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Photo courtesy of Brian van der Brug | LA Times

More Oil Field Wastewater Pits Found in California!

Who’s in charge here?
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator

FracTracker Alliance recently worked with Clean Water Action to map an update to last year’s report* on the use of unlined, above ground oil and gas waste disposal pits, also known as sumps.

The new report identifies additional oil field wastewater pits and details how California regulators continue to allow these facilities to degrade groundwater, surface waters, and air quality. Other oil and gas production states do not permit or allow these type of operations due to the many documented cases of water contamination. A report published in 2011 identified unlined pits and other surface spills as the largest threat to groundwater quality. The sites are ultimately sacrifice zones, where the contamination from produced water and drilling mud solid wastes leaves a lasting fingerprint.

Central Coast & New Central Valley Pit Data

Ca Central Coast oil field wastewater pits

Figure 1. Central Coast wastewater pits

New data has been released by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, identifying the locations of 44 active wastewater facilities and 5 inactive facilities in the California counties of Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. The number of pits at each facility is not disclosed, but satellite imagery shows multiple pits at some facilities. The locations of the majority of central coast pits are shown in the map in Figure 1, to the right.

In the web map below (Figure 2), the most updated data shows the number of pits at “active” facilities (those currently operating), shown in red and green, and inactive pits, shown in yellow and orange. The number of pits at each facility in the central valley are shown by the size of the graduated circles. Pit count data for the central coast facilities was not reported, therefore all facilities are shown with a small marker.

Figure 2. Interactive map of California oil field wastewater pits

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Exploring the new central coast data shows that the operators with the most facilities include Greka Oil & Gas Inc. (14), E & B Natural Resources (10), ERG Operating Company, LLC (6), and Chevron (5). As shown in the table below, the majority of central coast pits are located in Santa Barbara County.

Table 1. Summaries by County

Site Counts by Activity and County
Facility Counts Pit Counts
County Active Inactive Active Inactive
Santa Barbara 35 2 Unknown Unknown
Monterey 9 0 Unknown 0
San Luis Obispo 0 3 0 Unknown
Kern 161 191 673 347
Fresno 8 5 31 14
Tulare 6 1 28 1
Kings 5 0 14 0
San Benito 0 4 0 5
Grand Total 224 206 746 367

Wastewater Pit Regulations

Way back in 1988, the U.S. EPA recognized that the federal regulations governing disposal practices of wastewater are inadequate to protect public health, but has yet to take action (NRDC 2015). There is little chance the U.S. EPA will enact regulations focused on pits. In certain cases, if wastewaters spill or are discharged to surface waters the operations will fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act and will require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Since the objective of the pit is to contain the wastewater to keep it away from surface waters, pits and the wastewater facilities in California that manage them do not require federal oversight. For now the responsibility to protect health and environment has been left to the states.

Most states have responded and have strict regulations for wastewater management. For the few states that allow unlined pits, the main use is storage of wastewater rather than as an dedicated method of disposal. The majority of high production states have banned or ended the use of unlined pits, including Texas, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Mexico, Texas (Heberger & Donnelly 2015). An effective liner will prevent percolation of wastewaters into groundwater. The goal of California oil field wastewater pits is quite the opposite.

For California, percolation is the goal and a viable disposal option.

Therefore other regulations that require monitoring of liquid levels in the pits are moot. In fact there is no evidence of regulation requiring spill reporting in California whatsoever (Kuwayama et al. 2015).

Numerous other extraction states throughout the country have phased out the use of open pits entirely, including those with liners due to the common occurrence of liner failures. The list includes those new players in the shale boom using hydraulic fracturing techniques such as North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Colorado. Rather than using the pits as storage, these states’ regulatory agencies favor instead the protections of closed systems of liquid storage. Wastewaters are stored in large tanks, often the same tanks used to store the fresh water used in the hydraulic fracturing process.

Because hydraulic fracturing in California uses much less water, it should be much easier to manage the flowback fluids and other wastewaters. According to the CCST report, 60% of the produced water from hydraulic fracturing operations was disposed to these unlined pits. Regardless of extraction technique, oil extraction in California produces 15 times the amount of wastewater. In total, an estimated 40% of all produced water was discharged to unlined “percolation” pits. As the 3rd largest oil producing state in the country, this equates to a massive waste stream of about 130 billion gallons/year (Grinberg 2014).

Regulatory Action

The facilities’ permits identify waste discharge requirements (WDRs) that allow for the discharge of oil field wastewater to the “ground surface, into natural drainage channels, or into unlined surface impoundments.” Using the Race Track Hill and Fee 34 Facilities as an example, the WDRS place criteria limits on total dissolved solids (TDS), chlorides, and boron. If you disregard all the other toxic constituents not monitored, the allowable concentration limits set for these three wastewater constituents would be reasonable for a discharge permit on the east coast, where a receiving body of water could provide the volume necessary for dilution. When the wastewater is applied directly to the ground or into a pit, the evaporative loss of water results in elevated concentrations of these contaminants.

Even with these very lax regulations, a number of facilities are in violation of the few restrictions required in their permits. Cease and desist orders have been several operators, most notably to Valley Water Management’s Race Track Hill and Fee 34 Facilities. According to the Regional Water Board documents, the Fee 34 disregarded salinity limitations and other regulations. As a result the Regional Water Board found soil and groundwater contamination that “threatens or creates a condition of pollution in surface and groundwater, and may result in the degradation of water quality.” Reports show that 6 domestic supply and 12 agricultural supply wells are located within 1 mile of the Fee 34 facility. At the Race Track Hill Facility the wastewater is continuously sprayed over several acre fields in a small watershed of the Cottonwood Creek. During a rain, the salt and boron loadings that have accumulated in the soil over the past 60 years of spraying can create increased salt and boron loading in the Kern River and groundwater. This would be a violation of the Clean Water Act (CVRWQCB 2015).

As shown in Table 2, below, the majority of facilities are currently operating without a permit whatsoever (61.2%). Of the 72 facilities that bothered to get permits, 32 (44.4%) received the permit prior to 1975, before the Tulare Basin Plan was implemented to preserve water quality. Of the 183 active facilities in the Central Valley, only 15 facilities have received Cease and Desist (11% of permitted) or Cleanup and Abatement Orders (6% of unpermitted). Only 3 of the 41 active Central Coast facilities operate with a permit (7.3%).

