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https://www.kvpr.org/post/dormant-risky-new-state-law-aims-prevent-problems-idle-oil-and-gas-wells

Idle Wells are a Major Risk

Designating a well as “idle” is a temporary solution for operators, but comes at a great economic and environmental cost to Californians 

Idle wells are oil and gas wells which are not in use for production, injection, or other purposes, but also have not been permanently sealed. During a well’s productive phase, it is pumping and producing oil and/or natural gas which profit its operators, such as Exxon, Shell, or California Resources Corporation. When the formations of underground oil pools have been drained, production of oil and gas decreases. Certain techniques such as hydraulic fracturing may be used to stimulate additional production, but at some point operators decide a well is no longer economically sound to produce oil or gas. Operators are supposed to retire the wells by filling the well-bores with cement to permanently seal the well, a process called “plugging.”

A second, impermanent option is for operators to forego plugging the well to a later date and designate the well as idle. Instead of plugging a well, operators cap the well. Capping a well is much cheaper than plugging a well and wells can be capped and left “idle” for indefinite amounts of time.

Well plugging

Unplugged wells can leak explosive gases into neighborhoods and leach toxic fluids into drinking waters. Plugging a well helps protect groundwater and air quality, and prevents greenhouse gasses from escaping and expediting climate change. Therefore it’s important that idle wells are plugged.

While plugging a well does not entirely eliminate all risk of groundwater contamination or leaking greenhouse gases, (read more on FracTracker’s coverage of plugged wells) it does reduce these risks. The longer wells are left idle, the higher the risk of well casing failure. Over half of California’s idle wells have been idle for more than 10 years, and about 4,700 have been idle for over 25 years. A report by the U.S. EPA noted that California does not provide the necessary regulatory oversite of idle wells to protect California’s underground sources of drinking water.

Wells are left idle for two main reasons: either the cost of plugging is prohibitive, or there may be potential for future extraction when oil and gas prices will fetch a higher profit margin.  While idle wells are touted by industry as assets, they are in fact liabilities. Idle wells are often dumped to smaller or questionable operators.

Orphaned wells

Wells that have passed their production phase can also be “orphaned.” In some cases, it is possible that the owner and operator may be dead! Or, as often happens, the smaller operators go out of business with no money left over to plug their wells or resume pumping. When idle wells are orphaned from their operators, the state becomes responsible for the proper plugging and abandonment.

The cost to plug a well can be prohibitively high for small operators. If the operators (who profited from the well) don’t plug it, the costs are externalized to states, and therefore, the public. For example, the state of California plugged two wells in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles at a cost of over $1 million. The costs are much higher in urban areas than, say, the farmland and oilfields of the Central Valley.

Since 1977, California has permanently sealed about 1,400 orphan wells at a cost of $29.5 million, according to reports by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). That’s an average cost of about $21,000 per well, not accounting for inflation. From 2002-2018, DOGGR plugged about 600 wells at a cost of $18.6 million; an average cost of about $31,000.

Where are they?

Map of California’s Idle Wells

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The map above shows the locations of idle wells in California.  There are 29,515 wells listed as idle and 122,467 plugged or buried wells as of the most recent DOGGR data, downloaded 3/20/19. There are a total of 245,116 oil and gas wells in the state, including active, idle, new (permitted) or plugged.

Of the over 29,000 wells are listed as idle, only 3,088 (10.4%) reported production in 2018. Operators recovered 338,201 barrels of oil and 178,871 cubic feet of gas from them in 2018. Operators injected 1,550,436,085 gallons of water/steam into idle injection wells in 2018, and 137,908,884 cubic feet of gas.

The tables below (Tables 1-3) provide the rankings for idle well counts by operator, oil field, and county (respectively).  Chevron, Aera, Shell, and California Resources Corporation have the most idle wells. The majority of the Chevron idle wells are located in the Midway Sunset Field. Well over half of all idle wells are located in Kern County.

Table 1. Idle Well Counts by Operator
Operator Name Idle Well Count
1 Chevron U.S.A. Inc. 6,292
2 Aera Energy LLC 5,811
3 California Resources Production Corporation 3,708
4 California Resources Elk Hills, LLC 2,016
5 Berry Petroleum Company, LLC 1,129
6 E & B Natural Resources Management Corporation 991
7 Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC 842
8 HVI Cat Canyon, Inc. 534
9 Seneca Resources Company, LLC 349
10 Crimson Resource Management Corp. 333

 

Table 2. Idle Well Counts by Oil Field
Oil Field Count by Field
1 Midway-Sunset 5,333
2 Unspecified 2,385
3 Kern River 2,217
4 Belridge, South 2,075
5 Coalinga 1,729
6 Elk Hills 958
7 Buena Vista 887
8 Lost Hills 731
9 Cymric 721
10 Cat Canyon 661

 

Table 3. Idle Well Counts by County
County Count by County
1 Kern 17,276
2 Los Angeles 3,217
3 Fresno 2,296
4 Ventura 2,022
5 Santa Barbara 1,336
6 Orange 752
7 Monterey 399
8 Kings 212
9 San Luis Obispo 202
10 Sutter 191

 

Risks

According to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) the count of idle wells in California has increased from just over 20,000 idle wells in 2015 to nearly 30,000 wells in 2018! That’s an increase of nearly 50% in just 3 years!

Nobody knows how many orphaned wells are actually out there, beneath homes, in forests, or in the fields of farmers. The U.S. EPA estimates that there are more than 1 million of them across the country, most of them undocumented. In California, DOGGR officially reports that there are 885 orphaned wells in the state.

