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Waiting on Answers - XTO incident image two weeks later

Waiting on Answers Weeks after a Well Explosion in Belmont County Ohio

Mar 7 Update: The well has finally been capped.

On February 15, 2018, officials evacuated residents after XTO Energy’s Schnegg gas well near Captina Creek exploded in the Powhatan Point area of Belmont County, Ohio. More than two weeks later, the well’s subsequent blowout has yet to be capped, and people want to know why. Here is what we know based on various reports, our Ohio oil and gas map, and our own fly-by on March 5th.

March 19th Update: This is footage of the Powhatan Point XTO Well Pad Explosion Footage from Ohio State Highway Patrol’s helicopter camera the day after the incident:


Powhatan Point XTO well pad explosion footage from Ohio State Highway Patrol

Cause of the Explosion

The well pad hosts three wells, one large Utica formation well, and two smaller ones. XTO’s representative stated that the large Utica well was being brought into production when the explosion occurred. The shut-off valves for the other two wells were immediately triggered, but the explosion caused a crane to fall on one of those wells. The representative claims that no gas escaped that well or the unaffected well.

Observers reported hearing a natural gas hiss and rumbling, as well as seeing smoke. The Powhatan Point Fire Chief reported that originally there was no fire, but that one later developed on the well pad. To make matters worse, reports later indicated that responders are/were dealing with emergency flooding on site, as well.

As of today, the Utica well that initially exploded is still releasing raw gas.

Site of the Feb 15th explosion on the XTO pad

Map of drilling operations in southeast Ohio, with the Feb 15, 2018 explosion on XTO Energy’s Schnegg gas well pad marked with a star. View dynamic map

Public Health and Safety

No injuries were reported after the incident. First responders from all over the country are said to have been called in, though the mitigation team is not allowed to work at night for safety reasons.

The evacuation zone is for any non-responders within a 1-mile radius of the site, which is located on Cat’s Run Road near State Route 148. Thirty (30) homes were originally evacuated within the 1-mile zone according to news reports, but recently residents within the outer half-mile of the zone were cleared to return – though some have elected to stay away until the issue is resolved completely. As of March 1, four homes within ½ mile of the well pad remain off limits.

The EPA conducted a number of site assessments right after the incident, including air and water monitoring. See here and here for their initial reports from February 17th and 20th, respectively. (Many thanks to the Ohio Environmental Council for sharing those documents.)

Much of the site’s damaged equipment has been removed. Access roads to the pad have been reinforced. A bridge was recently delivered to be installed over Cats Run Creek, so as to create an additional entrance and exit from the site, speaking to the challenges faced in drilling in rural areas. A portion of the crane that fell on the adjacent wellhead has been removed, and workers are continuing their efforts in removing the rest of the crane.


The above video by Earthworks is optical gas imaging that makes visible what is normally invisible pollution from XTO’s Powhatan Point well disaster. The video was taken on March 3, 2018, almost 3 weeks after the accident that started the uncontrolled release. Learn more about Earthworks’ video and what FLIR videos show.

An early estimate for the rate of raw gas being released from this well is 100 million cubic feet/day – more than the daily rate of the infamous Aliso Canyon natural gas leak in 2015/16. Unfortunately, little public information has been provided about why the well has yet to be capped or how much gas has been released to date.

Bird’s Eye View

On February 26, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted around the incident’s location. The TFR was supposed to lapse during the afternoon of March 5, however, due to complications at the site the TFR was extended to the evening of March 8. On March 5, we did a flyover outside of the temporary flight restriction zone, where we managed to capture a photo of the ongoing release through a valley cut. Many thanks to LightHawk and pilot Dave Warner for the lift.

Photo of the XTO Energy well site and its current emissions after the explosion two weeks ago. Many are still waiting on answers as to why the well has yet to be capped.

XTO Energy well site and ongoing emissions after the explosion over two weeks ago. Many are still waiting on answers as to why the well has yet to be capped. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, March 5, 2018. Aerial support provided by LightHawk

Additional resources

Per the Wheeling Intelligencer – Any local residents who may have been impacted by this incident are encouraged to call XTO’s claims phone number at 855-351-6573 or visit XTO’s community response command center at the Powhatan Point Volunteer Fire Department, located at 104 Mellott St. or call the fire department at 740-312-5058.

Sources:

Aerial image of fracking activity in Marshall County, WV, next to the Ohio River on January 26th, 2018 from approximately 1,000 to 1,200 feet, courtesy of a partnership with SouthWings and pilot Dave Warner. The camera we used was a Nikon D5300. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, January 2018

Fracking’s Freshwater Supply and Demand in Eastern Ohio

Mapping Hydraulic Fracturing Freshwater Supply and Demand in Ohio

Below is a map of annual and cumulative water withdrawal volumes by the hydraulic fracturing industry across Ohio between 2010 and 2016. It displays 312 unique sites, as well as water usage per lateral. The digital map, which can be expanded fullscreen for more features, includes data up until May 2017 for 1,480 Ohio laterals (vertical wells can host more than one lateral well).


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The primary take-home message from this analysis and the resulting map is that we can only account for approximately 73% of the industry’s more than 13-billion-gallon freshwater demand by considering withdrawals alone. Another source or sources must be supplying water for these hydraulic fracturing operations.

Hydraulic fracturing rig on the banks of the Ohio River in Marshall County, West Virginia, Winter 2018 (Flight provided by SouthWings)

When Leatra Harper at Freshwater Accountability Project and Thriving Earth Exchange and I brought up this issue with Ohio Division of Water Resources Water Inventory and Planning Program Manager, Michael Hallfrisch, the following correspondence took place on January 24, 2018:

Mr. Hallfrisch: “Where did the water usage per lateral data come from?  Does the water usage include reused/recycled water?  I know that many of the larger operators reuse a significant amount of their flow back because of the high cost of disposal in class II injection wells.”

FracTracker: “[We’]ve been looking at Class II disposal economics in several states and frankly the costs here in Ohio are quite cheap and many of the same players in Ohio operate in the other states [We]’ve looked at.  Granted they usually own their own Class II wells in those other states (i.e., OK, or CO) but the fact that they are “vertically integrated” still doesn’t excuse the fact that the cost of disposing of waste in Ohio is dirt cheap.  As for recycling that % was always a rounding error and last [we] checked the data it was going down by about 0.25-0.35% per year from an average of about 5.5-8.0%.  [We respectfully] doubt the recycling % would fill this 25% gap in where water is coming from.  This gap lends credence to what Lea and [FracTracker] hear time and again in counties like Belmont, Monroe, Noble etc with people telling us about frequent trenches being dug in 1st and 2nd order streams with operators topping off their demands in undocumented ways/means.  Apologies for coming down hard on this thing but we’ve been looking/mapping this thing since 2012 and increasingly frustrated with the gap in our basic understanding of flows/stocks of freshwater and waste cycling within Ohio and coming into the state from PA and WV.”

