By: Wendy Fan, FracTracker Alliance Intern
North America consists of a vast network of inter- and intrastate pipelines that serve a vital role in transporting water, hazardous liquids, and raw materials. There is an estimated 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the nation, and it delivers trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of tons of liquid petroleum products each year. Because the pipeline network fuels the nation’s daily functions and livelihoods by delivering resources used for energy purposes, it is crucial to shed light on this transportation system. This article briefly discusses oil and gas pipelines, what they are, why they exist, their potential health and environmental impacts, proposed projects, and who oversees them.
What are pipelines, and what are they used for?
The pipeline network in the U.S. is a transportation system used to move goods and materials. Pipelines transport a variety of products such as sewage and water. However, the most common products transported are for energy purposes, which include natural gas, biofuels, and liquid petroleum. Pipelines exist throughout the country, and they vary by the goods transported, the size of the pipes, and the material used to make pipes.
While some pipelines are built above ground, the majority of pipelines in the U.S. are buried underground. Because oil and gas pipelines are well concealed from the public, most individuals are unaware of the existence of the vast network of pipelines.
Extent of U.S. Pipeline System
The United States has the most miles of pipelines than any other country, with 1,984,321 km (1,232,999 miles) in natural gas transport and 240,711 km (149,570 miles) in petroleum products. The country with the second most miles of pipelines is Russia with 163,872 km (101,825 miles), and then Canada with 100,000 km (62,137 miles).
Types of Oil and Gas Pipelines
There are two main categories of pipelines used to transport energy products: petroleum pipelines and natural gas pipelines.
- Petroleum pipelines transport crude oil or natural gas liquids, and there are three main types of petroleum pipelines involved in this process: gathering systems, crude oil pipeline systems, and refined products pipelines systems. The gathering pipeline systems gather the crude oil or natural gas liquid from the production wells. It is then transported with the crude oil pipeline system to a refinery. Once the petroleum is refined into products such as gasoline or kerosene, it is transported via the refined products pipeline systems to storage or distribution stations.
- Natural gas pipelines transport natural gas from stationary facilities such as gas wells or import/export facilities, and deliver to a variety of locations, such as homes or directly to other export facilities. This process also involves three different types of pipelines: gathering systems, transmission systems, and distribution systems. Similar to the petroleum gathering systems, the natural gas gathering pipeline system gathers the raw material from production wells. It is then transported with large lines of transmission pipelines that move natural gas from facilities to ports, refiners, and cities across the country. Lastly, the distribution systems consist of a network that distributes the product to homes and businesses. The two types of distribution systems are the main distribution line, which are larger lines that move products close to cities, and the service distribution lines, which are smaller lines that connect main lines into homes and businesses.
Before pursuing plans to build new pipelines, a ROW needs to be secured from private and public landowners, which pipeline companies usually will pay for. ROW are easements that must be agreed and signed upon by both the landowner and pipeline company, and permits pipeline operators to go forth with installing and maintaining pipelines on that land. Pipeline operators can obtain ROW by purchasing the property or through a court-ordered procedure. ROW can be permanent or temporary acquisitions, and needs approval from FERC.
Depending on the type of pipeline, what it is transferring, what it is made of, and where it runs, there are various federal or state agencies that have jurisdiction over its regulatory affairs.
A. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)
Interstate pipelines, those that either physically cross state boundaries or carry product that will cross state boundaries, are all permitted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The FERC is an independent organization within the U.S. Department of Energy that permits interstate electricity and natural gas infrastructure. The FERC’s authority lies within various acts of energy legislation, beginning with the Natural Gas Act of 1938 to the more recent Energy Policy Act of 2005. The U.S. President appoints its four commissioners. Other agencies such as the Dept. of Transportation, regional authorities such as the River Basin Commissions, and the Army Corps of Engineers may also be involved. FERC approves the location, construction, operation, and abandonment of interstate pipelines. They do not have jurisdiction over the siting of intrastate natural gas pipelines nor hazardous liquids.
B. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA)
Under the U.S. Department of Transportation, the PHMSA oversees, develops, and enforces regulations to ensure the safe and environmentally sound pipeline transportation system. There are two offices within the PHMSA that fulfill these goals. The Office of Hazardous Materials Safety develops regulations and standards for classifying, handling, and packaging hazardous materials. The Office of Pipeline Safety develops regulations and risk management approaches to assure safe pipeline transportation, and ensures safety in the design, construction, operation and maintenance, and spill response of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipeline transportation. Below are some regulations enforced by PHMSA:
1. Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 or Pipeline Safety Act 2011
This act reauthorizes PHMSA to continue with the examination and improvement of the pipeline safety regulations. It allows PHMSA to:
- Provide the regulatory certainty necessary for pipeline owners and operators to plan infrastructure investments and create jobs
- Improve pipeline transportation by strengthening enforcement of current laws and improving existing laws where necessary
- Ensure a balanced regulatory approach to improving safety that applies cost-benefit principles
- Protect and preserve Congressional authority by ensuring certain key rule-makings are not finalized until Congress has an opportunity to act
2. Federal Pipeline Safety Regulations: Public Awareness Programs
- Enforced by PHMSA, the Public Awareness Program mandates that pipeline companies and operators to develop and implement public awareness programs that follow guidance provided by the American Petroleum Institute.
