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Re: Falcon ethane pipeline project

Falcon Pipeline Moves Forward Despite Unresolved Concerns

Pittsburgh, PA – Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced their decision to issue a permit for the construction of Shell’s Falcon ethane pipeline project in southwest PA. FracTracker Alliance is extremely disappointed that DEP is allowing this project to proceed despite heavy opposition from the public and unaddressed concerns for the safety and well-being of nearby residents and the surrounding environment.

The past year has seen countless issues from the construction of new pipelines in the Commonwealth – from hundreds of “inadvertent returns,” (spills of bentonite drilling mud) along the path of the Mariner East II project to the catastrophic explosion of the week-old Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County. These reoccurring and serious incidents make it clear that oil and gas midstream companies are rushing to put infrastructure in place, and DEP and other regulatory agencies have been failing in their mission to adequately supervise the process.

According to data from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, there were 108 pipeline incidents in Pennsylvania between January 2010 and mid-July 2018, resulting in 8 fatalities, 15 injuries, requiring over 1,100 people to be evacuated from their homes, and causing more than $66 million in property damage. This track record, which does not include the Revolution Pipeline explosion in September of 2018, is frankly unacceptable.

Certainly, the Commonwealth has invested heavily in the Shell Ethane Cracker facility, offering steep tax subsidies and even paying the global petrochemical giant $2.10 for every barrel of ethane it consumes from Pennsylvania wells, equivalent to $1.6 billion over the next 25 years. It appears to FracTracker that these business arrangements have made the continued extraction and exploitation of hydrocarbons the priority for DEP, not protecting the environment and health and safety of Pennsylvanians, as the mission of the Department suggests is their focus. DEP’s decision also traces an unfortunate pattern of opaqueness and poor timing by announcing unpopular decisions right before the holidays.

Fundamentally, oil and gas companies like Shell exist to make profits, and will therefore make decisions to maximize earnings and limit their costs, if left to their own devices. This approach is often directly at odds with public safety, so Pennsylvania entrusts DEP to oversee the operations. FracTracker feels that with their decision to move forward with the project on December 20, 2018, DEP brushed over dozens of substantial concerns regarding the Falcon ethane pipeline project, and therefore failed in this mission. We remain unconvinced that the “appropriate construction techniques and special conditions” required by DEP will adequately protect the environment and health and safety of residents along the Falcon pipeline route.

Dec. 21st Update: After this article was written, FracTracker learned that Ohio’s EPA issued an air quality permit for the cracker plant in Belmont County, Ohio on December 21st. The short public comment period and the rush to issue permits again illustrates that significant public health and environmental concerns are given minimal importance versus corporate wishes and political expediency. The regulatory paradigm is broken. The public has been ill served by the agencies entrusted to safeguard their interests. A collective regional voice should be raised in protest.

Brook LenkerExecutive Director, FracTracker Alliance

About FracTracker Alliance

Started in 2010 as a southwestern Pennsylvania area website, FracTracker Alliance is now a national organization with regional offices across the United States in Pennsylvania, Washington DC, New York, Ohio, and California. The organization’s mission is to study, map, and communicate the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation. Its goal is to support advocacy groups at the local, regional and national level, informing their actions to positively shape our nation’s energy future. www.fractracker.org


Learn more about FracTracker’s coverage of the Falcon ethane pipeline project by exploring the posts below:

Pipeline Regulations & Impact Assessments, a Primer

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

Pipelines are categorized by what they carry — natural gas, oil, or natural gas liquids (NGLs) — and where they go — interstate or intrastate. The regulatory system is complicated. This primer is a quick guide to the agencies that may be involved in Falcon’s permit reviews.

Regulating Pipelines

The siting of natural gas pipelines crossing state or country boundaries is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Meanwhile, determination of the location of natural gas routes that do not cross such boundaries are not jurisdictional to FERC, instead determined by the owner pipeline company. Hazardous liquids and NGL pipelines are not regulated for siting by FERC regardless of their location and destination. However, FERC does have authority over determining rates and terms of service in these cases. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gets involved when pipelines cross navigable waters such as large rivers and state Environmental Protection Agencies.

Pipeline design, operation, and safety regulations are established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), but these regulations may vary state-by-state as long as minimal federal standards are met by the pipeline project. Notably, PHMSA’s oversight of safety issues does not determine where a pipeline is constructed as this is regulated by the different agencies mentioned above – nor are PHMSA’s safety considerations reviewed simultaneously in siting determinations done by other agencies.

An excerpt from the U.S. Army Corps’ EIS of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline

These federal agencies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) investigating how the pipeline pertains to things like the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, as well as state and local laws. The image above, for instance, is a caption from the Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise, a natural gas pipeline.

An EIS is based on surveying and background research conducted by the company proposing the project, then submitted to agencies as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). An EIS can exceed hundreds of pages and can go through many drafts as companies are asked to refine their EIA in order to qualify for approval.

An excerpt from the PA DEP’s review of water crossings for the Mariner East 2 pipeline

Pipeline proposals are also evaluated by state and local agencies. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the PA DEP is responsible for assessing how to minimize pipeline impacts. The DEP’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. The PA Fish and Boat Commission oversees the avoidance or relocation of protected species. Local township zoning codes can also apply, such as to where facilities are sited near zoned residential areas or drinking reservoirs, but these can be overruled by decisions made at the federal level, especially when eminent domain is granted to the project.

Regulating the Falcon

For the Falcon pipeline, an interstate pipeline that will transport ethane (an NGL), FERC will likely have authority over determining rates and terms of service, but not siting. Construction permitting will be left state agencies and PHMSA will retain its federal authority with the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) acting as PHMSA’s state agent to ensure the project complies with federal safety standards and to investigate violations. The Army Corps will almost certainly be involved given that the Falcon will cross the Ohio River. As far as we know, the Falcon will not have eminent domain status because it supplies a private facility and, thus, does not qualify as a public utility project.

Questioning Impact Assessments

The contents of EIAs vary, but are generally organized along the lines of the thematic categories that we have created for assessing the Falcon data, as seen above. However, there is also much that EISs fail to adequately address. The Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise is a good example. The final EIS resulting from the operators EIA includes considerations for socioeconomic impacts, such effects on employment and environmental justice, as seen in the excerpt below. But potential negative impact in these areas are not necessarily linked to laws requiring special accommodations. For instance, federal regulations mandate achieving environmental justice by “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” of projects subject to NEPA’s EIS requirement. However, there are no laws that outline thresholds of unacceptable impact that would disallow a project to proceed.