Broader Implications

The fracking industry in Ohio uses roughly 10-14 million gallons per well, up from 4-5 million gallon demands in 2010, which means that freshwater demand for this industry is increasing 15% per year (Figures 1 and 2). (This rate is more than double the volumes cited in a recent publication by the American Chemical Society, by the way.) If such exponential growth in hydraulic fracturing’s freshwater demand in Appalachia continues, by 2022 each well in Ohio and West Virginia will likely require[1*] at least 43 million gallons of freshwater (Table 1).

Table 1. Projected annual average freshwater demand per well (gallons) for the hydraulic fracturing industry in Ohio and West Virginia based on a 15% increase per year.

Year Water Use Per Well (gallons)
Ohio West Virginia
2019 19,370,077 19,717,522
2020 23,658,666 23,938,971
2021 28,896,760 29,064,215
2022 35,294,582 35,286,756
2023 43,108,900 42,841,519

Water quantity and associated watershed security issues are both acute and chronic concerns at the local level, where fracking’s freshwater demands equal 14% of residential demands across Ohio. These quantities actually exceed 85% of residential demand in several Ohio counties (e.g., Carroll and Harrison), as well as West Virginia (e.g., Doddridge, Marshall, and Wetzel). Interestingly the dramatic uptick in Ohio freshwater demand that began at the end of 2013 coincides with a 50% decline in the price of oil and gas (Figure 3).  The implication here is that as the price of gas and oil drops and/or unproductive wells are drilled at an unacceptable rate, the industry uses more freshwater and sand to ensure acceptable financial returns on investments.

Figures 1-3

Note: Data from U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Petroleum & Other Liquids Overview

Total Water Used

To date, the fracking industry has taken on average 90 million gallons of freshwater per county out of Ohio’s underlying watersheds, resulting in the production of 9.6 million gallons of brine waste that cannot be reintroduced into waterways. This massive waste stream is destined for one of Ohio’s Class II Injection wells, but the industry spends less than 1.25% of available capital on water demand(s) and waste disposal. All of this means that the current incentive (cost) to become more efficient is too low. Sellers of water to the industry like the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, which we’ve chronicled frequently in the past[2], have actually dropped their price for every 1,000 gallons of water – from roughly $9 to now just $4-6 – for the fracking industry in recent years.

Hydraulic fracturing’s demand is becoming an increasingly larger component of total water withdrawals in Ohio, as other industries, agriculture, and mining become more efficient. Oil and gas wells drilled at the perimeter of the Utica Shale are utilizing 1.25 to 2.5 times more water than those that are staged in the shale “Sweet Spots.” Furthermore, the rise in permitting of so called “Super Laterals” would render all of our water utilization projections null and void. Laterals are the horizontal wells that extend out underground from the vertical well. Most well pads are home to multiple laterals in the range of 4-7 laterals per pad across Ohio and West Virginia.

These laterals, which can reach up to 21,000 feet or almost 4 miles, demand as much as 87 million gallons of freshwater each.

Even accounting for the fact that the super laterals are 17-21,000 feet in length – vs. an average of 7,452 feet – such water demand would dwarf current demands and their associated pressures on watershed security and/or resilience; typically, Ohio’s hydraulically fractured laterals require 970-1,080 gallons of freshwater per lateral foot (GPLF), but super laterals would need an astounding 4,470 GLPF.

Conclusions and Next Steps

The map above illustrates the acute pressures being put upon watersheds and public water supplies in the name of “energy independence.” Yet, Ohio regulators and county officials aren’t putting any pressure on the high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) industry to use less water and produce less waste. We can’t determine exactly how water demand will change in the future. The problem is not going away, however, especially as climate change results in more volatile year-to-year fluctuations in temperature and precipitation. This means that freshwater that was/is viewed as a surplus “commodity” will become more valuable and hopefully priced accordingly.

Furthermore, the Appalachian Ohio landscape is undergoing dramatic transformations at the hands of the coal and more recently the HVHF industry with strip-mines, cracking plants, cryogenic facilities, compressor stations, gas gathering lines – and more – becoming ubiquitous.

We are seeing significant acreage of deciduous forests, cropland, or pasture that once covered the region replaced with the types of impervious surfaces and/or “clean fill” soil that has come to dominate HVHF landscapes in other states like North Dakota, Texas, and Oklahoma.

This landscape change in concert with climate change will mean that the region will not be able to receive, processes, and store water as effectively as it has in the past.

It is too late to accurately and/or more holistically price the HVHF’s current and past water demand in Ohio, however, such holistic pricing would do wonders for how the industry uses freshwater in the future. After all, for an industry that believes so devotedly in the laws of supply and demand, one would think they could get on board with applying such laws to their #1 resource demand in Appalachia. The water the HVHF industry uses is permanently removed from the hydrological cycle. Now is the time to act to prevent long term impacts on Ohio’s freshwater quantity and quality.


Relevant Data

  • Ohio hydraulic fracturing lateral freshwater demand by individual well between 2010 and the end of 2016. Download
  • Ohio hydraulic fracturing lateral freshwater withdrawals by site between 2010 and the end of 2016. Download

Endnotes

  1. *Certainty, with respect to this change in freshwater demand, is in the range of 86-90% assuming the exponential functions we fit to the Ohio and West Virginia data persist for the foreseeable future. Downing, Bob, 2014, “Ohio Drillers’ Growing Use of Fresh Water Concerns Environmental Activists”, March 19th, Akron, Ohio
  2. Downing, Bob, 2014, “Group Reacts to Muskingum Watershed Leasing Deal with Antero”, April 22nd, Akron, Ohio

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Appalachian Ohio: Where Coal Mining, Fracking, and National Politics Converge

The head of Murray Energy Corporation, Robert Murray, is very close to the highest office in the land. Such an association demands a close look at the landscape from which this corporation and its founder arouse.

Belmont County, Ohio’s most famous tycoon Robert Murray has established a close relationship with the Trump administration. This connection dates back to his $300,000 contribution to Trump’s inauguration. The intimacy of this relationship has been given new weight recently when it was revealed that a hug between Mr. Murray and the Department of Energy’s Secretary Rick Perry preceded a meeting where Mr. Murray presented the administration with a memo outlining a 16-point plan for removing some of the burdensome regulations put in place by Mr. Murray’s least favorite person former President Barack Obama.

Among the few consistent themes from this most inconsistent of presidents has been a fondness for coal and steel, where brawny men do essential work and are threatened not by shifting economics, but by greenies and weenies who want to shut them down. Mr Trump and Mr Murray both want environmental rules rolled back—Mr Murray because it would be good for his bottom line, and Mr Trump because a second consistent aim of his presidency is to reverse anything done by Barack Obama. It is doubtful whether policy shifts alone could revive coal mining, but the attempt to do so says much about how vested interests operate in this administration… Mr Trump played a hard-nosed businessman on TV, but Mr Murray is the real thing. – The Economist, 2018

Not only has Mr. Murray succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of the Trump administration, he has demanded that his $300,000 contribution get his longtime Oklahoman lawyer, and former aide to the senate’s chief climate skeptic James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the #2 spot behind Scott Pruitt at the EPA. Mr. Murray is so powerful that he managed to get Perry & Co. to fire the photographer that took the photo of the tender moment between Messrs. Perry and Murray.