A U.S. EPA report on idle wells published in 2011 warned that existing monitoring requirements of idle wells in California was “not consistent with adequate protection” of underground sources of drinking water. Idle wells may have leaks and damage that go unnoticed for years, according to an assessment by the state Department of Conservation (DOC). The California Council on Science and Technology is actively researching this and many other issues associated with idle and orphaned wells. The published report will include policy recommendations considering the determined risks. The report will determine the following:

  • State liability for the plugging and abandoning of deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Assessment of costs associated with plugging and abandoning deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Exploration of mechanisms to ameliorate plugging, abandoning, and decommissioning burdens on the state, including examples from other regions and questions for policy makers to consider based on state policies

Current regulation

As of 2018, new CA legislation is in effect to incentivize operators to properly plug and abandon their stocks of idle wells. In California, idle wells are defined as wells that have not had a 6-month continuous period of production over a 2-year period (previously a 5-year period). The new regulations require operators to pay idle well fees.  The fees also contribute towards the plugging and proper abandonment of California’s existing stock of orphaned wells. The new fees are meant to act as bonds to cover the cost of plugging wells, but the fees are far too low:

  • $150 for each well that has been idle for 3 years or longer, but less than 8 years
  • $300 for each well that has been idle for 8 years or longer, but less than 15 years
  • $750 for each well that has been idle for 15 years or longer, but less than 20 years
  • $1,500 for each well that has been idle for 20 years or longer

Operators are also allowed to forego idle well fees if they institute long-term idle well management and elimination plans. These management plans require operators to plug a certain number of idle wells each year.

In February 2019, State Assembly member Chris Holden introduced an idle oil well emissions reporting bill. Assembly bill 1328 requires operators to monitor idle and abandoned wells for leaks. Operators are also required to report hydrocarbon emission leaks discovered during the well plugging process. The collected results will then be reported publicly by the CA Department of Conservation. According to Holden, “Assembly Bill 1328 will help solve a critical knowledge gap associated with aging oil and gas infrastructure in California.”

While the majority of idle wells are located in Kern County, many are also located in California’s South Coast region. Due to the long history and high density of wells in the Los Angeles, the city has additional regulations. City rules indicate that oil wells left idle for over one year must be shut down or reactivated within a month after the city fire chief tells them to do so.

Who is responsible?

All of California’s wells, from Kern County to three miles offshore, on private and public lands, are managed by DOGGR, a division of the state’s Department of Conservation. Responsibilities include establishing and enforcing the requirements and procedures for permitting wells, managing drilling and production, and at the end of a well’s lifecycle, plugging and “abandoning” it.

To help ensure operator liability for the entire lifetime of a well, bonds or well fees are required in most states. In 2018, California updated the bonding requirements for newly permitted oil and gas wells. These fees are in addition to the aforementioned idle well fees. Operators have the option of paying a blanket bond or a bond amount per well. In 2018, these fees raised $4.3 million.

Individual well fees:

  • Wells less than 10,000 feet deep: $10,000
  • Wells more than 10,000 feet deep: $25,000

Blanket fees:

  • Less than 50 wells: $200,000
  • 50 to 500 wells: $400,000
  • 500 to 10,000 wells: $2,000,000
  • Over 10,000 wells: $3,000,000

With an average cost of at least $31,000 to plug a well, California’s new bonding requirements are still insufficient. Neither the updated individual nor blanket fees provide even half the cost required to plug a typical well.

Conclusions

Strategies for the managed decline of the fossil fuel industry are necessary to make the proposal a reality. Requiring the industry operators to shut down, plug and properly abandon wells is a step in the right direction, but California’s new bonding and idle well fees are far too low to cover the cost of orphan wells or to encourage the plugging of idle wells. Additionally, it must be stated that even properly abandoned wells have a legacy of causing groundwater contamination and leaking greenhouse gases such as methane and other toxic VOCs into the atmosphere.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo: Kerry Klein, Valley Public Radio

DOGGR

Literally Millions of Failing, Abandoned Wells

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

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

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
  • Rank
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • County
  • Kern
  • Los Angeles
  • Orange
  • Fresno
  • Ventura
  • Santa Barbara
  • Monterey
  • San Luis Obispo
  • Solano
  • Yolo
  • Plugged Well Count
  • 65,733
  • 17,139
  • 7,259
  • 6,970
  • 4,302
  • 4,192
  • 2,266
  • 1,463
  • 1,456
  • 1,383

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?

Emissions

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.

Well density

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.

Groundwater

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.

Leaks

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.

California regulations

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.

Conclusion

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

Thomas Fire Photo by Marcus Yam, LA Times

California’s Oil Fields Add Fuel to the Fire

Never has the saying “adding fuel to the fire” been so literal.

California wildfires have been growing at unheard of rates over the last five years, causing record breaking destruction and loss of life. Now that we’ve had a little rain and perhaps a reprieve from this nightmare wildfire season, it is important to consider the factors influencing the risk and severity of fires across the state.

Oil and gas extraction and consumption are major contributors to climate change, the underlying factor in the recent frequent and intense wildfires. A lesser-known fact, however, is that many wildfires have actually burned in oil fields in California – a dangerous circumstance that also accelerates greenhouse gas emissions. Our analysis shows where this situation has occurred, as well as the oil fields most likely to be burned in the future.

First, we looked at where wildfires are currently burning across the state, shown below in Map 1. This map is from CAL FIRE and is continuously updated.

Map 1. The CAL FIRE 2018 Statewide Incidents Map

CAL FIRE map showing the locations and perimeters of California wildfires

California’s recent fire seasons

The two largest wildfires in California recorded history occurred last year. The Mendocino Complex Fire burned almost a half million acres (1,857 square kilometers) in Mendocino National Forest. The Thomas Fire in the southern California counties of Ventura and Santa Barbara burned nearly 282,000 acres (1,140 square kilometers). A brutal 2017 fire season, however is now overshadowed by the ravages of 2018’s fires.

With the effects of climate change increasing the severity of California’s multi-year drought, each fire season seems to get worse. The Woolsey Fire in Southern California caused a record amount of property damage in the hills of Santa Monica and Ventura County. The Camp Fire in the historical mining town of Paradise resulted in a death toll that, as of early December, has more than tripled any other wildfire. And many people are still missing.

The Thomas Fire

A most precarious situation erupts when a wildfire spreads to an oil field. Besides having a surplus of their super flammable namesake liquid, oil fields are also storage sites for various other hazardous and volatile chemicals. The Thomas Fire was such a scenario.

The Thomas fire burned through the steep foothills of the coastal Los Padres mountains into the oil fields. When in the oil fields, the oil pumped to the surface for production and the stores of flammable chemicals provided explosive fuel to the wildfire. While firefighters were able to get the majority of the fire “contained,” the oil fields were too dangerous to access. According to the community, oil fires remained burning for weeks before they were able to be extinguished.

