Fracking: Coming to a Backyard Near You?

Last summer one of our interns, Jerrilyn Goldberg, put together an interactive story map detailing the impact hydraulic fracturing is having on the state of Pennsylvania. The map goes describes the fracking process and its associated risks, and how the growing industry is impacting local communities and the environment. She examines the proposition that switching to a natural gas dominated energy system would mitigate global warming, an important thing to consider when discussing future energy development. You can check out the story map by clicking the image below:

When thinking about fracking and its potential costs and benefits to society, it’s important to remember the impact it will have on the people living near it, not just the country as a whole. The industry touts the amount of potential energy that can be gained from a fracking well relative to its “small” footprint as a major advantage of the process over conventional gas wells and coal extraction. Wells can be permitted and drilled quickly, and with horizontal drilling a single well has access to a large area of potential gas reserves. This also means that wells can pop up at an alarming rate and fit into places that are uncomfortably close to where people live and work. Often times, these wells and their associated infrastructure are within sight and earshot of people’s homes, or even schools, hospitals, and other sensitive areas where people’s health can be put at risk by the 24/7 noise, lighting, diesel fumes, dust, and volatile chemicals emanating from typical drilling sites:

Here in western Pennsylvania we see how close fracking operations can come to people’s homes; the people living in the cluster of houses on the left have to live with the commotion around the well pads a stone’s throw away on a daily basis, and the massive fluid retainment ponds in blue could pose a threat to their health. Click on the image for a fullscreen version.

 

The story in West Virginia is very similar. Here a fracking well pad is less than a football field away from someone’s home. Click on the image for a fullscreen version.

Often times, many of the people that will be affected by a new fracking operation have little to no say in the matter. People are typically powerless to stop construction of a drilling site on a neighboring property, and don’t have any say in where and how the site and associated roads and utilities get built, even though they will still have to deal with the increased noise, light, and traffic, as well as decreased air quality. Health concerns are a major issue because fumes and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) originating from well pads and fluid retainment ponds have been linked to respiratory and skin illnesses. Fracking operations have also been known to contaminate people’s drinking water by causing methane migration, posing an explosion hazard, and fracking fluids that have made it into the water table can render water unsafe for drinking, bathing, and even laundry. Accidents like fluid spills and well blowouts are an ever-present threat, with the potential to send thousands of gallons of fracking fluid spewing into the air and onto the surrounding landscape, as happened to a well in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania in 2010 that resulted in more than 35,000 gallons of fracturing fluid contaminating the environment. Local campers had to be evacuated from the area. 

Hydraulic fracturing has really taken off in the last decade thanks to horizontal drilling technology. Here, in this section of southwestern Pennsylvania, we can see how rapidly fracking operations have expanded near the Pittsburgh area. The colored dots show the locations of new drilling sites similar to the ones shown in the images above, identified with help from our FrackFinder volunteers.

Because of its location over a particularly rich part of the Marcellus Shale, Pennsylvania has been one of the states most heavily impacted by the fracking boom, but fracking has begun to take off in other states as well. These include Ohio and West Virginia, where along with Pennsylvania you’ve helped us investigate and map drilling activity through our FrackFinder project to quantify the growing impact of fracking in each state, and make the data available to the public and to researchers investigating the impact of fracking on public health and the environment.

Ohio sits partially atop the Utica shale. This map shows the locations of well pads built between 2010 and 2013 in a small part of the eastern portion of the state, and the access roads that were carved out to support them. Click on the image for a fullscreen version.

 

Fracking is relatively new to West Virginia, and the topography is rugged (as shown by this shaded-relief map), so well pads aren’t yet spaced as densely as they are in states like Pennsylvania. The red polygons represent well pad construction, and the dark blue represent retainment ponds. Click on the image for a fullscreen version.

If you’d like to learn more about fracking and how it impacts people and the environment, be sure to check out Jerrilyn’s story map for an in-depth look!

 

Mountain Top Removal in Appalachia: What’s in your backyard?

SkyTruth’s new Mountain Top Removal visualization tool is now available to inspect active mining data for 74 counties in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia. The website can be accessed at SkyTruthMTR.appspot.com.

The maps leverage tens of thousands of mining footprints, the result of SkyTruth’s mountain top removal (MTR) research. Before expanding to 74 counties, the orginal work included 59 counties and identified an estimated 445,792 acres of new mining over a 30 year period. This data has already allowed outside organizations and research institutions to directly link MTR to downstream water pollution and related environmental destruction, as well as provide input into numerous health studies and predict where coal companies might go next.