Awkwardness aside, these situations could reasonably lead one to conclude that Perry and Pruitt are competing for Murray’s favor in the event they choose to run for higher office and need a patron with deep pockets. Mr. Murray would be in a real pickle if they both chose to run for the highest office in the land, with two fawning candidates potentially offering to one-up the other in terms of incentives and/or regulatory carve outs for Mr. Murray’s beloved King Coal.

Belmont County

Once the heart of Ohio Coal Country, Belmont Co. is now a major player on the hydraulic fracturing landscape, as well.

Given the growing influence of Mr. Murray and the coal industry writ large we thought it was time to do a deep dive into how Mr. Murray’s Appalachian Ohio home county of Belmont and surrounding counties have been altered by coal mining. We were also interested in how the coal industry has come to interact with the hydraulic fracturing industry, which has drilled 542 Utica wells in Belmont County alone since March 2012. These wells amount to 20% of all fracked wells in Ohio as of January 2018. The rate at which Utica wells are being permitted in Belmont County is actually increasing by about 1.5 to 2 permits per month or 5.5 to 7.8 times the statewide average (Figure 1).

Belmont County also happens to be the “all-time leader in coal production in Ohio” having produced 825 million tons since 1816 (ODNR, 2005). All of this means that the Ohio county that produces the most coal is also now The Buckeye State’s most actively drilled county.

Utica Wells Permits in Belmont County, Ohio Q1-2012 to Q1-2018

Figure 1. Monthly and cumulative hydraulically fractured wells in Belmont County, Ohio between Q1-2012 and Q1-2018

Photos of coal mining operations in Belmont County, OH. Flyovers courtesy of SouthWings:

An End to Coal

However, the days of coal’s dominance – and easily mineable coal – in Ohio appear to be coming to an end.

Per mine, Ohio’s mines produce about 30% of the national average and 43% of the state averages (Figure 2). Ohio’s mines only produce about 10% of what the mega Western mines produce on a per-mine basis, and much less than states like New Mexico and Texas, as well.

Even with automation, the barriers to a return of coal in Appalachia are formidable given that most of the easily recoverable coal has already been mined. Additionally, the landscape is more formidable and not as conducive to the large strip-mine and dragline operations of  the Powder River Basin, which produce roughly 8.5 million tons of coal per mine, compared to an average of 330,000 tons per mine in Appalachia. (Figure 2).

Coal Production by State (Thousand Tons, 2016)

Figure 2. Total coal produced across the twenty-five coal producing states, the Appalachian region, Western Basins (2016, tons, Data Courtesy of Energy Information Administration (EIA) State Profile and Energy Estimates)

Mapping Coal and Fracking

The below map depicts parcels owned by coal mining companies in the Ohio counties of Belmont, Noble, Guernsey, and Muskingum, as well as previously mined and/or potential parcels based on owner and proximity to existing mines.

We also incorporated production data (2001 to 2016) for 116 surface and strip coal mines in these and surrounding counties, natural gas pipelines, hydraulically fractured laterals, and Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) injection wells as of January 2018.

There are few areas in the United States where underground coal mining and fracking are taking place simultaneously and on top of each other. What could possibly go wrong when injecting massive amounts of fracking waste at high pressures into the geology below, while simultaneously pumping billions of gallons of water into hydraulically fractured laterals and mining coal at similar depths?

In the coming months and years we will be monitoring Belmont County, Ohio as an unfortunate case-study in determining the answer to such a unique question.

At the present time:

  • Murray Energy, its subsidiaries, and other coal companies own approximately 15% of Belmont County.
  • Coal companies and their associated real-estate firms and subsidiaries have mined or own approximately 5,615 square miles across the Noble, Belmont, Guernsey, and Muskingum counties.
  • The 116 mines in this map have mined an average of 3.22 million tons of coal since 2001 and more than 373 million tons in total. Mr. Murray’s mines account for 50% of this amount, producing nearly 15 times more coal per mine than the other 112 mines.

Collectively, these mines have contributed 1.09 billion tons of CO2 and CH4+N2O in CO2 equivalents to atmospheric climate change, or 68 million tons per year (MTPY). This volume is equivalent to the annual emissions of nearly 60 million Americans or 19% of the population.

Murray’s mines alone have contributed enough greenhouse gases (CO2+CH4+N2O) to account for the emissions of 9.2% of the US population since 2001. Each Murray mine is belching out 8.41 million tons of greenhouse gases per year or roughly equivalent to the emissions of 463,489 Americans.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Relevant data for this map can be found at the end of this article.

Broader Implications

Robert Murray’s influence and mining impacts extend well beyond Appalachian Ohio.

Mr. Murray’s is the primary owner of 157 mines and associated facilities1 across eleven states – and five of the six major Lower 48 coal provinces – from Utah and North Dakota to Alabama, Georgia, and Florida (Figure 3). Mr. Murray likes to highlight his sage purchases of prime medium and high volatility bituminous coal real-estate over the years on his company’s website. However, nowhere in his corporate overview does he mention his most notorious mine: the abandoned and sealed underground Crandal Canyon Mine, Emery County, Utah. It was at this mine on August 6, 2007 that a collapse trapped six miners and resulted in their deaths, along with the deaths of three rescue workers. Mr. Murray told the BBC that he had had an emotional breakdown and hadn’t deserted anyone living in a little trailer adjacent to the mine’s entrance every day following the collapse. Furthermore, Mr. Murray blames such events on subsidiaries like Grenwal Resources Inc., which happens to be the owner of record for the Crandal Canyon Mine and is one of thirty-three unique subsidiaries owned by Mr. Murray (data download).

US Coal Mines and Mines Owned by Robert Murray

Figure 3. US Coal Mines by type and Mines Owned by Robert Murray highlighted in turquoise

Table 1. Robert Murray coal mine ownership by mine status

Status Number of Mines
Abandoned 68
Abandoned and Sealed 62
Active 12
Non-Producing 10
Temporarily Idled 5
Total 157

The Politics of Energy

Robert Murray and his fellow fossil fuel energy brethren’s bet on Trump paid off, with Trump winning 99% of the vote in congressional districts where coal mines exist (Figure 4). Such a performance bested the previous GOP candidates of McCain and Romney even though they had achieved an impressive 96% of the vote. Interestingly, Trump did nearly as well in congressional districts dominated by wind farms and ethanol refineries where more than 87% of the electorate was white.

