Coal mining in Black Thunder coal mine, WY from 1985 (in green) to 2015 (in red) overlain on 2015 aerial survey photography (NAIP).

Examining Mining Operations in the Powder River Basin Using Google Earth Engine

When you hear of coal production in America, what comes to mind? Perhaps you imagine a rugged man with a miner’s lamp on his helmet descending into a tunnel several hundred feet below the ground. Or maybe you picture giant machines removing topsoil and bedrock from a forested West Virginia mountain. But what if I told you most of the coal produced in America is mined from the arid grasslands of Wyoming and Montana?

According to the 2017 Federal Coal Program, “85% of production occurs in the arid region of Wyoming and Montana known as the Powder River Basin”. The Gillette coalfield in Wyoming contains the largest deposits of low-sulfur sub-bituminous coal. The area is flat, and the coal seams are very thick and close to the surface, making it much easier (and cheaper) to extract from open-pit mines, compared to the cost and effort of removing Appalachian mountaintops.

Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is reshaping the Appalachian landscape. In the spring of 2016, Duke University and SkyTruth created a Google Earth Engine script to process satellite imagery and derive an accurate, annually updated map and GIS dataset of MTR operations across Appalachia. Google Earth Engine is a cloud-based geospatial processing platform with access to satellite imagery archives. For this work, we used Landsat imagery from 1985 to 2015. A band ratio was used on the imagery to identify active mining operations and to discriminate bare surfaces from vegetated land. A normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) is a ratio of the red band to the infrared band. We chose this band ratio because vegetation will use red light but reflect infrared, while bare rock and soil strongly reflect both. The script determines an NDVI threshold based on testing the results against thousands of manually classified control points randomly scattered throughout the project area. If the NDVI value of a given pixel falls below the automatically determined threshold, it is classified as active mining.

Part of my summer internship was devoted to adapting this process for mining operations in the Powder River Basin. The first step in applying this script was to create a mask. Its purpose is to mask out everything that could be misclassified as mining because it’s a bare surface, like lakes, streams, roads, railroads, urban areas, etc. This data was collected from US Census TIGER shapefiles and merged to generate a raster mask. However, unlike Appalachian MTR operations, Powder River Basin coal mining is also surrounded by natural gas and oil drilling sites. To mask out these fracking pads, well permits were downloaded from the Wyoming Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, then added to the mask. Variables such as coal mining permits, and county boundaries (Converse and Campbell) were added for Wyoming.  

The vastly different climate proved difficult in this adaptation. While Appalachia is mostly mountainous deciduous forest, the high plains of eastern Wyoming are flat and semi-arid. There are naturally many small barren areas or badlands in this region that mimic mining operations, at least from the satellite’s perspective. My solution was to filter the results by eliminating any area classified as active mining that was less than 300,000 square meters (m2) in size. This threshold was determined during some post-process editing, where I examined all of the areas classified as mining that fell outside the boundaries of mining permits, and the largest was 300,000 m2. The resulting output only retained the larger vectors located within the permits and can be seen below.

Coal mining in Black Thunder coal mine, WY from 1985 (in green) to 2015 (in red) overlain on 2015 aerial survey photography (NAIP).

Coal mining in Black Thunder coal mine, WY from 1985 (in green) to 2015 (in red) overlain on 2015 aerial survey photography (NAIP).  

As you can see, this approach yields reliable results. I’m confident the methodology we demonstrated in Appalachia can work for coal mining out West. It is worth experimenting with changing the NDVI threshold to see if we can come up with a better tradeoff between identifying the active mining areas, and misclassifying badlands and other non-mining barren areas.  


Reefer Fined $5.9 Million for Endangered Catch in Galapagos Recently Rendezvoused with Chinese Longliners

The reefer Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 is intercepted by the Ecuadorian Navy on August 13, 2017. Image accessed at: Armada del Ecuador.

Today the government of Ecuador took a strong environmental stance with its sentence for the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, a Chinese refrigerated cargo ship (reefer) caught in the Galapagos with the remains of more than 6,000 sharks, including endangered hammerheads. Catching or transporting sharks within the Galapagos Reserve is illegal. The incident set off widespread protests in the Galapagos and in the cities of Quito and Guayaquil. The large fine, coupled with a prison sentence of four years for the vessel’s captain shows the determination of Ecuadorians to defend this unique marine environment.

