High Fracking Rates in Pennsylvania Since January 1, 2011

SkyTruth analysts have found that since the beginning of 2011 there have been 2,067 new natural gas and oil wells drilled in the state of Pennsylvania, with the majority being Marcellus Shale gas wells. All of these wells are being hydraulically fractured (fracked).

Data are updated daily from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and accounts not only for wells already drilled, but also those soon to be drilled.

As listed today, there are ten wells slated to be drilled between September 30 (tomorrow) and October 6, 2011.

These listings bring the grand total to 2,077 drilled wells in the state so far this year.

The tables below break this down by county.

Nighttime Satellite Image – Gulf of Mexico, September 26, 2011

As part of our investigation into the report of a fire in the Gulf the night of September 25 (at 7:45 pm local time), we got a few recent low-resolution nighttime images taken by satellites of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP). This one was taken at 8:12 pm on the 25th:

DMSP nighttime satellite image taken at 8:11 pm on September 25, 2011. DMSP image and data processing by NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center. DMSP data collected by the US Air Force Weather Agency.

It shows bright spots scattered throughout this part of the Gulf – no surprise given the number of platforms in the area, since many of the larger ones are lit up like mini-cities:

Detail from 9/25/11 DMSP image above. Louisiana shoreline shown in yellow.

There is a very faint pale spot near the location of the supposed fire; but that might be from the nearby Na Kika platform instead:

Detail from 9/25/11 DMSP image showing location of fire given in NRC report. Two of BP’s large and well lit deepwater platforms, Atlantis and Thunder Horse, are shown for reference. 

Here’s what the Thunder Horse platform looks like at night.  Yep, it is bright:

Thunder Horse platform at night. Image courtesy Oil Rig Photos.

Taylor Energy / 23051 Site – Yesterday’s Oil Slick

First – yesterday afternoon’s MODIS/Terra image was clear over the site of the reported fire in the Gulf of Mexico, and we don’t see any sign of a smoke plume like we did last summer when the Deepwater Horizon rig was burning. Possibilities: the report to the NRC was erroneous; the location in the report is not accurate; the fire was a short-lived event; the fire didn’t generate much smoke.  A drill rig flaring off large volumes of natural gas could create a brightly visible light at night, and wouldn’t make much smoke, so we think this is a strong possibility.  Flaring economic quantities of gas in the Gulf is illegal – Shell paid a $49 million fine in 2003 for violating that law.

MODIS/Aqua satellite image taken September 26, 2011.

Second – the MODIS/Aqua image above, a couple of hours later, doesn’t show anything around the location of the fire either. Scattered clouds obscure the view there. But it does show a slick that appears to emanate from our old nemesis, the former platform 23051 site that has been leaking since 2004.  The apparent slick is about 20 miles long and covers about 115 square kilometers. Assuming an average thickness of 1 micron (1/1000th of a millimeter), that’s 30,705 gallons of oil.  If this slick is at the lower limit of visible detection, 0.1 microns, it’s still 3,000 gallons – which is 3,000 times bigger than Taylor reported yesterday to the National Response Center just 30 minutes after this image was taken.

Detail from MODIS/Aqua image, September 26, 2011 showing apparent slick (delineated in yellow) emanating from 23051 site.

Fire Reported in Gulf of Mexico

This just caught our eye on the SkyTruth Alerts:  multiple aircraft flying over the Gulf late last night reported seeing a fire about 60 miles southeast of the tip of the Mississippi Delta, in deep water about 20 miles south-southeast of BP’s failed Macondo well. The source of the fire is unknown, and to our knowledge this has not yet been verified, but the location given in the NRC report puts this in Mississippi Canyon Block 519, where wells have recently been drilled by Noble Energy and tied back to the massive “Na Kika” platform located in Block 474 a few miles to the northwest. A few small spills of hydraulic fluid have been reported in the vicinity in the past week so we know there is current activity in the area.

The Na Kika cluster of offshore fields is among the deepest in the world, with water depths exceeding 6,500′ and wells reaching down more than 12,000′ beneath the seafloor. (Na Kika is the “octopus god” of Polynesian mythology.  Seems appropriate.)