Percent of Energy Infrastructure in Congressional Districts that went for GOP Presidential Candidates in 2016, 2012, and 2008

Figure 4. Presidential election results for GOP candidates in voting districts where various forms of energy are produced and/or processed, 2016, 2012, and 2008

Trump & Co. promised these districts that his administration would breathe life into the fossil fuel industry. True, Trump, Pruitt, Perry, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are greasing the skids for the industry’s revival. In terms of annual production, however, it is far from certain that such moves will translate into the types of boost in employment promised by Trump during the 2016 campaign. Even if production does return, executives like Murray admit that the advent of efficiencies and extraction technologies means that the industry is mining more coal per miner than ever before:

“Trump has consistently pledged to restore mining jobs, but many of those jobs were lost to technology rather than regulation and to competition from natural gas and renewables, which makes it unlikely that he can do much to significantly grow the number of jobs in the industry,” said Murray. “I suggested that he temper his expectations. Those are my exact words,” said Murray. “He can’t bring them back.” – The Guardian, March 27, 2017

Conclusions and Next Steps

It remains to be seen how the coal mining and fracking industry’s battle for supremacy will play out from a socioeconomic, health, environmental, and regulatory perspective. While many people understand that coal jobs aren’t coming back, we shouldn’t doubt the will of the Trump administration and friends like Robert Murray to make sure that profits can still be extracted from Appalachia.

Will the fracking industry and coal barons agree to get along, or will they wage a war on multiple fronts to marginalize the other side? Will this be another natural resource conflagration? If so, how will the people – and species like the “near-threatened” Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) or the region’s recovering Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) population that live in the disputed Appalachian communities respond? How will their already stressed day-to-day existence be affected? To this point, the fossil fuel industry has managed to blame everyone but itself for the tepid to non-existent job growth in their sectors.

The Appalachian landscape has been deeply scarred and fragmented by coal mining, and now it is experiencing a new colonizing force in the form of the hydraulic fracturing industry. When Appalachia realizes that automation, globalization, and natural gas, are the key drivers to the downfall of coal, will they bring fire, brimstone, and pitchforks to the doorstep of Murray Energy of the fracking companies? Or is Appalachia’s future merely that of an extraction colony?

Oh Say, did you see him; it was early this morning.
He passed by your houses on his way to the coal.
He was tall, he was slender, and his dark eyes so tender
His occupation was mining, West Virginia his home
It was just before noon, I was feeding the children,
Ben Moseley came running to give us the news.
Number eight was all flooded, many men were in danger
And we don’t know their number, but we fear they’re all doomed.
– “West Virginia Mine Disaster” © Jean Ritchie, Geordie Music Publishing


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Endnote

  1. Murray is listed as the owner of 45 coal mining facilities, 35 surface mines, and 77 underground mines according to data compiled from the Department of Labor

Download Relevant Data (Zip Files)

Falcon Public EIA Project feature image

Wingspan of the Falcon Pipeline

A Public EIA of Shell’s Ethane Cracker Pipeline

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Jan. 29 – FracTracker Alliance has released a detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA), including digital maps, of the Falcon Ethane Pipeline being built to feed Shell Appalachia’s ethylene cracker plant in Beaver County, PA.

FracTracker’s Falcon Public EIA Project offers a rich series of interactive maps and articles detailing the Falcon’s proposed route through PA, WV, and OH, likely impacts to waterways, potential blast zones, ecological footprint, proximity to hazardous industrial areas, and more.

Given the issues associated with Mariner East 2 – a PA-based natural gas liquids pipeline whose history has been fraught with citations, public scrutiny is a crucial facet of pipeline construction. The Falcon Public EIA Project represents the first time that public stakeholders have been given such a significant amount of time and detail to investigate a proposed pipeline, including access to specific location information. Public comments are being accepted by the PA Department of Environmental Protection on the Falcon’s permit until February 20th.

“Companies are generally not required to publicly disclose GIS data when applying for permits,” remarked Kirk Jalbert, project lead and Manager of Community Based Research and Engagement at FracTracker. “While concerned citizens can stitch together paper maps provided by companies in their applications, that process can be complex and very labor intensive.”

With FracTracker’s project, however, digital maps and figures are front and center.

Early access to what is being proposed for the Falcon pipeline will enable nearby communities to better understand how its construction and the associated ethane cracker facility, which will produce 1 million tons of ethylene annually for making plastics, will affect their lives. Upon analyzing the data, FracTracker uncovered a number of particularly noteworthy statistics, for example:

  • There are 97.5 miles of pipeline proposed to be built through 22 townships in 3 states.
  • 2,000 properties have been surveyed; 765 easements executed.
  • Falcon will intersect 319 streams and 174 wetlands, with hundreds more proximate to work areas.
  • 550 family residences, 20 businesses, 240 groundwater wells, 12 public parks, 5 schools, 6 daycare centers, and 16 emergency response centers are within potential risk areas.
  • Learn more

“Extreme levels of risk and injustice are commonplace in petrochemical pipeline siting, as well as in where their contents come from and how they get used. This project provides context for the importance of reducing these impacts, both for curtailing environmentally unfriendly plastics as well as for moving away from fossil fuel dependencies,” said Brook Lenker, Executive Director of FracTracker.

The Falcon Public EIA Project is meant to expand public dialogue about what should be included in EIAs and how they should apply to petrochemical pipelines. The project also serves as a model for how regulatory agencies can be more transparent with data when engaging the public. This is especially important in the case of the Falcon pipeline, which will be exempt from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) scrutiny and, therefore, not be subject to a full environmental impact assessment.

The Falcon: Routes, Facilities & Easements

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

In this segment of the Falcon Public EIA Project, we first focus on the route of the pipeline and prior routes that were considered. We take a closer look at the properties along the route that required easement agreements from landowners. Finally, we locate facilities that will be built as part of the project, such as metering stations and shut-off valves, as well as the pipeline’s construction areas and access roads.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • 97.5 miles of proposed pipeline (an additional 200+ miles surveyed during the process)
  • 2,000 parcels of land surveyed; 765 easements executed; 469 will be needed to execute the route
  • Five meter pads and 18 shut-off valves
  • 111 temporary access roads, 21 permanent access roads
  • 1,273 acres required for construction space; 650 acres for the permanent right-of-way

Map of Falcon pipeline routes, properties, and facilities

The following map will serve as our guide in breaking down these first components. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible at closer zoom levels. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work


Finding a Right-of-Way

Pipeline operators must consider a variety of factors when searching for a viable right of way (ROW) for their project—the continuous stretch of land needed to construct, maintain, and operate the pipeline. This process begins with reviewing data and maps made available by federal, state, and local agencies in order to identify features that would complicate the project. These might include such things as protected wetlands, drinking water sources, abandoned mines, or heavily populated areas.

A second step is to conduct manual field surveys along their planned route. During this stage, engineers do precise measurements to determine how the pipeline will cross individual properties as well as locate site-specific concerns that need to be accounted for, such as the presence of endangered species or archeological sites. FracTracker previously produced a guide to pipeline surveying, which can be found here.

The process of finding a viable pipeline route can undergo dozens of revisions and take months or years to complete. The example image seen below, taken from our interactive map at the top of the page, shows a few of the many different 50ft. ROWs considered by Shell. These were documented every few months as the data changed.