These types of WDR permits that allow pollutants to concentrate in the soil and the groundwater and degrade air quality. Chemicals that pose a public health risk are not being monitored. But at this point, these facilities are not only sites of legacy contamination, but growing threats to groundwater security. Operators say that closing the pits will mean certain doom for oil extraction in California, and recent letters from operators make pleas to DOGGR, that their very livelihood depends on using the pits as dumping grounds. The pits are the cheapest and least regulated mode of disposal.

Table 2. Facility Status Summaries

Facility Status
Activity Permitted Permitted; Cease & Desist Order Unpermitted Unpermitted; Cleanup & Abatement Order Grand Total
Active 75 9 137 6 227
Inactive 20 2 184 3 209
Grand Total 92 11 321 9 433

New Mexico Case Study

Much like the groundwater impacts documented by California’s Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, other states have been forced to deal with this issue. The difference is that other states have actually shut down the polluting facilities. In California, cease and desist orders have been met with criticism and pleas by operators, stating that the very livelihood of the oil and gas industry in California depends on wastewater disposal in pits. The same was said in other states such as New Mexico when these crude and antiquated practices were ended. Figure 3 below shows the locations of wastewater pits in New Mexico and the areas where groundwater was contaminated as a result of the pits.
The New Mexico oil and gas industry predicted in August 2008 that fewer drillers would sink wells in New Mexico, at least in part because of the new pit rule. Pro-industry (oil and gas) state representatives were concerned that new drilling techniques coupled with the pit rules could lead to an industry exodus from New Mexico, hoping that the Governor “would step in to help protect an important state revenue source.” But the state’s average rig count from June — when the pit rule took effect — through December 2008 was 7% higher than it was over the same period in the previous year. Development of oil and gas reserves is independent of such regulation. Read the FracTracker coverage of groundwater contamination in New Mexico, here!

Figure 3. Legacy map of cases where pits contaminated groundwater in New Mexico

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References & Resources

* In case you missed it, the 2014 report on wastewater pits can be found here (Grinberg, A. 2014). FracTracker’s previous coverage of the issue can be found here.

** Feature image of Central Valley oil field wastewater pits courtesy of Brian van der Brug | LA Times

  1. Grindberg, A. 2016. UPDATE ON OIL AND GAS WASTEWATER DISPOSAL IN CALIFORNIA: California Still Allowing Illegal Oil Industry Wastewater Dumping Clean Water Action. Accessed 2/15/16.
  2. Grinberg, A. 2014. In the Pits, Oil and Gas Wastewater Disposal into Open Unlined Pits and the Threat to California’s Water and Air. Clean Water Action. Accessed 12/5/14.
  3. NRDC. 2015. Groups File Notice of Intent to Sue EPA Over Dangerous Drilling and Fracking Waste. NRDC. Accessed 10/1/15.
  4. Heberger, M. Donnelly, K. 2015. Oil, Food, and Water: Challenges and Opportunities for California Agriculture. Pacific Institute. Accessed 2/1/16.
  5. Kuwayama et al. 2015. Pits versus Tanks: Risks and Mitigation Options for On-site Storage of Wastewater from Shale Gas and Tight Oil Development. Resources for the Future. Accessed 2/1/16.
  6. CVRWQCB. 2015. Cease and Desist Order R5-2015-0093. CVRWQCB. Accessed 2/1/16.

Parked Oil Trains in Berks County, PA

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

The Risks of Crude Oil Trains

As new oil fields boomed across North America in recent years, drillers looked for ways to get the product to refineries thousands of miles away. One solution was to use the nation’s rail infrastructure to ship hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil per day. The flow of oil was so great that thousands of additional tanker cars were ordered to get the oil to market. And yet, this solution of transporting crude by rail brought additional problems. Shipping large quantities of highly volatile and combustible crude oil on often antiquated rail lines has resulted in numerous accidents, at times spectacular in scale. In recent months, however, thousands of these oil tankers have been sitting idle on the tracks around the country, partially due to dropping oil prices, leading refineries to opt for cheaper imported oil and less expensive ways to get the domestic product to market such as through pipelines.

Communities Along the Tracks

The interactive story map below investigates a stretch of oil trains that have been parked for months in close proximity to homes, schools, and busy intersections in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Altogether, 30,494 people live in the seven communities through which the tracks in question pass. We began this project in response to concerns from residents who contacted FracTracker for assistance in understanding why these trains were located in their community, what hazards they might pose, and to help people bring this story to the public to foster meaningful discussions about the risks of parked oil trains.

Berks_staticmap


FracTracker has covered the risks of oil trains in a series of other articles. Click here to learn more.

Public Herald’s #fileroom Update

Crowdsourcing Digital PA Oil & Gas Data

FracTracker Alliance worked with Public Herald this spring to update and map oil and gas complaints filed by citizens to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) as of March 2015. The result is the largest release of oil and gas records on water contamination due to fracking in PA. Additionally, Public Herald’s investigation revealed evidence of Pennsylvania state officials keeping water contamination related to fracking “off the books.”

Project Background

The mission of Public Herald, an investigative news non-profit formed in 2011, is two-fold: truth + creativity. Their work uses investigative journalism and art to empower readers and hold accountable those who put the public at risk. For this project, Public Herald aims to improve the public’s access to oil and gas information in PA by way of file reviews and data digitization. Public Herald maintains an open source website called #fileroom, where people can access a variety of digital information originally housed on paper within the PA DEP. This information is collected and synthesized with the help of donors, journalists and researchers in a collective effort with the community. To date, these generous volunteers have already donated more than 2,000 hours of their time collecting records.

The site includes complaints, permits, waste, legal cases, and gas migration investigations (GMI) conducted by the PA DEP. Additionally, there is a guide on how to conduct file reviews and how to access information through the “Right-to-Know” law at the PA DEP. They have broken down complaints and permits by county; wastes and GMI categories by cases, all of which include test results from inspections; and correspondence and weekly reports.

Some partners and contributors to the file team include Joshua Pribanic as the co-founder and Editor-in Chief, Melissa Troutman as co-founder and Executive Director, John Nicholson, who collects and researches for several databases, Nadia Steinzor as a contributor through Earthworks, and many more. Members of FracTracker working on this project include Matt Kelso, Samantha Rubright, and Kirk Jalbert.

