals

CA Crude by Rail, from the Bakken Shale and Canada’s Tar Sands to California Refineries
By
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator &
Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement

Refineries in California plan to increase capacity and refine more Bakken Shale crude oil and Canadian tar sands bitumen. However, CA’s refinery communities that already bear a disparate amount of the burden (the refinery corridor along the north shore of the East Bay) will be more impacted than they were previously. New crude-by-rail terminals will put additional Californians at risk of accidents such as spills, derailments, and explosions. Additionally, air quality in refinery communities will be further degraded as refineries change to lower quality sources of crude oil. Below we discuss where the raw crude oil originates, why people are concerned about crude-by-rail projects, and what CA communities are doing to protect themselves. We also discuss our GIS analysis, showing the number of Californians living within the half-mile blast zones of the rail lines that currently are or will be supported by the new and existing crude by rail terminal projects.

Sources of Raw Crude Oil

Sources of Refinery HAPs

Figure 1. Sources of crude oil feedstock refined in California over time (CA Energy Commission, 2015)

California’s once plentiful oil reserves of locally extracted crude are dwindling and nearing depletion. Since 1985, crude extraction in CA has dropped by half. Production from Alaska has dropped even more, from 2 million B/D (barrels per day) to around 500,000 B/D. The 1.9 million B/D refining capacity in CA is looking for new sources of fuels. Refineries continue to supplement crude feedstock with oil from other sources, and the majority has been coming from overseas, specifically Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This trend is shown in figure 1.

Predictions project that sources of raw crude oil are shifting to the energy intensive Bakken formation and Canadian Tar Sands. The Borealis Centre estimates an 800% increase of tar sands oil in CA refineries over the next 25 years (NRDC, 2015). The increase in raw material from these isolated locations means new routes are necessary to transport the crude to refineries. New pipelines and crude-by-rail facilities would be necessary, specifically in locations where there are not marine terminals such as the Central Valley and Central Coast of CA. The cheapest way for operators in the Canadian Tar Sands and North Dakota’s Bakken Shale to get their raw crude to CA’s refinery markets is by railroad (30% less than shipping by marine routes from ports in Oregon and Washington), but this process also presents several issues.

CA Crude by Rail

More than 1 million children — 250,000 in the East Bay — attend school within one mile of a current or proposed oil train line (CBD, 2015). Using this “oil train blast zone” map developed by ForestEthics (now called Stand) you can explore the various areas at risk in the US if there was an oil train explosion along a rail line. Unfortunately, there are environmental injustices that exist for communities living along the rail lines that would be transporting the crude according to another ForestEthics report.

To better understand this issue, last year we published an analysis of rail lines known to be used for transporting crude along with the locations of oil train incidents and accidents in California. This year we have updated the rail lines in the map below to focus on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific (UP) railroad lines, which will be the predominant lines used for crude-by-rail transport and are also the focus of the CA Emergency Management Agency’s Oil by Rail hazard map.

The specific focus of the map in Figure 2 is the five proposed and eight existing crude-by-rail terminals that allow oil rail cars to unload at the refineries. The eight existing rail terminals have a combined capacity of 496,000 barrels. Combined, the 15 terminals would increase CA’s crude imports to over 1 million B/D by rail. The currently active terminals are shown with red markers. Proposed terminals are shown with orange markers, and inactive terminals with yellow markers. Much of the data on terminals was taken from the Oil Change International Crude by Rail Map, which covers the entire U.S.

Figure 2. Map of CA Crude by Rail Terminals

View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work | Download Rail Terminal Map Data

Additional Proposals

The same type of facility is currently operating in the East Bay’s refinery corridor in Richmond, CA. The Kinder Morgan Richmond terminal was repurposed from handling ethanol to crude oil, but with no public notice. The terminal began operating without conducting an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) or public review of the permit. Unfortunately, this anti-transparent process was similar to a tactic used by another facility in Kern County. The relatively new (November 2014) terminal in Taft, CA operated by Plains All American Pipeline LLC also did not conduct an EIR, and the permit is being challenged on the grounds of not following the CA Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

EIRs are an important component of the permitting process for any hydrocarbon-related facility. In April 2015 in Pittsburg, for example, a proposed 50,000 B/D terminal at the WesPac Midstream LLC’s railyard was abandoned due to community resistance and criticism over the EIR from the State Attorney General, along with the larger proposal of a 192,000 B/D marine terminal.

