Pennsylvania’s fracking industry is producing record amounts of toxic waste — where does it all go?
Drilling for methane and other fossil fuels is an energy-intensive process with many associated environmental costs. In addition to the gas that is produced through high volume hydraulic fracturing (“unconventional drilling,” or “fracking”), the process generates a great deal of waste at the drill site. These waste products may include several dozen tons of drill cutting at every well that is directionally drilled, in addition to liner materials, contaminated soil, fracking fluid, and other substances that must be removed from the site.
In 2018, Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry (including both unconventional and conventional wells) produced over 2.9 billion gallons (nearly 69 million barrels) of liquid waste, and 1,442,465 tons of solid waste. In this article, we take a look at where this waste (and its toxic components) end up and how waste values have changed in recent years. We also explore how New York State, despite its reputation for being anti-fracking, isn’t exempt from the toxic legacy of this industry.
Waste that comes back to haunt us
According to a study by Physicians, Scientists and Engineers, over 80% of all waste from oil and gas drilling stays within the state of Pennsylvania. But once drilling wastes are sent to landfills, is that the end of them? Absolutely not!
Drilling waste also gets into the environment through secondary means. According to a recent report by investigative journalists at Public Herald, on average, 800,000 tons of fracking waste from Pennsylvania is sent to Pennsylvania landfills. When this waste is sent to landfills, radioactivity and other chemicals can percolate through the landfill, and are collected as leachate, which is then shipped to treatment plants.
Public Herald documented how fourteen sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania have been permitted by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) to process and discharge radioactive wastes into more than a dozen Pennsylvania waterways.
Public Herald’s article includes an in-depth analysis of the issue. Their work is supported by a map of the discharge sites, created by FracTracker.
Trends over time
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection maintains a rich database of oil and gas waste and production records associated with their Oil and Gas Reporting Website. The changes in waste disposal from Pennsylvania’s unconventional drilling reveal a number of interesting stories.
Let’s look first at overall unconventional drilling waste.
According to data from the federal Energy Information Administration, gas production in Pennsylvania began a steep increase around 2010, with the implementation of high volume hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale (see Figure 1). The long lateral drilling techniques allowed industry to exploit exponentially more of the tight shale via single well than was ever before possible with conventional, vertical drilling.
The more recently an individual well is drilled, the more robust the production. We see an overall increase in gas production over time in Pennsylvania over the past decade. Paradoxically, the actual number of new wells drilled each year in the past 4-5 years are less than half of the number drilled in 2011 (see Figure 2).
Why is this? The longer laterals —some approaching 3 miles or more—associated with new wells allow for more gas to be extracted per site.
With this uptick in gas production values from the Marcellus and Utica Formations come more waste products, including copious amounts drilling waste, “produced water,” and other byproducts of intensive industrial operations across PA’s Northern Tier and southwestern counties.
Comparing apples and oranges?
When we look at the available gas production data compared with data on waste products from the extraction process, some trends emerge. First of all, it’s readily apparent that waste production does not track directly with gas production in a way one would expect.
Recall that dry gas production has increased annually since 2006 (see Figure 1). However, the reported waste quantities from industry have not followed that same trend.
In the following charts, we’ve split out waste from unconventional drilling by solid waste in tons (Figure 3) and liquid waste, in barrels (Figure 4).
Note the striking difference in disposal information for solid waste, compared with liquid waste, coming from Pennsylvania.
“Disposal Location Unknown”
Until just the last year, often more than 50% of the known liquid waste generated in PA was disposed of at unknown locations. The PA DEP waste report lists waste quantity and method for these unknown sites, depending on the year: “Reuse without processing at a permitted facility,” “Reuse for hydraulic fracturing,” “Reuse for diagnostic purposes,” “Reuse for drilling or recovery,” “Reuse for enhanced recovery,” and exclusively in more recent years (2014-2016), “Reuse other than road-spreading.”
In 2011, of the 20.5 million barrels of liquid waste generated from unconventional drilling, about 56% was allegedly reused on other drilling sites. However, over 9 million barrels—or 44% of all liquid waste—were not identified with a final destination or disposal method. Identified liquid waste disposal locations included “Centralized treatment plant for recycle,” which received about a third of the non-solid waste products.
In 2012, the quantity of the unaccounted-for fracking fluid waste dropped to about 40%. By 2013, the percentage of unaccounted waste coming from fracking fluid dropped to just over 21%, with nearly 75% coming from produced fluid, which is briny, but containing fewer “proprietary”—typically undisclosed—chemicals.
By 2017, accounting had tightened up further. PA DEP data show that 99% of all waste delivered to undisclosed locations was produced fluid shipped to locations outside of Pennsylvania. By 2018, all waste disposal was fully accounted for, according to DEP’s records.
In looking more closely at the data, we see that:
- Prior to 2018, well drillers did not consistently report the locations at which produced water was disposed of or reused. Between 2012 and 2016, a greater volume of unconventional liquid waste went unaccounted for than was listed for disposal in all other locations, combined.
- In Ohio, injection wells, where liquid waste is injected into underground porous rock formations, accounted for the majority of the increase in waste accepted there: 2.9 million barrels in 2017, and 5.7 million barrels in 2018 (a jump of 97%).
- West Virginia’s acceptance of liquid waste increased significantly in 2018 over 2017 levels, a jump of over a million barrels, up from only 55,000. This was almost entirely due to unreported reuse at well pads.
- In 2018, reporting, in general, appears to be more thorough than it was in previous years. For example, in 2017, nearly 692,000 barrels of waste were reused at well pads outside PA, but those locations were not disclosed. Almost 7000 more barrels were also disposed of at unknown locations. In 2018, there were no such ambiguities.
A closer look at Pennsylvania’s fracking waste shipped to New York State
Despite a reputation for being resistant to the fracking industry, for most of this decade, the state of New York has been accepting considerable amounts of fracking waste from Pennsylvania. The greatest percentage shipped to New York State is in the form of drilling waste solids that go to a variety of landfills throughout Central and Western New York.
Looking closely at the bar charts above, it’s easy to notice that the biggest recipients of Pennsylvania’s unconventional liquid drilling waste are Pennsylvania itself, Ohio, as well as a significant quantity of unaccounted-for barrels between 2011 and 2016 (“Disposal location unknown”). The data for disposal of solid waste in New York tells a different story, however. In this case, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York State all play a role. We’ll take a look specifically at the story of New York, and illustrate the data in the interactive map that follows.
In this map, source locations in Pennsylvania are symbolized with the same color marker as the facility in New York that received the waste from the originating well pad. In the “Full Screen” view, use the “Layers” drop down menu to turn on and off data from separate years.
Solid waste transported to New York State
From the early days of unconventional drilling in Pennsylvania, New York State’s landfills provided convenient disposal sites due to their proximity to the unconventional drilling occurring in Pennsylvania’s Northern tier of counties. Pennsylvania and Ohio took the majority of solid wastes from unconventional drilling waste from Pennsylvania. New York State, particularly between 2011-2015, was impacted far more heavily than all other states, combined (Figure 5, below).
Here’s the breakdown of locations in New York to where waste was sent. Solid waste disposal into New York’s landfills also dropped by half, following the state’s ban on unconventional drilling in 2014. Most of the waste after 2012 went to the Chemung County Landfill in Lowman, New York, 10 miles southeast of Elmira.
Is waste immobilized once it’s landfilled?
The fate of New York State’s landfill leachate that originates from unconventional drilling waste is a core concern, since landfill waste is not inert. If drilling waste contains radioactivity, fracking chemicals, and heavy metals that percolate through the landfill, and the resulting leachate is sent to municipal wastewater treatment plants, will traditional water treatment methods remove those wastes? If not, what will be the impact on public and environmental health in the water body that receives the “treated” wastewater? In Pennsylvania, for example, a case is currently under investigation relating to pollution discharges into the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh. “That water was contaminated with diesel fuels, it’s alleged, carcinogens and other pollutants,” said Rich Bower, Fayette County District Attorney.
Currently, a controversial expansion of the Hakes Landfill in Painted Post, New York is in the news. Sierra Club and others were concerned about oversight of radium and radon in the landfill’s leachate and air emissions, presumably stemming from years of receiving drill cuttings. The leachate from the landfill is sent to the Bath Wastewater Treatment plant, which is not equipped to remove radioactivity. “Treated” wastewater from the plant is then discharged into the Cohocton River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. In April 2019, these environmental groups filed a law suit against Hakes C&D Landfill and the Town of Campbell, New York, in an effort to block the expansion.
Similar levels of radioactivity in leachate have also been noted in leachate produced at the Chemung County Landfill, according to Gary McCaslin, President of People for a Healthy Environment, Inc.
In recent years, much of the solid unconventional waste arriving in New York State has gone to the Chemung County Landfill (see Figure 6, above). Over the course of several years, this site requested permission to expand significantly from 180,000 tons per year to 417,000 tons per year. However, by 2016, the expansion was deemed unnecessary, and according, the plans were put on hold, in part “…because of a decline in the amount of waste being generated due to a slower economy and more recycling than when the expansion was first planned years ago.” The data in Figure 5 above also parallel this story, with unconventional drilling waste disposed in New York State dropping from over 200,000 tons in 2011 to just over 20,000 tons in 2018.
Liquid waste transported to New York State
The story about liquid unconventional drilling waste exported from Pennsylvania to states other than Ohio is not completely clear (see Figure 7, below). Note that the data indicate more than a 2000% increase in waste liquids going from Pennsylvania to West Virginia after 2017. While it has not been officially documented, FracTracker has been anecdotally informed that a great deal of waste was already going to West Virginia, but that the record-keeping prior to 2018 was simply not strongly enforced.