An excerpt from the Atlantic Sunrise EIS addressing environmental justice concerns

Furthermore, the narratives of EIAs are almost always written by the companies proposing the project, using sources of data that better support their claims of minimal or positive impact. This is again seen in the Atlantic Sunrise EIS, where several studies are cited on how pipelines have no affect on property values or mortgages, with no mention of other studies that contradict such findings. Other factors that may be important when considering pipeline projects, such as concerns for sustainability, climate change, or a community’s social well-being, are noticeably absent.

Complicating matters, some pipeline operators have been successful in skirting comprehensive EIAs. This was seen in the case of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Despite being the largest pipeline project in Pennsylvania’s history, a NEPA review was never conducted for ME2.

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Related Articles

By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance

PA Oil & Gas Fines feature image

Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Fines Analysis

In March 2017, FracTracker Alliance conducted a review of the available Pennsylvania oil and gas fine data released publicly by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to identify trends in industry-related fines over time and by particular operators. In total, the DEP has assessed nearly $36 million in fines to oil and gas extraction and pipeline operators since January 1, 2000. Such fines are associated with over 42,000 violations issued1 by DEP in that time frame, covering 204,000 known oil and gas locations,2 as well as 91,000 miles of pipelines3 within the Commonwealth.

Understanding the Data Structure

The amount of money that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) fines oil and gas (O&G) operations is included in the DEP’s compliance report published on their website. Even though fines data are made available, they are not necessarily straight-forward, and caution must be taken not to over-estimate the total number of assessed fines.

Records of fines are associated with enforcement identification codes on the compliance report. A single fine is often applied to numerous violations, and the full amount of the fine is listed on every record in this subset. Therefore, the total dollar amount of fines assessed to O&G companies appears overstated. For example, if a $400,000 fine were assessed to settle a group of 10 violations, that figure will appear on the report 10 times, for an apparent aggregate of $4,000,000 in fines. To get an accurate representation of fines assessed, we need to isolate fines associated with particular enforcement ID numbers, which are used administratively to resolve the fines.

This process is further complicated by the fact that, on occasion, such enforcement ID numbers are associated with more than one operator. This issue could result from a change in the well’s operator (or a change of the operator’s name), a group of wells in close proximity that are run by different operators, or it might point to an energy extraction company and a midstream company sharing responsibility for an incident. Sometimes, the second operator listed under an enforcement ID is in fact “not assigned.” The result is that we cannot first summarize by operator and then aggregate those subtotals without overstating the total amount of the assessed fines. In all, 62 of the enforcement ID numbers apply to more than one operator, but this figure amounts to less than one percent of the nearly 15,000 distinct enforcement ID numbers issued by DEP.

Conventional & Unconventional Violations & Fines

Oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania are categorized as either conventional or unconventional, with the latter category intended to represent the modern, industrial-scaled operations that are commonly referred to as “fracking wells.” Contrastingly, conventional wells are supposed to be the more traditional O&G wells that have been present in Pennsylvania since 1859. The actual definition of these wells leaves some blurring of this distinction, however, as almost all O&G wells now drilled in Pennsylvania are stimulated with hydraulic fracturing to some degree, and some of the conventional wells are even drilled horizontally – just not into formations that are technically defined as unconventional. For the most part, however, unconventional remains a useful distinction indicating the significant scale of operations.

Table 1. Summary of oil and gas wells, violations, and fines in Pennsylvania

Category Conventional Unconventional (blank) Total
Wells 193,655 10,291 0 203,946
Violations 27,223 6,126 9,026 42,375
Fines $7,000,203 $13,689,032 $21,563,722 $35,949,495*
Fines per Violation 257 2,235 2,389 848
Fines per Well 36 1330  – 176.27
Violations per Well 0.14 0.60  – 0.21
Wells per Violation 7.11 1.68  – 4.81
* The total fine amount issued is not a summary of the three preceding categories, as some of the fines appear in multiple categories

Ninety-five (95)% of the state’s 204,000 O&G wells are classified as conventional, so it should not be surprising to see that this category of wells accounts for a majority of violations issued by the department. However, fines associated with these violations are less frequent, and often less harsh; the $7 million in fines for this category accounts for only 19% of the total assessed penalties. In contrast, the total penalties that have been assessed to unconventional wells in the state are nearly twice that of conventional wells, despite accounting for just 5% of the state’s well inventory

On the 54,412 records on the compliance report, 10,518 (19%) do not indicate whether or not it is an unconventional well. The list of operators includes some well-known conventional and unconventional drilling operators, and hundreds of names of individuals or organizations where O&G drilling is not their primary mode of business (such as municipal authorities and funeral homes). This category also contains violations for midstream operations, such as pipelines and compressor stations. Altogether, 3,795 operators have entries that were not categorized as either conventional or unconventional on the compliance report, and 124 of these operators were issued fines. One additional complication is that some of the violations and fines that fall into this category are cross-referenced in the conventional and unconventional categories, as well.

The resulting impact of these factors is that the blank category obscures the trends for violations and fines in the other two categories. While tempting to reclassify well data in this category as either conventional or unconventional, this would be a tall task due to the sheer number of records involved, and would likely result in a significant amount of errors. Therefore, the FracTracker Alliance has decided to present the data as is, along with an understanding of the complexities involved.

Most Heavily Fined Operators

Despite the numerous caveats listed above, we can get a clear look at the aggregated fines issued to the various O&G operators in the state by constructing our queries carefully. Table 2 shows the top 12 recipients of O&G-related fines assessed by DEP since 2000. Ten of these companies are on the extraction side of the business, and the total number of well permits issued4 to these companies since 2000 are included on the table. By looking at the permits instead of the drilled wells, we discover the operator that was originally associated with the drilling location, whereas the report of drilled wells associates the current operator associated with the site, or most recent operator in the event that the location is plugged and abandoned.

Stonehenge Appalachia and Williams Field Services operate in the midstream sector. Combining the various business name iterations and subsidiaries would be an enormous task, which we did not undertake here, with the exception of those near the top of the list. This includes Vantage Energy Appalachia, which was combined with records from Vantage Energy Appalachia II, and the compliance history of Rice Energy is the sum of three subsidiaries, the drilling company Rice Drilling B, and two pipeline companies, Rice Midstream Holdings and Rice Poseidon Midstream.

Table 2. Top 12 operators that have been assessed oil and gas-related fines by DEP since 2000

Operator Total Fines Conventional Permits Unconventional Permits Violations Fines / Violation Fines / Permit
Range Resources Appalachia LLC $5,717,994 2,104 2,206 819 $6,982 $1,327
Chesapeake Appalachia LLC $3,120,123 18 3,072 754 $4,138 $1,010
Rice Energy* $2,336,552 442 165 $14,161 $5,286
Alpha Shale Res LP $1,681,725 3 62 31 $54,249 $25,873
Stonehenge Appalachia LLC $1,500,000  – 294 $5,102
Cabot Oil & Gas Corp $1,407,275 19 902 726 $1,938 $1,528
CNX Gas Co LLC $1,274,330 1,613 677 387 $3,293 $556
WPX Energy Appalachia LLC $1,232,500 347 159 $7,752 $3,552
Chevron Appalachia LLC $1,077,553 2 604 113 $9,536 $1,778
Vantage Energy Appalachia LLC** $1,059,766 3 300 35 $30,279 $3,498
Williams Field Services Co, LLC $872,404  – 158 $5,522
XTO Energy Inc $739,712 1,962 461 383 $1,931 305
* Fines for Rice Energy here represent the sum of three subsidiaries, the drilling company Rice Drilling B, and two pipeline companies, Rice Midstream Holdings and Rice Poseidon Midstream.