The Ventura office of the Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) reported that the Thomas Fire burned through the Taylor Ranch oil fields and a half dozen other oil fields including the Ventura, San Miguelito, Rincon, Ojai, Timbe Canyon, Newhall-Portrero, Honor Rancho and Wayside Canyon. DOGGR Ventura officials said Newhall-Potrero was “half burned over.” Thomas also burned within a 1/3 mile of the Sespe oil field. Schools and other institutions closed down throughout the Los Angeles Basin, but DOGGR said there was no impact on oil and gas operations that far south. The fire spurred an evacuation of the Las Flores Canyon Exxon oil storage facility but thankfully was contained before reaching the facility.

Wildfire threat for oil fields

Map 2. California Wildfires in Oil Fields

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The Thomas Fire was not the first time or the last time an oil field burned in a California wildfire. Map 2 above shows state wildfires from the last 20 years overlaid with maps of California oil fields, oil wells, and high threat wildfire zones. The map shows just the oil fields and oil and gas wells in California that have been burned by a wildfire.

We found that 160 of California’s 517 oil fields (31%) have been burned by encroaching wildfires, affecting more than 10,000 oil and gas well heads.

An ominous finding: the state’s highest threat zones for wildfires are located close to and within oil and gas fields.

The map shows that wildfire risk is greatest in Southern California in Ventura and Los Angeles counties due to the arid environment and high population density. Over half the oil fields that have burned in California are in this small region.

Who is at fault?

Reports show that climate change has become the greatest factor in creating the types of conditions conducive to uncontrollable wildfires in California. Climate scientists explain that climate change has altered the natural path of the Pacific jet stream, the high-altitude winds that bring precipitation from the South Pacific to North America.

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Idaho and Columbia University found that the impact of global warming is growing exponentially. Their analysis shows that since 2000, human-caused climate change prompted 75% more aridity — causing peak fire season to expand every year by an average of nine days. The Fourth National Climate Assessment details the relationship between climate change and wildfire prevalence, and comes to the same conclusion: impacts are increasing.

On the cause of wildfires, the report explains:

Compound extremes can include simultaneous heat and drought such as during the 2011–2017 California drought, when 2014, 2015, and 2016 were also the warmest years on record for the state; conditions conducive to the very large wildfires, that have already increased in frequency across the western United States and Alaska since the 1980s.

Both 2017 and 2018 have continued the trend of warmest years on record, and so California’s drought has only gotten worse. The report goes on to discuss the threat climate change poses to the degradation of utilities’ infrastructure. Stress from climate change-induced heat and drought will require more resources dedicated to maintaining utility infrastructure.

The role of public utilities

The timing of this report could not be more ironic considering the role that utilities have played in starting wildfires in California. Incidents such as transformer explosions and the degradation of power line infrastructure have been implicated as the causes of multiple recent wildfires, including the Thomas Fire and the most recent Woolsey and Camp wildfires – three of the most devastating wildfires in state history. As public traded corporations, these utilities have investors that profit from their contribution to climate change which, in turn, has created the current conditions that allow these massive wildfires to spread. On the other hand, utilities in California may be the least reliant on fossil fuels. Southern California Edison allows customers to pay a surcharge for 100% renewable service, and Pacific Gas and Electric sources just 20% of their electricity from natural gas.

As a result of the fire cases, each of which might be attributed to negligence, stock prices for the two utilities plummeted but eventually rebounded after the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) assured investors that the utilities would be “bailed out” in the case of a possible financial failure to the reproach of the general public. The CPUC assured that the state could bail out utilities if they were forced to finance recovery for the fires they may have caused.

CPUC President, Michael Picker, stated:

The CPUC is one of the government agencies tasked with ensuring that investor-owned utilities operate a safe and reliable grid… An essential component of providing safe electrical service is the financial wherewithal to carry out safety measures.

Along with regulation and oversight, part of the agency’s work involves ensuring utilities are financially solvent enough to carry out safety measures.

Conclusion

January 1, 2019 will mark the seventh year of drought in California. Each fall brings anxiety and dread for state residents, particularly those that live in the driest, most arid forests and chaparral zones. Data show that the wildfires continue to increase in terms of intensity and frequency as the state goes deeper into drought induced by climate change.

While California firefighters have been incredibly resourceful, over 70% of California forest land is managed by the federal government whose 2019 USDA Forest Service budget reduces overall funding for the National Forest System by more than $170 million. Moving forward, more resources must be invested in supporting the health of forests to prevent fires with an ecological approach, rather than the current strategy which has focused predominantly on the unsustainable practice of fuel reduction and the risky tactics of “fire borrowing”. And of course, the most important piece of the puzzle will be addressing climate change.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Feature image by Marcus Yam, LA Times

Map of offshore drilling in California

The Feds Trump California’s State Ban on Offshore Oil Drilling

Offshore drilling in the United States federal waters has caused the most environmentally destructive disasters in North America. Yet, new policy is pushing for the expansion of offshore drilling, particularly off the coast of California.

Offshore Drilling History

In 1969, Union Oil’s offshore rig Platform A had a blowout that leaked 100,000 barrels into the Santa Barbara Channel, one of the most biologically diverse marine environments in the world. The spill lasted ten days and killed an estimated 3,500 sea birds, as well as an untold number of marine mammals. Unbelievably, the Santa Barbara spill is only the third largest spill in U.S. waters. It follows the 1989 Exxon Valdez and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spills. These incidents keep getting bigger.

More offshore drilling means a higher risk of catastrophe, additional contamination of air and water locally, and more greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Federal Moratorium on California Offshore Leases

Up until the beginning of 2018, further oil and gas development using offshore oil rig platforms seemed quite unlikely. After the 1969 oil spill from Platform A and the subsequent ban on further leasing in state waters, the risk of another devastating oil spill was too large for even the federal government to consider new leases. The fact that the moratorium lasted through 16 years of Bush presidencies is truly a victory. Across the aisle, expanding offshore operations has been opposed. In Florida, even Republican Governor Rick Scott teamed up with environmental groups to fight the Department of Interior’s recent sales of offshore leases.

Trump’s New Gas Leasing Program

Now, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is preparing a new 2019-2024 national Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing program to replace the existing 2017-2022 program. This is an unusual practice, and part of Trump’s America-First Offshore Energy Strategy. The Trump administration opened up most of the US coastal waters for new oil and gas drilling with a recent draft proposal offering 47 new offshore block lease sales to take place between 2019 and 2024.