Beginning in the very early years of the Pennsylvania unconventional fracking boom, a variety of landfills in New York State have also accepted liquid wastes originating in Pennsylvania, including produced water and flowback fluids (see Figure 8, below).
In addition, while this information doesn’t even appear in the PA DEP records (which are publicly available back to 2010), numerous wastewater treatment plants did accept some quantity, despite being fully unequipped to process the highly saline waste before it was discharged back into the environment.
One such facility was the wastewater treatment plant in Cayuga Heights, Tompkins County, which accepted more than 3 million gallons in 2008. Another was the wastewater treatment plant in Auburn, Cayuga County, where the practice of accepting drilling wastewater was initially banned in July 2011, but the decision was reversed in March 2012 to accept vertical drilling waste, despite strong public dissent. Another wastewater treatment plant in Watertown, Jefferson County, accepted 35,000 gallons in 2009.
Fortunately, most New York State wastewater treatment plant operators were wise enough to not even consider adding a brew of unknown and/or proprietary chemicals to their wastewater treatment stream. Numerous municipalities and several counties banned fracking waste, and once the ban on fracking in New York State was instituted in 2014, nearly all importation of liquid unconventional drilling waste into the state ceased.
Nevertheless, conventional, or vertical well drilling also generates briny produced water, which the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) permits communities in New York to accept for ice and dust control on largely rural roads. These so-called “beneficial use determinations” (BUDs) of liquid drilling waste have changed significantly over the past several years. During the height of the Marcellus drilling in around 2011, all sorts of liquid waste was permitted into New York State (see FracTracker’s map of affected areas) and was spread on roads. As a result, the chemicals—many of them proprietary, of unknown constituents, or radioactive—were indirectly discharged into surface waters via roadspreading.
Overall, in the years after the ban in 2014 on high volume hydraulic fracturing was implemented, restrictions on Marcellus waste coming into New York have strengthened. Very little liquid waste entered New York’s landfills after 2013, and what did come in was sent to a holding facility owned by Environmental Services of Vermont. This facility is located outside Syracuse, New York.
New York State says “no” to this toxic legacy
Fortunately, not long after these issues of fracking fluid disposal at wastewater treatment facilities in New York State came to light, the practice was terminated on a local level. The 2014 ban on fracking in New York State officially prevented the disposal of Marcellus fluids in municipal wastewater treatment facilities and required extra permits if it were to be road-spread.
In New York State, the State Senate—after 8 years of deadlock—in early May 2019, passed key legislation that would close a loophole that had previously allowed dangerous oil and gas waste to bypass hazardous waste regulation. Read the press release from Senator Rachel May’s office here. However, despite strong support from both the Senate, and the Assembly, as well as many key environmental groups, the Legislature adjourned for the 2019 session without bringing the law to a final vote. Said Elizabeth Moran, of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), “I want to believe it was primarily a question of timing… Sadly, a dangerous practice is now going to continue for at least another year.”
All part of the big picture
As long as hydrocarbon extraction continues, the issues of waste disposal—in addition to carbon increases in the atmosphere from combustion and leakage—will result in impacts on human and environmental health. Communities downstream and downwind will bear the brunt of landfill expansions, water contamination, and air pollution. Impacts of climate chaos will be felt globally, with the greatest impacts at low latitudes and in the Arctic.
Transitioning to net-zero carbon emissions cannot be a gradual endeavor. Science has shown that in order to stay under the 1.5 °C warming targets, it must happen now, and it requires the governmental buy-in to the Paris Climate Agreement by every economic power in the world.
No exceptions. Life on our planet requires it.
We have, at most, 12 years to make a difference for generations to come.
By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
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FracTracker is closely mapping and following the petrochemical build-out in Appalachia, as the oil and gas industry invests in petrochemical manufacturing. Much of the national attention on the build-out revolves around the Appalachian Storage Hub (ASH), a venture spearheaded by Appalachian Development Group.
The ASH involves a network of infrastructure to store and transport natural gas liquids and finds support across the political spectrum. Elected officials are collaborating with the private sector and foreign investors to further development of the ASH, citing benefits such as national security, increased revenue, job creation, and energy independence.
Left out of the discussion are the increased environmental and public health burdens the ASH would place on the region, and the fact that natural gas liquids are the feedstock of products such as plastic and resins, not energy.
The “Shale Revolution”
The “Shale Revolution” brought on by high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in this region encompasses thousands of wells drilled into the Marcellus and Utica-Point Pleasant shale plays across much of the Allegheny Plateau. This area spans from north of Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, just outside the Catskills Mountains to the East in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and down to the West Virginia counties of Logan, Boone, and Lincoln. The westernmost extent of the fracking experiment in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays is in Noble and Guernsey Counties in Ohio.
Along the way, producing wells have exhibited steeper and steeper declines during the first five years of production, leading the industry to develop what they refer to as “super laterals.” These laterals (the horizontal portion of a well) exceed 3 miles in length and require in excess of 15 million gallons of freshwater and 15,000 tons of silica sand (aka, “proppant”).
The resource-intense super laterals are one way the industry is dealing with growing pressure from investors, lenders, the media, state governments, and the public to reduce supply costs and turn a profit, while also maintaining production. (Note: unfortunately these sources of pressures are listed from most to least concerning to industry itself!)
Another way the fracking industry is hoping to make a profit is by investing in the region’s natural gas liquids (NGLs), such as ethane, propane, and butane, to support the petrochemical industry.
The Appalachian Storage Hub
Continued oil and gas development are part of a nascent effort to establish a mega-infrastructure petrochemical complex, the Appalachian Storage Hub (ASH). For those that aren’t familiar with the ASH it could be framed as the fracking industry’s last best attempt to lock in their necessity across Appalachia and nationwide. The ASH was defined in the West Virginia Executive as a way to revitalize the Mountain State and would consist of the following:
“a proposed underground storage facility that would be used to store and transport natural gas liquids (NGLs) extracted from the Marcellus, Utica and Rogersville shales across Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Construction of this hub would not only lead to revenue and job creation in the natural gas industry but would also further enable manufacturing companies to come to the Mountain State, as the petrochemicals produced by shale are necessary materials in most manufacturing supply chains…[with] the raw materials available in the region’s Marcellus Shale alone…estimated to be worth more than $2 trillion, and an estimated 20 percent of this shale is composed largely of ethane, propane and butane NGLs that can be utilized by the petrochemical industry in the manufacturing of consumer goods.”
This is yet another example of fracking rhetoric that appeals to American’s sense of patriotism and need for cheaper consumer goods (in this case, plastics), given that they are seeing little to no growth in wages.
While a specific location for underground storage has not been announced, the infrastructure associated with the ASH (such as pipelines, compressor stations, and processing stations) would stretch from outside Pittsburgh down to Catlettsburg, Kentucky, with the latter currently the home of a sizeable Marathon Oil refinery. The ASH “would act like an interstate highway, with on-ramps and off-ramps feeding manufacturing hubs along its length and drawing from the available ethane storage fields. The piping would sit above-ground and follow the Ohio and Kanawha river valley.”
The politics of the ASH – from Columbus and Charleston to Washington DC
Elected officials across the quad-state region are supporting this effort invoking, not surprisingly, its importance for national security and energy independence.
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D) went so far as to introduce “Senate Bill 1064 – Appalachian Energy for National Security Act.” This bill would require Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and his staff to “to conduct a study on the national security implications of building ethane and other natural-gas-liquids-related petrochemical infrastructure in the United States, and for other purposes.”
Interestingly, the West Virginia Senator told the West Virginia Roundtable Inc’s membership meeting that the study would not examine the “national security implications” but rather the “additional security benefits” of an Appalachian Storage Hub and cited the following to pave the way for the national security study he is proposing: “the shale resource endowment of the Appalachian Basin is so bountiful that, if the Appalachian Basin were an independent country, the Appalachian Basin would be the third largest producer of natural gas in the world.”
Senator Manchin is not the only politician of either party to unabashedly holler from the Appalachian Mountaintops the benefits of the ASH. Former Ohio Governor, and 2016 POTUS primary participant, John Kasich (R) has been a fervent supporter of such a regional planning scheme. He is particularly outspoken in favor of the joint proposal by Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical and Daelim to build an ethane cracker in Dilles Bottom, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Moundsville, West Virginia. The ethane cracker would convert the region’s fracked ethane into ethylene to make polyethylene plastic. This proposed project could be connected to the underground storage component of the ASH.
The Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has consistently advocated for the project, going so far as to sign “an unprecedented agreement at the Tri-State Shale Summit, promising collaboration between the states in securing crackers for the region and, by extension, support of the storage hub.”
Not to be outdone in the ASH cheerleading department, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (R), who can’t seem to find any common ground with Democrats in general nor Senator Manchin specifically, is collaborating with quad-state governors on the benefits of the ASH. All the while, these players ignore or dismiss the environmental, social, and economic costs of such an “all in” bet on petrochemicals and plastics.
Even the region’s land-grant universities have gotten in on the act, with West Virginia University’s Appalachian Oil and Natural Gas Research Consortium and Energy Institute leading the way. WVU’s Energy Institute Director Brian Anderson pointed out that, “Appalachia is poised for a renaissance of the petrochemical industry due to the availability of natural gas liquids. A critical path for this rebirth is through the development of infrastructure to support the industry. The Appalachian Storage Hub study is a first step for realizing that necessary infrastructure.”