** Fines for Vantage Energy Appalachia were combined with records from Vantage Energy Appalachia II.

Predictably, many of the entries on this list are among the most active drillers in the state, including Range Resources and Chesapeake Appalachia. However, Alpha Shale Resources has the dubious distinction of leading the pack with the highest amount of fines per violation, as well as the highest amount of fines per permit. Fitting in with the theme, the story here is complicated by the fact that Alpha had a joint venture with Rice, before selling them their stake in a group of wells and midstream operations that were fined $3.5 million by DEP.5 On this compliance report, the fines from this incident are split between the two companies.

Fines Issued Over Time

It is worth taking a look at how O&G related fines have varied over time, as well (Figure 1, shown in millions of dollars). Numerous factors could contribute to changes in trends, such as the number of available DEP inspectors,6 the amount of attention being paid to the industry in the media, differing compliance strategies employed by various political administrations, or changes in practices in the field, which could in turn be impacted by significant fines issued in the past.

PA Oil & Gas Fines Analysis chart

Figure 1. O&G Fines Issued by DEP, 2000 through 2016

The notable spike in fines issued from 2010 to 2012 corresponds with the peak of unconventional drilling in the state – 4,908 of these industrial scaled wells were drilled during those three years, amounting to 48% of all unconventional wells in PA. In contrast, only 504 unconventional wells were drilled in 2016, or around a quarter of the total for 2011. In this context, the reduction in fines since the early part of the decade seems reasonable.

The association with the number of unconventional wells falls apart a bit in the years 2013 to 2014, however. These two years saw an average of 1,293 unconventional wells drilled, but the fines issued amounted to only 35% of the 2011 total.

Considerable strides have been made in the public accessibility of oil and gas data available from the PA DEP since FracTracker started requesting and reviewing this information in 2009. Still, there are many gaps in the datasets, such as geolocation details for 10 of the 20 largest fines issued by the department. FracTracker hopes external analyses like this one will help to close such gaps and identify operators who, too, need to improve their compliance records.

References & Footnotes

  1. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) Oil and Gas (O&G) Compliance Database.
  2. PA DEP O&G Spud Database. Note: Starting date 1/1/1800 captures unknown spud (wells drilled) dates.
  3. Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA) Pipeline Data Mart Reports.
  4. PA DEP Permits Issued Database.
  5. State Impact PA. (2016). Rice Energy fined $3.5 million for wellsite and pipeline violations.
  6. PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. (2017). Fracking Failures 2017, Oil and Gas Industry Environmental Violations in Pennsylvania.

Oil & Gas Fines White Paper

This analysis is also available for download in a printer-friendly, white paper format:


Cover Photo by Pete Stern, Loyalsock, PA

For the Environmental Justice Listening Tour

PA DEP Environmental Justice Listening Tour

A Guide to Current EJ Rules and Potential Changes

by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance
and Veronica Coptis, Executive Director, Center for Coalfield Justice

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be hosting a nine-stop “listening tour” to hear residents’ perspectives on environmental justice (EJ). These sessions begin in the western part of the state on April 12th and 13th. The complete list of dates and locations of these meetings can be found here. The DEP will also be accepting written comments, which can be either mailed or emailed to DEP-OEJ@pa.gov.

The EJ listening tour follows on the heels of events in May 2016, when environmental advocacy groups questioned the well pad siting practices of oil and gas drilling company Range Resources, causing the DEP to announce it would revisit its EJ policies. Such changes would include reassessing how EJ zones are designated and what kinds of development triggers additional scrutiny by the DEP’s Office of Environmental Justice. We wrote about this story, and detailed how present EJ rules fail to account for oil and gas development in June 2016.

The following guide is meant to provide helpful information to residents in preparing for the listening tour. We first offer a summary of PA’s present EJ policies, followed by a commentary on what gaps we believe exist in those policies, and conclude with some reflections on EJ policies in other U.S. states and what we might learn from them in reassessing our own state’s EJ laws.

Listening Sessions Format

Each environmental justice listening tour will include opening remarks from Acting Secretary McDonnell, followed by a brief presentation from the Office of Environmental Justice, and then will open to receive testimony from the public. Verbal testimony is limited to 3 minutes for each witness. Organizations are asked to designate one witness to present testimony on their behalf. Verbal comments will be recorded by a court stenographer, and transcripts will be made available to the public at a later date.

The DEP Office of Environmental Justice has offered a set of eight questions to guide comments in the listening tour sessions. They are as follows:

  1. What environmental justice concerns are most pressing in your community?
  2. Do you feel that the current definition of an environmental justice community (20% poverty and/or 30% minority) properly represents the needs of your community and the Commonwealth at large?
  3. Do you feel the DEP is engaged with marginalized communities to ensure that they have a voice in the decision making process? How can the DEP be more engaged with these communities?
  4. What tools have you used to find out information on DEP permitting/enforcement actions?
  5. What ways can the DEP be more effective at sharing information with the public?
  6. How can the DEP be more effective at receiving public input?
  7. What resource(s) is your community lacking that the DEP can provide that would assist in efforts to ensure environmental equity?
  8. What additional steps can be taken by the Department to effectively reach out to these vulnerable communities to ensure that their concerns are taken into consideration?

Summary of Existing EJ Policies

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” This same definition is used by the DEP.

In 2004, the DEP codified this EJ definition in the Environmental Justice Public Participation Policy. EJ designations are defined by the DEP as any census tract where 20% or more of the population lives in poverty and/or 30% or more of the population identifies as a minority. Designations are based on the U.S. Census Bureau and by the federal poverty guidelines.

Below is a map of current EJ designated census tracts in PA that also shows the counties where listening tour sessions will be held. When zoomed in to regional scale, EJ areas can be clicked to see their current poverty and minority percentages. The locations of oil and gas wells and permits are also visible at the regional scale.

Map of current EJ areas (based on 2015 census data) shown in teal, with listening tour counties outlined in red

View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

Of note in the 2004 policy are the kinds of permits that trigger a potential EJ review – specifically: industrial wastewater facilities, air permits for new major source of hazardous air pollution, waste permits for landfills and incinerators, coal mining permits and coal refuse facilities, and/or concentrated animal feeding operations. The policy also allows for review of “opt-in permits” the DEP believes warrant special consideration, but we have found no evidence to suggest that this option has been historically used.