Where might these new leases occur?

The offshore federal waters that are open for oil and gas leases are shown in dark blue in the map below (Figure 1). Zoom out to see the extent.

Figure 1. Map of Offshore Oil and Gas Extraction


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work | Map Data Download (CSV)

California’s Offshore Oil

Southern California has a legacy of oil extraction, particularly Los Angeles. It’s not just the federal government that is keen on continuing this legacy. While the state has not permitted the leasing of new blocks in offshore waters, Governor Brown’s policies have been very friendly to the oil and gas industry. According to Oil Change International’s Sky’s the Limit report: “Under the Brown administration, the state has permitted the drilling of more than 20,000 new wells,” including 5,000 offshore wells in state waters. About 2,000 of these offshore wells have been drilled since 2012.

This map developed in collaboration with Consumer Watch Dog juxtaposes the offshore wells drilled in CA state waters with those drilled in federal waters.

Southern California is the main target for future offshore leasing. The Monterey Shale formation, which underlies the city of Los Angeles and expands north offshore to the Ventura Coast, is thought to contain the largest conventional oil plays left IN THE WORLD! The map above shows the locations of state and federal offshore oil and gas wells and the rigs that service them. It also shows historical wells off the coast of Northern California.

Northern California, both onshore and offshore, sits on top of major reserves of natural gas, which may also be developed given the political climate. With an increase in the price of natural gas, operators will be developing these gas fields. Some operators, such as Chevron, have already drilled natural gas wells in northern California, but have left the wells “shut in” (capped) until production becomes more profitable.

For a more comprehensive coverage on environmental impacts of offshore operations, including those to sensitive species, check out the Environmental Defense Center’s Dirty Water Report and read our additional coverage of California’s existing offshore drilling, and offshore fracking.

Air Pollution from Oil Rigs

FracTracker, in collaboration with Earthworks, recently teamed up with the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace International to get up close to offshore oil rigs. As a certified Optical Gas Imaging Thermographer, Kyle Ferrar (Western Program Coordinator for FracTracker Alliance and California Community Empowerment Project Organizer for Earthworks), took footage of the offshore oil rigs.

Using infrared technology, we were able to visualize and record emissions and leaks of volatile hydrocarbons and other greenhouse gases coming from these offshore sites. We documented many cases of intense flaring from the rigs, including several cases where the poorly burning flare allowed hydrocarbons to be leaked to the atmosphere prior to complete combustion of CO2.

More complete coverage of this trip can be found here on the Greenpeace website.

Below you can view a compilation of the footage we were able to capture from small pontoon boats.

Conclusion

FracTracker has looked at offshore oil and gas drilling from many different angles. We have looked to the past, and found the most egregious environmental damages in U.S. history. We have analyzed the data and shown where, when, and how much offshore drilling is happening in California. We have demonstrated that much of the drilling and many of the proposed leases are in protected and sensitive habitats. We have looked at policy and found that both Governor Brown and President Trump are aligned to promote more oil and gas development. We have even looked at the rigs in person in multiple spectrums of light and found that these operations continuously leak and emit greenhouse gases and other air toxins.

No matter which way you look at offshore oil and gas drilling, it is clearly one of the most threatening methods of oil and gas extraction in use today.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

High Impact Areas and Donut Holes - Variability in PA's Unconventional O&G Industry map

High Impact Areas and Donut Holes – A Look at Unconventional O&G Activity in PA

FracTracker Alliance has been mapping the impacts of unconventional oil and gas (O&G) drilling activity in Pennsylvania since 2010, and the Pennsylvania Shale Viewer is our most complete map to show the impacts of the industry.

While it can rightly be said that the development of the Marcellus Shale and other unconventional formations have affected half the state since 2005, this analysis takes a look at high impact areas, as well as a closer look at areas that have been avoided so far.


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

http://www.bakersfield.com/news/arvin-looks-to-impose-more-regulations-on-oil-gas-operators/article_2beb26d6-cbdc-11e7-ba1a-4b0ac35a0fa8.html

Arvin, CA – a City in the Most Drilled County in the Country – files for a Setback Ordinance

The City of Arvin, with a population of about 20,000, is located in Kern County, California just 15 miles southeast of Bakersfield. Nicknamed ‘The Garden in the Sun,’ Arvin is moving forward with establishing new regulations that would limit oil and gas development within the city limits.

Setback Map

The new ordinance proposes setback distances for sensitive sites including hospitals and schools, as well as residentially and commercially zoned parcels. The proposal establishes a 300-foot buffer for new development and 600’ for new operations.

In the map below, FracTracker Alliance has mapped out the zoning districts in Arvin and mapped the reach of the buffers around those districts. The areas where oil and gas well permits will be blocked by the ordinance are shown in green, labeled “Buffered Protected Zones.” The “Unprotected Zones” will still allow oil and gas permits for new development.

There are currently 13 producing oil and gas wells within the city limits of Arvin, 11 of them are located in the protected zones. Those within the protected zones are operated by Sun Mountain Oil and Gas and Petro Capital Resources. They were all drilled prior to 1980, and are shown in the map below.

Map 1. Arvin, CA Proposed setback ordinance

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Information on the public hearings and proposals can be found in the Arvin city website, where the city posts public notices. As of January 24, 2018, these are the current documents related to the proposed ordinance that you will find on the webpage:

Earlier Proposals in Arvin

The proposed 2017 setback ordinance is in response to a previously proposed 2016 ordinance that would allow Kern County to fast track permits for oil and gas activities without environmental review or any public notice for the next 20 years. This could mean 72,000 new wells without review, in an area that already possesses the worst air quality in the country. Communities of color would of course be disproportionately impacted by such policy. In Kern County, the large percentage of Latinx residents suffer the impacts of oil drilling and fracking operations near their homes schools and public spaces.

In December of 2016, Committee for a Better Arvin, Committee for a Better Shafter, and Greenfield Walking Group, represented by Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, sued Kern County. The lawsuit was filed in coordination with EarthJustice, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Importance of Local Rule

Self-determination by local rule is fundamental of United States democracy, but is often derailed by corporate industry interests by the way of state pre-emption. There is a general understanding that local governments are able to institute policies that protect the interests of their constituents, as long as they do not conflict with the laws of the state or federal government. Typically, local municipalities are able to pass laws that are more constrictive than regional, state, and the federal government.