BP is the operator of this development, with Shell a major partner.

Here is a map showing the reported location of the fire. Platforms are shown as orange dots; pipelines are orange lines; the Mississippi Delta is at upper left, and the Macondo well site is shown for reference:

Location of fire reported last night in Gulf of Mexico.

Subscribe to SkyTruth Alerts (it’s free!) and you’ll know it when we know it.

23051: Consistently inconsistent

Before this month, the last time the NRC received any report coming from Taylor Energy’s chronically leaking platform 23051 was July 21. Well, after a long absence, we started seeing NRC reports again starting on September 1 and since then, someone’s been reporting on that leak on an almost daily basis. And, as before, it seems as though the reporting is consistently inconsistent.

We’ve been tracking this platform since we discovered it to be leaking during the aftermath of last year’s BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, and we’ve compiled everything we have on this chronology. And we’re updating it daily. And things still don’t seem to add up right.

For example, let’s look at September 18, when the NRC received a report that 1 gallon of crude oil was spilled, resulting in a slick that was .19 miles by 2.1 miles. If that slick was continuous, and it was completely covered in oil, on average 1 micron thick, our analysis shows that, in reality, there were 272.13 gallons of oil spilled.

How about on September 14, when the NRC report showed that there was a spill of 43 gallons with a slick that was .25 miles by 13.6 miles. Using the calculations above, our analysis shows that the true amount of oil spilled for that incident would be 2291 gallons. Seeing a pattern of inconsistent reporting? Take a look at this satellite image of 23051 from that same day.

Radar satellite image of the 23051 site taken September 14, 2011.  The bright white area in the upper left is the Mississippi delta.  Bright white points are ships and drilling platforms. The dark area swirling out to the right of the 23015 site is the oil slick.

In fact, take a look at all of the NRC reports associated with site 23051 , and you’ll see that the inconsistencies are, well, rather consistent. I just did a quick calculation on the reports so far this month, and for the incidents where a reported amount was given, the reported volumes range from 22 times lower to as much as 272 times lower than our calculations based on the reported size of the oil slick. On average for those reports, the reported amounts spilled are 78 times lower than our calculations.

Radar Satellite Images of BP / Deepwater Horizon Spill Area, September 11 and 14

We are focusing particularly hard on the area of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in recent days, after documentation of slicks in the area near the Macondo well site on August 19, and about 15 miles to the northeast on August 30.  The small area of thin slick sampled by Ben Raines on August 23, about one mile from the well site, was chemically tested by Ed Overton of Lousiana State University who declared it a “dead ringer” for Macondo crude oil; possibly leaking from the wrecked Deepwater Horizon rig or the 5,000′ of collapsed riser pipe on the seafloor around the Macondo well. As far as we know, no samples were collected from the much more extensive patch of slicks observed on August 30.  Tropical Storm Lee blew in and knocked everyone out of the Gulf soon thereafter.

Some have suggested that crude oil from the reservoir 8,000′ below the seafloor might be working its way up through faults and fractures in the bedrock, or along the Macondo wellbore.  If that happens we would expect to see “seepage on steroids” as oil works its way to the seafloor along multiple pathways and floats up to the ocean surface to form persistent oil slicks.

We would be able to observe those slicks on satellite imagery, just like we repeatedly observe slicks from active natural oil seeps throughout much of the Gulf.  Radar imagery is the go-to tool for the job.  A radar image taken on August 30 showed a patch of slick matching the area and description given by Bonny Schumaker when she flew over that site earlier in the day; an image taken a few days earlier, on August 26, showed nothing interesting in the vicinity.