When a project triggers EJ review, the DEP “strongly encourages” the applicant meets with community stakeholders prior to submitting their permit, with the idea that additional public outreach makes project details more apparent. The applicant is also encouraged to produce “plain language” information sheets, online and in print form, regarding the proposed activity.

Issues with Existing PA EJ Policies

A complete list of what may occur when a project triggers EJ review can be found here. The following table is a breakdown of where we see deficiencies in PA EJ policies that need to be addressed:

Existing Policy Issue Possible Solutions
EJ Definition
EJ areas defined by 20% poverty/30% minority indicators.EJ ensures meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.
Many communities are just outside poverty/minority thresholds, or are spread across multiple census tracts experiencing concentrated industrial activities.

Disproportionate exist due to other factors besides poverty and race.

DEP should go beyond the census tracts, as well as account for other factors such as the “working poor”, homeownership rates, assisted school lunches rate, disability and elderly populations, and language barriers.

Reviews should factor in “cumulative impacts” of more developing relative to existing industrial burdens.

Regardless of “age and gender” should be added to EJ protection language.

Trigger Permits
Limited kinds of “trigger” permit types are listed in the Public Participation Policy as eligible for EJ review.
Permits outside of these categories are also degrading the communities and being targeted to environmental justice communities. Oil and gas extractions, pipelines, and other infrastructure are not currently considered trigger permits but are impacting many environmental justice areas. DEP should oil and gas permits to the trigger list. All permits, even of seemingly lesser severity, should trigger review to see if they contribute to cumulative impacts to already burdened community.
Permit Notifications
DEP program staff must notify the Office of EJ when a permit “trigger” EJ review and report the details of the proposed activity.
Currently not all DEP program staff are alerting the EJ office of trigger permits, and many are not education on EJ policies. More training and funding needs to be allocated to make sure that trigger permits are not overlooked or mishandled.
Public Education
Requiring the distribution of “plain language” information sheets regarding the proposed activity and permit conditions. Public notices are to be placed in widely read publications in print and online.
Does not always happen or the information produced is inadequately written or poorly distributed. Public notices are put in the legal sections of paper, often initial meetings are not even publicly noticed if the company is the only one organizing the meeting. Enforce this requirement and include real infographics as much as possible. Consult with local community groups to determine what communication tools work best.

Publish additional notice outside of newspaper in widely read publications, flyers in local businesses, community centers, and church bulletins. Require applicants to do direct mailing.

Updated the “eFacts notification system to include more information and send email notices to interested parties when updates in non-technical language.

Applicant Public Meetings
DEP “strongly suggests” applicants meet with all stakeholders, before applying for permit, as well as throughout the permitting process.
Not all stakeholders are being brought into conversations and often DEP allows the applicant to decide who these people should be. Applicants are often not transparent about their plans. Meetings do not occur at all stages of the process. It should not be up to the applicant to control the process and do outreach. DEP should ensure that all interested parties are engaged in the permitting process.

Meeting should be held during the entire permitting process. This should be required, not “strongly suggested.” A meeting should occur after a permit is administratively complete and again after technical review is done but before a decision is made. Many changes happened during technical review and this gives communities the opportunity to weigh in on the final project and understand its timeline.

DEP should always participate in these meetings and make themselves available to answer questions from the community.

DEP Public Meetings
DEP holds an informal public conference within 30 days of receiving the application to inform residents of EJ area designation and the nature of project.
These meetings frequently are not able to answer people questions and residents are told to wait for additional information. The format of these meetings do not allow for dialogue, which prevents the community from learning from each other. The DEP needs to hold the informal public conferences in discussion formats so residents can ask questions together and receive answers in person, not just take notes and tell residents they will receive a written response. DEP staff responsible for reviewing the proposal must be present at the meetings to answer questions.
Public Comments
DEP accepts comments from EJ communities.
These comments are often not taken into consideration, or given very little weight during the permitting process. Instead, the comments are merely noted for the record. Create a formal process for integrating comments from community experts who are often best able to provide information about how a project will impact their community.
DEP Availability
DEP will maintain presence and be availability to residents throughout permitting process.
DEP staff are available during public meetings but are otherwise unavailable until there is a permit decision.

Inadequate continuing public oversight of how EJ policies are administered across the state.

Actively provide updates on the permitting process and changes to the application. The burden should not be on an EJ community to stay up date on the permit, but should be the DEP and applicant’s responsibility.

DEP staff responsible for reviewing the proposal must be available to the community to answer questions. DEP should also prioritize filling its regional Environmental Advocate staff positions currently vacant in many of its districts.

Convert the DEP Citizen Environmental Justice Advisory Board (EJAB) to a full committee, with the power to oversee EJ permits under review and influence state EJ policies. Hold quarterly EJAB meetings in different DEP regions on a rotating basis.

Reflections on other states’ EJ policies

States that use poverty and race indicators differently:

  • Connecticut: Uses income below 200% of the federal poverty level (“working poor”).
  • Illinois: indicates low-income and/or minority population as being “greater than twice the statewide average.”
  • Massachusetts: Defines by census “block group” rather than census tract, which can identify pocket EJ areas that might be lost in larger census tracts.
  • Texas: For income indicator, uses census block group and income below 200% of the federal poverty level.

States that go beyond poverty and race indicators:

  • California: Considers existing disproportionate environmental burden. Also, demographics include “low levels of homeownership, high rent burden…or low levels of educational attainment.”
  • Connecticut: includes a “distressed community” indicator, defined as whether it is eligible for HUD grants, or experienced layoffs/tax loss due to a major plant closing.
  • Georgia: includes language for elderly and disabled populations “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) encourages the involvement of people with disabilities in the development and improvement of transportation and paratransit plans and services.”
  • Massachusetts: Uses linguistic isolation, defined as “25% or more of households having no one over the age of 14 who speaks English only, or very well.”
  • New Jersey: Communities can file a petition to be recognized as a vulnerable.

Example of better public participation affordances:

  • New Jersey: When a community is designated EJ, a task force is formed to develop a unique “Action Plan” after consultation with residents, local, and county government, that will address environmental, social and economic factors affecting their health or environment. This task force monitors Action Plan implementation, and advises development projects to reduce impacts.

Conclusions

Environmental justice rules came into existence in order to deal with the burdens of large polluting facilities like landfills, incinerators, and coal mines. Race and poverty measures are, without question, two very important indicators that have provided for the fair treatment of people of all races, income, and cultures in these instances. However, if we are to properly assess how residents are disproportionately impacted across a range of environmental burdens in the state, other indicators of marginalization should be included. The Center for Coalfield Justice suggests a few in a report titled Community Indicators of Environmental Justice: A Baseline Report Focusing on Greene and Washington Counties, Pennsylvania.