#fileroom’s update expands the number of complaint data records collected to 18 counties – and counting!


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Shale Gas Development on Public Lands

By Mark Szybist and George Jugovic, Jr., PennFuture Guest Authors

Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) and FracTracker Alliance have collaborated to create a unique GIS map that enables the public to investigate how shale gas development is changing the face of our public lands. The map allows viewers to see, in one place:

  • Pennsylvania’s State Forests, Parks and Game Lands;
  • State Forest tracts containing active oil and gas leases;
  • State Forest areas where the oil and gas rights have been “severed” from the surface lands and are owned by third parties;
  • State Forest lands that are to be protected for recreational use under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act;
  • The location of unconventional shale gas wells that have been drilled on State Forest and State Game Lands; and
  • The boundaries of watersheds that contain one or more High Quality or Exceptional Value streams.

The goal of this project was to develop a resource that would highlight the relationship between unconventional shale gas development and public resources that the State holds in trust for Pennsylvania’s citizens under Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. It is our hope that the map will be useful to citizens, conservation groups and others in planning educational, advocacy, and recreational activities.

The Public Lands Map


A full screen version of The Public Lands Map can be found here.

Background

Public lands held in trust by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for citizens of the state are managed by various state agencies and commissions. The vast majority of State lands, though, are managed by just two bodies – the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). Under Act 147 of 2012, the Department of General Services has the authority to lease other lands controlled by the state. In recent years, DCNR and the PGC have made liberal use of their powers to lease State lands for oil and gas development.

DCNR: State Forests, State Parks, and Publicly Owned Streambeds

The DCNR manages approximately 2.2 million acres of State Forest lands and 283,000 acres of State Park lands, as well as many miles of publicly owned streambeds. The Conservation and Natural Resources Act (CNRA) authorizes DCNR to develop oil, gas and other minerals under these lands, so long as the state controls those mineral rights. In some cases, separate persons or entities own the surface of the land and mineral rights. Where DCNR does not control the mineral rights, the owners of the oil and gas have the ability to make reasonable use of the land surface for mineral extraction, subject to restrictions in their property deeds.

Before the start of the Marcellus era, the DCNR leased about 153,268 acres of State Forest lands for mineral development. These leases largely allowed the drilling of “conventional” shallow vertical gas wells. Between 2008 and 2010, the DCNR, under Governor Ed Rendell, leased another 102,679 acres of public lands for natural gas development – but this time the leases were for the drilling of horizontal wells in “unconventional” shale formations using high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Following the lease sale, DCNR published a report on October 26, 2010 that stated any further gas leasing of State Forest Lands would jeopardize the sustainability of the resource. As a result, Governor Rendell signed Executive Order 2010-05, which placed a moratorium on the sale of any additional leases for oil and gas development on lands “owned and managed by DCNR.

On May 23, 2014, Governor Tom Corbett revoked Governor Rendell’s moratorium, and issued a new Executive Order that allowed the issuance of additional leases for gas development beneath State Lands so long as the leases did not entail “additional surface disturbance on State Forest or State Park lands.” Ultimately, Governor Corbett’s DCNR did not enter into any leases under the new Order. However, between January 2011 and January 2015, Governor Corbett’s DCNR did issue leases for gas extraction beneath a number of publicly owned streambeds, which, according to the Post-Gazette, raised $19 million. Governor Corbett’s DCNR also renewed at least one State Forest lease that otherwise would have expired.

On January 29, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf issued another Executive Order on the matter, which re-established a moratorium on the leasing of State Park and State Forest lands “subject to future advice and recommendations by DCNR.” The Order allows for the continued leasing of publicly owned streambeds. As of the publication of this blog, the DCNR is fighting two lawsuits concerning the leasing of the lands it manages, one by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation and one by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Drilling in Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Pete Stern 2013

Drilling in Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Pete Stern 2013.

PGC: State Game Lands

The PGC manages more than 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands that it may lease for gas development under the Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code. The PGC can also exchange mineral rights beneath State Game Lands for “suitable lands having an equal or greater value.” To date, the PGC has entered into surface and non-surface leases (technically, cooperative agreements for the exercise of oil and gas production rights) for natural gas development totaling 92,000 acres, of which about 45,000 acres were leased since 2008.

Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Lands

The LWCF Act is a federal law administered by the National Park Service (NPS) that authorizes federal grants to state and local governments for “outdoor recreation.” When a state accepts money for a recreational project, it agrees to protect the recreational value of the area supported by the grant. If the state later decides to take or allow actions that would “convert” parts of the protected area to a non-recreational use (1) the state must seek prior approval from the NPS, and (2) the NPS must perform an environmental assessment of the proposed conversion under the National Environmental Policy Act. The NPS may approve a conversion of LWCF-supported lands only if those lands will be replaced with “other recreation properties of at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location.”

Between 1978 and 1986, Pennsylvania received three LWCF grants (Project Numbers 42-00580, 42-01235, and 42-01351) to support recreational opportunities on State Forest lands. Most of the money was used to improve roads in various State Forests to improve access for hunters, hikers and anglers. The LWCF layer on the Public Lands map represents those areas that Pennsylvania agreed to protect in exchange for these grants.

In 2009 and 2010, Pennsylvania entered into leases opening up about 11,718 acres of LWCF-protected areas to unconventional gas development. On the map, these areas can be highlighted by selecting “Land and Water Conservation Fund Lands” and “SF Lands – DCNR Leases”; the purplish, overlapping areas represent the leased LWCF lands.

Governor Corbett’s DCNR refused to recognize that shale gas development on public lands constituted a “conversion” under the LWCF Act. The Sierra Club was the first to identify this problem in a 2011 letter to the NPS and the DCNR. That letter requested, among other things, that the NPS formally determine the extent to which DCNR leasing of LWCF-protected State Forest lands has violated the LWCF Act. Nearly four years later, the NPS has yet to determine whether drilling and fracking of unconventional gas wells and construction of the necessary support structures constitutes a “conversion” and loss of recreational opportunities under the LWCF Act.