The Trump administration, with the assistance of Senator Manchin’s “Senate Bill 1337 – Capitalizing on American Storage Potential Act”, has managed to stretch the definition of the Department of Energy’s Title XVII loan guarantee to earmark $1.9 billion for the Appalachian Development Group, LLC (ADG) to develop the ASH, even though any project that receives such a loan must:
- utilize a new or significantly improved technology;
- avoid, reduce or sequester greenhouse gases;
- be located in the United States; and,
- have a reasonable prospect of repayment.
This type of Public-Private Investment Program is central planning at its finest, in spite of the likelihood that the prospects of the ASH meeting the second and fourth conditions above are dubious at best (even if the project utilizes carbon capture and storage technologies).
Public-Private Investment Programs have a dubious past. In her book “Water Wars,” Vandana Shiva discusses the role of these programs globally and the involvement of institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund:
“public-private partnerships”…implies public participation, democracy, and accountability. But it disguises the fact that the public-private partnership arrangements usually entail public funds being available for the privatization of public goods…[and] have mushroomed under the guise of attracting private capital and curbing public-sector employment.”
In response to the Department of Energy’s Title XVII largesse, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Ilhan Omar introduced Amendment 105 in Rule II on HR 2740. According to Food and Water Watch, this amendment would restrict “the types of projects the Department of Energy could financially back. It would block the funding for ALL projects that wouldn’t mitigate climate change.”
On Wednesday, June 19th Congress voted 233-200 along party lines to pass the amendment, preventing funds from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to be provided to any “project that does not avoid, reduce, or sequester air pollutants or anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases”.
The only condition of Department of Energy’s Title XVII loan program ASH is guaranteed to meet is the third (be located in the United States), but as we’ve already mentioned, the level of foreign money involved complicates the domestic facade.
Foreign involvement in the ASH lends credence to Senator Manchin’s and others’ concerns about where profits from the ASH will go, and who will be reaping the benefits of cheap natural gas. The fact that the ASH is being heavily backed by foreign money is the reason Senator Manchin raised an issue with the outsized role of state actors like Saudi Arabia and China as well as likely state-backed private investments like PTT Global Chemical’s. The Senator even cited how a potential $83.7 billion investment in West Virginia from China’s state-owned energy company, China Energy, would compromise “domestic manufacturing and national security opportunities.”
With all of the discussion and legislation focused on energy and national security, many don’t realize the output of the ASH would be the production of petroleum-based products: mainly plastic, but also fertilizers, paints, resins, and other chemical products.
Not coincidentally, Republican Ohio State Representatives George Lang and Don Jones just introduced House Bill 242, and attempt to support the plastic industry by “prohibit[ing] the imposition of a tax or fee on [auxiliary or plastic] containers, and to apply existing anti-littering law to those containers.”
There will most certainly be a battle in the courts between the state and urban counties like Cuyahoga County, Ohio, who’s council just voted to ban plastic bags countywide on May 28.
Bills like this and the not unrelated “critical infrastructure” bills being shopped around by the American Legislative Exchange Council will amplify the rural vs urban and local vs state oversight divisions running rampant throughout the United States. The reason for this is that yet another natural resource boom/bust will be foisted on Central Appalachia to fuel urban growth and, in this instance, the growth and prosperity of foreign states like China.
Instead of working night and day to advocate for Appalachia and Americans more broadly, we have legislation in statehouses around the country that would make it harder to demonstrate or voice concerns about proposals associated with the ASH and similar regional planning projects stretching down into the Gulf of Mexico.
Producing wells mapped
Impacts from the ASH and associated ethane cracker proposals will include but are not limited to: an increase in the permitting of natural gas wells, an increase in associated gas gathering pipelines across the Allegheny Plateau, and an exponential increase in the production of plastics, all of which are harmful to the region’s environment and the planet.
The production of the region’s fracked wells will determine the long-term viability of the ASH. From our reading of things, the permitting trend we see in Ohio will have to hit another exponential inflection point to “feed the beast” as it were. Figure 1 shows an overall decline in the number of wells drilled monthly in Ohio.
Figures 1. Monthly (in blue) and cumulative (in orange) unconventional oil and gas wells drilled in Ohio, January, 2013 to November, 2018
Figure 2. Permitted Vs Drilled Wells in Ohio, January, 2013 to November, 2018
That supply-demand on steroids interaction will likely result in an increased reliance on “super laterals” by the high-volume hydraulic fracturing industry. These laterals require 5-8 times more water, chemicals, and proppant than unconventional laterals did between 2010 and 2012.
Given this, we felt it critical to map not just the environmental impacts of this model of fracking but also the nuts and bolts of production over time. The map below shows the supply-demand links between the fracking industry and the ASH, not as discrete pieces or groupings of infrastructure, but rather a continuum of up and downstream patterns.
The current iteration of the map shows production values for oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids, how production for any given well changes over time, and production declines in newer wells relative to those that were fracked at the outset of the region’s “Shale Revolution.” Working with volunteer Gary Allison, we have compiled and mapped monthly (Pennsylvania and West Virginia) and quarterly (Ohio) natural gas, condensate, and natural gas liquids from 2002 to 2018.
This map includes 15,682 producing wells in Pennsylvania, 3,689 in West Virginia, and 2,064 in Ohio. We’ve also included and will be updating petrochemical projects associated with the ASH, either existing or proposed, across the quad-states including the proposed ethane cracker in Dilles Bottom, Ohio and the ethane cracker under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, along with two rumored projects in West Virginia.
We will continue to update this map on a quarterly basis, will be adding Kentucky data in the coming months, and will be sure to update rumored/proposed petrochemical infrastructure as they cross our radar. However, we can’t be everywhere at once so if anyone reading this hears of legitimate rumors or conversations taking place at the county or township level that cite tapping into the ASH’s infrastructural network, please be sure to contact us directly at email@example.com.
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison
Feature Photo: Ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County, PA. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.
 For a detailed analysis of the HVHF’s increasing resource demand and how lateral length has increased in the last decade the reader is referred to our analysis titled “A Disturbing Tale of Diminishing Returns in Ohio” Figures 12 and 13.
 Note: For those Bluegrass State residents or interested parties, Kentucky data is on its way!
New maps show the build-out of oil and gas infrastructure that converts the upper Ohio River Valley’s fracked gas into petrochemical products
In 2004, Range Resources purchased land in Washington County, Pennsylvania and “fracked” the first well in the Marcellus Shale, opening the flood gates to a wave of natural gas development.
Since then, oil and gas companies have fracked thousands of wells in the upper Ohio River Valley, from the river’s headwaters in Pennsylvania, through Ohio and West Virginia, and into Kentucky.
Industry sold natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy, but 15 years since the first fracked Marcellus well, it’s clear that natural gas is more of a barrier than a bridge. In fact, oil and gas companies are not bridging towards clean energy at all, but rather investing in the petrochemical industry- which converts fracked gas into plastic.
This article dives into the expanding oil, gas, and petrochemical industry in the Ohio River Valley, with six maps and over 16,000 data points detailing the build-out of polluting infrastructure required to make plastic and other petrochemical products from fossil fuels.
Fracking for plastic
The petrochemical industry is expanding rapidly, with $164 billion planned for new infrastructure in the United States alone. Much of the build-out involves expanding the nation’s current petrochemical hub in the Gulf Coast, yet industry is also eager to build a second petrochemical hub in the Ohio River Valley.
The shale rock below the Ohio River Valley releases more than methane gas used for energy. Fracked wells also extract natural gas liquids (NGLs) which the petrochemical industry manufactures into products such as plastic and resins. Investing in the petrochemical industry is one way to capitalize on gases that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere via venting and flaring. As companies continue to spend billions more on drilling than they’re bringing in, many are looking towards NGLs as their saving grace.
These maps look at a two-county radius along the upper Ohio River where industry is most heavily concentrated.
Step 1. Extraction
The petrochemical lifecycle begins at the well, and there are a lot of wells in the Ohio River Valley. The majority of the natural gas produced here is extracted from the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays, which also contain “wet gas,” or NGLs, such as ethane, propane, and butane.
active, unconventional wells in the upper Ohio River Valley
Of particular interest to the petrochemical industry is the ethane in the region, which can be “cracked” into ethylene at high temperatures and converted into polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. The Department of Energy predicts that production of ethylene from ethane in the Appalachian Basin will reach 640,000 barrels a day by 2025 – that’s 20 times the amount produced in 2013.
In our first map, we attempted to show only active and unconventional (fracked) wells, a difficult task as states do not have a uniform definition for “unconventional” or “active.” As such, we used different criteria for each state, detailed below.
This map shows 12,660 wells, including:
- 12,507 shale oil and gas wells:
- 5,033 wells designated as “active” and “unconventional” in Pennsylvania
- 2,971 wells designated as “drilled,” “permitted,” or “producing,” and are drilled in the Utica-Point Pleasant and Marcellus Shale in Ohio
- 4,269 wells designated as “active” or “drilled” in the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia
- 234 wells designated as “horizontal” and are not listed as abandoned or plugged in Kentucky
- 153 Class II injection wells, which are used for the disposal of fracking wastewater
- 2 in Pennsylvania
- 101 in Ohio
- 42 in West Virginia
- 8 in Kentucky
The map also shows the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays, and a line demarcating the portions of these plays that contain higher quantities of wet gas. These wet gas regions are of particular interest to the petrochemical industry. Finally, the Devonian-Ohio Shale play is visible as you zoom in.
Step 2. Transportation
A vast network of pipelines transports the oil and gas from these wells to processing stations, refineries, power plants, businesses, and homes. Some are interstate pipelines passing through the region on their way to domestic and international markets.