By visiting SkyTruthMTR.appspot.com, you can:

  • Click anywhere on the map to see its active mining history.
  • Visualize a timeline of active mining from 1985 through 2015, with zooming available right down to the rooftop.
  • Draw a rectangle or polygon on the map, then see a breakdown of mining in that area by year and as a percentage of the total selected area. Once drawn, shapes can be edited.
  • Click on one of the 74 counties and see the total active mining for that county by year.
  • Use standard Google maps for a baseline, then overlay with one of SkyTruth’s composite images for any year from 1985 through 2015. These images combine the best satellite photos for each year into a single layer.

Active Mining by County, 1985-2015

West Virginia

County Sq Miles Acreage 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
Boone 504 322658 6022 7291 12395 18663 24094 26392 24520
1.87% 2.26% 3.84% 5.78% 7.47% 8.18% 7.60%
Braxton 517 330904 1 1 2 1 1 1 0
0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Cabell 289 184699 296 232 331 401 346 385 296
0.16% 0.13% 0.18% 0.22% 0.19% 0.21% 0.16%
Clay 344 220460 838 717 1869 3667 4538 4617 3261
0.38% 0.33% 0.85% 1.66% 2.06% 2.09% 1.48%
Fayette 669 428327 3507 4590 5532 4788 5256 5851 5214
0.82% 1.07% 1.29% 1.12% 1.23% 1.37% 1.22%
Greenbrier 1026 656722 1687 2667 2728 2082 1672 2002 2706
0.26% 0.41% 0.42% 0.32% 0.25% 0.30% 0.41%
Kanawha 913 584066 5319 6591 7363 7589 8932 8845 8746
0.91% 1.13% 1.26% 1.30% 1.53% 1.51% 1.50%
Lincoln 440 281358 608 535 1231 3131 3900 5227 5012
0.22% 0.19% 0.44% 1.11% 1.39% 1.86% 1.78%
Logan 456 291882 4711 7502 11617 15342 15911 13389 12469
1.61% 2.57% 3.98% 5.26% 5.45% 4.59% 4.27%
Mason 445 284957 473 700 630 639 611 746 754
0.17% 0.25% 0.22% 0.22% 0.21% 0.26% 0.26%
McDowell 536 342848 3561 3204 3228 5603 5472 6349 6753
1.04% 0.93% 0.94% 1.63% 1.60% 1.85% 1.97%
Mercer 422 269789 557 479 650 722 702 701 771
0.21% 0.18% 0.24% 0.27% 0.26% 0.26% 0.29%
Mingo 425 271892 3574 6425 9440 13173 13310 13020 10881
1.31% 2.36% 3.47% 4.84% 4.90% 4.79% 4.00%
Nicholas 655 419323 3041 6693 6525 7486 9105 11080 7835
0.73% 1.60% 1.56% 1.79% 2.17% 2.64% 1.87%
Pocahontas 943 603797 619 930 829 1570 841 1940 2015
0.10% 0.15% 0.14% 0.26% 0.14% 0.32% 0.33%
Putnam 351 224799 540 522 674 743 784 1006 989
0.24% 0.23% 0.30% 0.33% 0.35% 0.45% 0.44%
Raleigh 610 390716 2365 2310 2752 3888 5452 7500 7619
0.61% 0.59% 0.70% 1.00% 1.40% 1.92% 1.95%
Summers 368 235806 356 308 445 395 520 537 424
0.15% 0.13% 0.19% 0.17% 0.22% 0.23% 0.18%
Webster 557 356552 1258 1388 3519 3976 4811 6348 4986
0.35% 0.39% 0.99% 1.12% 1.35% 1.78% 1.40%
Wyoming 503 321717 2762 2982 2283 5239 6625 6896 5327
0.86% 0.93% 0.71% 1.63% 2.06% 2.14% 1.66%
County Sq Miles Acreage 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015