Old Loggers Path

Old Loggers Path, a favorite among hikers

A Note on the Map Layers

The sources of the GIS layers in the Public Lands map are explained in the “Details” section of the map. For the most part, PennFuture and FracTracker obtained or created the layers from public sources and through open records requests to the DCNR. In all cases, the layers came from the DCNR with a disclaimer as to the accuracy of the data and a warning about relying on the data.

GIS layers that are not currently on the map, but that this project hopes to add, include:

  • State Game Lands that have been leased for drilling;
  • State Park and Game Lands where the oil and gas rights have been “severed” and not controlled by the State;
  • Publicly owned streambeds that the State has leased for oil and gas development;
  • Public lands containing areas of significant ecologic value; and
  • Compressor stations, natural gas and water pipelines, and fresh water and wastewater impoundments.

Persons having access to this data are invited to contact PennFuture or FracTracker.

Has our beer been fracked?

By Matt Unger and Gianna Calisto, FracTracker PA Interns

Recently, a Grist.com article, entitled Hey! Did somebody frack my favorite beer? caught our attention here at FracTracker Alliance. In the piece, a concerned citizen questioned whether or not fracking could be affecting what many consider to be the crown jewel of Pennsylvania brewing – Yuengling. The author responded very thoroughly, but needed a map to help show the locations of breweries closest to drilling. To help identify any potential problems and hopefully allow the Commonwealth’s beer drinkers to drink easily tonight, we’ve pulled together such a map.

The PA Beer and Unconventional Drilling Map

Beer and Fracking Map

Click on the map to explore the breweries and nearby drilling activity

On this map you will see all of the drilled wells (orange), permitted wells (purple), and breweries / brewpubs that we could find in Pennsylvania as of 11-16-2014. The data was gathered from the PA DEP website and The Beer Mapping Project, as well as from a tool our map below contains that allows the viewer to measure distances between two points.

The breweries/brewpubs in the South Central and South Eastern parts of the state are located quite a long distance away from unconventional well pads. This means that Yuengling is likely safe so long as there are no pipeline or traffic incidents nearby!

Even the other areas of Pennsylvania show that brewing near areas of fracking is relatively uncommon. However, there are a few exceptions, particularly in the North Eastern and South Western parts of the state.

Select Results

  • Yuengling Brewery: 38 Miles from the nearest permitted well, 40 miles from the nearest drilled well.
  • Iron City Brewing Company: 12 miles from the nearest permitted well, 11.7 miles from the nearest drilled well. Both well sites are upstream from the brewery.
  • Nimble Hill Brewing Company: 0.5 miles from nearest drilled and permitted well

Use the measure tool on the fullscreen map to explore more about PA brewing and its proximity to drilling.

Things to Consider

The Grist article that we referred to earlier did a great job at outlining some of the risks of drilling and caveats to supporting your favorite brewery. Simply being located near a drilling site does not necessarily mean that the area’s water and air are polluted, but it is a risk. In addition to the points that Grist made, keep in mind that fracking can have other, more indirect effects on the beer industry; well pads are not the only places where effects on the environment can be seen. Spills and traffic involving the transportation of drilling resources, products, and waste pose very serious risks through the areas that these items are transported. This intense industrial activity can also give off localized air pollution. The map above only begins to highlight all of the potential beer-scare scenarios, unfortunately.

If you do feel that your favorite beer is being affected by nearby drilling activity, there are very easy things that you can do, as the Grist article explains. In the mean time, we at FracTracker will happily taste test each PA brewery’s product should the need arise!

If there are other maps that you would like to see made showing where drilling is located near you, just let us know.

Is it getting hot in North Dakota?

By Samantha Malone, Manager of Education, Communications & Partnerships, FracTracker Alliance

North Dakota sure is popular recently. You might wonder why ND’s oil and gas development has been such a hot topic when the average monthly temperature there in November is only 27° F. Below we summarize the recent ND coverage and why the state has been the focus of several conversations lately.

The Intensity of Drilling

On November 22nd The New York Times launched a two-part series starting with The Downside of the Boom. Herein, the NY Times highlights how North Dakota’s regulatory system is insufficient to manage a hefty oil and gas industry. Part two in the series looks into Where Oil and Politics Mix in ND. This investigative journalism series questioned how well the state is managing oil and gas development, which was followed quickly by criticism of the series by state officials. If you haven’t checked out this series and its incredible visuals yet, I would highly recommend it.

FracTracker maintains a shale viewer map of North Dakota and its horizontal oil wells if you would like to explore where the industry is operating. Interestingly, ND is one of the few states where the horizontally drilled well data is available to the public. (Horizontal wells jut out from the vertical wells below ground.) Our interactive map of ND includes zooming features, well API information, and a measurement tool to examine horizontal well lengths. The screenshot below shows that one of the laterals on this map extends out two miles underground. Click the map to explore more:

Interactive Map of ND Wells on FracTracker

Interactive Map of ND Wells on FracTracker, with Measurement Tool

Alternatively, here the New York Times shows what ND would look like if all of the state’s oil wells were aboveground:

NYTimes Graphic: What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground

NYTimes Graphic: What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground

NPCA

On November 12 and 13, 2014, the National Parks Conservation Association launched their campaign to educate citizens about how oil and gas development may affect America’s national parks. NPCA kicked off their campaign with two events in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, PA to showcase a crowd-sourced digital map we helped them create with our new mobile app. The map’s photos detail the scale of oil and gas development near North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park and is shown below:


NPCA Photo Map. View fullscreen

Photos

And finally… We spent some time with NPCA collecting photos for that map with our app in ND this spring. Below are just a few, the rest of which can be found in our new ND photo album:

Fracturing wells and land cover in California

By Andrew Donakowski, Northeastern Illinois University

Land cover data can play an important role in spatial analysis; satellite or aerial imagery can effectively demonstrate the extent and make-up of land cover characteristics for large areas of land. For fracking analysis, this can be used to explore important spatial relationships between fracking infrastructure and the area and/or ecosystems surrounding them. Working with FracTracker, I have compiled data concerning land cover classifications and geologic rock areas to examine areas that may be particularly vulnerable to unconventional drilling – e.g. fracking.  After computing the makeup of land cover type for each geologic area, I then mapped locations of known fracking wells for further analysis. This is part of FracTracker’s ongoing interest in understanding changes in ecosystem services and plant/soil productivity associated with well pads, pipelines, retention ponds, etc.