- Under this regulation, pipeline operators must provide the public with information on how to recognize, respond, and report to pipeline emergencies.
3. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968
- This act authorizes the Department of Transportation to regulate pipeline transportation of flammable, toxic, or corrosive natural gas, or other gases, as well as transportation and storage of liquefied natural gas.
The PHMSA also designed an interactive national pipeline mapping system for the public to access and utilize. However, the map can only be viewed one county at a time, it does not include distribution or gathering lines, and when you zoom in too far, the pipelines disappear. In fact, the site warns that the map should not be used to determine accurate locations of pipelines, stating that the locations can be incorrect by up to 500 ft. PHMSA argues that these restrictions exist in the interest of national security.
C. United States Army Corps of Engineers
Permits must be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if a pipeline is to be constructed through navigable bodies of water, including wetlands. State environmental regulatory agencies, such as PA’s Department of Environmental Protection, are also involved in the approval process of pipeline construction through waterways and wetlands.
Environmental Health and Safety Risks
Although pipeline transportation of natural gas and petroleum is considered safer and cheaper than ground transportation, pipeline failures, failing infrastructure, human error, and natural disasters can result in major pipeline disasters. As such, previous incidents have been shown to cause detrimental effects to the environment and the public’s safety.
A. Land Use and Forest Fragmentation
In order to bury pipelines underground, an extensive amount of forest and land is cleared out to meet the pipe’s size capacity. States, such as Pennsylvania, that consist of rich ecosystem due to their abundance of forests, are at critical risk of diminishing habitats for plant species, and are at risk of the eradication of certain animal species. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) aimed to quantify the amount of land disturbance in Bradford and Washington counties in PA as a result of oil and gas activity including pipeline implementation. The USGS report concluded that pipeline construction was one of the highest sources of increasing forest patch numbers. Bradford County, PA had an increase of 306 patches, in which 235 were attributable to pipeline construction. Washington County increased by 1,000 patches, in which half was attributable to pipeline construction.
B. Compressor Stations
Compressor stations play an important role in processing and transporting the materials that pass through the pipeline. However, compressor stations present significant environmental health hazards. Even when the process of drilling and fracking is completed, compressor stations remain in the area to keep the gas in pipelines continually flowing. The stationary nature of this air pollution source means that a combination of pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), formaldehyde, and greenhouse gases are continually being released into the atmosphere. These pollutants are known to produce deleterious health impacts to the respiratory system, nervous system, or lung damage. In addition to pollutants emitted, the noise level generated by compressor stations can reach up to 100 decibels. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports hearing loss can occur by listening to sounds at or above 85 decibels over an extended period of time.
C. Erosion and Sedimentation
Heavy rainfall or storms can lead to excessive soil disruption, in turn increasing opportunities for erosion and sedimentation to occur. Erosion can uncover pipelines buried underground, and rainfall of more than 5 inches (13 cm) can move or erode berms, and also disrupt mounds of soil used to protect against flooding. Soil erosion increases underground pipelines’ vulnerability to damage from scouring or washouts, and damage from debris, vehicles, or boats.
D. Eminent Domain
Eminent domain allows state or federal government bodies to exercise their power to take private property from residents or citizens for public use and development. In some cases, private companies have exercised power to seize land for their own profit. Owners of the property are then given a compensation in exchange for their land. However, landowners may end up spending more than they receive. In order to receive compensation, owners must hire their own appraiser and lawyer, and they are also not usually compensated for the full value of the land. Furthermore, property values decrease once pipelines are established on their land, making it more difficult to sell their home in the future.
E. Spills and Leaks
Poorly maintained and faulty pipelines that transport liquefied natural gas or crude oil may pose high health and environmental risks should the fluids spill or leak into the soil. Crude oil can contain more than 1,000 chemicals that are known carcinogen to humans, such as benzene. The release of the potentially toxic chemical or oil can infiltrate into the soil, exposing communities to fumes in the atmosphere as well as contaminating groundwater and surface water. Not only are the incidents costly to control and clean up, the chemical or oil spills can also have long lasting impacts to the environment and the public. A ruptured pipeline that leaked 33,000 gallons of crude oil in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2010 exposed residents in a nearby community to chemical fumes, causing them to experience drowsiness and lethargy. After being commissioned in 2010, the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline had reported 35 leaks and spills in its first year alone. In April 2016, the Keystone pipeline leaked 17,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. Older pipelines are more likely to leak than newer ones, so this issue will only increase as pipeline infrastructure ages.
