Methane Geyser in PA: Shell Fracking Operation Suspected

EcoWatch reports that the Pennsylvania DEP is investigating a suspected methane migration problem which caused a 30-foot-tall methane-driven geyser to erupt from the side of a local road, and contaminated a water well at a hunting cabin in Union Township.

The suspected source of the methane is a frack site operated by Shell on the Guindon farm in Union Township

NPR reports that Tioga County Emer­gency Ser­vices Coor­di­na­tor Denny Cole­grove suspects that an unmapped, aban­doned gas well more than 70 years old is part of the problem.

The geyser is  now under control, and evacuation is being planned for residents within a 1-mile radius. Shell is flaring gas

from several wellsites in the vicinity in an attempt to lower pressure and reduce the methane leaks at the surface. (We’re not sure why this would work; it suggests all of these wells are in communication with each other, the gas reservoir, and the surface — a highly undesirable situation.  Can anyone explain?)

If the cause is determined to be a fracking operation intersecting an unmapped, improperly abandoned well, then this is great concern for the future of fracking in a state that is littered with thousands of abandoned wells.

Bilge Dumping? Busted Using Satellite Images and AIS Data

Remember that 92-mile-long bilge dump off Congo and Angola that caught our attention back in April?

SkyTruth Angola no markups
Envisat ASAR satellite radar image showing bilge-dump slick (long dark streak) off Angola on April 6, 2012. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

The bright spot at the left end of the slick is likely the vessel that caused it.  But the ASAR imagery left an important question unanswered: Who was responsible for this pollution?

With the generous help of our new partners, SpaceQuest, new information has surfaced that helps put a name on that bright spot:  the Dona Liberta, a refrigerated cargo ship owned by NaviFruit LTD. This vessel has made unfortunate news in the past.  On July 4, 2011, the ship’s captain dumped two Tanzanian stowaways in Liberia’s territorial waters, strapped to empty barrels. One of the stowaways died while receiving medical treatment after washing up on shore. In November 2011 the vessel was laid up in the River Fal in England, stranding two Romanian watchmen on board in unsanitary conditions who were rescued by a charitable organization. And in February 2012, the Dona Liberta spilled 70-90 gallons of oil in the River Fal, prompting a cleanup response from local authorities.

The Dona Liberta, courtesy of © Juan B

So how did we figure this out?

Read all about it after the jump….

In the ASAR satellite radar image, we can determine the exact time and date of the event, the coordinates of the start and end point of the slick, the length of the slick, and the heading of the vessel:

SkyTruth Angola w Markup


SpaceQuest builds satellites that intercept Automatic Identification System (AIS) data broadcast by vessels at sea.  AIS data typically include a vessel’s identification, position, heading and speed. Vessels broadcast this information, and collect it from others, to help avoid collisions with other vessels.  Insurance companies require the use of AIS by most commercial, insured vessels that are underway.  SpaceQuest gave us AIS data for the region spanning a 24-hour period, enabling us to identify vessels that were operating in the area around the same time the radar image was taken. After doing some simple math, we had enough information to pinpoint the likely culprit.



The observed location of the vessel on the radar image is labeled. Red dots show the positions of vessels recorded by AIS data. Red dot at upper left marks the position of the Dona Liberta, 39 miles northwest of observed location of vessel.

AIS data for a vessel 39 miles northwest from the observed location of the ship gave a heading of 293.8° and a speed of 15 knots (17.3 mph), and identified it as the Dona Liberta. This AIS information was broadcast 2.25 hours after the radar image was taken. If the ship traveled for 2.25 hours at 17.3 mph, then the ship traveled 38.925 miles, very close to the measured distance between the observed location and the AIS position.


The heading of the ship was reported by AIS to be 293.8°, only 1.1° off from the measured heading of 294.9°.  I also calculated where the vessel should be, had it been traveling for 2.25 hours at the AIS-recorded heading from the location observed on the satellite imagery. The ship would have ended up only 0.79 miles from the AIS-recorded location. No other vessels appear anywhere near this location on either the radar image, or the AIS data, making the Dona Liberta a likely culprit for this bilge dumping.

