Mapping potential “drill out” scenarios in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

SkyTruth has just launched its first Google Earth Engine app, detailing potential natural gas drilling scenarios in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.  If you’re interested, you can view the app here.

Hydraulic fracturing — fracking — has unlocked natural gas resources from formations like the Utica Shale and Marcellus Shale, resulting in an explosion of gas-drilling activity across the Mid-Atlantic states. One of the states sitting above this hot commodity is Pennsylvania; the state boasts a massive reserve of nearly 89.5 trillion cubic feet of dry natural gas, according to the US Energy Information Administration.  In the thick of it all, Allegheny County, in the southwestern portion of the state, is one of the few counties where drilling activity has been relatively light. The county’s main defense against well drilling has been zoning regulations which require a “setback” between unconventional natural gas drilling sites and “occupied buildings.”  At present, the minimum distance required between a well pad and a building is 500 feet (unless consent has been received by the building’s owner). However, this distance may not adequately protect human health, especially in communities surrounded by drilling. Municipal officials might want to consider alternative setbacks, based on the latest scientific research on the impacts of drilling on the health of nearby residents.  This analysis evaluates a range of setback scenarios, and illustrates the likely drilling density and distribution of drilling sites across the county for each scenario.

To better understand the potential impact of drilling in Allegheny County, I analyzed several different “drill out” scenarios (Figure 1).  I developed our first Google Earth Engine app to give users a glimpse of how different setback distances and different well spacing intervals might impact the number of homes at risk from drilling impacts in the future.  Check out the analysis here.

Figure 1. A screenshot of the app when first launched.

To begin this analysis, I downloaded building footprint data for Allegheny County from the Pennsylvania Geospatial Data Clearinghouse.  Next, I downloaded shapefiles representing the centerlines of major rivers passing through the county, other hydrological features in Allegheny County, Allegheny County’s Beltway System, and county-owned roads from the Allegheny County GIS Open Data Portal.  Setback distances of 500 feet, 1,000 feet, 1,500 feet, and 2,500 feet were used to buffer the center points of “occupied buildings” in the county. I selected the minimum and maximum setback distances based upon the current Pennsylvania setback laws (500 ft.) and a recently proposed and defeated setback distance from Colorado (2,500 ft.). The latter regulation, if passed, would have been the most restrictive regulation on fracking of any state.  The 1,000 and 1,500 foot setbacks are meant to serve as intervals between these two demonstrated extremes of zoning regulation. I also created buffers around rivers and streams as well as roads. I applied a 300 foot buffer to the centerlines of all rivers and streams in the county (based upon the current regulations). I also applied a 60 foot buffer to all beltway roads and a 40 foot buffer to all county roads. These three buffer zones remained constant throughout the project.  

After applying these buffer distances to rivers, roads, and buildings, I calculated how many acres of Allegheny County were potentially open to drilling.  Using the currently required distance of 500 feet, there are approximately 57,000 acres potentially available for drilling in Allegheny County, PA (See Figure 2).  

Figure 2. Screenshot from the app showing the available drilling area in Allegheny County (shown in black) when considering the 500-foot setback from occupied structures. Current well pad locations are denoted by red dots on the map.

Using the setback distances that we identified (e.g., 500 feet, 1,000 feet, 1,500 feet, 2,500 feet), I wanted to visualize what different potential “drill out” scenarios might look like.  To do that, I had to decide how much space to leave between potential well sites. I chose to space out the potential drilling sites according to three different intervals: 40 acres per well, 80 acres per well, and 640 acres per well.  Calculating different setback distances and different spacing intervals allowed me to investigate the range of possible “drill out” in Allegheny County.  I calculated the number of new drilling sites that each “drill out” scenario could potentially support. I’ve summarized the results below:

40 acre well spacing80 acres well spacing640 acre well spacing
500 ft. setback1,00550257
1,000 ft. setback28517015
1,500 ft. setback96518
2,500 ft. setback19113

So, for example, a setback distance of 500 feet coupled with a spacing between well pads of 40 acres would allow for 1,005 new potential drilling locations.  Taking into consideration the approximate 3-5 acre area required for the development of a well pad, this suggests that 3,000-5,000 acres of land in Allegheny County could be subjected to surface well development.