Along with our partners at Global Fishing Watch, we have taken a detailed look at the past activity of this vessel and found the reefer rendezvoused with a fleet of Chinese longliners in the week just before the vessel’s detention.  

According to news reports, a chance sighting of a Chinese cargo vessel within the Galapagos Marine Reserve on Saturday, August 12th, led to a chase and the eventual detention of the vessel by the Ecuadorean Navy the following day. During the hearings, two vessels were named as providing the catch, reported as the Taiwanese vessels Hai Fang 301 and Hai Fang 302. The catch transshipment reportedly occurred between August 5th and 7th more than a thousand miles west of the Galapagos.

Our AIS tracking data does confirm vessel rendezvous on the dates reported but not with the vessels named. The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 is seen departing Fuzhou on the Chinese coast on July 7th and then transiting directly across the Pacific toward Ecuador. On August 5th at a remote location in the Eastern Pacific 1700 miles west of the Galapagos, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 stopped and spent the next three days moving at a slow speed.

Rendezvous between the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 (black) and four Chinese longliners, Fu Yuan Yu 7866 (blue), Fu Yuan Yu 7861 (green), Fu Yuan Yu 7865 (purple), and Fu Yuan Yu 7862 (yellow). The longliners can be seen to each rendezvous with the reeefer for about 12 hours between August 5th and August 7th, 2017. (image by Global Fishing Watch, August , 2017)

Checking for vessels in the vicinity, I found a fleet of four Chinese longliners moving alongside the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 in very close proximity, the Fu Yuan Yu 7866, 7861, 7865, and 7862. No vessels identifying as Hai Fang (more likely Hai Feng) are seen in the vicinity. With distances of only 30 meters between the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 and the Fu Yuan Yu longliners, it appears the longliners were tied up to the cargo vessel with each longliner spending about 12 hours attached to the reefers. These lengthy rendezvous at sea suggest a substantial transfer of cargo was possible.






Fu Yuan Yu 7866 9828716 BVYT7 412440549
Fu Yuan Yu 7861 9828663 BVYX7 412440551
Fu Yuan Yu 7865 9828704 BVYS7 412440558
Fu Yuan Yu 7862 9828675 BVYY7 412440552

Details of rendezvous between the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 and the four Fu Yuan Yu longliners. Click on the listed vessel names above for the individual tracks. (image by Global Fishing Watch, August , 2017)

The four Fu Yuan Yu longliners were fishing on the high seas in the Eastern Pacific for the three months prior to rendezvousing with the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999. Click to view vessel tracks in Global Fishing Watch.

The practice of at sea transshipment of catch between fishing vessels and refrigerated cargo ships is common but can result in the mixing of fish caught legally and illegally. Transshipment also enables vessel operators to keep their crew at sea for many months on end where they may face abusive labor conditions or even slavery. Transshipments on the high seas are regulated by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMO’s).

The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 can be seen rendezvousing with the Chinese longline vessels within the area of the eastern Pacific regulated by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). While the four Chinese longliners are currently authorized to fish by the IATTC, a recent publication of a list of carrier vessels authorized by the IATTC does not include the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999.

Following the track of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, the vessel reached the edge of the Galapagos EEZ on August 12th. At this point, the track of the vessel is broken up by some AIS transmission errors resulting in several extended periods where no location for the vessel came through. While this seemed suspicious, it was possible to check the length of these gaps in the vessel’s track and determine the vessel maintained an average speed of around 10 knots during the hours when the vessel was not trackable. This 10-knot speed matches the vessel’s normal transit speed, and for this reason, it seems unlikely that the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 could have stopped to transship with any local vessels in the vicinity of the Galapagos.

The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 entered the Galapagos EEZ area on August 12th. Several long gaps occur due to faulty AIS transsmision but our analysis shows that the vessel likely maintained a normal transit speed during these gaps. The vessel was then intercepted on the 13th. To the southeast more than one hundred Chinese squid vessels cluster near the EEZ boundary. This fleet has moved north from typical fishing grounds at the edge of Peru’s EEZ. Includes material © 2017 exactEarth Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Checking the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999’s track over the past few years shows the vessel was operating in a few locations where suspicious or unregulated fishing activity has been documented. These locations include the northwest Indian Ocean with an unregulated squid fleet through 2016 as documented in a report by Fish-i Africa and East Timor where Chinese vessels expelled from Indonesia have relocated.