Difference between AIS-recorded position of vessel and calculated position based on observed location and AIS-recorded heading and speed.


But a ‘good idea’ of who dumped this material really isn’t good enough. After checking back with SpaceQuest on our findings, they supplemented our data with a compilation of the Dona Liberta’s AIS data for the previous 24 hours. From that, we were able to determine more about the trajectory of this vessel:

Possible route of the Dona Liberta (green line) drawn by simply connecting the red dots (AIS recorded positions). The slick may have drifted southward under the influence of currents and surface wind.

The observed location of the vessel in the radar satellite image was bracketed by two AIS data points, so there was more information available to cross reference with our current suspect. By comparing the time of each AIS point, with the time of the ASAR image, as well as the distance between them, the rate of travel was confirmed:

The green line connects two AIS data points that bracket the observed location of the vessel. Yellow and pink lines are distances calculated from the AIS-reported speed at both points, resulting in predicted positions for the vessel that are nearly identical to the actual observed location on the radar image.

The distance between the eastern AIS position to the observed location (yellow line) is 16.9 miles, and the vessel’s speed according to AIS was 15.1knots (17.377 mph), giving a travel time of 58.4 minutes. The actual time difference between the radar image and the AIS broadcast is 54 minutes. On the other side, the distance between the western AIS point and the observed location (pink line) is 9.66 miles, with the vessel speed at 15.2 knots (17.49 mph), implying a travel time of  33.1 minutes compared with the actual time difference of 36 minutes. These measurements are not exact but are very close, with no other vessels in the vicinity that could be confused with the Dona Liberta.


Bilge dumping is illegal in the United States, Europe and Canada.  We don’t know what the law is governing bilge dumping off Angola. But we’re encouraged that we now have the tools to not only spot this activity, but to identify the likely offenders. And if they don’t care, maybe their insurers and clients will.

Video: Meet The Frack Family

If you haven’t met the Frack Family yet, check out this video!

SkyTruth Reports: Meet The Frack Family from SkyTruth on Vimeo.
Yolandita presents the imaginary Frack Family and their dog Rocky of Beaver County, PA who help us to visualize the staggering quantity of chemicals that were used in a typical frack job (hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction) near their imaginary house in the Marcellus Shale region of western Pennsylvania.

Meet The Frack Family

If you’ve read our “What’s In My Frack Fluid” article, posted by David last week, you were probably  disturbed to find out how much of the ingredients used in a typical hydraulic fracturing operation are unknown. We thought it might be a good idea to illustrate what 133 tons of chemicals (including 65 tons of unknown chemicals) looks like. So Paul and I got to work in Google Sketchup creating the Frack Family. The Fracks are an imaginary family who live near the very real Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling and  fracking site in Beaver County, Pennsylvania featured in David’s blog post. They agreed to let Chesapeake Energy store all the chemicals that were used at this frack site right on their lawn… such a sweet family.

We uploaded the Frack Family into Google Earth Pro and took some screenshots to help you visualize how much chemicals are being used, and more disturbingly, how much of those chemicals are what David calls “mystery” chemicals.

The imaginary Frack Family at their Beaver County home, with fracking chemicals stacked up in 42-gallon barrels on their front lawn.

We’ll start off with an introduction to the Fracks and their dog, Rocky. Above, you can see them standing by a glowing green 42-gallon barrel that represents the 380 pounds of Ammonium Persulfate used in the fracking solution and a few of the 32 lavender colored barrels that represent nearly 6 tons of Potassium Hydroxide.

As we back up, shown below, you’ll notice 235 blue barrels to the right of the Fracks. These barrels represent the 41 tons of Hydrogen Chloride used to make hydrochloric acid.

The imaginary Frack Family at their Beaver County home, showing the 384 barrels of known chemicals used to frack the well near their house.

Finally, the Frack Family would like to show you the amount of chemicals for which no Chemical Abstract Service numbers are disclosed on the ingredients list — which is voluntarily provided by Chesapeake Energy Appalachia LLC via These “mystery” chemicals are represented below by 373 bright red barrels and weigh a total of approximately 65 tons. That is about half of all the chemicals used for this one fracking job, which is 1.7% of the total weight of the mixture used (the other 98.3% by weight being water and sand). We cannot be sure exactly what these chemicals are… but it’s only less than 1% of the frack job, right?