A number of controversial pipeline projects cross the Ohio River Valley. Construction of the Mariner East II Pipeline is under criminal investigation, the Revolution Pipeline exploded six days after it came on line, protesters are blocking the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is in the Supreme Court over permits to cross the Appalachian Trail.
Accurate pipeline data is not typically provided to the public, ostensibly for national security reasons. The result of this lack of transparency is that residents along the route are often unaware of the infrastructure, or whether or not they might live in harm’s way. While pipeline data has improved in recent years, much of the pipeline data that exists remains inaccurate. In general, if a route is composed of very straight segments throughout the rolling hills of the Upper Ohio River Valley, it is likely to be highly generalized.
The pipeline map below includes:
- natural gas interstate and intrastate pipelines
- 8 natural gas liquid pipelines
- 7 petroleum product pipelines
- 3 crude oil pipelines
- 18 pipeline projects that are planned or under construction for the region, including 15 natural gas pipelines and 3 natural gas liquids pipelines. To view a spreadsheet of these pipelines, click here.
Step 3. Oil and Gas Transport and Processing
Pipelines transport oil and the natural gas stream to an array of facilities. Compressor stations and pumping stations aid the movement of the products through pipelines, while processing stations separate out the natural gas stream into its different components, including NGLs, methane, and various impurities.
At this step, a portion of the extracted fossil fuels are converted into sources of energy: power plants can use the methane from the natural gas stream to produce electricity and heat, and oil refineries transform crude oil into products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, or jet fuel.
A separate portion of the fuels will continue down the petrochemical path to be converted into products such as plastics and resins. Additionally, a significant portion of extracted natural gas leaks unintentionally as “fugitive emissions” (an estimated 2-3%) or is intentionally vented into the atmosphere when production exceeds demand.
This map shows 756 facilities, including:
- 29 petroleum and natural gas power plants
- 3 electric utilities
- 24 independent power producers
- 1 industrial combined heat and power (CHP) plant
- 1 industrial power producer (non CHP)
- 10 pumping stations, which assist in the transmission of petroleum products in pipelines
- 645 compressor stations to push natural gas through pipelines
- 21 gas processing plants which separate out NGLs, methane, and various impurities from the natural gas stream
- 46 petroleum terminals, which are storage facilities for crude and refined petroleum products, often adjacent to intermodal transit networks
- 3 oil refineries, which convert crude oil into a variety of petroleum-based products, ranging from gasoline to fertilizer to plastics
- 2 petroleum ports, which are maritime ports that process more than 200 short tons (400,000 pounds) of petroleum products per year
*A small portion of these facilities are proposed or in construction, but not yet built. Click on the facilities for more information.
Step 4. Storage
After natural gas is extracted from underground, transported via pipeline, and separated into dry gas (methane) and wet gas (NGLs), its components are often pumped back underground for storage. With the expansion of the petrochemical industry, companies are eager to find opportunities for NGL storage.
Underground storage offers a steady supply for petrochemical manufacturers and allows industry to adapt to fluctuations in demand. A study out of West Virginia University identified three different types of NGL storage opportunities along the Ohio and Kanawha River valleys:
- Mined-rock cavern: Companies can mine caverns in formations of limestone, dolomite, or sandstone. This study focused on caverns in formations of Greenbrier Limestone.
- Salt cavern: Developing caverns in salt formations involves injecting water underground to create a void, and then pumping NGLs into the cavern.
- Gas field: NGLs can also be stored in natural gas fields or depleted gas fields in underground sandstone reservoirs.
Above-ground tanks offer a fourth storage option.
Natural gas and NGL storage contains many risks. These substances are highly flammable, and accidents or leaks can be fatal. A historically industrialized region, the Ohio River Valley is full of coal mines, pipelines, and wells (including abandoned wells with unknown locations). All of this infrastructure creates passages for NGLs to leak and can cause the land above them to collapse. As many of these storage options are beneath the Ohio River, a drinking water supply for over 5 million people, any leak could have catastrophic consequences.
Furthermore, there are natural characteristics that make the geology unsuitable for underground storage, such as karst geological formations, prone to sinkholes and caves.
Notable Storage Projects
Appalachia Development Group LLC is heading the development of the Appalachia Storage & Trading Hub initiative, “a regional network of transportation, storage and trading of Natural Gas Liquids and chemical intermediates.” The company has not announced the specific location for the project’s storage component. Funding for this project is the subject of national debate; the company applied for a loan guarantee through a federal clean energy program, in a move that may be blocked by Congress.
Energy Storage Ventures LLC plans to construct the Mountaineer NGL Storage facility near Clarington, Ohio along the Ohio River. This facility involves salt cavern storage for propane, ethane, and butane. To supply the facility, the company plans to build three pipelines beneath the Ohio River: two pipelines (one for ethane and one for propane and butane) would deliver NGLs to the site from Blue Racer Natrium processing plant. A third pipeline would take salt brine water from the caverns to the Marshall County chlorine plant (currently owned by Westlake Chemical Corp).
The storage map below shows potential NGL storage sites to feed petrochemical infrastructure as well as natural gas storage for energy production:
- Existing natural gas storage facilities:
- 3,012 natural gas storage wells
- 46 natural gas storage facilities, including 1 aquifer and 45 depleted gas fields
- Existing NGL storage:
- Proposed NGL storage:
- The location of the proposed Mountaineer NGL Storage facility
- The location of the proposed Hopedale NGL Storage Caverns
- 4 locations identified by West Virginia University for salt cavern NGL storage
- 13 Gas fields identified by West Virginia University for NGL storage
- Greenbrier Limestone identified by West Virginia University as a potential formation for NGL storage in mined rock caverns
Step 5. Petrochemical Manufacturing
While conventional oil and gas extraction has occurred in the region for decades, and fracking for 15 years, the recent petrochemical build-out adds an additional environmental and health burdens to the Ohio River Valley. Our final map represents the facilities located “downstream” in the petrochemical process which convert fossil fuels into petrochemical products.
Much of the petrochemical build-out revolves around ethane crackers, which convert ethane from fracked wells into small, polyethylene plastic pellets. They rely on a regional network of fracking, pipelines, compressor stations, processing stations, and storage to operate.
In 2017, Royal Dutch Shell began construction on the first ethane cracker to be built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. Located in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, this plant is expected to produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year. In the process, it will release an annual 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).
A second ethane cracker has been permitted in Belmont County, Ohio. Several organizations, including the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, FreshWater Accountability Project, and Earthworks have filed an appeal against Ohio EPA’s issuance of the air permit for the PTTGC Ethane Cracker.
Methanol plants also convert part of the natural gas stream (methane) into feedstock for a petrochemical product (methanol). Methanol is commonly used to make formaldehyde, a component of adhesives, coatings, building materials, and many other products. In addition to methanol plants and ethane crackers, the map below also shows the facilities that make products from feedstocks, such as fertilizer (made from combining natural gas with nitrogen to form ammonia, the basis of nitrogen fertilizer), paints, and of course, plastic.
These facilities were determined by searching the EPA’s database of industrial sites using the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).
In total, we mapped 61 such facilities:
- 2 methanol plants (both in construction)
- 3 ethane crackers (one in construction, one under appeal, and one uncertain project)
- 12 petrochemical manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 32511)
- 31 plastic manufacturing facilities
- 2 plastic bag and pouch manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 326111)
- 2 plastic packaging materials and unlaminated film and sheet manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 32611)
- 2 plastic packaging film and sheet (including laminated) manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 326112)
- 1 unlaminated plastic film and sheet (except packaging) manufacturing facility (NAICS code 326113)
- 1 unlaminated plastics profile shape manufacturing facility (NAICS code 326121)
- 2 laminated plastics plate, sheet (except packaging), and shape manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 32613)
- 21 facilities listed as “all other plastics product manufacturing” (NAICS code 326199)
- 11 paint and coating manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 325510)
- 2 nitrogenous fertilizer manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 325311)
Visualizing the Build-Out
How are these facilities all connected? Our final map combines the data above to show the connections between the fossil fuel infrastructure. To avoid data overload, not all of the map’s features appear automatically on the map. To add features, view the map full screen and click the “Layers” tab in the top right tool bar.
A better future for the Valley
The expansion of oil and gas infrastructure, in addition to the downstream facilities listed above, has rapidly increased in the last few years. According to the Environmental Integrity Project, regulatory agencies in these four states have authorized an additional 15,516,958 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents to be emitted from oil and gas infrastructure since 2012. That’s in addition to emissions from older oil and gas infrastructure, wells, and the region’s many coal, steel, and other industrial sites.
The petrochemical build-out will lock in greenhouse gas emissions and plastic production for decades to come, ignoring increasingly dire warnings about plastic pollution and climate change. A recent report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance found that the greenhouse gas emissions across the plastic lifecycle were equivalent to emissions from 189 coal power plants in 2019 – a number that’s predicted to rise in coming years.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The oil and gas industry’s plan to increase plastic manufacturing capacity is a desperate attempt to stay relevant as fracking companies “hemorrhage cash” and renewable energy operating costs beat out those of fossil fuels. Investing instead in clean energy, a less mechanized and more labor intensive industry, will offer more jobs and economic opportunities that will remain relevant as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.
In fact, the United States already has more jobs in clean energy, energy efficiency, and alternative vehicles than jobs in fossil fuels. It’s time to bring these opportunities to the Ohio River Valley and bust the myth that Appalachian communities must sacrifice their health and natural resources for economic growth.
Download the maps
This data in this article are not exhaustive. FracTracker will be updating these maps as data becomes available.