Fair treatment in EJ communities should also mean offering mechanisms for meaningful input that allow residents to shape the ultimate direction of proposed projects, as well. Finally, current EJ policies are very limited in only addressing future projects, whereas issues such as how disadvantaged communities, struggling with legacy problems such water, air, and soil pollution, are left to other agencies to deal with.

We encourage residents of Pennsylvania to attend an environmental justice listening tour session to share their perspectives, and how the DEP can better fulfill its mandates to protect vulnerable communities.


Photo: Clairton Coke Works, by Mark Dixon, Blue Lens, LLC.

Air emissions from drilling rig

A Review of Oil and Gas Emissions Data in Pennsylvania

By Wendy Fan, 2016 Intern, FracTracker Alliance

From 2011-2013, the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) required air emission data to be conducted and reported by oil and gas drillers in Pennsylvania. We have tried to look at this data in aggregate to give you a sense of the types and quantities of different pollutants. Corresponding to their degree of oil and gas drilling activity, Washington, Susquehanna, Bradford, Greene, and Lycoming counties are the highest emitters of overall pollutants between the specified years. Despite the department’s attempt to increase transparency, the data submitted by the operators severely underestimates the actual amount of pollutants released, especially with regard to methane emissions. Furthermore, gaps such as inconsistent monitoring systems, missing data, and a lack of a verification process of the self-reported data weaken the integrity and reliability of the submitted data. This article explores the data submitted and its implications in further detail.

Why Emissions Are Reported

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that U.S. natural gas production will increase from 23 trillion cubic feet in 2011 to over 33 trillion cubic feet in 2040. Pennsylvania, in particular, is one of the states with the highest amount of drilling activity at present. This statistic can be attributed to resource-rich geologic formations such as the Marcellus Shale, which extends throughout much of Appalachia. While New York has banned drilling using high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking), Pennsylvania continues to expand its operations with 9,775 active unconventional wells as of June 10, 2016.

Between 2000-2016, drillers in Pennsylvania incurred 5,773 violations and $47.2 million in fines. The PA DEP, which oversees drilling permits and citations, has undergone criticism for their lack of action with complaints related to oil and gas drilling, as well as poor communication to the public*. In order to increase transparency and to monitor air emissions from wells, the DEP now requires unconventional natural gas operators to submit air emission data each year. The data submitted by operators are intended to be publicly accessible and downloadable by county, emission, or well operator.

* Interestingly, PA scored the highest when we rated states on a variety of data transparency metrics in a study published in 2015.

Importance of Data Collected

PA’s continual growth in oil and gas drilling activity is concerning for the environment and public health. Pollutants such as methane, carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrous oxides (NOx) are all major contributors to climate change, and these are among the more common emissions found near oil and gas activities. Long-term exposure to benzene, also commonly associated with drilling sites, can result in harmful effects on the bone marrow and the decrease in red blood cells. Vomiting, convulsions, dizziness, and even death can occur within minutes to several hours with high levels of benzene.

With such risks, it is crucial for residents to understand how many wells are within their vicinity, and the levels of these pollutants emitted.

Air Monitoring Data Findings & Gaps

Although the DEP collects emission data on other important pollutants such as sulfur oxides (SOx), particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), and toluene, this article focuses only on a few select pollutants that have shown the highest emission levels from natural gas activity. The following graphs illustrate emissions of methane, carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), benzene, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for the top 10 counties with the highest amounts of natural gas activity. PA wells drilled data (often called SPUD data) will also be referenced throughout the article. Data source: PA SPUD Data.

CMC

PA DEP’s Calculation Methods Codes for Emissions

Well operators self-report an estimate of total emissions in tons per year through either an online or paper reporting system. They must also indicate the method they used to generate this estimate with the Calculation Methods Codes for Emissions (table shown right).

For more information on how the data is prepared and what are the reporting requirements, refer to PA DEP’s Instruction for Completing the Annual Emissions Statement Reporting Forms

Total Amount of Unconventional Wells 2000-2016

AmountofWells

Figure 1

Overall, Washington, Susquehanna, Bradford, Greene, and Lycoming counties were the main emitters of all selected pollutants (methane, CO2, CO, NOx, VOCs, and benzene) throughout Pennsylvania based on tons per year (Fig 1). This trend may be correlated to the amount of natural gas activity that exists within each state as shown in the graph above. The top three Pennsylvania counties with the highest amount of oil and gas activity since 2000 are Washington, Susquehanna, and Bradford with 1,347; 1,187; and 1,091 unconventional active wells, respectively.

Methane Emissions

PA_Methane

Figure 2

In 2012, Susquehanna, Bradford, and Lycoming counties reported the highest amount of methane released with levels at 36,607, 23,350, and 14,648 tons, respectively (Fig 2). In 2013, Bradford, Lycoming, and Greene counties reported the highest amount of methane released with levels at 17,805, 17,265, and 15,296 tons, respectively.

Although the overall trend of methane emission declines from 2012 to 2013, there is an unusual drop in Susquehanna County’s methane emissions from 2012 to 2013. Susquehanna’s levels went from 36,607 tons to 12,269 tons in that timeframe. However, the DEP SPUD data recorded an increase of 190 active wells to 214 active wells from 2012 to 2013 in that same county. Though the well operators did not provide details for this shift, possible reasons may be because of improved methods of preventing methane leaks over the year, well equipment may be less robust as it once was, operators may have had less of a reason to monitor for leaky wells, or operators themselves could have changed.

Lackawanna and Luzerne counties reported zero tons of methane released during the year of 2012 (not shown on graph). There are two possible reasons for this: both counties did not have any unconventional wells recorded in the 2012 SPUD data, which may explain why the two counties reported zero tons for methane emissions, or the levels submitted are a significant underestimation of the actual methane level in the counties. (While there were no new wells, there are existing wells in production in those counties.)

Considering that methane is the primary component of natural gas activity, the non-existent level of methane reported seem highly implausible even with inactive wells on site. Typically, an old or inactive gas well can either be abandoned, orphaned, or plugged. By definition, abandoned wells have been inactive for more than a year, and orphaned wells were abandoned prior to 1985. (Because of this distinction, however, no unconventional wells can be considered “orphaned.”) To plug a well, cement plugs are used to cover up wellbores in order to cease all flow of gas. The act of physically plugging up the wells paints an illusion that it is no longer functioning and has ceased all emissions.

