West Virginia Fracking: State and Industry Fail to Keep Public Informed

In June 2012, SkyTruth wrote that voluntary hydraulic fracturing (fracking) chemical disclosures from FracFocus.org were only covering approximately 43% of unconventional wells drilled in Pennsylvania. Only 54% of wells drilled submitted a report, and of those that did, only about 81% of the chemicals were actually disclosed (instead of concealed as “proprietary” or “trade secret”). Barely more than half of Pennsylvanian wells had a corresponding report, so I wondered if transparency was any better in our own state of West Virginia.

From January 2011 – August 2012, industry operators posted 183 voluntary disclosures for wells drilled and hydraulically fractured in West Virginia. According to the Office of Oil and Gas (a division of the WV Dept. of Environmental Protection [DEP]) there were 1360 permits issued for horizontal wells and/or fracking. My question is: Of the 183 voluntary disclosures, do the numbers correlate with the state data?

To put it bluntly: No.

State data and industry reports from Jan. 2011- August 2012. 
*Includes a new designation for horizontal wells: HRW6A

A completed FRACT permit is the only record that we know of which positively identifies when a corresponding voluntary  disclosure should be on record. However, since the DEP only lists nine records in 20 months of drilling, there is not much we can say statistically. In our experience, the DEP is struggling  just to keep up with posting permits and seems to have a very large backlog of post-drilling records, so this low number is no surprise.

The second best indicator that fracking will likely occur soon is the presence of a permit. If industry has taken the time, money, and effort to put a rig on the ground and secure fracking permits, then it is likely that the “sand kings”, compressors, and water trucks are not far-off. Yet, with 79 fracturing permits recorded by the state, there is not a single corresponding chemical component disclosure!

By the time I found a decent correlation, 231 permits completed and 61 disclosures, I cannot confidently say that a completed horizontal well means that fracking has also occurred. Horizontal wells permitted is even less definite, because while it may be reasonable to guess that these permitted wells will be fracked soon, a guess is not good science. But where state and industry data fell short of the completed well permits, I turned to “skytruthing” to try to get a more accurate rate of voluntary disclosure from industry.

Using the WV DEP Office of Oil and Gas Map Search, I looked at aerial imagery from the 2011 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) overlaid with current well locations across the state. The NAIP imagery is acquired by the Farm Service Agency in summer while the leaves are still on the trees, so I narrowed down my list of wells in question to only the wells what would have appeared on a 2011 fly-over before the leaves fell off. From January to the end of August 2011, the DEP lists 125 completed wells and 30 corresponding disclosures. I then randomly selected 19 wells to check visually, a 20% representative sample of 95 completed horizontal wells that are unaccounted for on FracFocus. Are they really sitting idle as the data suggests? 

The DEP reports that this Stone Energy well in Wetzel County has six finished horizontal wells, but does not have a single permit recorded for hydraulic fracturing. FracFocus has no voluntary disclosures that correspond to these wells, but equipment on this pad is in the unmistakable configuration of an active frack.

Some wells l looked at appeared to be prepped for drilling and fracking, but in the absence of wastewater ponds or production infrastructure, I was far more inclined to put a well in the “inconclusive” category rather than make a false assumption. However, there were only 4 that I had any doubts about.

Extrapolating from the sample the number of wells that were clearly fracked, and factoring in the 30 wells voluntarily reported by industry, I conclude that for the first 8 months of 2011, industry’s voluntary disclosure rate was 31.6%*.
For those that really want to know the numbers:
125 horizontal well permits completed from Jan.-Aug. 31, 2011, but no other state data.
30 out of 125 are disclosed. 95 have no other relevant data: Let’s call them unknown wells.
68.4% visual assessment rate x 95 unknown wells = approx. 65 wells most likely fracked
30 Industry reported fracks + 65 likely fracks from the unknown wells: 65+30= 95* 
30 disclosed wells ÷ 95 wells = 31.6% disclosure rate.
*I have triple-checked the fact that the value “95” appears twice, but it is purely coincidental.
If 31.6% is the absolute best disclosure rate we can calculate for West Virginia, and absolutely no disclosure in categories where the record should be complete, then the public is not being adequately informed. The fault lies with both industry for their poor rates of reporting and with West Virginia for not keeping up with this critical aspect of the public record. 