A section of the Falcon route with prior routes considered

The most recent route is highlighted in red, totaling 97.5 miles (Shell’s original press releases stated 94 miles). Segments that represent alternative routes considered in certain places are shown in blue (these earlier divergences total 19 miles). Other areas surveyed at some point in the process are shown in dotted purple (totaling 91.3 miles). Given that the route has changed very little in recent months, as well as the fact that Shell has submitted their permit applications for project, we believe that the route in red is likely the route proposed to regulatory agencies.

Note that, in the interactive map, there is an additional “Air Liquide” pipeline (this is the name of a gas products company) proposed by Shell that will run from the ethane cracker south for about .5 miles. Based on comments made by Shell at public hearings, we assume this will be a nitrogen pipeline feeding the plant from an unknown source.

Acquiring Easements

Perhaps the most significant factor that can determine a pipeline route is finding landowners amenable to having their land surveyed and, ultimately, willing to sign easements to allow the pipeline on their property. In some instances, pipeline companies can be granted eminent domain as a “public utility” to take land by force (ME2). However, Shell has stated publicly that eminent domain in not an option for Falcon, due to the fact that the pipeline services a private facility. FracTracker previously produced a guide for landowners who might be approached by pipeline operators seeking to survey their properties.

The Falcon pipeline will have a permanent ROW of 50ft that will cross 10 municipalities in Pennsylvania, 12 townships in Ohio, as well as northern Hancock County, West Virginia. More than 2,000 individual parcels of land were surveyed across this region. Of those 2,000, Shell approached landowners for 765 unique parcels at some point in the process to obtain easements, either for the pipeline ROW itself or for access roads.

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To date, Shell has executed 572 easements. Of these, 469 will be needed to execute the current proposed route. However, as of this time, 14 parcels along the proposed route are still listed as “landowner contacted,” meaning that the easement has not yet been executed. The image below is a page from Shell’s permit applications to the PA DEP listing properties pending in Pennsylvania.

Pending PA easements from Shell’s permit applications

Media sources have reported on some of the details of Shell’s Pipeline easement agreements. In some instances, contracts stated a transactional price of $10 per linear foot as a “placeholder” to get the process started. In other cases, Shell has paid landowners as much as $75 per linear foot of pipeline. These agreements also state that Shell reserved the right to “lay, construct, test, maintain, inspect, operate, repair, renew, relocate, replace, substitute, change the size of, upgrade, alter, mark, protect and remove or abandon in place” any pipelines on the property. Below is an example of how our interactive map represents these parcels and their status. For instance, executed easements are in green and pending or stalled agreements in yellow.

Parcels along the Falcon route and their easement status

Valves & Metering Stations

Pipelines require a number of facilities to properly manage the flow and pressure of gas from one end of the line to another. For instance, metering stations are installed to measure how much gas is in the pipeline system at given points. Falcon has five “pads” where metering stations will be located. Three of these are co-located at the origin points of the pipeline (the MarkWest separator facilities) and a fourth at the ethane cracker end-point. However, the fifth meter stations will be located where the two legs of the pipeline meet in northeast Raccoon Township, Beaver County, PA. This site is called the “Junction” meter pad.

Shut-off valves will also placed along the route—18 in all for Falcon—in order to section off lengths of the pipeline that can be turned off as needed. These valves will be located at fairly regular intervals of 8-10 miles in most places, but are also found just before and after sensitive locations, such as the Oho River crossing and areas and where the lines juncture.

The Risks of Proximity

Metering stations and shut-off valves bring particular risks. For instance, when valves are closed at a section of pipeline for maintenance, or in the event of an emergency, excess gasses must vented to relieve pressure. This is one reason why communities have become concerned about the location of these facilities, such as with a Mariner East 2 pipeline valve in West Goshen Township, PA. Similarly, the Falcon pipelines’ valve in New Somerset, OH, is especially close to residential areas, seen below.

A proposed Falcon shut-off valve site in New Somerset, Ohio

Workspaces & Access Roads

Finally, pipeline operators must identify in their permit applications the “workspace” needed for construction. Shell’s temporary ROW for workspace is approximately 100ft in most stretches along the Falcon’s route, similar to what is shown in the image below. Site-specific conditions, such as road, railroad crossings, and buildings make the workspace narrower in some instances, but much larger workspaces will be needed around sites like metering stations and shut-off valves.

A typical pipeline workspace; this one from the Mariner East 2

The locations of access roads must also be identified in permit applications. Access roads come in two categories and typically require a 25ft ROW. Temporary access roads are used during the construction process and often utilize existing private driveways, farm roads, or are built after clearing land acquired in the easement process. Permanent roads allow long-term access to facilities, such as valves and pumping stations, as well as for bringing in equipment to maintain the pipeline’s ROW. Shell’s plan proposes 111 temporary access roads (28 miles) and 21 permanent access roads (2.3 miles).

Shell’s permit applications state that the total disturbed workspace needed for construction and access roads is approximately 1,273 acres. About half of this will remain cleared for the permanent right-of-way and permanent access roads.

A Closer Look

When a pipeline project is subject to regulatory review, alternative routes are typically offered up by the operator for consideration in weighing different costs and benefits. Major reroutes typically deviate from the proposed route for significant distances in order to avoid significant impediments such as large cities or protected lands. Minor alternatives are shorter in length and used to avoid specific areas of concern, such as a protected wetland. An alternative route might also be selected in order to utilize an existing ROW from other pipelines.

Ohio River Crossing

As noted, there are a number of places along the Falcon route where we see examples of major route changes. Many of these reroutes appear to be due to landowners along the preferred path not signing easements for one reason or another. One of the more significant change occurred at the location where the Falcon crosses the Ohio River in Hancock County, West Virginia, seen below. For many months, Shell’s maps showed a planned crossing south of the current proposed route, but later took a dramatic diversion to the north, apparently due to an easement not having been executed for a single property. What is notable about the new route is that it utilizes property owned by the popular Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack, and Resort.

The current and former Falcon route crossing the Ohio River

Fort Cherry Golf Course Reroute

In another instance, we see a reroute near the Fort Cherry Golf Course in McDonald, Washington County, PA. An earlier route took the Falcon straight through the course, whereas the current proposed route goes further east, disrupting a smaller number of fairways. Notice in the image below that a temporary access road for the pipeline’s construction will also still utilize Fort Cherry Golf Course’s driveway.

The current and former Falcon routes crossing the Ft. Cherry Golf Course

Montour Trail Intersections

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Finally, we bring attention to what appears to be some of the few remaining properties with easements not yet settled in order to begin construction. As noted in the excerpt from Shell’s permit application at the top of this page, a number of parcels owned by the Montour Trail Council have a status of: “in negotiation and depended on submitted crossing permit applications,” presumably meaning they would agree to the easement if PA DEP approved Shell’s permits.