Natural gas pipelines have also been shown to leak methane, a major component in natural gas, at levels that far exceed what is estimated. Not only does methane contribute to climate change, it puts surrounding communities at risk of gas explosions, and exposes them to dangerously high levels of methane in the air they breathe.
Explosions are also common with faulty pipelines that leak natural gas. Unlike oil or liquid spills, which generally spread and infiltrate into the soil, gas leaks can explode due to the hydrocarbon’s volatility. A recent pipeline explosion in Westmoreland County, PA, for example, caused a man to incur severe burns, as well as caused dozens of homes to be evacuated. Another pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California resulted in 8 people dead, 6 missing, and 58 injured. Thirty-eight homes were also destroyed and 70 others were damaged. This explosion exposed the haphazard system of record keeping for the tens of thousands of miles of gas pipelines, shoddy construction, and inspection practices.
Upcoming Proposed Projects
An estimated 4,600 miles of new interstate pipelines will be completed by 2018. Below are just a few major projects that are currently being proposed or are in the process of obtaining a permit.
This pipeline will include 194 miles throughout the state of Pennsylvania. It will be constructed to cut through portions of 10 different PA counties, including Columbia, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Clinton, and Lycoming. This project will require a 125-foot ROW, and will traverse through 52 areas designed as “protected land” in Pennsylvania. This proposed project is still in review by FERC – a decision is expected late 2016 or early 2017.
Spectra Energy (Houston), DTE Energy (Detroit), and Enbridge Inc. (Canada) are partnering to build a $2 billion gas line that would travel from eastern Ohio to Michigan to Ontario. Already applied with FERC and will start construction early 2017. It proposed a 255-mile pipeline and will be 36-inch wide line.
This pipeline will expand the existing pipeline’s capacity from 70,000 barrels a day to 345,000. It has plans to deliver propane, butane, ethane, and other natural gas liquids across state to Delaware, Berks, and Lebanon counties in PA. Currently, the construction is delayed due to push back and permits acquisition.
This project was intended to expand an existing pipeline by 420 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania and passing through New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Recently in April 2016, Kinder Morgan decided to suspend further development of this proposed pipeline.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline had initial plans to establish 550 miles of pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, and to cut through dozens of Chesapeake headwater streams, two national forests, and across Appalachian Trail. Their permit to construct this pipeline was denied by the US Forest Service on January 2016; thus, delaying the project at the moment.
With approval by FERC, Spectra Energy has begun 37 miles of pipeline construction through New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The pipeline location is particularly worrisome because it is critically close to the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Ruptures or leaks from the pipeline can threaten the public’s safety, and even result in a power plant meltdown. Spectra Energy has also submitted two additional proposals: the Atlantic Bridge and Access Northeast. Both projects will expand the Algonquin pipeline to reach New England, and both are still in the approval process with FERC.
The Constitution pipeline had initially planned to include 124 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania to Schoharie County, New York, and was denied by NY State in April 2016.
To view the routes of proposed pipelines, visit FracTracker’s North American Pipeline and Oil and Gas Infrastructure Proposals map.
Please email us at email@example.com if there are any unanswered questions you would like us to answer or include.
Update: this article was edited on June 21, 2016 due to reader feedback and suggestions.
By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance
The understanding of fracking’s harms has grown dramatically in the last decade, especially since FracTracker’s formation in 2010. Across the country and around the world, environmental and human health impacts of oil and gas development have been well documented. Every day brings new cause for concern.
During this same period, scientific and public awareness about the consequences and causation of climate change has accelerated and we watch with trepidation as profound changes grip our planet. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have eclipsed 400 ppm. Temperature records are repeatedly broken. Weather extremes have become routine.
These tragic realities aren’t acceptable. Nationally and internationally, hundreds – if not thousands – of organizations are working on these issues and speaking out for transparency, accountability, and progress. Progress means informed populations, responsible policies, and an aggressive shift to renewable energy while embracing efficiency. Great things are happening. The future demands boldness.
FracTracker has always been a data-driven resource for all – to educate, empower, and catalyze positive change. The Alliance in our name underscores that we are an ally with the multitudes in that quest, but the weight of the times requires us to revisit our mission statement (below) and sharpen our message to better convey what we do and why we do it. A new logo and tagline reinforce our pronouncement.
FracTracker Alliance studies, maps, and communicates the risks of oil and gas development to protect the planet and support the renewable energy transformation.