Developed

First, by looking at the Developed areas (below), we can see that, for the most part, hydraulic fracturing is occurring relatively far from large population areas. (That is to say, on this map we can see that these types of wells are not found as often in areas where population density is high (<20 people per square mile) or a Developed land cover classification is predominate as they are in areas with a lower Develop land cover percentage).  However, we can also see that there is quite a large cluster of fracking wells in the southern portion of the state, and many cities fall within 5 or 10 mi of some wells.  While there may not be an immediate danger to cities that fall within this radius, we can see that some areas of the state may be more likely to encounter the effects of fracking and its associated infrastructure than others.

Forested

Next, the map depicting Forested land cover areas is, in my opinion, the most aesthetically groovy of the land cover maps; the variations in forested areas throughout the state provide a cool image.  By looking at this data, we can see that much of California’s forested land lies in the northern part of the state, while most fracking wells are located in the south and central parts of the state.

Cultivated

To me, the most interesting map is the one below showing the location of fracking wells in relation to Cultivated lands (which includes pasture areas and cropland).  What is interesting to note is the fertile Central Valley, where a high percentage of land is covered with agriculture and pasture lands (Note: The Central Valley accounts for 1% of US farmland but 25% of all production by value).  Notably, it is also where many fracking wells are concentrated.  When one stops to think about this, it makes sense: Farmers and rural landowners are often approached with proposals to allow drilling and other non-farming activities on their land.  Yet, it also raises a potential area for concern: A lot of crops grown in this area are shipped across the country to feed a significant number of people.  When we consider the uncertainties of fracking on surrounding areas, we must also consider what effects fracking could have beyond the immediate area and think about how fracking could affect what is produced in that area (in this case, it is something as important as our food supply.)

The Usefulness of Maps

Finally, as previously mentioned, mapping the extent of these land coverage can be useful for future analysis.  Knowing now the areas of relatively large concentrations of forested, herbaceous, and wetland (which can be highly sensitive to ecological intrusions) areas can be good to know down the line to see if those areas are retreating or if the overall coverage is diminishing.  Additionally, by allowing individuals to visualize spatial relationships between fracking areas and land coverage, we can make connections and begin to more closely examine areas that may be problematic. The next step will be: a) parsing forest cover into as many of the six major North American forest types and hopefully stand age, b) wetland type, and c) crop and/or pasture species. All of this will allow us to better quantify the inherent ecosystem services and CO2 capture/storage potential at risk in California and elsewhere with the expansion of the fracking industry. As an example of the importance of the intersection between forest cover and the fracking industry we recently conducted an analysis of frac sand mining polygons in Western Wisconsin and found that 45.8% of Trempealeau County acreage is in agriculture while only 1.8% of producing frac sand mine polygons were in agriculture prior to mining with the remaining acreage forested prior to mining which buttresses our anecdotal evidence that the frac sand mining industry is picking off forested bluffs and slopes throughout the northern extent of the St. Peter Sandstone formation.

A Quick Note on the Data

Datasets for this project were obtained from a few different sources.  First, land cover data were downloaded from the National Land cover Classification Database (NLCD) from the Multi-Resolution Land Character Consortium.  Geologic data were taken from the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) and their Mineral Resources On-Line Spatial Data. Lastly, locations of fracking wells were taken from the FracTracker data portal, which, in turn, were taken from SkyTruth’s database.  Once the datasets were obtained, values from the NLCD data were reclassified to highlight land-coverage types-of-interest using the Raster Calculator tool in ArcMap 10.2.1.  Then, shapefiles from the USGS were overlaid on top of the reclassified raster image, and ArcMaps’s Tabulate Area tool was used to determine the extent of land coverage within each geologic rock classification area.  Known fracking wells downloaded from FracTracker.org were added to the map for comparative analysis.

About the Author

Andrew Donakowski is currently studying Geography & Environmental Studies, with a focus on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) in Chicago, Ill. These maps were created in conjunction with FracTracker’s Ted Auch and NEIU’s Caleb Gallemore as part of a service-learning project conducted during the spring of 2014 aimed at addressing real-world issues beyond the classroom.

Geopolitics, Shale Gas, and Pipelines

By Ted Auch, OH Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

The “Why?”

Recently, the US has proposed to ship American shale gas abroad to buffer Europe’s 15-30% reliance on Russian gas imports in the face of the annexation of Crimea by Russia – and parallel 80% increases in LNG prices paid by Eastern Europeans to Russia’s Gazprom. The FracTracker map below illustrates all proposed and existing hydrocarbon pipelines across South America, Africa, Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Asia/Russia1. Creating such a map seems the least we could do given that this conflict has been called the “worst crisis with the West since the end of the Cold War.” The situation in Crimea is a chronic crisis; folks like Oxford University’s Jonathan Stern have suggested:

  1. Ukraine owes Gazprom $2 billion for already delivered hydrocarbons,
  2. Russia can easily turn their supplies to Japan which will pay a premium relative to what they are getting from the European Union, and
  3. The duration of European oil and gas contracts with Gazprom, which extend 15-35 years, can’t be broken (Einhorn, 2014; Henderson and Stern, 2014).

The rhetoric framing here in the US has been lead by – and regurgitated by media outlets such as NPR who suggested “Putin Could Send Europe Scrambling For Energy Sources” –  the likes of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass and the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Jones. Both of these entities have the ears of congress domestically and global decision makers at gatherings such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (Gwertzman, 2014; Wade and Rascoe, 2014).

Stepping up hydrocarbon and extraction technologies is not universally espoused:

This is not an immediate-term solution. It’s not even an intermediate-term solution. – Paul Bledsoe, German Marshal Fund, in The New York Times

Fracking is unlikely to reduce gas prices to the extent its proponents desire. – London School of Economics (LSE) (Krauss, 2014; McDonnell, 2014)

Originally, shale gas production was proposed as a way for the US to become “energy independent,” but the dogma has rapidly and in a coordinated fashion shifted to the export of shale gas itself and the technology used to get it out of the ground. This rhetoric is now the focus not just of Washington, DC think tanks but academics (Bordoff, 2014) .