Unfortunately, when it comes to environmental health regulations, states commonly institute policies that preserve the rights of extractive industries to access mineral resources. In such cases, the state law “pre-empts” the ability of local municipalities to regulate. Local laws can be considered the mandate of the people, rather than the influence of outside interest on representatives. Therefore, when it comes to land use and issues of environmental health, local self-determination must be preserved so that communities are empowered in their decision making to best protect the health of their citizens.

For more on local policies that regulate oil and gas operations in California, see FracTracker’s pieces, Local Actions in California, as well as What Does Los Angeles Mean for Local Bans?


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Feature image by: Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Global oil refineries map by FracTracker - Ted Auch

Tracking Global Oil Refineries and their Emissions

Potential Conflict Hotspots and Global Productivity Choke Points

Today, FracTracker is releasing a complete inventory of all 536 global oil refineries, along with estimates of daily capacity, CO2 emissions per year, and various products. These data have also been visualized in the map below.

Total productivity from these refineries amounts to 79,372,612 barrels per day (BPD) of oil worldwide, according to the data we were able to compile. However, based on the International Energy Agency, global production is currently around 96 million BPD, which means that our capacity estimates are more indicative of conditions between 2002 and 2003 according to BP’s World Oil Production estimates. We estimate this disparity is a result of countries’ reluctance to share individual refinery values or rates of change due to national security concerns or related strategic reasons.

These refineries are emitting roughly 260-283 billion metric tons (BMT) of CO2[1], 1.2-1.3 BMT of methane and 46-51 million metric tons of nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere each year. The latter two compounds have climate change potentials equivalent to 28.2-30.7 BMT and 14.1-15.3 BMT CO2, respectively.

66 million

Assuming the planet’s 7.6 billion people emit 4.9-5.0 metric tons per capita of CO2 per year, emissions from these 536 refineries amounts to the CO2 emissions of 52-57 million people. If you include the facilities’ methane and N2O emissions, this figure rises to 61-66 million people equivalents every year, essentially the populations of the United Kingdom or France.

Map of global oil refineries

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work | View static map | Download map data

BP’s data indicate that the amount of oil being refined globally is increasing by 923,000 BPD per year (See Figure 1). This increase is primarily due to improved productivity from existing refineries. For example, BP’s own Whiting, IN refinery noted a “$4-billion revamp… to boost its intake of Canadian crude oil from 85,000 bpd to 350,000 bpd.”

Figure 1. Global Oil Production 1965 to 2016 (barrels per day)

Figure 1. Global Oil Production, 1965 to 2016 (barrels per day) – Data courtesy of British Petroleum (BP) World Oil Production estimates.

 

Potential Hotspots and Chokepoints

Across the globe, countries and companies are beginning to make bold predictions about their ability to refine oil.

Nigeria, for example, recently claimed they would be increasing oil refining capacity by 13% from 2.4 to 2.7 million BPD. Currently, however, our data indicate Nigeria is only producing a fraction of this headline number (i.e., 445,000 BPD). The country’s estimates seem to be more indicative of conditions in Nigeria in the late 1960s when oil was first discovered in the Niger Delta. Learn more.

Is investing in – and doubling down on – oil refining capacity a smart idea for Nigeria’s people and economy, however? At this point, the country’s population is 3.5 times greater than it was in the 60’s and is growing at a remarkable rate of 2.7% per year. Yet, Nigeria’s status as one of the preeminent “Petro States” has done very little for the majority of its population – The oil industry and the Niger Delta have become synonymous with increased infant mortality and rampant oil spills.

Sadly, the probability that the situation will improve in a warming – and more politically volatile – world is not very likely. 

Such a dependency on oil price has been coupled to political instability in Nigeria, prompting some to question whether the discovery of oil was a cure or a curse given that the country depends on oil prices – and associated volatility – to balance its budget: Of all the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) countries, Nigeria is near the top of the list when it comes to the price of oil the country needs to balance its budget – Deutsche Bank and IMF estimate $123 per barrel as their breaking point. This is a valuation that oil has only exceeded or approached 4.4% of the time since 1987 (See Figure 2).

Former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Charles Soludo, once put this reliance in context:

… For too long, we have lived with borrowed robes, and I think for the next generation, for the 400 million Nigerians expected in this country by the year 2050, oil cannot be the way forward for the future.

Other regions are also at risk from the oil market’s power and volatility. In Libya, for example, the Ras Lanuf oil refinery (with a capacity of 220,000 BPD) and the country’s primary oil export terminal in Brega were the focal point of the Libyan civil war in 2011. Not coincidentally, Libya also happens to be the Petro State that needs the highest per-barrel price for oil to balance its budget (See Figure 2). Muammar Gaddafi and the opposition, National Transitional Council, jostled for control of this pivotal choke point in the Africa-to-Europe hydrocarbon supply chain.

The fact that refineries like these – and others in similarly volatile regions of the Middle East – produce an impressive 10% (7,166,900 BPD) of global demand speaks to the fragility of these Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex focal points, as well as the planet’s fragile dependence on fossil fuels going forward.

Weekly Spot Price of Brent Sweet Crude ($ Per Barrel) and estimates of the prices OPEC/Petro States need to balance their budgets.

Figure 2. Weekly Spot Price of Brent Sweet Crude ($ Per Barrel) and estimates of the prices OPEC/Petro States need to balance their budgets.

 

Dividing Neighbors

These components of the fossil fuel industry, and their associated feedstocks and pipelines, will continue to divide neighbors and countries as political disenfranchisement and inequality grow, the climate continues to change, and resource limitations put increasing stress on food security and watershed resiliency worldwide.

Not surprisingly, every one of these factors places more strain on countries and weakens their ability to govern responsibly.

Thus, many observers speculate that these factors are converging to create a kind of perfect storm that forces OPEC governments and their corporate partners to lean even more heavily on their respective militaries and for-profit private military contractors (PMCs) to prevent social unrest while insuring supply chain stability and shareholder return.[2,3] The increased reliance on PMCs to provide domestic security for energy infrastructure is growing and evolving to the point where in some countries it may be hard to determine where a state’s sovereignty ends and a PMC’s dominance begins – Erik Prince’s activities in the Middle East and Africa on China’s behalf and his recent aspirations for Afghanistan are a case in point.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, whiskey is for drinking and hydrocarbons are for fighting over. 