The imaginary Frack Family at their Beaver County home, showing off the 757 barrels of chemicals used to frack the well near their house – including 373 barrels of “mystery” chemicals.

Joking aside: all of these chemicals had to be trucked onto the drilling site.  That’s a lot of truckloads of chemicals, including hundreds of barrels of unknown substances, being hauled (in a hurry) over typically small, light-duty, winding country roads, past homes, businesses, and schools. That’s pretty serious.

Drilling off Cuba, Drilling in the Arctic – And No Monitoring Capability. Really?!

Soapbox time!
Here at SkyTruth we’ve been concerned about the loss of the world’s premier tool for offshore monitoring with the demise of the European Space Agency’s excellent Envisat satellite in early April.  The successor, Sentinel, won’t be launched until sometime next year at the earliest.  Meanwhile, we do have alternatives:  RADARSAT, Cosmo-SkyMed, and TerraSAR-X.  But these are all commercially operated systems and the images range in price from about $1200 to as much as $7500, making them prohibitively expensive for routine monitoring of large areas in the open ocean.
Envisat ASAR radar image showing precise location of Scarabeo-9 drill rig in Cuban waters of Florida Straits.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.
This is all an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of the fact that, for reasons we can’t fathom, the US has decided not to operate any civilian radar imaging satellites.  We led the world in this technology with the launch of SeaSat back in 1978, but now we’re dependent on foreign-operated systems.  We consider this a national security fail of a high order: radar imaging satellites are a key tool for establishing and maintaining maritime domain awareness, and effectively managing and protecting our nation’s vast ocean territory. Maybe the National Reconnaissance Office has a couple of extra radar spy satellites lying around that they could donate to NASA for civilian use.  The intelligence agencies seem to have plenty of $$ to build more toys than they can use while NASA’s satellite program is starving for cash. But I digress…
The BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico highlighted the value of satellite imagery for independently assessing the size and severity of the spill, tracking the day-to-day movement of the oil slicks, and identifying the ocean and coastal areas directly impacted by the oil.  Our work since then has demonstrated the value of radar imagery in particular for detecting bilge-dumping from oceangoing vessels, a major source of marine pollution worldwide; for detecting vessels that may be operating illegally in areas that are off-limits to fishing; and for comparing the pollution as reported by polluters, with what we can actually observe.
Now companies from around the world are rushing to do deepwater drilling in Cuban waters close to Florida, with no agreement in place that will allow US companies to assist in the event of a major oil spill. Pemex, the state oil company of Mexico, has announced plans to begin high-risk ultra-deepwater drilling in the Gulf despite their alarming lack of deepwater expertise.  Drilling is set to begin as soon as July in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska, raising a host of questions about the impact of day-to-day pollution in that sensitive environment and our ability to effectively clean up an oil spill in typical Arctic ice and weather conditions, far from bases of operation.  And, as SkyTruth and our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners have demonstrated, we continue to have spills every day in the Gulf of Mexico that are unreported, underreported, and rarely investigated: a continuing moral hazard of tolerating sloppy operations that, in our opinion, sets the stage for the next chain of error that leads to a catastrophic spill.
Shell’s Kulluk drill rig under tow, set to drill in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska this summer.  Source:
Now, more than ever, we need a public source of routine radar images for all of these areas to allow everyone to see what’s happening, to provide assurance that there are no undue environmental problems associated with these innately risky developments, and to stand ready to immediately swing into action to support response efforts should a serious accident occur.
We call on the US government to work with the commercial radar image companies to provide a publicly accessible stream of radar imagery until Sentinel, or some other radar imaging system, fills the big monitoring gap left by the demise of Envisat.  We would gladly participate in discussions to help make this happen, and soon.

July is not very far off. And to let drilling proceed in the Arctic Ocean without a transparent, public monitoring system and spill-response tool in place strikes us as both reckless and irresponsible:  a needless escalation of the risks involved with drilling, and a willful disregard of the concerns that have been voiced by tens of thousands of Americans.  Let’s fix this problem now.