We’ve got a couple more recent images to look at.  This one shot on September 11 shows a lot of slicks in the area – a very complicated pattern typical of low-wind conditions (about 2 m/s), where dark, swirly patterns of natural surfactants usually present on the ocean surface are mingled with slicks from natural oil seeps and those possibly caused by oil leaks and spills, making it difficult to draw any firm conclusions (although note the slick apparently emanating from the location marked 23051, where we’ve documented a chronic leak from hurricane-damaged wells and routinely observe similar slicks) :

Envisat ASAR image taken September 11, 2011. Eastern edge of the image appears at right (black fill denotes no image data). Mississippi Delta is bright “bird’s foot” at left center.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Here’s the exact same area as it looked on another Envisat ASAR radar image shot at about 1pm local time yesterday under good conditions (wind blowing from the northwest at 4 m/s). We see a slick once again associated with the 23051 site, a few small slicks west and southwest of the Macondo well location that are very closely associated with known natural seep locations, and a variety of larger slicks in Breton Sound where we routinely see reports of leaks and spills from offshore oil facilities (and so can you, if you subscribe to SkyTruth Alerts):

Envisat ASAR image taken September 14, 2011. Mississippi Delta is bright “bird’s foot” at left center.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.

And here’s the same shot, with pipelines shown in orange, active platforms as orange dots, and natural oil seeps shown as green dots (seep data provided by Florida State University):

Envisat ASAR image taken September 14, 2011, with oil and gas infrastructure (orange) and known natural seep locations (green).  Image courtesy European Space Agency.

The upshot: we’re not yet seeing a trend that would support the idea that oil is working its way up from the Macondo reservoir and turbocharging the existing natural seeps in the area, or forming new sites of chronic leakage.  But we don’t have enough imagery yet to say for certain it isn’t happening.  All we can do is keep looking, and compare what we’re seeing now with images of this area from before the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill began last April.  We’re working now on getting those historical images so we can establish that pre-spill baseline.

Major Sediment Runoff Affecting Chesapeake Bay – How Much From Drilling?

The one-two rainfall punch thrown by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee landed hard on the chin of the mid-Atlantic and New England, bringing record amounts of rainfall and causing epic flooding from Washington, DC to Vermont.  Now we’re seeing one of the results: a torrent of river water laden with runoff is pouring into bays and estuaries along the Atlantic coast.  Yesterday afternoon’s MODIS/Terra satellite image shows this impact on Delaware Bay and the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay:

MODIS/ Terra image taken September 12, 2011, showing sediment-laden runoff (pale brown) from the Susquehanna River filling the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay.  

This runoff consists of sewage overflows and sediment and other contamination washing off farmer’s fields, construction sites, and impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots and rooftops.  It’s a big shot of bad news for aquatic critters and the stuff we like to eat from the Bay – oysters, rockfish and crabs – and it’s not too great either for the communities along the way that get their drinking water from these rivers and streams.   
One of our concerns is that one-third of the Bay watershed lies on top of the Marcellus Shale drilling play, and we expect tens of thousands of new construction sites in the area over the next several years as companies clear land to drill wells, install pipelines, and build support facilities.  These sites represent potential new sources of runoff and surface water contamination, and given the precarious state of health of the Bay,we think this potential needs to be seriously evaluated and, if necessary, mitigated and better regulated to ensure the Bay doesn’t suffer as this gas resource is developed.  
This photo taken by our intern Ben Pelto this weekend illustrates the problem: severe erosion and obvious runoff from one of the many miles of new gas pipeline under construction in Pennsylvania to support the shale-drilling boom. Note the silt fences down at lower right (near the small green sign that says “Wetlands Boundary”!) and the lack of any runoff control structures perpendicular to the pipeline cut as it comes down this typically steep hillside – a recipe for disaster even with a common summer cloudburst, as any trail manager could attest:
Erosion along new gas pipeline right-of-way in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (Susquehanna River basin), north-central Pennsylvania.  Photo taken by SkyTruth intern Ben Pelto on September 10, 2011.

 We’re also starting to see disturbing but unsurprising pictures of flooded drilling sites and beat-up, pushed-around pieces of equipment like the tanks that hold drilling mud and fracking fluid.  That’s because, unbelievably, most states allow industry to drill in high-risk floodplains.   Our friends at LightHawk are flying over the areas affected by flooding, including the Wysox Creek watershed where we collected water quality measurements earlier this summer.  When their aerial pics become available we’ll share them here, along with more from Ben’s trip this weekend.

UPDATE  9/16: see aerial pics of flooding, Marcellus Shale drilling sites, and pipeline construction (and a few beauty shots!) in the upper Susquehanna basin taken by J Henry Fair during a LightHawk overflight on Monday, September 12.