This is a graph depicting global CO2 emissions as a function of per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (US$) across 204 countries CO2 emissions data were gathered from the United Nations Statistics Division (http://unstats.un.org/unsd/ENVIRONMENT/datacollect.htm) and the US Department of Energy's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) (http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/meth_reg.html)

Figure 1a) Global CO2 Per Capita Emissions (Tons) Vs Per Capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (US $)

The above regions are ripe for – or currently experiencing – significant political uprisings from the Niger Delta and Venezuela to the percolating anger associated with increasing economic stratification and political elite disconnect in countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Mediterranean Africa writ large, Sudan, and Oman2. Often this discontent is emanating out of citizens’ concerns as to where oil revenues are going and how often the hydrocarbon largesse is concentrated in a handful of political elites and/or oligarchs (Nossiter, 2014). The EIA estimates Russia and China sit atop an estimated 107 billion barrels of shale oil and 1,400 TCF of shale gas. Much of this resource will be required if they are to continue > 2-5% Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. The remainder they will undoubtedly use as a cudgel to deflect the west’s suggestions and/or demands within their borders or their “near abroad.” In the case of Russia, the “near abroad” generally refers to the eight former Communist pliable nations – and are incidentally home to nontrivial shale oil and gas reserves – that act as a physical and ideological buffer between them and NATO/European Union states. In an effort to combat the asymmetric hydrocarbon supply and demand issues and secure access to the sizable shale reserves in eastern Europe, the European Union continues to push the European Neighborhood Policy meant to create a “ring of friends”3  – with Ukraine just the latest significant test and the only successes being Tunisia and Moldova (Charlemagne, 2014). With respect to China, their “near abroad” nations include shale oil and gas rich nations like Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam, along with ex-Soviet region Central Asian countries which provide China with 80% of its natural gas needs. However, the east-west tug of war has come down to the willingness of the east to offer larger instant loans, cheaper gas, and labor/technology needed to develop pipeline networks. The nexus between these two eastern giants is the proposed – and recently agreed upon – $400 billion Sino-Russian energy cooperation natural gas and oil pipeline. This proposal will stretch across heretofore relatively undisturbed and isolated communities and the ecosystems they have evolved with across the Eurasian Steppe and Siberia (Einhorn, 2014).

This is a graph depicting global CO2 emissions as a function of Oil Consumption Per day (Barrels) across 204 countries CO2 emissions data were gathered from the United Nations Statistics Division (http://unstats.un.org/unsd/ENVIRONMENT/datacollect.htm) and the US Department of Energy's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) (http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/meth_reg.html) Oil consumption data drawn from EnerDatas' World Energy Statistics "Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2013" (http://yearbook.enerdata.net/)

Figure 1b) Global CO2 Per Capita Emissions (Tons) Vs Oil Consumption Per Day (Barrels) across 204 countries

The fomenting anger and geopolitical combativeness that result from these conditions put the global hydrocarbon transport network at risk. Analogies to R.A. Radford’s The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp can be made here, where the economy that Mr. Radford created flourished until the input stream from the Red Cross stopped. It was at this time that the economy collapsed due to its singular reliance on one input source. Similar analogies exist across emerging, P5+1, and frontier markets worldwide, with many countries largely dependent upon hydrocarbon imports or exports to stoke GDP. Such imports, along with oil consumption, account for 98% of per country CO2 emissions (Table 1 below, Figure 1a-b).  Revolution or even temporary and targeted political instability will fuel the type of hydrocarbon transport/production disruption that will produce the kind of jump condition described by Mr. Radford. A jump condition occurs in situations when suitable hydrocarbon stocks/flows are lost, pipelines are turned off, and alternative transport channels are deemed too perilous. Such a crisis is one that no industrialized or industrializing nation is prepared to manage, making the 2007-08 Financial Crisis look and feel like child’s play. Thus, many private and state actors are proposing new and expanded hydrocarbon pipeline networks to reduce reliance on single-large networks emanating from or traveling through volatile regions. Proposals range from the large Nabucco pipeline proposal connecting Asia and Europe or the Nord Stream AG Baltic Sea Gas Pipeline to small regional or inter-state proposals in Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Eastern Europe.

The “When?”

With this map, which was initiated in January 2014, we have attempted to accurately quantify as many existing and proposed pipeline routes as possible in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia, and the Persian Gulf.  We will be updating this map periodically, and it should be noted that all layers are predetermined aggregations of regional pipelines. Given the recent EIA global shale oil and gas estimates, it is only a matter of time before: a) European nations like Germany, Ukraine, Poland, and Romania begin to explore shale gas extraction in the name of “energy independence,” and b) Argentina hands over the proverbial keys to its 16.2-22.5 billion barrels of oil in the Vaca Muerta shale basin to the likes of Shell or Repsol-YPF (Canty, 2011; Gonzalez and Cancel, 2013; Romero and Krauss, 2013; Staff, 2013). This conversation will be accompanied by additional pipeline proposals for inter- and intra-region transport, all of which we will incorporate into this map on a quarterly basis. If you know of proposals that are not currently shown on the map, please let us know.

Table 1. Major Worldwide Flows of Oil (Thousand Barrels Per Day).

Country

Production (a)

Consumption (b)

(b)/(a)

Export

Import

Saudi Arabia

11726

2861

24

8865

United States

11105

18490

167

7386

Russia

10397

3195

31

7201

China

4372

10277

235

5904

Canada

3856

2281

59

1576

Iran

3589

1709

48

1880

UAE

3213

618

19

2595

Iraq

2987

752

25

2235

Mexico

2936

2144

73

Kuwait

2797

383

14

2414

Brazil

2652

2807

106

Nigeria

2524

270

11

2254

Venezuela

2489

777

31

1712

Norway

1902

218

12

1684

Algeria

1875

328

18

1547

Japan

4726

4591

India

3622

2632

Germany

2388

2219

South Korea

2301

2240

France

1740

1668

Indonesia

1590

616

United Kingdom

1503

Angola

1738

Qatar

1389

Kazakhstan

1355

Libya

Singapore

1360

Spain

1260

Italy

1198

Taiwan

1058

Netherlands

949

Turkey

614

Belgium

607

Compiled from U.S. Energy Information Administration World Overview (http://www.eia.gov/countries/)


References

Bordoff, J., 2014. Adding Fuel to the Fire: How the American shale gas boom can weaken Russia’s hand in Ukraine, Foreign Policy Magazine, Washington, DC.