Given the history of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, we are encouraged to see the vessel held accountable for its crimes by the Ecuadorian authorities. Our analysis shows four Fu Yuan Yu longliners are likely the source of the catch confiscated from the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999. We hope these vessels will also be sanctioned for illegally transferring catch and regulators will take further action to monitor and restrict transshipment at-sea.

Read more details on this story on the blog of our partner Global Fishing Watch.

Hurricane Harvey as seen by the GOES-16 satellite at 8:30 am CDT Friday, August 25, 2017. Image credit: NOAA/CIRA/RAMMB. NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite has not been declared operational and its data are preliminary and undergoing testing.

One-Third of U.S. Oil and Gas Reserves are Located in Harvey’s Path

Hurricane Harvey is anticipated to strengthen to a category 3 storm as it reaches the Texas coast tonight through early Saturday, bringing high winds, coastal flooding, and torrential rains. Some areas could see 30 inches or more of rain —  the amount these coastal cities normally get in a year.

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we saw leaks and spills from dozens of pipelines and platforms offshore, and from damaged coastal facilities, that cumulatively amounted to at least 9 million gallons of oil. After Ike and Isaac, we saw similar leaks from drilling sites, processing and storage facilities, and petrochemical facilities inundated by flood waters resulting from sustained heavy rainfall. Forecasts for Hurricane Harvey suggest we may see similar problems as it moves ashore.

Christian developed the following map using Carto to show just how much oil and gas infrastructure is in Harvey’s projected path (in red). The green points below represent offshore platforms. The gray lines are pipelines.

Map Legend: The black points on the map are Forecast center locations for Hurricane Harvey, from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center. The red area shows the potential track area, from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, the red path is the forecast path, again from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center The green dots represent offshore platforms, and the gray lines are pipelines, data from BOEM.

The black points on the map are the forecast center locations for Hurricane Harvey for the next few days, from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (data downloaded at 2pm ET on August 24).  The red path connecting those dots is the predicted track of the storm.  The larger area enclosed in red shows the potential track area, indicating a high degree of uncertainty as the storm is predicted to stall over the coast after making landfall late Friday.  The green dots show the locations of offshore oil and gas platforms, and the gray lines show seafloor oil and gas pipelines; data from BOEM. View more detail on our interactive map here.

We will be monitoring Hurricane Harvey over the weekend and will be sharing more information as it becomes available. In the meantime, follow the latest radar here.


Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Half of West Virginians Live Within a Mile of an Active Well

According to a new study by Environmental Health Perspectives, 17.6 million Americans live within one mile of an active oil or gas well. West Virginia topped the list. Half of the state’s population resides within a mile of an active well.

Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Aerial survey photos (above & below) from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Studies have found links between public health outcomes and active oil and gas production.

Oil and gas development:

  • degrades the quality of air and water,
  • contaminates the soil,
  • increases exposure to noise and light pollution.

People who live within a mile of an active well have higher rates of health problems including:

  • heart-related illness,
  • neurological problems,
  • cancer,
  • asthma.

Living near an active well has also been associated with adverse health outcomes in babies including:

  • pre-term birth,
  • lower birth weight,
  • neural tube defects,
  • congenital heart defects.

In Everyone’s Backyard: Assessing Proximity of Fracking to Communities At-Risk in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale

SkyTruth recently partnered with Downstream Strategies and San Francisco University on a related report, focused on West Virginia. The report concluded that Marcellus Shale gas production has become more common near places essential for everyday life in West Virginia, increasing the potential for human exposure to toxic chemicals.

“This report shines a light on the impacts of fracking on the health and well-being of West Virginians. It is a perfect example of why I founded SkyTruth,” said John Amos. “If people are aware of how these decisions impact their lives, they will be able to be part of the solution.”

Many Homes Are Too Close to Well Pads

According to the report, more than 7,000 homes were located less than one-half mile from well pads in 2014. While the Horizontal Well Control Act established a setback distance of 625 feet between the center of well pads and homes, many homes are located closer than this distance to well pads.