Still, many other proposals are in the works for this region. Targa Resources, a midstream logistics company, has a proposed a 70,000 B/D facility in the Port of Stockton, CA. Alon USA has a permitted project for revitalizing an idle Bakersfield refinery because of poor economics and have a permit to construct a two-unit train/day (150,000 B/D) offloading facility on the refinery property. Valero dropped previous plans for a rail oil terminal at its Wilmington refinery in the Los Angeles/Long Beach port area, and Questar Pipeline has preliminary plans for a  rail oil terminal in the desert east of the Palm Springs area for a unit-train/day.

Air Quality Impacts of Refining Tar Sands Oil

Crude-by-rail terminals bring with them not only the threat of derailments and the risk of other such accidents, but the terminals are also a source of air emissions. Terminals – both rail and marine – are major sources of PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). The Sacramento Valley Railroad (SAV) Patriot rail oil terminal at a business park on the former McClellan Air Force Base property actually had its operating permit withdrawn by Sacramento air quality regulators due to this issue (read more). The terminal was unloading and reloading oil tanker cars.

FracTracker’s recent report, Emissions in the Refinery Corridor, shows that the refineries in this region are the major point source for emissions of both cancer and non-cancer risk drivers in the region. These air pollution sources get worse, however. According to the report by NRDC, changing the source of crude feedstock to increased amounts of Canadian Tar Sands oil and Bakken Shale oil would:

… increase the levels of highly toxic fugitive emissions; heavy emissions of particulate, metals, and benzene; result in a higher risk of refinery accidents; and the accumulation of petroleum coke* (a coal-like, dusty byproduct of heavy oil refining linked to severe respiratory impacts). This possibility would exacerbate the harmful health effects faced by the thousands of low-income families that currently live around the edges of California’s refineries. These effects are likely to include harmful impacts to eyes, skin, and the nervous and respiratory systems. Read NRDC Report

Petroleum coke (petcoke) is a waste product of refining tar sands bitumen (oil), and will burden the communities near the refineries that process tar sands oil. Petcoke has recently been identified as a major source of exposures to carcinogenic PAH’s in Alberta Canada (Zhang et al., 2016). For more information about the contributions of petcoke to poor air quality and climate change, read this report by Oil Change International.

The contribution to climate change from accessing the tar sands also needs to be considered. Extracting tar sands is estimated to release on average 17% average more green-house gas (GHG) emissions than conventional oil extraction operations in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of State. (Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change on a global scale.) The refining process, too, has a larger environmental / public health footprint; refining the tar sands to produce gasoline or diesel generates an average of 81% more GHGs (U.S. Dept of State. Appendix W. 2015). In total this results in a much larger climate impact (NRDC, NextGen Climate, Forest Ethics. 2015).

Local Fights

People opposed to CA crude by rail have been fighting the railway terminal proposals on several fronts. In Benicia, Valero’s proposal for a rail terminal was denied by the city’s Planning Commission, and the project’s environmental impact report was denied, as well. The city of Benicia, however, hired lawyers to ensure that the railway projects are built. The legality of railway development is protected regardless of the impacts of what the rails may be used to ship. This legal principle is referred to as “preemption,” which means the federal permitting prevents state or local actions from trying to limit or block development. In this case, community and environmental advocacy groups such as Communities for a Better Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Stanford-Mills Law Project all agree the “preemption” doctrine doesn’t apply here. They believe preemption does not disallow the city or other local governments from blocking land use permits for the refinery expansion and crude terminals that unload the train cars at the refinery.  The Planning Commission’s decision is being appealed by Valero, and another meeting is scheduled for September, 2016.