Because of this flawed impression, systematic monitoring of air emissions is often not conducted and the wells are often ignored. Several studies have shown even abandoned and plugged wells are still spewing out small and at times large quantities of methane and CO2. One study published in 2014 in particular measured 19 abandoned wells throughout Pennsylvania, and concluded that abandoned wells were significant contributors to methane emissions – contributing 4-7% of total anthropogenic (man-made) methane emissions in PA.

View methane emissions map full screen: 2012-2013

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

PA_CO2

Figure 3

In 2012, Bradford County reported 682,302 tons of CO2 emitted; Washington County reported 680,979 tons; and Susquehanna reported 560,881 tons (Fig. 3). In 2013, Washington continued to lead with 730,674 tons, Bradford at 721,274 tons, and Lycoming with 537,585 tons of COemitted.

What’s intriguing is according to SPUD data, Armstrong, Westmoreland, and Fayette also had considerable natural gas activity between the two years as shown on the map. Yet, their levels of CO2 emission are significantly lower compared to Lycoming or Susquehanna Counties. Greene County, in particular, had lower levels of CO2 reported. Yet, they had 106 active wells in 2012 and 117 in 2013. What is even more unusual is that Bradford County had 9 more wells than Greene County in 2013, yet, Greene County still had significantly higher CO2 levels reported.

Reasons for this difference may be that Greene County lacked the staff or resources to accurately monitor for CO2, the county may have forgotten to record emissions from compressor stations or other fugitive emission sources, or the method of monitoring may have differed between counties. Whatever the reason is, it is evident that the levels reported by Greene County may not actually be an accurate depiction of the true level of COemitted.

View CO2 emissions map full screen: 2012-2013

Carbon Monoxide Emissions

Spudded wells in PA with reported CO emissions by county 2011-13

Spudded wells in PA with reported CO emissions by county 2011-13

PA_CO

Figure 4

According to the PA SPUD data, the number of new wells drilled in Bradford County dropped from 389 in 2011 to 163 in 2012 to 108 to 2013. The diminishing number of newly drilled wells in this particular county may explain the noticeable outlier in CO emission as seen on the graph (Fig 4).

View CO emissions map full screen: 2011-2013

NOx and VOCs

Compressor stations are also known to emit VOC, NOx, and various greenhouse gases; they run 24/7 and serve multiple wells. Compressor stations are necessary to move the natural gas along the pipelines, and thus, may still be required to function even after some wells have ceased operation. Furthermore, there can be multiple compressor stations in a region because they are installed at intervals of about 40 to 100 miles. This suggests that in addition to drilled wells, compressor stations provide additional avenues for NOx or VOC to leak into the air.

View NOx and VOC emissions maps full screen: VOC 2011-2013 | NOx 2011-2013

Benzene Emissions

Spudded wells in PA with reported benzene emissions by county 2011-13

Spudded wells in PA with reported benzene emissions by county 2011-13

Chart of PA benzene emissions data county to county

Figure 7

The levels of benzene emitted varied the most when compared to the other pollutants presented previously. Generally, the high levels of methane, CO2, and NOx emitted correlate with the high amount of natural gas activity recorded for each county’s number of drilled unconventional wells. However, it is interesting that both Westmoreland and Fayette counties had fewer active wells than Bradford County, yet, still reported higher levels of benzene (Fig 1, Fig 7).

An explanation for this may be the different monitoring techniques, the equipment used on each site which may vary by contractor or well access, or that there are other external sources of benzene captured in the monitoring process.

View benzene emissions map full screen: 2011-2013

Questions Remain

Although the collection and monitoring of air emission from wells is a step in the right direction, the data itself reveals several gaps that render the information questionable.

  • The DEP did not require operators to report methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide in 2011. Considering that all three components are potent greenhouse gases and that methane is the primary component in natural gas production, the data could have been more reliable and robust if the amount of the highest pollutants were provided from the start.
  • Systematic air monitoring around abandoned, orphaned, and plugged wells should still be conducted and data reported because of their significant impact to air quality. The DEP estimates there are approximately 200,000 wells that have been abandoned and unaccounted for. This figure includes older, abandoned wells that had outdated methods of plugging, such as wood plugs, wood well casings, or no plug at all. Without a consistent monitoring system for fugitive air emissions, the public’s true risk of the exposure to air pollutants will remain ambiguous.
  • All emissions submitted to the DEP are self-reported data from the operators. The DEP lacks a proper verification process to confirm whether the submitted data from operators are accurate.
  • The finalized data for 2014 has yet to be released despite the DEP’s April 2016 deadline. The DEP inadvertently posted the reports in March 2016, but quickly removed them without any notification or explanation as to why this information was removed. When we inquired about the release date, a DEP representative stated the data should be uploaded within the next couple of weeks. We will provide updates to this post when that data is posted but the DEP.

Overall, PA DEP’s valiant attempt to collect air data from operators and to increase transparency is constrained by the inconsistency and inaccuracy of the dataset. The gaps in the data strongly suggest that the department’s collection process and/or the industry’s reporting protocol still require major improvements in order to better monitor and communicate this information to the public.

Public Herald’s #fileroom Update

Crowdsourcing Digital PA Oil & Gas Data

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

Project Background

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

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

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

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


View Map Fullscreen

Updated PA Data and Trends

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

The FracTracker Alliance periodically takes a deeper look into the unconventional oil and gas data in Pennsylvania, in order to provide updates for some frequently requested statistics on the industry. Here we provide updated PA data and trends as of December 4, 2014. Since unconventional drilling began in the Commonwealth permits have been issued to drill 15,573 unconventional wells, according to data from the Pennsylvania DEP. Many – 8,696 (56%) – of those permits have actually been drilled. In terms of violations, there have been 5,983 entries on the statewide Compliance Report for unconventional wells throughout the state, which are attributed to 1,790 distinct wells.

Pennsylvania Shale Viewer Map


Please click here for the full screen version, with additional map tools and controls.

Additional Stats

The number of permits, wells, and violations vary significantly from month to month, but each category is well off of its peak. The largest number of unconventional permits issued in a single month was 402, which was in December 2010, more than twice as many as were issued last month. In that year, there were six months with 300 or more permits issued, whereas there has only been one such month to date in 2014.

PA unconventional O&G activity per month from Jan. 2009 to Nov. 2014.  Source:  PADEP

PA unconventional O&G activity per month from Jan. 2009 to Nov. 2014. Source: PADEP

The 210 wells spudded (drilled) in August 2011 represents the high water mark, and is more than two times the amount of wells drilled last month. In the 28 months between March 2010 and June 2012, the industry failed to spud 100 wells only once, reaching 98 in April 2011. In the first 11 months of 2014, that plateau was missed three times, with a low of 58 spuds in February.

There was a significant spike in violations appearing on the compliance report from December 2009 through August 2011. More than 100 violations were issued in 17 out of 21 months, including 196 in March 2010. The number of violations issued has slowed down considerably since then, with November 2014 being the 34th straight month with fewer than 100 violations. Only 14 violations were issued in June 2014.