So, welcome to the freshened words and appearance of the FracTracker Alliance. We’re the same trusted organization but striving to be bolder, to make a bigger difference for us all. The future is now.
If you have questions about these organizational changes, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call +1 202-630-6426.
The following guide is a simplified description of a variety of markings that are used by land surveyors. Throughout an active shale gas field, the first signs of pending expansions are the simple markings of stakes, flags, and pins. Many months or even years before the chain saw fells the first tree or the first dozer blade cuts the dirt at a well pad location, the surveyors have “marked the target” on behalf of their corporate tactical command staff.
The three most commonly used markings are the simple stakes, flags and pins. These surveyor symbols are common to any construction project and guarantee that everything gets put in the right place. In an active gas field, these marking tools are used for all aspects of exploration and production:
- access roads to well pads,
- widening the traveled portion of the roadway,
- well locations,
- ponds and impoundment locations,
- temporary water pipeline paths,
- surface disturbance limits,
- compressor stations,
- gas processing sites, and
- rights-of-way for roads and pipelines.
Quite frequently these simple markings are undecipherable by themselves, especially by non-professionals. One cannot just know what is happening, what is likely to occur, or how concerned one should be. Context and additional information are usually needed. Sometimes the simple colors and combinations of colored tapes might only make sense in conjunction with similar markings nearby. Sometimes public notices in the newspaper and regulatory permits must be used to decipher what is planned.
For an example, the proposed 30″ diameter EQT pipeline called the Ohio Valley Connector seems to be regularly marked using a combination of blue and white (see figure 10 below) surveyors tape to mark the actual pipeline location, then green and white (see figure 4 below) to mark all the proposed access roads along the routes that will be used to get pipe trucks and excavation equipment into the right of way. These access roads might be public roadways or cut across private leased property.
Common surveyor symbols & signs (click on images to zoom in)
Surveyor flags and tape: Sometime the flags or streamers are just attached to trees, fence posts, or put on a stake to make them visible above the weeds. There might be no markings on the stake, or only simple generic markings. This could just mean that this is the correct road and turn here. It could also signal a proposed or approximate location for some future work.
Surveyor flags and tapes: These are a selection of typical surveyor tapes, also called flags or ribbons. Many other specialty color combinations are available to the professional surveyor.
Stakes with simple markings: Flags with some type of identification (it might be names or numbers). This one was used for a proposed well pad access road location. There are no dimensions given on these.
Stakes with simple flags and basic identification: The stakes shown here all indicate an access route to be used for equipment and trucks to get to a proposed pipeline right of way. The “H310″ is the EQT name for the 30” OVC pipeline.
Control points: These three stakes are identifying a control point that is outside the limits of disturbance (LoD). These markings surround a pin to be used for reference.
Controls points: This stake is also identifying a control point location. All control points will have some type of driven metal rod, usually with a plastic cap identifying the surveyor. Frequently there are three stakes with extra flags or tape. They are always set off to the side of the intended work area. They are not to be disturbed.
Control points: Another set of three stakes marking a Control Point location. It is common to see triple stakes with elaborate, multiple flags. Even if only two stakes are present, there always will be a driven steel pin and identifying cap.
Control points: This shows a close-up of the identifying cap on a metal driven steel pin. Control point locations are not meant to be disturbed as they are for future and repeated reference. They might give the latitude and longitude on the stake plus the altitude above sea level.
Control points: This is another, older control point location. This represents a typical arrangement where the stakes somewhat try to protect the metal pin from a bulldozer blade by warning its operator.
Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” here means the limits of disturbance. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. The stakes shown here indicates that this is the outside limit of where the contractor will be disturbing the original contour of the surface soil.
Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” means the limits of disturbance of the proposed pipeline right of way. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. This could also be used for the outside edge of well pads or access roads or pond locations.
Pipelines: Stakes with flags and “center line” markings are usually for pipelines. Here you see the symbol for center line: a capital letter “C” imposed on the letter “L”.
Pipelines: Again you see the capital letter “C” super imposed on top of the letter “L” used frequently for pipe line center lines, but can also be used for proposed access roads.
Pipelines: As shown here, “C” and “L” center line flags can also be used for future well pad access roads.
Precise location markings: Stakes like this will usually have a steel pin also associated with it. This stake gives the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the site.
Permanent property lines: You may also find markings, like this one inch steel rod with an alum cap, that denote permanent property lines and corners of property.
Permanent property lines: Another kind of permanent property line or corner marker is the “boundary survey monument.” This is likely an aluminum cap on top of a one inch diameter steel bar.
Update: The online application process has ended. Candidates who submitted applications will hear from us by January 22, 2016.