Kentucky

County Sq Miles Acreage 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
Bell 362 231484 3998 4958 4116 5440 5150 6148 5096
1.73% 2.14% 1.78% 2.35% 2.22% 2.66% 2.20%
Boyd 162 103859 1179 930 829 868 870 816 786
1.14% 0.90% 0.80% 0.84% 0.84% 0.79% 0.76%
Breathitt 496 317413 7938 8100 9495 11239 594 8985 7355
2.50% 2.55% 2.99% 3.54% 0.19% 2.83% 2.32%
Carter 413 264298 1140 723 642 963 929 957 809
0.43% 0.27% 0.24% 0.36% 0.35% 0.36% 0.31%
Clay 472 302157 4169 2050 2267 2582 2091 2222 2140
1.38% 0.68% 0.75% 0.85% 0.69% 0.74% 0.71%
Clinton 206 131821 112 142 168 360 384 399 427
0.08% 0.11% 0.13% 0.27% 0.29% 0.30% 0.32%
Elliott 236 150845 860 404 244 220 361 432 371
0.57% 0.27% 0.16% 0.15% 0.24% 0.29% 0.25%
Estill 256 164010 525 654 637 648 629 631 639
0.32% 0.40% 0.39% 0.40% 0.38% 0.38% 0.39%
Floyd 396 253732 4101 4999 5267 5582 5091 5568 5037
1.62% 1.97% 2.08% 2.20% 2.01% 2.19% 1.99%
Greenup 355 227162 1017 1477 1203 1115 1419 1080 863
0.45% 0.65% 0.53% 0.49% 0.62% 0.48% 0.38%
Harlan 469 300134 3243 4571 3754 5489 6060 7879 7102
1.08% 1.52% 1.25% 1.83% 2.02% 2.63% 2.37%
Jackson 347 222163 1223 741 515 546 634 730 490
0.55% 0.33% 0.23% 0.25% 0.29% 0.33% 0.22%
Johnson 265 169528 1274 1169 924 1209 1692 1902 1671
0.75% 0.69% 0.55% 0.71% 1.00% 1.12% 0.99%
Knott 353 226208 6049 6880 9521 12541 7056 13019 11285
2.67% 3.04% 4.21% 5.54% 3.12% 5.76% 4.99%
Knox 389 248682 1586 1187 962 1317 1278 1968 1574
0.64% 0.48% 0.39% 0.53% 0.51% 0.79% 0.63%
Laurel 444 284452 3448 1269 1084 1232 1284 1243 1019
1.21% 0.45% 0.38% 0.43% 0.45% 0.44% 0.36%
Lawrence 421 269377 2290 1458 1055 1222 2333 2298 1997
0.85% 0.54% 0.39% 0.45% 0.87% 0.85% 0.74%
Lee 212 135435 630 640 701 564 525 375 353
0.47% 0.47% 0.52% 0.42% 0.39% 0.28% 0.26%
Leslie 405 259372 4544 3850 5475 8136 8551 10205 8857
1.75% 1.48% 2.11% 3.14% 3.30% 3.93% 3.41%
Letcher 340 217405 4761 5154 5305 7991 7012 5517 4465
2.19% 2.37% 2.44% 3.68% 3.23% 2.54% 2.05%
Lewis 496 317299 495 558 365 481 487 517 493
0.16% 0.18% 0.12% 0.15% 0.15% 0.16% 0.16%
Magoffin 310 198142 3032 1465 1495 1869 1691 3730 2984
1.53% 0.74% 0.75% 0.94% 0.85% 1.88% 1.51%
Martin 231 147784 5799 6221 6463 10294 10289 7667 3939
3.92% 4.21% 4.37% 6.97% 6.96% 5.19% 2.67%
McCreary 432 276630 1774 1358 1055 1012 1058 1071 892
0.64% 0.49% 0.38% 0.37% 0.38% 0.39% 0.32%
Menifee 206 132045 171 267 242 215 321 299 257
0.13% 0.20% 0.18% 0.16% 0.24% 0.23% 0.19%
Morgan 384 246009 1374 614 520 512 680 913 726
0.56% 0.25% 0.21% 0.21% 0.28% 0.37% 0.30%
Owsley 199 127155 709 741 542 627 580 803 576
0.56% 0.58% 0.43% 0.49% 0.46% 0.63% 0.45%
Perry 343 219685 8067 10388 11931 15369 1596 16104 11658
3.67% 4.73% 5.43% 7.00% 0.73% 7.33% 5.31%
Pike 790 505304 8470 8679 13987 24058 25448 20373 13869
1.68% 1.72% 2.77% 4.76% 5.04% 4.03% 2.74%
Powell 180 115512 178 342 338 371 406 385 345
0.15% 0.30% 0.29% 0.32% 0.35% 0.33% 0.30%
Pulaski 678 434030 1542 1531 1223 1114 1111 1086 1056
0.36% 0.35% 0.28% 0.26% 0.26% 0.25% 0.24%
Rockcastle 319 204021 1481 810 431 479 388 424 415
0.73% 0.40% 0.21% 0.23% 0.19% 0.21% 0.20%
Rowan 287 183556 111 121 193 302 440 462 355
0.06% 0.07% 0.11% 0.16% 0.24% 0.25% 0.19%
Wayne 485 310457 561 156 173 234 287 325 313
0.18% 0.05% 0.06% 0.08% 0.09% 0.10% 0.10%
Whitley 446 285375 2502 2336 1599 1617 1256 1340 1778
0.88% 0.82% 0.56% 0.57% 0.44% 0.47% 0.62%
Wolfe 223 142802 950 800 1742 1232 904 513 356
0.67% 0.56% 1.22% 0.86% 0.63% 0.36% 0.25%
County Sq Miles Acreage 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015