Canty, D., 2011. Repsol hails largest ever 927 million bbl oil find, ArabianOilandGas.com. ITP Business Portal.

Charlemagne, 2014. How to be good neighbours: Ukraine is the biggest test of the EU’s policy towards countries on its borderlands, The Economist, London, UK.

Einhorn, B., 2014. How the Ukraine Crisis Could Help Clear Beijing’s Smog, Bloomberg Businessweek. Bloomberg LP, New York, NY.

Gonzalez, P., Cancel, D., 2013. Shell to Triple Argentine Shale Spending as Winds Change, Bloomberg Magazine. Bloomberg LP, New York, NY.

Gwertzman, B., 2014. How to respond to Ukraine’s Crisis, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC.

Henderson, J., Stern, J., 2014. The Potential Impact on Asia Gas Markets of Russia’s Eastern Gas Strategy, Oxford Energy Comment. The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, Oxford, UK, p. 13.

Klein, N., 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador.

Klein, N., 2014. Why US Fracking Companies Are Licking Their Lips Over Ukraine: From climate change to Crimea, the natural gas industry is supreme at exploiting crisis for private gain – what I call the shock doctrine, The Guardian, London, UK.

Krauss, C., 2014. U.S. Gas Tantalizes Europe, but It’s Not a Quick Fix, The New York Times, New York, NY.

McDonnell, A., 2014. Fracking is unlikely to reduce gas prices to the extent its proponents desire, The London School of Economics and Political Science – British Politics and Policy. The London School of Economics, London, UK.

Nossiter, A., 2014. Nigerians Ask Why Oil Funds Are Missing, The New York Times, New York, NY.

Romero, S., Krauss, C., 2013. An Odd Alliance in Patagonia, The New York Times, New York, NY.

Staff, 2013. Argentina’s YPF: Swallowed Pride, The Economist, London, UK.

Wade, T., Rascoe, A., 2014. Global gas trade may soften foreign policy of Russia, China, Reuters, New York, NY.


[2]  The EIA estimates Mediterranean Africa contains 5,772 TCF of estimated wet shale natural gas and 1,373,770 million barrels of oil, the Former Soviet Union 4,738 TCF and 310,567 million barrels, and South America 2,465 TCF and 643,864 million barrels 73% of which is in Brazil and Argentina’s Vaca Muerta.

[3] According to The Economist “The Europeans should also rethink the neighbourhood policy, which lumps together disparate countries merely because they happen to be nearby. In the south it may have to devise a wider concept of its interests stretching out to the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Here Europe has no real friends, lots of acquaintances and not a few enemies. To the east it needs better ways of helping those who want to move closer to the EU.”

Ancient Seas, Modern Ownership Concerns

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

In the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, while the debate rages about underground storage of gas in abandoned salt solution mines near Seneca Lake, the story is quite different to the east at Cayuga Lake. Cayuga has a history of not just solution brine mining, but also extensive mining of solid rock salt. The map below shows the footprint of underground salt mining – room-and-pillar style 2300 feet below Cayuga Lake – by the multinational corporation, Cargill. Mineral rights beneath the lake are owned by New York State, but note that some of the mine also extends underneath privately owned land in the Town of Lansing.


Map of Lansing, NY Cargill Salt Mine. For a full-screen version of this map (including map legend), click here.

About this Map

The interactive map (above) shows the location and extent of the Cargill Salt mine in Lansing, NY. The boundaries of the mine were digitized from a map, Figure 2.3-2, entitled “Plan View of the Cayuga Mine Showing East and West Shoreline Benchmark Locations” from the Spectra Environmental Group, Latham, NY, circa 2004, and another planning document acquired. Here is one of the original maps, and a planning map showing expansion through 2003. An additional map from a Cargill mine expansion permit request, viewed at the DEC headquarters in Cortland, NY, shows additional requested development under residential areas in Lansing. This layer is shaded green.

Questions Abound

The dynamics around salt extraction, and other uses such as gas extraction, raise several questions.

Consider the stratigraphic column of rocks in New York State. The salt layer that is being mined by Cargill is the Salina Group, approximately 2300 feet below the surface. Salt is dug out mechanically, broken up by machinery and explosives to break up the solid layer. The Marcellus Shale (in Lansing) is above that salt layer–in the expanse of Middle Devonian Rocks, while the Utica Shale is below it–part of the Ordovician rock strata. In order to drill into the Marcellus Shale, one would not need to enter the salt layer, although the boundary of rock between the two strata might only be a few hundred feet thick. Reaching the Utica Shale would require piercing the salt layer. The Central New York region is crisscrossed by an abundance of vertical cracks and joints in the bedrock, some of which are thought to be hundreds to thousands of feet long, and may extend to “basement rock”, the ancient rock below the hundreds-of-millions year-old sedimentary layers such as the shale, sandstone, and salt.

Numerous plugged and abandoned salt wells from the days of solution mining–mid 1800s to mid 1900s– are located on and near Salt Point, the delta where Salmon Creek meets Cayuga Lake. As the map shows, the rock salt mining extent is near to, but not in contact with, these old brine wells. The underground shape of the solution wells is not entirely understood, and may be variable due to different rates of dissolution of halite during the extraction process. The rock salt is mined out as a solid, not a a saturated salt liquid that would have then gone through an evaporation process in a giant kiln. Were rock salt extraction to occur too close to the old solution wells and a wall breached, flooding in the current Cargill mine could result.

This would obviously not be good.

(Nor, for that matter, would have been the prospect of storing spent nuclear fuel in the abandoned brine wells, something that was being considered in the mid-1970s. In a 3-volume study of the geology of the Salina Basin (spanning a d-state area), the conclusion made by the Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation1,  consultant to the US Department of Energy, was that no salt mining sites in the Finger Lakes region were appropriate  for nuclear fuel storage without further study of the area’s extensive, but under-studied, faulting patterns.)

What are the implications of other sorts of mineral extraction, in this part of the Finger Lakes Region?

Yours or Mine?

The extent of Cargill’s mining under residential portions of the Town of Lansing provokes several questions. For example, if Cargill has long-term access to these subsurface mineral rights, property owners do not control the land beneath their homes. This is not altogether uncommon in areas of mineral – or oil and gas – extraction. Can that land be leased for gas drilling?