Falcon intersections with the Montour Trail

The Montour Trail is a 46-mile long multi-use non-motorized recreational rail-trail located in Washington and Allegheny County, PA, used by more than 400,000 people annually. It also makes up part of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a trail system that stretches over 335 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. The trail is managed by the nonprofit Montour Trail Council with support from state agencies such as the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

We were surprised to find that the Montour Trail will be crossed by the Falcon in 9 locations: 5 by the pipeline itself, 3 by temporary access roads, and 1 by a permanent access road, as illustrated in the image above. Two of the pipeline intersections will be executed using HDD boring. The trail and its intersection with the Falcon can be seen by activating these layers on FracTracker’s interactive map, as illustrated in the image above.

 

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Related Articles

By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance

Falcon Pipeline: Cumulative Development & Compounded Risks

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

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

Quick Falcon Facts

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

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

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

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work


Mined Lands

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

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

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

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

Beaver Valley Mine

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

Digitized map of Beaver Valley Mine

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

Coal Slurry Site, Imperial PA

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

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

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

A Falcon HDD crossing under a wetland and coal slurry site

Foreign Pipelines

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

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

Shared Rights-of-Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil & Gas Extraction

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

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

A well pad and compressor station in Falcon’s PIR

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

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Related Articles

The Falcon: Methods, Mapping, & Analysis

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

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

Finding the Data

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

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

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

Google search results related to Falcon pipeline data

Viewing the Data

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

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

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

The HOUGEO GIS folders organized by topic

 

Archiving the Data

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

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

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

Transparency & Caveats

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

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

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

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

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Related Articles

Wayne National Forest map and drilling

Wayne National Forest Could Be Deforested – Again

Guest article by Becca Pollard

Eighty years ago, Southeastern Ohio was a wasteland of barren, eroding hills. During the 18th and 19th centuries this once heavily forested area in the Appalachian foothills had been clear cut and mined beyond recognition. When the Great Depression struck, lowering crop prices made farming unprofitable in the area, and 40% of the population moved away.

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a public work relief program that employed men aged 18-25 to do manual labor related to conservation and development of natural resources such as planting trees, constructing trails, roads, and lodges, fighting wildfires, and controlling erosion. The following year, Ohio’s legislature agreed to allow the federal government to purchase land in the state for the purpose of establishing a national forest. The Forest Service was tasked with restoring the land for what is now called Wayne National Forest (WNF). A tree nursery was established near Chillicothe, and with the help of the CCC and volunteers, including members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, garden clubs, and school children, reforestation began.

Photos Credit: US Forest Service

An Area on the Mend

Today, WNF comprises three units that span 12 Ohio counties in the Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau. The hills are covered in biologically diverse mixed mesophytic forest, which includes approximately 120 species of trees and provides habitat for at least 45 species of mammals, 158 species of birds, 28 species of reptiles, 29 species of amphibians, and 87 species of fish. The US Forest Service estimates that 240,000 people visit this ecological wonder annually, according to Forest Recreation Program Manager, Chad Wilberger, in Nelsonville, Ohio. The restoration of barren public land to its current state is a great achievement. If it continues to be protected, Wayne could one day resemble the old growth forest that thrived here before the arrival of European settlers.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), however, has recently decided to lease up to 40,000 acres of Wayne to gas and oil companies for horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The first auction took place last December resulting in the lease of 700 acres. A second auction this March leased another 1,200 acres. Nearly all of this land lies within the 60,000 acre Marietta Unit of the forest. This brings Oil & Gas Expressions of Interest (EOI) acreage to roughly 7.5% of all WNF owned parcels in this unit.

Wayne National Forest and Adjacent Existing Oil and Gas Infrastructure
Below is a map of the Wayne National Forest, along with parcels owned by WNF (shown in gray) and those that might be subject to unconventional oil and gas development (gray parcels outlined with dashes). We also include existing unconventional oil and gas infrastructure near the park. Explore the map below, or click here to view the map fullscreen.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Not new, not old

Gas and oil development is not new to the Wayne. Since the passage of The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the US Forest Service’s land management plan for WNF has included conventional drilling, and derricks are a common sight on both public and private land in southeastern Ohio.

Fracking (unconventional drilling), however, has a far greater impact, requiring clear cutting of large areas of land for the construction of concrete well pads, and the use of millions of gallons of water that will become contaminated during the process and then transported by truck to injection wells. Accidents can be catastrophic for workers and nearby residents, and fracking and waste water disposal have been linked to earthquakes in Ohio.

In 2012, BLM updated its WNF Land and Resource Management Plan to allow fracking in the forest without conducting new impact studies.

What is at risk?

The Marietta Unit of the WNF is located in Monroe, Perry, and Washington counties in Southeastern Ohio along the Ohio River. Within its boundary are a wealth of trails used for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, and mountain biking, campgrounds, and waterways ideal for kayaking and fishing. Both the highest and lowest points in the Wayne lie in this unit, as does the Irish Run Natural Bridge. The area is also known for its exceptional wildflowers, as shown in the photos below.

One popular recreation area, Lamping Homestead, lies directly within an oil and gas Expression Of Interest (EOI) parcel #3040602400 (See Map Above), one of the areas under consideration for lease. In the 1800s, it was the site of the Lamping family’s farm, but today all that remains of the settlers is a small cemetery with an iron gate atop a hill overlooking a small lake. Six campsites are situated around the western side of the lake, and two intersecting hiking loops rise into the wooded hills to the east. On the western side of the parking lot is a covered picnic area. A creek flows out of the lake and into Clear Fork, a tributary of the Little Muskingum River, across the road from the parking lot.

Both the lake and stream are popular boating and fishing areas. Lamping is an excellent spot for wildlife viewing. The lake, the creeks that flow in and out of it, and the surrounding wooded hills support an impressive variety of plant and animal species. During the day, visitors might spot ducks, geese, great blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, summer tanagers, red spotted newts, box turtles, northern water snakes, garter snakes, deer, rabbits, and muskrats. At night, they could be greeted by a cacophony of voices from frogs, owls, and coyotes.

Species of trees, plants, and fungus are also numerous. In winter, stands of white pine pop out against the bare branches of oak, hickory, maple, buckeye, and other deciduous trees. In spring, eye-catching splotches of blooming dogwood and redbud contrast against the many shades of green. But hikers who pull their gaze away from the brightly colored canopy and look down are rewarded with an abundance of wildflowers and the butterflies they attract, as well as many varieties of mushrooms and fungus, including such edible varieties as morels, wood ear, and dryad’s saddle.

Estimating Disturbances

It is unclear how much surface disturbance would occur on public land if this parcel were to be fracked, but even if the well pad and pipelines were constructed on private land adjacent to the forest, in order to drill under the forest, the public land and its inhabitants and visitors would certainly be impacted.

There is no question that noise and air pollution from traffic and construction would be disruptive both to wildlife and to human visitors. Explore various photos of the oil and gas industry in the gallery below:

The extraction process requires 2 million to 6 million gallons of fresh water each time a well is fracked. The rate at which hydraulic fracturing’s water demand is increasing on a per-well basis here in Ohio reached an exponential state around Q4-2013 and Q1-2014 and continues to rise at a rate of 3.1 million gallons per well per year (Figure 1).