For each “drill out” scenario, I mapped the number of potentially supported wells, and I put a two-mile buffer around each point to simulate the potential zone of adverse health impacts (See Figure 3).  I used the buffered points to calculate the number of “occupied structures” that would be at risk of exposure if a drilling site was built. The number of occupied structures at risk when considering each of the different scenarios is summarized in the table below:

40 acre well spacing80 acre well spacing640 acre well spacing
500 ft. setback452,751384,596210,383
1,000 ft. setback228,989217,91851,517
1,500 ft. setback95,56861,67326,897
2,500 ft. setback4,8604,6323,657
Figure 3. Screenshot from the app showing potential drill-out locations (shown in yellow), considering a 500-ft setback from occupied structures and a separation between potential drilling operations of 40 acres. Notice the area of the county potentially subjected to adverse health consequences considering a two-mile buffer zone (shown in black) around each of these locations.

Setback distances can be an important tool for municipal governments looking to reign in drilling to protect the health, safety, and quality of life of local residents.  My analysis demonstrates how setback distances can help protect the public from the adverse impacts of oil and gas drilling in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Please be sure to check out the app here.  

Possible Bilge-dumping Offshore Indonesia

Near the northern tip of Indonesia’s Bangka Belitung Islands (located directly below the yellow box within the inset map of image 1), I spotted a slick that resembles clock hands pointing to the hours 4 and 11. Captured by radar satellite, Sentinel-1, on the evening of January 8, 2019 (22:40 GMT), the slick stretches at least 117 kilometers. Due to the slick’s narrowness and distinct sharp turn in track, it is likely a bilge dump. To the right, the slick trails beyond the edge of available imagery. Though we cannot see the responsible vessel on this image, the sharp linear impression of the slick indicates that it probably passed through the area within 24 hours of the scene’s capture.

Image 1. Sentinel-1 scene of slick approximately 50 km north of Bangka Belitung Islands. See text for explanation.

SkyTruth analyst Bjorn Bergman verified this presumption. To look for similarities in timing and trajectory, Bergman used ExactEarth’s ShipView, a web-based platform that provides access to automatic identification system broadcasts (a global vessel tracking system commonly abbreviated to ‘AIS’), and identified the Indonesian crude oil tanker GAMSUNORO as a possible source.

Image 2. ExactEarth ShipView displaying AIS signal of tanker GAMSUNORO.
Credit: Includes material © 2019 exactEarth Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Image 3 juxtaposes the slick and GAMSUNORO’s AIS signal. Traversing southeast, the ship’s first signal was recorded at 12:59 GMT. Close to 14:00 GMT, the vessel encountered the area with the slick. From this information, we know the tanker’s predicted track occurred approximately 8 ½ hours before the scene was captured. In addition, the vessel’s path imitates the shape of the slick. However, the ship’s track is slightly displaced to the northeast. It is possible that the slick may have drifted due to steady winds blowing from the NE (~6-13 knots) at least seven hours prior to the image’s capture. There appears to be a strong correlation in the temporal and spatial attributes of slick and ship, indicating that the GAMSUNORO is a likely source. To corroborate our findings, we followed the ship as it sailed southbound.

Image 3. GAMSUNORO’s AIS signal superimposed onto the Sentinel-1 scene

Initially, we anticipated the ship would journey to Jakarta; however, image 2 displays the vessel’s latest position (January 14, 2019 at 10:55 GMT) anchored about 6 miles offshore near the town of Indramayu. With an updated version of the vessel’s track, we may be able to find evidence of a continued slick either on their way south or at their current anchorage. Whether or not we are able to positively ID the perpetrator, this is one of many examples displaying the temporal challenges of using satellite imagery to capture not just illegal activity but any short-lived phenomena.