Violations per Well (VpW)

Unconventional violations per well by county in PA, showing the 10 counties with the largest number of violations.  Counties with an above average Violations per Well (VpW) score are highlighted in red.

Unconventional violations per well by county in PA, showing the 10 counties with the largest number of violations. Counties with an above average Violations per Well (VpW) score are highlighted in red.

We often ask whether drilling is more problematic in some areas than others. Since the number of wells varies depending upon the location, we must approach this question by looking at the number of violations issued per well drilled (VpW). However, there is an important caveat to consider. Put simply, what is a violation? The Pennsylvania DEP publishes a Compliance Report for unconventional wells, which has 5,983 incidents listed from 2000 through December 4, 2014. However, it used to be common for the DEP to lump several incidents into the same Violation ID number, although this is not the case for more recent infractions. When the DEP counts violations issued, they look at the total number of unique Violation ID numbers that have been issued, not the total number of incidents on the report. Here, we include the more inclusive list of items on the compliance report.

Of the 10 counties with the largest number of violations issued, only 3 counties have a violations per well mark below the statewide average. Notably, each of those three counties are located in Southwestern Pennsylvania. It is unclear from these numbers what is going on in Potter County, but clearly there is a significant problem in that location – with almost three violations issued per well drilled, Potter County has a VpW score 4.3 times the statewide average.

Operator Trends

Before we look at the operators with the most violations, there is an additional caveat to consider: It is relatively common for wells to change hands over their operational lifetimes. This characteristic could be due to one company buying another out, or simply transferring some of their assets. Still, wells changing from one operator to another is a normal aspect of the oil and gas industry. Such a fact matters for this analysis because while violations issued always stick with the responsible party in the DEP data, the name of the operator changes on the Spud Report to the current operator.

Unconventional violations per well by operator in PA, showing the 10 operators with the largest number of violations.  Operators with an above average Violations per Well (VpW) score are highlighted in red.

Unconventional violations per well by operator in PA, showing the 10 operators with the largest number of violations. Operators with an above average Violations per Well (VpW) score are highlighted in red.

Because of how these datasets are maintained, we see that East Resources has 261 violations for zero wells, which is of course an impossibly large ratio. That is because East sold off its stake in the Marcellus to Royal Dutch Shell, which does business as SWEPI in Pennsylvania. SWEPI, by the way, is 13th on the list of violations in its own right, with 154 violations for 675 wells, resulting in a 0.23 VpW. If the legacy violations for the old East wells were included, the result would be a 0.61 ViW score, which is almost three times as high, but still below the statewide average. FracTracker doesn’t do the analysis that way, both because it is unfair to the new operator to charge them with violations that they had nothing to do with, as well as being nearly impossible to keep track of the various transactions that result in wells changing hands over the years.


Cover image by Pete Stern, 2013.

Comparing Unconventional Drilling in Southwestern PA

By Matt Unger, GIS Intern, FracTracker Alliance

We recently received a request  for unconventional (fracking) drilling data in Southwestern Pennsylvania counties and municipalities. Specifically, the resident wanted to know the following information:

  1. Number of drilled wells in Southwestern PA counties, and in each municipality,
  2. How many wells are producing natural gas in each municipality, and
  3. The number of well violations reported there.

The following counties in Southwestern PA were studied (based on available electronic data): Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland.

The well production data was compiled from a production report found on the Pennsylvania DEP Office of Oil and Gas website. This report detailed production values from unconventional gas wells statewide from January 2014 – June 2014. The well violation data was compiled using the Pennsylvania DEP Office of Oil and Gas’s interactive Oil and Gas Compliance report. From here, a compliance report was created using the following criteria: All PA regions, counties, and municipalities, all well operators, unconventional wells only, and wells inspected from 1/1/2000 – 9/9/2014.

Drilling Data Trends

Once all of the data was compiled, we created a spreadsheet that included a ratio of violations/wells for each municipality and county. Below are a few observations that stood out to us, followed by possible explanations for what has been reported.

  • Slightly less than 1/3 of all wells drilled in the 11 counties selected for this analysis have committed some sort of violation (.31).
  • The ratio of violations to wells drilled in Somerset County is 1.38, by far the largest ratio discovered. This means than more than one violation has been cited for every well drilled in that area, but that does not mean that every well carries with it a violation. The second largest ratio would be Cambria County at 1.00.
  • If you break down the numbers and look at municipality trends, the largest violation/wells ratio by municipality is found in Stewart Township, Fayette County (9.00). There have been 18 reported violations in association with the 2 wells drilled in the area.
  • Of the 60 municipalities that recorded no violations, South Buffalo Township in Armstrong County has the most wells drilled with 20.
  • Across the 11 counties studied, Allegheny County has the lowest ratio of violation/wells (.007).
  • Violations were reported in Somerset Township, Somerset County. No wells were drilled in this area, however.
  • Violations were reported in Wayne Township, Greene County, yet no wells were reported to be drilled in the municipality.

Explaining Some Data Caveats

Why is Allegheny County seeing such a low violation/well ratio?

Across the 11 counties studied, Allegheny County has the lowest ratio of violation/wells (.007).

Allegheny is the most populated county studied in Southwestern PA. Oil and gas drillers in the county, therefore, have the largest audience watching them. This may be encouraging the drillers to be more cautious or follow rules and regulations more strictly. Another possible explanation is that inspectors may be more lenient when reporting violations in in Allegheny County. Additionally, drillers operating primarily in Allegheny County may be are more likely to or are more capable of drilling according to the regulations. A final possibility is that Allegheny County is one of the last counties in this region to be heavily drilled, perhaps allowing for more best practices to be implemented on site compared to well pads established early on.

Violations With No Wells?

Violations were reported in Somerset Township, Somerset County. No wells were drilled in this area, however. These violations could have occurred when constructing the well pad. If construction has stopped at this site since the violation, there would not have been any wells drilled. Additionally, there may be an error in the dataset as to the actual location (e.g. county) of the well pad.

Violations were reported in Wayne Township, Greene County, yet no wells were reported to be drilled in the municipality. The PA DEP has informed FracTracker that these violations were actually reported for a well pad located in Center Township, Greene County. The entry for Wayne Township was a recording error on their part. Our data has been updated to reflect the proper number of violations reported in Center Township, as well as the removal of any activity in Wayne Township.

Download the Spreadsheet

The spreadsheet we supplied to this resident can be downloaded as a compliance report.