Are you a current or recent college grad, and do you enjoy working with datasets, visualizations, maps, or even writing about oil and gas issues? If so, please consider applying for one of FracTracker’s paid internships this spring. These internships run from February 15 through August 15, 2016. This year we are seeking paid spring interns for the following offices: Cleveland, OH; Pittsburgh, PA; and Washington, DC. See where we work.
Deadline to apply: January 18, 2016 at 5:00pm eastern.
Why Join Us
Internships at the FracTracker Alliance offer students invaluable resume-building work experience and networking opportunities. Not only will you work closely with members of our team, but you will also have the opportunity to learn about and contribute to many aspects of our oil and gas work. Interns will also have the opportunity to participate in events that increase their professional networks and interact with our partner organizations. Meet our current interns.
The responsibilities of paid interns revolve around the daily work of the other FracTracker staff as well as time-sensitive projects. Due to FracTracker’s web and mapping focus, the primary skills we seek out of internship applicants are those that would allow them to do GIS mapping, communications projects, or a combination of the two.
Interns will work 15 hours per week for ~26 weeks and will be compensated $11/hour. This position is not eligible for health benefits.
Update: The online application process has ended. Candidates who submitted applications will hear from us by January 22, 2016.
One of the many services that FracTracker offers is access to oil and gas photos. These have been contributed to our website by partners & FracTracker staff and can be used free of charge for non-commercial purposes. Please site the photographer if one is listed, however.
Over the last few months we have added additional oil and gas photos to the following location-based albums – and more photos and videos are coming soon! Click on the links below to explore:
If you would like to contribute photos or videos to this collection, please email us the files along with information on how to credit the photographer to: email@example.com.
November 13-15, 2015
Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Coordinated by FracTracker Alliance and ForestEthics
About the Event
Over the past few years, oil train traffic across the continent has increased rapidly with more than 500,000 rail cars moving oil in 2014 alone, according to the Association of American Railroads. The recent Lac-Mégantic, Quebec disaster and subsequent accidents illustrate the severity of this issue. There is a pressing need to determine true hazards facing our communities and to develop solutions to prevent further disasters. Across the United States and Canada, the issue of oil trains has quickly risen onto the agenda of community leaders, safety experts, researchers, and concerned citizens. There is much to discover and share about protecting people and vulnerable places from the various risks these trains pose. Oil Train Response 2015 provides two invaluable forums on this most pressing problem and provides information and insights for every audience.
Community Risks & Solutions Conference
Presented by The Heinz Endowments
Activist Training Weekend
Presented by ForestEthics
Conference – November 13th
Friday, Nov 13th: 7:30 AM – 5:00 PM. View Agenda
The one-day conference presented by The Heinz Endowments invites all interest groups to hear from experts about the scale and scope of this challenge, as well as updates on the current regulatory and legal frameworks; consider case studies about the actions/measures taken by various communities in response; and, participate in discussion sessions to explore solutions to better safeguard communities. Elected officials, regulators, and emergency response professionals from Pennsylvania and beyond are especially encouraged to attend to take advantage of this important learning and networking opportunity.
Training – November 14-15th
Saturday, Nov. 14th: Training 7:30 AM – 5:00 PM. Reception 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Sunday, Nov. 15th: Training 7:30 AM – 2:00 PM
A two-day training presented by ForestEthics will equip grassroots and NGO leaders from across the nation with better skills to take back to their communities, and provide critical opportunities for attendees to share winning strategies with each other. In the process of sharing, the conference will help to build both the oil train movement and support the broader environmental and social justice movements. Areas of strategic focus will include: organizing, communications, spokesperson training, data management for organizers, legal strategies, and crowd-sourced train tracking. It will also provide a structured forum for advocates fighting specific oil terminal proposals in places like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Albany to develop shared strategies and tactics and provide all participants with the skills, knowledge and contacts they will need to carry on this work once they return home.
Oil trains are a major environmental justice issue. The conference and training will speak directly to environmental justice concerns and be inclusive of communities of color, economically disadvantaged urban and rural regions, and communities already experiencing environmental inequities. To this end, need-based travel scholarships will be provided. We are committed to developing the agenda in close consultation with our allies and attendees so that it meets their needs.
Please contact us with questions or requests: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks to Paul Heckbert & Randy Sargent of CMU for supplying the oil train photo (top).
Updated National Well Data
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology
In February 2014, the FracTracker Alliance produced our first version of a national well data file and map, showing over 1.1 million active oil and gas wells in the United States. We have now updated that data, with the total of wells up to 1,666,715 active wells accounted for.
Density by state of active oil and gas wells in the United States. Click here to access the legend, details, and full map controls. Zoom in to see summaries by county, and zoom in further to see individual well data. Texas contains state and county totals only, and North Carolina is not included in this map.