Tennessee

County Sq Miles Acreage 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
Anderson 345 221107 316 455 487 490 610 648 521
0.14% 0.21% 0.22% 0.22% 0.28% 0.29% 0.24%
Campbell 499 319473 1206 1142 702 779 955 1295 825
0.38% 0.36% 0.22% 0.24% 0.30% 0.41% 0.26%
Claiborne 442 283094 435 432 448 946 1223 1094 718
0.15% 0.15% 0.16% 0.33% 0.43% 0.39% 0.25%
Cumberland 686 439282 1350 1442 1173 1713 1526 1641 1418
0.31% 0.33% 0.27% 0.39% 0.35% 0.37% 0.32%
Fentress 500 319842 1118 1360 1332 1602 1690 1290 1173
0.35% 0.43% 0.42% 0.50% 0.53% 0.40% 0.37%
Morgan 524 335123 1046 1200 1226 1514 1102 940 1191
0.31% 0.36% 0.37% 0.45% 0.33% 0.28% 0.36%
Overton 436 278734 393 509 591 638 682 831 802
0.14% 0.18% 0.21% 0.23% 0.24% 0.30% 0.29%
Pickett 175 111996 101 87 137 162 197 179 157
0.09% 0.08% 0.12% 0.14% 0.18% 0.16% 0.14%
Putnam 403 258163 329 325 407 490 641 694 727
0.13% 0.13% 0.16% 0.19% 0.25% 0.27% 0.28%
Roane 396 253538 546 583 514 615 711 720 665
0.22% 0.23% 0.20% 0.24% 0.28% 0.28% 0.26%
Scott 534 341784 1922 1608 1081 1244 1260 1262 1119
0.56% 0.47% 0.32% 0.36% 0.37% 0.37% 0.33%
County Sq Miles Acreage 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015

Virginia

County Sq Miles Acreage 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
Buchanan 505 323299 3609 3320 2946 4818 6497 8034 7206
1.12% 1.03% 0.91% 1.49% 2.01% 2.49% 2.23%
Dickenson 334 213957 1562 1613 1574 2620 2508 2432 2638
0.73% 0.75% 0.74% 1.22% 1.17% 1.14% 1.23%
Lee 438 280567 625 1030 1099 1506 1419 1614 1331
0.22% 0.37% 0.39% 0.54% 0.51% 0.58% 0.47%
Russell 478 305659 1313 1024 1309 2032 1831 1814 1395
0.43% 0.34% 0.43% 0.66% 0.60% 0.59% 0.46%
Scott 540 345410 531 292 642 696 774 688 537
0.15% 0.08% 0.19% 0.20% 0.22% 0.20% 0.16%
Tazewell 521 333400 1135 912 866 1147 1205 1841 1836
0.34% 0.27% 0.26% 0.34% 0.36% 0.55% 0.55%
Wise 413 264483 3122 3557 6484 10749 15587 15944 11851
1.18% 1.34% 2.45% 4.06% 5.89% 6.03% 4.48%
County Sq Miles Acreage 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015

 

Bilge Dump? in Gulf of Mexico

Probable oil slicks on this Sentinel-1 radar satellite image, taken over the Taylor Energy site in the Gulf of Mexico at about 7:30 pm local time on February 14, caught our eye:

Sentinel-1 satellite radar image of the northern Gulf of Mexico, taken about 7:30 pm local time on February 14, 2017. Oil slicks are dark streaks. Ships and oil/gas platforms are bright spots. South Pass of the Mississippi Delta is at left. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