New Year, New Alerts

We just released a new version of SkyTruth Alerts, a service that notifies you about environmental incidents in areas you care about. It’s a tool we built to help us monitor environmental events in-house, and we’ve made it freely available to the public for the last six years.

We’re excited about the capabilities of the new Alerts — we wrote a blog post about it in November — and we’re looking forward to adding new features and alerts sources in the future. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know to get started with the new Alerts:

I used the original Alerts. Do I need to do anything to switch?

You don’t have to do a thing to continue receiving the same alert emails you’ve always received, although you’ll notice the emails have a new format. You can still view a specific alert by clicking on its link in the email.

If you want to add or change the areas of interest (AOIs) you monitor, or fine-tune the alerts you see or get emails for (a new feature), we now ask you to create an account. We only collect your email address, which we need to send you emails. We have plans to add features in the future that will also need a user account in order for them to work.

OK, so how do I register for an account in the new Alerts?

Go to SkyTruth Alerts and select Login from the burger menu. If it’s your first time here, click the Register here link to create an account.

The original Alerts worked fine! Why did SkyTruth create a new Alerts?

Web-based software has a pretty short life-span and the first Alerts system was getting harder and harder to maintain. Additionally, SkyTruth wanted to expand the number and types of alerts that we were saving as well as work on new features such as notifying subscribers when there is a change in their AOI. It became clear that the original Alerts wouldn’t be able to handle these additions.

Does the new Alerts do everything that the original Alerts did?

Almost! We’re still working on the API that a few subscribers used to integrate alerts with other software. If you spot anything else that we missed, please let us know by emailing us at feedback@skytruth.org.

Until we have the API fixed, we’ll keep the original Alerts available at https://alerts1.skytruth.org. Note that this should only be used for redirecting the API and embedded links in KMZ/KML files. If your KMZ file contained a link to https://alerts.skytruth.org, you can still get it to work by pointing to https://alerts1.skytruth.org.

What major new features should I know about today?
  • You can filter the alerts you receive emails for.
  • You can filter the alerts shown on the map by type and date.
  • You can create AOIs that are polygon shaped.
  • You can choose a pre-defined AOI. Currently, we have states and counties ready and are working on more.
  • We’ve added or restored alerts for:
    • Oil and Gas well permits from West Virginia and Colorado
    • Florida Pollution
Can you add alerts from other websites?

Yes! Let us know what a useful source for alerts would be and we’ll consider it for the future. That email again is feedback@skytruth.org.

Tracking the Chinese Squid Fleet in the South Pacific – Part 2: A City on the High Seas

Nighttime surveillance of the squid fleet from the bridge of the Brigitte Bardot. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Continued from Part 1: Voyage to the Galapagos.

As the Brigitte Bardot steamed west from the Galapagos we considered the sheer number of people we could expect to encounter when we reached this densely clustered fishing fleet 700 miles out to sea. The scale of fishing on the high seas has always been largely invisible to the seafood consuming public but our satellite tracking sources indicated an operation of truly remarkable size. From Automatic Identification System (AIS) data and radar we knew we were approaching a fleet of around 300 ships. These would be not only fishing vessels but a whole network of support vessels for refueling and transshipping catch from the fleet, as well as providing for an estimated 6,000 crewmen who would be at sea for several months at a time.

On the high seas in areas beyond national jurisdiction regulations are few and what oversight of fishing operations exists depends on Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs). These RFMOs are established by international treaties to monitor and regulate fishing of particular species, although only some countries are signatories and there is a limited capacity for monitoring vast areas of open ocean. The region of the Eastern Pacific to which we were headed falls at the northern end of the area regulated by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO). The SPRFMO regulates fishing of non-tuna species and publishes a list of vessels authorized to fish in the area. However, beyond requiring countries to register their vessels and collecting the catch data they submit, no limits are set on squid catches.