While 1.7 million wells is a substantial increase over last year’s total of 1.1 million, it is mostly attributable to differences in how we counted wells this time around, and should not be interpreted as a huge increase in activity over the past 15 months or so. Last year, we attempted to capture those wells that seemed to be producing oil and gas, or about ready to produce. This year, we took a more inclusive definition. Primarily, the additional half-million wells can be accounted for by including wells listed as dry holes, and the inclusion of more types of injection wells. Basically anything with an API number that was not described as permanently plugged was included this time around.
Data for North Carolina are not included, because they did not respond to three email inquiries about their oil and gas data. However, in last year’s national map aggregation, we were told that there were only two active wells in the state. Similarly, we do not have individual well data for Texas, and we use a published list of well counts by county in its place. Last year, we assumed that because there was a charge for the dataset, we would be unable to republish well data. In discussions with the Railroad Commission, we have learned that the data can in fact be republished. However, technical difficulties with their datasets persist, and data that we have purchased lacked location values, despite metadata suggesting that it would be included. So in short, we still don’t have Texas well data, even though it is technically available.
Wells by Type and Status
Each state is responsible for what their oil and gas data looks like, so a simple analysis of something as ostensibly straightforward as what type of well has been drilled can be surprisingly complicated when looking across state lines. Additionally, some states combine the well type and well status into a single data field, making comparisons even more opaque.
Among all of the oil producing states, there are 371 different published well types. This data is “raw,” meaning that no effort has been made to combine similar entries, so “gas, oil” is counted separately from “GAS OIL,” and “Bad Data” has not been combined with “N/A,” either. Conforming data from different sources is an exercise that gets out of hand rather quickly, and utility over using the original published data is questionable, as well. We share this information, primarily to demonstrate the messy state of the data. Many states combine their well type and well status data into a single column, while others keep them separate. Unfortunately, the most frequent well type was blank, either because states did not publish well types, or they did not publish them for all of their wells.
There are no national standards for publishing oil and gas data – a serious barrier to data transparency and the most important takeaway from this exercise…
Wells by Location
There are oil and gas wells in 35 of the 50 states (70%) in the United States, and 1,673 out of 3,144 (53%) of all county and county equivalent areas. The number of wells per state ranges from 57 in Maryland to 291,996 in Texas. There are 135 counties with a single well, while the highest count is in Kern County, California, host to 77,497 active wells.
With the exception of Texas, where the data are based on published lists of well county by county, the state and county well counts were determined by the location of the well coordinates. Because of this, any errors in the original well’s location data could lead to mistakes in the state and county summary files. Any wells that are offshore are not included, either. Altogether, there are about 6,000 wells (0.4%) are missing from the state and county files.
Wells by Operator
There are a staggering number of oil and gas operators in the United States. In a recent project with the National Resources Defense Council, we looked at violations across the few states that publish such data, and only for the 68 operators that were identified previously as having the largest lease acreage nationwide. Even for this task, we had to follow a spreadsheet of which companies were subsidiaries of others, and sometimes the inclusion of an entity like “Williams” on the list came down to a judgement call as to whether we had the correct company or not.
No such effort was undertaken for this analysis. So in Pennsylvania, wells drilled by the operator Exco Resources PA, Inc. are not included with those drilled by Exco Resources PA, Llc., even though they are presumably the same entity. It just isn’t feasible to systematically go through thousands of operators to determine which operators are owned by whom, so we left the data as is. Results, therefore, should be taken with a brine truck’s worth of salt.
Texas does publish wells by operator, but as with so much of their data, it’s just not worth the effort that it takes to process it. First, they process it into thirteen different files, then publish it in PDF format, requiring special software to convert the data to spreadsheet format. Suffice to say, there are thousands of operators of active oil and gas wells in the Lone Star State.
Not counting Texas, there are 39,693 different operators listed in the United States. However, many of those listed are some version of “we don’t know whose well this is.” Sorting the operators by the number of wells that they are listed as having, we see four of the top ten operators are in fact unknown, including the top three positions.
The state of oil and gas data in the United States is clearly in shambles. As long as there are no national standards for data transparency, we can expect this trend to continue. The data that we looked for in this file is what we consider to be bare bones: well name, well type, well status, slant (directional, vertical, or horizontal), operator, and location. In none of these categories can we say that we have a satisfactory sense of what is going on nationally.
Click on the above button to download the three sets of data we used to make the dynamic map (once you are zoomed in to a state level). The full dataset was broken into three parts due to the large file sizes.