As usual, we can see a 9-mile-long slick emanating from that chronic oil leak that has been spilling oil continuously since 2004. The Taylor slick is drifting straight to the northeast away from the leak source on the seafloor.  But the image is dominated by a thicker-looking 28-mile-long slick closer to shore. It seems to almost hook up with the Taylor slick on it’s east end, suggesting it could be a major continuation of the Taylor slick.  This would make it one of the biggest slicks at Taylor we’ve ever observed; and if it is the Taylor slick, it makes a very unusual 180 degree turn.  That’s possible, given the complex currents:  outflow from the Mississippi River meets eddies spinning off the Gulf Stream, creating strong horizontal “shears” where the current on one side can be moving in a very different direction than on the other.  But there may be a simpler explanation: this could be an oily slick caused by intentional bilge dumping from a moving vessel.  Based on how the slick appears to be more pushed around by wind and current as you follow it back to the east, I’m guessing the vessel was moving from east to west, working its way around the tip of the Mississippi Delta parallel to shore.

Image above, labeled to identify oil slicks and the location of the chronic Taylor Energy leak. Possible vessel near west end of bilge slick marked by yellow circle. Sentinel-1 satellite radar image courtesy European Space Agency.

Dumping oily bilge is illegal in US waters, and we don’t often see this here — although it is a big problem elsewhere.  In this case, checking against our daily stream of Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship-tracking data, we haven’t been able to identify a possible culprit. There is a small bright spot near the west end of the slick that is probably a small vessel — there are no platforms or other structures at this location. This could be the culprit.  But it wasn’t broadcasting an AIS signal.

Detail from above, showing probable vessel located near west end of bilge slick. Is this the culprit? Sentinel-1 satellite radar image courtesy European Space Agency.

 

Drops in the Bucket: Oil and Gas Lease Sales Near Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Approximately 20 miles from Chaco Culture National Historical Park lie 4 parcels of public land. These parcels have a combined size of 843 acres, and on January 21st, 2017 the oil and gas drilling rights to these parcels were auctioned off to drilling companies by the US Bureau of Land Management for $2.93 million. New Mexico has a total land area of 77,816,960 acres. These 843 acres correspond to a whopping 0.00108 % of the state’s total area, just a small drop in the bucket.

The Bureau of Land Management provides data on all the leases of fluid mineral rights (oil and gas) which have been issued since 1929. At the time of sale, the most recent data from the BLM was listed as last updated on December 1st, 2016 (you can access the data here, it has since been updated). At that time the BLM database showed that 4,498,543 had been leased. The sale of these 4 parcels brought the total to 4,499,386 acres. That is 5.782% of New Mexico’s total land area.

Looks like those small drops add up…

The ruins of Pueblo Bonito. Image credit: National Park Service.

The impact of drilling — the 24/7 noise, lighting, dust, diesel fumes, air pollution, heavy truck traffic, and the risk of spills and other accidents that can pollute surface and ground water — goes well beyond the boundaries of the lease parcels. So the location of these leases matters. Chaco Canyon is a place of deep cultural and historical significance, anchored by the ruins of the massive Pueblo Bonito housing and ceremonial complex dating to the mid-800’s CE. The Navajo Nation recently joined with multiple tribes represented by the All Pueblo Council of Governors to call for a halt to leasing in the region.

Let’s take a virtual tour of the oil and gas leasing near this uniquely special place. Is it too close for comfort?

This video is a simulated Flyover of Chaco Culture National Historical Park and a set of nearby Oil and Gas leases which were auctioned off in January of 2017. The park is displayed in green, the auctioned leases in red. The video also denotes the location of several existing oil and gas wellpads using red arrows, and closes by showing the extent of existing oil and gas leases in the state of New Mexico.

For a “real” flyover tour of the park and the drilling around it, check out this video from our friends at EcoFlight.

Oil Spill in the Persian Gulf

On March 14th we began investigating a report of suspected bilge dumping off the coast of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.

While we were unable to uncover any imagery of bilge dumping there, we did find some evidence of what appears to be a significant, ongoing oil spill in the Persian Gulf off the west coast of UAE. Based on patterns formed by what appear to be oil slicks, the spill appears to be originating as a leak emanating from a fixed point on the seafloor, such as a well or pipeline. Vessel tracking data indicated the presence of a jack-up drill rig near the suspected origin of the spill, and this suggests that something went wrong either in the course of drilling a new well, or during the workover of an existing well.

Vessel-tracking data from exactEarth, showing cluster of vessels (within the gray triangle) near suspected source of what appears to be a major oil spill in the Persian Gulf. One of these vessels, the Pasargad 100, is also known as the Liao He 300, an Iranian-flagged jackup drill rig.