Updated PA Map

Explore our map of PA unconventional wells and violations by clicking on the map below:

Last updated: September 19, 2014

 

Water Use in WV and PA

Water Resource Reporting and Water Footprint from Marcellus Shale Development in West Virginia and Pennsylvania

Report and summary by Meghan Betcher and Evan Hansen, Downstream Strategies; and Dustin Mulvaney, San Jose State University

GasWellWaterWithdrawals The use of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction has greatly increased in recent years in the Marcellus Shale. Since the beginning of this shale gas boom, water resources have been a key concern; however, many questions have yet to be answered with a comprehensive analysis. Some of these questions include:

  • What are sources of water?
  • How much water is used?
  • What happens to this water following injection into wells?

With so many unanswered questions, we took on the task of using publically available data to perform a life cycle analysis of water used for hydraulic fracturing in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Summary of Findings

Some of our interesting findings are summarized below:

  • In West Virginia, approximately 5 million gallons of fluid are injected per fractured well, and in Pennsylvania approximately 4.3 million gallons of fluid are injected per fractured well.
  • Surface water taken directly from rivers and streams makes up over 80% of the water used in hydraulic fracturing in West Virginia, which is by far the largest source of water for operators. Because most water used in Marcellus operations is withdrawn from surface waters, withdrawals can result in dewatering and severe impacts on small streams and aquatic life.
  • Most of the water pumped underground—92% in West Virginia and 94% in Pennsylvania—remains there, lost from the hydrologic cycle.
  • Reused flowback fluid accounts for approximately 8% of water used in West Virginia wells.
  • Approximately one-third of waste generated in Pennsylvania is reused at other wells.
  • As Marcellus development has expanded, waste generation has increased. In Pennsylvania, operators reported a total of 613 million gallons of waste, which is approximately a 70% increase in waste generated between 2010 and 2011.
  • Currently, the three-state region—West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—is tightly connected in terms of waste disposal. Almost one-half of flowback fluid recovered in West Virginia is transported out of state. Between 2010 and 2012, 22% of recovered flowback fluid from West Virginia was sent to Pennsylvania, primarily to be reused in other Marcellus operations, and 21% was sent to Ohio, primarily for disposal via underground injection control (UIC) wells. From 2009 through 2011, approximately 5% of total Pennsylvania Marcellus waste was sent to UIC wells in Ohio.
  • The blue water footprint for hydraulic fracturing represents the volume of water required to produce a given unit of energy—in this case one thousand cubic feet of gas. To produce one thousand cubic feet of gas, West Virginia wells require 1-3 million gallons of water and Pennsylvania wells required 3-4 million gallons of water.

Table 1. Reported water withdrawals for Marcellus wells in West Virginia (million gallons, % of total withdrawals, 2010-2012)

WV Water Withdrawals

Source: WVDEP (2013a). Note: Surface water includes lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers. The dataset does not specify whether purchased water originates from surface or groundwater. As of August 14, 2013, the Frac Water Reporting Database did not contain any well sites with a withdrawal “begin date” later than October 17, 2012. Given that operators have one year to report to this database, the 2012 data are likely very incomplete.

As expected, we found that the volumes of water used to fracture Marcellus Shale gas wells are substantial, and the quantities of waste generated are significant. While a considerable amount of flowback fluid is now being reused and recycled, the data suggest that it displaces only a small percentage of freshwater withdrawals. West Virginia and Pennsylvania are generally water-rich states, but these findings indicate that extensive hydraulic fracturing operations could have significant impacts on water resources in more arid areas of the country.

While West Virginia and Pennsylvania have recently taken steps to improve data collection and reporting related to gas development, critical gaps persist that prevent researchers, policymakers, and the public from attaining a detailed picture of trends. Given this, it can be assumed that much more water is being withdrawn and more waste is being generated than is reported to state regulatory agencies.

Data Gaps Identified

We encountered numerous data gaps and challenges during our analysis:

  • All data are self-reported by well operators, and quality assurance and quality control measures by the regulatory agencies are not always thorough.
  • In West Virginia, operators are only required to report flowback fluid waste volumes. In Pennsylvania, operators are required to report all waste fluid that returns to the surface. Therefore in Pennsylvania, flowback fluid comprises only 38% of the total waste which means that in West Virginia, approximately 62% of their waste is not reported, leaving its fate a mystery.
  • The Pennsylvania waste disposal database indicates waste volumes that were reused, but it is not possible to determine exactly the origin of this reused fluid.
  • In West Virginia, withdrawal volumes are reported by well site rather than by the individual well, which makes tracking water from withdrawal location, to well, to waste disposal site very difficult.
  • Much of the data reported is not publically available in a format that allows researchers to search and compare results across the database. Many operators report injection volumes to FracFocus; however, searching in FracFocus is cumbersome – as it only allows a user to view records for one well at a time in PDF format. Completion reports, required by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), contain information on water withdrawals but are only available in hard copy at PADEP offices.

In short, the true scale of water impacts can still only be estimated. There needs to be considerable improvements in industry reporting, data collection and sharing, and regulatory enforcement to ensure the data are accurate. The challenge of appropriately handling a growing volume of waste to avoid environmental harm will continue to loom large unless such steps are taken.

Report Resources

Complete Report  |  Webinar

This report was written on behalf of Earthworks and was funded by a Network Innovation Grant from the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation.

This FracTracker article is part of the Water Use Series

Finding PA Department of Environmental Protection Data

Data transparency is a major issue in the oil and gas world. Some states in the U.S. do not make the location or other details associated with wells easy to find. If one is looking for Pennsylvania data, however, the basic datasets are quite accessible. The PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) maintains several datasets on unconventional drilling activity in the Commonwealth and provides this information online and free of charge to the public. The following databases are ones that we commonly use to update our maps and perform data analyses:

1. Wells Drilled (Spudded)

2. Permitted Wells

3. O&G Violations

Search Criteria

Below are tips for how to search the PA DEP’s records and download datasets if you would like:

Dates

Date ranges must be entered in these databases in order to narrow down the search. We suggest starting with 1/1/2000 through current if you would like to see all unconventional activity to date.

County, Municipality, Region, and Operator

This criteria can be further refined by selecting particular counties, regions, etc.

Unconventional Only

For all datasets, “Unconventional Only – Yes” should be selected if you are only interested in the wells that have been drilled into unconventional shale formations and hydraulically fractured, or “fracked.”

“Unconventional” definitions according to PA Code, Chapter 78:

Unconventional well — 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.

Unconventional formation — A geological shale formation existing below the base of the Elk Sandstone or its geologic equivalent stratigraphic interval where natural gas generally cannot be produced at economic flow rates or in economic volumes except by vertical or horizontal well bores stimulated by hydraulic fracture treatments or by using multilateral well bores or other techniques to expose more of the formation to the well bore.

Download

Once search criteria have been defined, click View Report to see the most up to date information compiled below. From there, the file can be downloaded in different formats, such as a PDF or Excel file.

Visit this page to see all of the oil and gas reports that the PA DEP issues.