It was revealing to look more closely at records of expired oil and gas leases in the area. During this process, we discovered that within the area that is “claimed” by Cargill for subsurface mineral extraction, numerous surface owners had also leased the gas rights beneath their property (see blue starburst markers on the map)2, even if the property deeds explicitly, for example,  indicated that the property owner “will not cause any damage to the said salt or mining operations [of the party of the second part] by permitting or consenting to any other drilling 1000 feet below the the surface of said premises, for oil, gas, water or any other substance or mineral..” (Tompkins County Clerk, Liber 463, p.284-5).  Here are links to page 2 and 3 of the deed, and the very comprehensive leasing clause of one of these oil and gas leases that permits a wide variety of gas-extraction related activity–both on the surface, and below ground.

Four of the ten leases were on property held by the Town of Lansing itself, and one other was on property owned by a local elected official. While all of these leases expired in 2012, and were never, in fact, drilled (due to the de facto moratorium on HVHF gas extraction in New York), the mash-up of these datasets raises important questions about our permitting structure. The implications of two separate entities claiming overlapping subsurface rights spotlights many questions regarding the oversight and regulation of potentially conflicting uses. Of particular concern are the risks posed by migration of gas through joints and fissures in the bedrock that are further weakened by hydraulic fracturing – and the potential for methane explosions3 in salt mines, whether or not a well shaft penetrates the salt gallery.

For more details on operations at Cargill’s Lansing mine, see this article from The Lansing Star, September 2012: Lansing Down Under: A Look at the Cargill Salt Mine.

References

  1. Regional Geology of the Salina Basin, Report of the Geologic Project Manager
    Volumes 1 and 2, Phase I, August 1977-January 1978, and Volume 3 Update, October 1979. Prepared by Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation for the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation, Battelle Memorial Institute, Project Management Division, US Department of Energy.
  2. Map of Gas Leases in Tompkins County
  3. Cargill Incorporated Belle Isle Salt Mine Explosion (1979)

Western States: Please Abandon the PLSS!

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

Increasingly, the FracTracker Alliance is asked about oil and gas extraction on a national scale. To that end, we are in the process of developing a national dataset of oil and gas wells. Since the data is curated at the state level, it is a challenge to get consistent data formatting from state to state. However, most states at least have the decency to release their location data in decimal degree (DD), that familiar format of latitude and longitude values where users of the data don’t need to calculate the location using three different columns of degrees, minutes, and seconds (DMS).

For example, a DMS point of 45°12’16.4″N, 95°55’12.5″W could be written more tidily in DD as 45.204556, -96.920139. Two numbers, one discrete place on the globe (a random point in rural South Dakota, as it turns out).

Here is how that same location is properly designated using the Public Land Survey System:  “NW 14 T120N R51W Fifth Principal”

Public Land Survey System.  Image from National Atlas

Fig. 1 Public Land Survey System. Source: National Atlas

In English, that is the northwest quarter of Section 14, Township 120 North, Range 51 West Fifth Principal. If we wanted to, the quarter section could itself be split into four quarters, and each of those units could be split again, resulting in, for example the SE quarter of the NE quarter of the NW quarter of section 14, Township 120 North, Range 51 West Fifth Principal (See Fig. 1).

To the uninitiated, the PLSS is a needlessly complex system of describing locations in the American West that was devised by Thomas Jefferson to grid out the wild American frontier.  As such, it is not altogether surprising that it became the legal definition of place in many western states.

What is surprising is that the system is still in use, at least to the exclusion of other systems.  Many states release oil and gas data with multiple geographic systems, including the PLSS, State Plane, UTM, and decimal degrees.  This is an acceptable approach, as it caters to cartographers using technology ranging from the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries.

Accuracy Issues

My issue with the PLSS isn’t just that it is annoying. PLSS data are readily available, after all. Differing formats of the various data attributes can be worked out. However, there is inherently an accuracy issue with a system that uses a predefined area to define a point location. If you wanted to use it to describe an area such as a well pad, it is entirely possible that a typical drilling site might straddle four different sections, let alone quarter-quarter-quarter (QQQ) sections. For that matter, well pads could easily span multiple township and range designations, as well.

PLSS sections in New Mexico

Fig. 2 PLSS sections in New Mexico

Statewide shapefiles that are as detailed as sections are quite large, and are the most detailed data that most data sources offer. This means that the best we can usually do with well data published in PLSS is draw the well at the centroid, or geographical center-point of the section, which in theory is one square mile. Given that the hypotenuse of a square mile block is 1.44 miles, the distance from the centroid to any of the corners is 0.72 miles, or about 3,800 feet, which is the potential error for mapping using PLSS section centroids. While that lack of accuracy is unsatisfying for the FracTracker Alliance, the whole system is a potential nightmare for first responders, in an industry where serious things can go wrong.

In some states, the entire land areas were never even gridded out. New Mexico, for example, has Native American reservations and extensive lands grants that were issued when the region was under Spanish and Mexican control (Fig. 2).

On top of all of that, those square mile sections are not always square. These sections are based on field surveys that were mostly conducted in the 19th century. Walking straight lines in rough terrain isn’t actually all that easy, and in many cases, areas with ferrous deposits in the soil can interfere with the functionality of a magnetic compass.  If we take a closer look at the New Mexico sections map (Fig. 3 below), we can see that error is significant.

Moving Forward

Areas in green show PLSS Sections in North-Central New Mexico.  Areas in white were not gridded out as a part of the survey.

Fig. 3 Areas in green show PLSS Sections in North-Central New Mexico. Areas in white were not gridded out as a part of the survey.

Luckily, we live in an age where technology makes Thomas Jefferson’s valiant attempt at a coordinate system obsolete.  Decimal degree is a format that is well understood by GPS devices, Google Maps, sophisticated GIS software, and for the most part, the general public.  For mapping purposes, decimal degree is so easy to use and so widely established that other systems, especially the PLSS, come across as needlessly opaque.

This situation is not even analogous with the United States’ famous reluctance to embrace the metric system.  It takes some adjustment for people to start thinking in terms of kilograms and meters instead of pounds and feet. PLSS isn’t remotely intuitive as a coordinate system, even among those who use it all the time.  It’s time to abandon this as a way of conveying location.  I’d like to think that Thomas Jefferson, as a forward-thinking individual, would agree.