By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance
New research on fracking health impacts, combined with unusually high rates of pediatric cancer, sound alarm bells in Pennsylvania
FracTracker isn’t the only one digging deeper into the health impacts of fracking in the past few months. Last week, the Better Path Coalition organized a meeting at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to share new research with government officials, the press, and the public. These groundbreaking reports highlight the increasing body of evidence showing fracking’s adverse health and climate impacts.
Following the presentations on emerging research, Ned Ketyer, M.D., F.A.A.P, discussed the highly concerning proliferation of rare pediatric cancer cases in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Dr. Ketyer drew data from a report released last month by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which uncovered an unusually high number of childhood cancer diagnoses in southwestern Pennsylvania over the last decade. In just four counties (Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland), there were 27 people diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, between 2008 and 2018. Six of the 27 people diagnosed were from the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County, where there are currently 10 students district-wide with other types of cancers.
The expected number of Ewing sarcoma diagnoses over this time period and for the population count of southwestern Pennsylvania would be 0.75 cases per year, or roughly eight cases over the course of a decade. The higher number of rare childhood cancers was the subject of a recent community meeting held by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), where residents called on the state to further investigate the issue and take immediate action to eliminate any potential environmental causes. For more of EHP’s resources on this topic, click here.
Cancer in the Marcellus
The Pennsylvania Department of Health investigated three of these cases in Washington County and found that they did not meet the criteria definition of a cancer cluster. Still, the unusually high number of rare cancers over a small geography is cause for alarm and reason to suspect an environmental cause.
This four-county area has a legacy of environmental health hazards associated with coal mining activities and is home to a 40-year old uranium disposal site that sits in close proximity to the Canon-McMillan High School. But with the increase in cancer diagnoses over the past decade, many are looking towards fracking in the Marcellus Shale, the more recent environmental hazard to develop in the region, as a contributing cause.
Southwestern Pennsylvania is a hot spot for fracking activity. In these four counties, there are 3,169 active, producing unconventional gas wells. There are also the infrastructure and activity associated with unconventional development: compressor stations, processing stations (including Pennsylvania’s largest cryogenic plant), disposal sites for radioactive waste, and heavy truck traffic.
The environmental and health risks of these facilities were the focus of the presentations and discussions with Pennsylvania leaders last week.
Call for action
At the culmination of the Harrisburg meeting, participants delivered a letter to Governor Wolf’s office, calling for an investigation into the causes of these childhood cancer cases. Signed by over 900 environmental organizations and individuals, the letter also asks for a suspension of new shale gas permitting until the Department of Health can determine that there is no link between drilling and the cancer outcomes.
Governor Wolf’s response to Karen Feridun, the organizer of this campaign, was a disappointing dismissal of this public health crisis. Stating that the environmental regulations his office has implemented “protect Pennsylvanians from negative environmental and health impacts,” Governor Wolf went on to say that his office “will continue to monitor and study cancer incidents in this area, especially as more data becomes available,” but did not agree to suspend new permitting.
Wolf’s decision to continue with status quo permitting while waiting for more data to become available is unacceptable, and will lead to more Pennsylvanians suffering from the industry’s health impacts.
The Governor’s response is even more disheartening as it follows his recent support for a full ban on fracking activity in the Delaware River Basin (including eastern Pennsylvania). The Governor’s support for the ban is an acknowledgement of the industry’s risks, and leaves us frustrated that the southwestern part of the state is not receiving equal protection.
When is enough evidence enough?
The continued permitting of unconventional wells disregards the scientific evidence of drilling’s harms discussed in Harrisburg.
Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D, of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, discussed the results of the sixth edition of “The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking.” The Compendium outlines the health risks of fracking infrastructure from almost 1,500 peer-reviewed studies and governmental reports. Notably, the report outlines the inherent dangers of fracking and finds that regulations are incapable of protecting public health from the industry.
Erica Jackson discussed FracTracker Alliance’s recently published Categorical Review of Health Reports. This literature review analyzed 142 publications and reports on the health impacts of fracking, and found that 89% contained evidence of an adverse health outcome or health risk associated with proximity to unconventional oil and gas development.
Brian Schwartz, M.D., M.S., the Director of Geisinger Health Institute at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, presented epidemiological studies linking unconventional development to increased radon concentrations on homes and health impacts including adverse birth outcomes, mental health disorders, and asthma exacerbations.
Lorne Stockman, Senior Research Analyst with Oil Change International, discussed “Burning the Gas ‘Bridge Fuel’ Myth,” a new report that further solidifies the irrationality of continued oil and gas development based on its climate impacts. The report shows that greenhouse gas emissions from fracking exceed climate goals, and how perpetuating the myth of natural gas as a “bridge” to renewables locks in emissions for decades.
A welcome ray of hope, this report also proves that renewables are an economically viable replacement to coal and gas, costing less than fossil fuels to build and operate in most markets. Furthermore, renewables combined with increasingly competitive battery storage ensures grid reliability.
“Burden of proof always belongs to the industry”
Among the inundation of data, statistics, and studies, Dr. Steingraber offered a sobering reminder of the purpose behind the meeting:
“Public health is about real people. When we collect data on public health problems, behind every data point, behind every black dot floating on a white mathematical space on a graph captured in a study, there are human lives behind those data points. And when those points each represent the life of a child or a teenager, what the dots represent is terror, unimaginable suffering, followed by death, or terror, unimaginable suffering, followed by a life of trauma, pathology reports, bone scans, medical bills, side effects, and uncertainty that all together are known as cancer survival.”
An adolescent cancer survivor herself, Dr. Steingraber clearly articulated the ethical responsibility our elected officials have to hold industry accountable for its impacts:
“Burden of proof always belongs to the industry, and benefit of the doubt always belongs to the child. It’s wrong to treat children like lab rats and experiment on them until the body count becomes so high that it reaches all the levels of statistical significance that tells you that we have a real problem here.”
The evidence is in – we know enough to justify an end to fracking based on its health and climate impacts. It’s time for Pennsylvania’s industry and leaders to stop experimenting with residents’ health and take immediate action to prevent more suffering.
By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance
Since the advent of unconventional shale gas drilling, some effects have been immediate, some have emerged over time, and some are just becoming apparent. Two reports recently published by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network advance our understanding of the breadth of the impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania. The first report, written by FracTracker, reviews research on the ways fracking impacts the health of Pennsylvanians. The second report by ECONorthwest calculates the economic costs of the industry.
“Fracking is heavily impacting Pennsylvania in multiple ways but the burden is not being fairly and openly calculated. These reports reveal the health effects and economic costs of fracking and the astounding burdens people and communities are carrying,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.
Learn what the latest science and analysis tells us about the costs of fracking, who is paying now, and what the future price is forecasted to be.
Access the full reports here:
Health Impact Report
“Categorical Review of Health Reports on Unconventional Oil and Gas Development; Impacts in Pennsylvania,” FracTracker Alliance, 2019 Issue Paper
Economic Impact Report
“The Economic Costs of Fracking in Pennsylvania,” ECONorthwest, 2019 Issue Paper
From the Experts
“The FracTracker Alliance conducted a review of the literature studying the impact of unconventional oil and gas on health. Findings of this review show a dramatic increase in the breadth and volume of literature published since 2016, with 89% of the literature reporting that drilling proximity has human health effects. Pennsylvanian communities were the most studied sample populations with 49% of reviewed journal articles focused on Marcellus Shale development. These studies showed health impacts including cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms were correlated with living near unconventional oil and gas development for Pennsylvania and other frontline communities.”
–Kyle Ferrar, FracTracker Alliance Western Program Coordinator
“Fracking wells have an extensive presence across Pennsylvania’s landscape – 20 percent of residents live within 2 miles of a well. This is close enough to cause adverse health outcomes. Collectively we found annual costs of current fracking activity over $1 billion, with cumulative costs given continued fracking activity over the next 20 years of over $50 billion in net present value for the effects that we can monetize. The regional economic benefits also seem to be less than stated, as the long-term benefits for local economies are quite low, and can disrupt more sustainable and beneficial economic trajectories that might not be available after a community has embraced fracking.”
–Mark Buckley, Senior Economist at the natural resource practice at
These reports on the health effects and economic impacts of unconventional oil and natural gas development yield disheartening results. There are risks of extremely serious health issues for families in impacted areas, and the long term economic returns for communities are negative.
Arming ourselves with knowledge is an important first step towards the renewable energy transformation that is so clearly needed. The stakes are too high to allow the oil and natural gas industries to dictate the physical, social, and economic health of Pennsylvanians.
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
In California’s Central Valley and along the South Coast, there are many communities littered with abandoned oil and gas wells, buried underground.
Many have had homes, buildings, or public parks built over top of them. Some of them were never plugged, and many of those that were plugged have since failed and are leaking oil, natural gas, and toxic formation waters (water from the geologic layer being tapped for oil and gas). Yet this issue has been largely ignored. Oil and gas wells continue to be permitted without consideration for failing and failed plugged wells. When leaking wells are found, often nothing is done to fix the issue.
As a result, greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere and present an explosion risk for homes built over top of them. Groundwater, including sources of drinking water, is known to be impacted by abandoned wells in California, yet resources are not being used to track groundwater contamination.
Abandoned wells: plugged and orphaned
The term “abandoned” typically refers to wells that have been taken out of production. At the end of their lifetime, wells may be properly abandoned by operators such as Chevron and Shell or they may be orphaned.
When operators properly abandon wells, they plug them with cement to prevent oil, natural gas, and salty, toxic formation brine from escaping the geological formation that was tapped for production. Properly plugging a well helps prevent groundwater contamination and further air quality degradation from the well. The well-site at the surface may also be regraded to an ecological environment similar to its original state.