The fight for local communities along the rail-lines is more complicated when the refinery is far way, under the jurisdiction of other municipalities. Such is the case for the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery, located on California State Highway 1 on the Nipomo Mesa. The Santa Maria refinery is requesting land use permits to extend track to the Union Pacific Railway that transits CA’s central coast. The extension is necessary to bring the rail cars to the proposed rail terminal. This project would not just increase traffic within San Luis Obispo, but for the entirety of the rail line, which passes directly through the East Bay. The project would mean an 80-car train carrying 2 million gallons of Bakken Crude would travel through the East Bay from Richmond through Berekely and Emeryville to Jack London Square and then south through Oakland and the South Bay.  This would occur 3 to 5 times per week. In San Luis Obispo county 88,377 people live within the half-mile blast zone of the railroad tracks.

In January, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department proposed to deny Phillips 66 the permits necessary for the rail spur and terminals. This decision was not easy, as Phillips 66, a corporation ranked Number 7 on the Fortune 500 list, has fought the decision. The discussion remained open with many days of meetings, but the majority of the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission spoke in favor of the proposal at a meeting Monday, May 16. There is overwhelming opposition to the rail spur project coming from 250 miles away in Berkeley, CA. In 2014, the Berkeley and Richmond city councils voted to oppose all transport of crude oil through the East Bay. Without the rail spur approval, Phillips 66 declared the Santa Maria refinery would otherwise transport oil from Kern County via 100 trucks per day. Learn more about this project.

GIS Analysis

GIS techniques were used to estimate the number of Californians living in the half mile “at risk” blast zone in the communities hosting the crude-by-rail lines. First, we estimated the total population of Californians living a half mile from the BNSF and UP rail lines that could potentially transport crude trains. Next, we limited our study area to just the East Bay refinery corridor, which included Contra Costa and the city of Benicia in Solano County. Then, we estimated the number of Californians that would be living near rail lines if the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery crude by rail project is approved and becomes operational. The results are shown below:

  1. Population living within a half mile of rail lines throughout all of California: 6,900,000
  2. Population living within a half mile of rail lines in CA’s East Bay refinery communities: 198,000
  3. Population living within a half mile of rail lines along the UP lines connecting Richmond, CA to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery: 930,000

CA Crude by Rail References

  1. NRDC. 2015. Next Frontier for Dangerous Tar Sands Cargo:California. Accessed 4/15/16.
  2. Oil Change International. 2015. Rail Map.
  3. Global Community Monitor. 2014. Community Protest Against Crude Oil by Rail Blocks Entrance to Kinder Morgan Rail Yard in Richmond
  4. CEC. 2015. Sources of Oil to California Refineries. California Energy Commission. Accessed 4/15/16.
  5. Zhang Y, Shotyk W, Zaccone C, Noernberg T, Pelletier R, Bicalho B, Froese DG, Davies L, and Martin JW. 2016. Airborne Petcoke Dust is a Major Source of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region. Environmental Science and Technology. 50 (4), pp 1711–1720.
  6. U.S. Dept of State. 2015. Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL Pipeline. Accessed 5/15/16.
  7. U.S. Dept of State. 2015. Appendix W Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL Pipeline Appendix W. Accessed 5/15/16.
  8. NRDC, NextGen Climate, Forest Ethics. 2015. West Coast Tar Sands Invasion. NRDC 2015. Accessed 4/15/16.

** Feature image of the protest at the Richmond Chevron Refinery courtesy of Global Community Monitor.

Flooded well and toppled oil storage tanks in Weld County, Colorado 2013. Rick Wilking/Reuters

Oil and Gas Flood Contamination Risk Incalculable on CO Front Range

By Sierra Shamer, Visiting Scholar, FracTracker Alliance

Historic 2013 flooding in the Colorado Front Range damaged homes, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure — including hundreds of oil and gas facilities. Companies shut down wells and scrambled to contain spills in their attempts to prevent extensive water contamination. Colorado has since adopted new regulations that require oil and gas companies to identify and secure all infrastructures located within floodplains. However, FEMA’s Flood Hazard maps, which the state uses to calculate flood risk, are largely incomplete, leaving only the industry accountable for reporting facilities that may be at risk in future flooding events. This article highlights the unknown flood contamination risk threatening the Front Range by oil and gas, and the featured map identifies known floodplain infrastructure.