The international and regional unaccountability of PMCs has added a layer of complexity to this conversation about energy security and independence. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela provide examples of how fragile political stability is, and more importantly how dependent this stability is on oil refinery production and what OPEC is calling ‘New Optimism.’ To be sure, PMCs are playing an increasing role in political (in)stability and energy production and transport. Since knowledge and transparency are essential for peaceful resolutions, we will continue to map and chronicle the intersections of geopolitics, energy production and transport, social justice, and climate change.


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance; and Bryan Stinchfield, Associate Professor of Organization Studies, Department Chair of Business, Organizations & Society, Franklin & Marshall College


Relevant Data

Footnotes and References

  1. Assuming a tons of CO2 to barrels of oil per day ratio of 8.99 to 9.78 tons of CO2 per barrel of oil based on an analysis we’ve conducted of 146 refineries in the United States.
  2. B. Stinchfield.  2017.  “The Creeping Privatization of America’s Armed Forces”.  Newsweek, May 28th, 2017, New York, NY.
  3. R. Gray.  “Erik Prince’s Plan to Privatize the War in Afghanistan”.  The Atlantic, August 18th, 2017, New York, NY.
Map of the Standing Rock protest - Oil is flowing through the DAPL, but the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux Tribe have challenged the permit and are petitioning for the release of Chase Iron Eyes

An Ongoing Fight at Standing Rock

We live in a complex environment of local, regional, national, and international issues. We are constantly bombarded with a news cycle that regenerates at increasingly dizzying speeds. How can we possibly know what is truly important when hyped up twitter controversies clog up our news feeds?

In this quantity-over-quality culture, many of the most important issues and fights for civil rights and energy justice become casualties of a regression to ignorance.

At FracTracker, we disagree with this tactic – especially as it relates to the protests at Standing Rock. FracTracker has previously written about these demonstrations (shown in the map above), and has also analyzed and mapped data on oil spills from pipelines in North Dakota. We will continue FracTracker’s coverage of Standing Rock and the Water Protectors who fought – and continue to fight – the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), known as the Black Snake.

Following the Fight

For those unaware, the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline operated by Energy Transfer Partners, continues. While the project was green-lighted by the Trump Administration and Bakken oil began flowing in June of 2017, the court has returned the permits to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the initial approval of the pipeline did not undergo adequate study of its environmental consequences. The finding stated that the Army Corps provided a flawed model, inadequate for predicting the full impacts of a leak under Lake Oahe. The model does not consider what would happen in the event of a leak under the lake. It models only benzene — one of many toxic chemicals present in crude oil — and models its movement in an unrealistic manner. Energy Transfer Partners claims the model is conservative, but it massively underestimates the potential impacts on human health and wildlife. The Army Corps provides no plan to contain an underground leak or clean contaminated soil and groundwater under Lake Oahe.

On a related note, DAPL’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, said in a recent annual report that it may not have sufficient liquid assets to finance a major cleanup project and would likely pass those costs onto local landowners and federal taxpayers. Energy Transfer Partners has since filed a racketeering lawsuit seeking $300 million in damages from the Red Warrior Camp at Standing Rock.

Upon finding the Army Corps’s model inadequate, the court returned the permits for further review. According to EarthJustice attorney Jan Hassleman:

… the agency could simply revise or update its environmental review and again conclude that no EIS (environmental impact statement) is required. If that happens, additional legal challenges are likely. The Tribe believes this court decision should trigger a full EIS, including consideration of route alternatives, just as the Obama administration proposed in December.

Normally, when a permit is issued in violation of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), operations are suspended, which would have forced the DAPL to shut down while the review is conducted. Contrary to the usual protocol, on October 11, 2017 a federal judge ruled that the pipeline will remain operational pending the environmental review by the Army Corps. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II has said in a statement, however, “Just because the oil is flowing now doesn’t mean that it can’t be stopped.”

More Information and Resources

The Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP) has been a resource to Lakota country – an area comprised of nine Indian reservation in North and South Dakota – since 2004.  The LPLP supports a number of campaigns including divestment and energy justice, and has published several reports:

Special thanks to the Lakota People’s Law Project and Rachel Hallett-Ralston for the information provided.

In January of 2017, 76 Water Protectors including Chase Iron Eyes were arrested on land granted to the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux Tribe under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Chase Iron Eyes, Lead Counsel of the Lakota People’s Law Project, has been charged with felony incitement to riot and misdemeanor criminal trespass. In the interview above, Chase Iron Eyes discusses his involvement with Standing Rock and the political pressures to make an example out of him. Read the Lakota People’s Law Project petition here.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

The feature image is a snapshot of our Standing Rock Protest Map, created last year.

Changes to PA Maps feature image

Recent Changes to Pennsylvania Maps

Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) started to offer additional data resources with the introduction of the Open Data Portal. This development, along with the continued evolution of the ArcGIS Online mapping platform that we utilize has enabled some recent enhancements in our mapping of Pennsylvania oil and gas infrastructure. We’ve made changes to the existing Pennsylvania Shale Viewer for unconventional wells, and created a Conventional and Historical Wells in Pennsylvania map.

Unconventional Wells

Rather than defining the newer, industrial-scaled oil and gas wells by specific geological formations, configuration of the well, or the amount of fluid injected into the ground during the hydraulic fracturing process, Pennsylvania’s primary classification is based on whether or not they are considered to be unconventional.

Unconventional Wells – An unconventional gas well is a bore hole drilled or being drilled for the purpose of or to be used for the production of natural gas from an unconventional formation. An unconventional formation is defined as a geologic shale formation below the base of the Elk Sandstone or its geologic equivalent where natural gas generally cannot be produced except by horizontal or vertical well bores stimulated by hydraulic fracturing.

PA Shale Viewer (Unconventional Drilling)

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The previous structure of the PA Shale Viewer had separate layers for permits, drilled wells, and violations. This version replaces the first two layers with a single layer of unconventional locations, which we have called “Unconventional Wells and Permits” for the sake of clarity. The violations layer appears in the same format as before. When users are zoomed out, they will see generalized layers showing the overall location of O&G infrastructure and violations in the state, which were formed by creating a one mile buffer around these features. As users zoom in, the generalized layers are then replaced with point data showing the specific wells and violations. At this point, users can click on individual points and learn more about the features they see on the map.