The spill is visible on radar and optical satellite imagery from multiple dates, and the presence of multiple distinct patches of slick indicate that the spill may be occurring in pulses. Based on the total area which is covered by slicks we conservatively estimate that 88,241 gallons of oil are visible on this Sentinel 1 radar image taken March 8th:

This image, collected by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 satellite on March 8th, shows multiple slicks covering 128 square miles (334 square kilometers). Bright spots are vessels and platforms.

163,876 gallons are visible on the March 11 radar image:

This image, collected by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 satellite on March 11th, shows an oil slick covering 239 square miles (620 square kilometers).

Our estimates are based on the assumption that, on average, the slicks we’re observing on satellite imagery are at least 1 micron (one one-millionth of a meter) thick. That means every square kilometer of slick hold 264 gallons of oil. We consider this a conservative assumption.

Landsat-8 satellite imagery from March 7, just one day before the first Sentinel radar image, doesn’t show anything unusual in this area, which suggests a sudden catastrophic spill. A Landsat-8 image from March 14 is partially obscured by haze but does appear to confirm the presence of a very large oil slick.

We will continue to monitor this site to determine if this is a continuing spill.

UPDATE 27 March 2017 – based on this tweet, we think these slicks were related to a spill in Iran’s Siri offshore oil field.  Possibly related to their attempt to revive 18 previously abandoned wells?

Here is another look at the March 11 radar image, with the EEZ boundaries between UAE and Iran superimposed. Note the disputed zone where EEZ boundaries are not agreed upon. Most of the slick appears to be in UAE’s waters on this date:

EEZ boundaries between UAE, Iran, and disputed waters superimposed on March 11, 2017 Sentinel-1 radar image showing apparent oil spill. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Fracking, Mountaintop Mining, and More…My Summer at SkyTruth

 Hi, my name is Jerrilyn Goldberg.  Over the course of  two months last summer I worked as an intern at SkyTruth. In September I started my junior year at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, majoring in environmental studies and physics. Over the course of my internship I contributed to SkyTruth’s Mountaintop Removal (MTR) research by creating a mask to block out rivers, roads, and urban areas that could be confused with mining activity by our analytical model. I also helped classify many of the ~1.1 million control points that allow us assess the accuracy of our MTR results.

To analyze the accuracy of the MTR results we obtained through our Earth Engine analysis, we dropped 5,000 randomly distributed points at each of 10 sample areas for each year between 1984 and 2016. These points were manually classified as being `mine` (if it overlapped a user IDed mine location) or `non-mine` (if it overlapped anything other than a mine). A subset of those manually classified points were then used to assess the accuracy of the output from our Earth Engine analysis

In addition to the MTR project, I created a story map illustrating the development of Marcellus Shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pennsylvania, and discussing the environmental and public health consequences fracking is having on some rural Pennsylvania communities. Check it out here. Through my research for the story map, I learned about the hydraulic fracturing process. I also learned about many of the political and social complexities surrounding the fracking industry in Pennsylvania, including conflicts between economic and community interests. Our goal with this story map is to present an accessible and accurate narrative about the fracking industry in Pennsylvania, which begins with understanding what’s actually going on now.

Click the image above to visit Jerrilyn’s interactive story map.

I started by learning about SkyTruth’s FrackFinder Pennsylvania data and methodology from the 2013 project. I read through our GitHub repository and figured out why the FrackFinder team chose their methodology and what the results represented. (While I was familiar with the general concept of the project, I did not know much about the specifics beforehand.) With this in mind, I set out to update the dataset with well pads built after 2013.

 

I quickly realized that this task presented many questions such as, which of the many state oil and gas datasets actually contained the information I sought. I selected the Spud Data, which contains all of the individual locations where operators have reported a drilling start-date for a permitted well. I filtered to include only unconventional horizontal wells drilling for natural gas and excluded those reported as ‘not drilled.’ To account for some missing drilling locations which I noticed while reviewing the latest Google base map imagery, I also download the Well Inventory Dataset which includes all permitted oil and gas wells along with their status. From here I filtered out all the spuds and wells not listed as drilled in 2014, 2015, or 2016 and joined the files. After joining the layers, I formed a well pad dataset by creating a 150 meter buffer around the wells, dissolving overlapping areas, then locating the centers of each buffer. This step effectively says ‘create a 150 m radius circle around each point, but when these overlap, clump them into one circle, then find the center of that new circle.’ Finally, I found all the buffers that overlapped with FrackFinder drilling locations from 2013 and earlier, and eliminated all of those centroids.