By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern
Media outlets have been very focused recently on reporting oil train derailments and explosions. Additionally, the Keystone XL pipeline has hastened political debates and arguments for years by both political parties since its initial proposal in 2008 – and the May 19th pipeline oil spill in California isn’t helping matters. In the midst of all of this commotion, a million questions are being asked, yet no one can seem to reach a conclusion about what method of transporting oil is truly safest and economically feasible – or if we are just stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Some say the solution to this problem is transporting the volatile crude via pipelines, while others believe it is a matter of increasing regulations, standards, and compliance for transport by train. The answer is simply not simple.
In light of this, a few of the folks at FracTracker gathered some facts on pipelines vs oil trains to lay out this issue in a clearer fashion.
Let’s start with trains.
Due to the increasing demand of crude oil supply, there has been increasing activity in the transportation of crude oil by rail, which provides flexibility and quick transportation throughout the U.S. and its 115 refineries. Railroads are also willing to offer shippers shorter contracts than pipelines and other transportation methods, making them a more favorable method of crude oil transportation.
In 2008, U.S. freight trains were delivering somewhere from 9-10,000 carloads of crude oil. In 2013, they delivered roughly 435,560 carloads of crude oil, showing a 20-fold increase in crude oil shipments.
Oil trains, as well as pipelines, can pose a detrimental risk to communities and public health in the case of an explosion and/or spill. Danger Around the Bend describes in detail the dangers of transporting Bakken Formation crude oil from North Dakota to parts all over the country.
Some of the risks of transporting volatile crude via train have been clearly depicted in the news with announcements of spills, derailments, and explosions in urban and suburban areas, putting many people in harm’s way. Despite the decrease in spills between 1996 and 2007, devastating train accidents like the one on July 6, 2013 have raised questions about the safety of transportation by train.
Learn more about this trend and the increasing risk of exploding oil trains in a post by Randy Sargent of CMU.
Trains and train tracks in general can be very dangerous, as demonstrated by the deadly Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia this May. The total number of incidents in 2014, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, sum up to 11,793 – with 818 of those being fatal. These fatalities have been linked to a range of possible causes, but the numbers depict the gravity of safety issues within the railroad regulations.
When it comes to train safety and regulations, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is in charge. Some of the current efforts to increase the safety of oil trains include safer tank car design, adding breaking power, reducing the train speed limits through urban areas and increasing crew size. One of the most important improvements, however, includes an increase in oil spill response, which is managed through the National Oil and Hazardous Substance Contingency Plan.
Now, let’s talk pipelines.
As we all know, finishing the Keystone XL pipeline has stirred years of controversy, since this project was initially proposed back in 2008. On January 31, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of tar sand oil per day through an 875-mile long pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast area. Below we have mapped the current and proposed tracks of the Keystone, along with the numerous ports, refineries, and rail lines:
The Keystone XL, Alberta oil sands, North American oil refineries and associated ports. View fullscreen and click Details for the metadata behind this map.
The SEIS discussed the impacts that the proposed pipeline would have on the environment and public health based on research, modeling, and analysis. One of the many purposes of the SEIS is to focus on whether the proposed project serves the national interest by comparing the risks to the benefits – discussed in more detail below.
The current risks associated with pipelines are similar to the risks associated with other modes of transporting oil across the United States. Oil spills are among the highest risks, but with the XL pipeline, it’s a more profound risk due to the type of oil being carried: tar sand oil. Tar sand oil, also known as heavy oil, is known for its tedious processing and its many environmental implications. Burning one single barrel of oil produced from Canadian tar sands generally emits 170 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It also requires large amounts of energy and water, much of which cannot be recycled, to separate the oil from the tar sands and transform the oil into a form of petroleum that can be processed by refineries.
According to the final SEIS:
The proposed project would emit approximately 24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year during the construction period (up to three times as much than producing conventional crude), which would be directly emitted through fuel use in construction vehicles and equipment as well as land clearing activities including open burning, and indirectly from electricity usage.
Additional risks associated with the XL pipeline include potential groundwater contamination of major aquifers – particularly the Ogallala Aquifer – as well as deforestation, habitat destruction, and fragmentation.
In the event of an oil spill from the Keystone XL or other pipelines crossing the U.S., the responsibility for who cleans it up does not fall on TransCanada. According to a report from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), tar sand oils are exempt from paying into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Amendments that would require TransCanada to pay the 8-cent-per-barrel fee to the fund have not been passed.
Devastating oil spills such as the one in Santa Barbara in mid May reflect the impact it not only has on wildlife, but on the local culture, especially on those who depend on fisheries and whose lives revolves around surfing in the brisk waters of the Pacific Ocean. 21,000 gallons of crude oil covers roughly 4 miles of Santa Barbara’s coast now, extending about 50 yards into the water.