PA Shale Viewer Zoomed In

Figure 1. PA Shale Viewer zoomed in to see individual wells by status

O&G locations are displayed by their well status, as of the time that FracTracker processed the data, including: Abandoned, Active, Operator Reported Not Drilled, Plugged OG Well, Proposed but Never Materialized, and Regulatory Inactive Status. Note that just because a well is classified as Active does not mean that it has been drilled, or even necessarily permitted. These milestones, along with whether or not it has been plugged, can be determined by looking for entries in the permit issue date, spud date, and plug date entries in the well’s popup box.

Conventional and Historical Wells

The map below shows known conventional wells in Pennsylvania along with additional well locations that were digitized from historical mining maps.

Conventional Oil and Gas Wells Map

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Although there are over 19,000 unconventional oil and gas locations in Pennsylvania, this figure amounts to just 11% of the total number of wells in the state that the DEP has location data for, the rest being classified as conventional wells. Furthermore, in a state that has been drilling for oil and gas since before the Civil War, there could be up to 750,000 abandoned wells statewide.

The DEP has been able to find the location of over 30,000 of these historical wells by digitizing records from old paper mining maps. This layer has records for 16 different counties, but well over half of these wells are in just three counties – Allegheny, Butler, and Washington. It looks like it would take a lot more work to digitize these historical wells throughout the rest of the state, but even when that happens, we will probably still not know where the majority of the old oil and gas wells in the state are located.


By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

Healthy Homes article in PA

Healthy Homes: Re-Framing Fracking Impacts

An Ohio family took joy in raising their kids and cattle at their farmhouse, built in 1853 with crooked walls and no indoor bathrooms. When they leased land to fracking activity, however, the “beep, beep, beep” of heavy truck traffic kept them up all night, and a cow died after drinking a strange fluid flowing on the land during the cold of winter. They dedicated their retirement savings to moving and building a new home, only to soon after receive a compressor station as their neighbor – close enough to hear the engines at all hours and loud enough to make them dread even walking out to their mailbox.

During the upswing of a boom-and-bust cycle of the gas industry in Greene County, the influx of outside workers and the high demand on rental housing resulted in one particular family being unable to secure an apartment. Without adequate housing, their children were temporarily taken from their custody.

In Huntingdon, a young woman resisted a pipeline being forced through her property by stationing herself in a tree, while workers with chainsaws felled those around her. Eminent domain enabled the gas company to claim this privately-owned land under a weak guise of “public good.”

These unsettling but true stories hint at the countless ways fracking plays out in individual households. A healthy home environment – with clean air, potable drinking water, and safety from outside elements – is essential to human life and functioning. Yet, the industrial processes involved in unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD), often summed up with the term “fracking,” may interfere with or even take away the ability to maintain a healthy home.

This article aims to put these household impacts, and the right to a healthy home, at the center of the fracking debate.

Framing the issue

definition-of-a-frame

The way we understand just about anything depends on our frame of reference. A frame, like the frame around a picture, brings its contents into focus. At the same time, it excludes the information outside its borders. A frame declares that what’s inside is what matters. When it comes to the human effects of fracking, various conflicting frames exist, each dictating their own picture of what fracking actually does and means.

health-frame

The frame we use to look at the fracking debate is so important, because it dictates how we talk about and think about the problem. Likewise, if we can identify the frame others are using when they talk about fracking, we can see more clearly what they have prioritized and what they are leaving out of the conversation.

Two researchers who conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups in five Pennsylvania counties in 2014 and 2015 argue for the need for a new frame.1 Some of the common ways of talking about fracking not only favor shale gas development for reasons like those included in the frame on the left above, they also work against those trying to make a stand against the negative effects fracking. These researchers suggest that, rather than arguing within the existing, dominant frames, activists should consider proactively “reframing the debate around other core values.” The right to a healthy home is a widely-shared value. I propose we adopt a frame that puts that right at the center of the picture.

What is a “healthy home”?

The term healthy home isn’t new. The federal agencies Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both use this phrase in defining the importance of a home environment free from hazards and contaminants, like lead and radon. Simply put, a healthy home is one that supports health.

Why Now?

We sit poised at a unique moment to take on the task of reframing fracking. While new drilling in some places appears to be on the decline, countless large-scale petrochemical projects, like a growing crop of plastic-producing ethane crackers in the northeast US, are ramping up. These facilities will demand massive supplies of natural gas and byproducts, perpetuating and likely increasing drilling.

The renewed demand on wells and their associated infrastructure increase the burden on those households in its wake, living amid stimulated wells, near odorous compressor stations, next to pipelines with pig launchers spewing emissions.

Continued demand on natural gas – for energy or cheap plastics – also requires less-discussed but equally-invasive infrastructure, such as the massive underground gas storage underlying communities in growing numbers in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Such infrastructure exposes residents to the possibility of leaks, like the one that forced the evacuation of thousands of families in Porter Ranch, California. It burdens other communities with the disposal of toxic waste fluids, including underground injection and the associated earthquakes, like the hundreds pockmarking Ohio and now encroaching on Pennsylvania. Keeping the fracking going means communities, like some dairy farming regions in Wisconsin, continue to see the environmental and quality-of-life impacts of frac sand mining.

Engagement is urgent and timely,2 and the entire country has a role to play. This moment in our energy history is a chance for all of us – those affected by, in favor of, concerned about, eager to welcome, or otherwise learning about UOGD – to get clear on our frame of understanding fracking.

pipeline-route-runs-behind-home-and-swingset

A pipeline right-of-way, about 200 yards behind this house and children’s swingset, shows how close fracking infrastructure comes to homes. Photo credit: Leann Leiter

Why a “Healthy Homes” Frame?

Proponents of frames that endorse fracking often live at a considerable distance from the processes involved,3 buffering them and their families from its impacts. According to researchers4 who listened to the testimonies of residents at a community hearing, the distance they lived from the industrial activities shows up in how they talk about fracking. Those in favor tend to use a depersonalized, “birds-eye view” in describing the impacts. People for whom the negative impacts are or will be a part of their lives rely on more descriptive, specific, and place-based language.

