Confirmed: EPA Findings Edited to Downplay Fracking Impacts

Documents obtained by journalists at Marketplace and APM Reports revealed that federal officials made eleventh-hour edits to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) long-awaited Draft Assessment on the Potential Impacts to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities. The unsubstantiated edits downplayed the risks of hydraulic fracturing leading to a flurry of headlines claiming the EPA found little risk in fracking.

In fact, the more nuanced language of the report found evidence of contamination events and threats to groundwater, but ultimately the EPA lacked the data to conclude if fracking was having “widespread, systemic impact…” on drinking water. We wrote about these contradictions between the EPA press release and the actual report in June 2015 post entitled:

Word Games Continue: Just What Evidence Did EPA Not Find?

Earlier in 2016 the EPA Science Advisory Board also criticized the edited conclusions and called on the Agency to substantiate their claims or consider revising the report.

Words matter. Science matters. Don’t take headlines and executive summaries for granted, especially as we head into a political transition already swamped with climate deniers and a who’s who of the fossil fuel industry. Become as informed as you can from primary sources, and also support watchdogs and journalists who have proven effective at accurately reporting on what is happening in the world.

Read the full story from Marketplace and APM Reports:

EPA’s late changes to fracking study downplay risk of drinking water pollution

Leaving a MARC: Cutting a Swath though Pennsylvania

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Construction work on the MARC 1 pipeline right-of-way in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. Photo by J. Henry Fair, flight by LightHawk.
Fracking is not the only part of oil and gas drilling that has an impact on the landscape and the environment. Case in point: the newly-built MARC 1 pipeline runs for 39 miles through Bradford, Sullivan, and Lycoming counties in northeast Pennsylvania, carrying natural gas produced by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Marcellus Shale. Along the route this pipeline crosses 71 roads, 19 named streams and rivers, many small unnamed creeks, and cuts through a densely forested swath of the beautiful Endless Mountains.
IMG_24
The MARC 1 pipeline right-of-way crossing a stream in northeast Pennsylvania. 
Photo by J. Henry Fair, flight by LightHawk.

Construction of the pipeline began in the fall of 2012, and we were interested in illustrating construction-related impacts. Finding info on pipeline routes, however, is no simple task. The first map which turned up was a scanned pdf created by Central New York Oil and Gas Company (CNYOG); a deeper dig for a more accurate map turned up the Department of Transportation’s National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS), but unfortunately NPMS data is not available for download. So we decided to create our own map of the pipeline – informed by the CNYOG map, and validated against the NPMS data:

Marc-1_Narrow

The pipeline map was created by tracing the route on aerial and satellite imagery available in Google Earth. Imagery was collected during the pipeline’s construction which helped us do a pre- and post-construction comparison. Road and stream data from the US Census Bureau’s Tiger/Line was used to calculate the number of roads and streams which were intersected by the pipeline. Here is a side-by-side look at a selected site along the pipeline route before and during construction:

MARC 1 pipeline crossing field and forest near Sugar Run, PA. Compare imagery from 2011 and 2012.
Directions to this location.

MARC 1 also traverses Pennsylvania State Game Land for 1.5 miles, with the right-of-way occupying 21 acres of this prime habitat and hunting / recreation area:

Marc-1_oblique2-view2.jpg
 

We used the USGS’s 2011 National Land Cover Dataset to assess the area and types of land use impacted by the construction of the pipeline. Overall, construction of the Marc-1 pipeline right-of-way impacted over 400 acres of land, 318 of which were forested (see the exact breakdown of land cover types at right and raw data here).

Now the MARC 1 pipeline is a done deal and some of the impacts will eventually fade into the background, but the corridor through forest and woody wetlands will remain. From air emissions and habitat fragmentation to property rights issues, we need to be careful not to overlook the environmental impact of pipeline building, especially as developers focus their efforts on expanding pipeline capacity to keep up with oversupply of natural gas.

If you want proof of that, look no further than the MARC 2 pipeline. Yes, developers were already proposing a 30-mile MARC 2 pipeline less than two years after the MARC 1 pipeline was completed. Stay alert…

 

MARC 1 crossing field and forest near the Susquehanna River close to Sugar Run, PA. 
Compare imagery from 2011 and 2012. Directions to this location.

 

MARC 1 traversing rural Bradford County, PA near Foster Branch, a tributary of the Susquehanna River. 
Compare imagery from 2011 and 2012. Directions to this location.