Jobs, jobs, jobs. The economic stimulus is one purported advantage to the XL pipeline. During construction, proposed project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs, directly and indirectly and around $2 billion in earnings throughout the US, according to the final SEIS. Despite different job creation estimates, any number will contribute significantly to the US gross domestic product, associating a huge economic growth with the construction of the proposed XL pipeline. (TransCanada estimates around 13,000 construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs, which is about 3 times higher than the State Department’s estimate.) In addition, the cost of paying for the Keystone XL project ($3.3 billion) would not be placed on the U.S. but on Keystone.
According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA), the industry and their operators have reduced the risk of hazardous materials transportation incidents with death or major injury by 4% every 3 years, and since 2002, they have reduced the risk of a pipeline spill with environmental consequences by an average of 5% per year.1
Still, there is more work to be done. Safety issues that the pipeline industry is aiming to fix include:
- Infrastructure: Repair obsolete pipeline infrastructure through a pipeline integrity management program and investigate new technologies that can detect pipeline risks.
- Improving human error and safety culture: Increase the focus on safety beyond compliance standards and evaluate the potential value of safety management systems.
- Adding secondary containment: Limit the spread of HAZMAT in the event of a failure in the primary container, and improve leak detection.
- Transparency: Increasing transparency for companies and their accountability
Check out the infographic below for a summary of all of these pros and cons:
All methods of transporting oil present various risks and benefits based on the available data. Explaining both sides of this coin allows us to assess each method’s impacts on our economy, environment, and public health. Through these assessments, we can make more informed decisions on what truly serves the nation’s interests. Oil and gas transport is a dangerous business, but all transportation industries are improving their management programs and increasing their regulations to provide citizens peace of mind and the safety they deserve. In light of ongoing issues, however, some would ask if these risks are even necessary.
For example, the growth of safer energy resources such as solar energy would significantly cut down the risks mentioned above in addition to providing jobs and stimulating the overall economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Solar Foundation, the growth in direct industry jobs for solar has outweighed oil and gas for the past 3 years. In 2014, new jobs created for the solar industry were more than twice the jobs created for the oil and gas industry. Based on 2014’s economics, Kepler Cheuvreux stated that all renewables are already more competitive than oil priced at $100 per barrel — This is because renewables have a higher net energy return on capital invested (EROCI).
As a reader and a citizen, it is important to know the pros and cons of the current activities taking place in our country today. We must be aware of loopholes that may be putting our states, cities, or counties into harm’s way, as well as recognize alternative energy sources and regulatory oversight that lessen the threats that oil extraction and transport pose to our health and environment.
1. These statistics are based from the Census Bureau analysis and Bureau of Transportation Statistics as of July 2012.
14 workshops in 7 countries on 3 continents
A FracTracker team has just returned from North Carolina where fracking has been given the green light by the state’s government. Time may tell what reserves are contained within the Mesozoic basins but already landmen are knocking on doors and striking deals with willing landowners. Offshore drilling is also under consideration in a state where tourism – fueled in part by renowned beach destinations – is a $20 billion a year industry.
The visit was for Our Energy Solutions, a project bringing 14 workshops to seven countries on three continents. The aim is to help build a global community of engaged citizens and stakeholders who are informed of the risks of fossil fuels (like oil and natural gas), enlightened about renewable energy opportunities, and inspired to share ideas for a more sustainable planet. The attendance, interest, and dialogue at the North Carolina workshops were inspiring. People young and old came out to prove there is great concern about these issues. While acknowledging the complexities of energy and climate challenges, they seemed willing to dig-in, reach-out, engage, and act. The audiences owned the “Our” in Our Energy Solutions. Just weeks earlier, another team from FracTracker and the Ecologic Institute – the lead collaborators in Our Energy Solutions – launched the project with workshops in Florida, hosted by the South Florida Wildlands Association. In North Carolina, our partners were Environment North Carolina and MountainTrue. These regional and statewide groups offer abundant ways to get involved and illuminate a better path forward.
Both states are at risk from accelerated and more extreme hydrocarbon extraction, but both also bear significant potential for broad success with renewable energy. While only 0.1% of Florida’s current generating capacity comes from solar, it has some of the strongest incoming solar radiation in the country. North Carolina sports the best conditions for offshore wind energy on the east coast. The Tarheel State ranked 2nd in the nation for new installed solar capacity in 2014, and the same year, over 4,300 North Carolinians worked in the solar power industry. Already, 4,800 Floridians work in the solar industry.
The volatile economics of oil and gas, the effects of fossil fuel combustion on the planet, and the impairment of human health and the environment caused by extraction necessitate other approaches to meet our energy needs. Our Energy Solutions will strive to showcase brighter possibilities – one workshop at a time. Next stop, Argentina – May 5-12th.
Check out Our Energy Solutions on Facebook and join the conversation!
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