The State of West Virginia clearly intends to continue developing unconventional shale gas in the Marcellus and Utica, touting its benefits to the citizens. However, they must keep the official record accurate and up to date in order to properly inform the public. Failure to keep the people informed about what is happening in their state, and even backyard, exposes citizens to uncertain health risks, potential damage to property, and severely impairs decision-making by local, state, and federal government.
If the Oil and Gas Industry wishes to convince West Virginia and the world that they are being open and transparent about fracking in unconventional shale basins, 31.6% is not convincing. The current voluntary disclosure system severely hinders aggregate analysis, rendering it nearly impossible to even check the transparency and completeness, but more on that later.

For now, know that the chemicals used in 2 out of every 3 wells drilled in the State of West Virginia remain a complete mystery to the public. 

The Exception to the Exception: Still Fracking with Diesel

SkyTruth has concluded that diesel fuels continue to be used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) despite known health hazards and in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Analyzing a database of voluntary industry disclosures, we found that kerosene and diesel fuels #1 and #2 were used on 448 separate occasions in 12 states between January 2011 and August 2012. When Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, it included the now-infamous “Halliburton Loophole,” a controversial clause that excluded nearly everything used in fracking from being regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, in spite of Congress exempting an entire Pandora’s Box of chemicals and additives to be injected at high-pressure into the ground, diesel fuels remained off-limits, as seen in Section 322 of the Act:

Paragraph (1) of section 1421(d) of the Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. 300h(d)) is amended to read as follows:
‘‘(1) UNDERGROUND INJECTION.—The term ‘underground injection’—
‘‘(A) means the subsurface emplacement of fluids by well injection; and
‘‘(B) excludes—
‘‘(i) the underground injection of natural gas for

purposes of storage; and
‘‘(ii) the underground injection of fluids or propping

agents (other than diesel fuels)pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.’’. 

For the full text of the law, see here at the Government Publishing Office website.

Naturally, with all of the toxic chemicals being allowed by this exemption, one has to wonder what is so bad about diesel fuels to explicitly exclude them from this otherwise blank check? The reason is the toxicity of the volatile aromatic compounds benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (also known as BTEX), which are known to the State of Maryland and many other agencies to cause respiratory problems from acute exposure (usually in occupational settings), in the long term to have toxic effects on the kidney, liver, and blood, and benzene specifically has been classified by the EPA as a carcinogen. Not only do these health hazards raise concern about injection through groundwater supplies to shale layers deep beneath the earth, but also air transmission through flaring and fugitive emissions.

Now, when we searched our database for diesel fuels, we used the EPA’s own draft designation for regulating diesel fuels, a list of 6 unique types of petroleum distillates that industry would have to seek a permit for to use in future fracking. Kerosene, (Chemical Abstract Service [CAS] # 8008-20-6) was the most used, a total of 278 times, although only four reports explain its purpose. Three reports in Alaska identified its purpose as a freeze inhibitor, one  in Texas listed its purpose as a corrosion inhibitor, but all the rest listed no explanation for its use. 

We wondered why kerosene was identified by the EPA as a diesel fuel, so I found a paper identifying kerosene as a hydrocarbon chain with 8-15 carbon atoms, well within the 8-21 carbon atom chain that identifies diesel fuel in general. That particular paper was written to determine how petroleum distillate contamination in groundwater could be detected. Given that the authors found total BTEX values from kerosene contaminated water were even higher (2440 µg/l) than than that of diesel fuel (2140 µg/l) and fuel oil (1400 µg/l), I believe it fully deserves its place on our list as a petroleum distillate too dangerous to frack with.

Back to our analysis, diesel fuel #2 (CAS # 68476-34-6) was in second place, used 166 times across 11 states. This time  a wide range of uses were listed, mainly with some reference to acting as a gelling agent. The final diesel fuel we identified in our database was diesel fuel #1, which only appeared four times with no defined purpose.
However, this is not the first time fracking with diesel fuel has been brought up as an issue. In January of 2011, three legislators from the House of Representatives sent a letter to Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, regarding their investigation on diesel fuels’ use in fracking between 2005 and 2009. Representatives Henry A. Waxman, Edward J. Markey, and Diana DeGette found that while the public and legislature had been led to believe that this practice had ceased even before the passage of the Energy Policy Act, “oil and gas service companies injected 32.2 million gallons of diesel fuel or hydraulic fracturing fluids containing diesel fuel in wells in 19 states.”
The representatives’ report did not state how many separate incidents they documented, only the volume, and while our database does not reliably calculate weight (due to limitations in the data source), we are certain that diesel fuels are still being used in fracking. 