Ohio Hydraulic Fracturing Total and Per Well Freshwater Demand between Q3-2010 and Q3-2016.

Ohio Hydraulic Fracturing Total and Per Well Freshwater Demand between Q3-2010 and Q3-2016.

In Ohio, oil and gas companies are allowed to pull this water directly from streams and rivers at no cost. All this is possible, despite the fact that after its use it is so contaminated that it must be disposed of via injection wells and is permanently removed from the water cycle. The industry is already pulling water from streams in the Marietta Unit of the WNF for use in fracking on private land. Fracking public land simply means water withdrawals will occur on a much larger scale.

Ohio and West Virginia Shale Water Demand and Injection Waste Disposal
This map shows Utica wells weighted by water demand and disposal (and/or production). It also depicts water, sand, and chemical usage as well as injection waste and oil production. Explore the map below, or click here to view map fullscreen.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Inevitable methane leaks, in addition to contributing to climate change, affect humans and wildlife in their immediate vicinity, causing headaches and nausea and even killing trees and plants.

In addition to the anticipated harm that fracking inflicts upon a natural area, there is also a risk of accidents with potentially devastating consequences. Residents of Monroe County have already seen a few in recent years from fracking on private land. In 2014, a well pad fire in the village of Clarington resulted in a chemical spill that contaminated nearby Opossum Creek, killing 70,000 fish. The same year a large gas leak 15 miles south in the village of Sardis resulted in the evacuation of all homes within half mile radius.

Recent studies have shown that extraction wells, in addition to injection wells, can cause earthquakes. Unsurprisingly, Monroe County has seen a spike in seismic activity with the increase in fracking activity in the area. The most recent incident was a 3.0 magnitude earthquake in the forest less than five miles from Lamping Homestead in April of this year.

Supporters of Wayne National Forest

Many people have repeatedly spoken out against BLM’s plan, submitting a petition with more than 100,000 signatures, and protesting outside Wayne National Forest Headquarters and Athens Ranger Station in Nelsonville. They have even organized voters to call and write letters to Regional Forester Kathleen Atkinson and legislators, including Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, and Governor John Kasich. BLM has not budged on its decision, unfortunately, insisting that leasing this land for fracking, and associated infrastructure buildout, will have “no significant impact.”

This May, the Center for Biological Diversity, Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Sierra Club, and Heartwood, a regional organization focused on protecting forests, filed a lawsuit against BLM, aiming to void BLM leases and halt all fracking operations within the national forest.

Concerned citizens continue to organize raise awareness as they await the outcome of the suit.

Becca Pollard is Freelance Journalist and Co-founder of Keep Wayne Wild


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Seeking Three Unpaid Interns this Fall to Assist with Data Collection, Crunching, and Mapping

Digging into energy data is a tough job, and there is always more work to do than FracTracker has staff. For fall 2017, we’re seeking three unpaid interns to assist with our data and GIS work, one for each of the following offices:

  • Pittsburgh, PA
  • Cleveland Heights, OH
  • Oakland, CA

Applicants should be currently attending or have recently attended an academic institution, preferably in the US for logistical purposes.

The Fall 2017 Data & GIS internships will begin on September 5, 2017 and end after November 30, 2017. These dates are somewhat flexible, however.

When applying online, please indicate out of which office you would like to work. While not ideal, we will accept highly-skilled remote applicants on occasion.

Internship Details

FracTracker’s Data & GIS interns are current college or graduate students who aid in conducting energy research, gathering and analyzing data, mapping geo-located data, and writing articles about this work.

Fall internships are unpaid positions, as our paid internships only run in the spring. Because the fall internships are unpaid, however, students can choose to seek receipt of academic credits through their academic institution. These positions are not eligible for health benefits.

Responsibilities

The responsibilities of unpaid 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 oil and gas data collection and mapping. Responsibilities will vary, but may include:

  • Field research
  • Data mining, cleaning, management, and GIS mapping
  • Translation of data into information and stories for the blog
  • Administrative support when needed (including data entry, schedule coordination, taking and preparing meeting notes, etc.)
  • Participation in software development, integration, and system testing where needed

Application Process

Internship applications will be accepted through our online form below until July 14, 2017.

Upon receipt of your application and the closing of the application process, our Manager of Communications and Partnerships (MCP) will screen and select applicants for interviews that fit the skills being sought by FracTracker for projects at the time.

Interviews will then be conducted by the MCP and the position’s direct supervisor.

Questions about our current and upcoming internship opportunities should be directed to Sam Rubright at malone@fractracker.org.

If you are interested in this exciting opportunity to support FracTracker’s mission this fall, please apply for a Data & GIS internship with us using the form below. Deadline: July 14, 2017 – 5:00 PM Eastern.


Update: The online application process has closed. Check here for updates.

Radium Watersheds a Risk

By Greg Pace – Columbus Community Bill of Rights, and Julie Weatherington-Rice – Environmental Consultant

columbus_classiimap

Figure 1. Map of Columbus, OH Watersheds and Class II Injection Wells

Most Ohio residents are unaware of the frack fluid deep underground injection occurring north of Columbus, underneath the region’s source water protection watersheds (Figure 1).

Materials injected are liquids that have as much as ten times the salt concentration of sea-water. Mixed with this “brine” solution is a combination from hundreds of chemicals that are used in different stages of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract natural gas, petroleum, and hydrocarbon liquids used to make industrial materials such as plastics. BTEX compounds including benzene are always present in the wastewater, along with formaldehyde, bromides, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), and arsenic, with many other carcinogenic and otherwise highly-toxic substances.

Radioactivity of Shale Gas Wastewater

One of the biggest questions in this mix of toxic disposal is how much radioactive content exists. Radium-226 is most worrisome, as it has a very long half-life (1,600 years). It is water-soluble and, once it enters the human body, seeks to find a home in our bones where it will emit its cell-formation-destabilizing effects for the remainder of our lifetime. This radionuclide is known to cause leukemia, bone cancers, blood disorders, and other diseases.

The state of Ohio does not monitor the content of materials that are injected into our Class II injection wells deep in the ground. This oil and gas waste can come from anywhere, including Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, which is the most highly-radioactive geology of all the shale plays in the country. Radium-226 readings as high as 15,000 pico-curies per liter have been read in Marcellus shale brines. The EPA drinking water limit for radium-226 is 5 pico-curies per liter, which puts the Marcellus reading at 3,000 times higher than the drinking water limit.

Exposure through drinking water is a pathway to human disease from radium-226. Once oil and gas waste is disposed of underground in a sandstone or limestone layer, the fluids are subject to down-gradient movement, wicking through capillary action, and seepage over time. This means that the highly radioactive wastewater could eventually end up in our underground drinking water sources, creating radium watersheds. This practice is putting our watersheds at risk from radioactive contamination for hundreds of years, at least.

Can injected fluids migrate?