Wells that are improperly abandoned are either plugged incorrectly or are “orphaned” by their operators. When wells are orphaned, the financial liability for plugging the well and the environmental cleanup falls on the state, and therefore, the taxpayers.
You don’t see them?
In California’s Central Valley and South Coast abandoned wells are everywhere. Below churches, schools, homes, they even under the sidewalks in downtown Los Angeles!
FracTracker Alliance and Earthworks recently spent time in Los Angeles with an infrared camera that shows methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. We visited several active neighborhood drilling sites and filmed plumes of toxic and carcinogenic VOCs floating over the walls of well-pads and into the surrounding neighborhoods. We also visited sites where abandoned, plugged wells had failed.
In the video below, we are standing on Wilshire Blvd in LA’s Miracle Mile District. An undocumented abandoned well under the sidewalk leaks toxic and carcinogenic VOCs through the cracks in the pavement as mothers push their children in walkers through the plume. This is just one case of many that the state is not able to address.
California regulatory data shows that there are 122,466 plugged wells in the state, as shown below in the map below. Determining how many of them are orphaned or improperly plugged is difficult, but we can come up with an estimate based on the wells’ ages.
While there are no available data on the dates that wells were plugged, there are data on “spud dates,” the date when operators begin drilling into the ground. Of the 18,000 wells listing spud dates, about 70% were drilled prior to 1980. Wells drilled before 1980 have a higher risk of well casing failures and are more likely to be sources of groundwater contamination.
Additionally, wells plugged prior to 1953 are not considered effective, even by industry standards. Prior to 1950, wells either were orphaned or plugged and abandoned with very little cement. Plugging was focused on protecting the oil reservoirs from rain infiltration rather than to “confine oil, gas and water in the strata in which they are found and prevent them from escaping into other strata.” Of the wells with drilling dates in the regulatory data, 30% are listed as having been drilled prior to the use of cement in well plugging.
With a total of over 245,000 wells in the state database, and considering the lack of monitoring prior to 1950, it’s reasonable to assume there are over 80,000 improperly plugged and unplugged wells in California.
Map of California’s Plugged Wells
The regions with the highest counts of plugged wells are the Central Valley and the South Coast. The top 10 county ranks are listed below in Table 1. Kern County has more than half of the total plugged wells in the entire state.
Table 1. Ranks of Counties by Plugged Well Counts
- Los Angeles
- Santa Barbara
- San Luis Obispo
- Plugged Well Count
The issue is not unique to California. Nationally, an estimated 2.56 million oil and gas wells have been drilled and 1.93 million wells had been abandoned by 1975. Using interpolated data, the EPA estimates that as of 2016 there were 3.12 million abandoned wells in the U.S. and 69% of them were left unplugged.
In 2017, FracTracker Alliance organized an exercise to track down the locations of Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells that are not included in the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s digital records. Using paper maps and the FracTracker Mobile App, volunteers explored Pennsylvania woodlands in search of these hidden greenhouse gas emitters.
What are the risks?
Studies by Kang et al. 2014, Kang et al 2016, Boothroyd et al 2016, and Townsend-Small et al. 2016 have all measured methane emissions from abandoned wells. Both properly plugged and improperly abandoned wells have been shown to leak methane and other VOCs to the atmosphere as well as into the surrounding groundwater, soil, and surface waters. Leaks were shown to begin just 10 years after operators plugged the wells.
The high density of aging and improperly plugged wells is a major risk factor for the current and future development of California’s oil and gas fields. When fields with old wells are reworked using new technology, such as hydraulic fracturing, CO2 flooding, or solvent flooding (including acidizing, water flooding, or steam flooding), the injection of additional fluid and gas increases pressure in a reservoir. Poorly plugged or aging wells often lack the integrity to avoid a blowout (the uncontrolled release of oil and/or gas from a well). There is a consistent risk that formation fluids will be forced to migrate up the plugged wellbores and bypass the existing plugs.
In a 2014 report, the U.S. Geological Service warned the California State Water Resources Control Board that the integrity of abandoned wells is a serious threat to groundwater sources, stating, “Even a small percentage of compromised well bores could correspond to a large number of transport pathways.”
The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) has also suggested the need for additional research on existing aquifer contamination. In 2014, they called for widespread testing of groundwater near oil and gas fields, which has still not occurred.
In addition to the contamination of underground sources of drinking water, abandoned well failures can even create a pathway for methane and fluids to escape to Earth’s surface. In many cases, such as in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California, where drilling began prior to the turn of the 20th century, many wells have been left unplugged. Of the abandoned wells that were plugged, the plugging process was much less adequate than it is today.
If plugged wells are allowed to leak, surface expressions can form. These leaks can travel to the Earth’s crust where oil, gas, and formation waters saturate the topsoil. A construction supervisor for Chevron named David Taylor was killed by such an event in the Midway-Sunset oil field near Bakersfield, CA. According to the LA Times, Chevron had been trying to control the pressure at the well-site. The company had stopped injections near the well, but neighboring operators continued high-pressure injections into the pool. As a result, migration pathways along old wells allowed formation fluids to saturate the Earth just under the well-site. Tragically, Taylor fell into a 10-foot diameter crater of 190° fluid and hydrogen sulfide.
Following David Taylor’s death in 2011, California regulators vowed to make urgent reforms to the management of underground injection, and new rules finally went into effect on April 1, 2018. These regulations require more consistent monitoring of pressure and set maximum pressure standards. While this will help with the management of enhanced oil recovery operations, such as steam and water flooding and wastewater disposal, the issue of abandoned wells is not being addressed.
New requirements incentivizing operators to plug and abandon idle wells will help to reduce the number of orphan wells left to the state, but nothing has been done or is proposed to manage the risk of existing orphaned wells.
Why would the state of California allow new oil and gas drilling when the industry refuses to address the existing messes? Why are these messes the responsibility of private landholders and the state when operators declare bankruptcy?
New bonding rules in some states have incentivized larger operators to plug their own wells, but old low-producing or idle wells are often sold off to smaller operators or shell (not Shell) companies prior to plugging. This practice has been the main source of orphaned wells. And regardless of whether wells are plugged or not, research shows that even plugged wells release fugitive emissions that increase with the age of the plug.
If the fossil fuel industry were to plug the existing 1.666 million currently active wells, there would be nearly 5 million plugged wells that require regular inspections, maintenance, and for the majority, re-plugging, to prevent the flow of greenhouse gases. This is already unattainable, and drilling more wells adds to this climate disaster.
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Oil and gas development generates a lot of liquid waste.
Some of the waste comes that comes out of a well is from the geologic layer where the oil and gas resources are located. These extremely saline brines may be described as “natural,” but that does not make them safe, as they contain dangerous levels of radiation, heavy metals, and other contaminants.
Additionally, a portion of the industrial fluid that was injected into the well to stimulate production, known as hydraulic fracturing fluid, returns to the surface. Some of these substances are known carcinogens, while others remain entirely secret, even to the personnel in the field who are employed to use the additives.
The industry likes to remind residents that they have used this technique for more than six decades, which is true. What separates “conventional” fracking from developing unconventional formations such as the Marcellus Shale is really a matter of scale. Conventional formations are often stimulated with around 10,000 gallons of fluid, while unconventional wells now average more than 10 million gallons per well.
In 2017 alone, Pennsylvania oil and gas wells generated 57,653,023 barrels (2.42 billion gallons) of liquid waste.
Managing the waste stream
Liquid waste can be reused to stimulate other oil and gas wells, but reuse concentrates the contaminant load in the fluid. There is a limit to this concentration that operators can use, even for this industrial purpose.
Another strategy is to decrease the volume of the waste through evaporation and other treatment methods. This also increases the contaminant concentration. Pennsylvania used to permit “treatment” of wastewater at sewage treatment facilities, before being forced to concede that the process was completely ineffective, and resulted in contaminating streams and rivers throughout the Commonwealth.
In many states, much of this waste is disposed of in facilities known as salt water disposal (SWD) wells, a specific type of injection well. These waste facilities fall under the auspices of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. Such wells are co-managed with states’ oil and gas regulatory agencies, although the specifics vary by state.
These photos show SWD wells in other states, but what about in Pennsylvania?
The oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania has not used SWD wells as a primary disposal method, as the state’s geology has been considered unsuitable for this process. For example, on page 67 of this 2009 industry report, the authors saw treatment of flowback fluid at municipal facilities as a viable option (before the process was banned in 2011), but underground injection as less likely (emphasis added):
The disposal of flowback and produced water is an evolving process in the Appalachians. The volumes of water that are being produced as flowback water are likely to require a number of options for disposal that may include municipal or industrial water treatment facilities (primarily in Pennsylvania), Class II injection wells [SWDs], and on-site recycling for use in subsequent fracturing jobs. In most shale gas plays, underground injection has historically been preferred. In the Marcellus play, this option is expected to be limited, as there are few areas where suitable injection zones are available.
The ban on surface “treatment” being discharged into Pennsylvania waters has increased the pressure for finding new solutions for brine disposal. This is compounded by the fact that the per-well volume of fluid injected into shale gas wells in the region has nearly tripled in that time period. Much of what is injected comes back up to the surface and is added to the liquid waste stream.
Chemically-similar brine from conventional wells has been spread on roadways for dust suppression. This practice was originally considered a “beneficial use” of the waste product, but the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) halted that practice in May 2018.
None of these waste management decisions make the geology in Pennsylvania suddenly suitable for underground injection, however, they do increase the pressure on the state to find a disposal solution.