However, despite wide-spread assumption that industry had stopped using it in 2005 (on account of no permits being issued), there is another actor who bears responsibility for this continued disregard of the law: the EPA. Note that earlier we said our analysis was conducted based on the fuels identified for regulation and permitting by the EPA’s draft guidelines on this issue. The act was signed into law by President George W. Bush on August 8, 2005, and the draft was only published  to comment in May of 2012. Industry has not sought or received permits for using diesel fuel in fracking, in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, because the EPA does not yet have the framework to process such requests. 

The frequency of diesel fuels’ use in fracking, according to voluntary industry reports, appears to be on the overall decline. However, this information is not complete, as reports are not timely (check back soon for more on this subject), and reporting on this same issue by Energy and Environment Reporter Mike Sorgahan found that companies can go back and modify reports. We intend to keep a close eye on this issue in the coming months as the record is filled out.

Nevertheless, the ongoing disregard for the Safe Drinking Water Act is unacceptable, and must be addressed as soon as possible by both industry and our government regulators. The list of toxic chemicals exempted by the Halliburton Loophole is staggering, but to find that the one item still restricted is nonetheless being used without regulation or consequence is unacceptable. Furthermore, we believe that access to the data which we used to conduct this analysis is far too complicated and legally restricted to serve the purpose of full disclosure. We will be writing more in the near future about the challenges we have encountered to even reach the point were we can conduct analyses of industry activity and point out these glaring problems.

The Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Boom in Wetzel County, West Virginia

Today’s post is by guest blogger Jim Sheehan, a GIS and remote-sensing specialist and PhD student at West Virginia University.

Many of you are likely aware of the huge push to drill the Marcellus Shale for its abundant natural gas. You may have seen it for yourself, or been exposed to the many advertisements on TV, radio, and in print. Development of this new, unconventional source of energy, underlying a large expanse of the eastern US (Fig. 1), has exploded just in the past few years.

Fig. 1.  The red line shows the Marcellus Shale extent (drawn from USGS report) and the black line represents the wet-dry gas boundary (drawn from Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research map). Wetzel County is the filled green shape.

Industry-sponsored ads* commonly tout that drilling the Marcellus will decrease our reliance on foreign energy, create jobs and stimulate the economy, and have a lighter environmental footprint than other types of energy development. However, behind much of the industry’s full-court press is the highly controversial hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process involved in Marcellus gas extraction, and other concerns such as the disturbances to local communities. Still, despite the issues, Marcellus drilling is unlikely to slow down anytime soon due to its value to the gas companies and those leasing their access rights at the very least.

*For more information about the energy industry advertising, here is a very revealing article by FAIR’s (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) Miranda Spencer: 
Natural Gas and the News – Most messages on fracking ‘brought to you by our sponsors

A new ridge top Marcellus drill pad in Wetzel Co. in a formerly forested lot. The drilling has ceased for the moment as the well apparently is being vented (photo: Jim Sheehan).
I often notice something about the pictures in the ads that conflicts with the nature of Marcellus drilling in some areas: the activity is often shown in a pastoral setting. Indeed, much of the industry does operate in rural areas dominated by agriculture. However, now that the price of natural gas has plummeted, the industry is increasingly focused on the more valuable “wet gas” region (approximately west of the black line in Fig. 1), which drops down into Wetzel County in northern West Virginia. Much of Wetzel Co. is forest, and as such exemplifies some of the best that “Wild and Wonderful” West Virginia has to offer. I believe this forest has particularly high value, ecologically and for other reasons, and may be vulnerable to this type of disturbance.

With the help of SkyTruth, who kindly provided me some blog space and encouragement, here I explore the recent development of Marcellus (and other unconventional drilling) in Wetzel Co. To show the increase in drilling I used well information and geographic coordinates for 102 completed unconventional wells in Wetzel Co. from 2007-2011 that I obtained from the West Virginia Geological & Economic Survey’s “Pipeline-Plus” database.