A quick note about the imagery: USDA collects high resolution aerial imagery as part of the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP), which at the time of my project was last collected for Pennsylvania in 2015. While I worked hard to eliminate inaccurate points, I was unable to verify all of these with the existing NAIP imagery. That said, I found that the other points accurately represented the general well pad locations and thus chose to include the points for the first half of 2016, even though I obviously couldn’t verify the existence of those recent drilling locations on the mid-summer 2015 NAIP imagery.

 

At the same time I found The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC’s) 2010 Energy Impact Analysis, which looked at the predicted development of wind, shale gas, and wood fuel usage in Pennsylvania. Part of TNC’s study identified three construction scenarios for how many wells and well pads could be built in Pennsylvania by 2030. With an assumption that 60,000 new wells would be drilled between 2010 and 2030, the study predicted between 6000 and 15000 new well pads would be built to host those wells. Each scenario featured a different distance between pads and a different number of wells per pad (because that number stays constant at 60,000 new wells). I found some data from TNC’s study hidden on an old SkyTruth backup with help from Christian and David. With the FrackFinder data, my update, and the ‘informed scenarios’ in hand, I started trying to figure out an appropriate way to synthesize the three datasets, to identify which TNC drilling scenario best fits what is actually happening..

 

One roadblock in conducting a thorough analysis and comparison was that TNC’s research makes a quantitative prediction about the possible volume of infrastructure development instead of a more tangible spatial prediction. The study distributes the predicted numbers of new well pads across the counties of Pennsylvania, which overlay the region of Marcellus Shale with ideal conditions for hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. All of the included counties now contain at least one well pad. I did notice that since 2010, about 1/3 of the well pads estimated by the low impact scenario (6000 well pads) have already been constructed. If the rate of development between 2010 and 2016 remains constant, Pennsylvania will surpass TNC’s low impact scenario.

An example of The Nature Conservancy’s “low” impact scenario for fracking well construction across a section of Pennsylvania.

The Nature Conservancy’s medium impact scenario for future fracking well construction across a section of Pennsylvania.

The Nature Conservancy’s high impact scenario for future fracking well construction over a section of Pennsylvania.

 

Fracking Pennsylvania” uses maps and other media to create a narrative of hydraulic fracturing and its consequences. While originally intended for the community members we work with in southern Pennsylvania, I hope this story map becomes a useful tool for many different communities grappling with fracking.

 

While I have my time in the Watchdog spotlight, I want to publicly thank everyone here for welcoming me into the awesome world of SkyTruth. I’m so grateful for the learning opportunities I had last summer and for all of the support I received. Special thanks to Christian for introducing me to SkyTruth and to John for helping me improve my Story Map even though he is definitely one of the busiest people in the office. I look forward to sharing my experience through the Carleton Internship Ambassador program this year.  

FrackFinding Success in Three States

Since the launch of FrackFinder, we’ve found great success in our efforts in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia enlisting the public to help us analyze aerial imagery across the Marcellus and Utica shale gas-drilling regions. The results have been unique datasets that are being used, or can be used, by researchers to study the impact fracking has on public health and the environment. What we’ve learned is helping us refine our tools and methods for future rounds of FrackFinder. Here we’ll give a rundown of the results of our efforts and what we’ve done with them, as well as links to the data we’ve made available free for public use.

Pennsylvania Fracking Sites Map

Our motivation behind the FrackFinder project was to fill gaps in publicly available information related to where fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale were taking place. Seeing an opportunity to make this info available to the public, but lacking state data, we began mapping fracking sites ourselves. The locations of drilling sites, also known as “well pads,” were hard to come by, but state permits for drilling individual oil and gas wells were easily accessible. Unfortunately drilling permits aren’t very useful on their own. The permits are just approvals to drill: they don’t say if the site is active, when drilling and fracking began or ended, or if development of the drill site ever happened at all. Luckily, each permit provides the exact location where the operator is authorized to drill their well. By pairing the location information from the permits with available high-resolution aerial survey photography from multiple years, it is possible for us to learn where active well pads are and narrow down when they were built to within a span of a couple of years.

Of course, analyzing multiple years’ worth of imagery for thousands of permit locations is a monumental task.  To get the job done, we looked to crowdsourcing to speed up the process. Crowdsourcing also gives us the opportunity to reach the public, get people interested in citizen science, and provide them the opportunity to see the impact of fracking for themselves. It’s important for people to understand the large footprint fracking has compared to historical oil and gas drilling in the region, and seeing just how close many well pads are to farms and homes can change some people’s perspective on the issue.