We had our last sight of San Lorenzo Island the evening of September 19th and as we headed west into the open Pacific we expected a return of the rough weather we had seen on the voyage out. But by the next morning the seas were strangely still with fog obscuring our view much distance from the vessel. I sat below in the galley rechecking the latest set of AIS transmissions from the fleet against the SPRFMO’s authorization list. How a vessel is identified in the AIS system depends entirely on the information the vessel’s captain decides to input into his transmitter. Some operators conscientiously broadcast their full vessel name, callsign, International Maritime Organization (IMO) number, and flag. Others broadcast incomplete or outdated information via AIS and more than a few vessels give no identification at all or broadcast names that appear scrambled or don’t identify the vessel (“._NGDAYANG29” and “PS1” for instance). As a result, I had the challenge of trying to decipher as many of these vessel identifications as possible to determine if they were authorized to fish in the area.

SkyTruth Analyst Bjorn Bergman checking satellite AIS data for tracking the squid fleet. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

In the afternoon I went up to the wheelhouse to stand watch. We continued through the fog, the Brigitte Bardot barely rocking on the calm seas. Jack, the Brigitte Bardot’s drone pilot taking a break from an action-packed stint on Sea Shepherd’s Milagro campaign in Mexico, explained the ship’s radar to me. We were limited in range by the relatively low height of the mast but our radar system had some useful options for locking and tracking targets and with a few adjustments we could even see the edge of an advancing rain front. But when Chris, the Brigitte Bardot‘s captain, joined us a few hours later there were still no blips on the radar screen. For the moment we appeared to have this vast stretch of the Pacific entirely to ourselves.

Alex and Stefan on watch on the bridge of the Brigitte Bardot. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Despite the lack of vessels in the vicinity we expected to soon be reaching the edge of a huge fishing fleet and we needed to settle on a strategy. If there was illegal activity we would need to collect evidence before news of our arrival spread by radio through the fleet. I shared a list of potential targets with Chris and Jack. Unsatisfyingly all were ambiguous cases, vessels that didn’t give enough information in their AIS broadcasts for us to determine if they were SPRFMO authorized. We’d initially thought we’d have some clearly identified vessels that weren’t authorized to fish and had planned to arrive after nightfall (when squid fishing occurs) and collect evidence with a night vision camera. However with only ambiguous unidentified vessels as targets it made sense to arrive at the fleet during daylight hours when it would still be possible to easily read names and numbers painted on the vessel hull.

Chris called up the ship’s engineer Stefan. We could speed up to arrive at the fleet with a few hours of daylight but as Stefan explained this would be a trade-off with the extra fuel we burned ultimately limiting the ship’s range for this operation. After a brief discussion Stefan turned up the RPM on the Brigitte Bardot’s twin engines.

The calm weather continued through the next day as we sped west. Eloy, a Peruvian researcher who was finishing his thesis on tracking this fleet, sat out on deck reading through journal articles. If we had had any doubt that we were in squid fishing grounds this would have been dispelled by the dozens of squid which somehow made it onto the deck every night, when as Eloy explained, they rose to the surface to feed and possibly were attracted to the lights on the Brigitte Bardot. In fact this attraction to light is a critical part of squid fishing operations with the industrial fleet deploying lights on a massive scale to lure the squid in.

With the Brigitte Bardot’s crew gathered in the wheelhouse later in the afternoon there was a building sense of anticipation. The first vessel had appeared on the radar to the west an hour before and was quickly joined by half a dozen others. I checked these against satellite AIS, doing my best to guide the Brigitte Bardot towards a squid vessel broadcasting only the callsign BZZ5K, a callsign not registered to any vessel authorized to take squid. As we approached this first target Jack and Stefan passed back and forth a ridiculously large pair of pair of binoculars. Then on the port side the first vessel came into view.

Chris and Jack survey the approaching fleet from the Brigitte Bardot’s bridge. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Rust and soot on the hull seemed to obscure any identifying markings. Squid jigging gear projected out from either side below strings of giant bare bulbs hanging like oversized Christmas tree lights. A Chinese flag flew above the wheelhouse and at the stern of the vessel what appeared to be a tattered black sail. But on board all was quiet with a sea anchor keeping the vessel in place as the crew apparently waited below for the onset of nighttime fishing operations. This vessel was broadcasting AIS and we could faintly make out its name, which was on the SPRFMO authorization list, so we continued past it toward our target.