Freaky Fracking – Mapping How Wellpads are Carving Up Ohio

We don’t usually do seasonally-themed maps, but this map tracing the footprint of wellpads in Ohio’s Marcellus and Utica Shales just happens to work best with the colors associated with All Hallows Eve. Over the past year our FrackFinders and partners at Walsh University have helped us map shale drilling in eastern Ohio. Below you can see the total area of area of wellpads displayed using scaled “bubbles” which show the size of the wellpads relative to each other. This top-level view helps you see where drilling is the densest, and locate the largest and smallest wellpads. 



If you zoom in closer, you will see the actual outline of individual wellpads to scale. In this map there are 320 sites, all traced out by students at Walsh University participating in our FrackFinder collaborative image analysis projects. The median area of these wellpads is 13,787 square meters, or 3.4 acres. If you recall, we recently used this number to help visualize similar drilling in western Pennsylvania


The largest pad was 17 acres and the smallest pad was 0.6, and all told we found 1,100 acres of Ohio fields and forest converted to gravel wellpads. The total impact of drilling extends beyond just the wellpads we mapped in this phase of the project, so in future we will be working to repeat this approach in other states and looking at total landscape impacts. This tutorial video we created for the project will show you exactly what we’ve mapped here. 
 
 
Understanding the public and environmental impacts of drilling is complicated, especially since these industrial operations are scattered all across the landscape; some sites are remote while others are right next to homes and farms. But the data you help create in these projects enable SkyTruth and our partners to correlate this data about when and where drilling occurred with public health and environmental data. This research is starting to bear fruit as our partners at Johns Hopkins recently released a study showing that living in the most active quarter of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus gasfield was associated with a 40% increase in the likelihood of pregnant mothers giving birth prematurely. Scary indeed.

Inside a Hotspot: A Timelapse of Shale Drilling in Pennsylvania

Earlier this month we published a map of active Marcellus shale wellpads in Pennsylvania as observed on aerial survey imagery from 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2013 by our FrackFinder citizen scientists. Now we thought we’d take a closer look at one of those hotspots of drilling activity, specifically an area in Washington County, PA near Cross Creek County Park and the town of Hickory. 

For this visualization, we created a 3.4 acre buffer around each active wellpad, a number we derived from our related work mapping the footprint of wellpads in Eastern Ohio. We have not yet measured the cumulative footprint of drilling activity in Pennsylvania, so we used the median area for wellpads in Ohio’s Marcellus and Utica shale play. 

However, the impact of drilling is not just restricted to the gravel parking lot around a wellhead, it extends to service roads, pipelines, waste impoundments, gas separators, compressor stations, etc. So to visualize that impact, we have also included a snapshot of the aerial survey imagery for the same area from each of the respective years. 


These visuals are cumulative, meaning that not every wellpad was visibly active at the time of the aerial survey. However, given the predicted lifespan of shale wells we can expect that almost all of these sites could be expanded and re-fracked several times over the coming decades. If you want to take a closer look you can download high-resolution stills from our album over at Flickr or explore the interactive map of all observed, active wellpads in Pennsylvania. 

This kind of dense drilling activity in close proximity to homes and towns is cause for serious concern with recent findings by our partners at Johns Hopkins who found that “expectant mothers living in the most active area of fracking drilling and production activity were 40 percent more likely to give birth prematurely (before 37 weeks of gestation).” Our goal with these maps and mapping projects is that the resulting data will be used to better understand the public health and environmental impacts of resource extraction activities like fracking.

Word Games Continue: Just What Evidence Did EPA Not Find?

UPDATED – Dec. 2, 2016: Documents obtained by journalists at Marketplace and APM Reports found that officials made eleventh-hour edits to downplay the risks of fracking. Earlier this year the EPA Science Advisory Board also criticized these top-level conclusions and called on the EPA substantiate their claims or consider revising the report. Also, replaced broken link to EPA press release. 

Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a series of draft reports on their findings from five years of research and literature review on the question of whether or not fracking contaminates groundwater. But if you just read the headlines you might have been confused about
what the EPA had actually concluded. As Forbes pointed out, the headlines were a bit contradictory. 

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But the bigger news is that even EPA was inconsistent about the findings of their own report. The press release from EPA states that their assessment (emphasis added): 

“…shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”

 
However, the Executive Summary of the report puts things differently (emphasis added):
 
We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. 