Well Pads Have Encroached on Schools

As fracking progressed in West Virginia, well pads have also encroached on schools. By 2014, seven schools had at least one well pad within one-half mile, and 36 schools had at least one well located within one mile.

More Well Pads Have Been Built Near Public Lands, Including Water Protection Areas and Healthcare Facilities

Well pads must be more than 1,000 feet from public drinking water intakes; however, there are no restrictions on the construction of well pads within drinking water protection areas upstream from intakes. In 2014, hundreds of well pads and impoundments were in these protection areas. Since 2007, more and more well pads and impoundments have been built in or near public lands and health care facilities.

A systematic, screening-level evaluation of the toxicity of chemicals self-reported by operators in West Virginia revealed several hazardous substances had been used to frack wells near schools and immediately upstream from surface public drinking water intakes.

New Setback Distances Needed

Unlike other states, West Virginia State Code does not require setbacks between Marcellus Shale development and several types of sensitive areas assessed in this report. Setback distances for schools, healthcare facilities, and public lands—and restrictions in zones of critical concern and zones of peripheral concern above drinking water intakes—would help protect vulnerable populations and recreational opportunities as fracking development continues.

“Now that this analysis is completed, it’s a good time for the Legislature to consider new setback distances from homes, schools, and other sensitive areas,” said Evan Hansen, President of Downstream Strategies.

This report was made possible by a Switzer Network Innovation Grant.

The hypothetical Mountaineer Pipeline Eastern Panhandle Expansion map. Base imagery provided by Google.

SkyTruth Map Shows Potential Path of Proposed Pipeline Expansion in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle

Mountaineer Gas Company has proposed building a pipeline through the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Eastern Panhandle Protectors asked SkyTruth to produce a map showing the pathway the pipeline will take, based on documents from Mountaineer Gas Company and land easements they’ve purchased. Mountaineer included maps within their “petition to amend infrastructure and expansion program” covering the pipeline route across the Panhandle, but these are small-scale maps lacking in detail, with very broad-stroke yellow lines pointing directions for several miles. These maps do not show enough detail to be useful. For example, they don’t indicate which side of Route 9 or Interstate 81 the pipeline would follow (see map from Mountaineer Petition below).

Map from Mountaineer Petition to amend infrastructure and expansion program shows very general proposed route for new pipeline.

Map from Mountaineer Petition to amend infrastructure and expansion program shows very general proposed route for new pipeline.

The Project

Eastern Panhandle Protectors provided SkyTruth with addresses of easements purchased by Mountaineer and asked us to create a more detailed map that would be useful for public outreach. Members of Eastern Panhandle Protectors also spoke with property owners along the proposed path of the pipeline to find out if they had sold an easement to the gas company, or if they had been approached for an easement and were “holding out”. Property addresses (both holdouts and easements) were marked on Google Earth, and the general path of the pipeline began to take shape. However, street addresses and Google imagery were not enough information to delineate the proposed path, so we obtained a tax parcel map from the WV GIS Technical Center and used the data to visualize property boundaries (see below).

Teal polygons represent tax parcels the pipeline would possibly intersect. In Jefferson County, the pipeline follows Route 9, Route 51, and county Route 11.

Teal polygons represent tax parcels the pipeline would possibly intersect. In Jefferson County, the pipeline follows Route 9, Route 51, and county Route 11.


We had to make some educated guesses to determine where the pipeline would go as it crossed each of these properties. Eastern Panhandle Protectors suggested the following assumptions: Pipeline companies generally do not want to


  • turn the pipeline at a sharp angle,
  • build on steep slopes, or,
  • build too close to homes or businesses.


They do want to take the shortest possible route.

Starting with the general pipeline path as defined by the properties shown in the map above, SkyTruth refined the hypothetical route by applying these guidelines.  

The hypothetical Mountaineer Pipeline Eastern Panhandle Expansion map. Base imagery provided by Google.

The hypothetical Mountaineer Pipeline Eastern Panhandle Expansion map. Base imagery provided by Google.

The hypothetical route shown in yellow on the map above is dashed to indicate our uncertainty about the exact path the pipeline will follow. Given the noted assumptions we had to make in delineating the most likely pipeline route, we can make no claims about the accuracy of this map. It is simply our best guess at where the pipeline could go, based on the imprecise and incomplete information the gas company and the state are making available to the public. It’s a shame better information is not being provided to the public.