The Chinese flagged squid vessel Hai Yang 5. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Reaching this first target, broadcasting callsign BZZ5K, was immediately anticlimactic. We could see a name and different callsign clearly painted on the hull, Hua Ying 819 with callsign BZV9K, an authorized vessel. The reason for the incorrect callsign on AIS was unclear but entirely legal since there are no regulations mandating correct identification on AIS. This is a frustrating situation for advocates of fisheries transparency since AIS is usually the only source of information the public has for tracking fleets out at sea. A simple requirement from flag states and authorities like the SPRFMO that vessels broadcasting AIS identify themselves correctly and broadcast continuously while operating, would dramatically improve the public’s ability to reliably monitor fleets on the high seas which are extracting a common global resource.

We sped on hoping to check a few more target vessels before dark. The fleet was now all around us, dozens of mostly still vessels extending out to the edge of radar reception. We’d expected that the arrival of the Brigitte Bardot would set off a flurry of chatter on the radio but the fleet was strangely silent as we set the radio to scan for broadcasts. We passed close to some vessels comparing their broadcast ID to identification painted on the hull and checking their authorization on the SPRFMO list. Once we noticed a few flashes of light through our wheelhouse’s starboard windows. Had someone tried to signal us with a mirror? Glancing back all seemed still on the boat we had passed.

We had soon spent the few hours of daylight we had gained by speeding westward. Though we’d managed to check off a number of the vessels with ambiguous AIS IDs on my target list we were finding that they all checked out once we were able to get identification from the vessel’s hull. As the sun sank below the horizon we halted to reassess the situation. So far just tracking down boats with bad AIS identification was not turning up any illegal activity. How about identifying vessels with no AIS broadcast at all? Consulting with Chris we decided to make a loose grid through the fleet checking the AIS broadcast of each boat as we approached.

The Brigitte Bardot now proceeded slowly to conserve fuel as we prepared to survey through the night. Suddenly out of the darkness a towering intense white light showed on the horizon. Soon it was followed by others all around us, mostly white but some an iridescent green and others with dimmer yellow light. Looking out from the wheelhouse we seemed no longer to be on the open ocean but in the edge of some great coastal metropolis.

With their powerful fishing lights on the squid fleet lights up the horizon all around the Brigitte Bardot. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

The ships had now come alive. Squinting against the blinding lights we could see crewmen lined up behind the protruding jigging gear on either side of the vessel. Checking the AIS broadcasts of each vessel we were frustrated by what seemed to be severely limited reception range. Often we had to approach within a mile or two of a vessel before they appeared on our navigation plotter when it ought to have been possible to pick up vessels even 10 or 20 miles out. Around midnight when we judged the fishing operation to be well underway we roused Jack from below. It was time to take a closer look at what was actually happening on board these vessels.

Chinese squid boat lights up the surrounding water attracting squid to the baited lines. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Jack launched the drone, a phantom 4 quadcopter, from the bow of the Brigitte Bardot then stared intently at his control screen as he steered the drone in towards the fishing vessel. Navigating at night guided by only the vessel’s powerful fishing lights Jack brought the drone close over the deck avoiding the mast and cables strung high above the swaying vessel. Crewmen manned baited lines extending out from the ship in all directions. A few stopped and waved at the drone as it passed overhead. At one point the foreman on deck made an exasperated shooing motion with both hands. This fleet was on record for catching exclusively squid. Could something else be going on board? Large quantities of shark reached the coast of South America, mostly from longliners, with fins then shipped back to markets in China. Were sharks also caught on these vessels? Carefully examining the footage Jack would later notice a dozen fins protruding from the water around where the squid lines reached the ocean surface. But were these sharks being caught — or just hanging out where they might get some bait? The mechanics of landing a shark with the gear being used seemed difficult and on the vessels we could observe no sharks were seen on deck or on the fishing lines.