These two statements may look similar, but there is a big difference between saying that you did not find find any evidence of a crime and definitely claiming that you have proven the suspect’s innocence. But try telling the House Natural Resources Committee that fracking has never been proven NOT to cause contamination, and members of Congress will laugh aloud and joke about pigs not flying to Mars. Seriously (check out 1:12:10).

But buried on page 22 of the 28-page executive summary, the EPA goes on to say (again, emphasis added):

This assessment used available data and literature to examine the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing from oil and gas on drinking water resources nationally. As part of this effort, we identified data limitations and uncertainties associated with current information on hydraulic fracturing and its potential to affect drinking water resources. In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty.

So in short, the EPA didn’t find proof of wide-spread contamination from fracking, but they lack the data to say with any certainly whether that means anything at all. At least they acknowledged that they found “specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.” Which is actually big news coming from an agency which had previously stopped short of such a conclusion. 

Unfortunately, this contradiction between headlines from the EPA PR office and the finely-nuanced findings of the EPA scientists just underscores a point we made by in 2013. Word games are still misleading the American public about frackingand “…[w]hile cases of contamination caused by fracking remain obscured by lack of information and tricky linguistics, we know that a growing number of citizens are reporting harm and environmental contamination in unconventional oil and gas fields, and especially from wells that have been fracked.”

SkyTruth Releases Map of Drilling-Related Impoundments across PA

Thanks to the efforts of several hundred citizen-scientists who participated in our FrackFinder PA projects, we are releasing a map of fluid impoundments that we believe to be associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. 

Among other public and environmental health concerns, the shale drilling boom in Pennsylvania has led to construction of hundreds of large ponds and reservoirs to hold the water needed to frack modern shale gas wells, and to contain the “flowback” or “produced water” that returns to the surface laden with toxic and often undisclosed chemicals

 Click here or above to explore a full-screen, interactive map: This map displays impoundments related to shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pennsylvania, as identified by SkyTruth staff and volunteers on USDA aerial survey photography from 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013.

Did we miss an impoundment, or mark a pond that isn’t really related to drilling and fracking? Let us know – info@skytruth.org- and please include as much detail as possible (pictures, GPS coordinates, etc).


These impoundments are of interest to researchers at Johns Hopkins University who are investigating the public health implications of living near drilling and hydraulic fracturing. We couldn’t find any existing public map or dataset that would do the job, so we put together the FrackFinder program and asked for your help. 

We already knew that living next to one of these massive impoundments could be a headache (figuratively, if not literally too) because we noticed last year there were ten separate complaints to the National Response Center from five different residential addresses surrounding the 13.5 million gallon Carter Impoundment in Washington County. Since then, our partners at Earthworks published a detailed case study of this site, and Range Resources was recently fined $4.15 million by Pennsylvania’s Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) for violations at the Carter Impoundment and five other centralized fluid impoundments in Washington County. The penalty is the largest fine to date assessed against a shale gas driller by PADEP.   
Preliminary Findings:

Year     Number of Ponds      Area – Average (meters2)      Area – Median (meters2)
2005
11
608.9
344.9
2008
237
1,040.9
558.8
2010
581
3,416.9
2,001.6
2013
529
7,552.8
6,209.7
 

In 2005, drilling was just getting started so we don’t see many ponds or very large ones. But as drilling ramped up, the ponds grew progressively larger. From 2010 to 2013 the median area of drilling impoundments more than tripled, and the average area (which also includes small fluid reserve pits located right on the wellpad) more than doubled. As of 2013, the total impoundment surface area measures nearly four million square meters, scattered across the Commonwealth. (New York’s Central Park measures 3.4 million square meters.)

We also observed that these impoundments are not permanent and may be reclaimed after a few years. Of the 581 ponds we delineated in 2010, only 116 of them were identified again on 2013 imagery.

Keep reading after the break to learn more about how we produced this map. 

*****

Methodology
To find these impoundments, we asked volunteers to look at aerial imagery of locations where drilling permits had been issued, and respond to very simple questions about what they saw on imagery taken in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013. But how did we keep well-meaning volunteers from going on a wild-goose chase and incorrectly labeling all the duck ponds in Pennsylvania as possible toxic waste storage facilities? The answer is a lot of work and multiple safeguards to make sure we produce the most accurate result possible; all while engaging the public in the process.
 
I. Careful Control of Sites Reviewed
 
In the first phase of the project, Project Tadpole, we showed ten different volunteers locations where a shale gas well had been permitted, and asked if they saw a drilling site (“wellpad”) and/or drilling activity at the site. 