Timelapse image showing how close drilling is to homes, and how big modern fracking operations are.

Our first phase of FrackFinder took place in Pennsylvania.  For this project we had 3,000 locations to examine on three different years of imagery, and we asked 10 volunteers to look at every site: a grand total of  90,000 image analysis tasks. Participants were presented with an image of a location corresponding to a drilling permit and were asked to determine if the site was active or inactive on the basis of visible infrastructure.  All the tasks were knocked out in three weeks, thanks in part  to a Washington Post article mentioning the project published around the time of our FrackFinder launch. In the quality assurance phase, we found that if seven of the ten participants for a given task agreed there was active drilling then our experienced in-house analysts agreed with the crowd, so we established 70% crowd consensus as an acceptable threshold to confirm if there was indeed drilling at a location.  This first project went so well that we quickly supplemented it with another year of imagery.  The final map we produced shows the location of active well pads in imagery from 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2013, and we intend to update it with 2015 imagery in the near future.

Marcellus Shale fracking sites in Pennsylvania in 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2013. Click on this image to link to the full interactive map.

Pennsylvania Impoundments Map

Not long after publishing the data on well pad locations from the first phase, we were approached by researchers from Johns Hopkins University who were interested in our data. They wanted to study the public health impacts of living near a modern fracking site, and the state couldn’t provide anything comparable to what we had at the time. They were specifically interested in how volatile chemicals coming off drilling-related fluid impoundments would affect people living nearby. While we had locations for the wells from our first FrackFinder project, we didn’t have information on the size, location and timing of the impoundments that may contain drilling and fracking fluids.

Hydraulic fracturing-related fluid impoundments in Pennsylvania. Click on the image to link to the full interactive map.

Using the same imagery we had prepared for the first round of FrackFinder, we launched another round of crowd-assisted image analysis using the same methods to determine the presence of impoundments. After the public identified water bodies that were likely related to drilling, our analysts verified that they were impoundments and delivered the data to the researchers. The Pennsylvania FrackFinder project was the first time we used crowdsourcing to create a high-quality data set for use in actual research.  And it has paid off in improving the public’s understanding of the health risks posed by living near modern drilling and fracking activity. The Johns Hopkins researchers have published the following peer-reviewed studies based in part on our work:

Ohio Well Pads Map

Ohio was the first state outside of Pennsylvania to have its own FrackFinder spinoff. Instead of launching a public crowdsourcing project we enlisted the help of students at Walsh University in Ohio who were interested in studying the impact of fracking on the environment and looking to get experience with GIS image analysis. We asked students to delineate all terrain that was modified to accommodate the drilling activity, including forest clearcutting around actual fracking infrastructure. This not only provided an educational opportunity for the students, but it allowed us to build and experiment with tools we plan on using in the future to let the public delineate fracking sites and create complex polygons, rather than simply confirming the presence or absence of a well pad at a specific point. This work hasn’t been used for research yet, but it still produced a high-quality data set that is available to anyone who would wish to use it in the future to quantify the ecological footprint of fracking-related land use, and explore the habitat and ecosystem impacts of modern drilling and fracking.

Utica Shale fracking well pads in Ohio. Click on the image to link to the full interactive map so you can zoom in and see the outlines of fracking sites delineated by students at Walsh University.

West Virginia Well Pad and Impoundment Map

Due to time constraints, we conducted the first round of West Virginia FrackFinder internally, and now have a multiyear map and dataset showing the locations of Marcellus and Utica Shale drilling sites statewide. We plan on launching a new public FrackFinder round this summer using the same area delineation technique that was demonstrated in Ohio. In West Virginia, we delineated the footprints of well pads and fluid impoundments, but not the broader area of clearcutting and landscape modification surrounding the drilling sites as was done in Ohio. When we launch our next public FrackFinder round we will ask the public to delineate this “impact halo” around well pads to help determine the ecological footprint of fracking in the state.

Marcellus and Utica Shale fracking sites in West Virginia in 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2014. Click on the image to link to the full interactive map.

 

Fracking-related fluid impoundments in West Virginia for the same years as the map above. Click to go to the full interactive map.

The data we produce for West Virginia is being used by researchers at UC Berkeley and at Downstream Strategies. They will perform a geospatial proximity analysis to see how fracking activity near sensitive populations in schools, hospitals, homes, and rehabilitation centers, paired with different chemicals used in fracking, affects public health. The results of their research will be detailed in a comprehensive white paper that will be published with policy makers in mind.