Drone footage of a nighttime fishing operation by a Chinese squid jigger. Video by Jack Hutton/ Sea Shepherd

With the drone back on board we continued a slow survey through the fleet. Checking about 50 ships just one vessel we approached appeared not to be broadcasting AIS and all we identified had a valid authorization to fish. Eloy noted a clear distinction between vessels with strings of blinding LED lights (the total luminosity of these vessels is said to rival European soccer stadiums) and boats with somewhat dimmer yellow incandescent bulbs. We identified a number of vessels in these two categories so we could check later if this distinction also appeared in our data from NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). Hearing from Eloy that the satellite with the VIIRS instrument (NASA’s Soumi NPP) would be passing overhead at about 1:30 am, we also noted the positions of nearby vessels from the ship’s radar at precisely that time to compare with the vessel locations NOAA derived from the satellite’s imagery. I headed down for some sleep soon afterwards leaving the bridge in the hands of Simon, a professional photographer and veteran of Sea Shepherd’s Antarctic missions.

The glow of the Chinese squid fleet lights up the sky ahead of the Brigitte Bardot. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

After getting a few inadequate hours of sleep I scrambled back up to the wheelhouse to look out at the fleet, now mostly quiet in the clear morning light. Jack and Chris were eager to show video captured the night before and as we looked at the latest satellite AIS data we could see one of the squid vessels alongside a reefer (refrigerated cargo ship). Was catch being transshipped just a few miles away? Today we would have a rare chance to document this activity and face a critical choice for continuing our investigation of fishing on the high seas.

To be be continued…

Taylor Energy Oil Spill: This Is How Change Happens

Recently a front-page article ran in The Washington Post, describing the ongoing, 14-year-long leak of crude oil from hurricane-damaged wells at the former location of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, operated by a company called Taylor Energy.  The article stated that — based on the latest scientific estimates of the leak rate — the Taylor spill was about to surpass BP’s disastrous 2010 blowout in the Gulf, becoming the world’s worst oil spill.  News outlets around the world pounced on this headline, shining a global spotlight on this egregious chronic leak. Within weeks the US Coast Guard announced they had finally ordered Taylor Energy to fix the leak or face a daily $40,000 fine.  The team at SkyTruth was thrilled when we heard the news: when Taylor finally fixes the leak, this will be a great result for the environment in the Gulf and will send a strong message to the offshore oil industry that we won’t let them walk away from their messes.  And, this is the vindication of eight years of persistent, dogged work by SkyTruth and our partners.

Taylor Energy - Washington Post

Source: The Washington Post, October 21, 2018

How did we achieve this significant victory for the environment and the people of the Gulf Coast?  We….  

  • Built partnerships.  We teamed up with Southwings and Waterkeeper Alliance to form the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.  Gulf-area citizens groups, notably the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Gulf Restoration Network soon joined, giving us the ability to monitor, investigate, and systematically document the Taylor spill from space, from small aircraft, and on the water.  Alerted by our work, researchers from Florida State University conducted their own independent sampling and measurements, bringing a higher level of scientific expertise to the growing public scrutiny of this continuous pollution event.  
  • Worked with journalists to help them understand the significance of this unchecked spill.  Our methodical, transparent, and conservative analysis helped us build a reputation as being a trustworthy source of credible information.  We developed long-running relationships with journalists, particularly Mike Kunzelman at The Associated Press.  Reporters reached out for our comments and expert insights whenever new information or developments in the Taylor saga came to light.  These relationships resulted in dozens of articles in major media markets over the years, helping to maintain public attention and interest, and a steady drumbeat of public criticism.

And finally, an hour-long interview with Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears resulted in an article that triggered Coast Guard action.  Now, of course, we will continue to monitor the Taylor Energy leak to ensure that effective action is taken.  And we’ll let the world know what we see.

This is what it takes, to make positive change happen for the environment.  We’d like to thank the foundations and individuals who have donated to SkyTruth, making it possible for us to dedicate the time and resources to sustaining this watchdog effort over so many years.  We couldn’t have done it without you.

Please help us keep it going.  Donate to SkyTruth today!