Screenshot from FrackFinder PA – Project Tadpole 2013: Since the crosshairs mark the exact location of a permitted gas well, there is little opportunity to mistake a new house for a wellpad. 

In the second phase, Project Moor Frog, we asked our volunteers to identify anything that looked like a pond within a one square kilometer area of a wellpad (red shaded area on the example below). 


Screenshot from FrackFinder PA – Project Moor Frog: In this phase, volunteers mark anything around the wellpad that looks like a pond. We obviously get a few duckponds in this set, but not to worry, we’re going to check everything two more times before we’re done.

For the third and final public phase, Project Dart Frog, we took all the features that people thought looked like ponds (including quite a few duck ponds, shadows, manure lagoons, and other stuff) and showed them to ten different volunteers who had been trained to tell the difference between ordinary farm ponds and the large, recently constructed impoundments we’re interested in.


Screenshot from FrackFinder PA – Project Dart Frog: Once we’ve identified ponds in the immediate area around a wellpad, >7 of 10 volunteers have to agree that it has the characteristics of a drilling impoundment (straight edges, visible black or white liner, large access roads, etc.). Even this isn’t 100% perfect, but it narrows down the number of site we need to look at in the final step. 

II. Redundancy


Notice how we talked about showing these images to multiple volunteers? We had to have >70% agreement among our volunteers for a site to pass through to the next phase of each of our projects. 

III. Internal Quality Control


After each phase of the project we review the results and check some of the sites for ourselves to make sure we agree with our volunteer’s determination. You can review the findings of our QA/QC here and our full methodology here

Finally, after our volunteers helped us with all those different phases of the FrackFinder project we asked our GIS analyst Tita to manually outline all of these impoundments. If one of Farmer Brown’s duck ponds somehow managed to get through all those hurdles, we still had this last step to throw out a few lingering sites that obviously didn’t belong. 

Caveats
 

This dataset may not capture every drilling-related impoundment that has ever been built in Pennsylvania, just the ones that appeared on the USDA’s aerial photographic surveys that are taken every 2-3 years. Furthermore, we only outlined impoundments that fit our criteria for proximity to active, permitted drilling locations, and that were identified in multiple project phases by our volunteers and SkyTruth staff. 

However, since we are only looking at these sites from far above, it is possible that we excluded or missed a few drilling sites and impoundments, or labeled something a drilling-related impoundment when it really is just a duck pond. We welcome your feedback to help us make this map as accurate as possible — and we will welcome your help with projects like this in the near future, as we respond to concern from citizens in other drilling states like West Virginia and Texas.

 

Contact us – info@skytruth.org – to submit corrections, request access to the data, or sign up to get notified when we launch future projects!

Editors Note: Since Google Maps Engine previously hosting this data has been discontinued by Google, the map data and styling was migrated to a new Carto account in January 2017.

SkyTruth Releases Dynamic Map of Global Flaring

SkyTruth is releasing a dynamic map of satellite data visualizing the wasteful practice of natural gas flaring around the world. The SkyTruth Global Flaring Visualization compiles nightly infrared data from NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite, and filters it to display gas flares associated with oil and gas production. The map is a direct result of a crowdfunded groundtruthing mission last year in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale where flares light up the night sky.

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 4.18.02 AM

Flaring from a Bakken shale wellpad just outside Williston, North Dakota, as seen by a camera aboard a high-altitude balloon launched by SkyTruth and Space for All in Sept. 2013.

“This new tool makes the scale and frequency of flaring more comprehensible and less abstract,” said Paul Woods, Chief Technology Officer at SkyTruth. “Hopefully, enabling everyone to see where, when, and how often operators are flaring will create public pressure on government and industry to reduce the waste of this hard-won natural resource,” Woods continued.

Also released today, SkyTruth’s partners at Earthworks have produced a report on flaring in the Bakken and Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, finding that North Dakota drillers have reported burning $854 million in natural gas since 2010 and that neither state independently tracks how much gas has been lost forever through flaring. Earthworks also calculated that the 130 billion cubic feet of natural gas burned in the Bakken and Eagle Ford Shale has produced the equivalent of 1.5 million cars’ emissions of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas.

 
SkyTruth’s flaring map puts these enormous numbers in perspective, and can enable regulators and citizen watchdogs to see if companies really are taking action to reduce the occurrence of flaring. Click below for more information and to see a full-screen version of the map.