Concerns with SWD wells
There are numerous concerns with salt water disposal wells. In October 2018, the DEP held a hearing in Plum Borough, on the eastern edge of Allegheny County, where there is a proposal to convert the Sedat 3A conventional well to an injection well. Some of the concerns raised by residents include:
- Fluid and/or gas migration- There are numerous routes for fluids and gas to migrate from the injection formation to drinking water aquifers or even surface water. Potential conduits include coal mines, abandoned gas wells, water wells, and naturally occurring fissures in crumbling sedimentary formations.
- Induced seismicity- SWD wells have been linked to increased earthquake activity, either by lubricating or putting pressure on old faults that had been dormant. Earthquakes can occur miles away from the injection location, and in sedimentary formations, not just igneous basement rock.
- Noise, diesel pollution, loss of privacy, and road degradation caused by a constant stream of industrial waste haulers to the well location.
- Complicating existing issues- Plum Borough and surrounding communities are heavily undermined, and in fact the well bore goes right through the Renton Coal Mine (another part of which has been on fire for decades). Mine subsidence is already a widespread issue in the region, and many fear that even small seismic events could exacerbate this.
- Possibility of surface spill- Oil and gas is, sadly, a sloppy industry, with unconventional operations having accumulated more than 13,000 violations in Pennsylvania since 2008. If a major spill were to happen at this location, there is the possibility of release into Pucketa Creek, which drains into the Allegheny River, the source of drinking water for multiple communities.
- Radioactivity and other contaminants- Flowback fluids are often highly radioactive, contain heavy metals, and other contaminants that are challenging to effectively clean. The migration of radon gas into homes above the injection formation is also a possibility.
The current state of SWDs in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has numerous data sources for oil and gas, but they are not always in agreement. To account for this, we have mapped SWDs (and a five mile buffer around them) from two different data sources in the map below. The first source is a subset of SWD wells from a larger dataset of oil and gas locations from the DEP’s mapping website. The second source is from a Waste Facility Report, represented in pink triangles that are offset at an angle to allow users to see both datasets simultaneously in instances where they overlap.
Map of existing, proposed, and plugged salt water disposal (SWD) injection wells in Pennsylvania.
According to the first data set of DEP’s oil and gas locations, Pennsylvania contains 13 SWDs with an active status, one SWD with a regulatory inactive status, and eight that are plugged. The Waste Facility Report shows 10 SWD wells total, including one well that was left out of the other data set in Annin Township, McKean County.
It is worth noting that Pennsylvania’s definition for an “active” well status is confusing, to put it charitably. It does not mean that a well is currently in operation, nor does it even mean that it is currently permitted for the activity, whether that is waste disposal or gas production, or some other function. An active status means that the well has been proposed for a given use, and the well hasn’t been plugged, or assigned some other status.
The Sedat 3A well in Plum, for example, has an active status, although the DEP has not yet granted it a permit to operate as a SWD well. Another status type is “regulatory inactive,” which is given to a well that hasn’t been used for its stated purpose in 12 months, but may potentially have some future utility.
Karst, coal mines, and streams
While there are numerous factors worthy of consideration when siting SWD wells, this map focuses on three: the proximity of karst formations, coal mines and nearby streams that the state designates as either high quality or exceptional value.
Karst formations are unstable soluble rock formations like limestone deposits which are likely to contain numerous subsurface voids. These voids are concerning in this context. For one reason, there’s the possibility of contaminated fluids and gasses migrating into underground freshwater aquifers. Also, the voids are inherently structurally unstable, which could compound the impacts of artificially-induced seismic activity caused by fluid injections in the well.
Our analysis found over 78,000 acres (123 square miles) of karst geology within five miles of current, proposed, or plugged SWD wells in Pennsylvania.
Coal mines, while a very different sedimentary formation, have similar concerns because of subsurface voids. Mine subsidence is already a widespread problem in many of the communities surrounding SWD well sites. Pennsylvania has several available data sets, including active underground mine permits and digitized mined areas, which are used in this map. Active mine permits show current permitted operations, while digitized mine areas offer a highly detailed look at existing mines, including abandoned mines, although the layer is not complete for all regions of the state.
In Pennsylvania, there are 56,542 acres (88 square miles) of active mines within five miles of SWD wells. Our analysis found 97,902 acres (153 square miles) of digitized mined areas within five miles of SWD wells. Combined, there are 139,840 acres (219 square miles) of existing and permitted mines within the 5 mile buffer zone around SWDs in Pennsylvania.
Streams with the designation “high quality” and “exceptional value” are the best streams Pennsylvania has to offer, in terms of recreation, fishing, and biological diversity. In this analysis, we have identified such streams within a five mile radius of SWD wells, irrespective of the given watershed of the well location.
While the rolling topography of Western Pennsylvania sheds rainwater in a complicated network of drainages, groundwater is not subject to that particular geography. Furthermore, groundwater regularly interacts with surface water through water wells, abandoned O&G wells, and natural seeps and springs. Therefore, it is possible for SWDs to contaminate these treasured streams, even if they are not located within the same watershed.
Altogether, there are 716 miles of high quality streams and 110 miles of exceptional value streams within 5 miles of the SWDs in this analysis.
For decades, geologists have concluded that the subsurface strata in Pennsylvania were not suitable for oil and gas liquid waste disposal in underground injection wells. The fact that vast quantities of this waste are now being produced in Pennsylvania has not suddenly made it a suitable location for the practice. If anything, additional shallow and deep wells have further fractured the sedimentary strata, thereby increasing the risk of contamination.
The only factor that has changed is the volume of waste being produced in the region. SWD wells in nearby Ohio and West Virginia have capacity issues from their own production wells, and it is not clear that the geologic formations across the border are that much better than in Pennsylvania. But as new wells are drilled and volumes of hydraulic fracturing fluid continue to spiral into the tens of millions of gallons per well, the pressure to open new SWD wells in the state will only increase.
Perhaps because of these pressures, DEP has become quite bullish on the technology:
Several successful disposal wells are operating in Pennsylvania and options for more sites are always being considered. The history of underground disposal shows that it is a practical, safe and effective method for disposing of fluids from oil and gas production.
The Department of Environmental Protection’s mission is to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. We will work as partners with individuals, organizations, governments and businesses to prevent pollution and restore our natural resources.
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance
Utica oil and gas production, Class II injection well volumes, and lateral length trends from 2010-2018
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently announced that Ohio’s recoverable shale gas reserves have magically increased by 11,076 billion cubic feet (BCF). This increase ranks the Buckeye State in the top 5 for changes in recoverable shale natural gas reserves between 2016 and 2017 (pages 31- 32 here). After reading the predictable and superficial media coverage, we thought it was time to revisit the data to ask a pertinent question: What is the fracking industry costing Ohio?
Recent Shale Gas Trends in Ohio
According to the EIA’s report, Ohio currently sits at #7 on their list of proven reserves. It is estimated there are 27,021 BCF of shale gas beneath the state (Figure 1).
There are a few variations in the way the oil and gas industry defines proven reserves:
…an estimated quantity of all hydrocarbons statistically defined as crude oil or natural gas, which geological and engineering data demonstrate with reasonable certainty to be recoverable in future years from known reservoirs under existing economic and operating conditions. Reservoirs are considered proven if economic producibility is supported by either actual production or conclusive formation testing. – The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
… the quantity of natural resources that a company reasonably expects to extract from a given formation… Proven reserves are classified as having a 90% or greater likelihood of being present and economically viable for extraction in current conditions… Proven reserves also take into account the current technology being used for extraction, regional regulations and market conditions as part of the estimation process. For this reason, proven reserves can seemingly take unexpected leaps and drops. Depending on the regional disclosure regulations, extraction companies might only disclose proven reserves even though they will have estimates for probable and possible reserves. – Investopedia
What’s missing from this picture?
Neither of the definitions above address the large volume of water or wastewater infrastructure required to tap into “proven reserves.” While compiling data for unconventional wells and injection wells, we noticed that the high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) industry is at a concerning crossroads. In terms of “energy return on energy invested,” HVHF is requiring more and more resources to stay afloat.
OH quarterly Utica oil & gas production along with quarterly Class II injection well volumes:
The map below shows oil and gas production from Utica wells (the primary form of shale gas drilling in Ohio). It also shows the volume of wastewater disposed in Class II salt water disposal injection wells.
Publications like the aforementioned EIA article and language out of Columbus highlight the nominal increases in fracking productivity. They greatly diminish, or more often than not ignore, how resource demand and waste production are also increasing. The data speak to a story of diminishing returns – an industry requiring more resources to keep up gross production while simultaneously driving net production off a cliff (Figure 2).
The Great Decoupling of New Year’s 2013
In the following analysis, we look at the declining efficiency of the HVHF industry throughout Ohio. The data spans the end of 2010 to middle of 2018. We worked with Columbus-area volunteer Gary Allison to conduct this analysis; without Gary’s help this work and resulting map, would not have been possible.
A little more than five years ago today, a significant shift took place in Ohio, as the number of producing gas wells increased while oil well numbers leveled off. The industry’s permitting high-water mark came in June of 2014 with 101 Utica permits that month (a level the industry hasn’t come close to since). The current six-month permitting average is 25 per month.
As the ball dropped in Times Square ringing in 2014, in Ohio, a decoupling between oil and gas wells was underway and continues to this day. The number of wells coming online annually increased by 229 oil wells and 414 gas wells.
The ringing in of 2014 also saw an increase in the number of producing wells as a percentage of those permitted. In 2014, the general philosophy was that the HVHF industry needed to permit roughly 5.5 oil wells or 7 gas wells to generate one producing well. Since 2014, however, this ratio has dropped to 2.2 for oil and 1.4 for gas well permits.