Similarly, a frame that focuses on household impacts emphasizes the on-the-ground, lived experience of living near fracking infrastructure. This frame approaches the debate on fracking by continually asking, what is this like for the people who live with the process? What are the impacts to their home environment? Such a frame does not ignore large-scale issues of jobs and energy supply, but grounds these bigger questions with the real and urgent consequences to the people who are suffering.

oval-healthy-homes-frame

Household impacts

Despite rulings that define UOGD as an industrial process, drilling companies locate all manner of infrastructure – wells, pipelines, compressor stations, among others – in areas formerly residential or agricultural. Rules dictating distances from UOGD facilities to structures like houses vary by municipality and state. Yet, these new and often imposing facilities repeatedly occupy the immediate view of homes, or are within close proximity that defy medical and safety warnings.


Video: Glaring light of burning flares and noises both droning and sudden, along with major truck traffic and other changes to the immediate landscape around the household, produce high levels of stress, leading to its own health problems, creating an environment where water may become unsafe to drink and breathing the air becomes a hazard.

The Oil & Gas Threat Map (by Earthworks and FracTracker) shows the populations within a half-mile “threat radius” of infrastructure that includes fracking – close enough for residents to be exposed to contaminated air emissions, and possibly smell disturbing odors, hear loud sounds and feel vibrations, and see bright lights and the fire of emergency flares. As confirmed by the EPA, in some cases, UOGD results in contamination of drinking water, as well.

Researchers at The Environmental Health Project (EHP) offer individual health assessments to residents living in the shadow of fracking operations. In a physician’s thorough review of over 61 assessments, they identified the following symptoms to be temporally related to gas activity:

Table 1. Symptoms temporally related to UOGD

SYMPTOM CATEGORY n Symptom %
UPPER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS 39 64% Nose or throat irritation 25 41%
 Sinus pain or infections 17 28%
Nose bleeds 8 13%
CONSTITUTIONAL SYMPTOMS 33 54% Sleep disruption 26 43%
Fatigue 13 21%
 Weak or Drowsy 9 15%
NEUROLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 32 52% Headache 25 41%
Dizziness 11 18%
Numbness 9 15%
Memory loss 8 13%
PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 32 52% Stress or anxiety 23 38%
Irritable or moody 12 20%
Worry 6 10%
LOWER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS 30 49% Cough 21 34%
Shortness of breath 19 31%
Weezing 14 23%
GASTRO-INTESTINAL SYMPTOMS 27 44% Nausea 13 21%
Abdominal pain 12 20%
EYE SYMPTOMS 23 38% Itchy eyes 11 18%
Painful or dry 10 16%
DERMATOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 19 31% Rash 10 16%
Itching 7 11%
Lesions or blisters 6 10%
CARDIAC SYMPTOMS 17 28% Palpitations 9 15%
Chest pain 6 10%
Other cardiac symptoms 6 10%
HEARING CHANGES OR TINNITUS 10 16% Hearing loss 3 5%
Tinnitus (ringing in the ear) 10 16%
 MUSCULOSKELETAL 10 16% Painful joints 9 15%
Aches 7 11%
ENDOCRINE 7 11% Hair loss 7 11%
n =  Number of patients reporting symptom, out of 61 patients assessed
% = Percentage of patients reporting symptom, out of 61 patients assessed
Table adapted from EHP – Click to download Excel spreadsheet

Mental and emotional stress can exacerbate and create physical health symptoms. For households close to fracking, the fear of a disaster, like a well pad fire, or concern for the long term health effects of exposures through air and water can create serious stress. These developments change communities, sometimes in divisive, negative ways, potentially adding to the stress.

Fracking, a disruptive, landscape-altering process can also produce what’s called solastalgia, whereby negatively-perceived changes to the land alter a person’s sense of belonging. In the case of fracking in residential areas, people may lose not only their relationship to the land, but their homes as they once knew them.5 Solastalgia, considered by some researchers to be a new psycho-social condition, is “the lived experience of the physical desolation of home.”6

When Home is Unsafe, Where to Get Help

EHP Trifold Cover

Click to expand and explore the tri-fold. Click here to access and print this free resource, and many others by EHP.

EHP offers a new resource for protecting your health at a household level, called: “Protecting Your Health from Unconventional Oil and Gas Development.” We created this free informational resource in collaboration with residents and health care providers in four different shale gas counties.

The final product is the direct result of input and knowledge from 15 focus groups and project meetings in these affected communities with over 100 participants, including residents and healthcare providers. EHP has packed this resource with practical steps for households amid shale gas development to limit their exposure to air and water contamination that may be associated with fracking.

For follow-up questions, or for free personalized health services for those experiencing fracking-related exposures, you can contact EHP directly at 724-260-5504 or by email at info@environmentalhealthproject.org.

Re-Centering Home in the Fracking Debate

Putting affected households at the center of the fracking debate better reflects the experiences of people on the front lines. This powerful frame could help counter the power of those who speak positively about fracking, but lack direct experience of the process.

For those at the frontlines of fracking, the intent is that these resources and tools will help you protect your health and your homes.

For those not yet directly affected by fracking, you can lend a hand. Show support for health protective measures by signing up at EHP for updates on events, education, and opportunities to make your voice heard. And, whenever and wherever you can weigh in on the debate, put a frame around fracking that puts impacted households at the center.

References

  1. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
  2. Short, D., Elliot, J., Norder, K., Lloyd-Davies, E., & Morley, J. (2015). Extreme energy, ‘fracking’ and human rights: a new field for human rights impact assessments?, The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:6, 697-736, DOI:10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219
  3. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
  4. Mando, J. (2016). Constructing the vicarious experience of proximity in a Marcellus Shale public hearing. Environmental Communication, 10(3), 352-364.
  5. Resick, L. K. (2016). Gender, protest, and the health impacts of unconventional natural gas development. In Y. Beebeejaum (Ed.), The participatory city (pp. 167-175). Berlin: Jovis Verlag GmgH.
  6. Albrecht et al (2007). Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change, Australasian Psychiatry . Vol 15 Supplement.

By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow for the SW-PA Environmental Health Project and FracTracker Alliance

Feature photograph: A compressor station sits above a beautiful farm in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Leann Leiter

Events

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