Front Range Realities

CO Front Range counties re: flood contamination risk

Counties of the Colorado Front Range

The Colorado Front Range is the most populated region of the state, covering 17 counties and 7 cities including Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs. This region has experienced devastating flash flooding events throughout history, most notably the Big Thompson flood of 1976, which dumped 12-14 inches of rain along the Front Range in only 4-6 hours. The 2013 Colorado Front Range Flood brought almost 15 inches to the region, 9 of which falling within a period of 24 hours. A state of emergency was declared in the region and recovery projects continue to this day.

The Front Range region is not only one of the most populated in Colorado, it is also home to 40% of Colorado’s oil and gas wells. Oil and gas development occurs so rapidly that data reports on pending permits, active permits, and well locations are updated daily by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). The damage to oil and gas facilities due to the 2013 floods prompted the COGCC to adopt Rule 603.h, requiring companies to identify proposed and current infrastructure within the floodplain and to create flood mitigation and response plans. On April 1st of this year, all companies with existing infrastructure must comply with Rule 603.h. With over 109,000 wells in the state, an incomplete FEMA database, and only 22 field inspectors, the COGCC has limited capacity to ensure these reports identify all infrastructure within the floodplain.

FEMA Floodplain Gaps

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maintains a national map of the 100-year floodplain for insurance determinations that are in the process of being digitized. These maps show the extent of flooding expected from rain events with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. They are determined by a combination of topography, satellite imagery, and maps from local jurisdictions. However, in many portions of the western US, these mapped areas are incomplete, including large regions of Colorado. FEMA maps are also the primary floodplain data source used by industry and the by the COGCC. The map below shows the oil and gas infrastructure that is located within the known digital 100-year floodplain as of early February 2016. This map underrepresents the actual number of facilities within the floodplains due to incomplete FEMA data, but provides a clear visual of a widespread problem.

Known Floodplain Infrastructure Map

View full screen map | How to work with our maps | Download map data

Although FEMA is routinely working to update their dataset, large regions with widespread extraction remain digitally unmapped. While there is accessible floodplain info for the companies to use to determine their status and for the COGCC to verify what the industry reports, the incomplete digitized FEMA data means there is no accessible or efficient way for the COGCC to know if there is infrastructure within a floodplain that hasn’t been reported. This means that more is at risk here than we can calculate. Weld County, a Front Range county and recipient of severe flooding in 2013, starkly exemplifies this reality. In the aftermath of the 2013 flood, Weld County became a disaster zone when 1,900 oil and gas wells were shut down, submerged completely by the rushing water, as thousands of gallons of oil drained out. Until January 2016, Weld County lacked digitally mapped floodplains, and currently only 16% of the river and stream network is available.

The table below lists the percentages of oil and gas infrastructure that exist in Weld County alone that can be calculated using this limited dataset. As of February of this year, 3,475 wells of 35,009 are within the known floodplain in Weld County. Of greater concern, 74% of pending permits statewide are in Weld County – 5% of those in the known floodplain – indicating either an underestimation of flood risk, a blatant disregard of it, or both.

table_v2

Flooding in the Future

According to the CO Climate Change Vulnerability Study, the state expects a 2.5–5 degree Fahrenheit annual temperature increase by 2050. While this increase is likely to cause earlier spring runoff, more rain at lower elevations, and higher evaporation rates, it is unclear if annual precipitation will increase or decrease with rising temperatures. This uncertainty makes it difficult to know if increased flood risk is in the future. Current flood risk, however, is a known threat. The CO Department of Public Safety’s Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan calculates, based on historical events, that Colorado experiences a flood disaster once every five years. This means that each year, there is a 20% chance a major flood will occur. With incomplete data, limited oversight, and uncertain future trends, oil and gas flood contamination risk is incalculable – and on the Front Range, the majority of Colorado’s population, extractive industry, and environment are in danger.

Dealing with the Unknown

The unknown risks of climate change and known risks of historical flood trends emphasize that identifying oil and gas infrastructure in floodplains must be a high priority for the COGCC. These realities also put into question whether or not future infrastructures should be permitted within floodplains at all. In April, floodplain infrastructure will be identified by the industry and when these data are made available, a more accurate analysis of risk will me made.

Feature photo shows a flooded well and toppled oil storage tanks in Weld County, Colorado 2013 – by Rick Wilking/Reuters.