Depending on whether you confer with a geologist who works with the oil and gas industry, or from an independent geologist, you will get a different opinion on the likelihood of such a pollution event occurring. Industry geologists mostly claim that deep injection leaves very low risk of water contamination because it will not migrate from the planned area of injection. On the other hand, independent geologists will tell you that it is not a matter of if the liquids will migrate, but how and when. The ability to confirm the geology of the underground area layer of injection “storage” is not exact, therefore accuracy in determining the probability for migration over time is poor.

Figure 2. Ohio Utica Brine Production and Class II Injection Well Disposal
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We do know, however, that all underground systems in Ohio leak – Research by The Ohio State University and the US Geological Survey show that the age of the water in brine formations is far younger than the age of the rock deposits they are found in. See where wastewater is being created and disposed of in Ohio using the dynamic map above (Figure 2).

Spill Risks to Columbus, OH Water

According to area geologist, Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice, the source for Columbus’s water to the north is mostly from surface water. This water comes from the Delaware and Morrow county watersheds that feed into sources such as the Hoover and Alum Creek reservoirs. The major threat from injection wells to our watershed is from spills, either from trucks or from storage at the injection well sites themselves.

Dead fish floating in Vienna area pond contaminated by injection well system spill Source: MetropolitanEnegineering Consulting & Forensics-Expert Engineers

Figure 3. Dead fish floating in Vienna area pond contaminated by injection well system spill. Source: MetropolitanEnegineering Consulting & Forensics-Expert Engineers

In April 2015, as much as 8,000 gallons of liquid leaked from a malfunctioning pipe in the storage apparatus of an oil/gas waste storage and injection well site in Vienna, OH. This caused a wildlife kill in two ponds (Figure 3), and the spill was not contained until 2/3 mile downstream in a tributary. The firm who owned the facility was found negligent in that they did not install a required containment liner for spills. The incident was discovered by neighboring residents, but apparently employees knew of the leak weeks before. Of note in this incident was that Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the regulatory agency that oversees all oil/gas production activity in Ohio including injection, stated that there was “minimal impact to wildlife.”

Brine tanker rollover near Barnesville, OH spilled 5,000 gal. of produced brine. Source: Barnesville, OH Fire Department

Figure 4. Brine tanker rollover near Barnesville, OH spilled 5,000 gal. of produced brine. Source: Barnesville, OH Fire Department

In March, 2016, a tanker truck carrying produced waste from a hydraulically fractured well pad overturned outside of the Village of Barnesville, Ohio (Figure 4). The truck spilled 5,000 gallons of liquid waste into a field that led into a tributary, leading the fluids to enter one of the city’s three drinking water supply reservoirs. The water source was shut down for more than two months while regulators determined if water levels were safe for consumption. There was a noted spike in radium-226 levels during water testing immediately after the spill.

Of greatest concern is that, although many millions of gallons of frack waste have been injected into the wells north of Columbus over the past few years, we expect that this activity will increase. For the first time, the United States began exporting its own natural gas in 2016, to regions such as Europe and South America. As the industry consolidates from the depression of oil prices over the past two years and begins to ramp up again, we expect the extraction activity in the Marcellus and especially Utica to increase to levels beyond what we have seen since 2011. The levels of injection will inevitably follow, so that injection wells in Ohio will receive much more than in the past. The probability of spills, underground migration, and human-induced earthquakes may increase steeply, as well.

An Aging Disposal Infrastructure

On our Columbus Community Bill of Rights website, we show pictures of some of the Class II injection wells in Morrow County, most of them converted from legacy production wells. These old wells are located in played out oil/gas fields that may still be producing or have abandoned but not plugged (closed) wells, allowing other routes for injected liquids to migrate into shallow ground water and to the surface. The dilapidated condition of these converted Class II wells makes it hard to believe that they are used to inject millions of gallons of wastewater under high pressure. While many of the wells in the state are as deep as 9,000 feet, all of the injection wells we have seen in Morrow County are only 3,000-4,000 feet deep. This situation puts surface water at greater risk over time, as it is probable that, over the generations, some of the fluids will migrate and wick into the higher subterranean strata.

Figure 5. Ohio Class II Injection Wells by Type
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One well (Power Fishburn unit, photo below) showed signs of poor spill control when we took our October 2015 injection well tour. While we were there, a brine tanker arrived and began pumping their load into the well. The driver took pictures of our license plates while we were there watching him. A year later, there is a whole new structure at the well, including a new storage tower, and an extensively beefed-up spill control berm. Maybe we need to visit all of the facilities when they come by to use them!

Another well (Mosher unit, photo below) which hadn’t been used since 2014 according to available records, showed signs of a spill around the well. The spill control berms look as if they probably had flooded at some point. This well sits on the edge of a large crop field.


Figures 6a and 6b. Photos of Class II injection wells. Click on the images to expand them.

North of Columbus, the city of Delaware’s underground source water is at risk of becoming contaminated from underground migration of disposed wastewater over time, through wicking and seepage effects (as explained earlier in this article). They are also vulnerable to their reservoir being contaminated from surface spill migration through their watershed.

Google maps rendition of Ohio Soil Recycling facility in south Columbus, Ohio, that accepts shale drill cuttings for remediation to cap the landfill. Source: Google Maps/author

Figure 7. Google maps rendition of Ohio Soil Recycling facility in south Columbus, Ohio, that accepts shale drill cuttings for remediation to cap the landfill. Source: Google Maps/author

South of Columbus is another threat – drill cuttings from the drilling process have been authorized for disposal at a “remediation” landfill adjacent to the Alum Creek (Figure 7). The bioremediation treatment used is not indicated to solve the problem of removing radionuclides from the materials. This landfill had been remediated under the Ohio EPA twice when it was a toxic drum dump, after toxins were found to have been leaching into the watershed creek. Columbus’s Alum Creek well, as well as Circleville, are at risk of contamination in their drinking water if radionuclides from the cuttings leach into Alum Creek. Again, this is a long-term legacy of risk to their water.

Radiation Regulatory and Monitoring Gaps

Since The Ohio legislature deemed the radioactive content of shale cuttings to be similar to background levels in the 2013 state budget bill, cuttings can be spread around to all licensed landfills in Ohio with absolutely no accountability for the radium and other heavy metal levels in them. Unfortunately, the measuring protocol used in the pilot study for the Columbus facility to demonstrate to Ohio EPA that radium-226 was below EPA drinking water limits has been shown in a University of Iowa study to be unreliable.  The inadequate protocol was shown to indicate as little as 1% of the radium levels in shale waste samples tested.

As such, there have been hundreds of incidents where truckloads of cuttings have been turned away at landfills with crude radiation monitors. In 2013 alone, 2 loads were turned away in Ohio landfills, and over 220 were turned away from Pennsylvania landfills.

Ohio has a long way to go before it can be considered a clean energy state. The coal industry polluted significant water sources in the past. The fracking industry seems to be following suit, where contaminations will surprise us long into the future and in broader areas.


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