According to Pipeline-Plus, most of the 102 wells drilled target the Marcellus formation (75 as of 2011), but I also included wells that drill other Devonian Period formations. I did this after zooming in on all the well sites in Google Earth and finding they share a scale of activity (large pads for example) different from the conventional oil and gas drilling long a part of this region. It turns out the other Devonian Period formations can also hold high-value natural gas (wet gas or super-rich gas*)
*Gas containing hydrocarbon compounds such as ethane, propane, and butane in addition to methane.

Next, I zoom in to Wetzel Co. (Fig. 2) for greater on-the-ground detail. The 102 wells actually occur on about 50 separate pads, since multiple directional wells can be drilled per pad. A great feature of Google Earth is that you can view current and historical aerial and satellite images to explore change through time. Particularly valuable to me are the 2011 (current), 2009, and 2007 leaf-on aerial photographs from the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP). Using the sequence of these images, I often see in great detail the land cover prior to preparation and drilling of the well site, characteristics of the well pad and the activity, and any associated infrastructure development (roads, pipelines, and holding ponds).
Fig. 2.  Wetzel Co. and 2007-11 well locations (red = Marcellus, pink = other Devonian Period formations), and proposed/in progress wells 2011-present (as of September, 2012; dark gray dots). Also shown are the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area (green outline) and two of its forested headwater streams (light blue), and the Fishing Creek streams (dark blue) that flow into the Ohio River near New Martinsville, WV.

I’ve only begun to examine each well site and map the pad and any infrastructure, but here is an example of how large and problematic an impact can be. In Fig. 2, much activity is concentrated in the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area (green outline). While the state owns the surface, most of the subsurface rights are privately owned. Because the area is public, it’s easy to directly observe the activity (within reason!), which I’ve done since 2008. Wyatt Run (Fig. 3 and the upper light blue stream in Fig. 2) is one of the area’s forested headwater streams that in particular interests me, since it was one of the most pristine but now has been degraded by new activity. The integrity of headwater streams is crucial to downstream water quality, so I’ve included in Fig. 3 Wyatt’s connection to Fishing Creek, which in turn flows to the Ohio River.

Fig. 3.  A side view of Wyatt Run at the Lewis Wetzel WMA, with a new Marcellus pad, holding pond, and access road as of 2011. The pad (and a new 2012 pad not captured by the photo) has “slipped” due to the steep topography characteristic of the region.

The side of the ridge top well pad visible in Fig. 3, and a new one I’ve marked that occurred after the 2011 NAIP aerial, have “slipped” substantially due to the steep, rather unstable terrain, and are causing heavily sedimentation in Wyatt Run. There are efforts to correct the problem, but unfortunately it appears to be difficult to stop the erosion. As of September 2012 the sedimentation continues, and there have even been substantial direct impacts to the stream itself. Clearly, better planning is needed during the siting of well pads to avoid situations like this, and the amount of activity, at least in this watershed, appears to be at odds with industry claims of a light environmental footprint. 

Left: a mudslide coming down from the 2012 Marcellus ridge top pad that has “slipped” above Wyatt Run. Right: a downstream pool of Wyatt Run continually polluted by the heavy sedimentation from the ridge top pads. (photos: Jim Sheehan)

I’ll also use this location to illustrate another concern. With new pads comes much associated infrastructure that can fragment previously continuous forest, and potentially have a negative effect on wildlife that prefer large, undisturbed forest patches. While some wildlife may benefit, new roads and pipelines can also act as corridors – bringing in undesirable or exotic plants and animals. The drilling and site preparation also result in noise and air pollution. I can say first-hand that recreation (hunting, wildlife viewing, etc.) is much reduced in the formerly popular Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area, and heavy vehicle traffic and the dust and potholes it brings seriously disturb the local community.

In closing, given the rapid increase in drilling between 2007-2011 and the amount of post-2011 proposed/in-progress wells I’ve begun to map (Fig. 2), it is clear that the impacts to the forests of Wetzel Co. can happen very quickly. The next NAIP aerial should happen in 2013, and provide a new, detailed snapshot of drilling-related activity. In the meantime, I wish to use what we can now see to increase awareness of environmental costs seldom heard about, and make them an important consideration in the development of this energy resource.

Jim Sheehan, October 7, 2012

Morgantown, WV