Put another way, the industry’s ability to avoid dry wells has increased by 13% for oil and 18% for gas per year. As of Q2-2018, viable oil wells stood at 44% of permitted wells while viable gas wells amounted to 71% of the permitted inventory (Figure 4).
from the top-left to the bottom-right
To understand how quickly production is declining in Ohio, we compiled annual (2011-2012) and quarterly (Q1-2013 to Q2-2018) production data from 2,064 unconventional laterals.
First, we present average data for the nine oldest wells with respect to oil and gas production on a per day basis (Note: Two of the nine wells we examined, the Geatches MAH 3H and Hosey POR 6H-X laterals, only produced in 2011-2012 when data was collected on an annual basis preventing their incorporation into Figures 6 and 7 belwo). From an oil perspective, these nine wells exhibited 44% declines from year 1 to years 2-3 and 91% declines by 2018 (Figure 5). With respect to natural gas, these nine wells exhibited 34% declines from year 1 to years 2-3 and 79% declines by 2018 (Figure 5).
Four of the nine wells demonstrated 71% declines by the second and third years and nearly 98% declines by by Q2-2018 (Figure 6). These declines lend credence to recent headlines like Fracking’s Secret Problem—Oil Wells Aren’t Producing as Much as Forecast in the January 2nd issue of The Wall Street Journal. Four of the nine wells demonstrated 49% declines by the second and third years and nearly 81% declines by Q2-2018 (Figure 7).
Fracking waste, lateral length, and water demand
from bottom-left to the top-right
An analysis of fracking’s environmental and economic impact is incomplete if it ignores waste production and disposal. In Ohio, there are 226 active Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) wells. Why so many?
- Ohio’s Class II well inventory serves as the primary receptacle for HVHF liquid waste for Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.
- The Class II network is situated in a crescent shape around the state’s unconventional wells. This expands the geographic impact of HVHF to counties like Ashtabula, Trumbull, and Portage to the northeast and Washington, Athens, and Muskingum to the south (Figure 8).
We graphed average per well (barrels) and cumulative (million barrels) disposal rates from Q3-2010 to Q3-2018 for these wells. The data shows an average increase of 24,822 barrels (+1.05 million gallons) per well, each year.
That’s a 51% per year increase (Figure 9).
A deeper dive into the data reveals that the top 20 most active Class II wells are accepting more waste than ever before: an astounding annual per well increase of 728,811 barrels (+30.61 million gallons) or a 230% per year increase (Figure 10). This divergence resulted in the top 20 wells disposing of 4.95 times the statewide average between Q3-2010 and Q2-2013. They disposed 13.82 times the statewide average as recently as Q3-2018 (Figure 11).
All of this means that we are putting an increasing amount of pressure on fewer and fewer wells. The trickle out, down, and up of this dynamic will foist a myriad of environmental and economic costs to areas surrounding wells. As an example, the images below are injection wells currently under construction in Brookfield, Ohio, outside Warren and minutes from the Pennsylvania border.
More concerning is the fact that areas of Ohio that are injection well hotspots, like Warren, are proposing new fracking-friendly legislation. These disturbing bills would lubricate the wheels for continued expansion of fracking waste disposal and permitting. House bills 578 and 393 and Senate Bill 165 monetize and/or commodify fracking waste by giving townships a share of the revenue. Such bills “…would only incentivize communities to encourage more waste to come into their existing inventory of Class II… wells, creating yet another race to the bottom.” Co-sponsors of the bills include Democratic Reps. Michael O’Brien, Glenn Holms, John Patterson, and Craig Riefel.
The above trends reflect an equally disturbing trend in lateral length. Ohio’s unconventional laterals are growing at a rate of 9.1 to 15.6%, depending on whether you buy that this trend is linear or exponential (Figure 12). This author believes the trend is exponential for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, it’s likely that “super laterals” in excess of 3-3.5 miles will have a profound impact on the trend. (See The Freshwater and Liquid Waste Impact of Unconventional Oil and Gas in Ohio and West Virginia.)
This lateral length increase substantially increases water demand per lateral. It also impacts Class II well disposal rates. The increase accounts for 76% of the former and 88% of the latter when graphed against each other (Figure 13).
This relationship between production, resource demand, and waste disposal rates should disturb policymakers, citizens, and the industry. One way to this problem is to more holistically price resource utilization (or stop oil and gas development entirely).
Unfortunately, states like Ohio are practically giving water away to the industry.
Politicians are constructing legislation that would unleash injection well expansion. This would allow disposal to proceed at rates that don’t address supply-side concerns. It’s startling that an industry and political landscape that puts such a premium on “market forces” is unwilling to address these trends with market mechanisms.
We will continue to monitor these trends and hope to spread these insights to states like Oklahoma and Texas in the future.
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance – with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison
FracTracker is a proponent of data transparency, and so we often share the data we use to construct our maps analyses. Click on the links below to download the data associated with the present analysis:
With the new year underway, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on the state of unconventional oil and gas extraction in Pennsylvania and examine a few of the drilling trends. A logical place to start is looking at the new wells drilled in 2018.
As always, but perhaps even more so than in previous years, unconventional drilling in Pennsylvania is a tale of two shale plays, with hotspots in the southwestern and northeastern corners of the state. The northeastern hotspot seems to be extending westward, including 25 new wells in Jones Township in Elk County (an area shown in dark red near the “St Marys” label on the map). In the southwestern hotspot, the industry continues to encircle Allegheny County, closing in on the City of Pittsburgh like a constrictor.
Data error? As Pittsburgh-area residents reflect on the past year, some of them must be wondering why a new well pad in Indiana Township, just northeast of the city isn’t shown on the map above. The answer is that the data the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has for these wells indicate they were drilled November 29-3o, 2017, although we believe this to be incorrect. FracTracker obtained the data from the Spud Report on January 2, 2019, which indicates seven wells spudded in that two day span on the “Miller Jr. 10602” well pad. This activity drew considerable opposition from families in the Fox Chapel School district in May of 2018, and was therefore widely reported on by the media. An article published on WESA indicates an expected drill date of July 2018, for example.
It turns out the new year is also a good time to remember that our understanding of the oil and gas industry around us is shaped, molded, and limited by the availability and quality of the data. We brought the Indiana Township data error to the attention of DEP, which only confirmed that the operator (Range Resources) entered the spud dates into the DEP’s online system. Perhaps these well were drilled in November of 2018 not 2017? There is even a possibility these wells have yet to be drilled.
Here are a few more dissections of the data, such as it is:
Wells Drilled Over Time
Barring more widespread data issues, the status of a handful of wells in Indiana Township does not have much of an impact on the overall trend of drilling in the state. There were 779 wells on the report, representing just under 40% of the total from the peak year of 2011, when industry drilled 1,958 wells. The year 2019 was the fourth year in a row where the industry failed to drill 1,000 wells, averaging 719 per year over that span. In contrast, the five years between 2010 and 2014 saw an average of 1,497 wells per year, more than twice the more recent average. As mentioned in our Hazy Future report, projections based on very aggressive drilling patterns are already proving to be out of phase with reality, although petrochemical commodity markets might change drastically in the coming decades.
How long before wells are plugged?
We also like to periodically check to see how long these wells stay in service. In Pennsylvania, there are two relevant well statuses worth following: plugged and regulatory inactive. While there are a number of conditions that characterize regulatory inactive wells, they are essentially drilled wells that are not currently in production, but may have “future utility.” Therefore, the wells are not required to be permanently plugged at this time.
In order to understand some of the finer points, it’s best to use Figure 1 (above) in conjunction with Figure 2. We can see that most of the wells drilled in the initial years of the Marcellus boom have already been plugged, although Figure 1 shows us that the sample size is fairly low for these years. In 2005, for example, 7 of the 9 (78%) unconventional wells drilled in the state that year are already plugged. The following year, 24 of the 37 (65%) wells drilled are now plugged, and an additional 4 (11%) wells have a regulatory inactive status as of the end of 2018. The following year, the combined plugged and inactive wells account for just over 50% of the 113 wells drilled that year, and this trend continues along a fairly predictable curve. An exception is the noticeable bump around the most active drilling years of 2010 and 2011, where there are slightly more wells with a plugged or inactive status than might be expected. It is interesting to note that even the most recent wells are not immune to being plugged, including 8 plugged wells and 4 inactive wells drilled in 2018 that were not able to get past their very first year in production.
Overall, of the 11,675 drilled wells accounted for on this graphic, 851 (7%) are plugged already, with an additional 572 (5%) of wells with an inactive status. Unconventional wells that are 11 years old have a roughly 50% chance of being plugged or inactive, and we would therefore expect to see the number of these wells skyrocket in the coming years before leveling off, roughly mirroring the drilling boom and subsequent slowdown of Marcellus Shale extraction in Pennsylvania.
Many factors contribute to fluctuations in drilling trends for the Marcellus Shale and other unconventional wells in Pennsylvania. Very cold winters result in high consumption by residential and commercial users. New gas-fired power plants can increase the demand for additional drilling. Recessions and economic conditions are known to reduce the demand for energy as well, and drillers’ heavy debt burdens can slow down operations appreciably. Additionally, other fossil fuel and renewable energy sources compete with one another, altering the market conditions even further. And finally, every oil and gas play eventually reaches a point where the expected results from new wells are not worth the money required to get the hydrocarbons to the surface, and unconventional wells are much more expensive to develop than more traditional operations.
Because of all of these variables, month to month or even year to year fluctuations are not necessarily that telling. On the other hand, a four-year period where drilling is roughly half of previous extraction is significant, and can’t be easily dismissed as a blip in the data.
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance